Monthly Archives: September 2022



Heavy footfalls pace overhead, enervating, raising anxiety. Anna Fleischle’s  galleried grey set is half Scandi-minimo-chic, half penitentiary. Downstairs two sisters meet after thirteen years’ estrangement,  including five while Gunnhild’s husband served a sentence for fraud. Aunt Ella raised their child Erhart to kee him far from the scandal.  Now the sisters are beginning to fight for the amiable young man,  who wisely shows no wish to be owned by either.  

Clare Higgins’ Gunnhild is a stumping discontented blonde who expects Erhard to bring her back to fortune and status, and resents her disgraced husband John Gabriel who is living upstairs like a hermit.   Lia Williams is Ella: skinny, ailing, drowned in a brown frock and extinguished by a rain-hat.  Yet this defeated Auntie-Vera figure will, within one tense winter evening and a 100-minute show, explode into the most dramatic passion we’ve seen on stage all year.  Williams will astonish us.

        On a balcony above this unhappy family scene Freda, a modest young friend of the house, plays Liszt’s dark thundering Totentanz – dance of the dead. (Daisy Ou is a professional concert pianist).  Its gloom causes young Erhart to nip off to a party with a foxy older woman (Ony Uhiara) for bright lights and jollier music.  John Gabriel loves the Liszt though, pacing or rocking on his makeshift bed ,  remembering  the heady clang of hammers on iron ore in the mines of his youth, metal wrenched from rock to build an industrial empire.  His  only remaining  friend is  Wilhelm, Frida’s Dad, who dreams of being a novelist and is almost as depressed as JG himself.  The two old men grumble together: Michael Simkins as Wilhelm gloriously funny in deadpan Eeyore style,  JG ranting  about how “exceptional people” like him are different,  all the clients he cheated would have been repaid if things had gone well, and how the world will exonerate him any minute and beg him to return and lead them.   (Eerie echoes of Boris must be hastily dismissed).  

    He then discards Wilhelm, supposedly for good, for being a lousy writer.   “We deceived each other and ourselves” says JG coldly.   But, cries Wilhelm, “Isn’t that the essence of friendship?” Never a false note.  Lucinda Coxon’s reworking of the literal-translation makes it all ours. Every actor hits every note, sharp as JG’s remembered hammers.

      In great plays a scene, character or domestic confrontation can be both appalling and comic: pity, terror and barks of shocked laughter are not incompatible even within a sentence. Ibsen knew that, but in the  Norwegian rebel’s grim late works  it  takes a relaxed director and some weapons-grade actors to keep that balance.   Cue Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams: rescuing, for me and for good,  a play I hated  last time I saw it.

       Then, the antihero drew no sympathy – a self-aggrandizing deluded fraud.   Whereas Russell Beale, under a big scruffy beige cardigan,  draws almost too much.  He drags you into the  magic in his vision of industrial growth:  iron and steel and machinery and light and power across the empire he gambled too high for.   When he says he’s a “great wounded eagle” or a young Napoleon cut down at the point of victory,  you momentarily believe the old rogue.  Until you shudder at some sudden cruel remark, or a reminder that he ruined everyone he knew except Ella.  The man’s collapsed grandeur,  his tense staccato complaint broken by occasional devastating one-liners,  all hold you riveted.  Russell Beale makes you see why Ella ,  his first and only human love, adored him before he settled for the more pliable Gunnhild. The  backwash of that love continues: she wants her darling nephew Erhart to replace him and take her family name. But when JG returns for the first time in eight years to his wife’s sitting-room, a ludicrous  and again shockingly funny three-way battle is fought over the young man’s fealty.  It concludes,  as all such battles should,  with Erhart (debutant Sebastian de Souza)  wisely sloping off to warmer lands with his foxy cougar Fanny and the musician Frida.  

    And this is Norway and winter and Ibsen, so out into the storm goes our seductive, terrible, deluded miner of dreams and wrecker of women. But with that fine dramatic balance, before the inevitable tragedy we see Simkins’ adorable Wilhelm again in his bike helmet,  happy as Larry about his gifted daughter Frida having found a mentor for her presumed musical studies.  It is as if Ibsen wanted, just briefly, to reassure us that flawed visionary heroes aren’t the only kind of man available.

Box office To 27 Nov

Rating five.


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NOISES OFF. Theatre Royal Bath, and touring


        Millions know it by now, but in case like my enthralled companions last night you aren’t among them,   grant me a moment or skip the the penultimate paragraph.   Noises Off  has been a national treasure since 1982,  written by Michael Frayn after  realizing that the hurtling backstage business of doors, props  and actors under stress is funnier than most actual farces.  He wrote a squib called EXITS, the great producer Michael Codron encouraged something fuller.  You see an irritable dress rehearsal of a touring farce, the imaginary “Nothing On”. Lloyd the producer yells from the stalls beside you.  After an interval with the set reversed,  you watch  from backstage one month into a gruelling provincial run, with cast  relationships fracturing: once the scene begins they are, of course, wordless backstage and able only to air their murderous feelings in brilliantly spiteful mime and sabotage while the familiar lines echo beyond the flats. A brief breakneck change, then from the front you see the play’s  dissolution on the final night at Stockton-on-Tees.    

      .  The characters are an affectionate portrait of thespian types, gloriously described in the programme:  I am especially fond of “Garry Lejeune”, proudly credited as having at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman Prize for Violence”.  There is a fading but still glamorous and gossipy trouper Belinda, an even more faded veteran, Dottie, funding the tour from her savings and playing the charlady, a dim ingenue, an exasperating leading man, an older equivalent who has lost both his nerve and his wife, and dear old Selsden: sixty years on the boards and the bottle, kept from his habit of hiding whisky in every corner only by the vigilance of the rest of the cast and the heroic, exhausted stage crew Poppy and Tim.

    The whole thing is a love song to the stage and the high days of touring rep, and indeed to actors. For it is notable that for all the excellent jokes about actorishness in the rehearsal scene,  none of the issues within the fictional company are the usual sneers about prestige or stardom and all-about-Eve-ery. Just ordinary love affairs. They are us, they are troupers, struggling with the props and stuck doors and slippery dropped sardines of life,  needing panicky ad-libs, rescuing one another  more often than sabotaging.  You have to love them all, flawed beings earning a living while trapped in an unforgiving structure, under judgement.  And, let me murmur, earning it at a time  before actors and theatre-managers were so worried about “safe spaces”,  disapproving of liaisons between older directors and ingenues,  and taught to treat vicious directorial sarcasm as “emotinal abuse”.  Alexander Hanson’s suavely irritable Lloyd wouldn’t get away with it now. Not without an editorial condemnation in The Stage. 

         Of all plays it depends on pin-sharp timing and directorial precision, and Lindsay Posner, who previously directed the Old Vic production, fulfils that absolutely. It also needs actors adept at physical comedy, willing to fall down the odd staircase or behind a sofa, and able to do all this middling-badly as the fictional actors, and brilliantly as themselves.  Class acts, in other words.  Some are relishing their seniority by doddering for England:   Felicity Kendal is old Dotty,  Matthew Kelly a pleasingly boozy old Selsden. All are terrific, though I had a particular tendresse for Tracy-Ann Oberman as the authoritatively blousy Belinda,  fount of all gossip and – in curiously touching moments nicely maternal – both backstage in the jealous chaos and  inventing lines  desperately in the last scene.  Her dazzling desperate smile in the final moments is alone worth the ticket. 

       Too many pleasures to list. But seeing it for the fourth or fifth time in my life I was still noticing nuggets:  like the way Frayn can write awful traditional farce jokes, tired  double-entendres and trouser-drops which make much of the audience laugh, a bit guiltily,  while seconds later giving us a real human-insight joke which makes everyone laugh with proper joy because that  trouser-drop was, face it,  a small part of the larger human sadness.  Equally, I had never quite taken in before the monstrousness of Dottie, or the heroic comradeship with which the whole cast and crew repeatedly rally round at speed to keep Selsden and the whisky bottle apart and prevent the wholesale emotional dissolution of poor Freddie. It’s just all very beautiful. To 1 oct.   Then Cambridge,  then Brighton

Rating. Five.

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WOMAN IN MIND.        Chichester Festival Theatre


Susan finds herself in mid-life with a dull clerical husband (Nigel Lindsay  really enjoying it) , obsessed with his dreary parish history pamphlet.  His gloomy beige sister lives with them; Muriel (Stephanie Jacob equally relishing every stumping step and grudge) . She believes she can conjure up the spirit of her dead husband,  and cooks the worst possible food (for an Alan Ayckbourn play this one is short on big laughs, but the good ones are about her omelettes and coffee).    Their son has run off to join a cult in Hemel Hempstead.

     But after she steps on a rake, Susan’s concussion takes the form of hallucinating another family life:  a grand estate with tennis courts, pool, sunset lake and money.  The alternative husband is adoring, light-hearted, cooks fabulous lunches with homemade mayonnaise; there’s a posh laughing brother and a confiding, happy lively daughter Lucy, and in this life Susan is an acclaimed writer of historical fiction. It all feels like a Sunday supplement portrait, and most likely is born of such.  Not least in its sense of English class division:  the media-aggravated belief that somewhere out of reach lie lives not only more glamorous but happier. 

   The hallucinated figures are as real to us as to her,  wandering in and out, and conversations weave with her real life with puzzling oddity. Only the  local GP (a wonderfully bumbling Matthew Cottle) is half-aware of them.  In the livelier second half Susan’s mania intensifies and the situation escalates into some spectacular misdeeds (in real life) and a fabulous nightmare wedding-cum-race meeting  delusion (in her head). The dream’s disjointed structure, I have to say, felt eerily familiar if you are like me prone to long confused narrative dreams.  

      It is easy to see why director Anna Mackmin and Chichester thought it a good wheeze to revive this 1984 play: mental health  is trending, as is the anxiety that the menopause might drive some women off their heads.  And you can’t fault the acting, especially from Jenna Russel’s Susan  at its core, and where there is comedy the cast find it. The confrontation between the judgmental, alienated son and Susan is very strong indeed,  set against the marshmallow-sweetness of the imaginary daughter.  Ahhh, imaginary children…

     But for all its Chichester polish  the play feels oddly dated.  We don’t relish retrospectives a mere 30+ years ago.  Partly I suppose the disconnection (it was a cool un-Ayckbournish house on last-preview)  is because a woman this desperately bored with her life would now be able to blog, Instagram and communicate more freely with outside friends on email.  Maybe, indeed,   that is the 21c version of hallucinating a better parallel life. 

Box office to 15 October

Rating three

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     In a beanbagged, bright-coloured primary school in Berkeley, California,  its executive committee of five seek consensus over reclassifying the drop-down menu for applicants.  Is “transracial adoptee” as important a definition as “Native American”?  Should “Jewish” be an option separate from “White?” The newcomer – Carina – makes a faux pas by referring to her child as ‘he’ not  ‘they”, which is school policy, though  members kindly reassure her “we’re not saying you don’t know your child’s personal pronouns”. 

    We learn that Eureka Day is a school where kids cheer for the other team, where the school-play Peter Pan had to be cleansed of colonial issues by setting it in outer space, and lavatories are being expensively de-gendered by a contractor who sources local materials responsibly.  Yet already we are reminded how defensive-parenthood is red in tooth and claw:  the problem with Carina’s last school was that her child is superbright and  “couldn’t get special needs support unless he was failing”.  Whereon  she is insulted by a soothing “there’s a lot of neurodiversity here”. Still,  as old hippie Don meaninglessly says, before reading another truism from the Persian mystic Rumi about how lamps don’t give light until they’re lit “We are a school of choice in a community of intention”.  And at the meetings they always have organic donuts made by a mentally disabled but famous physicist.      

     So we know where we are: joyfully satirizing middle-class liberal-cum-hippie angst, parental protectiveness and the age of offence-taking,  as in  beloved recent comedies like God of Carnage and Clybourne Park.  But as it heats , the focus shifts to the even more topical theme : digital misinformation, rumour and fake news getting  indiscriminately sucked in and solidified into identity politics.  There’s a mumps outbreak, and the authorities want quarantine. A lot of parents – two on the committee – are antivaxxers, determined that Big Pharma isn’t going to con them into “poisoning” their children.  But the vaccinators are equally outraged by the risk to a herd-immunity which keeps their own safer.   Jonathan Spector’s play predates Covid, but couldn’t  be more topical.

         The last ten minutes of the first hour become something really special, as the committee do a Zoom meeting with invisible parents who join in – projected on the back wall and ceiling  – with classic, glorious, horribly recognizable WhatsAppery.  It begins with a lot of non-sequitur “Hi everyone” and chat about soup and someone who  moved to Vancouver, or was it Montreal? But as Don and the committee talk of closure and quarantine the heat rises, at first with people piously “not being comfortable” with various words,  moving on to personal remarks about whether chiropractors count as real doctors, and working up – in beautifully choreographed acrimony  – to  the inevitable words “Fascist” and “Nazi”.    The glory of it is the technically precise  use of this projected online onslaught as the cast centre-stage round the laptop gallantly keep up with the elegantly written script while being almost totally inaudible : simply because of the gales of helpless, choking, non-stop laughter from the audience reading the posts.  

        Actually, it’s that quarter-hour or so which wins it the fifth mouse: not because the whole play is stellar but because for two years we have all very, very much needed that experience of sitting laughing, helplessly, with a thousand strangers.   Don’s final line “I am feeling like this format is not bringing our best selves to the conversation” made me actually choke. 

     The second act sees the committee picking up the pieces,  afflicted by the darker fact of proper pain:  Eli’s child is seriously ill, having probably got it off the antivaxxer May, with whom he has been sleeping, to his invisible wife’s disgust. Though as a colleague concernedly chirps   “I thought you guys had passed through monogamy?” .  We learn that the co-founder Suzanne,  a finely nuanced performance by Helen Hunt,  had a past tragedy which solidified, probably unreasonably,  her attitude to medical science.  We see Ben Schnetzer’s Eli grow from the borderline-idiot hypersensitive wokey of the start to adult understanding. From Kirsten Foster’s May we get the most beautiful display of grit-teethed furiously aggressive silent knitting, then a crazy outburst of hatred for every modern thing from antibiotics to plastic. We relish too the sight of hapless old Don in his khaki bush shorts trying to write down their shared beliefs “respectfully” on a flip-chart, while being eviscerated by Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson). Oh, and Suzanne becoming even more hapless when Carina cracks up enough to snarl at the white woman’s assumption that  she is on “financial support” just because she’s black.  She isn’t.  Oh, the pain, the exquisite pain of it all. 

       So I loved it. And it comes to a sort of conclusion, but never again is it as satisfyingly over-the-top as during that Zoom meeting ending the first half.  Well, how could it be.  But it’s a lovely evening, excruciatingly topical, a neat two -hour counterweight to all our first-world-problems.  To. 31 Oct

Rating five.

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DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10


We are in a suburban drawing-room in 1926,  which some characters will still call  the “parlour”.  Near the front, close enough to touch the aspidistra, you feel very intimately involved, especially with the gaunt, melancholy figure of Matthew Ashforde as the man of the house,  Natty,  as he listens to a wind-up  gramophone  playing a sentimental ballad.  His tidy, aproned wife Mabel disapproves, due to a line in the second verse she regards as improper, especially on a Sunday. That word  “night”: suggestive!   

        Take that as a good sly comedy-of-manners joke, and at first that is the tone :  we watch Mabel deny poor romantic Natty a mere peck of a kiss,  disapprove of his giving the lady-librarian lodger a frivolous nickname, and refuse the shocking idea of going to the cinema due to her cherished delicate health and nerves (“Dr Board wouldn’t hear of me sitting in such an atmosphere”).   She also explains how well she has raised her flightier younger sister Gwen,  and her theory of male misbehaviour as “always the woman’s fault. They have no hold on their husbands, of that I’m sure”.      

        There is  absurdity, but this is a dark and angry play, as cross as Osborne in its way,  and after this comedy-of-manners first act with everyone’s emotions politely damped down,  it ripens into real emotional chaos and tragedy.   For Mia Austen’s Mabel is a dangerous monster:  her refinement truly vicious, her hypochondria and frigidity weaponized in control of Natty.  Austen somehow disciplines her naturally cheerful features into a perfect , unchanging resting-bitch-face, mouth down, permitting only rare little smiles of malice.  No wonder Kate O”Brien’s first play, before she became a noted novelist,  was received both as a “masterpiece” and as “squalid and horrid”.  Perhaps too recognizable to too many.  But at least her subtle treatment of sex,  of frigidity and longing and danger,   meant only a few ‘improper’ lines were cut by the censor.

         Small theatres rediscovering long-forgotten plays from the early 20th century are a treasure:  to see our own time levelly we need to understand the evolution of attitudes and taboos. These  people are our grand- or great-grandparents, closer than Shakespeare’s nobles ,Sheridan’s fops, Austen’s spinsters or even Shaw’s Edwardians. They walked our streets, staffed companies still flourishing, typed on Querty keyboards.  Women between the wars were in transition, more dramatically  than in the much-hyped 1960s.  A few days back we saw Dorothy Sayers’ steely, defiant abandoned 1930s wife and daring mistress at the Jermyn, women  rounding  together  on a pompous man who prizes housewifeliness and shrinking-violet humility.  Here by contrast it is a wife who exploits  just those supposed qualities, with the man as the victim.

          Natty, like Forster’s Leonard Bast,  longs for music and life and feeling,  something beyond the daily grind and frigid wife.  But he  hangs on as long as he can until the final explosion of trapped grief.   Fascinatingly, it is the more swashbuckling John,  fiancé of flighty Gwen,  who sees beyond the surface:  “Proud and remote as an eagle, that funny little beggar”.   Ashforde gives us all that, in a memorable performance and his disintegrating interaction with the cool, kindly lodger Frances (Holly Sumption) in the second act is stunning.  A lesser playwright would have made him declare love to her, but O’Brien knows that he needs more than cheap romance.

          The character of Frances herself I found a bit problematic: she is filling the authorial role of the observant, benign outsider to a trapped society, as in “The passing of the third floor back” or “An Inspector Calls”,  but steps out of that cool role into a less convincing affair of her own.  The two men who desire her – villainous, callous Alec and bluff hiking John – are a bit of a caricature,  Brian Martin’s John indeed is forced into real 1926 likes like “I must kiss you!”. But in a way those two are necessary to point up the extraordinary, desperate, heroic depth of poor Natty.   O’Brien is not saying that all men are trapped by virago wives, any more than Sayers was saying all women are men’s pawns: she is just dissecting one of the many ways in which social  absurdities can spiral down into deep human tragedy.  You may find the end melodramatic.  I found it credible, heartbreaking, and in Mabel’s final speech, as diabolic as anything in drama.  To 1 oct

Rating four.

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ROSE Park Theatre, N4


   It is no bad week to be contemplating the Jewish custom of sitting shiva:  spending seven days on a hard wooden bench when “you laugh, you cry, you argue” in tribute to the lost.  Rose is an 80-year old veteran, remembering as the millennium dawns. She says that the arguing is vital.  Sipping water to catch her breath, dipping into memories terrible or absurd, she is tartly,  acerbically insistent on that – her cousin’s  husband lived in the next street to Albert Einstein, after all. Jews , she says, are “a restless people, restless minds’  put into the world to ask questions that can’t be argued,  and to give us the vital  phrase “on the other hand..”.  She has – and is – a moral  message, but not a prescription.

    Martin Sherman’s 1999 masterpiece is an immense monologue – two halves, each over an hour – and Maureen Lipman tackles it with pin-sharp timing, humour, and controlled feeling, sitting on her bench remembering.  Her extraordinary performance was streamed during the Covid years but to see it live in front of you in this intimate theatre is different, startling and personal, heroic.  With the best will in the world any screen showing fades into being just more TV, more Holocaust history. This does not.

     Her story is a refugee tale, from childhood to atrocity into rescue, outrage, disconnection, trauma, and a kind of resolution. The strength of it, captured perfectly by Lipman’s nuanced changes from fondness to contempt, horror to amusement,  lies in the detailed individuality of all the characters she depicts.  Rose drily says that like all who live through history she sometimes finds it hard to disentangle real recall from Fiddler on the Roof and newsreels.  But she gives us idiosyncratic reality, a child’s clear baffled vision of her early life. The strong resolute pious mother, trading fruit by the roadside in the Ukrainian shtetl in the 1930s, is not quite as she seems but has a wild alarming gipsy side. iThe father is no Tevye but a hypochondriac idler, unmourned. The village is riven with dissent about superstitions; it takes little time for child Rose to ditch the idea of God.  Teenage Rose after “my first period and my first pogrom within a month”, cant wait to get to Warsaw and fall in love with an artist. “He wasn’t actually Chagall, but who is?”she shrugs affectionately.   But a mere month after happily eating chocolate cake in a cafe they are twelve to a room in the ghetto.  Which she  sees burning, smoke visible from her enforced factory-bench job.

     After the loss of her child and her man,  the hideous hiding in sewers and a rickety unofficial ship towards Palestine arrested by the British, Rose arrives in Atlantic City as an American wife   haunted by longing for her dead husband. An old-lady coolness relates it all, including  a crazy period of traumatic magical thinking and the prudent need not to seem at all “Russian” , hence presumed Commie, in the McCarthy years.    

    Cruelly, the generation of Jews who got out of old Europe earlier doesn’t want to hear too much from Holocaust survivors,  “not that I wanted to tell”.   Nor, eventually, does her shiksa daughter in law, one of those too-burning converts who knows better. As Rose stays running hotels in Florida, too weary now to obey the pull of the promised land, the daughter in law over there  berates her for not being a proper Jew,  and has to be reminded with a snap that Rose’s whole family died “while you were being christened in Kansas”.   

    At last we find who is the  nine-year  old girl ,shot in the head, for whom the old woman has been sitting shiva before us. Not her own long dead daughter Esther, for whom she kept shiva in the sewers (“no wooden benches there, but God makes allowances”). This time it is for an Arab child, killed in the occupied territories, “by my own blood”.

       It is an unforgettable evening: profound darkness of evil streaked with unconquerable human light, even humour.   What could be grimly unbearable,  is made bearable:  simply because people bore it, and we need to remember.  Speaking for many voices, Lipman holds that memory with faith.

Box office To 15 October

Rating 5.

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THE SNAIL HOUSE. Hampstead Theatre, NW1


         That’s a Nigerian saying, apparently.   But shiny though the shell is,   Richard Eyre’s play becomes a frustrating stew of ideas, attitudes and family tensions which doesn’t quite hit the finishing line. Directed by the author himself it is rarely less than entertaining,  always emotionally recognizable and interestingly topical: but it’s too humble, too restrained. It doesn’t presume to explode at you and shock your socks off with redemption as Chekhov or Ibsen does (especially when under this most sensitive of directors).   I wanted to like it more.  

      Its set is designed to oppress and make its own point:    a dark-green painted grand hall  lined with glum portraits in heavy frames and chairs to be deployed for a grim banquet in upper-middle Britain.  A public-school is pimping out its premises as a banqueting venue in holidays,  hired tonight by the eminent paediatric consultant and government health adviser Neil (Vincent Franklin).  He rose from the Lancashire working classes and proudly sent his son there, and now is marking the double occasion of his birthday and his knighthood. Lear-like,  he  wants a speech in his praise from his daughter Sarah.   

      However this Cordelia (played with terrifying conviction by Grace Hogg Robinson) is  all too ready to heave her heart into her mouth: scowling in military jacket, cotton frock and big black boots she has  rejected the parental home for a squat (sorry, “property guardianship scheme” ). She resents her parents for bailing her out after a night in the cells on an XR demonstration,  and seethes with  anger about everything from climate change and fracking to multinationals, xenophobia, Tories,  water companies, her Dad, the capitalist conspiracy and Brexit. Obviously as a school dropout aged 18 she is right about all the above.  “I can have principles, even if I don’t pay rent or tax or vote for your fucking government”.    This hatred of wealth does not prevent her from having an extremely expensive brand new bicycle.   Her brother Hugo, who is gay,  swings to the other abominable pole with a flash gas-guzzling car  and a job as a SPAD to the Conservative Education Secretary. He considers Coronavirus as a useful cull of the weakest, and is devoted to winding up his baby sister.  

        So that’s the host family in this dinner-of-the-damned.  In black tie and balldress Dr Neil and his wife skip through early,  but it is from the zero-hours catering staff we learn the details: eighteen to dinner on the heavy oak table (some brisk expert place-laying) and sixty for the dancing and speeches.  These workers enliven the opening scenes:  teenagers Habeeb and  Wynona  crash and sing and joke irreverently around: Megan McDonnell as a lass from Monaghan with a dream of stardom steals every scene she’s in, manically sweary, capering and caterwauling country songs and later pouring scorn on Sarah’s activism  – “so far up your own arse that on a clear day you could see through your bellybutton”.  Supervising these worker-kids with regal Nigerian dignity is Amanda Bright’s Florence.   Their scenes are wonderfully directed , the pragmatic vitality of their work a wicked contrast to the wordy  agonized debates of the employers.  That I loved.   But as the evening wears on – we never see the offstage guests, just  disco lights and sounds of Abba – conflict between Sarah and her father intensifies.  He finds her activism “self absorbed and selfrighteous”  but yearns for her approval; she feels she was never understood by him and cannot accept any merit in his  scientific work and saving of lives, even months in Romanian orphanages.   “My anger lights my world” she says, and suddenly there’s a flash of revelation of real unhappiness.  That works.

     But with  awkward suddenness we get to a meatier issue than these timeworn family dynamics: Florence the caterer suddenly tells Sarah that her father was the expert-witness for the prosecution who got her 19 months in prison for shaking her baby.  We know that recent research has suggested that such convictions may be unsafe, if symptoms are caused by a rare infant disorder.  Florence has learned this, knows herself innocent and wants Neil – who, embarrassingly, is in the process of paying her and the other staff – to apologize.  He blusters,  speaks of medical evidence, the balance of probabilities and his expertise. She tells him he was influenced by her race;  he speaks of statistics of abuse in precisely that racial group, and protests that the legal procedure didn’t let him speak to her to make a personal judgement .    Sarah wants him to be in the wrong and admit it, though showing weirdly little real empathy with Florence.  Will this be Neil’s Lear-in-the-storm moment, suddenly understanding the poor naked wretches of the world? Not quite.   And Florence’s complaint is curiously parallel to Sarah’s.  “Take notice of me! Not as a statistic but as me”.   There’s a dying fall rather than a redemption. It is frustrating.   And then the damn teenager starts on again.  “What have we done. Climate emergency. Brexit. This mess we’re in. And you making me feel like I belong somewhere else”.  It’s all about her again. 

        I suppose it proves dramatic realism, perceptive characterization and fine acting when an audience wants to jump up and slap a main character. But there is something better there, a useful only-connect theme:  the frustration is that it doesn’t quite gell.  

Box office to 15 October

Rating three

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LOVE ALL. Jermyn St Theatre


  Here’s a treat:  first half in Venice (with a glorious Canaletto backdrop) and the second, after some elegant Jermyn set-changing, in a London playwright’s chic flat,  complete with trumpet-mouthpiece bakelite phone and cigarette-box.   It’s 1940:  there’s a   touch of Noel-Coward wit at the expense of writers and the theatre, some arguments that are  more like a combative George Bernard Shaw,  and even – in a jokey throwaway – a passing homage to Ibsen.  But at its centre is something different:  a blazingly witty feminist assault not only on patriarchal assumptions but on  the cult of feelings-first.  “Romance is overrated, but I suppose you can’t have a third act without it”.

        Dorothy L Sayers’ only light stage comedy has been pretty much forgotten since its wartime launch in the first year of WW2.  We know her of course from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and – less prominently now – from her religious works.  Here, though,  find all the witty teasing structure of the detective novels , but released from the need to have a hero.  The result is a feast of deadly observation of sexual mores and a laughing, sisterly female revolt against a battened-down morality and traditional presumptions about wifehood .  Above all here is a hymn to the importance, in any life, of work and achievement.  Feelings, even the tenderest loves,  are not enough.  

        “Everybody hates work but it’s awful to be without it’ affirms even the shallowest and most hedonistic character, Lydia (Emily Barber),  pining  to get back to the stage after running away with our antihero ,the writer Godfrey, after “three flops and a fight with management”.  As the story goes on will encounter an even sterner work ethic  in the apparently dutiful wife he left for her.  

      In Venice the guilty couple are restive, she lounging bored in an elegant pyjama suit  while Godfrey (Alan Cox)  struggles with his latest romantic novel and the creeping advance of middle age. The loyal secretary, a nicely enigmatic Bethan Cullinane, smooths  both their paths. Both are differently frustrated because his wife Edith has not having filed the divorce papers, claiming to be “too busy”. This, Coward-style, leads to dangerously mellow reminiscence from Godfrey about Edith’s good qualities:  cue a shouting-match, the hurling out of the window  of his treasured “presentation inkwell” , and an irate gondolier whose inkstained passenger turns out to be an old friend from Lydia’s West End   world.  Karen Ascoe’s Mrs Mintlaw by the way is hilariously observed:  Sayers knew that world well. 

      We meet more  theatre people in the London flat after the interval, when both the couple have secretly fled back to London and are inevitably going to meet there.   The hostess, not that she wants either of them,  is a successful comedy playwright, found elegantly flatter-coaxing her leading man  (Daniel Burke, playing gigolo-smooth and vain). He wants to cut a few lines. Brilliantly, she agrees and says that yes,  its a difficult moment to express – whereon he wants it back.  There’s an ebullient producer (Jim Findley) ) getting the news that an elderly star is happy to play the vicar in the new play  but asks that the name of his church be changed from St Athanasius – ‘It’s his teeth, you see’.   Into all this merry thespianism plods Godfrey,  baffled to hear that his dull old wife Edith is staying at this address. Which she is, because – kaboom! – she herself  is the acclaimed playwright.   Under a pseudonym, having  the whale of a time with one hit running and another pending, the very play in which his runaway mistress wants a part.  So of course foxy Lydia turns up too…

     It could be farce, but for Dorothy Sayers’ point, sharpened with comic teeth, about the kind of man rampant in the 1930s and for a fair while afterwards who is horrified by any sign of female independent success. “Do you mean you wrote that play WHILE  we were married?”  “Well, you were always away”.   When he has to decide whether he will return to his wife or stay with Lydia,  he is confronted by the fact that one wont give up writing , and the other wont abandon acting, and he can’t bear eithr idea.  What makes him even more furious is Edith’s refusal to be upset by his desertion.   “Need you maintain this pretence of not giving a damn?”.   But she honestly doesn’t.  Her identity, her centre, is in her newfound work.  “I can’t believe a woman could feel like that!..I hate to see you making a wreck of your life”.  Her pals meanwhile float in and out, excited by the buzz of the new play.  She’s just fine: a walking, working revenge against all his kind.

      Godfrey, of course, is a caricature, designed to be entertainingly humiliated, and Alan Cox  makes the most of it:  a lovely moustached harrumpher, flatfooted and wrongfooted not only by the  sharper women  but the blithe theatre-folk who “don’t have much time for reading” his bestsellers.    There is a part of the third act when you sense a little flattening – the two women, working out their mutual feelings and what should become of him.  But as this absurd almost maternal discussion continues it heats up, and Sayers’ passion for females as workers, identities beyond romance and wifehood, continues to be strikingly refreshing. 

         When Godfrey – and his secretary, and the producer – have returned to join the two women, the play returns to the glorious pattern-making of farce,  and rollicks to a Wildean conclusion. I cite the more famous playwrights not out of disrespect to Sayers’ utterly female vision and wit,  but because this shows how efficiently, deliberately, she slotted into the dramatic idioms of her time (the opening scene sets character and situation with a real Rattigan elegance).  And because it makes me wish  she had given us more like this, not just a version of a Wimsey story. But thanks to Tom Littler, the director who is just leaving his triumphant spell at the Jermyn,  for finding it and giving it back to us.  The Godfreys may be scarcer now, or have gone sulkily underground.  But we need to remember them,  and salute a grandmothers’ generation who had them to deal with. 

Box office. To 21 Sept

Rating 4   

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Fringe opera festivals sometimes give us a chance to see new work in progress – i.e. unfinished operas currently in the making. This is especially interesting if you can then see the finished work a few years later, and compare it to the early draft; but it’s also fun to see a nascent opera and wonder where it might go, or how it might end. Grimeborn’s “in-progress sharing” of Penelope: Seven Ways to Wait provides 40 minutes of intriguing and accomplished musicality, loosely themed around the concept of waiting, with the classical heroine Penelope (long-suffering, long waiting wife of Odysseus) at its emotional helm. Composer and pianist Kristina Arakelyan offers a warm personal introduction to the piece, and follows up with a Q&A session.

After the briefest of rehearsal periods (a week and a half), this skilful cast show remarkable commitment, and the performance already feels tight and convincing. Mayou Trikerioti’s ingeniously simple design, a circle of black chairs with extremely simple props (a black scarf, some red wool, a few large candles), somehow gives director Lucy Bradley everything she needs to create seven different scenes: we whizz from Penelope’s palace in ancient Ithaca to a modern-day gym, as Arakelyan and librettist Helen Eastman examine different ideas of waiting across history. Anna Starushkevych’s Penelope is resplendent in a long, beaded cream gown and sandals, while her six-strong Chorus wear long red shifts, creating a slick, focused and resolutely classical look on stage. Surtitles and scene labels clearly guide us through the action as the piece moves briskly through time. After beautifully evoking Penelope’s famous weaving stratagem, we end up in a Soho restaurant where Penelope waits at tables (I’m still not sure why). Next, she’s the leader of a Suffragette movement advocating violence to achieve political change: they have waited for the vote long enough. There follows a beautiful, wordless, harmonic vigil against violence against women, framed by the poignant phrase “Text me when you get home” as candles are lit for Sarah Everard and other victims, whose families still wait in vain for them: deeply moving. We also visit a sweaty gym, modern-day war-torn Ukraine, witch-ridden Elizabethan England and our own inner creativity: this piece goes all over the place.

On the one hand, this gives Arakelyan an opportunity to show a rich variety of compositional styles and moods, and the variety is certainly impressive. Her elegant piano accompaniment lays a strong foundation for powerful, warm harmonies using a range of female voices; the piece is also peppered with occasional, well-handled speech. Arakelyan knows how to set English clearly, and key phrases (“Spin your story and then: unwind…”, “Deeds not words”) shine across. The chorus’ glorious singing does Arakelyan’s ideas grand justice, and Starushkevych’s Penelope, though opening with a somewhat harsh gravelled edge to her voice, soon finds fluency and lyricism, while she maintains a compelling stage presence throughout.

However, ultimately the piece is only carried through by the skill and commitment of its cast, fervently bringing us into its music. Conceptually, there is still some way to go before the work achieves a similar level of satisfaction. Such disparate images, yoked together often by only a passing reference to Penelope, or the mere fact of waiting, manage neither to shed light on Penelope as a character, nor on waiting as an activity. The first section, closest to Homer’s story, digs deep into Penelope’s resolve: “I waited, fought the war within my mind, slaying the daily grind” – and perhaps this golden seam could be mined further. There’s plenty of musical energy here, and much to enjoy already on that front; but shaping this opera into a coherent intellectual journey, and deciding which way to commit the concept (whether to Penelope, or to waiting) must surely be the next question for Arakelyan and her talented team. Currently, it feels unresolved, scratching the surface of various feminist issues without telling us more – yet…


Part of Grimeborn 2022 at the Arcola

Rating: Three

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