Monthly Archives: February 2023



     It’s an architectural moment. Within the stark brutalist NT is a set in homage to a brutalist landmark:  the early 1960’s Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, the largest listed building in the world.  Three generations of tenants interweave in the clean-lined kitchen and living room,   ghosts in one another’s lives,  telling in their very existence a universal story of postwar British cities.  First the Stanhopes, thrilled by the modern kitchen,  glad to be clear of the leaking, rat-ridden slums below,  hoping for a baby,  Harry thrilled to be made the youngest foreman ever in the steelworks.   Then, 29 years later here’s the building ageing, crime-ridden and poorly tended,  housing refugees from Liberia who are warned always to lock the front door.  Roll on 25 years more,   and, after sale to private developers (it was too listed to demolish!)  Park Hill has been renovated and smartened up,  and Poppy,  quintessential yuppie digital exec, flees a broken heart in London (“its toxic”) and moves into the same flat  – “It’s a split-level duplex!”    She snaps defensively as her parents (very funny) settle her in with a middle-England political worry about politics  “They do tend to get a bit red this far north”.   

      There are some excellent, very local jokes (I went with my Sheffield-born husband),  notably about Henderson’s Relish (“the h is silent’),  which of course the first couple know all about,  the African refugees find  a surprising relief from the awful blandness of English food,  and Poppy of 2015 is given as a flatwarming present by her amiable colleague Marcus.   The show won “best new musical” when it launched at the Crucible,  and winding  through it like gobbets of Henderson’s Relish  are the soulful Britpop songs of Sheffield’s legendary  Richard Hawley , who co-created  it with Chris Bush.

       There are some spectacular musical moments, solo and ensemble with this big, heartfelt cast:  the first half ends with “Storm a-coming” as history rolls on to threaten industrial decline, and some of the quieter ones in the second act are beautiful. There’s a  problem for me though (it won’t be one for hardline Hawley fans, for the singing is terrific). This   is simply  that there are far too many big and quite long numbers,   and often they break the golden rule of musicals by simply not moving the story on, but interrupting it. 

        And the story is terrific, Britain’s  tale:  from the roof descend lit signs telling you of the year, as critical elections loom. The  personal anger and decline of poor Harry the  steelworker (Robert Lonsdale) is superbly done,  and so are the resentments, confusions and yearnings of the youngest refugee Joy (Faith Omole) .Sometimes a song actually infuriates. For instance, just as we are getting a historic frisson of reality in being shown  how passionately some hoped for a Kinnock government and a bright new Jerusalem,  we are thrown into a long torch-song.  It’s by Poppy’s modern lesbian lover who wants to come back to her.   

    That is the other problem,  perhaps an unavoidable one:  each group has some big crisis and trouble , but there’s an embarrassing and perhaps intentional imbalance..  The 1960 steelworks couple face the hideous waste of skills and people in the ’80’s industrial strikes, job losses and humiliations of the unions.   It’s real.  The Liberian family  are refugees, working hard to make a life despite homesickness and fear (Joy’s parents are still out there).  It’s real.   But Poppy, despite Alex Young’s likeability and humour,  has property and a job even when she has to go freelance, and only romantic and modern issues about love and identity to confront. Hashtag, Firstworldproblems.    Yes, theyre real to her, but a bit less to us.

        The one moment when this awkward imbalance is addressed is rather brilliant though: in the second half a new year party sees Connie the estate agent and overall narrator attending a party for Poppy’s friends,  and when the ex-lover Nicky crashes it suffering from resentment because she hasn’t got money or a flat like Poppy,    there’s a shouting match about how Connie the estate agent was one of the original tenants but now real working class people like her  had been forced  to make way for the renovation and rich private owners of today.   Connie (Bobbie Little) sharply skewers this romantic-socialism.   She’f fine.    “We moved on. That’s what people do. I’ve got a garden and a dog and sash windows!”.   

      Could have done with more of that, and more development of the characters’ stories rather than the weight of big numbers.  But it’s an achievement,  a proper story,  and one born well away from London, so honour to it.  But by the way, Ms Rush,  you don’t get a free pass for having a character say “You and your Richard Curtis bullshit!”. Not while at that moment they are  right in the middle of a classic Richard-Curtis dash to reconciliation. Even if it takes place on a balcony not at an airport.   

Box office. To 25 March

Rating four


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PHAEDRA. Lyttelton, SE1


    The Greeks just go on giving.  Writer-director Simon Stone’s play,  set today amid the upper-middle classes of Holland Park and second-home Suffolk,  credits itself modestly as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”.  Ah, here it comes again; two thousand years of blokes worrying about the ladies running amok when not kept under proper male control:  murderous Medea, uncooperative Antigone, and in this case Phaedra falling in love with her stepson.  Mr Stone has also explained that he has a great interest in menopause and its emotional trials,  and it is pretty clear from the start that our heroine  is ripe for this intriguingly fashionable trouble.  

      Janet McTeer plays Helen,  a shadow cabinet minister, with expensive blonde hair  and a symmetrical family.   The opening scene –  it’s  in yet another revolving glass fishtank, by the way – sketches them. There’s   Declan, an entitled teen from hell who jumps on the posh white sofa in his trainers and tells everyone to fuck off;  there’s grownup Isolde who’s been failing to conceive with her wet partner Eric, but fundraises for an NGO and is too socially conscious to do IVF. Paul Chahidi is the Iranian-born, tolerantly domestic paterfamilias.  Chahidi, thank God, is very funny and credible.  When Birmingham is mentioned he patronizingly gushes “nice town!”but asked has he actually been there says yes, er, no, it must have been Bristol…  Perfect. 

      The family talk at once, naturalistically so little sense arises for a while except a hint  that they’re all very preoccupied with sex. Into their midst comes Sofiane,  the son of Helen’s first love in her wild Morocco phase with rich Oxford mates: he was a dissident artist and of course Sofiane looks just like him so  Helen  (ooh, we menopausal menaces!) immediately wriggles and flirts like a teenager.  Well, Assaaad Bouab from Paris is beyond irresistible.   His father Achraf long ago died in what Helen romantically likes to relate as a crash caused by the secret police cutting his brakes,  but which – in the first properly dramatic moment – Sofiane reveals was more to do with the drugging and drinking into which she, a carefree affluent Western hippie, led a decent man.  He was just nine when she took him off his real family, once Sofiane saw them in congress while his mother wept.   Obviously his arrival rapidly leads to a steamy embrace with Madam Minister  in a number of sets the glass box magically contains ,  notably a floor mattress in an unoccupied ?Birmingham office block where one of his friends does security.   It also contains (top marks to the stage crew)  some breast-high reeds in Suffolk where the family bicker a bit more,  Isolde and Eric break up, and Helen confides to a weary MP friend that this new passion makes her  body feel alive and it’s forever.  

       Sadly Sofiane’s  is less determined,  and when Isolde confronts him about the affair – guess what, in no time there’s more work for the Intimacy Co-Ordinator!. This all happens in short chopped scenes between deep blackouts and bursts of dramatic exotic-tribal-sacred score by Stefan Gregory.   

    I was a bit jaded by the interval, frankly:  too many people shouting “It’s complicated” when actually it isn’t:  feels more like every confessional-cougar feature about How My Younger Lover Gave Me Back Myself,  crossed with BBC4 Hotter Than My Daughter.  They’re all just too shallow to be Greek, or tragic, or anything but mildly satirically interesting and well-acted (Mackenzie Davis as Isolde, a professional debut, deserves credit for making her as real as the script allows. I even believed the bit about being body-shamed by a German boy on the beach when she was twelve). 

         But never fear.  The second half brightens up no end,  with Helen’s restaurant birthday party two months on.  It starts with her friend  telling  her she’s a  self centred bitch, and as Sufian and Isolde arrive together  and Hugo turns out both more drunk and less tolerant than usual (I do love Paul Chahidi!) ,  it  descends into a comedy of unwelcome revelations. Good fun,  rather as if Alan Ayckbourn had popped in to give the author a hand.  A grand  moment from John MacMillan’s hitherto wet Erik, by the way,  and stalwart work by supernumaries  as other restaurant customers politely trying to ignore the screaming.   

          I did wonder how the  heroically self-absorbed heroine would get round to her  compulsory Euripidean suicide – as sketched so far,  her character seemed more likely to write an exculpatory piece in the Guardian and do Strictly – but when the tabloids get her,  the Cabinet career falters since “it doesn’t look good for the party’s stance on immigration” if ministers keep shagging illegal immigrants.  So in a  rather awkwardly tacked- on coda,  the great glass fishtank turns out to contain a snowy Moroccan mountainside where fearful truths about her delusionary romance come clear, albeit in hissed French with surtitles  delivered by a whole new character.  So at last  McTeer is allowed a full mad melodramatic  range.  Remembered how good she really is. Deserves a better, far less uneven,  play. , to 8 april

Rating three.

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THE LEHMAN TRILOGY. Gillian Lynne Theatre WC2


       Three hour-long plays, two intervals, three men in black frock-coats explain some financial history in a revolving glass box in front of a projected , mainly monochrome, cyclorama.  When it triumphed at the National Theatre in 2018 I wrote “this show has no right to be so much fun”.(   Recast and home again, it still is a treat after waltzing Broadway and LA and  a Tony for Best Play.

          First time round it was during Trump’s visit:  now it’s post- Trussonomics.   Clearly there’s  never a wrong time to tell this moral, intriguing, endlessly fascinating tale about the collapse of the immense American finance house Lehman Brothers, whose legal but lethal subprime activities triggered a global financial crisis. 

         The play earned every one of its plaudits,  for its Italian author Stefano Massini, adaptor Ben Power,  director Mendes and, not least, the designer Es Devlin, who created the  glass box evoking a NY office-block hell,  whose  interior shapes are constantly rebuilt by the players to create a past:  their building blocks are the cardboard file-boxes in which ruined employees carry home their belongings. If they survive at all.   

       As it opens, the three brothers are ghosts in that modern office,  drifting back to how it all began.   Chaim, first out of Bavaria in 1844, agrees with the 1844 immigration officer that OK, he’s called Henry.  In the Alabama cotton–fields he starts a small fabric and garment store serving owners and overseers (and slaves, who come in on Sunday when it’s the only shop open, Lehman having marked Shabbat).  Three years later Emanuel arrives, then the youngest brother Meyer , nicknamed “potato” and regarded by the family as a useful buffer between his strong-willed elders.  They move into selling seeds, tools and carts – “it’s all business”.    A fire devastates the crops, and with vigorous Jewish pragmatism Henry sees that when “everything is lost, everything must be re-bought and re-planted”. So they lend against future repayment in a share of the crop; cut a deal with the state governor , become a bank and  are soon selling on the cotton,  making deals with more plantations and big industry.  Denim was born so.  They think bigger,  dodge round problems and disasters and a Civil War with quarrelsome, inventive energy and ever-modifying dreams, scrawl calculations on the glass with marker pens.

         They have to find acceptance too:  be trusted, talk doubters round, marry.  When Emanuel goes to New York he is delighted to find Jewish names on offices  – Goldman, Sachs, Sondheim.   In their newly invented role as “middlemen”,  they confound doubters and soon millionsworth of business is “all passing through a small room in the South where the doorhandle still sticks”.  But New York is the magnet, and growth the imperative.   They survive,  marry, raise new generations, grow, change ….

        It is an acting challenge, a masterclass.  Nigel Lindsay is Henry, Michael Malogun Emanuel,  Hadley Fraser young Meyer.  Each drops deftly in and out of becoming other characters: locals, clients, politicians, their own wives and children with varying characters and ages.     Fraser and Lindsay in particular are excellent shape-shifters, clowns when needed;  but all three hold every diverse part, sometimes only for seconds, with clarity and wit.   Sometimes you laugh at their nerve and cheek and  family bickering (one leaves altogether, for politics).  Sometimes there is a still personal moment acknowledging the strangeness of the immigrant experience.  When  Meyer keeps his outdated striped-spats in his thoughtful old age it is because when you arrived from Ellis Island in the 1840s,   everyone looked at your shoes.  Often – the glass set is one of the stars –  one of them grabs a marker pen and scrawls something on the  walls: a new company name,  a calculation, an idea.

         The trilogy shape is elegant, a reproachful history lesson in how the West’s exuberant expansion blunted sense and virtue.  The first act is about firm but honest business, trading solid goods,  with the moral background of Jewish observant tradition : they sit shiva for a week for Henry.  The middle act is  expansion, industry, coffee, tobacco, railroads, the vaudeville whirl of ’20s New York ,  gambling  risk against responsibility:  the vaudeville tightrope-walker Solomon Paprinski crosses Wall Street for years without falling, until, a living metaphor,  he falls.   Yet as Lehmans came through the Civil war, middlemen between North and South, so they have to survive the ’30s.  The third act is grim with suicides on trading floors and poverty on the streets,  but a young Lehman  generation is rising.,   both in the boardroom and in hardscrabble families. Which will, finally, produce the whirling ruthless chaos of a business where there is no real coal or tobacco or railroads but money. And “money is a ghost, it is air, it is words…what if everyone stops believing?”.  And now shiva for the last family death is held not for a week, but for three minutes.   The last Lehman , power lost,  dances the Twist amid  tieless, ambitious tech-crazy colleagues in a frenzy of  20c speed and greed,  the cyclorama of New York windows whirling  behind them until you have to hold onto your chair, half laughing and half afraid.  As we should be.  Magnificent. 

Box office To 20 May

Rating 5.

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    Here’s a love story, an idyll of 18c Prussia:  Corporal Anastasius Linck, a Hanoverian musketeer in dashing white breeches and shiny buttons is espied  from a window by the lovely, undowered but extremely bored and rebellious Catharina Mulhahn.  Our hero is forced to desert the regiment and flee under the assumed name of Rosenstengel to work as a cloth-monger and dyer, since a medical examination for the clap would have revealed that he is born a woman. But love must have its way, and finds its idyll in a garret until an outraged mother of the bride  and the clumping simplicities of a bygone penal code catch up with them, comically but lethally.

     There is nothing new about people stepping outside the tiresome social conventions laid down for the body they were born with.  Across cultures  and down history there have been many  characters forceful enough either to live as the opposite sex, or to declare themselves as the current fashionable line has it “nonbinary”:  something beyond and different.    

       We hear much of the males, especially their persecution in cultures which lately included our own, but perhaps not enough of the women: amazons and military maids, girls who ran off to be pirates, sailors , soldiers. Some tales are of following a lover –  like Sweet Polly Oliver or Leonora in Fidelio –  some just wanted adventure and were – as many of us have been – resentful of female limitation. Others  were lesbian and fell in love with girls. Of those female lovers, some  knew perfectly well what was going on below their dashing partners’ breeches, others seemingly not.  And certainly stiffly conventional societies like 18c Prussia  preferred to believe such wives were dupes. So this is the backbone of a fascinating story which inspires a playful tragicomedy from Ruby Thomas,  who has already dazzled us twice downstairs in this  theatre which discovers new writers and tends them well. 

      She found the story of Linck and Mulhahn in a 1722 account of the court case which condemned both – “him” to death, her to prison needlework and exile.  With director Owen Horsley and some enlivening bursts of modern disco she goes at it playfully, in a clean stark abstract set which becomes barracks, bar, home, garret and finally courtroom. It is at times gloriously funny, often deeply touching in the portrait of their brief domestic fulfilment. Maggie Bain is glorious, crop-haired and swashbucklingly boyish as a soldier, grave and troubled in moments of unease at the dangerous social unacceptability of their love.Helena Wilson as Catharina is a likeable hoyden, clashing with a fabulously drawn Lucy Black as her mother,  a mistress of pass-ag petit-point who is eventually roused to terrified hysteria at the danger of the situation.

       The long first act is a delight, sharp and credible and funny,  with a bit too much young-intellectual chat about Locke and Liebnitz, but real heart.   After the interval they are in court, and Thomas’ gift for uproarious comedy this time is lavished on Kammy Darweish’s  bored old judge and the pious prosecutor and doddering defence. Mother’s panicked evidence is good, and the decent fellow-soldier Johann – who always knew, but respected a fellow-warrior female or not – adds to the sense of how absurd it was, and still is, for law to interfere in private love of any kind.  

      At which point I hoped that this sense of absurdity and celebration of diverse ways of being would lead our author on to some timeless, and still playful,  ending.  Alas, it was not to be: it goes literal ,and heavyset preachy. A touching but overdone last prison parting is followed by a scaffold speech too far, and the hammering of a message that “even if I am done away with , those like me will remain” . Then a modern couple in dungarees and t shirt meet in a theatre now to “weave their own story” of passion and suffering.  Until those last ten minutes I was cheering.  It faded a bit, killed a mouse below, but Ruby Thomas is absolutely one to watch , its a good evening, and I will follow every play in her future. 

     My only quibble is the hard insistence in the playscript that Linck must never be played by a “cis heterosexual male or female”. If another playwright ruled to exclude gay actors, imagine the row. If individual privacy in sexual love  is sacred, let it remain so. 

box office    to 4 march


Linck & Mülhahn has been kindly supported by the Godwin family.

The  T.S. Eliot Foundation commissioned Linck & Mülhahn.

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JUMPING THE SHARK Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds & touring


    It’s a very good idea, bang on the money:  David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (TV sitcom writers with a pedigree) set their play in a bland provincial hotel where five hopefuls are attending a weekend course on sitcom-writing.  Two are former or resting actors – Robin Sebastian as Gavin sending up his trade from poseur-to-pitiable,  and Sarah Moyle as Pam,  who may well be on the edge of divorcing an invisible Jeremy.  Jack Trueman is Dale, a manspreading braggart kitchen-fitter, Harry Visinoni is Morgan, a painfully cool would-be sci-fi-rap-fantasist,  and Jasmine Armfield  probably the youngest:   a slightly mysterious, self-contained Amy.

        Their magisterial tutor, supposedly half of a legendary writing duo,  is David Schaal as Frank:  full of handbook truisms about flawed protagonists,  jeopardy, comic misreading and  the need to avoid “jumping the shark” into improbability. 

There are a lot of good lines here, interesting in themselves,   and I love Frank’s passionate view that all of our culture has been shaped by the reassuring, happy gleam of the TV sitcoms,  we all quote and which console us that in the end we will laugh at life’s real embarrassments, disasters and humiliations.  

      All the potential private flaws of the five are clearly set out, as each tells a short ‘story about themselves’ for Frank to dissect and suggest improvements to;  but unfortunately the first half feels as if you are actually at the seminar.   There were good laughs in the Bury audience,  but even at just over an hour, the first act could do with a trim.

       A slow first half is forgivable, but the graver problem is that the only hint of a real crisis coming at the denouement is in the hands of Amy:  as the scene ends and they all scuttle off to write their sample sitcom scenes,  she reminds Frank that she has been at one of his courses before.  But Armfield, successful formerly as Bex in EastEnders onscreen,  gives  a downbeat TV performance on a real stage  . Too many lines are,  frankly, semi-audible even in this small theatre.  I am sure that as the tour progresses `(this is its very beginning) she will settle, slow down and project.  .  

       But it’s a problem because her back-story and Frank’s  is critical to the whole plot.  In the brighter second half,   properly funnily and with much glee from the audience,  all the characters attempt a different sitcom and unintentionally reveal their own hangups (Jack Trueman’s kitchen-fitter is genuinely touching,  Moyle’s Pam is of a Victoria-Wood standard).     And finally we get the scene where Amy does hers and outs Frank, and that should be electric.  It would be, if it were  only done with more conviction and pace and projection, and  I hope it will be. 

       Because, as I say, it’s a great idea and not unenjoyable:  but its denouement desperately needs theatricality,  something live and important and  painful and right in your face.   I wish it well.   And enjoyed the downbeat, gentle coda, especially for the kitchen-fitter’s sake.    to Saturday

touring  to 1 April, Westcliffe on SEa next.

Tour  details

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