Monthly Archives: March 2023



     Artificial intelligence and robotics have long been a boon to us ethical-scifi buffs,  films like AI and I, Robot mercifully saving us from rocket ships and aliens called Xzxvyvrgg.  In Jordan Harrison’s play it is inner space  – and a recognizable world –   which gets invaded by  parasitic cyberthink .  It takes us forward from our seedling moment with  ChatGPT cobbling up its banal cut-n-paste essays. Harrison decides to imagine uses which poke at the very stuff of human identity, memory and communication. 

      The setting moves on half a century from our present moment in which lonely people chat to Alexa or Siri and geeks dream of downloading their their consciousness into robots and metaverses.    In this coming world  the “Senior Serenity” organization will set you up a convincing humanoid called a Prime,  which can be briefed to chat reminiscently to an old lady with dementia  in the persona of  a dead husband who can retell her all the prettiest memories of their time together.   After all,  there is already talk of robotic carers for dementia sufferers.  

      Director Dominic Dromgoole wisely casts the splendid Anne Reid as Marjorie,  a woman who still has an edge of matriarchal cussedness and a not-quite-extinct satirical intent until suddenly her mind closes off,   like the closing blind behind her in the sparse kitchen set, quite a metaphor.  Her daughter Tess (an equally stunning and movingly truthful performance from Nancy Carroll) has an uneasy, unsatisfied relationship with Mum and a sense of unfulfilment nicely caught in her husband’s terrifying line “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your Mom any more?”     But in any case Tess doesn’t really approve of the creepy, stiffish Prime (Richard Fleeshman).    He – or rather it  – seems humanly normal,  if a bit shop-dummyish, until suddenly he says  things like  “I don’t have that information”.  

   Meanwhile her husband Jon – Tony Jayawardena – is all for the tech, and  likes to keep feeding helpful memories to the thing.  Including  one tragedy – a son’s suicide – which Marjorie has been trying to forget for half a century.   

        The ghastly but just-credible folly and absurdity of the culture which came up with this invention is nicely underlined by Tess’ sudden hysterical anti-religious anger at a neighbour having brought Marjorie a Bible.    Here is a civilisation which has rejected faith in the soul’s endurance  while clinging to  a childish refusal to accept that everyone’s gotta die.  We all, without dementia,  don’t want the past and its beloved people to disappear and never speak again , and it takes balance – or religious reassurance – to accept that it’s damn well going to.  

        Anyway, nightmare evolutions – gentle and seemingly mild – develop halfway through .  With a nasty shock we realize that time has passed and  Tess’s neediness is in turn being tended by android computer and  what sounds like prompting of a dementia sufferer is actually the priming of a prime.  Again Anne Reid does an uncanny turn.  There is a horrid circularity about the idea of telling a computer what it needs to tell you .

        It’s a clever play,  done with typical Menier panache (this little theatre is the home of unsubsidized intelligent originality at only £ 42 quid a seat)   and it’s creepily dark beneath the  surface.  But some of its appeal is in enjoying your own dislike of a future society, soothing its terrors of death and disintegration with AI lies.    You leave remembering that all flesh is grass and  all memory fallible, and both are much the better for it.   Well, I did anyway.  

box office  to 6 May

rating 4 


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    Daniel Mays has played a lot of tough-guy roles but has by nature a rather innocent and worried-looking face.  It is this quality that Nick Hytner spotted as perfect for his Nathan Detroit: lowlife but hapless, indecisive about the faff and cost of marrying his tolerant  fiancee of 14 years standing, Miss Adelaide (an irresistible Marisha Wallace).    Perfect too is the exasperated but unbreakable chemistry between them: the Benedick and Beatrice of the  Damon Runyon ‘20s-30’s world that Frank Loesser, Swerling and Burrows created.  Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson)  is a more suave leading-man part, though he’s deft at acrobatic comic chaos when Sarah the Salvationist falls for his charms and a Bacardi-laced milkshake in a Havana nightclub punch-up  (look, she had every reason to call time on his homoerotic dance with the chap in orange shorts).   . Both pairs are a treat, anyway,   Dutch Celinde Schoemaker as Sarah also deploys, for a glorious soprano,  a fine acrobatic recklessness. 

        Anyway,  tip your hat and get down there, spend your winnings.   It’s  comic perfection,  sly wit and timing ,gently endearing performances, rumbustious knock ‘em dead choreography in both raunchy and hilarious modes. And of course flawless musical numbers (I had forgotten that alongside great barnstormers like Siddown and wicked comedy like Adelaide’s lament over the psychology manual, there are  exquisite lyrical numbers:   not least  “More I cannot wish you”, gorgeously sung by Anthony o’Donnell’s  Arvide.   

       But there’s something else: from the immersed surge of prommers on the floor to the crowded galleries above,  the comments as we all raced for the last tubes before the strike were also about the staging:   Hytner directing another bravura circus-mood splash from the  matchlessly flexible Bridge. As in Julius Caesar and A Midaummer Night’s Dream, promenaders can opt for the floor and be immersive – some went the full Damon Runyon 1920s cosplay, girls in cocktail kit and men made hat-brim  debonair  by the theatre’s artful sale of pork- pie hats in the melee before the start.  

      So to add to the basic pleasure of a perfectly executed musical,  you get Bunny Christie creating the dream New York of old movies, with rising blocks creating multiple stages and a cast flawlessly choreographed to be in the right place at thirty seconds’ notice,   running from the cops, marching behind the Salvationist drum , appearing in a suddenly illuminated dive or emerging,  hat by trilby hat , from the manhole after the sewer scene. Almost invisible stage crew move the audience crowds safely around , streets and sidewalks rise and fall and divide: abruptly there could be a boxing ring, a cabaret, a bar, a roadworks…everything everywhere all at once.  Sudden landmarks appear (where did those Cuban lampposts come from,  never saw them arrive? and hang on, that chimney, smoking..if wobbling…and how the helldid the mission hall which wasn’t there a few seconds ago grow six rows of wooden chairs?  And hell, the Havana moment, sparkles and feathers and flesh everywhere, what happened to New York? 

    It would be a lovingly told tale and beautifully sung without any of this bravura, but we need dazzle too: life isn’t all Ibsen and Hare.     And I am happy to report that the stage crew got their own curtain call on another rising block.  We all cheered. They get the rare stagecrew-mouse as an extra. To 2 September

rating. 5.

And here’s the stage management mouse.

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   In  a week when tech firms shuddered at the shock demise of their favourite bank, how better to spend 90  minutes  withJoseph Charlton’s exhilarating, fast moving 3-hander about a guy who has a sharp idea for a ride-hailing app, its rocket-powered  ascension, and the effect on him and thousands across 653 world cities before hubris and bro-culture clips his wings.  Let it be said that when it first showed pre-Covid, Uber had the humour to send a works outing to it…

    Katie-Ann McDonough’s  direction is swift, the three players switching between a dozen roles: Shubham Saraf, a striking presence in a narrow suit and boxfresh trainers, plays Tyler the initial entrepreneur and   Craig, the Brentoid manager who is fraternal yet creepy with the men,  and dismissively awful to the women coders (“its awesome how confident you are not to wear make-up”, etc).  Sean Delaney plays among others a pleasanter, but lost-soul Irish coder drawn half unwillingly into the macho culture and its ridiculous work trip to Vegas. Charlton’s ear for  excitable startup  language gets immense laughs – the “champion mindset”, “super-pumped, hashtag wrangling microservices out of a monolith”, all that. The titular jerks by the way are the wheeler-dealing frat boys, clever toddler-heads with money to juggle and a taste for lowlife highlife in Korean cathouses

  Hazel Lowe’s design is a  table in the shape of the company logo, which nicely indicates by a curved funfair slope the likelihood of downturns and pratfalls. It is equally useful to represent the Glasgow taxi in which Mia – a recovering alcoholic who gave up her baby, reflects on the energies and moods of diverse customers, often hungover sesh-heds requiring “bargain bucket therapy” in the dawn. She is a reminder of what Tyler, creator and CEO, furiously reminds the board finally removing him after  “reputational” issues arise : I had, he says, “the responsibility of giving work to people who thought they’d never work again” – migrants, mothers, people on working life’s precarious edges.  And so he did. Though near the end we see Mia and the other uber drivers taking their case to court to be treated like the useful faithful workhorses they are.

    It’s entertaining and thought provoking, and all three players take on diverse roles with neatly elegant distinctiveness. But a particular hurrah to absolutely top work from Kiran Sonia Sawar – who is in turn Mia the Glasgow cabbie, a neurodivergent coding genius in the office, a torch-singer who falls for Tyler and then turns round to condemn his behaviour to the board, and a stern Indian businesswoman taking him on.  She shines, warm and moving and harsh and weird and tough by turns. 

But there is youthful exhilaration in the defeated Tyler’s final shout – “let builders build, let progress happen”. And you think yes, thats how it goes. The wild gamblers  build with glee and sometimes recklessly,  then prudent duller   people thwart and tame them. Both  must happen to make the world roll on. Love it.

To 25 March.

Mon-sat. Nb matinees tues & sat

Rating 4 

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THE CHILDREN Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds


         Since I watched Sizewell A going up as a child,  live close to Sizewell B and dwell amid a forest of local posters furiously condemning Sizewell C,   there is a particular frisson in seeing this play – which I missed a few years back at the Royal Court –  turning up just 45 miles inland from us.  It’s a future  Suffolk seaside world,  where a couple live  in a wooden holiday-cabin shack just outside the “exclusion zone” created by a disastrous meltdown of such a site a few years earlier.  

  Gillian Bevan evokes Hazel,   health-consciously fit,   mumsy and yogafied but visibly uncomfortable with something in her life.    Michael Higgs is a jokey, rather edgy Robin who near the end movingly reveals a deeply suffering heart.  Both are retired nuclear scientists who worked on the station, had to leave  their house and smallholding as it was too close,  and now exist in a world of annoying power blackouts and macerating toilets.    It’s not a post-apocalyptic drama:  there’s a local Co-op handy and the annoying bit is having to bribe the taxi driver to go anywhere near the edge of the Zone.  Their four adult children are elsewhere, one needily angry,  phoning with her troubles.  

            Into their dullish household from America erupts an uninvited former colleague,  Rose:  Imogen Stubbs gives a complex, fascinating performance: lively and  sexy, reminiscent,  sometimes irritating and sometimes touching, finally unmasking a more serious reality. She asks how it has been during and since the disaster, and  Hazel gives us terrifying glimpses of this:  the boiling sea, the “filthy glitter” of fallout ,  the flooded house full of dirty silt, the sudden relief of deciding they didn’t have to clear that up but could just decamp for the borrowed cottage.  This turns out to be a nice metaphor for the final decisions all have to make.

           Their relationship is exposed slowly when Robin, flippant and keen to uncork the parsnip wine,  betrays that he and Rose have torrid history .Some have felt, in its earlier productions, that the  trio’s build-up is too slow,  but this cast held the small theatre visibly gripped  by rising tension and moments of sudden warmth, left over from their old collegiate staffroom days.   But when it becomes clear why Rose came, it’s riveting.  No spoilers, but it’s inspired by Mr Yamada’s Skilled Veteran Corps,  after Fukushima in 2011.  Because radiation cancers are gradual,  the 72-year-old engineer said it was the job of the old  – not the young who deserve their lives – to do a full cold shutdown and clearing up on-site.   He had 250 retired volunteers over sixty, but was thwarted.    There is a proper and topically startling power in this idea of the old needing to clear up the mess their generation made: Lucy Kirkwood deploys it like a whip. 

      Her  famous Chimerica was a big complex  play about international relations , stunning in its grip of modern moral confusions.   Her shorter NSFW was a tight, viciously amusing generation clash.  This combines something of both qualities, with a particularly female grip on uneasy relationships and professional responsibilities.   It also contains a striking line for today “We don’t have a RIGHT to electricity, you know”.     I liked Owen Calvert-Lyons’  production a lot,  and hope it moves on from Bury.  

box office   to 25 March

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 I can never resist scribbling down rhymes in new musicals, whether in a spirit appalled or admiring.    Take a bow Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary – writers of this extreme carbohydrate tribute to Bake Off’s eleven years on two networks, for my biro sped across the page in the darkness.     I seem to have scrawled the words “Dont be so despondent, put more water in your fondant’  and I think it was admiration that time. 

        It certainly was in the signature number from Grace Mouat’s Izzy,  the posh-mean-girl character who is only doing it to get on telly – “I’ll get on Loose Women, and design my own linen, and Beyoncé will be my best friend”,  a superb summing-up of Generation Z dim-bition.    I also seem to have scrawled “dip your little finger in my raclette”,  which falls to Haydn Gwynne as the masterful she-judge.

              The idea, a nice one, is to consider the musical as a season that was never broadcast.  There’s  a cookie-cutter predictable cast of characters who we are under orders to consider lovable.    The presenters (Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige)  do a good job of being every bit as naff with their annoying questions as the real ones,   while the lofty judges (who are NOT called Pru Leith and Paul Hollywood,  though what with the motorbike, her  hairdo and the I’m-a-top-businesswoman number snarl you might suspect it. 

     Among the contenders there’s posh bad  Izzy (don’t worry,  she recants, after doing a terrible thing with a creme-brulée gun to the  humble heroine Gemma, a carer from Blackpool who needs to find confidence) . There’s an aircraft engineer with a taste for precision,  a  widowed Dad with a lovable kid,  and Hassan the Syrian refugee,  who discusses how British they both are with Francesca the Italian immigrant.  There’s earthy Babs – very important, Claire Moore turning the heat up to the edge of intolerable –  and hippie vegan Dezza,  who gets thrown out and in one of the few crisper edges of the plot keeps crashing back in.   All the contestants have a brief back-story – neatly handled – and it is no spoiler to reveal that the conclusion to everything is that it’s not really a competition (or a TV moneyspinner).  It’s a JOURNEY, and it’s all about being people together, er in a space, like a theatre.   

         So that’s got  the soggy bottom of it over with, and nobody is going to turn up thinking it’s going to be Joe Gorton,  after all.     There’s a lot of good to balance it out: some of the songs,  notably “I’ll never be me without you” ,  will become the sort of standards which in future decades Elaine Paige  will play on Sunday afternoon R2, and I mean that as praise.   “Babs’ Lament”  over the toothsome but unattainable he-judge may also survive, and  Haydn Gwynne as judge Pam actually does a full cartwheel at one point, one of those breathtaking proofs that actors are not like the rest of us in our mid-sixties.  

        But it’s the big showstopper in the first half  which is almost worth the ticket price alone:  “Slap it like that” led by John Owen-Jones in the Paul-Hollywood role involves mass percussive strudel-dough choreography.   Georgina Lamb – who keeps this big cast moving fast and neatly all the time – has had to liaise with Alice Power the “Set, Costume and Cake designer” to create a dough which could withstand the extreme slapping.   I must honour them for that.   Especially if they  er – knead –  to make a new lot twice on matinée days. 

    Yes, it was jolly.    Charlotte Wakefield has a particularly beautiful voice, too,  and if the storylines are beaten thinner than the airiest Filo pastry,  who cares?   I consulted theatrecat’s mice and the fourth one sidled in, burping, sugary frosting round its whiskers.   to  13 May

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THE TIME MACHINE          touring 


   H.G.Wells is the inspiration,  with a larkily extrovert Dave Hearn from Mischief Theatre pretending to be his great-grandson, heir, and owner of the tech-spec for what he ‘reveals’ as the real Time-travel device.  But don’t expect more than half a dozen lines about Wells’  Victorian-socialist foreboding about the future of the human race, divided a hundred years on into drippy gentle Eloi,   beneath whom the angry Morlocks do all the work and prey on them.   The script by Steven Canny and John Nicholson takes the 19c novella as a springboard for a three-person meta-theatrical romp in show-goes-wrong style,  the fourth wall abolished and the audience primed for involvement.

        It uses favourite Mischief-style  jokes like out-of-sync lines  (nicely appropriate to time travel)  and arguments between the cast  (completed by Michael Dylan and Amy Revelle)  ,  some of them pleasingly feminist as Revelle,  makes suggestions immediately credited to the men.   

     The structure is that the three were originally doing The Importance of Being Earnest for a low-grade live tour,  but got enthused by the idea of doing this instead, so they inevitably mess it up.   There are some cracking ideas,  and real wit in the hurried early attempt to illustrate the three famous impossibilities of time travel:   the Grandfather, Killing Hitler and Unchangeable Tiimeline theories. They do this in sketches involving among Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy,  and an attempt by Meghan Sussex to assassinate Queen  Victoria for begetting a dysfunctional royal family. Later they attempt to redeem their worst mistake by borrowing a phone and demanding a time capsule be buried by a university so future science can fix it in 100,000 years’ time:  the “Anyone here involved with a university?” saw some very cautious hands go up.  

         Sometimes the knowing larkiness palls a bit if you’re old and jaded, but the show doesn’t flag, and it’s a handsome enough production:   neat for touring with a smart giant clock in green marbling, a roaming door and a collection of labels.  The  ingenuity will amuse and surprise adults unfamiliar with this cheerful genre.  Most importantly (I caught the last matinee in Ipswich, after a week in which word-of-mouth filled the New Wolsey theatre more every night)  I can tell you that it absolutely thrills children and young teenagers, and may even get some arguing about the philosophy of time travel. 

       Orla O’Loughlin’s production for Original Theatre saw laughs large and real.  Hearn is particularly good at random wind-ups of the willing audience volunteers near the end (“How comfortable are you with improvised combat?” he asked one stately grey-haired figure)  .  And I am pleased to seen the trio’s final return to Oscar Wilde with a remarkably well-rehearsed  Importance of Being Earnest HipHop Dance Mix.  Handbag! Hand-bag! 

       Let critics sniff, and some will.  Audiences will leave feeling cheerful.   It is what it is: and that is  a lot of fun.  

tour dates:,  to 29 April

Derby now, then York, Eastbourne, Malvern, Bolton, Bath

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GRENFELL: SYSTEM FAILURE. Tabernacle & Marylebone


         An Afghan army officer flees the Taleban and finds safety on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower.  His local nickhame is  “Sabar”, meaning “patient”, in tribute to his calm kind nature.  When the fire erupts below them they obey the standard  instruction to “stay put”. When  no help arrives and his terrified choking wife has to be restrained from jumping,   he tells her and his son to go down but stays, soldierly,  to help four women, using wet towels against the terrible smoke. In his last moments Mohammed Abed Neda sends a calm farewell phone message:  “I am leaving this world. Goodbye”.   His wife and son escaped, stepping over the dying on the endless smoke-filled stairs.   

        There is a trigger warning before Imram Khan QC (played by Tanveer Ghani) calmly relates all this, but nobody leaves.  Nor should we.   

      After the  first part of this serious, devastating reconstruction of the Inquiry into Grenfell Tower. (( I titled the review “Devil in the details”.  Meet new devils of detail in this new selection of scenes from the careful, civil questionings by Richard Millett QC (played by Ron Cook). under Sir Martin Moore-Bick (Thomas Wheatley). As  before they remain as soberly unemphatic and untheatrical as the originals.  This second part reinforces the same messages and morals but provokes  new reflections beyond them.   It isn’t just telling us about one tower, one fire, one multiple tragedy, but bristles with salutary warnings for politics, administration and simple  professionalism across a range of duties and disciplines.  

       I had wondered how valuable would be the book-ending of this one  by two individual cases – that of Sabar, above, and some opening evidence from Hisam Choucair (Shahzad Ali) about the chaos of official reaction on the ground as he searched through eleven hospitals in the hope, never fulfilled, of finding six of his family alive.  My fear was of intrusive mawkishness, and besides my instinct was to leave the bereaved to mourn in private,  while hungering as a citizen for practical detail: the nuts and bolts, the idlenesses and cynicisms and sloppy messagings and back-coverings and cheeseparing dismissiveness which enabled the disaster to be so extreme.  I was wrong: both the quiet judgement of Choucair and the decency of patient Sabar contribute,  without emotionalism, to the power of the inquiry itself.

        It does return to the practical engineering – the disastrous choice of highly flammable cladding and designed ‘chimney’ gaps in the walling.  There is a particularly shocking sequence of internal WhatsApp messages at Kingspan “shit product…LOL..”  , a cultural cynicism which, unamazingly, their head of marketing claims not to recognize, perish the thought. And there’s a copybook example,  from a Building Research Establishment expert, of what happens when as a mid-range functionary you know something is dodgy but don’t blow the whistle loudly enough because that would  annoy a blustering, bumf-shuffling senior civil servant in a  government department.  “We spoke when we were invited to” says the BRE lady primly. Knowing, now, that she should have shouted. Or been encouraged to.     This leads – via a remarkable performance by Nigel Betts as Brian Martin of the DCLG – to an unveiling of how David Cameron’s war on ‘red tape” encouraged carelessness in building regulations with its blithe chat about bureaucratic “enemies of enterprise” and the “unnecessary burden’ of things like –  I dunno, checking that you’re not letting councils wrap skyscrapers in fast-flaming chemicals. 

         The overarching theme is in the title:  it was systems that failed all along, both in national administration and regulation and in simple ground-level resilience and care (the community did a lot better than the Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose abiding shame this all is).  The systems were ill-drawn and idly regulated, by people with insufficient respect for the masses beneath their attention.  

      But there is a sense of fairness, of seriousness in Nick Kent’s and Richard Norton-Taylor’s production.   Even the dodgiest witnesses do not  indulge in weasel faces and  Iagoesque stagecraft. They just say the words as they were spoken, including the real, hindsighted shock and sorrow the disaster brought them.   Chair and lawyers maintain the dispassionate tone, with only the tiniest flick of irritation as Moore-Bick introduces a new question: one finds oneself astonished at the lawyerly ability to concentrate on every word, every issue, every numbered piece of evidence: honour to them.  

      The only moment of comedy comes, and we are glad of it, in the evidence of LordPickles (Howard Crossley,  resisting caricature even as he speaks the verbatim arrogant bluster of that personage).   He is positively shocked that he should be expected “At My Level” to have known a damn thing about building regulations, and positively rebukes the QC for being “not familiar with how government works”.  

    Well, after a week of  Hancock & co WhatsAppery we all have more of an idea than we maybe did before. Boris Johnson gets a discredit too, by the way:  it wasn’t just Osborne’s carefree ‘austerity’ and the Kensington and Chelsea council mean minded maintenance of the block:   for who was it as London Mayor who reduced fire stations and manpower?    We see how it took a good few years to fashion the loopholes  through which the lethal cladding was commissioned, bought and slapped on to prettify a towerful of poorer, less influential tenants.   

      We must wait for the full and final report of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry.  But meanwhile,  take the time to watch these excerpts and reflect.  Every public servant should see it.  Every voter, too.

Boxoffice.        Tabernacle, W11 till 12 March.

 Then Marylebone Theatre 14-26 March

Rating  five.

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