Monthly Archives: April 2023

TONY! the rock opera Leicester Square theatre & Touring


  I couldn’t be more delighted that it’s touring, this splendidly rude show.  We need this kind of merrily offensive burlesque,  in the burlesqueable times we live in.  Even though actually it is set in the comparatively sober era of Tony Blair.  So I repeat my review,  adjusted for how it feels on a proscenium rather than the intimate wraparound of Park Theatre. 

     Its spirit is of cheerful contempt and joyful pastiche.  It’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show:  “`Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premi-er! Now a Millionaire!”.   A deathbed scene book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and  musically it slides away from this brief  Sondheimery into – a wild gallimaufry of music: rap and tap,  ballad, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory (rather nostalgic, the sheer good sense of it)   a booming hymn with church-organ.  That Harry Hill is the writer explains the rumbustious irreverence of it,  but Steve Brown’s tunes and  lyrics are much of its glory. 

     It is an absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (Charlie BAker, grinning for England).  This is always topical, for he is still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.   There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants  (GB doesn’t care about trouserlessness “politics isnt about image”.     There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes.   

      Here is the walk-on-water smugness, the innocent grin, Ugly Rumours, the conversion to Labour in a masterful Cherie’s arms,  the TB-GB rivalry neatly depicted in a boxing ring,  the oleaginous Mandelson  (Howard Samuels enjoying the job of both  narrating and managing, and offering a wicked  death-of-Diana moment by manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill to show how New Labour can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”.) 

     Its conclusion daringly veers from the sharp hard solemnity of the 100,000 deaths in our illegal war’s alliance,  to a challenge to the audience (“you voted me back! Yes, after Iraq!”) .  It concludes with the triumphant chorus “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes”,  with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Hitler,   now reversing to a massive shot of Putin, the kind of them all.   

     Altogether a pleasure,  a schandenfreude toybox.  The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic and the global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney ’s “What would jesus do – bomb every last motherfucking one of them!” and  how poor Saddam Hussein moaning on the phone to Bin Laden about the stupidity of “rattling their cages”,  before skipping into a self-exculpating neo- G and S number – “I didn’t do anything wrong” .  Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest – the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”. 

Leicester Square Theatre till 25 May

BUT TOUR DATES till 14 Oct nationwide:


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  If we think we suffer from  a paranoid cancel-culture ,  we should  note this reminder of  mid-1950s America – notably Hollywood – in the McCarthyite witch-hunt against suspected communists.   It’s a three-hander by Ryan Calais Cameron (who gave us “For Black Boys…” scroll down for review) .  It lays out in 90 minutes real time – though sometimes too slowly – a meeting in a movie office.   Bobby (Ian Bonar, nervy and anxious)  is telling the NBC lawyer Parks (Daniel Lapaine)  that for his new, adventurous script the best casting is his friend Sidney Poitier, who’s about to arrive.   Fresh from a breakthrough in The Blackboard Jungle,  a sensation who will become the first major black movie star,   Poitier is ideal.  The writer is excited. 

           But – as Bobby warns Parks  – his friend isn’t “Belafonte black” but “Black-black”.   He is not,   as Poitier himself puts it more frankly later, willing to “play the good-little-negro”.    Parks at first brushes this away – he has been rapidly established as a bully,  putting down the humble writer –  with “You skinny little Beatniks, always looking for new ways to defy the rules”.     When Sidney himself enters, a self-possessed and dignified Ivanno Jeremiah,  Parks meets him with flippant  patronizing parody of street-speak.   “What’s your tale, nightingale? What’s buzzin cousin?”.  He pours a lot of drinks , which Poitier doesn’t want,   and carries on making both the others uncomfortable. 

       For rather too long, to be honest:  there’s a risk that the company of these men, one weak and one arrogant,  becomes in itself too grating.  Though when Sidney is with them the charisma of Ivanno Jeremiah holds the stage beautifully.  

      He has to defend himself against Parks’ irritation that he turned down another role because he didn’t want to play a passive black janitor who doesn’t speak out for his murdered daughter.   Parks jeers at this, and starts implying the actor took money from someone for his stand  – “You live in the ghetto..expect me to believe you didn’t have someone slipping dollars into your back pocket?” “I do not live in the ghetto”  says Poitier flatly.   

     It is bracingly uncomfortable by now,  and speeds up when it becomes clear that the black man is expected to sign a ‘denunciation’ of his hero, the campaigner  and “known communist” Paul Robeson.    We’re pretty sure he won’t, despite some politesses;  but when Parks goes out for a while leaving poor Bobby “ten minutes to save youer career “  by persuading his friend to knuckle under,  the extra dimension of what is now called “allyship” becomes interesting. Bobby’s not rich,  says he comes from immigrant stock himself,   that values are one thing and  making a living is another, and “what’s the point of principles if you don’t have a platform?”  . His filmscript is about a strong black man in leadership, after all.  And maybe “the best thing you can do for poor blacks is not be one of them”.  

        But of course we all clap and cheer when Poitier makes his decision clear, after a grand poetic riff about what Robeson has meant to him.  It’s not a perfect play,  claustrophobic and sometimes overwritten (Parks is almost too vile and rude to believe) .  But you leave it thinking hard, and hoping to see even more of Ivanno Jeremiah.  to May 27 

rating four

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      It’s not all musicals and movie-spinoffs that put bill-paying bums on seats.  The best producers trust their nerve and instinct ,rake through the fringe and make niche productions into the new New.   Nica Burns did this and should be thanked. 

          Ryan Calais Cameron’s play is for six black men – playfully named by precious shades: Jade , Onyx, Obsidian, etc,  to explore with deft, playful, acrobatic and eloquent wit the feelings and confusions of a particular group .  Black young men and boys , a minority here,  spark both admiration in their musical influence and mistrust laced with downright fear;  they are regarded as underachieving in education,  easily sucked into drug and gang warfare.    Many die by violence.   That being part of this  is  tiring, frightening and disheartening for the boys themselves is not sufficiently noted by the rest of us.  That it is an entertaining, serious, rather beautiful West End show on Shaftesbury Avenue which makes the point is something for theatre to be proud of.  I have come to it late, foiled twice by train and tube strikes, but am grateful to have done so. 

       It was first at the pioneering New Diorama, picked up by the Royal Court, but to see it here is therefore a particular treat.  The movement direction by the dancer Theophilus O Bailey is superb all through, right  from the opening moment when a blue-lit tangle of limbs moves through shapes and moments,  including a  Biblical moment of all holding up one limp central body.  It resolves into individual voices and faces when suddenly the stage becomes a primary-coloured room with plastic chairs – evoking primary school or therapy group – and we begin to hear the men’s memories and feelings.  

    Jet remembers hero-worshipping a blond white boy who got pursued in kiss-chase but the girls didn’t want him;   Emmanuel Akwafo (particularly endearing as Pitch) voices the bewilderment of any Ghanaian or Nigerian lad  who associates his  personal blackness with family, churchgoing, a stern pastor and good behaviour while around him the Caribbean culture is cooler. So you have to speak its patois in order to be “black enough” .  This fear of whitewashing,   being a “coconut “or an Oreo, white inside ,  runs through a lot of their joshing,  arguing conversations.  As one scholarly spirit plaintively says “Just because a brother is grammatically correct doesn’t mean he wants to be white!”.   

           Themes of strong manhood are powerful, even more so than in boys born into a whiter modern-European identity  who,   especially if cosily middle-class , are happier to be a bit soft.  Absent, brutal or neglectful fathers are talked of, and in one heartbreaking case a father who didn’t ask treatment for his prostate cancer because ‘I had to choose between my health and being a Man!”.   Difficult family makes some turn lovingly to their peers,  the bros, as more reliable. Again the intensely choreographed movement makes this embracingly clear,  a sense of  the safety of “mandem” as a warm huddle.  In the most violent scene near the end – where a kid lashing out to be one of the BigMen at last realises the reality of a knifing –  that sense of brotherly consolation is overwhelming, with the expressed agony of finding that the Bigman’s victim “mattered to somebody..”.   

       The second half begins with the perennial boy problem of girls,  and the need to win them without being won or  marked as a sissy.   On the problem of chat up lines it’s very funny, and horribly recognisable to boys of all colours.    But there is a wonderful reflection , and song,  from Darragh Hand’s character about how he needed his “body count” to feel like a proper man but had found himself actually listening and talking to a girl and hardly knew how to handle such a situation.   Again,  words and moves alike are  handled with nimble grace, never a word or gesture amiss.  Later, one mournfully explains how hard it is to be gay and black : it’s “a while man’s perversion”,  putting you once again outside, lost, in the dark.

      I had expected more emphasis on racism. There is a wonderfully mocking “stop and search” dance routine, and one weary observation about how walking down the street as a big black boy you see people locking their car doors and hiding their phones from you.  But the wisdom and power of the piece is not in resentment but in understanding.  In love.  And in the power of the cast:  each different, each remarkable, each one man playing many parts:  Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh ,Kaine Lawrence.  It’s beautiful. to   7 May

Rating five 


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JULES AND JIM Jermyn St Theatre



“We are three people trying to redefine feeling” they say.  They do this between Paris, Munich, Salzburg and Greek islands, and either side of World War I.  Both the French bohemian artist Jim ( Alex Mugnaioni, saturnine, tall and informal in braces) and his Germany literary friend Jules (Samuel Collings, always in a collar and tie) are sent to the front, and each dreams fearfully that he might have to kill  the other.   But the war is only a four-year interference in their quest for feeling,  brought to a head by a statue on a Hellenic island with an “archaic smile”  and a mouth “hungry for kisses . Or perhaps blood”.    Shortly afterwards a German girl Kath – Patricia Allison, gamine and sharp and striking – turns out to have just that smile, and they both need her. And get her.  Or she gets them.  

          After its triumphantly sad-funny Madame Bovary ( the Jermyn now tackles a less bourgeois French classic novel, minor but made famous by film. Say “Jules et Jim” to a whole generation,   and a wistful sigh goes up.    I suppose every period of moody students finds a sympathetic dead movement to glamourise its depression and romantic confusions. Once it wasThe Sorrows Of Young Werther, then Byron, and when I grew up in the 60s there was a fascination for Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Anouilh: all that enraged nihilistic creative individualism and determined sexual freedom of the 20’s and 30’s. Ideally conducted in French. With a suicide.  

     So when in 1962 François Truffaut  found an autobiographical novel by the Dadaist Henri Pierre Roche, and made the film with Deneuve as the woman shared between the two male intellectuals, one French one German,  it was catnip.  Chaps insisted one saw it and appreciated both their taste and the presumption that only by going to bed with them could put a girl prove herself an  existential rebel woman with an archaic smile who jumps impulsively in the Seine, switches lovers, demands babies and ricochets across Europe on a whim.

      This is a new treatment by Timberlake Wertembaker who felt that in the film there was not enough of Kath, the woman (face it, this is primarily a story of a devoted male friendship,  stirred and focused by her).   I usually love this playwright, but here,  as the three protagonists narrate the long story directly to us most of the time , the men’s monologues in particular get painfully overlong.    And of course, inevitably a bit  repetitive when basically the story is that Kath draws them both, marries one, has two  offstage children of whom she seems to take little emotional notice except when demanding  one “I am a mother first of all!” , then falls for the other man.  And sets up a menage a trois , reverts, reverse-ferrets again, and for a while runs off with yet another chap.  

         Jim gets actually ill from all this “there is only so much strain a heart can take”  while stolid German Jules shakes his head and  decides to write “A German Buddhist Novel”.    They all repeatedly speak of how they had to reinvent the rules, but the only happy moments seem to be when the lads are together, theorising about feelings over a cafe table like any old codgers in a leather-bound club,   before the next time Krazy Kath sticks her oar in. 

        It’s preposterous, should be funny in a dry French tragic way,  and is well performed (though Allison could give Kath more attraction than angry discontent.) But though the audience did laugh once,  it felt a bit guilty. I am quite grateful to be reminded of the sort of contemporaries who thought all this was holy writ, but ninety minutes was enough. to 27 May 

Rating three.  

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      After 1930’s Donegal at the NT the day before,  Dancing at Lughnasa portraying a group of women meeting  stress and poverty with dancing vitality ,  here we were a few postcodes away,  in 1964 South Carolina – watching another group of women equally driven to manic dancing .  With men important, but incidental to their energy.    In this case the dancing was in a more revivalist style, chanting and imploring round a black Madonna statue at another turning point in history.   It was America’s desegregating, hard-fought-for Civil Rights Act that year, and we heard  President LBJ challenging America’s  “negroes”  all to register and vote. 

        Not made easy, that, not in Southern states with resentful whites.   Director Whitney White makes sure its opening is arresting: poor bullied Lily  – who’s white – is encouraged by the strong tough black maid Rosaleen,   and accompanies her to try and vote.    Abiona Omonua’s immense, wild voice vowing to “Sign my name!” and using the word VOTE is tremendous:  indeed the music throughout is operatic in its frequency and power.   But there’s  a moment of shocking slo-mo racial violence against the black woman on the way,  and her arrest makes the pair run away together from the brutality . They find a fairytale-half-real refuge in a, cultish black women’s  group which makes and sells honey under its leader August and her companions June and May and the “daughters of Mary”.    Here the runaways learn beekeeping and solidarity.

       Its always an exhilarating thing when a show gets you going early with its musical energy and defiant storytelling, but then loses you for a while (what IS this unsettling hysterical ritual round the statue of the black Virgin Mary?) but then strikingly , memorably ,redeems itself until you want to cheer it.   The playwright Lynn Nottage – double Pulitzer winner –  has plunged here into a full musical version of Sue Monk Kidd’s rather odd novel. The  lyrics (excellent ones) are by Susan Birkenhead and the music by  Duncan Sheik.  It’s  bluesy, a bit gospelly, sometimes rock,  all wonderfully sung.   As the characters develop the songs offer every nuance from romantic gentleness to the immense defiant  “Hold this House Together!”  anthem near the end.

           That development is particularly fine in Eleanor Worthington-Cox as  Lily. She is cowering to her terrible father at first,  wet and hopeless compared to her fiery maid and friend,  damaged by the belief she killed her mother (an unsatisfying melodrama,  finally unveiled rather late) .  But she grows before your eyes as she learns about the bees, handles the sweet honeycomb racks with ever more confidence as she overcomes her fear of them and of life,   and falls for Noah Thomas as Zack,  the black helper. 

         An attraction which , this being 1964 in the American South,  gives us an importantly ugly moment. Police stop them in the car and assume he is “bothering”her. Zach  survives the arrest, jus, but Emmett Till’s fate is on all our minds.  The impossibility of such relationships is slyly underlined in a big wild number “Jack Palance”,  about the famous occasion in Tuscaloosa when riots were caused by the actor being rumoured – only rumoured – to have a black girlfriend.  

      As I say, the show absolutely got me back after a brief few minutes wondering, and  drew me right in to the strong humanity of the female group.  There are men: Mark Meadows as Lily’s truly horrible father is genuinely frightening (and genuinely, in the end frightened as they surround him).   That men are not all beasts is beautifully shown by decent Zach and by Tarinn Callender as the  (white)  suppliant Neil who keeps proposing to one of the honey-women, June.  Great street-dances from both chaps, by the way.  

box office to 27 May.  

rating four

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There is particular genius in creating a play which doesn’t build to a showy debacle but grips you with the possibility of an unnamed crisis,  and  so finally leaves you  with the deeper satisfaction of accepting that most lives and declines are not dramatic.  Sadness and failure have their own  grandeur,  like the bleak back-hills projected behind Robert Jones’ sweeping vista of a set. In Josie Rourke’s deeply atmospheric production,   rural Donegal desolation looms behind small domesticity ,  just as the pagan wildness of human nature threatens the threadbare sedateness of Catholicism.  

            Indeed atmosphere, says our narrator late on, is more real than incident. Brian Friel’s wonderful memory play is based on his childhood memories. (do not be out off by the iffy film version). The narrator Michael, a loose version of the author, is remembering a harvest season in 1936 in a household of five sisters, his aunts and his mother whose unmarried  local “shame” is counterbalanced by occasional visits from his father Gerry: a charming, exhibitionist, vaunting mountebank who promises and never delivers,  but even more by the old-fashioned Irish sense of privileged glory brought by his priest  uncle, Father Jack. THe old man  has been a local legend for decades, Ballybeg’s missionary envoy to lepers in Uganda . He is now invalided home and finding it hard to remember words after years of Swahili. 

       It isn’t all he’s forgotten or replaced: piously faithful Kate endures a couple of magnificent speeches from Ardal O”Hanlon’s Jack (yes, ’tis he from Father Ted) about the sensible superiority of African village spirituality and its jolly ceremonies, taught him by  his houseboy and “mentor” Okawa .  The boring District Commissioner vainly tried to get him to dinner to stop him going native, and the bishops and Pope were far away,  so Jack did so with glee and clearly is never going to say the Mass again whatever Kate and the village want.

   But Fr Jack, while magnificent,  only appears late on in the long first half, because the story belongs to the sisters, and brilliantly. Siobhan McSweeney’s homely, cheerful, chain-smoking Maggie and Justine Mitchell’s schoolmarm Kate watch over flighty Rose and Agnes and the boy’s mother Christine – Alison Oliver.  A thrumming anxiety attaches to every visit from Gerry.   Christine is swept back into his charm every time, whether with a promise of a bicycle for her boy or his absurd late decision to go and fight with the International Brigade in Spain. “There’s bound to be something right about the cause, and it’s somewhere to go” must be one of the most brilliantly absurd coxcomb lines of any decade.  Kate, of course, is distressed about them opposing the Catholic fascist side. 

      The nuance between the sisters is laid out with particular excellence in the famous moments when all of them,  their untapped vitality breaking out, dance to their erratic radio. Four go full crazy, leaping even on the table, Irish maenads,  while Kate resists until drawn in to caper, a touch more sedately, in the garden  (Mitchell plays the part far more sympathetically than in many productions, no martinet schoolmarm but a woman clinging to structure in a crumbling world).    It’s a tremendous moment. So is her weary strictness when, looking after the dippy old priest as he extols Ugandan village polyamory,  she remarks that Pope Pius XI would not approve.  

        THE thoughtful richness of the play is fully realised here: its  picture of decent people stuck in one of history’s troublesome corners. The 1930s were difficult times for all the non-privileged, and notably for women who were, after WW1,  in “surplus” all across Europe.  And we are only 15 years after from the partition of Ireland, marooning the six counties in decaying Britishness away from independent Eire.    The weirdness of all this adult world is seen from a child’s perspective as Tom Vaughan-Lawlor leads us with gentle sadness through the memories which frame the play,.  It’s all there, the sad absurdity of history.. Father Jack actually spent part of WW1 as chaplain to the British forces in East Africa:   the child watches while, in the closing moments, the old priest’s Colonial cocked hat with feathers is ceremoniously swapped with wastrel Gerry’s straw hat .  

\ to 27 June

Rating five 

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  ​​      If there is a formula for a cheerful touring play in our frazzled and disputatious times, it would go like this:  warm but a bit rude, affirmative but  absurd, with sudden big laughs, a dash of nostalgic feeling and portraits of some relationships we’ve all survived and feel it’s time to laugh at. ​ 

      Which is not to say that Ian Hallard’s play is formulaic:  just to signal that you’re a curmudgeon if you don’t warm to it. Especially if one of your dreams of comradeship involves starting an iffy pub tribute band.​ 

    For here is Peter (played by Hallard himself), alone in his lateish thirties, preening nervously for a Grindr date as his Nan rings up about Sunday lunch. The date proves to be Eddie, a slightly less well preserved but even more camp schoolfriend.  It’s his first time on the app because he has a solid, but rather older, civil partner and in his uncertain way wants an adventure. Momentary embarrassment (“this is not going to happen”)   becomes reminiscence: when Eddie  (James Bradshaw) came out long ago so did Peter –  not yet as gay but as an Abba superfan.  They fall in with Sally (Donna Berlin), a lesbian whose wife is a show-promoter lacking a tribute band, and together recruit yowling wannabe Jodie (Rose Shalloo).  She is a bravely aspiring but fairly awful actress,  (“at drama school I corrected a director who thought an Olivier was an actor!”).  

Add, picked up faute de mieux because she can play the piano and be Benny, Mrs Hermione Campbell. She’s a real creation (given full rein by Sara Crowe) who is at a loose end right now because she thought her sister was staying “but that was five years ago” . Because she never buys a new kitchen calendar.   You can see why Mark Gatiss, king of darkish harmless absurdity, was the right director for this. ​    

  All in all, it could hardly hit a better cultural spot, with even the edgiest raving about the holograms in Abba Voyage : but alongside that, it is a moment to remember the healing power of honest drag, before pronoun-mania and  the fashionability of full-on serious offence-taking trans identities. Eddie and Peter don’t want to be women or to mock them, any more than Grayson Perry does.  They just  need to free themselves into the decorative flamboyance too long denied to men. They get the joke the audience gets the joke. It’s happy rather than bullying identity politics or nasty RuPaul competitiveness . Eddie’s dressing-up camp is of the old defensive kind: Peter just wants his Nan to enjoy the show and not be shocked.   There are many Abbaoid moments to love, not least Eddie’s first appearance in an orange leotard and the one, mesmerizing, final moment where the two old friends reconcile. ​        

 And many, many treasurable lines poking skewers into our culture in general.  A favourite being from Mrs Campbell, about finding Michael Palin a touch creepy.  “A bit unsettling. All that travelling, what’s he running FROM?”​    Pleasure all the way.   Have a happy tour! ​​

seen at end of Park Theatre run,  but now tour: 

 Guildford, Exeter & onward to 10 June.  ​​

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There ’s always a slight frisson when Noel Coward’s rueful, dark-streaked romantic comedy  is revived in our censorious age.  We are nine decades on from the night it first  set about shocking the bourgeoisie with a portrait of the idlest rich:  Elyot and Amanda meeting on adjoining Deauville balconies five years after divorce,  and running away from respective honeymoon spouses.    One can trust modern directors with the crystal-sharp  bickering, deftly wicked character drawing of the awful new partners,  and with the irresistible romance – “strange how potent cheap music is” .    But some of us wait anxiously for how the squeamish 2020s will deal with the  explosion of violence between Elyot and Amanda in the second act.  

         Especially his violence: cushion- throwing, trashing a chic Paris flat and an affronted lady smashing a vinyl record on a chap’s head all have a reassuring slapstick Tom-and-Jerry quality.    But a really hard slap, a brief throttle,  a throwdown, a headlock – not so much.  I have seen productions dial it down a lot, and certainly avoid down the other couple’s need for a physical fight-arranger in Act 3.   

      No qualms here. Michael Longhurst lets his perfect quartet loose with all the feral fury Coward envisaged,  which for Elyot and Amanda is the flip side of a white-hot erotic charge. They both need and enrage one  another:  as Elyot admits early on the eroticism of their love always did bring out their worst  behaviour: jealousy, irritable frustration,  self-pitying rages.   Male energy, if you like,  but absolutely shared by one of the women:  the contrast between Laura Carmichael’s sweetly-manipulative wet Sibyl and Rachael Stirling’s commanding Amanda is beautifully brought out,  right from the start in the initial sly costuming:  Stirling towers in a tight flesh-gold dress on one balcony with Carmichael opposite in awful lettuce-green frills.   

            I had never thought of  Stephen Mangan as a particularly Coward hero,  but actually he is perfect as Elyot:    saturnine, dark-browed, grownup, a bit faded , a devil with the neatly  timed quips  but carrying a real sense of a man who wishes he behaved better.   Sargon Yelda  as Victor, amusingly quite a bit shorter than his runaway wife Amanda (Stirling looks as if she could throw him over the balcony) is also interesting. He is allowed a bit more dignity than usual by this director,   until the extraordinary encounter with Elyot near the end   and his own collapse into fury at Sibyl.  

     This balance all the way through  makes it not only very funny but,  as Coward I suspect intended, edifying too.  He, remember, had been working since he was 11 years old in the tiring, concentrated world of theatre:   in this production more than usual I found myself reflecting that it is the wealthy idleness of these globetrotting social butterflies that dooms them. . It  hollows them out until all that can be said is “Laugh at everything, even us.  Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers”

       So a perfect rendering of a perfect play, violence and all, shying away from none of its darker streaks.  The setting sings, too: Hildegarde Bechtler has them at first on a high balcony above some blue-green dustsheet billows and peaks like a rough Channel sea.  Then a great wind – of passion, we must presume – suddenly whisks the cloth away and we are down in the Paris flat.  Setting the furniture to make the cover’s peaks so oceanic is an art in itself.   So is the music, especially when in the interval the violinist Faoileann Cunningham and the  ‘cellist Harry Napier play together, in a musical joke of riposte and disharmony which elegantly reflects the male-female rows in the story. It  culminates in Napier having to be driven resentfully off the set, kicking over his music stand.   Nice.  

Box office to 27 May

Rating. Five.

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HAMNET Swan, Stratford upon Avon


      It’s  a joy to have the intimate Swan auditorium open again, refurbished after going dark in the first sudden Covid closure, and to see once again a strong, nimble  RSC ensemble conjuring up the past. It is a 16c domestic world in this very town, as Will Shakespeare the glovemaker’s son marries the Hathaway farm-girl,  raises three children and loses one, all while seeking and finding his fortune in  the playhouses of London.  

        In Maggie O’Farrell’s prizewinning novel the imagined tale is of that domesticity, centred on Agnes (usually called Anne) .  In one line  (not, alas, in the play) her hero Will observes that a theatre production  is “like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat”.  

        I thought a lot about that line,  for much labour and skill has gone into this particular embroidery.   O’Farrell did meticulous research on daily life, notably on herbal medicines, deciding to create Agnes (about whom we know almost nothing) as a falconer and  a spiritual,  magically inclined herbal healer with ancient womanly skills. She is a so cold-comfort-farm  that when in labour, she flees her in-laws’ town house and willing womenfolk to give birth alone in the forest with only her dead mother’s spirit in attendance.   The book also stitches arresting details to the rest of the family,  making Agnes’ stepmother a virago and the hero’s father John an overbearing brute (Peter Wight an impressive presence, rather Hobson’s-Choice in his roaring authority, an alpha matched only by the splendid Obioma Ugoala as Agnes’ benign brother Bartholomew).  This father only  lets his educated Latin-tutor son marry the country girl in some profitable deal about sheepskins. A nifty female revenge on the unknown glover, since male authors  have spent centuries announcing –  just as fancifully –  that Anne/Agnes must have been an awful bitch to drive  Shakespeare to spend his working life mainly in London.   The programme has an entertaining pageful of 200 years of this contumely.  

        The book nips to and fro between the short life of the eleven-year-old Hamnet and Agnes’ earlier life and wooing.   She is no termagant, but is the loving, innately wise if rather fey mother-heroine,  who is devastated by the child’s loss and becomes profoundly depressed, spiritless, resentful of Will’s absences and finally – redemptively – shocked by his use of the name in Hamlet.   

    Lolita Chakrabarti, adapting it, has straightened out the chronology,  and invented new moments from the London life: Burbage as Romeo moaning “Why do I always die?”and being teased by Will Kempe (Wight again) while all of them  plan the Globe.  Those bits feel a bit revue-sketchy, but a good  contrast with the slower domesticity: a beautifully designed, sparse and credible set with the great  kitchen-table where apples are laid out and lavender-soap made by the women as the children lark around or help, all beneath the A-shape of the cramped family house.  That works wonderfully, making it ever clearer why even without a bullying father young Will needed some freer air to flourish.  

       Madeleine Mantock’s Agnes, an RSC debut, has a fresh, dignified loveliness which works well in the slow, romantic first half as the children are born,  and throws everything at the scenes of passionate grief later.  Buy her listless neutrality thereafter, as if resolved never to smile again (which does shadow many pages of the book) makes her fade, causing rbrn a sort of exasperation as her daughters (Harmony Rose-Bremner and Alex Jarrett, both terrific) run the house and get no joy og her.   Almost my favourite scene, thrown in by Chakrabarti,  has an exasperated Susanna in a private moment parodying her mother’s visionary feyness .   

      William himself is another RSC debit, Tom Varey, a curly-headed, sometimes hangdog bullied teen  who develops credibly into a mischievous wooer, proud new father, and  then  the preoccupied professional in London once he escapes the trap.  Hard, though, in the limitations of the text,  to get far into the psychology of his divided loyalty: doesn’t quite chime, and his grief is given only one or two lines and little to still the heart.    The couple’s  chemistry in the first half is good,  more charming than electric but suitable enough to the story.  Judith and Hamnet are nicely twinned – Ajani Cabey’s Hamnet not given much to do beyond lovable capering until he gets his moment , and rises well to it in self-abnegating devotion to his apparently dying sister. 

          So it’s all there – the RSC “cross-hatching of labour and skill and sweat” as in the glove metaphor,  and readers of the book will  not be disappointed: it’s lovely to look at and  director Erica Whyman moves at least the second half  briskly, with a lovely ensemble evocation of what a shock the London crowds must have been to Agnes when she finally ventures up there with the loyal Bartholomew .  But altogether there’s more charm than excitement,  more sweetness than inspiration, the grief observed rather than shared with the stalls. And the culminating Hamlet moment, dismayingly,  feels like an unexpected vacuum.  

Box office to 17 june 

Then GARRICK THEATRE, London, from 30 Sept to 6 Jan

Rating three

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      I’ll give it one thing: over an hour into this infuriating two- hour play there’s a brief but wonderful part for the veteran June Watson. She stumps in with octogenarian determination from the moody seascape window at the back (the lighting is one of the heroic achievements of the show, dusking and dawning at short unpredictable intervals).  Roaming round the middleclass holiday-cottage kitchen island,  she  delivers in aggravated tones an  account of how she is a seal – the mysterious silkie-woman of northern legend. She came ashore years ago wooed by a man, but when she shed her seal skin for lovemaking the bastard hid it, thus  keeping her doomed to be his slave and forever tolerate exile ashore “cooking cleaning washing fucking carrying bearing…” and never getting back to the sea.  

    Its a fine speech, lyrical and vigorous, a bit Dylan Thomas,  and beautifully rendered. If we hadn’t all been numbed by the preceding 70 minutes, we might have given Watson an exit round and a rousing cheer. 

         Her listener, the young man Mark, is no help looking for the skin, though throughout the preceding impressionistic and irritatingly magical-realist script he has been the most grounded of the personae, doing the cooking.  He even, at one point, observes  that Sarah, partner of the elusive  matriarch Shirley, ought not to encourage the pregnant young Georgia to chain-smoke and drink so much.  The younger sister Toni – supposedly 22 – lives full time in pyjamas and is given any number of gnomic remarks and unlikely reactions. Honour to Grace Saif for making the wretched kid almost convincing . They all do a bit of this witchy-fey uttering, the coy femaleness of it at times enraging. “When the menopause came she could only paint lobsters”. Or  “sometimes I burn countries”.

   All of them keep coming back to an absent character, Robin. Maybe drowned and gnawed by lobsters; maybe she’s  a mental patient. Maybe her soul was stolen one day by a scream and borne away on a paper boat. Maybe she’s likely to come back any minute; though turned into dust. OK, OK, maybe it is all a meditation on grief. Possibly the useless Toni really has learning disabilities, and old Shirley  has dementia – which would explain the invisible seals she sees which were actually years ago in Ireland.

Though hang on, she is reading Mark’s PhD for him. So maybe not all that demented.   Oh, and there’s a fisherman, saying stuff like “there’s a storm coming”. As fisherman do. In plays.

    . We are not meant to be sure of anything, but the author is no Florin Zeller. What we do know is that this infuriating, selfconsciously poetic piece was written by Cordelia Lynn during a four week  writers’ “residency” in America.  And that it is immaculately acted and presented, with all the skill of this downstairs space which has seen so much really good stuff in the past year. It feels a waste of it, and of Hampstead’s brave mission to find new writing.

Box office  To 29 april

Rating two.

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FARM HALL      Jermyn st Theatre WC1 (then Bath)


      Unexpectedly enthralled, I spent an hour and a half eavesdropping on six nuclear physicists, and couldn’t be more glad to have caught up on this play,  now  in its last London sellout days. But it moves to Bath and, I suspect, will endure.

        To eavesdrop on such scientists obviously  brings a frisson of awe and dread: we know that from Frayn’s play Copenhagen, about a 1941 visit by  Heisenberg, working on the theory of the atomic bomb,  to his friend Mohr in Denmark.  Heisenberg is here too in this remarkable debut play by  Katherine Moar. It is based on the real transcripts of conversations between him and five others when they were captured – Hitler defeated and dead – and kept guarded in a farmhouse near Cambridge for seven months, while the Pacific war continued.  The whole building was bugged: the Allies wanted to know, apart from anything else,  how close Germany had got to building the Bomb. 

         In reality there were ten of them,  but in Moar’s deft, skilful shaping we meet only six.  It is paced and directed by Stephen Unwin:  remember his own play, All Our Children, (  and note that he has a particularly good eye for the confusions of humans who, on the edges of evil institutions,  have to make moral decisions.   This is based on real eavesdropping: after seeing it I read sections of the transcripts released decades later , and much is real, including the men’s wondering whether they were bugged and deciding the British were not quite up to Gestapo standard.  And they did indeed attempt some am-dram with Coward’s Blithe Spirit, then wowing London, as well as talking technicalities and personalities.  

           The characters  – some previous colleagues, some rivals, with all the small snobberies of high academia  – are cast and distinguished meticulously:  from the senatorial , decent old Von Laue who had openly objected to Nazism to the youngest, Bagge, from a working-class family who studied under Heisenberg., and was a party member like the  pompous,  chippy convinced Nazi Diebner. There’s Heisenberg, the  eminent scientifically-impassioned Wezsacker, and cheerful Hahn the Nobel laureate who discovered nuclear fission.   In short scenes with fragments of Schubert between we  get to know their foibles, relationships, homesickness and attempts to live both with boredom and the uncertainty as to whether they’d be killed. One passes the time working out the physics of champagne in zero-gravity; Hahn (Forbes Masson) enthusiastically tinkers with a broken piano and makes Von Laue help.  There’s a desultory conversation about a John Wayne film, and a determination to rubbish “American science”.    

     Hahn,  as the original discoverer of nuclear fission and Nobel prizewinner is the most emotionally stricken when, halfway through this remarkable piece, a BBC  news bulletin tells them that the Allies have not only built the Bomb but dropped it on Hiroshima.  It is a stunning moment, not least because the bulletin blithely speaks of the “Tremendous achievement” of the Allies and Truman’s secret factories, and moves on happily to the weather.   The scientists can hardly believe that others triumphed when they did not; the reality dawns only after those incredulous minutes, as Weizsacker starts to imagine  the effect: thousands vaporised, the”dirty poison” of radiation spreading miles.    

        As imagination hardens Hahn cannot bear it, takes the guilt on his own invention. Von Laue tries consolation: they were, were they not, all working towards harnessing this immensity?  Or were they? They talk of whether, and where, Hitler would have dropped it: London, Washington, St Petersburg?   They wonder what questions will be asked of them, and whether now they will be killed.

         Patriotism, competitiveness, shame,  immense clouded moral judgements ebb and flow.   The shaming of the beauty of science hits them, as do hard truths about the regime they served.  Confronted, says Heinsenberg, by “a violent and unpredictable government..” but also an inefficient one, they could not have done it.    Weizsacker adds that the best of them were lost abroad anyway – “Who knows what might have happened if our Jewish colleagues had been allowed to stay?”.  Bagge, clinging to Nazi faith ever more weakly, protested that Von Braun succeeded without the Jews,,  but others say the Fuhrer had a penchant for rockets,   and so little understanding that he once asked would an atom bomb be powerful enough to throw a man from his horse?. “It’s a miracle we got as far as we did” says Heisenberg. Weiszacker convinces himself that nuclear power, a wonderful new fuel, was the aim. Not the bomb. 

          But he knows, and we know, that the cloud of what happened in Japan is upon them, and will never entirely lift. 

      It is a most remarkable play, troubling .fascinating and memorable .  A real coup for the little Jermyn. I am glad it moves on with this remarkably distinctive cast: Archie Backhouse, Daniel Boyd, Alan Cox, Julius d’Silva, Forbes Masson and David Yelland.  They are perfect.   Get to Bath if you can.  Find a way to see it. to 8 April

Then Theatre Royal Bath  

Rating 5.

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