Category Archives: Five Mice

THE GOAT or, WHO IS SYLVIA? Theatre Royal, Haymarket

A DANGEROUS PASTORAL

 
You wait months for a violently emotional taboo-smashing play by Edward Albee and two come along at once. After the bitter razor-sharp humanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf down the road Albee’s last play – shorter and more shocking – hits you like a second ten-ton truck. More shocked laughs, more vigorous torrents of scorn, and a bigger taboo. The biggest.

 
Martin (Damian Lewis) as an amiable, absent-minded, celebrated architect on his fiftieth birthday, happily married to the gorgeous light-hearted Stevie. In an interview with his old friend Ross, he says he is in love, headily and physically, outside the marriage. With a goat. Called Sylvia. Their eyes met over a fence – his wide and romantic, hers presumably yellow with that alarming Satanic vertical slit – and that was it. He keeps – and shags – her in a barn in the country.

 

 

Ross, after a moment, dismayedly believes him and writes to Stevie . Whereon, in the long central scene, the previous bantering of the pair turns into one of the most electrically charged confrontations on any London stage for years. Stevie is Sophie Okonedo, meeting each stage of Martin’s ‘explanation” of how beautiful and lyrical his new love is with terrifyingly violent , immaculately timed smashing of some item in their cool bare-brick living room. (“That was my mother’s picture!” “It still is!”). Damian Lewis is excellent, capturing Martin’s dismaying sincerity, but Okonedo’s is the performance which will be remembered for decades. She gives us the wife’s wit, horror, humiliated rage, and incomprehension streaked with all-too-vivid understanding of what this idiot she loves is doing.

 
It is about taboos, but also about all extremes: the moments, as Stevie says, when life throws you something so far beyond the norm that you are wandering in a terrifying darkness. There is also, given the history of racial-sexual politics and slavers listing humans like livestock,  an inescapable frisson in casting a beautiful black woman in the part. The most devastating of her speeches is when she expresses how he must have gone from her bed to the barn and back, putting her on equal terms with the animal. This is a dark moment; but earlier foreshadowed in a wittier, more furious “ “I am a human being. I walk upright. I give milk only ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS..”

 
For indeed there are some wild alarmed laughs to be had in the tense unbroken 110 minutes. Ian Rickson directswith the same finely judged balance of unbearable tension and barkingly funny shocks he brought to Elektra at the Old Vic; appropriately since what Albee was explicitly doing was following the Greek line of tragedy – a respected hero, a fatal flaw, downfall and too-late remorse.

 

 

That is its core, but a more modern theme is simply that of the awkward overspill (mainly in males) from generous love to inappropriate sexual engagement . The edginess of this is too rarely tackled in modern shag-friendly narratives,  but Albee grew up gay in a harsh 20th century when loves now accepted were treated (and indeed medicated) with a parallel horror to what we feel for Martin’s goat-love.

 
To hammer that awkwardness home, an extraordinary scene with his gay son Billy (a fine debut from Archie Madekwe) has father and son in an embrace which tips momentarily into a sexual kiss. Martin then defends it with an even more transgressive account of a father finding himself unwillingly stimulated by a wriggling baby on his knee. An audience which has managed to laugh through an earlier sequence, punctuated by Okonedo smashing crockery as Martin describes his fellow therapy-subjects engaged with pigs, a dog and a goose, is  frankly silenced by that remark.

 

Thus Albee’s job is done. The messiness of the human condition, after all, is our proper study.

 

box office 020 7930 8800 to 24th June
Rating five    5 Meece Rating

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FILTHY BUSINESS Hampstead, NW3

MOTHER COURAGE WITH A CRIMINAL TWIST

 

 

Yetta Solomon survived the Ukrainian pogroms when Cossacks raped and murdered her family. But they didn’t get her. Ten years old in 1919 she kicked, bit , scratched. “They set dogs on us. – I bark back. I bark louder!”. In London sweatshops as a refugee she skinned rats for the East End fur trade, scavenged rubber offcuts from tram tyres and carved shoe soles and bottle stoppers, raised her boys on a market stall.  Now she will do anything to keep the family rubber business going, and the family itself together.

 

 

And when I say she’ll do anything, I mean it.  No  spoilers, but Yetta’s magnificent croneish ruthlessness doesn’t stop at  jeering at her grandson’s dream of being a hairstylist (“Leo! Nat! We got a situation!”). Nor is it just a matter of double-crossing her feuding sons in a business deal, intimidating their wives , spilling lethal information true or false to get her way, felling a knifeman with a length of rubber tubing without breaking a sweat, or just barking “what are you, a moron?” down the phone to foam cushion  clients while marking the price up.. But that is beginners’ stuff: once you really get Yetta going, major criminality is simply no problem.  Not if it’s for the family! For their own good! because she knows best, how wouldn’t she, she’s a mother,? built up the business from a market stall, you gotta work work work, what do they know?

 
You could say that Ryan Craig’s salty, cunningly plotted and often unbearably funny family drama is tailor-made for Hampstead , with its hinterland of a long- established, doughty, opinionated, theatrically minded Jewish diaspora. And indeed it is a Jewish play par excellence, like a hypercharged Arnold Wesker with the pathos and respectfulness stripped out. Like, indeed, Craig’s  earlier The Holy Rosenbergs at the NT, with Henry Goodman as a patriarch. It captures that survivors’ vigour, that  intense family feeling laced with struggling fury as members try to make a dash for it.

 
But compared to matriarch Yetta, no male has a chance.  And played by Sara Keatelman, a compact furious dynamo in a black headscarf, she is breathtaking: whenever Kestelman is offstage, away from the stock-cluttered rubber business or a tense family meal, you hold your breath. Because you know Yetta will be back any minute to upturn everything and regain supremacy. It is, so far,the performance of the year in its humour ,headlong vigour, and a subtlety which allows us to see that it is fear and memory which drives the stubbornness and manipulation.

 

 
But this is not just a niche play, reaffirming the legendary Jewish business hearth.  Set between the mid-sixties and the booming Thatcher era it slyly becomes a state-of-England play: there’s a Nigerian illegal worker and her aggrieved husband, a neo-Nazi attack, infighting between immigrant generations (“Latvians don’t buy nothing, I hope they drown in their own soup”). The aftermath of WW2 is there too, and the way that ‘thirties survival morphed into ‘sixties ambition, and then ‘eighties insouciant greed. Leo, the favoured son (Dorian Lough) is sharp and thrawn, with slick hair and an eye for girls, and was a wartime hero; slower, angry Nat (Louis Hilyer) has retreated into choleric helplessness. Yetta found a way of keeping him home on the stall. The youngest generation are divided into those wholehearted about the business, and those who absolutely are not. The second act, in which a number of revelations excitingly unbuckle the strands of plot, see some spirited fights.

 
There are wonderful laughs, a tremendous coup de theatre involving fire, smoke and crashings (Hampstead loves a big stage moment). And that artful unbuckling of plots includes one line to remember for months. It comes, of course, from old Yetta in the 1980’s section. It just goes “I called in a favour…”. With a shrug.  What a woman.
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 22 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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LOVE IN IDLENESS Menier, SE1

BLUEBIRDS OVER DOVER, RATTIGAN ON A ROLL

 
Yesterday , on her hundredth birthday, Dame Vera Lynn had her face projected on the white cliffs of Dover and a flight of Spitfires was due overhead . OK, the planes were rained off, but the thought was there. So a beautifully apt night to open a glorious – and rare – wartime Terence Rattigan play . Newsreels were projected on a retro net veil , as a goodhearted, mischievous middle-aged love story disentangled itself amid the mess of wartime moralities, rationing and the rising Leftwing idealism of the Spirit of ’45. It was a night to sigh with nostalgia and forget Article 50. Especially with the peerless, the irresistible Eve Best at its heart: an actor who can turn on a sixpence from Chekhovian despair to frothing farce, express two conflicting emotions at once and still let us laugh.

 
We saw a version of this play in the Rattigan centenary, small-scale at the Jermyn under the original title Less Than Kind; the author against his better knowledge messed it about and frothed it up at the request of his stars, the Lunts, and it never got very far. Now director Trevor Nunn – whose Flare Path was so stunning a couple of years back – rebuilds it to stay closer to Rattigan’s emotional strength while keeping the jokes. For  it’s a comedy all right, often howlingly funny with the drop-dead timing of Best, Anthony Head and the rest; but it has that Rattigan tang, the streak of honest agony and conflicted love which shakes the heart.

 
The war is nearing its end, and Olivia, widow of a struggling dentist in Barons Court, has found luxury and love with a government minister – a Canadian industrialist who builds tanks, with a touch of Beaverbrook about him. But they have refrained from troubling prim wartime moralities with a divorce to neutralise his unfaithful wife. Now Olivia’s  son is back from evacuation to Canada after four years, and a prim little lefty he is too, gorgeously evoked by young Edward Bluemel and described by the minister – Anthony Head subtle, funny and heartbreaking by turns – as “a little moral gangster with an oedipus complex”. The lad torpedoes the love affair , carrying on like a cut-price Hamlet, and motherly love takes Olivia back to lonely suburban penury. Until the day when,  assisted by a glorious twist of social politics, her young excrescence grows up a bit.

 

 

Eve Best is a marvel, whether in real pain, resignation, maternal yearning or brittle gaiety (“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk!”). Anthony Head is her match, absolutely – and a joy it is to believe utterly in the intensity of a middle-aged romance. And as his wayward wife we have Helen George: as magically, vampishly appalling as the heart could desire and yet given, with brittle gaiety, a sort of dignity of her own. Rattigan forgives a lady in his heart, he really does.

 
It hasn’t the extreme emotional punch of The Deep Blue Sea or Flare Path, but it is in its way a piece of perfection, especially in this careful, loving production. And there are even moments when Rattigan accidentally predicts his own nemesis John Osborne: for the frightful son Michael does seem, in sly moments, like the prototype for Jimmy Porter. Except that Rattigan insists on him growing up a bit. Anyway, it’s another Menier gem. Hurrah.
box office 020 7378 1713 to 29 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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WORST WEDDING EVER Ipswich, moving to Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

WEDNAPPED: THE HELL BEFORE THE CALM

 
I really fell for this 2014 comedy by Chris Chibnall, writer of such dark telly stuff as Broadchurch. Not just because it is a hoot, a wickedly joyful take on the hilarity and nonsense of weddings; but because one use of theatre is to reflect us back to ourselves, with a sort of exaggerated recognition that turns the laugh right back in our faces with love.

 
SO here, dealing with a crisis in a middling, non-metropolitan side-street family – good grief, they may even be Brexiteers – Chibnall’s wittily written comedy hits right home. It was a joint commission by Salisbury Playhouse, the New Wolsey and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, and I saw it at an Ipswich Saturday matinee where the audience contained at least two hen-party brides in sashes and a great many potential wedding-day Mumzillas howling with laughter. It reflected a good bit of Britain all right. A third reason is that it is not the kind of play which makes reluctant intermittent theatregoers murmur that it might as well be on the telly: there are coup-de-theatre technical surprises, lighting used surreally at times, an improbable rotating sandpit and members of a live band appearing from the ground, a shed, a Portaloo. It is, as theatre must be, an event. It’s fun to be there.

 
The story deals with Rachel – an extraordinarily attractive, responsive evocation of decent if battered young womanhood by Elisabeth Hopper – and her fiancé Scott, Nav Sidhu. He has a very good line in looking appalled, as well he might. Money is short, for reasons we discover late on, so they want a very basic wedding. Mum Liz – Julia Hills with a barnstormingly chirpy bossiness we all recognize – says they must have the full marquee ’n guestlist deal, so she will organize it cheap or free in the garden and a bit of waste land, assisted by her hippy-dopy dog-loving builder husband Mel – Derek Frood, very funny – and the other daughter, Alison. The latter is mid-divorce with skirts at mid-thigh (Elizabeth Cadwallader , again hilarious). Add a nerdy vicar and a self-obsessed idle brother so feckless and untidy that he “even broke Buddhists” into throwing him out in fury, and there you are.

 
The first act has the young couple desperately trying to wriggle out of being “wednapped” by the insistent Liz (when the groom cries “It’s my day too!” she replies briskly “Not really, but you are a welcome participant”.) The second act covers the hour before the event. There are great gags – some offstage dogs, Mel’s dubious DIY skills, Alison’s tipsy rapprochement with the vicar and indeed the groom (“I’m a good listener and an even better shag”). And despite some revelations which shade a bit too close to the melodramatic in the second half, every shock of sadness is followed by a line so funny the laughs rock the room, , and there’s a bracing moral. That, as Liz says “We’re family, and nobody comes out of a family unscathed”.

I arrived in a gloomy mood and emerged giggling, wanting only to high-five one of the be-sashed hen-party brides. I wish it had a wider run: I’ve had far worse nights in the West End.
Now at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch: Box Office 01708 443333 to 1 April
Rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD Old Vic SE1 guest rvw

LUKE JONES, FRESH FROM HAMLET,  SPINS WITH ECSTASY AT THE NEW R & G 

 

I first and last saw this play whilst at school. It was slowly and quite unforgivingly murdered by fellow sixth formers. The morbidity, fear and blood-pumping humanity of it was drained, clearing the way for a flat single-note attempt at the play’s playful side. It was a matter of heads or tails which speech or run of dialogue they would have a stab at next, so unsteady was their grasp of the text. It was hard to appreciate this is one of the best plays a person has written or an audience heard.

But this Old Vic 50th anniversary hoo-ray revival knows that Tom Stoppard offers more than just bouncy a turn of phrase and logical fireworks. Although it does have all of that as well.
Its premise – the offstage story of two of Hamlet’s minor characters – seems predisposed to intellectual fluff and literary grandstanding. But David Leveaux’s production balances the coin on its edge, giving Stoppard’s wit, but also the incredible stench of tragedy. You can see the roots of this in the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Josh McGuire has the spark of a thinking-man’s sitcom lead and Daniel Radcliffe looks like death. But both do both. Each manoeuvre through the semi-automatic dialogue perfectly (and I mean that – not a single misfire) but they also allow space to let the play’s ruthlessness fester and take hold.

 

The perfect tragedy of two unwitting pawns, manoeuvred by events beyond their understanding to an end they have no explanation for suits these two actors beautifully. McGuire is well known on the stage for his zippy tempo and sharp delivery. But to see this collapse every now and again, revealing flickers of despair, is heartbreaking. Likewise Radcliffe’s morose Guildenstern, whipped up into a frantic and repressed fury, is wonderful.  The players are a tightly choreographed musical band of interesting freaks and the proper characters from Shakespeare’s side of the proceedings are nicely hammy.

 
But the over-and-above treat we don’t deserve is David Haig as The Player (the leader of the ragtag group of players who so convincingly replay Hamlet’s uncle’s crime back at him). If life is the terrible game of odds his character convinces us it is, Haig shows us most convincingly both the heads of joy and the tails of cruelty. He plays with more camp abandon than anyone else on stage, he’s slimey, mystical and oddly pervy. He has some of the best speeches and wrings out every last emotional twist.

 
Roll this into a double bill with the Almeida’s knock-out Hamlet up the road and not only will you feel like the cleverest person walking the earth, you’ll also be emotionally knackered.
Until 29th April
Box office 0844 871 7627
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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HAMLET Almeida, N1

LUKE JONES EXULTS: A TACTILE MORIARTY PULLS IT OFF FOR A NEW GENERATION

 

 

We’ve had so many ‘great’ Hamlets it’s hard to either keep track or care. Cumberbatch, Peake, Kinnear, Tennant, Branagh. Older readers can summon more. But with its wit, emotional intelligence, absolute clarity of thought and execution, Andrew Scott’s shits on recent ones from a height.
The court of this Hamlet is fashionably Scandi. The clean, grey, glassy set has been ethically recycled from this theatre’s Oresteia and the Royals who populate it are exactly the kind of Cos-wearing, slender Middletons we’ve come to expect in palaces. Robert Icke –  surely the most accomplished director working – has blown the stuffiness from this too often seen play. Twice tonight – once with a fellow critic, once with a muggle – I had the conversation “have they added bits. Some of this seems very new…suspiciously fresh”.

 

 

Although there has been some clever pruning, to my ear there’s been no wholesale rewriting. Icke has instead fired up a cast with the most natural direction; the most thrillingly believable and sympathetic performances.
Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude perfectly navigates the torments and twists in logic her character demands. Laertes (Luke Thompson) is exactly the right mix of wimpish and headstrong. Ophelia – always an unconvincing turn with a descent into madness even Alton Towers would reject as ambitious – is quietly devastating;  Jessica Brown Findlay turns it round perfectly.

 

 

The entire cast (except, IF I’m being mean, ever-stodgy Angus Wright as Claudius) has this incredibly tactility. They hug, kiss, pat on the shoulder, even shake hands in the most human, un-actorish way I’ve ever seen. The result is something so un-Royal, fluid and passionate. Still moments, the kind always sped past in Shakespeares like this, are properly exploited with flesh, not just words.

 

 

Hamlet’s direction to the players could have been Icke’s own;  “in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

 

 

All of this, of course, falls perfectly into place because of the unfailingly watchable Andrew Scott as Hamlet. Yes, the madness suits the range we’ve already seen him exercise in Sherlock. But this has deep and sturdy emotional foundations. He matches like no actor I’ve ever seen the explosion of passions and the precision of logic Hamlet requires. He centres him, makes sense of him and picks a line, rather than giving himself to some undefined frenzy. Every line (literally – see above) sounds like I’ve never heard it before. Even the battle weary catchphrases (to be or no to be, get thee to a nunnery, alas poor Yorick) are touched up with new life. Where most Shakespearean performances veer between sounding meaningless or over-thought, Scott’s streams out like source water.

So rare, but so fortunate, that this star performance is backed up by an equally star production. If you have a dear friend with a hard to come by ticket, I’d seriously consider harming them to get it.

 
Until 15th April
Box Office 020 7359 4404
5 thrilled, galumphing mice.

5 Meece Rating

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TRAVESTIES Apollo, WC1

FIVE GO ROARING UP WEST…

 
This is a transfer, and well deserved. My Menier review is below…and I stand proudly by every star of it. Five playful mice.
But below you will find an Apollo aftwerword….
Zurich, a century ago: the still centre of a wheel of war, neutral refuge of “spies, exiles, refugees, artists , writers , revolutionaries and radicals” .  James Joyce was there writing Ulysses;  Tristan Tzara was pioneering the redefinition of Art in Dada events in a nightclub,   breaking things and cutting up sonnets and having Concerts of Noise. The exiled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was beavering in the library on his book on imperialism.   And there too  – mentioned in Ulysses  –  was the  insignificant figure of one Henry Carr, invalided from the trenches with a leg wound,   under protection of the British Consulate.  So Joyce – grumpily, we are told – did actually direct Carr in an am-dram performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Well!  What richer soup of personalities could be offered to the acrobatic mental, verbal and parodic skills of a younger Tom Stoppard?  He revives it now, with director Patrick Marber making absolutely the best of its vaudevillian surrealism (I am happy to say there is a stuffed beaver at the edge of the stage, wholly and correctly unexplained) . And the author muses that actually the dates don’t quite fit,  and he couldn’t face much research,  so the answer was “to filter the story through the recollections of a fantasising amnesiac”.

 

The result is a glorious intellectual spritzer,  with Carr at its centre in a magnificent,  defining, wittily commanding and endearing performance from Tom Hollander ( fresh from acting Tom Hiddleston off the screen in The Night Manager). As Carr in senility he frames the tale, a stooping querulous old mole in a  ratty brown dressing gown and long-dead straw boater:   in between times he and the hat reclaim their youth and the  Zurich days.    As old men and dreams will,   he reinterprets memory,   so that  all  the characters drift  in and out of  the war and of Wilde’s world together:  Lenin, Joyce, Tzara,  the play’s Gwendolyn and Cecily, Lenin’s Nadya  and a bolshevik butler (a saturnine Tim Wallers)  who maybe was actually the consul that Carr in reminiscence thinks he was…

 
Treasure the moments:   James Joyce suddenly Lady Bracknell, Clare Foster’s prim Leninist Cecily doing a bump-and-grind with a volume of dialectic over her crotch,;  sudden brief musical numbers decaying into nonsense as dreams do.  There’s    Hollander’s yearning  riff about a magnificent series of Savile Row trousers he ruined in the trenches;   his clipped gentlemanly confusion about the new age (“A socialist revolution ? You mean unaccompanied women smoking at the opera?”).   Cherish  Freddie Fox’s spiritedly arrogant Tzara,  decomposing Sonnet 18 in Joyce’s hat to woo Gwendolyn,  or the Irishman’s first appearance talking entirely in limericks and  the two girls’ Wildean row in rhyme.  Pause for   a curious, sharp solemn moment as Lenin and Nadya board the secret train which (it really did) smuggles them to Russia to join the revolution.

 
This is Stoppard the entertainer, constructor of glittering yet oddly logical follies, silly and serious at once, roaming in the half- imagined chaos that made modern Europe.  It’s a joyful stew of word and thought games, determined frivolity,white-hot belief and  terrible limericks.     But it is also studded with great arguments:  angry Marxist fervour oddly topical now in the age of Corbyn and Momentum,  and – inextricable from it  –  the argument about art:  whether it is or should be useful, its endurance and  the  importance of beauty to the human soul.   Art is championed by Carr and by Joyce,  and debunked sometimes by Lenin’s words  (real ones)  about its only use  being social critique,  and sometimes  by Tzara the dada-iste averring that the age of genius is past and “now we need vandals”.    See? Topical again, in the age of Serota, Saatchi,Emin, Hirst, the Turner Prize.
And a lovely hard hit ,  at a time when affluent artists have bewailed the Brexit vote and excoriated those who did it,  is Carr’s lucid observation that it’s like  having a chit from matron to avoid real work :  “To  be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war”.  Ouch!  It takes a deft playwright to kick himself in the crotch. Gotta love it.

Five mice   5 Meece Rating
And now at the Apollo, some thoughts…
It is interesting to meet this spellbinding cast and learnedly barmy script , now transposed, with a grandeur of exploded scenery, into the Apollo and offering a view from further off.

 
It does grow, and flourish, and gain space for a pair of crazy unexpected dances and a spectacular, oddly moving, evocation of Lenin’s train east.   Still a hock-and-seltzer reviver, though, still with that Stoppardian ability to make you feel  cleverer and better read than you actually are.

 
But what springs from it fresher’ on a second viewing, is how passionate are the arguments about what art is for: Fox as the Dadaist, challenged by Hollander’s practical ex soldier Henry,  speaks for today”s  self-satisfied new redefiners of the very word art: Joyce  by contrast berates him on behalf of art’s value outscoring the world of war and industry.
It shimmies and shimmers. Fills the big theatre. And the limericks are priceless.
If it lasts in the West end – I think it will – it does the London audience’s adventurousness and intelligence credit. But even more,  the credit of Marber’s production rests on the dishevelled, reminiscing, indignant Hollander. What a star!

Still five mice.  5 Meece Rating

Box office 0330 333 4809 to 29 April

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