Monthly Archives: October 2022

MARY. Hampstead theatre NW3


For four hundred years the reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been battled over:  she has been called victim and whore,  murderess and heroine,  flighty and heroic. Romance flowers in drama and opera: she was a young mother, beautiful,  imprisoned, finally executed by her cousin Elizabeth I.  Dramatists usually gather around that last period and imaginary meetings between the two women.  But Rona Munro here  is focusing on another point in Mary’s  life,  with a modern and feminine eye.  Her historical passion  lit up Scotland and then the National Theatre stage a few years back with the three “James Plays”, about the first three kings of that name in the 15c (there’s a fourth play, not yet come south).

But in this static but powerful 90-minutes, in which the Queen herself is offstage except for two glimpses, Munro concentrates on the period before her forced abdication in 1567.  Her husband Darnley  has been murdered by the thuggish Earl of Bothwell.  But within weeks Mary – a Catholic, which was a source of unease in newly Protestant Scotland – marries him under Protestant rites. Briefly this won him power before he was overthrown. The play opens with a court servant, Thompson,  having just been beaten up by Bothwell while the Queen”s paternal old adviser Melville  (Douglas Henshall). tells the young man to clean up and not frighten her, as she is already scared.  The third in the room is Agnes,  a devout Protestant enthusiast with little time for Mary.

We meet them again months later after the fall of Bothwell, in Holyrood Palace for a long, sometimes exhausting, courtroom-style argumentative assault on Melville  by Thompson and Agnes (imagined figures, but representing the political and religious passions of the time) .  They need his signature for her abdication and disgrace,  implying the Bothwell marriage to be labelled as whorish treachery and guilt for her husband’s death. 

Melville,  who was close to her court through the time of her abduction,  is convinced she was raped,  never consenting, assaulted and forced and silenced. Rona Morison’s Agnes, a pillar of unbending judgment and rectitude,  pours womanly scorn on the absent Mary,  reckoning that even if she was raped, she came to like it and was willing. Brian Vernel’s Thompson is all politics,  staccato, pushing away at the increasingly disturbed and defensive Melville, demanding  details like a prosecuting barrister.  The older man, hating to retell it of the girl he knew from childhood, is pushed to describe the assault – public, in front of roaring nobles, heard by him in the next room.  And, damningly, to admit to her calm afterwards:  not calling for help,  not visibly outraged. This, in the increasing temperature of the argument, is of course held against her.

Munro is making a very modern point about the self-blaming trauma of such assaults.  Melville knows what he knows, but slowly fades in his determination: Munro has said she wants to depict the men who let these things go unpunished,  and the last few minutes of this scene certainly do that. Henshall’s subtly shamed demeanour is sharply shown. But he’s a politician and a patriot: the future of Scotland, potential peace under a Regency, is at stake.  Conversely, the more Agnes hears of what almost certainly happened to another woman,  the more her mind changes in the other direction.  And she adds with shame a horrifying memory of her own willingness to stand by when Mary was taken prisoner and cried , dishevelled, from a window amid her male captors. Morison here is shiveringly powerful.

It is a good theme,  and the writing is taut. But it is a long slow burn, static, undramatic until the last third. The audience was tautly silent though,  shocked. That I suppose was the point. The denouement is sudden and dramatic : suddenly a chorus – credited in the programme – reminds us that beyond tight arguments in small rooms there is confused angry popular feeling and a country to save. 

To 26 nov.

Rating. Three.


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TAMMY FAYE. Almeida, N1


       Rarely in the history of Islington playgoing have so many first-nighters whooped so enthusiastically at  Gospel rock.  When cheers for Elton John’s anthems briefly abate it is often for quite different whoops , laughter at James Graham’s dry sharp script or moments of enchanted shock at an unexpected popup. This is a new musical telling the story of the accelerating frenzy of the 1970s televangelism boom, and the rise and fall of Ted Turner’s PTL (“Praise the Lord!”) Network  with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye. The couple  “reached out”to tens of millions of Americans and hauled in millions in donations before a string of scandals brought them down and Bakker into prison for fraud. 

            So here’s a 20c  history-play delivered as a camp Christian-rock spectacular, with the irresistible glory of Elton John numbers  with nifty lyrics by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.  A huge television studio becomes electric-church America with screens and galleries for sudden irruptions by characters from Reagan to Archbishop Runcie, Ted Turner to John Paul 2.   Rupert  Goold’s rollicking direction flashes  – between numerous passionate songs  – through scenes of marital collaboration and betrayal,  TV-biz negotiation and the preposterous commercialization of the faithful.  These holy-joes  sold everything from unbuilt hotel rooms to recipes to underwear, not to mention penile vacuum devices (demonstrated with balloons by Tammy).  Meanwhile infighting pastors talk moral-majority politics with Presidential candidates , and the Bakker’s hokey theatrical evocations of the crucifixion (with very camp flagellation) whiz past before you have time to wonder if they should.  Many scenes culminate in dancing of diabolical merriment by the ensemble: the vigour never flags.   

       In shape it is nicely book-ended:  opening  with Tammy receiving her final cancer diagnosis (comedy proctology) it later closes with her in heaven:  the first-act jerking frenzy of a Billy Graham rally  is mirrored in the second half by a riot of furious cheated punters. Revival, after all, is only a whisker away from riot. 

        At the show’s heart are some storming performances: Katie Brayben as Tammy catches both her immense likeability and her showgirl charisma  in the huge belting numbers (“A big-haired trainer-trash hoochy mama..” raves a furious rival, and Brayben gives it all that, alongside proper charm).   Andrew Rannells as Bakker maintains a deadpan geekiness alongside his cleverer wife until folie de grandeur gets a grip on him;, but  becomes genuinely moving in his downfall number “Look how far we’ve fallen” with  other disgraced TV pastors.  And Zubin Varla as their nemeis is fabulously basso, delivering a thrilling hymn to the TV satellites as the strait-laced Jerry Falwell , “last man standing” in the electro-church debacle and scourge of everything feminist as a road to death, hell and lesbianism. 

        It is detectably James-Graham, which is great: in all his political plays his humane strength is in being willing to accept that even the worst operators were, at least some of the time,  genuinely in earnest.   When Tammy, breaking with the strait-laced homophobia of most of the movement,  does her famous sympathetic interview with the gay Steve Pieters it is largely rendered verbatim, and is quietly moving.  When the Pope, chief Mormon and Archbishop Runcie worry about whether to let the American televangelism into the World Council of Churches as a possible “Awakening” , but then realize it is more like a reckoning,  we laugh but are not invited to contempt.  There is even proper sympathy in the penitent renderings of of “We thought that it was God’s voice calling but someone else was on the line”.  

       The show is also, finally, remarkably Christian in its vision of the chastened and impoverished Tammy and her AIDS- stricken friends being the real heart of what a decent faith means. . Meeting in heaven to compare deaths,  when Falwell says his fate was heart failure Tammy remarks , kindly,  that he didn’t die of it,  he lived with it.  

    It’s a piece of bravura and massively entertaining: should transfer up West – Elton John and James Graham in harness, for heaven’s sake – but the New York journalist next to me doubted that Broadway will open its arms to it.  We’ll see.   Some of the songs will live anyway, though, and be much covered.  I’d put money on Tammy’s last defiant number  “If you  came to see me cry..” ( you might as well grow wings and fly).   It could become a new “My Way” for women. 

Box office  To 3 Dec.    All showing sold-out,  but there are always chances and returns.

Rating. 4  I did wonder about 5, but a voice from heaven said..hmmm…

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MARVELLOUS @sohoplace


      Hard, on its first night ever, not to review the theatre itself.  Nica Burns and Nimax open the first new West End theatre in fifty years: agleam with brass and glass. neon and shine and bars and chutzpah, perching in perfect acoustic comfort above rumbling old Tubes noe intersecting at Tottenham Court Road with the elegant new Elizabeth Line after the years of Crossrail chaos and disruption.  Sweeping balconies show it off in the round for its first three shows, it has rehearsal spaces and the same fastidious theatre-architects (Haworth Tompkins) as the lovely Bridge.   

        It’s swanky, developer-modern,  triumphant: and fond though one may be of gilded Victorian playhouses and scruffy pub spaces,  I review-the-playhouse (terrible thing to do usually) because  it was a day the whole world shook its head at our financial disgrace and revolving-door of useless prime ministers.  So a bit of flash and nerve made it feel that bit better to be British. And before you harrumph about fatcat prices, they go down to £ 25,  and it looks perfectly nice in that top balcony. 

     Now to the show.  With characteristic foxiness, for all the glass ‘n gleam and firstnightery Nica Burns eschews all temptations to do something chatterati-chic.  This very metropolitan theatre explodes into life instead with a festive, eccentric, warmly inclusive celebration of family, community, clowning, neurodiverse glee and Stoke City Football Club.  It  ends with both a funeral hymn that makes you weep and  a custard-pie fight, and arrived in Soho from the Potteries, the New Vic at Newcastle under Lyme, and its remarkable director Therese Heskins.

       The story of Neil Baldwin,  born in 1949 with a learning disability and a startlingly vivid gift for happiness,  became a notable film with Toby Young.   It tells how he wandered into Keele University – not employed or studying – in a clerical collar and took it on himself to welcome students , and carried on doing it for decades.  Likewise, having decided he should be Stoke City manager he turned up, charmed Lou Macari and became  its kit man and mascot in loopy chicken and turtle outfits.  He worked years as a circus clown across Britain,  got the British Empire Medal from the Queen for service to the community,  and charmed innumerable famous figures from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Duke of Edinburgh.  His trademark became part of his ‘disability’, a dry, hilarious straight-talking friendliness, a sunflower spirit turning to the light.  

      The play is ‘meta’ – six diverse actors (some themselves neurodiverse or with experience of it) play Neil at different ages and the people around him, as “real Neil” – an extraordinary evocation by Michael Hugo – emerges from the front row with a shopping bag full of random props,  and supervises the telling.  But it’s a real narrative,  and at its care is his mother, first patiently coaxing the infant to talk, with a speech therapist; caring,  worrying, cooking, anxiously letting him go on his various crazy, potentially humiliating excursions while knowing – as she says at one heartrending  point – “Not everyone’s kind”.   

          Neil himself has knockbacks and snubs and is sacked from one circus, his caravan towed off-site and dumped in a layby,  but he hitches home and explains that he’s upset, but “In life you have to be upset sometimes”.   The wisdom of that knocks you out.  He loves making people laugh. His time with Stoke players raises the one moment when it is acknowledged that there is a wrong kind of laugh, mockery of his condition and speech.  But he rides that,  and plays his own pranks back (like wearing the entire team’s underpants, cue a panto washing-line gag).  

       Late on,  our anxiety for him is allowed to rise a little despite all his friends and backers:  his mother, movingly, starts teaching him to cook, for when she will be gone.  It’s done in full-on slapstick, rather brilliantly (eggs and flour everywhere)  and there are wonderful lines.  Wielding a pinny she asks “Now, what’s the first thing you do when you go into the kitchen, Neil?”  “Have a biscuit!|”.   But it touches on the fear of every parent of a learning-limited child, and you shiver.  His grief too feels real when she dies.  Actually, it all feels real.  

        The players are physical-comedy masters,  hefted and joyful in their interaction,  Gareth Cassidy particularly fine.   Beverley Norris-Edmunds deserves a shout-out for the  movement direction, and I hope they all survive the run intact.  But Michael Hugo is truly extraordinary: perfect in every move and in speech, catching the cheerful bossiness and reckless aggressive friendliness of the man;  indeed his impersonation is acknowledged by the real Neil himself as spot-on.  To 26 november

Rating four

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       Peter Gill’s  new play has a melancholy beauty about  it;  it’s a sort of poem as the veteran playwright and director engages with  age, regret and memory. The one-act, hour-long piece, performed with understated delicacy, recreates a world in memory drawn by two old men in cardigans sitting side by side in care-home chairs.   

         Christopher Godwin’s  Alex , the shakier of the two ,is in the foothills of dementia (we will only discover that as it goes on).  He is remembering a day by the river in Hammersmith in the early 1960’s and  the young man he loved then.  In Gill’s lovely, sparely  evocative language he pulls up before us  scenes of the historic river as part of his own history.  We see  the leaking sandbags at high water , the houses and pubs and alleys, feel the urgency of lovemaking that day and the low red sun over the Surrey shore.  

       Ian Gelder’s Colin,  next to him as he addresses  that long-ago lover, seems to doze as Alex reminisces,  then rouses and brings out eloquent memories of his own: of Dean Street and Chez Victor and Soho square, and a scrubby vivid world of postwar intellectual Aldermaston-march bohemianism and its people: a woman novelist, BBC intellectuals, the detail of houses. To and fro they go, remembering.  Two pretty young men,  younger selves or younger lovers, join in from the side of the stage as if conjured by memory:     blithe and vivid, they create in single lines  fragments of past scenes as they break into the rolling mist of reminiscence.

  .  .   Slowly we start to see that these two  old men are not of the same couple, though they lived in that same past world.   Ideas, arguments from their heyday emerge;  social justice versus individual freedom,  cheap clothes for all versus anxiety about sweatshops,   infidelity, the Cuban missile crisis…deaths, memorial services,  being gay when it was difficult,  meeting lovers again after years,  days and years fading onwards,  decades passing.   

      But now in life’s last waiting-room they are one another’s comfort, lightly touching or holding hands, Colin solicitous of Alex’s confusions.     Modern reality arrives to visit the old men; Alex’s son Andrew (Andrew Woodall)  is  an unhappy irritable middle-aged man , constantly mistaken  by the old man for his dead brother.   Colin’s niece  is Claire (Claire Price), brightly female and practical.  They are people of today,  still out in the 21c world, and   talk a little between themselves as the old men doze. Yet they are irrelevant to the central emotional drive of memory and love and long lives.  Andrew suddenly objects when the two old men hold hands – how dare his father act gay! – and is shocked that they asked for a shared room in the institution.  Claire says tolerantly, kindly ’they are friends’.   

     Their day moves towards dinner time.  “How useless regret is’ says one.   The young men, phantoms, speak of one another’s beautiful eyes.  Alex gently kisses Colin’s cheek.  to 12 November

Rating four  

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GOOD Harold Pinter Theatre SW1


    David Tennant is a fastidious actor.  That sounds negative, prim perhaps, but in fact expresses why his performance in C.P.Taylor’s extraordinary play is so riveting, honest and creatively discomforting.  It is a portrait of a man – a rather nerdy, self-consciously neurotic academic and author you could find in  any University,  but whose destiny is to be in a German one in the 1930’s.   This is not the  thoughtful brave dissident rebel beloved of such period dramas,  but a gradual Nazi convert.  Though he would find long-winded intellectual ways to deny that word even while putting on his SS uniform in the second act.  

       This is a gentle , ordinary downhill slope towards the very pit of hell.  Dominic Cooke sets it in almost featureless grey walls where Halder and two others interact, scenes rapidly changing  to evoke his life’s progress from Hitler’s advent in 1933.  The other two are skilful shape-shifters:    Elliott Levey sometimes his Jewish best friend Maurice,  and sometimes a Nazi functionary;  Sharon Small brilliantly turns , often within a sentence, between being his blind demanding mother with dementia,  his nervous wife, the lovesick student for whom he leaves her and a SS major.  It could be confusing but never is. 

        At first Halder shrugs off his friend’s unease – Maurice is fondly German, loves his home city and his forest cottage,   but has noted Hitler’s rhetoric on Jews from the start, and resents it with increasing nervousness and sense of unfairness  (“I don’t even like Jews, except my family”).   The academic  however shrugs off the “racialist aberration” as a populist fad,  something that can’t last since Germany needs its scientists and businessmen for its strength.     He is as nerdishly preoccupied with his own feelings as any modern therapy-junkie,   though Maurice scoffs that people don’t go into analysis to “streamline their lives” but only to alleviate real agony.     Halder is also – and this is brilliantly evoked by Tennant – a fatally impressionable man.  He talks a lot of music,  bands that haunt him; now a drinking song, now jazz or a crooner, now Wagner or Bach. Once (as he breaks into dance) the romance of a peasant Bavarian oompah when he dreams of taking his young lover to a simple life. There’s martial music too:  when he says how thrilling it was to do army service,  roaming around with his mates ‘looking for officers to salute”,  |I was chillingly reminded of something:   the 40-somethings of my teenage years in Hamburg,  who would after a drink start telling me,  remorsefully and unprompted, that yes ,  they were in the Hitler-Jugend as kids but they were poor, and it was only because you got a uniform with pockets and your very own penknife.  

    The way that this weakish, rather self-involved man is drawn into party membership and full collaboration is elegantly, fastidiously shown. He wrote a novel during his mother’s decline which seemed to make a c= case for euthanasia,  and Goebbels liked it and saw he’d be a useful-idiot to recruit, this Professor:  so he is persuaded to write a learned ‘paper’ about ending the lives of incurables and the ‘unfit’, and to collaborate.  He is ordered also to organise a mass book-burning (the bland set suddenly proves able to evoke this very startlingly) . So he confects a ridiculous academic excuse that it has a positive, vigorous side for academia  “as long as I keep my own copies”.   The deeper he gets in, the more official flattery and perks he gets, the more learnedly preposterous his excuses. 

          Levey’s Maurice is finally very moving indeed in the immense personal betrayal.  There is at the end a coup de theatre which must not be spoiled, and a curtain call that matters.   It’s an experience.    

www.    to 24 December

Rating four.  

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Three in the morning and Angel the showgirl is raring , glitterimg drunk “if you caint be drunk in Harlem..” she slurs furiously.  Her friend Guy brought her home, and explains to the staid neighbour Delia that she was sacked  for breaking outa line mid- show and cussing her gangster boyfriend “he’s not a gangster he’s  a BUSINESSMAN”  roars Angel before collapsing, to be roused only briefly by the happy sound of a cork popping.

    Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play creates a world, the world of  dreamers in the fading Harlem renaissance, the Depression starting to bite.  It’s domestic: Frankie Bradshaw’ s fabulous set  has two fire escapes,  a hallway, steps, rooms high and low , balcony (where we glimpse other neighbours, sometimes with quiet harmonies sung). Outside the street is barred with lamplight.  1930’s Harlem is around us:  hot jazz, cool kids, high spirits in a poor black population feeling its emancipated fragility alongside its power to perform and delight and build community:  – virtuous Delia next door is working on a maternity and womens health clinic with devoted  Dr Sam. Guy,  a gloriously likeable Giles Terera, is gay in both senses and labours at his sewing machine between parties and rescues of Angel. He’s  costumes which he dreams will take him to Paris to work for Josephine Baker. Sam , too busy to have been in love before at 40, adores Delia , who is preoccupied with her pastor and her good work.

        Dreams are hard to hold onto in this beleaguered time, but the little hefted community on the landings has to – their comradeship makes the lighter moments (the banter is excellent) feel like a version of Friends dry 70 years earlier and with real problems.  Into their world steps Leland from Alabama, Osy Ikhile playing it nicely flat at first as a  “southern gentleman” in a tipped hat and smart suit,  beguiled by Angel, able to take her out of all this if she’ll only give up her dreams of stardom “What do you see in him?” asks Guy, baffled. “A rent check that doesn’t bounce” she replies.  That never ends well. . 

           They’re all glorious: Samira Wiley’s Angel a Harlem Traviata,  a wayward and lively survivor , Guy’s wit and kindness and flouncing talent irresistible , Delia’s sweet frumpy frustration given heart and finally wit by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo.    Sam (Sule Rimi, debonair and kindly) is in his way the most  fascinating  character, one of the first black doctors in the city,  overworking, dedicated, falling asleep in seconds because by night, after many emergency childbirths, he still won’t exchange “two hours of Fats Waller for two hours sleep”.  

. There are some wonderful jokes and touching moments: and telling ones too: when Leland brings a gift of a puritan black frock with a peter pan collar to Angel Guy doubletakes in horror:   when Angel fixes it up with red bows Leland prefers it the old way.  It gives every clue to the way the  second half will intensify towards melodrama.  The darkness these bright-hearted people have held off  does not come from inimical white domination or even mere poverty. 

       Guy, returning bloodied one evening in his lilac satin proclaims with timeless fearlessness that he is determined to get out of Harlem but until he does, he will walk these streets and wear what he wants.  Leland’s piety, as he looks between the city buildings for the stars he knew in Alabama, is not the pragmatic humane goodwill of Delia and Dr Sam. It’s a piety more coldly Southern, not tempered yet by the sophistication of the New York negro diaspora.    So once he works out what it is about Guy, he invokes the hellfire and  Abomination school of Southern homophobia.

        He doesn’t really get what Angel is, either, for good or for ill:  her  line of escape  opens and then closes,  a timeless predicament triggering  a tragedy.   Not the tragedy I’d expected: which makes Lynette Linton’s arresting  production even better value.  It’s a loving, haunting play, done very beautifully To 5 november

Rating four.

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THE DOCTOR. Duke of York’s WC1


     This is the return of Robert Icke’s modern version of Schnitzler’s 1912 play – details below, as laid out in part of my original Almeida review. And no question, it is an opportunity to see one of the finest stage actors of the age – Juliet Stevenson – firing on all cylinders at the centre of a painfully topical play.  It is a satirical-philosophical meditation on the evils of group identity overshadowing real layered human personality, a questioning of medial ethics and the role of religion and  (in what now feels like an oddly bolted-on final section) a reflection on death and suicide.   The issue of a priest being barred from the bedside of a dying girl post-abortion because  is agonizingly topical after Roe v Wade.  There are some notably fine supporting performances,  especially Matilda Tucker as Sami, the doctor’s neighbour’s child.  The overhead drum ensemble is a brilliant device for raising the emotional enervation of the heroine’s situation. 

     So yes,  it’s worth the ticket,  and in a very good gesture the producers offer £ 25 tickets to health workers, though few may feel up to three hours of this gloomy intensity at the end of a long day.   It is challengingly staged and cast (the half-dozen newcomers to the production represent some tricksy cross-gender-cross-racial casting, even more than as described below. The weird shrillness given to the child’s father,  ranting that the child will be is condemned to hell fire  for lack of the last sacrament, is still frankly crazy, and if such extreme beliefs were ascribed to anyone but Catholids they would not pass theatre’s offensiveness-police by a mile.  As a cradle-RC  – albeit now lapsed –  I was taught fully 60 years ago, by nuns, that the deathbed principle of ‘between the stirrup and the ground’ and that there is nothing magical about sacramental absolution. 

       Yet although  it is mesmeric, probably one to see if you want three hours of serious theatre, there is something about the play’s translation to a big traditional theatre that doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe there are detailed tweaks; maybe it’s the casting. It feels ironic that the best scene is almost knockabout funny, satirically so,  as a panel questions Ruth on TV from every pious- victimcore point of view available, including “postcolonial”.  

       Here, though, to express the quality of the play, is part of what I wrote,  more beguiled, at the original Almeida showing..Here we go: 

“The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly  –  to our own.  Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents, hurrying home send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

      Icke takes this century-old story and conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters. He hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.  Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

        But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.    

     It is  essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson, but the director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving. ” 

Box office  To 11 December

Rating. Still 4

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    This is the big one.  It’s the National Theatre at its strongest:   unapologetic, classic,  unsparing, gripping, impassioned.    Here’s  the heavy artillery, intellectual and dramatic,  a big ensemble on a bare stage conjuring  – in Es Devlin’s moody set – an illimitable blackness beyond.    Hell and hysteria rage and choke and howl out across the centuries with all the power of irrationality.     It was in response to the McCarthy witch-hunt for Communists that Arthur Miller recreated the  still deeper savagery of 17c Puritan settlements in Massachussetts where hundreds were denounced and hanged (there’s an extra fascination if you have been reading  Robert Harris’  new novel Act of Oblivion, set in just those towns: a tight anxious theocracy on the edge of a new-world wilderness ). 

       But because Miller dug so deep into the human question of how-and-why  such murderous groupthink emerges,  and how heroic are its defiers, the play strikes to the heart of  every cultural era.  Certainly ours. When Matthew Marsh’s preposterously pompous judge says it is a time for “precision”  – for black and white without nuance,  when death sentences are passed on  the slightest evidence  or jesting word, it is impossible not to think of our  “terf” wars. When a hardscrabble little town, at odds over bits of land or sales of pigs,  suddenly blows its social grievances into willing violence we think of the Capitol riot. When religious authority falls with lascivious horror on innocents, we are alongside the morality-police of Iran or Saudi.   

          The hysteria here is of course the girl-children’s,  led by Erin Doherty’s hard-edged passionate jilted Abigail .  For this play to reach its full power onstage  we need to believe how infectious and how frightening, is girls’ mass hysteria.   The big ensemble in print frocks achieve this: demure rows sitting quietly, sometimes half-seen or heard chanting in the dimness upstage,  suddenly explode in terrifying seizures and screams.  Arditti’s sound throughout is astonishingly effective.  But more subtly,   we see the power of a more apparently dignified group-think from the men,  eager to spot Satan however much reason and law must be twisted to do so,  and aware of pleasing their superiors by doing so.    Fisayo Akinade is marvellous as the Rev.Hale,  at first a prim-little-trim-little bureaucrat, totally onboard with the program,   then doubtful; then pleading,  then ashamed,  finally growing as he signs death sentences into a horrified disowning of the whole hideous court.   

      But all Lyndsey Turner’s cast rise to the immensity of the play and it’s hard to pick names.  Though  Brendan Cowell as flawed, brave  Proctor and  Eileen Walsh as his sober, pinafored Elizabeth enact to heartbreak one of the greatest grimmest love stories of the stage;    Karl Johnson as poor decent old farmer Giles is unforgettable, and so  is Rachelle Diedericks’  Mary,  a proud little bundle of naivete and self-importance,   growing into loyalty and confrontational courage and increasing terror,  finally crushed by the hysteric power of Abigail’s girl-gang’.    Magnificent. 

boxoffice    http://www.nationaltheatre org uk   to   5 nov

rating five

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RAVENSCOURT Hampstead Theatre


 Georgina Burns  is a trained and experienced NHS therapist,  now with Hampstead support a playwright.  So, unlike most other writers tempted by the theatricality of talking-therapies and the emotional territory of the fifty-minute hour, she  knows the turf. It shows. 

      It isn’t a rant about government provision or social dysfunction, just a humane exposition of understanding:  she portrays with unflinching humour and sympathy the bravely patient people who are tasked with mopping up and taming  the mess of mental unwellness , and keeping the desperate alive  and reasonably functional. Even, eventually, happy.   

    Her protagonists have to do it, generally, in a series of six sessions rationed not by the patients’ idiosyncratic needs but by NHS necessity.   They’re  often deployers of black humour in private, ad are all crisis workers.  But as Robyn Skinner once observed of his colleagues in the psychological professions, quite a few who ply this trade or art are also carrying lead themselves, and seeking help through, as he put it, “the staff entrance round the back”.

   Such is Lydia: Lizzy Watts as a  clever, omnicompetent, organized newcomer, running miles and eschewing tea and coffee offered by the older, more battered and cheerful colleagues Denise and Arthur on the  Ravenscourt team. Her tense  “I don’t eat cake” tells you a fair bit from the start.

        Debbie Duru’s  set is wonderfully evocative of a daily NHS workplace: watercooler, clean plain walls in the counselling room,  a neutrally soothing abstract . Old Arthur’s cluttered desk is alongside with a bottle (? brandy) in the locked drawer, ready  for a quick staff stiffener when the next catastrophe hits.    Which it will. And it won’t be Lydia’s fault, not really, even if she does break one golden rule (which the set delivers in a good surprise). Not the managers’ fault either, though there was some question about giving her Daniel, a familiar heartsink client who has been round the block with various therapists often, and occupies – as Jon Foster’s wonderfully bluff Arthur puts it – the borderline between depression and “Obnoxious Personality Disorder”.  

      Josef Davies’ Daniel is enraging. Truculent, scornful, ungrateful, filled with class hatred of the posh people he blames.  Especially authors on radio4 writing books about their “journey” out of being depressed. He is not working because his managers “don’t understand” his mental health issues, was thrown off a deign course for not turning in his portfolio. He is still living at home with a mother to whom he is emotionally welded but despises.  He grudges her taste in boyfriends, possibly with reason. He’s furious and rude,  and Lydia patiently struggles to unlock him with real kindness. Though, as Denise the real pro observes, it is hard to know if she has too much ego or too little. One of the key skills of therapists after all is accepting  that you will sometimes fail. 

    The asides between the older therapists, glimpses of the clients they deal with, are revealing and funny and humane.  There are moments, I must say,   when listening in to the sessions with Daniel and Lydia is irritating – neither is at this point likeable enough to care – but the two older staffers are wonderful, Andrea Hall’s Denise  pragmatically wise, Foster absolutely endearing in his apparent slight cynicism and the way he becomes heroically kind and courageous when the crisis comes.   Daniel’s  peak meltdown is violently alarming; Lydia’s unwise involvement tensely frightening. It wont end well.

       Except that in a way, it does. Talking at last , admitting her own history of having bouts of frozen self- harming depression Lydia remembers how  it has usually ended. With a whatsApp chat that becomes a real one, with an invitation  for once she doesn’t refuse, with a sudden nice meal….

  We all mess up. Very often we recover, and learn. It’s a lovely play. I hope there will be longer fuller ones. Respect for Hamps, and some donors,  for growing it.

Boxoffice To 29 oct

Rating four.

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       There’s  a curious outbreak of reparations going on. The Old Vic, which binned Into the Woods in outrage at Terry Gilliam’s reportedly incorrect tastes in mocking comedians , has suddenly staged a fabulous “burn” of just such ultra-wokery,   in Eureka Day.   And now the Royal Court, excoriated for instinctive antisemitism after calling a rapacious cartoonish financier Herschel Fink, nimbly mounts this Jonathan Freedland piece. It consists of  mainly verbatim interviews with British Jews and – nice touch – starts it with a bolt-from-heaven visual joke about how the cultured,  educated be-kind  Left (including the Court itself) finds it curiously difficult to shake off antisemitism.  Or even to see it as real racism.

     So they set off to explain its roots,  actors using the words of professionals and MPs (Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger), of a decorator and a social worker,  a doctor,  and the actress Tracy Ann Oberman who (scroll below) I had seen the previous night in Noises Off.   The idea that all Jews are rich, or related to wealth and influential, is tackled with amused contempt.   I love the geezerish decorator who says his mates at work wonder why he isn’t a lawyer. And adds – Jewish mother joke alert! – that his mother wonders the same.

        There is a bit of upstage medieval dressing-up as they run is through the 12c massacres at York, Norwich and Lincoln and reveal the theory, new to me, that it was actually England which first spread into Europe the “blood libel”, about Jews murdering children.  The automatic human desire to blame “others” provokes an entertaining mass singalong of “It was the Jews who did it, the Jews who did it – whatever it was” . And when it comes to conspiracies  we see some of the wilder US tweets about poisoned coca cola and secret Jewish levers causing wildfires. There are laughs. There should always be laughs about this dark paranoia, for only mockery will dispel it.  There are also useful observations about the difficulty too many British people seem to have in distinguishing between distaste for actions by the state of Israel and antisemitism in general.

      The mood darkens deeply in the last half hour, first with the MPs’ truly horrifying experiences of online hatred,  and an intense focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour years and the damage done there.  Finally some thoughtful, extended family memories.  Individuals quote their family experience of shtetls and pogroms,  the Holocaust itself, and less known horrors like the 1960’s rounding up of Iraqi Jews.   It’s powerful, though often oddly , ruefully gentle in the telling.  The cumulative historical effect gave me more understanding than I have felt before about Jewish friends who say that somewhere in them still there is a feeling that there should always be a suitcase ready by the door and a passport for flight.  Here! now!  In mild modern England, which has not only heavy discrimination laws but had a Jewish PM over a century ago,  and innumerable leaders and national treasures down the years.   But fair enough: the feeling is real in many. And if it is paranoia, it is a reflection of the opposing paranoia that for centuries alienated them.   

   It’s a useful show. At least I hope it is.  On the way out I met, amazedly, my most obviously Jew-mistrusting friend, a man who I have several times berated or teased about it, regarding his conspiracy theories as ridiculous.    “Did the show work, then?” I asked, astonished to see him there.

      He looked darkly at me, with the unmistakeable air of a  man who at some point lost out professionally to a cleverer-and-Jewish rival.  “I could tell you things” he said.  

    So no, it won’t work on everyone. Shame.  

BOX OFFICE.  To 22 Oct

Rating three as theatre,  five for usefulness.  

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THE RAVEN. Touring East


When you say you’re off to a Suffolk village hall to see a tiny company –  best known for its mini-pantos – doing a dramatised tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, you meet some baffled , even pitying glances.  They’d have missed a treat:  writer-director Pat Whymark of Common Ground has created something lovely, between gilt pillars and a filmy curtain and screen:  a funny, mournful, humane tribute to the Victorian-gothic horror  ornamentalist whose imagination created the Pit and the Pendulum.

      An  empathetic portrait,  with beautiful songs performed by Emily Bennett and brilliantly devised projections, draws us into the morbid world of the troubled soul who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart.  And it has indeed, for all the irresistible temptations to laugh, a lot of heart.  

      It’s framed as if Poe (Richard Galloway). is onstage in Boston in evening dress and, having mislaid the poem he was booked to read,  decides to tell his story. He is also batting off protests from a literary magazine grandee (Julian Harries, who doubles as his stern adoptive father who considered he was ‘bad blood’).   At issue are Poe’s scorching criticisms of the Victorian-American establishment of affluently bred writers like Longfellow. He claims to be “the first American author ever to subsist entirely on the proceeds of his writing”  It may turn out that Poe is hallucinating the whole thing,  after the desperate brain crisis at the end of his life when he was found confused, screaming, in the wrong clothes. 

     But he tells his life,  from birth in 1809, the loss of his mother when he was two, an uneasy childhood and the rediscovery – and then death  – of his brother Henry.  He diverts into telling and enacting three of his terrifying tales, rather brilliantly with the aid of Matthew Rutherford and  Harries and spooky, mournfully elegant movement and song from Bennett.  Interestingly he expresses awareness of his own absurdities, claiming that the massively overblown “Ligeia” is actually a satire on himself.  

     Indeed its heroine, “radiant as an opium-dream..preyed on by the tumultuous vultures of stern and extreme passion” for the narrator is marvellously preposterous, as is his response to her death by “purchasing an abandoned abbey and becoming a slave in the trammels of opium”.  When the possessed corpse of his next wife, “The Lady Rowena” revives in her shroud (a remarkable core-strength Pilates situp from Emily Bennett) you know you are in the hands of a grand-guignol master.  The Pit and the Pendulum is done with equal brio (I had forgotten that when one is tied down with a single long strap all one needs to do is smear meat-gristled hands on it for the rats to eat it through).  Then there’s the fiery pit..but it’s OK, the  Spanish Inquisition is foiled by French soldiers, with due exoticism. 

         But all through this fun run the travails of a real man, a real talent:  frustrated by the “aristocracy of wealth” and bien-pensant criticism in late-19c America,  desperately campaigning for copyright law as his own tales and plays got stolen.  Clearly  his grief for mother and brother is aggravated by his wife’s death; and as Dickens, an admiring visitor, says to him “Grief will out”.  Maybe that is what in the end killed him.  Certainly after a final battle with the literati , telling the Fall of the House of Usher,  poor Poe cries “I didn’t want to be IN the story”.  And his final recitation of The Raven, with its shadow on his lonely study floor,  is heartbreaking. Will these old griefs leave him?  

…..”tell me truly, I implore—Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

  Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”.

Breaks your heart.  

Box office     

Touring east anglia, village halls and theatres to 30 Oct.  COlchester next. RATING. FOUR

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