Monthly Archives: August 2022

TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS.   Finborough Theatre SW10

VOICES FROM THE GRAVE AND THE CELLAR, UNIGNORABLE

       Timely, enterprising, emotionally shattering, politically shaming.   These two plays were both  both first born at the time of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, the second  particularly in the Donbas where ugly divisions erupted between Russian sympathisers and supporters of the elected and legitimate government in Kyiv.    The first is called TAKE THE RUBBISH OUT, SASHA, by one of the most known Ukrainian playwrights, Natalya Vorozhbit:   it’s an absurdist-realistic fable about a mother and daughter who are grieving for the man of the family, a Colonel in the Ukrainian army who has died of a heart attack.  

    They are making pastries for neighbours in a memorial meeting and talk to his ghost, solid in the room,  the mother in her grief ‘angry’ that he is gone, bewailing the funeral costs, and needing to accept he can never come back.  But Sasha is suddenly adamant that after a further call-up of reservists he has to return to duty: “when we went into the army we made a solemn oath to the people of Ukraine to be loyal and true to them always and support the legal constitution of Ukraine..me and Vova, Sergei, Lyosha..we all swore that we wouldn’t betray the Ukrainian people”…    this from a man speaking from beyond the grave,  a startling, arresting, solid figure in Alan Cox.  His wife, with a moment of real East-European dark humour, complains that if he returns from the afterlife he’ll only be killed, and they’ll have another lot of burial costs.. The direction by Svetlana Dimcovic is brisk and mostly gripping – though it feels like a bit of a slow-burn for a while early on (it’s only 45 minutes overall) but that contributes to the painful contrast between recognizable human behaviour and the  surreality. 

     The second play, Neda Nezhdhana’s PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS is a shattering  hour-long monologue of one woman’s experience, despair and hope, based on a real individual tale from the Donbas conflict.  Polly Creed directs a quite extraordinary, constantly gripping, grim but sometimes blackly humorous performance by  Kristin Milward. 

       She is telling us what happened to her, and what she lost as her family fled and she , supposedly briefly, stayed back to tend her cat giving birth.   She keeps  offering to invisible buyers three kittens which survived the sack of her home.  She speaks for every displaced, beaten-up, betrayed individuals in such wars:  “I would like to say to those who brought this on us, not only those who were drawn in but those who sowed it all and those who did not stop it – you have no idea how small and pathetic all these trivial passions of yours, your desire for power, your business interests – how insignificant they are compared to the horrible black hole you have opened, the appalling abyss into which our land is flying..”.   

         A long monologue can be hard going. This was not:  it is stunningly done.  In both plays the translations are excellent.  

     And in an afterword the writer of the first one tells of her own flight from Kyiv and says for all playwrights and indeed Ukrainians:  “Eight years we’ve been engaged with the subject of war. Eight years we’ve been trying to shout to the world, to alert them to the Russian military threat. And only after 24 February did they finally hear us…we want to win, and return home, and water our plants. And we need your help” 

         Honour to the Finborough – a room over a pub in the middle of boarded-up refurbishment – for crowning its season of readings with these two plays. Bigger theatres have done a lot less.   

Box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk. To 3 sept

Ratings       

And for the second

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CULT FIGURE. Jermyn St Theatre

CARRY ON. OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, KEEP MESSIN’ ABOUT…

    My first concern was, will they dare give us the sadness? Kenneth Williams was a comic marvel self-created, a versatile actor and comedy ham, raconteur , mother’s boy and man in hiding from the terror of love.   I. met and interviewed him several times, and he gave me the best of advice possible on my one appearance in a double recording of Just a Minute.  Clement Freud, always a man to sow discomfort when he felt like it, was making me edgy. Williams sidled up as we walked towards the stage and said with real kindness  “you nervous? Tell you what to do. Just behave really really badly. Like your mother told you not to. Interrupt. Talk rubbish. You’ll be fine”. So I did, and won.  I had always loved the Ken I grew up with on Hancock and Round the Horne, and that cemented it.   

     Later on I learned of his earlier, serious rep career onstage in Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as light comedy, later still read his diaries and his friends’ memories after his lonely death, and sorrowed for the sadness and alienation and closeted despairs;  it is sometimes chilling to read how he despised so many of the comedy  gigs, especially the talk shows after the acting jobs died out.  Celebrity without art is a fate which he rightly described as empty,  corroding.  So I was nervous that  this impersonation might swerve that sadness. 

     Colin Elmer does a good Williams, with the idiosyncratic, carefully created Cockney- camp drawl and shriek and the sudden baritone growl, the “Nyeeesss” and “Aoow” and stop-messing-about existing alongside a skilled perfection of enunciation. He performers some of the actor’s  memoir, about a 1930s childhood:   a hairdresser Dad who hated effeminacy (“irons – iron hoofs – poofs”) and then army life in CSE in Singapore with equally contemptuous attitudes, tempered by soldierly affection for dressing-up and larking. He tells us tales of Edith Evans (great imitation) , of Noel Coward (even better, dear boy).  and Binkie Beaumont.  He romps through the comedy shows – lots of Just a Minute moments and a bit of front-row baiting.  There is a sigh, but more affection , in his account of the twenty years of Carry On films: where there could be no intimacy of partnership there was  comfort and real warmth in the  professionalism and comradeship of such a ramshackle rep.   Some anecdotes never fail: Charles Hawtrey’s old  Mum’s handbag catching fire and being doused with a cup of tea.  

      The jokes are as good as they ever were, the impersonation almost spot on, but it is in the brief seriousnesses that Elmer is best: the prim Williams regret at the growing coarseness of the films as postwar whimsy turned more explicit, the real physical unease behind the incessant colon, haemorrhoid and fart stories, and the respect for theatre itself. In the final moments, almost with a shock, we see him take up the black diary on the desk and read some of the anguished midlife doubts and shatteringly self-aware self-blaming , bitterness. Hard not to reflect that he spoke for many in a pre-LGBT+ generation.  Though ironically,  he probably would have hated LGBT+ as vulgar.  

     So yes, in the end Tim Astley’s production and Elmer’s carefully  worked performance felt like what it should be:  a tribute. And, perhaps,  an apology on behalf of a 20th century culture to those it kept on the margins.  

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 14 August

NOT ONE TO STAR RATE REALLY…BUT HERE IS A BIG MOUSE FOR KEN ,WHO SPOKE FOR THEATRE

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DAZZLING DIVAS. Jermyn St Theatre

GLITTER AND HARD GRAFT

       A basement hung with glitter strings, a small moody band with earthy bass,  a bar: few better places to revel in torch songs, deep-dug anthems and memory of bygone stars who flared and burnt and are not forgotten .  Up in the back row on the high seats, feet on the bar and can in your fist you can even fancy yourself in any smoky bar from 1930 onwards.  Good old Jermyn: just the spot for Issy Van Randwyk’s tribute to women who got out there in warpaint, feathers or wild hippie hair to dig deep  and fling out passion to a dull hard world.  Frankly , it was about time  “cis” women reclaimed the great diva images from drag queens (and no, officer, that’s not a hate- crime, I love drag dearly,  always have, but we need some Issys out there as well to rock their  full-on femalehood).  

     Nobody is fitter for the job than van Randwyck,  after years not only acting but on the cabaret circuit (the only “real” girl at Madame Jojos for a spell, and central to Fascinating Aida).  This time she is not satirical but sincere in tribute,  with a wide vocal range to conjure up women across the decades from Billie Holiday to Dusty Springfield:  blues, jazz, country, rock and pop.  It is not impersonation but loving memory,  despite some uncanny moments of reality:  she breaks off between songs, or even phrases,  with a gentle, idiosyncratic narrative of the lives behind the music.  That young Billie Holiday  had to sell herself for $5 a time to live,  that J Edgar Hoover and the narcotics police persecuted her after “Strange Fruit” and had her handcuffed to her hospital bed: these things we should know as we listen.  That “Ain’t nobody’s business” had lines about “not calling no copper if I’m beaten up by my poppa”  is relevant to the times, and should suffer no airbrushing.   

       Then suddenly, taking a swig from a bottle and dashing on some lipstick,  van RAndwyck  becomes Monroe,  her voice little-girl breathy,  the narrative half-mischievous half-dark, hinting at what surrounded her, at the dangers of generosity and having to sell to predatory men and a predatory business.  I had not known the song from the Western “River of no return”,  but again, falling as it did after a mention of Marilyn’s lost pregnancies and quiet enrolment to UCLA literature courses,  it had weight: a brilliant choice.  .  Then shazam!  On with a cowboy hat and a grainier, deeper voice and it’s the tale and sound of Patsy Kline:  mercifully after those two victim-sacrifices,  a roughneck “with a mouth on her would embarrass a truck driver”, as a Nashville colleague admiringly put it.     And just as you’re wondering if the narrator-singer’s voice can get any wilder,  here’s a flourish of an ostrich stole and it’s Janis Joplin,  boozing and drugging and growling and roaring and digging deep in the music “not floatin’ on top like a chick”…

        And on we go after a brief interval: Mama Cass, big and glorious, pushed about by bandmates, making “her own kinda music” till she died at 32.  And – with great emotional feeling from the singer – Karen Carpenter,  whose honey-smooth intimate melodious sound van Randwyk reproduces almost eerily while reminding us that poor shy Karen always thought of herself first as “a drummer who sang”, and was once reader-polled as better than Led Zeppelin’s drummer, so there.   And at last  Dusty Springfield,  “food-throwing, football-loving” 1960’s icon at 23,  flashing black-lined eyes, breaking into the US before the Beatles did,  declining into mental chaos and a tooth-smashingly violent love affair,  having an 80’s comeback and in her last days rising at dawn to go to Heathrow to watch the ‘planes, and remember past travels.   The last song – in yet another brilliant judgement by the singer and her director Ed Hall – is “Goin’ back’ with its wistful nostalgia for the freshness the world shows only to youth.  

    It’s a simple show,  two hours,  just telling some stories and singing some songs with sisterly admiration and no affectation.   But it stays with you, making you reflect on an emotional history the rest of us share and fed from:   women who blazed into the age of mass entertainment, mostly died absurdly young, were adored and abused,  flawed and fabulous, conduits for the music of the passions.   There are three more performances this week. Get on down there.

Box office.    Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

  

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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Lyttelton, SE1

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.       Lyttelton, SE1

SHAKESPEARE IN THE SWING AGE

     A star danced, and under it was Simon Godwin’s joyful, 1930s Riviera production born.  Quite apart from the fact that it is nice to have the earnest NT enjoying two outbreaks of frenetic jitterbug dancing at once – Jack Absolute upstairs at the Olivier, and here  Much Ado set in  the Mediterranean hotel world of Noel Coward – where it feats with unexpected neatness.    Here’s the Hotel Messina,  at the heart of a society of banter-which-means-its- opposite, of prankish trickery both laughing and  lethal, where ladies in daring beach playsuits spar with lads in khaki who are more than up for bantz.   

    Hotel Proprietor, staff and guests interact perfectly:  right down to Dogberry’s famously ineffectual night-watch being a night- porter cadre told not to disturb rich drunks but 

‘let them be” till they be sober (David Fynn makes the most of it).  Anna Fleischle’s  gorgeous set has balcony, pop-up boudoir and steam bath, and  useful beach tents – who needs a shrubbery for overhearing-scenes?     As the plotters stagily speak of Beatrice’s hidden passion for him John Heffernan’s irresistible Benedick is even more well-served by the props department having thoughtfully created a fully functional icecream cart, capable of housing him on all fours after his Li-lo disguise is removed. This enables the pranksters to deploy syrups and sprinkles, lavishly,  so he can emerge well-coated to declare his conversion to a nicely dismissive Beatrice.   Perfect.  The lovelorn Heffernan’s next appearance is in a blue face-pack in the steam bath.   And OK, yes, it was lovely to see so much solid set building and prop-creation (fab sliding doors and a great bar) so soon after the pixellated magic of last night at IDENTICAL, qv below.

      Beatrice (Katherine Parkinson channelling a young Penelope Keith, poshly witty) climbs down the wall from the balcony with equal effect, until at the interval the French family in front of me rapturously exclaimed that it was  “marrant..tellement leger!”

       Light it is, gloriously so, but for all the clowning and farcical devices Shakespeare is thinking, as ever, about men and women and their positions in society,  about shame and forgiveness and redemption:  the rise of the ‘dead’ Hero even prefiguring The Winter’s Tale.     So the shaming of Ioanna Kimbook’s Hero is properly shocking,  and I have rarely seen the shocked intensity of Beatrice and Benedick’s declaration so shiveringly credible in the aftermath of that shock.  Rarely does her bald  “Kill Claudio” get met with a laugh, which was unnerving: often it is a dark sudden shock rather than an absurdity.  But Parkinson’s subsequent outbreak hauls us back into the proper horror of what shaming meant in Shakespeare’s day.   

    An added frisson is added by the casting of Eben Figuerido as Claudio:  his look of dark,  southern uncompromising nobility is set against the sunnier, drily modern manner and look of the flirtatious laughing Heffernan, who will probably be getting some proposals from the front row after a few well-directed glances. Claudio on the other hand properly looks the kind of man who would be too easily insulted by female looseness.  

        Talking of which,  there’s a wonderful moment when Rufus Wright’s horrified Leonato is getting over his shock at his daughter’s shaming by necking cocktails,  and an infuriated Antonia – Wendy Kweh – takes the latest one off him and pulls him together,  with an angry feminist speech I had quite forgotten about.  Just as good as Beatrice’s challenging snarl about “manhood melted into courtesies”.

    That’s the pleasure of a production like this:  “leger” as the French group said,  and gleefully farcical at times.  For thanks partly to the unconventional setting,  often it reminds you of Shakespeare’s extraordinary moments too easily forgotten.  It’s like the most painless imaginable form of close textual analysis…

   Oh,  and  Dario Rossetti-Bonell’s swing band is pretty good too.   It’s selling well.  It’s worth it,  usual big discount for oldies, under-18s and some for under-25s,  and even from the “restricted view narrower seat” bit of the stalls you can perfectly well see Heffernan peering from under the ice-cream cart.  

Box office nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 10 Sept.

Rating. Four.

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IDENTICAL Nottingham Playhouse

 STARRY SISTERHOOD IN OLD VIENNA

     Identical twin girls, separated at birth in their parents divorce, meet at summer camp and resolve to swop places.   Remember  “The Parent Trap” film, the 1998 remake or  Hayley Mills 1961 romp?  Forget both.  Both were heavily Americanized versions of a novel by Erich Kastner,  written twenty years after his more famous Emil and the Detectives, on the far side of wartime separations and losses. The jolly US versions transformed  the girls into modern teenagers who with artful mischief plot to reunite their parents.  But Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa are only ten: their delight in unsuspected sisterhood and  yearnings for a never-known parent are the same, but they are little children,  powerless beyond the daring substitution. They’re not aiming to fool the parents but in each case to meet them.   And the happy resolution is brought about by illness, not plotting.  

    There’s comedy in the situations – one child baffling her affluent composer father by suddenly being able to play the piano,  the other confusing the hardworking single mother by turning out to like camping and having  forgotten how to cook. But there is a hint of real trauma in the book too, the outrage of separation  acknowledged here in one child’s frightening nightmare of a witch forcing the newborns apart. 

    It is this original postwar Germany and Austria into which Stuart Paterson’s adaptation takes us in a fresh, bouncy Stiles and Drewe musical.  Auditions of hundred pairs of identical twins found three:  on press night Eden and Emme Patrick proved faultless in a complicated, sometimes emotionally intense performance, first disliking one another on sight and then rapturously realizing their sisterhood; they are playfully natural and assured, rarely offstage for long.  And the head spins at the thought that Nunn has had to rehearse not two but six children through the complications.  

   For the execution is state-of-the-art modern: on sliding, morphing flats and drops come some of the most arresting, fabulously detailed projections I have ever seen – set, Robert Jones, design Douglas O’Connell, take a bow, both.  Trevor Nunn’s fast-moving, filmic direction can therefore take us in moments  from a summer lakeside, trees waving, to the streets of Munich ,  the Vienna opera house frontstage and back, a ballroom, a mountain and at one point the nightmare.   Sometimes, as each little girl finds her way into a new household there is a split-screen version. Every  aspect of the production breathes skill, cost, concentration and care.  

     And risk.  It’s a good-hearted, family-friendly show – and moves on to the Lowry and probably elsewhere, I think it will last – but any new musical trembles on the brink. In the first minutes, as a jolly camp leader (Ellie Nunn) leads a big child ensemble boosted by  local recruits,  there is a bit of a retro school-play feeling: bouncy so-what tunes,   I did wonder at the effort. 

     But it grows.  The twins – rapidly working out why they have the same face and birthdate – draw you in to their gleeful private world.  Their singing is flawless too, alone or with the adults, and as the show goes on Stiles & Drew pull out some lovely numbers.  Emily Tierney as the mother has a beautiful reminiscent song about her teenage marriage and estrangement,  with a haunting, constant repetition  “we were young..”.  We don’t get quite enough of the men in voice ,though Michael Smith-Stewart’s Dr Strobl has a couple of welcome baritone moments,  and James Darch’s Johan as the vain composer works brilliantly alongside his daughter “Making it up as we go along” at the piano, and  there’s a fabulously furious quarrelling encounter between the child and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the vampy ballerina who wants to marry Johan.   (she can do the ballet bit, too).

      By the time the four finally meet, there’s a real emotional hit as they discover that a litle tune the musical twin made up fits, exactly, with the words of a simple poem by the other.  Tierney and Darch stand speechless, astonished for a moment in the grand Viennese drawing-room.   A sigh goes through the audience.  

Box office nottinghamplayhouse.org.uk to 14 August. Then Lowry, Salford to 3 Sept

Rating. 4.

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