Category Archives: Five Mice

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY Lyttelton, SE1

FLUENT, FASCINATING,  FUN. FIVE!

 

  This show has no right to be so much fun.    Over three hours,  two intervals,  three middle-aged blokes in black suits in a revolving glass Es Devlin set of a city office with a projected cyclorama.   No fights, no romance,  no rhetoric, no whizz-bang ENRON fun : they  just tell the 150-year back-story – usually  in that potentially irritating historic present – of one American bank, whose demise and bankruptcy of ten years ago we already know. 

 

     So we settled down in sober responsible mood, to be educated in economic history.  But we got, as well, some of the best laughs and most stimulating reflections of the year. Sam Mendes took a shine to this play by Stefano Massini in Italy, and Ben Power has done an English adaptation for this premiere.    There’s an obvious wit in airing it during the Trump visit – a story of impoverished immigrants making America economically great .   And  Mendes has a subtly brilliant cast :  Simon Russell Beale as the eldest brother  Henry Lehman,  Ben Miles as his brother Emanuel,  and Adam Godley as the lanky, earnest youngest Mayer , nicknamed “potato”,   who came over on a later boat to keep the peace between them.   

       

         Ghosts entering the newly deserted office after the 2008 crash,  the three simply tell the story,  playing themselves, their descendants,  and a host of others in brief, sharp, always clear impersonations.   It starts in 1844 when Chaim and his suitcase arrive from Bavaria and agree with the immigration officer that OK,  he is called Henry.  Russell Beale, bluff, twinkling-eyed and bossy, starts a shop in Alabama selling cheap clothes to planters.  The three prosper mildly until with a tremendous use of the cyclorama, the great cotton fire wipes out the neighbourhood “Everything is lost” says one  “On the other hand”  says another with that magnificent diaspora savviness  “Everything needs to be re-bought!”.  

 

          So they work out a credit system, are paid in raw cotton, sell it on to factories up north and explain to baffled outsiders that they are a new thing – “middlemen”.   Henry’s death meets the full seven-day shivah with the shop closed and the graveside kaddish (there’s a nice bitter irony, as years pass and each family death gets less power to interrupt trade).  A New York office is opened.   There’s the civil war.  The family evolves  as,  hilariously or touchingly, each takes  roles of wives, small children, sons: Russell Beale and Godley  are particularly adept at the skittish hip-thrust and pout and the fractious toddler roar).  

 

          By the second part they have become a bank and Wall Street towers are made of the same document-boxes which built the Alabama store.  The tightrope-walker  in the New York street is ever more of a symbol (obviously, Russell Beale gets to mime him).  Soon a child is taught that if they were bakers “our flour  is no longer cotton, coffee, steel, coal. Our flour is money!”.  Mayer’s son Herbert as a child argues with the aged rabbi (Russell Beale bringing the house down in hysterics)  about the plagues of Egypt “Why didn’t HaShem just kill the Pharaoh?” .  He leaves the family bank for politics. The railways come. The Panama canal must be funded.   Emmanuel’s son Philip is a s wheeler-dealer,  his son Bobby – the last of the family in the business, dying in 1969 – buys art and racehorses. 

 

           A family tendency to nightmares of failure is vividly evoked: the skill of the three actors – though so frequently dropping into new brief roles – maintains a powerful sense of each personality.   The great crash comes; suicides, name by name, a dozen a day listed.    The struggle to survive  as Lehmans is Bobby’s.  You’re on the edge of your seat, both deploring the  “money is only numbers” absurdity of growing capitalism, foreseeing today’s crashes, but suffering for the men at its heart.      It’s an epic of survival and enterprise and latterly decadence into modern consumer credit ,  far from the cotton-overalls shop of  1844   “To buy is to exist.  Break the barrier of need, buy out of instinct!  The new rule is that anyone can buy anything and everything is a bargain” . Moral, intriguing, endlessly  entertaining, a fluent  masterclass from three of our finest actors.  Awed.  

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  10 Oct

rating  five   5 Meece Rating

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ME AND MY GIRL Chichester Festival Theatre

OH WHAT A TREAT… OI! 

     

     The sun has got his hat on,  England’s in the semi-final under a chap with a proper waistcoat, and Noel Gay’s 1937 musical is a great big, lovely, silly, dancing elephant of an all-British vintage musical.  It is delivered with nimble glee under Daniel Evans, with designer Lez Brotherston providing coups-de-set ,  and nicely bonkers choreographic flourishes by Alistair David (some very camp armour, top bathing-beauty towel work, and even hula-hoops ).   The musical director Gareth Valentine leads his sharp arrangements under everyone’s flying feet, his head just visible through a terrifyingly vulnerable triangular orchestra-pit in the stage , where he is imperilled nightly as The Lambeth Walk rages above him.    He even takes the trouble to pop up in full pearly-king outfit for the curtain call.  And while it takes a lot to get a Chichester audience to join in with “Oi!”,  a few actually did…

 

 

    But almost best of all, on the press night – with the star poor Matt Lucas suffering throat problems – we saw one of those storming understudy moments.  Ryan Pidgen took on the central role of Bill Snibson, the geezerish coster-and-cardsharp who finds himself unwilling heir to a Dukedom.  Provided that – in the screwball ‘30s plot – he can satisfy the trustees , Duchess Maria and Sir John  Tremayne ,   that he can fit in to high society and agree to drop his beloved Sally.    And with due respect  to the billed star, Pidgin inhabited and invigorated the part with immense, shining humour and confidence.  He was verbally nimble (there are a lot of music-hall gags  on words like aperitif and Kipling, hurrah. And lines like “This is Lady Brighton” – “Ah, I know your husband, the pier”).   As for the physical challenge, he was all there in character and springing movement, and even had the tigerskin-puppetry moment nailed.  Pidgen also has a glorious lyrical voice displayed in the beautifully staged “leaning on a lamppost” number,  before  it turns into a misty nightmare dream-sequence as  he seeks his vanished Sally.   So that exuberant, hastily rehearsed  triumph was an extra  thrill, a standing ovation, and a good theatre moment.

    

 

       But it is altogether a fine evening, and well worth reviving the old show (Rose & Furber’s book updated of course in 1985 by Stephen Fry).  Caroline Quentin is wonderful as the auntly iron-lady Duchess,  reluctantly enamoured of her Sir John (who sadly has not quite enough to do,  given that he’s Clive Rowe,  but you can’t have everything).   Jennie Dale’s Parchester, entrusted with the mischievous G & S echoes as the family solicitor, tap-dances ferociously round the stage.    Siubhan Harrison as the designing Jacquie executes a terrifying bathtime seduction scene on poor Bill and   Alex Young as Sally, out of place in her print frock, cardigan and specs,  is remarkably touching.   Evans makes sure she is  a carefully downbeat foil to all the glamour:  studiedly awkward at first,  fretting that her pygmalioned lover now “even swears posh”, she erupts  spiritedly into the pearly-king invasion,  but is  poignantly alone with“Once you lose your heart”. 

 

 

      She gets it back all right. ‘Course she does.    Because it’s  a joyful, hopeful fairytale of  a show. Just what we need. 

box office 01243 781312   to 12 May

rating  five  4 Meece Rating

if you think one’s missing, it is because  in shows like this, the fifth always should be the official musicals-mouse for choreographer and musical director… Musicals Mouse width fixed

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IDOMENEO Buxton Opera House

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS SAND, SEA AND SERIOUSNESS AT BUXTON

On his way home from victory at Troy, Cretan king Idomeneo’s ship is caught in a dreadful storm. In desperation, he vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first thing he sees if he reaches dry land safely. Tragically, that turns out to be Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante, who has fallen in love with captured Trojan princess Ilia, herself secretly smitten with Idamante but hostile to all Greeks since the destruction of her city. Idomeneo spends the rest of his opera trying work out how not to kill Idamante without bringing the wrath of Neptune on his Cretans: he fails spectacularly, alienating his bewildered son in the process and exposing Crete to the rampages of a terrible seamonster. Here, in Stephen Medcalf’s vision, the ‘monster’ is Idomeneo’s own guilt, which possesses him physically, turning him into a gurning, rampaging menace on stage. Eventually, Neptune relents on the condition that Idomeneo hands his crown over to Idamante, with Ilia as queen. Varesco’s plot contains several problems, not least of which is Neptune’s volte face from requiring human sacrifice to ordaining just and sensible rule over Crete – a scarcely credible cop out for an ancient deity. But the bashed, hashed version of Apollodorus’ myth is merely a jumping off point, for this is an opera about Enlightenment leadership, nobility and personal sacrifice, in which duty and love are placed in dramatic conflict.

Stephen Medcalf’s thoughtful direction, and Isabella Bywater’s glorious design of a room choked by tidal waves of sand looking out to a distant sea, which magically transforms into a beleaguered ship during a terrifying storm scene, make Buxton’s unquestionably the best Idomeneo I’ve yet seen. In military uniforms and puttees, the Greeks seem to have just got home from the First World War, good cultural shorthand for the level of psychological devastation wreaked on all sides by the fall of Troy. Paul Nilon is compellingly vulnerable and haunted as Idomeneo, his seasoned tenor sometimes almost raw with emotion. Heather Lowe’s stylish, freshly voiced and dramatically focused Idamante is brilliantly boyish and affecting, nicely paired with Rebecca Bottone’s steely, determined Ilia, a princess riven with horror at her own love for the enemy. Madeleine Pierard’s sassy, charismatic Elettra, a Greek princess who wants Idamante for herself, is a show-stopping sensation, bristling with passion and bitterness. The chorus scenes are magnificent, and conductor Nicholas Kok produces a clean, majestic sound from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and though timing can fall a little oddly, it’s a satisfying, often stunning listen.

Visually powerful, psychologically compelling, and superbly well sung, Buxton’s production effectively masks Idomeneo’s inherent drawbacks. But they still remain: Idomeneo is no sprightly Da Ponte human drama, but a long, serious and inward-looking piece, carefully unpicking its moral dilemmas with Baroque beauty and grandeur, but without any sense of urgency or narrative thrust, which is why it so often falls flat. This Idomeneo works because it is seriously well acted within a clear directoral vision: Lowe, Bottone, Pierard and Nilon deliver intense, deeply felt characters driven to actions we can comprehend by emotions we can feel.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

Until 19 July at Buxton Opera House, as part of Buxton International Festival

Production supported by Friends of Buxton Festival; Buxton International Festival sponsored by Arts Council England and the University of Derby

Box office: 01298 72190

Rating: five

5 Meece Rating

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ALZIRA Buxton Opera House

CHARLOTTE VALORI UNCOVERS FORGOTTEN INCA GOLD WITH VERDI IN BUXTON

Verdi’s little-known opera about Peruvian Incas and Spanish conquistadors, Alzira, has finally received its UK premiere at Buxton International Festival. It is 173 years since its whirlwind composition, completed in a scant month during Verdi’s “galley years”, when he was churning out operas at extraordinary speed, a period about which he would grumble endlessly. Cammarano’s libretto is based on Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, an iconoclastic play which sought to poke holes in religion (and problematise European cultural pre-eminence) by showing harshness and nobility on both sides in Latin America, with both conquerors and conquered equally capable of mercy and vice, generosity and greed. Ideas of honour, faith and love become explosive in conflict as psychotic Spanish governor Gusmano (velvet-voiced baritone James Cleverton) fights with Inca warrior Zamoro (brooding, vocally dextrous tenor Yung Soo Jun) over who gets to marry the beautiful Inca princess Alzira (a frankly stupendous Kate Ladner).

Although Cammarano excised much of Voltaire’s revolutionary firepower in order to get past the censors, director Elijah Moshinsky reinvigorates those political dynamics by placing Alzira in a troubled Peru of the 1980s, where an imaginary Spanish government struggle to quell native guerrillas (and Verdi’s echoes of Italian Risorgimento stay clear). Grainy CNN footage during the overture suggests a pattern of failed coup, renewed control, increased injustice, street violence and coup; a lurching, familiar cycle. Designer Russell Craig dresses the stage simply with grimy floor tiles and vast sliding panels to evoke the faded grandeur of Latin America, while stage flotsam – fuel cans, packing cases, an old red leather couch – suggests post-coup chaos. Dynamic lighting and video projections give the stage a hallucinogenic edge. The Spanish are power-dressed in sober black suits or black military fatigues, their women all wearing nationalistic red; the Incas, with ponchos or scarves slung over their crumpled mufti, look desperate as they skulk in a digitally projected jungle (complete with flying parrots) plotting rebellion. Alzira is clearly a treasured princess, with a lavishly embroidered belt around her peasant skirt and Frida Kahlo flowers in her hair, while her final wedding costume is a breathtaking vision of blue and gold, powerfully channelling the iconography of the Virgin Mary. As with Moshinsky’s previous two instalments of his trilogy of early Verdi for Buxton (Giovanna d’Arco, 2015 and Macbeth, 2017), we get imported sound effects of guns and bombs across the story, but not so as to disrupt the score.

And what a score it is. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, revel in it. The opera cracks along at whip-like pace, its moods and colours changing with lightning brevity. Alzira has often been dismissed as ‘just another love triangle’, but this triangle is skewed by two complex father-child relationships, another key Verdi hallmark: Alzira is being forced into marriage with the enemy by her harassed father Ataliba, while Gusmano’s gentler, urbane father Alvaro (Graeme Danby) is horrified that his son’s lust pushes him past the reach of compassion or Christian restraint. When Gusmano is fatally wounded by Zamoro, his climactic final repentance, and acceptance that Alzira and Zamoro should at last be together, is as sudden as it is unexpectedly sublime.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Until 20 July at Buxton Opera House, as part of Buxton International Festival

Production supported by Longcliffe and The Old Hall Hotel, Buxton; Buxton International Festival sponsored by Arts Council England and the University of Derby

Box office: 01298 72190

Rating: five

5 Meece Rating

 

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JERUSALEM Watermill, Nr Newbury

A REVIVAL CRASHING WITH NEW LIFE AND ANCIENT DARKNESS

 

A heatwave in  festival season, everyone’s muzzy yearning for  greenwood misrule:  it’s perfect timing for the dangerous, beguiling Rooster Byron  to slam out of his shabby caravan once more,  douse his head in the water-butt and revel in disruption and disobedience.   A perfect setting too:  the play born at the Royal Court, West End and Broadway  nearly a decade ago finds a perfect home in the rustic-beamed Watermill.  There’s bunting overhead and maypole ribbons round the pillars.  Pretty and civilized though this theatre may be,  when Rooster’s scruffy band enter running up the side- aisles you can believe they came from a darker, wilder, poorer  rural scene.

       

   At the end  of its epic London run with the peerless Mark Rylance creating the part, I went back to decide whether – without him at its core – Jez Butterworth’s play would really last. This first revival proves it can: thanks to Lisa Blair’s unfussy direction but above all to an extraordinarily powerful, utterly complete performance by Jasper Britton.   His Rooster Byron is rough,  dangerous, fascinating but never fey.   He is both   credible as a former daredevil biker and disgraceful provider of booze and drugs to bored rural teenagers ,  but shows us with finesse that beneath the grey-haired, ragged, tattooed and filthy exterior lie are edges of intellectual depth , battered personal sorrow, and the curious consoling sense of underlying virtue which made Butterworth’s play so memorable.    

 

And there is extra fascination in seeing the author’s tough, mystical-disreputable take on rural England from the far side of his extraordinary Irish-set Ferryman, with its parallel sense  (remember Aunt Maggie Far-Away.) of  a modern world alienated from,  but needily haunted by,  its dark old myths and magic.

 

 

       For Rooster’s Power over the disaffected, the eccentric, the  aimless teens and Peter Caulfield’s touchingly needy Ginger lies in more than drugs (though dammit, that’s topical as ‘county lines’ flourish) .   His defiance of eviction notices and the law is bolstered by something older and wilder:  legends, giants, earthy magic.   Butterworth’s monologues for the myth-maker are notably clever in mixing banalities – canasta, motorway service areas,  Nigerian traffic wardens – with giants at Stonehenge and miracle births.  And with the ensemble, there’s a wonderful riff about how BBC Points West merged with Bristol –  and for all they knew Belgium – and abandoned them. 

 

         These are David Goodhart’s “Somewheres”, no doubt kneejerk Brexiteers, bereaved of identity by cultural homogeneity and rural neglect.  Every character stands out:  Robert Fitch as Wesley the landlord under the brewery’s thumb,  Natalie Walter as the ex-partner who has to fight  to deny herself the ragged grey hair and bottomless black eyes of her lost but essential lover,  Rebecca Lee as Tanya pleading for attention from Sam Swann’s awkward, aspiring, reluctant Lee who may never actually get that bus to a new life.

 

           So you laugh, and shudder, and watch the gradual darkening of the picture.    Ever more you sense that through the human warmth of bantering, intoxicated comradeship , in all our private woods the old werewolf is waiting.  Britton’s great roaring finale stops the heart.  

to  21 July.  Still tickets.  Go!

Box Office 01635 46044

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE. Noel Coward WC2

CRITIC AND HELLRAISER LUKE JONES WINCES AND LAUGHS …

 

This is as violent as anything I’ve seen on the stage. And I’m including in this survey that Titus Andronicus at the Globe which saw half a GCSE class collapse before the interval. And by ‘violent’ I don’t just mean execution by hand gun at close range, I mean the subsequent vivid red splatter which streaks up the wall, the cat ‘brained’ at short distance with a hand gun, a man’s face being rubbed in the corpse, and the nonchalant request of a torturer for a cheese grater and something to muffle the screams.Each one is punctured with a top notch gag.

 

Martin McDonagh’s play can be summed up thus; an INLA (the IRA wouldn’t have him) paramilitary comes back to his home of Inishmore because he gets wind that his cat is ill. ‘Wee Thomas’, his only friend in the world, is in fact dead and when Mad Padraic finally arrives and realises he died, many others follow suit. For all the wistful nonsense literature we’ve had to endure about this part of the world, this is a firm sharp slap round the face.

 

McDonagh wanted to write a play, he says, that would make the IRA want to kill him. I can only imagine what impact the play would have had in 2001 when it was finally first staged. It’s a ferocious satire on the terrorist mindset. Blinding people, murdering them, pulling their toes out is fair game but leave the cat alone.

 

But it’s the sparky bickering and distracted conversation which really sets this play alive. Who said what, is this the right cat, should you feed it Frosties? Lines shouted at the peak of panic like “do you want a happy cat or a free Ireland?”. Also is there a better accent for the word “knickers” than Northern Irish (try it). Michael Grandage orchestrates this brilliantly. The Irish accents (perfect to my Nottinghamshire ear), the gags, the thumps all bounce along perfectly, and you feel every jab and shot.

 

Aidan Turner (Poldark sans sythe) is Mad Padraic. At first I thought well he’s the straight man so easy peasy but as the absurdity ratchets up his perfect comic timing is what keeps things ticking. The dufus duo of old man Donny (Denis Conway ) and young man Davey (Chris Walley) works beautifully as they natter endlessly as the carnage unfolds around them. Charlie Murphy as the young, aspiring paramilitary is eerily dead behind the eyes. Just like the Childish Gambino video for This is America which swept round the internet like wildfire (Google it) this has a spookily unfeeling quality. The gags have us all roaring but when someone with a blank expression “brains” someone with two handguns 2 feet from their head, 900 gobs took a sharp intake of breath. It lampoons terrorism but also gives you a flavour of the giddy mindless emptiness of it.

 

A funnier, more chilling, more satisfying comedy you will not find.

Rating  5   5 Meece Rating

Until 8th September

 

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KILLER JOE Trafalgar Studios, SW1

LUKE JONES REVELS  IN VIOLENCE, CHILL, NIGHTMARE..AND GREAT DIALOGUE

 

Orlando Bloom – denim, cowboy hat, slicked back hair, twinkling grimace – is as chilled out as a man as Texas can get. You’d have thought being a police detective and contract killer on the side would put you on edge a bit. But Killer Joe is quietly spoken,  with the calm rolls and bounces of a Texan voice. Around him is the madness.

 

Chris (the manic and fantastic Adam Gillen) wants his mother dead. Him, his sister, his dad, his dad’s new wife – none of them care if she’s dead or alive, but all are very keen on the 50,000 dollar life insurance policy she’s got dangling over her head.

 

For Tracey Letts’ first play (he won the Pulitzer years later for August:Osage County, another ‘family goes batshit’ drama), it is almost perfectly structured and paced. Each dark twist is unravelled  delicately, each scene is a steadily heating pressure cooker. And the dialogue! Cutting, mean spirited and genuinely witty (as opposed to ho ho ho theatre jokes).

 

This of course could all fall flat in the hands of idiots; thankfully Simon Evans (who wonderfully revived another Letts play, Bug, not too long ago) almost perfectly directs an incredibly talented cast. Steffan Rhodri – never a wrong call – is excellent as the coach potato father, a sort of murderous Homer Simpson. Neve McIntosh – his new wife Sharla – is a great mix of smiles on show and plots cack-handedly whirring away behind the eyes.  Adam Gillen does his ‘eyes bulging mania’ again, but it’s perfectly suited to the dim plotter son Chris. And of course Orlando Bloom is all charisma,  and his dark, slightly seedy charm neatly suits Killer Joe’s menace.

 

The only ounce of criticism I have for this production is Sophie Cookson as Dottie, the daughter who Killer Joe claims as as retainer for the hit job. Her performance is one of the few shades of innocence in this grim world. Her romance/drawn out assault is one of the most scarring threads in the play. But her accent is a rodeo that bucks around all over the place. Which is a bit distracting.

 

The masterstroke in all of this is the Reservoir Dogs-style ending; a tornado of thrown punches, gun shots, doors slammed on heads, guns dropped, throats grabbed. No flimsy stage punches here. I felt every beat. Evans cranks up the speed, then slows it right down, everyone slurring into brief slow motion. Ten out of ten for violence.

A final note of praise should go to the design:   eerie trailer park set by Grace Smart, dustily sunny then nightmarishly colourful lighting by Richard Howell, and  chilling music cues and unsettling underscoring by Edward Lewis,   A sharper, tenser, more violently entertaining night in the theatre you will not find.

 

 

Box Office to 18th August   – 0844 871 7632   

Rating  five    5 Meece Rating

 

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