Monthly Archives: December 2022



  The story of Nelson Mandela has become almost a folktale: imprisoned for 27 years for campaigning against the hideous “apartheid” regime which kept  the black majority poor and brutalized, he spoke only about “black and white working together” and emerged as a leader working for reconciliation.  It’s a heroic legend, not  a story that lends itself to political subtlety: this world premiere,  by Laiona Michelle and composers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, acknowledges “proud partnership” with his family,  tells the story with impassioned  and rightly partisan simplicity.  Michael Luwoye is a towering Mandela:  idealistic, sorrowful at violence,  deploying his familiar humour and unresentful humanity. 

           There could be a more nuanced side-story about the way his wife Winnie, in that long lonely ordeal, became a more savage and irrationally violent figure in the struggle: that tragedy is  hinted at only in an electric, furious confrontation as Danielle Fiamanya tells him  that for decades he has been safe in prison, gently befriending his warders, while she was out struggling and raising their children.   But for now this is a story of great-heartedness, a powerful one in our age of fashionable race theories which foster mistrust, resentment and dislike. 

 It pulls no punches about the awfulness of the regime:  we see the Sharpeville Massacre brutally mowing down peaceful demonstrators,  and the flat  paranoia of the white Afrikaner leadership convinced that making the slightest concession to democracy would been whites  “chased into the sea”. They stand rigid the balcony above the dancing, hopeful cast and the Mandela children dreaming of their father (it’s joyful at times); later other figures make it clear why America and Britain were slow to impose sanctions to protect their trade.  When President de Klerk and MAndela shake hands in prison there’s a shiver, and more in an astonishingly moving song when his last warder (who became a friend) feels rueful astonishment about how he thought before. 

          I admit approaching this with particular emotion.  My father’s posting meant that the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned I was twelve, in a South African school under regrettably racist nuns.  The illogical brutality of apartheid was obvious;  my mother, appalled, would take me to help distribute food to children in the impoverished  townships.  When after a year I was sent home to England I was afraid my father wouldn’t get out before a bloody  revolution. It felt inevitable.  That thirty years passed  before  the peaceful, reconciliatory open elections always seemed to me a miracle.  


rating four


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MOTHER GOOSE Duke of York’s Theatre WC! & touring


      I last saw Sir Ian McKellen onstage  as Lear,   missed him as the oldest Hamlet ever,   but far longer ago saw him in a frock at the Old Vic,  in Spacey’s day,. On that occasion it is reported that he and others had some trouble explaining to the American AD what a panto actually was.   I remember that one as a bit sub-prime, trying too hard to be grownup and a bit heavy on the innuendo.  This one on the other hand,  in which the great theatrical knight is actually going to tour, in his 80s,   is absolutely perfect. 

       The pleasure of it is in the feeling that despite the topflight cast and the direction of Cal McCrystal,  peerless physical comedy guru,  it has the feeling of a local panto, even a community one.  No big technical showpieces,  but plenty of old-fashioned gags: puppets popping out of pans,  a ‘self-raising flower’ swannee-whistling up from a table,  a custard pie scene and rapid costume changes.   For the Dame himself,  one happens rather brilliantly behind ostrich feather fans, another when his oppo John Bishop as Vic Goose is transformed from a Grenadier Guard to a leather-babe (“that went down better in Brighton..”)

        The jokes are well-worn too, with only a few nods to 2022 like the brief appearance without explanation of a blond slavering Boris-pig in the kitchen scene.  Though there is , for the London run, a humdingher of a Prince Andrew joke in the singalong. 

      McKellen’s Mother Goose and Bishop’s likeable Vic are accompanied by a gang of animals, monkey and penguin and tortoise and bear etc,  and a nerdy Bat who kept reminding me of Michael Gove.  The songs are jolly and familiar and never too long,  and McKellen himself is a dream. Because he’s loving it;  because he’s doing it for theatre nationwide, in hope; above all because his great range of expressions and reactions are as spot-on as you would expect .  He also gives us the Quality of Mercy speech straight,  to the cruel if rather camp King of the Geese, with the proper shiver down the spine;  but better,  watches visibly impressed as John Bishop,  a mere standup,  decides to do Sonnet 18 (Shall i compare thee..) rather beautifully. 

       And he puts up with the “Serena” gag. Of course. He’s a great old fabulous treasure, and traditional panto is a treasure too. For them to be touring together in this hard season for theatre is a kind of triumph. 

box office  to 31 Jan at Duke of York’s

Then touring to 1 April

rating  5

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THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich


     In Mole End on Christmas Eve,in a burrow cosy with domestic detail  they’re breaking out the beer and sardines and reminiscing about the adventures that brought them together.  They will take us, enthralled as we sit around the  big studio, from Mole’s first rebellion against housework on a fine spring morning  to the enlisting of Badger, Toad’s shenanigans and the showdown with the weasels.  

      As they tell it they re-enact Grahame’s Edwardian classic: three actors most suitably clad. Rei Mordue’s Mole is a little city gent in a dark blazer and bowler;  Darren Latham’s exuberant Ratty a Henley chap in straw boater and flannel bags, Badger’s huge black and white fur coat and hat is more animal but aha!beneath  it, in some very nifty offstage changes, Matt Penson wear’s Toad’s gentleman-rascal breeches and yellow weskit. For he plays both the dour working class scholar hero Badger,  and the preening narcissistic Toad.

     Joanna Carrick’s skilful stage adaptation is faithful too: while the show is fun enough for its school matinees – the physical comedy of Latham and Penson inparticular is lively and sharp- witted – she does not shy away, as many adaptors do,  from Grahame’s orotund dialogue exaggerations. When Mole scorns the doorscraper and doormat he gives Ratty the full querulous, almost Kenneth Grahame,  Edwardian chap-banter.  And the five year old in my eyeline was as agog for that as he was for instructions to shout or to patter his feet like a sinister wild wood weasel.  

     I liked that. And almost more, loved the instant, elegant prop and set work (design by Carrick, Newborn, Katy Frost and, apparently, everyone in this gallant, community-based but professionally smart outfit).  Mole’s homely kitchen furnishings artfully become – with prior artful arrangment and paintjobs –  a boat, a person, a canary coloured car, a car, a barge and everyone else’s home.  Nor are  chimney smoke and bathroom bubbles grudged, for  Red Rose Chain is ever theatrical. This fast makeshifting is vital in family shows: when you’re young it helps to know that you can put a show on with wooden spoons,  upturned tables, numerous hats and cheek.

        The songs are good too: short, jolly, once accompanies by Mole on the accordion and once, briefly but unforgettably, by an imprisoned Toad giving it the full Folsom Prison Blues mouth-organ lament.  

     I am an adult and I loved its wit and pace. Children have roared approval (I suspect especially for Toad). The company’s outreach means that many who otherwise  aren’t likely to get to another show this Christmas –  or indeed ever – have seen it. Including two busloads of refugees. For once, a bit of Arts Council money bore fruit and went the right way, sowing seeds for the nation’s creative future. Never roll your eyes at the word Ipswich: the town gave us Trevor  Nunn, Ralph Fiennes, Jane Lapotaire… and now Red Rose Chain.  

Boxoffice     To 31 dec

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SONS OF THE PROPHET Hampstead Theatre NW3


   Hard to express how much I loved Stephen Karam’s play. Maybe it just hit the right moment:  yomped through freezing night, strikes and ‘severe delays” reading about affronted sibling princes and the general sense of glumly compromised Christmases .  And then in the first moments  found I loved humanity again, having fallen heavily for Irfan Shamji’s Joseph. Here is a man whose lot is to repress irritation at a series of difficult but necessary people.  There’s his fearful employer, the independent book-packager Gloria (who he later describes as “a wealthy deranged woman”,  who he dare not quit because he desperately needs medical insurance for his crumbling knees, his athletic prowess suddenly lost. 

     She is needy and intrusive, wanting to exploit him for a book because she has read in the papers more than he wants about his Lebanese Maronite-Christian family, his mother’s death from cancer,  their distant descent from the cherished sage Khalil Gibran  and the fact that his father has just died after being in a car accident caused by a lethal prank by a lad who is nonetheless being allowed to continue the high school football season to save his scholarship.  Juliet Cowan’s Gloria is a superb nightmare, played straight.  Though we laugh. Painfully, and in sympathy with him.

      Then there’s Joe’s younger brother Charles,  damaged, dependent, stroppy, clinging on to the dead father’s faith,  superstitiously obsessed with a saint’s icon sending him messages.  And there’s equally enraging Uncle Billy, with whom the lad sits praying through the Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries (“I said I’d join him after the Scourging at the Pillar”.)   The setting is Pennsylvania, where towns called Nazareth and Bethlehem reflect the tender old immigrant religion.   Both brothers, by the way, are gay and Billy resents the fact that their family stops here.  Young Charles in his sorrow wants to ‘reach out” to Vin, the prankster who caused their father’s crash.  Poor Joe meanwhile, awaiting his full diagnosis on a series of even more irritating robotic phone lines,  gets into conversation with a reporter, Timothy, whose preppy entitlement  and gap-yah prattling about fashionable tragedies is to us as onlookers downright hilarious even while we feel Joe’s irritated helplessness. And, touchingly later,  his helpless attraction to the affluent prat. Lovely exchange where Timothy boasts that his mother came from poverty and Joe snarls that he lives there –  “it’s middle-income housing!”  

      Bijan Sheibani directs fast, fluently, in short almost filmic segments and minimal staging. and explodes it in the last ten minutes or so to draw the whole theatre into a televised debate at the school board about Vin’s sentence. Everyone risks boiling over, Uncle Billy howling furiously behind me on the steps and poor Joe, as so often, cringing up at the far side while Gloria declares her emotional pain over losing a HarperCollins deal and her very unwelcome desire to be part of their family.  

   All the players are flawless,  Shamji a gem and Eric Sirakian’s Charles subtle and touching in his bonding with the boy Vin and his one real cry of pain at orphanhood and Billy’s decline.  But its joy is in combining Chekhovian tragicomedy with light-touch commentary on many things:  religion, media, brotherhood, forgiveness, neediness, emotional colonisation of other people’s griefs, and the cruel absurdities of American healthcare.  

   There’s even a dryly happy ending,  publisher-fuelled,  because as Joe observes “To make it in this country you either need to be an extraordinary human being or make a series of extraordinarily bad life decisions. All of us in the middle, we’re not worth so much”.  

        Oh yes you are.  Sometimes the only people worth making plays about.  Five mice, hurrah.  Hijack a train to get there.  

Box office to 14 Jan. rating FIVE

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NEWSIES Troubadour, Wembley Park


    I love it when the theatre perfectly fits the show.  Artists can overcome a wrong space, but there’s gleeful concord when it suits this well. The vast new hangar-like Troubadour uses all its height and industrial chic to convey New York 1899:  fire-escapes, iron balconies, vast billboard for the Santa Fe railroad, walls all newsprint and windows and washing lines .   Morgan Large’s set is moody, monochrome, enlivened with pops of colour : a red apple, a woman’s bright hair, the apricot squares of twilight windows.  It’s immersively Disney in a good way, and director-choreographer Matt Cole makes his acrobatic cast use every bit of the theatre: thundering up and down the stairs, appearing behind us,  one swinging four feet from my head on a crane.  Which, by the way, pleasingly means that whether you pay around £ 30 or around £ 90 for a seat you’ll get a splendid view .  

           It’s a show, indeed, where the ensemble are the star: quite right, since it’s about the strike by ragamuffin street kids who sold newspapers on the New York streets in the glory days of press barons like Pulitzer and Hearst.  The Newsies, often living on the streets, sleeping in hammocks nicely slung under  fire escapes,  eked out a living collecting papers and selling them (there’s a lovely balletic evocation at the start of high-pressure selling to top-hatted or crinolined toffs, kids literally throwing themselves at the job).  The deal was buy 100 papers for 50c, no refunds for unsold copies.   They wait anxiously for the morning’s headline to be a good one that will make people buy:  one says that police sirens are like lullabies to him, because the more the sirens the bigger the story and the better he’ll eat next day. 

       But Joseph Pulitzer,  Cameron Blakely doing  a nicely cold-headed villain turn as his walnut desk and chandelier roll onto the bleak street scene,  decided to trim for profit and raised the price to 60c.  And in real life,  the newsies rebelled. 

          It’s warm-hearted Disney, with Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Jack Kelly the leader, supportive of his lame pal “Crutchie” (`Matthew Duckett),  supported himself by the friendship of Medda (Moya Angela) and her showgirls.  He’s initially a bit wary of the newcomer who has an actual home, and his own emotional yearnings are about going West, young man, to Santa Fe for a better life.    Like all of them he dreads being captured for the profit-making, rat-ridden “Refuge”  which rounds up street kids.  He falls for Katherine – Bronté Barbé – who is a young reporter who defies Pulitzer ’s ban on reporting the strike and turns out to be actually his daughter, rebelling in her own way.  She it is who persuades Jack – by this time flagging in his resolve, thinking of compromise and at odds with the strikers – that the way to win is to broaden the cause to “all the kids working in sweatshops, factories and slaughterhouses” . 

      Expect a pretty happy ending , complete with Governor Roosevelt shaming the baddies,  but Harvey Fierstein’s book (he wrote La Cage aux Folles, remember) is honest enough about the processes of a strike:   of hope and mistrust and despair and the difficulty of sticking together – “When you got a hundred voices singing, who can hear a whistle blow?”.    But the pleasure’s in the energy, the wild dancing and swinging from lights, the moment the tap shoes come out,  the ensemble glee of youth.   The music by Alan Menkin is not quite hummable – except the Seize the Day anthem – but dramatically urgent;  the lyrics by Jack Feldman are splendid,  never flat or laboured,  a reminder of why the HEX lyrics the other night didn’t quite work.  All the singing is terrific. 

         And there are some great old NY-biz lines: from the kids’ glee at getting publicity – “Folks we finally got a headline! Above the fold!”  to  “The only thing worse than a hard heart is a soft head”as Pulitzer realizes that his interest is to settle. 

I’d choose this over a panto this year for any kid with a rebel heart.     

Rating four 

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HEX Olivier, SE1


     Everyone’s got mental health  issues in HEX:  which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath.   The tousled Fairy has no wings and low status,  while snobbish ones float gorgeously overhead in light-rippling 20ft robes.    It is panic over  Princess Rose’s cradle, where the sleep-deprived mother is yelling neurotically, which makes Fairy  hex the child into sleeping for decades after a thorn-prick at  16.     She then loses her magic  (delivered in spells sounding a bit Arabic)  and has to fake it with  cries of ‘sho lo lo” as she struggles to repair the damage.    As for Rose  she is a bratty teen and ,after the waking, a discontented wife. She feels neglected by  Prince Bert and worries – it turns out not unreasonably –  that her ogress mother in-law will eat the children.  Very Freudian, that.   Bert himself is a mother’s boy and knows it.  Only a chorus of yobbish thorns, a spiteful old retainer and a capering rat seem happy. Though the poor rat does get eaten.  I liked him. 

         At least all the characters’  deep psychological problems fuel big numbers, solo arias  with proper Nina Simone soul.  Lisa Lambe as the Fairy stands out, her voice soaring from sweetness to wildness: a proper star.  Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the ogress belts out her confusion and hunger with equal vigour and skill and some good sound-effects of cannibalistic gobbling:    Jim Fortune’s  music is not particularly memorable but it is atmospheric, and both women give it every chance.  

      Actually everything  is poured in to give the show a chance:  the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris directs and co-devised it (the book is by his wife Tanya Ronder) and he  throws the Olivier’s big resources at it, There’s   Katrina Lindsay’s lovely design, a 12-strong orchestra, big ensemble, aerial fairies, trapdoors and talent and terrific sound and lighting.    Norris also wrote the lyrics : but alas, he is not a natural lyricist and the rhymes plod along without much wit, sometimes almost with a sense of desperation. Just because “trampoline” rhymes with “sixteen’ does not mean that the metaphor in question works.  

      So it remains more noisy than enchanting, and the children near me, well-mannered, were  more interested than transported.  The first half is a bit slow but then livens up  with a decent dance routine and better jokes when Prince Bert appears,  and the chorus of disappointed princes in the second half are properly funny, especially Kody Mortimer . Anyway, after the plot has creaked neatly round a lot of  awkward corners, everyone gets over their issues,   and decides that the moral is that they should honour their natural inward self.  Nobody, in the end, is a real villain.   to 14 Jan

rating  three 

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ORLANDO Garrick Theatre WC2



One bespectacled, anxious-looking Virginia Woolf in a sensible brown skirt and dreary cardigan is never enough,  so Michael Grandage’s production generously opens with a whole pack of Woolfs – nine of them – in Neil Bartlett’s new version of the author’s classic whimsical-feminist fantasy.  They/She are there to tell, and assist with,  the story of a young court favourite of Elizabeth I  who miraculously lives on as an innocent everyperson, barely growing older while finding love, loss and adventure and changing into a woman sometime between the Georgian and Victorian eras. And, crucially,  particularly resenting being female in the latter. 

      Which is fair enough, since that was when Woolf was born, and out of which she and her heroines and her lover Vita Sackville West had to struggle until her suicide in 1944.   

    The crowd of Woolfs is effective, expressing the human need to be a lot of different people, not trapped in one role. There’s a nice irony in that,  since our age’s gender-neurosis and clenched identity politics  often feel more like a trap than the freedom Orlando demands to “honour happiness, and obey desire in whatever form it comes”.  The book is perennially interesting, and indeed a recent far lower-budget version at the Jermyn ( sent me to it,  charmed by that production’s  particular comic edge and unselfconscious jollity.  

         But Neil Bartlett’s version somehow felt a bit disappointing: insubstatial though witty and mischievous,  sometimes cheekily mashing up some awful cod-Shakespeare (I like the ‘lustful porpentine’) and pinching allusions from both Some Like It Hot and Cabaret.    The staging is lovely:  mist in the 1603 Frost Fair in London, constant movement and  Peter McKintosh’s absolutely glorious costumes – not just on the divine Orlando but whipped on and off as the Woolfs  become all the other characters he/she meets.  There are some good jokes, too, and Deborah Findlay as “Mrs Grimsditch” the dresser-minder who escorts Orlando through the centuries is a treat every time.  It ought in theory to be a bang-on treat for the genderfluid generation, but the one I took with me was a bit unimpressed: felt it old-fashioned in the distinction. He also observed that if it had been at the |Edinburgh Fringe it would have fitted. Whereas here, up West…not so much. 

  We also agreed in wishing `Neil Bartlett had courageously added a coda in which Orlando powers through women’s liberation and arrives in the present day to mix it with our own preconceptions.  But once the author dies in the 1940’s, it stops, there’s only a bit of be-happy philosophy and a walk into the light.  Also, maybe some of the encounters with great poets in the original had been allowed in, it would feel a richer stew. 

          Never mind. One thing’s for sure:  Emma Corrin is going to get lovelorn proposals from most of the alleged 74 genders. They don’t come any cuter, more androgyne gamin/gamine, from the first cheeky flash of ‘his’ tackle under an Elizabethan shift to the frills of “her”  18c underdrawers and the 1940s tennis-dress.  There is gallant likeability  there too, and if you were paying one of MGC’a  promised 10,000 tickets at £10,  you’d be well satisfied. Recreationally if not, perhaps, intellectually.  Still , to be fair there are also a lot of ordinary tickets under £60 as well, which for an 11-cast production in the West End is impressive these days.  So don’t be put off.  Fall in love with Corrin, maybe.  But don’t expect a thunderclap. 

Box office. to 24 feb

Rating 3.

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OTHELLO. Lyttelton, SE1


       It’s a cold unadorned monochrome scene: courts, brawls and bedchamber all framed on three sides by vast looming tiered steps and a high flat parapet. Sometimes a a soliloquy or confrontation is watched by the dark-clad cast who sit immobile on those steps   or suddenly mime a movement together. The programme calls them “System”.  Sometimes there are flaring handheld torches.  As it opens, the scandal of the Moor having run off with fair Desdemona is explicitly racial:  Othello’s noble speech about his wooing – “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them” is interrupted with  racist shouts. Rodrigo waves a noose.   

          There’s a powerful sense of class, too. Most British productions carefully make it clear that Othello is a gentleman, a general:  remember Adrian Lester in the role, ten years ago here but familiar from NT Live.  In shows like this his eloquent speeches help this sense of nobility and only villains see him as a savage. Yet Clint  Dyer,  the first black director to do the play at the National, actually hints in his setting that the black man has  some quality of dangerousness which is alien even to the brawling yobbish fellow-soldiers of the System. Giles Terrera (lately so gloriously likeable in this theatre as gay Dr Sam,  in Blues for an Alabama Sky).  opens with a spear-carrying dance, and  moves with a slinky athleticism different to the men around .  And  in an arresting moment at the end of the first half when Iago has just sown the seeds of jealousy,  above Terera’s lonely agony the dark figures on the steps suddenly appear  in crude horror-movie blackamoor masks – white eyes, red lips, the full  minstrel caricature.  I still don’t know what to think: is it an evocation of his paranoiac torment being especially a black thing?.   If so, it certainly felt  uneasy.

            That uneasiness, though, is perhaps the triumph of the production.  Paul Hilton’s Iago is masterly, terrifyingly efficient in his gaslighting of Othello and  visually an elegant opposite of him:   a cold dapper officer-class figure,  sometimes lit alone in front of the dark figures on the steps so that a ghastly light falls on his narrow pale face with its clipped moustache (my companion was reminded of Oswald Mosley).    But as the story moves to its fearful end it feels more like a play about another aspect of the System:  toxic misogyny, all there in the text.  Not only Iago but the other men, even good Cassio,  speak scornfully of women as things to be owned and conquered but never believed.  And they shine:     Rosy McEwen is a less gentle, more defiant Desdemona than some,  a little Sloaney, a bit stiff,   meeting her husband’s accusations as much with scorn at their absurdity as with hurt.    Emilia, a wife harshly treated by Iago,  seems gigglingly commonplace at first but rises to heroic defiance. In the final, properly painful bedroom scene their two heads, one golden and one flaming red,  are the only pops of colour in that dark world.  Maybe we do sometimes need, a cold angry production like this.  Which is the reason for the fourth star. 

Box office  to 21 Jan


A live performance will be filmed and then streamed from 23-27 feb in cinemas

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BEST OF ENEMIES. Noel Coward Theatre WC1


Leaving the former Young Vic production a lad far too young to remember 1968 said sadly to me “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”  He is right. James Graham’s play, now spectacularly in the West End,  is about the TV confrontations between the arch-conservative William F. Buckley and the maverick gay liberal Gore Vidal during an American election. But it also neatly prefigures today’s divisions, demonstrations and intolerances.  Thrillingly staged with projected news footage and sharply evoked riots in almost filmic fragments, it recreates the world of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell,  Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon,  while above it hang screen-shaped  boxes where TV executives compete and plan.  But it speaks loudly to us now, because this was the moment when television companies first sought ratings with attention-grabbing rows,  and only fusty old-schoolers protested “Opinions? No, the news does Facts!”. 

At  its centre Zachary Quinto,  feline and vain and teasing, is Gore Vidal this time his opponent Buckley is,  brilliantly, once again the black actor David Harewood.  There is a sharp joke when in a flashback he approvingly interviews Enoch  “rivers of blood” Powell, and there is real cleverness in  that casting by director Jeremy Herrin. Right wing speeches about how left-liberals just don’t understand working people need not emerge only from white faces. Harewood catches all the poetic-romantic pomposity of the man who was  too easily provoked by Vidal’s drawling coolness: the cool cosmopolitan’s tactic is  “I may not convert him, but I can annoy him”.  But the  ailing ABC network gets more than it bargained for when Vidal goes too far and resorts to the “Nazi” word , whereon Buckley is needled enough to retaliate with ‘Queer!”.  Overhead the staid TV execs gasp in horror (“Never mind viewers, my MOTHER just rang!”) but are comforted by a ratings jump.

It is marked, like all James Graham’s work, by real humanity: a sense that people tearing lumps off one another in public or grasping for ratings are just humans, however imperfect.  As a play it never flags and there are memorable cameos:  brawny John Hodgkinson doubles as the senatorial anchorman Howard K.Smith and an unforgettable roaring, ranting Mayor Daley of Chicago. Syrus Howe is a thoughtful James Baldwin, and as Aretha Franklin Deborah Alli belts out the Star-Spangled Banner like a torch song,  to the horror of the old-school conservatives. Even if you have no special interest in or memory of 1968, and resist British obsession with American politics, go and see it. Well worth it. And horribly enjoyable.

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THE WIND IN THE WILTONS.        Wiltons Music Hall, E1


You won’t see a prettier, more refreshing or  sustainable stage this Christmas:  natural colours, riverbank rushes, a bare tree (which will have green rag leaves and bright rag blossoms hauled up it as the play’s seasons roll), and just a few white fairylights along the edge of this old hall of pleasure.   As we sit down, lovely dawn or dusk mistiness makes it special  (the lighting is particularly clever: Zoe Spurr’s design) .  

     Only few odd objects  – a vintage lifering, a ladder, a traffic cone, a faded buoy, a bit of rubbish  – artfully suggest that this sylvan setting is actually closer to Wilton’s home turf. .  And indeed Piers Torday has adapted the up-Thames rural setting of Kenneth Grahame’s book to be an urban take,  London’s own stretch of river.   And the weasels? You’ve guessed it:  the Wild Wood is the City,  the weasels and stoats the financiers and developers.   They’ve turfed poor Mole out of his hole in Hyde Park to build a private road,  and that is how the dear chap – Corey Montague Sholay, in a lovely furry black coat – gets to meet the insouciant Ms Ratty (Rosie Wyatt) and become one of the troop who are friends to one another and to the great River itself.

      It’s a lovely idea, and directed with gleeful pace by Elizabeth Freestone.  Chris Warner’s music is played on bass, fiddle, guitar and clarinet by the cast, sometimes picking up on Grahame’s words sometimes fresh, sometimes a bit rappy.  Rosie Wyatt has a particularly lovely voice – with a nice sharp music-hall edge, very fitting for the setting.   Sholay the mole is a pleasing tenor,  though nothing brings the house down like Darrell Brockis’ as Toad, a baritoad, a delight, we’ll come back o that.  The ducks in yellow tights and random beachwear lead duck-aerobics;  the weasels snarl and shout through loudhailers;  the faint wild music of the God Pan who rescues the baby otter from sewage poisoning has just the mystical shiver it needs. 

         The fun is in the modern message – keep the river clean, defy Weaselpower, have some sympathy for those like Mole who today search the capital in vain for somewhere to make a home.   But important too the characterization, pretty faithful to Grahame.  Mole is obsessed with risk- assessments and only rises to heroism in the final battle; Ratty on his rolling raft (built of recycled junk and pallets) enjoys his life and his river, with the famous picnic being made of scavenged litter food – kebabs,fried chicken bits, Pret salads.  Otter has a Tik Tok site about how he’s a hotter otter.    I wondered how in this context Torday would create the grumpy powerful Badger, but it’s perfect:  Melody Brown is a gruff hippyish old campaigner, garlanded with former campaign badges to ban the bomb and save the stoat.   She delivers a fine folksong in early Bob Dylan style,  and explains to the junior animals that Toad’s affluent absurdity is because he an inevitable victim of late capitalism and the intellectually bankrupt profiteering elite who are destroying the world.  

        But Toad himself!  Mr Brockis, possibly now my new comedy favourite if not pin-up, renders him as a fruity, middle-aged thespian showoff , springing onto the scene with a cry of “Ratty darling!”,  in a  silk dressing-gown and green pantaloons.  He leaps, he dances,  he brags, he poses with a nimble hilarious pomposity. When reformed by the hippie old Badger  as per the book, sorrowfully confessing “I’ve been on a journey” , he reverse-ferrets beautifully into entitled arrogance. His toys are not canary-coloured carts and motorcars but a ridiculous Toadbot – an Alexa-type device that interrupts a lot –  then a lit drone he flies on a rod over the front rows, an exercise bike and, of course, a lethal e-scooter.  His song of Toadish triumph – nicely picking up most of the original words and rhymes – brings the house down.  

      Honestly, it’s  one for our times and for ages, this. There’s even a puppet otter cub.   Two happy hours…  To 31 dec

Rating four.

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