Monthly Archives: May 2023




      There is, by chance a bit of a Thing going on in theatre right now:  women playing a particularly alpha type of men, with glee and an unnerving soprano or contralto ability suddenly to sink to a near-baritone growl.    It’s there in Operation Mincemeat’s  MI5 officers, and here in Georgie Rankcom’s playful production of Loesser’s musical take on a 1950s corporate world.  So we have not only a sparky Gabrielle Friedman from Seattle  as the artfully ambitious J.Pierrepont Finch  but the peerless Tracie Bennett – so memorable as a declining Judy Garland ten years back – bringing all her panache and elegant handling of classic lyrics to the role of J.B. Biggley the President of Worldwide Wickets .   She is indeed a treat, her swagger carrying this lightweight, too-silly-for-sincerity entertainment. 

    It was a jokey book by Shepherd Mead in 1952, then a film and finally this show, with Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert ’s book and – most importantly – songs by the great Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls (just up the road at the Bridge, go!) .   It’s  dated but has plenty of recognizably  sharp jokes about nepotism, insincerity and – after a corporate disaster – the chorus of shoddily self-made men singing how “being mediocre is not a mortal sin”. Ouch.

          The lyrics are splendid,  not least the first big number by Allie DAniel’s Rosemary the secretary about her ‘50s surrendered-wife dream of marrying an executive, keeping his dinner warm of an evening and “basking in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect”. Likewise the various office-life ensembles : maybe we’re nostalgic – I sneakily conned the matinee audience for all these notorious mid-life WFH addicts .     For instance  “if I dont take my coffee break,  something inside me dies” ,Mead’s mantra that you should always choose g a company so big that nobody really knows what everyone else is doing.  It gets the manipulation, passive aggressive bitchery and need to woo the big man’s gatekeeping secretary.   Friedman bonding blokily with Bennett over college memories in Grand old Ivy is very Bullingdon, and all the studio- size choreographed ensembles are fun to be close to.  

  My only real cavil about the production’s tone is that it is half dated and half contemporary, in mostly pretty casual costumes (though Tracie Bennett s brown suit does at least fit beautifully)  and thus it’s not entirely sure where to sit.   A few weeks ago this enterprising little theatre offered, in the smaller space, Joseph Charlton’s mischievous tech- bro piece Brilliant Jerks, which was 100% about now and therefore drew you sharply in without apology – just as Guys and Dolls does by being unashamedly 1920s. This period piece  – a bit overlong at nearly two and three quarter hours – has a bit more trouble.  But the songs are great,  and so is Bennett.   Fun. to 17 June



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THE CIRCLE Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond SW


    It’s 1921.    Thirty years ago Lady Kitty ran out on her MP husband Clive and small son with his friend and colleague Hughie,  exploding a public scandal of contested divorce , denied access, two wrecked political careers and  – for the guilty couple – exile in the marbled splendours of a palazzo in Florence (with inadequate plumbing, we learn, and the company of ruined women and rogues). 

         Now the pair are back and briefly  staying  in the old family home  – alongside another of the younger generation,  the  planter Teddy on leave from the Colonies and lounging in anyone-for-tennis whites.   The old house is now curated with prissy effeminacy by Clive’s  son Arnold, himself an MP, and his wife Elizabeth.   It was her idea , gripped by dangerous ideas of reuniting her husband  with the  mother he hardly knew, and of bonding  with a romantic silver-haired wise woman  who gave all for love.    Which may be connected with her own yearning for Teddy.   So enter – bickering –  Nicholas le Prevost as Hughie,   grumbling about his false teeth, and Jane Asher as Kitty,   no wise greyhair but a thoroughly rouged coquette well past her prime,  with hair of hellish metallic ginger brilliance (Elizabeth’s, of course, is natural auburn).   Rascally old Clive, of course, pops up from his cottage in the grounds to cause all possible trouble in his son’s menage. Why not?  Clive Francis is sneakily wonderful in the role, fancying himself as a slyly wicked old roué,   dismayed only at the risk that his wife might come back.  

       It is fly of Tom Littler, fresh from his last leadership at the Jermyn, to launch his time here with this neglected Somerset Maugham play: domestic  comedy with typical Maugham undertow of real, almost sadistic, pain.  It’s a well constructed emotional drawing-room thriller with sharp epigrams ” “even when men are in love, they’re not in love all day long”  and  the kind of passionate rants modern actors rarely get to loose off.  Its world of tempted wives, trapped responsibility,  unthinkable divorce ,  enjoyable cynicism  and troubling passion  is poised somewhere between Wilde and Coward:   between Lady Windermere and Elyot-and-Amanda.

      With, as this is Maugham, an added spice of imperialism: when Teddy , a low-voiced and intense Chirag Benedict Lobo, tells Elizabeth about his house on a Malaysian hillside beneath  hot palm trees she is fascinated, a home counties rabbit before a cobra’s eye, rooks and cuckoos calling in the garden. Casting a glamorous Indian rather than a gungho public schoolboy really works.   And the fading imperial era is nicely guyed when the two old politicians argue about where if in power they would have sent Kitty as vicereine , she explodes with disgust at Western Australia or Barbados, and cries “I want India!”

         Jane Asher has great fun with all this as Kitty, but alongside the triumphant vanity catches beautifully the sense of trapped affluent femininity in a world where a safe man – one properly tied to you by marriage – was the only guarantee of comfort/. When she tells Olivia Vinall’s tempted, lovesick Elizabeth  – another subtle performance – how much she would lose,  the dilemma is dated but feels real: once you’ve known the comfort of an affluent marriage, leave it and risk being deserted,  the only option is nurse or typist.  Pete Ashmore as the  dull husband catches effectively the sense of a damaged soul, so you are not quite sure whether the ruse he attempts to keep his wife and career is entirely fake – or sadly, pathetically real. Clever.  to 17 June

Rating four.

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT         Fortune Theatre, WC2


      This  is a joy,  quirky and full-hearted, musically adroit and fast-moving and witty.   Moreover, I suspect its self-mocking variety-show humour would be more to the taste of the protagonists in the events it retells than any pious heroics.   It is the true story   of how ,in 1943 ,M15 spoofed the Germans into defending Sardinia rather than the real invasion target, Sicily. A submarine planted  the corpse of an unknown tramp, dressed as a crashed pilot  with a carefully curated fictional identity, to wash up on the Spanish coast with a briefcase of fake plans.   As one planner says in this show “Disgusting, bizarre, borderline psychopathic”,  but it worked, and saved thousands of lives.  

      Forget the terrible recent film with Colin Firth, taming a great wartime story into rom-com cheesiness.  Perhaps remember the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was, based on the book by Lt.Cmdr Ewen Montagu of British naval intelligence. He  was part of it, and is played here with wicked bravado by Natasha Hodgson,  defying the caution of Zoe Roberts as the Colonel,  encouraging the nervous geeky scientist Charlie (David Cumming).   Hogson, Cumming, and Roberts are – with the musician Felix Hagan – the company SplitLip, creators of the entire show.  Those who join them or alternate are fully in the fast-moving idiom they have created.  It is a breath of fresh air to find this spirit in a world where more expensive, anxiously spectacular musicals too often turn out far, far duller. 

        So its arrival in the West End is something to celebrate for many reasons.  Because like the finest comedy down the years it was born of four friends and still has the empathetic, ironic mutual understanding which that entails. Because it emerged from the fringe, was believed in by the adventurous New Diorama and Southwark Playhouse;. Because her up West,  with snazzier production values and a coup-de-theatre finale set,  it has not been tamed and smoothed and bullied out of its joyful student-revue atmosphere.  

     It is  funny,  but with the confidence to be moving and humane as well.  It joyfully guys the stiff-lipped officer-class men (three of the five onstage are women) with the big opening number “Born to Lead”, and faux-Etonian mottos “Never Trust the Servants, and Horses Can’t Inherit”.   The song “Making a Man”, while they design the fictional pilot Bill reminds us how WW2 films and plays curated ideas of  that kind of hero.     It catches in comedy both the  nervousness of Charles Cholmondely in the face of the medalled  officers,   and the difficulty Ewen and Ian Fleming and the rest had in persuading their bosses – “it’s not half-arsed! It’s whole-arsed! If not over-arsed!”.  The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury , advising on the corpse, is a top-hatted magician who keeps appearing unnervingly from the cleverly simple backdrop;   Jak Malone is constantly funny, but also never more when playing a prim Moneypenny leading the female workforce (there’s a fine  number, “Useful” in the second half in which the women of 1943 know it isn’t them who’ll get the medals). 

          But his secretarial role is one of the deepest joys: character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle aged government lady-clerk  of the 1940s.  Nor does the humanity and respect show more movingly than in his unforgettable moment towards the end of the first half. A fake  love letter has to be written from the fictitious pilot’s fictitious girlfriend, to nestle in his wallet,   and it isn’t the youngsters who can write it . It’s her,  the frumpy survivor of the last war’s losses, and the song is the most heartbreakingly , deliberately workaday and restrained of wartime love letters. Because as she says,    “anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”…Then suddenly we are on the docks – sharp fast work with props and set all the way through, scenes flash by –  and the cast have become submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike,  plain and serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone for a moment.    Then a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax is intercut with the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, taking off their hats to send the body to its destiny.  

     It is those switches to seriousness alongside the gaiety which, both two years ago in the barer Southwark production and in this one, marked for me the quality of the piece. Of course there is triumph, and a rousing finale with sudden unexpected tech,  but it  fades to acknowledge , beautifully,  the fact that fifty years later  the anonymous dead tramp was given his name. Only last month in Huelva in Spain the headstone erected to him was marked with a memorial fully acknowledging his strange, posthumous fictional service: “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”.   to 19 August

Rating five 

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THE VORTEX Chichester Festival Theatre


When Noel Coward shocked and enthralled the 1920s with this most bitter and intense of his plays, he was meanwhile hastily finishing the farcical Hay Fever and working up to Private Lives, Design for Living,   Blithe Spirit and a name synonymous with laughingly cynical , frothy drawing-room comedy.  This first success, though ,is their dark and angry older cousin:  fascinating in its denunciation of all the glamorous fast-and-loosery Coward was to treat with lighter mockery.  

     Last time I saw The Vortex performed, to my chagrin I found it mainly irritating:  was lost before its explosive ending by sheer dislike of too many characters in its world.  You can overdose on datedly witty social banter.   This is a cleverer take: in his rapid staging – assisted by a whirling revolve  and at one point some smoke – director Daniel Raggett shows no fear of us losing some of the words in the opening boho-beau-monde chatter or the party scene.   The important thing is that we feel the frenzy of those lives and get the gist, the brittle vanity of Florence Lancaster ,  her dependence on the adoration of the loutish Tom, the unease of her returning son Nicky and the unlikelihood of that airy nervy creature’s “engagement” to the stumpingly down-to-earth Bunty.  

     So the opening is taken fas and sketchy, briskly introducing properly pointless people like Clara (lovely singing) and Pauncefoot (award for Best Camp smoking). It lets some lines get lost under muttering and overtalking, and gives proper weight to the adoring but clear-sighted Helen, who wishes Florence would admit her age and the fact that her absurdly young lover Tom is not as smitten as she is.    She also indicates what becomes darker later,  Nicky’s increasing dependence on drugs;  and we get the saddest of glimpses of Florence’s  husband David, who the diva coos  “grew old while I stayed young”,  and who is the only parent truly pleased to see a 24 year old son home from Paris.

     That directorial determination carries through into the second act, the party scene into  which we are mercilessly whirled by Joanna Scotcher’s revolving set and some striking movement , smoke and racket. Not least from Nicky at the piano (when the erotic debacle occurs Giles’ Thomas music and sound is overwhelming, and the smoke makes you for a moment think “drawing-room-comedy-meets-horror-movie”).   Finally all the trappings, modish furnishings and shrieking guests give way to bare-stage moments between Helen, Florence, and eventually and cataclysmically,  Nicky .  Who is in a Hamlet rage against his mother’s sexual licence and self-delusion. 

       That treatment works,  paring down the play to its intended angry core.   Priyanga Burford’s Helen, and Hugh Ross as husband David,  supply a civilized, prudent gravitas as the other principals swirl towards disaster.    And at its centre Lia Williams,  gamine in jodphurs then gowned and glamorous and finally shuddering in nightwear,  is  tremendous.  She moves from brittle gaiety to howling humiliation, back to defiance “It can’t be such a crime being loved, it’can’t be a crime being happy!”and finally surrenders to the reality of the less romantic kind of love, shocked by her son’s closeness to the edge.   Nicky is Joshua James, Williams’ real-life son but more importantly a seasoned and subtle actor.  He proves well able to inhabit the pretty, fragile, desperate undermothered boy. They are sensational together on that final bare stage.  You gasp. 

Box office  To. 20 May

Rating four.

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CYMBELINE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


  Deep breath, concentrate at the back:  there’s this Ancient Briton King, who once banished a chap who vengefully stole his baby sons, leaving just a daughter Imogen who is currently disgraced by marrying a commoner and refusing her loutish stepbrother. Her true love is banished to Rome, tricked into suspecting her virtue, plans murder but – we’re in Wales now, by the way , with bows and arrows and dead animals slung over chaps’ shoulders – Imogen  dresses as a boy.  And thus, unknowingly, meets her lost brothers and apparently dies. But has she? Oh, and there’s a war about tax, and some Roman legionaries…

     Don’t worry.  Honestly, don’t.  You’ll love it.  The great director Greg Doran, lately heading the RSC,  has a particular gift for storytelling and clarity.  The traditional  Eng-Lit division of Shakespeare plays into  tragedies, histories, comedies, and the final  redemptive “romances’ has often caused scholarly arguments about which variety Cymbeline is,  but forget all that:   it’s a rattling good yarn,  unafraid to jump the shark a few times, and Doran knows what to do with it. Just  tell the story, hold us rapt.   To quote another play,  “it is required you do awake your faith”

     George Bernard Shaw and Dr Johnson both  hated this one,  and one notable critic decided that the author was tired and had started deliberately caricaturing his own earlier characters.  Certainly King Cymbeline has Lear-like moments , Imogen like Juliet wakes thinking she is by her lover’s corpse,  a banished patriarch raises children in the wild like Prospero, Iachimo is a pound-shop Iago with a dash of Richard III. There’s a mistrustful lover,  a scheming Queen, cross-dressing, siblings reunited,  a potion,  a surprise descent from the sky and one of the  RSC prop-team’s best-ever decapitated heads, scowl and all.

      But it is not caricature: the language is tremendous,  so is the emotional depth and subtlety brought out with loving care in this production.  The stagecraft and costumes are 

RSC-magnificent. Stephen Brimson Lewis gives us a simple bare arc  beneath a great moon which moves between silver, gold and scarlet,  every scene as vividly grouped and full of meaning as an Old Master.  The music, specially composed by Paul Englishby,  drives the feeling of the story with uillean pipes, cello, flutes and trumpets.  There are moments of sharp comedy from Conor Glean’s loutish Cloten.  and sometimes from Alexandra Gilbreath gloriously relishing the Queen’s wickedness. There are even gales of laughter between heartstopping moments as many ragged, bloodstained, confused characters reach  the final deliberately overcomplex resolution.   Amber James is a stalwart, spirited Imogen and the great  lament  “Fear no more the heat o’the sun”  is sung with unforgettable simple gentleness  by the two lost brothers in their ragged hunting clothes. 

            So from the moment the characters step out towards us, formal from the upstage shadows,  there is a sense of being led:  sitting safe by a fireside, being told a tumultuous story. Absurdities of plot fade in the certainty of each character: Jamie Wilkes’ cozening Iachimo listing the furnishings of Imogen’s bedroom like a creepy estate agent, and later blaming his villainy on “mine Italian brain” (foreigners! clearly can’t help it).  There’s Mark Hadfield’s loyal little servant Pisanio,  trapped between affection and instructions,  the nervous court doctor and anxious maidservants, the good-hearted rumbustious teenagers in the Welsh wilderness and of course the short-tempered  King himself   (Peter de Jersey)  manipulated by his Queen into worriedly confronting Theo Ogundipe’s towering, metalled Roman general.  

        Characters large and small, each rightly weighed, hold it together round  Imogen’s journey.  No wonderful word is wasted, whether a solemn final forgiveness – “live, and deal with others better”,  or one of Shakespeare’s glorious verbal nimblenesses.  Like Pisanio’s excellently trans advice to Imogen as she dresses as a boy:  drop womanly ways and be “saucy and as quarrelous as the weasel”.    Many confrontations stand out in memory and haunt dreams overnight.  There’s power in poor Pisanio’s  defiance of Imogen’s suicidal despair ( Hadfield is wonderful)  and in the brief audience laugh when Cymbeline is baldly told that the dead Queen   “never loved you…married your royalty, abhorred your person”  . Then the laugh is silenced by the King’s real  shock.

       Oh yes, we were under the storyteller’s control all the way through:   led with a sure hand down a wild, crooked stony path.  That is an exhilarating thing

Box office      To 27 May. (Not long enough in my view, how am I going to get back there??)

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   A theatrical tease opens both halves: the voice of Noel Coward singing “There’s a right way and a wrong way, an old way and a new way” for the opening,   and after the interval  “Why must the show go on?”  .  

     Neat: for by that time we are wondering how it ever can.  Jack Thorne’s new play, directed with devoted love by Sam Mendes, is an imaginative (and  partly archival) reconstruction of the fraught rehearsals of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed in 1964 by Sir John Gielgud. 

      The younger man was not yet 40, just married to Liz Taylor, superstars after Cleopatra; the veteran director was sixty, in a slight doldrum, but  this unlikely pairing was “the best offer I’d had for quite some time’.   Here’s classical  versus modern, lyrical diffidence versus violent impulsiveness,  opposites  collaborating over this most personally revealing of plays.  Hamlet is any actor’s Everest, the calling card, not only a play about revenge but about acting itself: seeming, dissembling, asking immense questions.  Soliloquies give a chance to make your own self real in the part.   On his Old Vic pinnacle forty years earlier, it was Gielgud’s: how could he help this volcanic, frequently drunk star towards it?  How  relate to an impatient firebrand who at first  sees Hamlet as a man who just can’t make his bloody mind up, rather than a Gielgudesque philosopher battling poetically with his conscience?    In one wonderful observation – there are some very good laughs, not least in the Polonius stabbing rehearsal – Gielgud  mourns that a real. Burton Hamlet, once instructed by a ghost to kill his stepfather, would do so immediately . Not worry about it for three marvellous hours.  

    “You must”he says  “let the play distort you!”   And   “You shout wonderfully, you and Larry both..but there’s a music in this speech which us?”  There are some sly actorish jokes, not least Burton’s typical performer hatred of  “line readings” when Gielgud can’t help offering intonations. Burton, a splenetically rude Johnny Flynn,   calls Gielgud’s lyrical style “singsong”.    Mark Gatiss is a revelation as Gielgud: after one row there’s a profoundly moving moment before a black curtain when he simply speaks the Ghost’s words.  He is saying it for all past generations pleading  to help guide the young: “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night..”.   

       Scenes of cast horseplay or drunken larking in the star’s lush hotel room underline their difference, and the  first act ends with an unspeakably brutal, humiliating rant by Burton,  exaggeratedly mocking both text and director while the rest of the cast cringe in embarrassment  (they’re impressive, especially Janie Dee as Eileen who delivers real beauty in Gertrude’s Ophelia speech). Left alone, wondering if the whole ghastly project is  over, Gielgud quietly delivers the advice-to-the-actors speech with cool sorrowful beauty. 

           Indeed both Thorne and Mendes know absolutely what to do with the pieces of Shakespearean magic granted them by telling this story.  Flynn does not quite have Burton’s thrilling timbre, but flashes of wonder sometimes surface.  Notably, in the second half a intriguing and intelligent conversation between  Gielgud and Liz Taylor (Tuppence Middleton, nicely sarky and seductive)  provides a clue as to how her wayward man express through Hamlet something real and deep and damaged from his own life.  Gielgud uses what he learns . And suddenly,  as he and Burton sit  alone close together, it happens: Flynn speaks “to be or not to be” with a  helpless immensity,   feeling and digging deep to old despairs,  at last not acting up but owning it. Hairs stand up on your neck.

        With another kind of beauty there is  an unexpected moment when the near-despairing Gielgud – still bruised  by his scandalous homosexual arrest years before – calls in a sex worker in lonely defiance. The roughneck, dismissed unused,  divines his hurt and refuses to leave without “a cuddle”.  Gielgud is shocked by the rough-trade using this word,  and is met with the dry observation  “Hey ,we all got mothers”.  In his arms the weary veteran weeps, jokes about it,  and weeps again.  

         It could have been an intrusion but no.  For while sometimes you think you are seeing a witty insider masterclass on Hamlet and the evolution of acting styles,  what Thorne really offers is a story about humanity, vulnerability,  reconciliation.   The first-night ending   is blazingly triumphant, and  with a bit of directorial cheek in this historic week, even a burst of Zadok the Priest.   Hurrying to Waterloo, under a big moon I came upon another rehearsal:  hundreds of Royal Marines and Scots Guards, just beginning to drum.  

Box office to July 15th

Rating.  Five.

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