Category Archives: Five Mice

TITANIC  THE MUSICAL              Mayflower, Southampton and touring

A LATE NIGHT TO REMEMBER 

 

         At twenty to midnight, 106 years to the day after the collision,  an audience gathered in this big theatre to mark and remember the disaster.    All credit to cast and crew for doing a full production ending at 0230, its last curtain call followed by a sober minute’s silence for the seafaring city.  Cast and audience together stood facing  the memorial to the 1500 people, passengers and (mainly local) working crew, who died that night.     It was a genuinely and gently moving moment.

 

 

    So after the fascinating Shadow Factory , Southampton gets a second theatrical take on its history with the touring revival of Thom Southerland’s marvellous production of Moury Yeston’s musical..  It could hardly have a more resonant launch than this midnight performance on Saturday.   I admired the show two years ago at the little Charing Cross Theatre,  surprised at the modesty of its outing (it won Tonys in the US).   Now in the big Mayflower, with an expanded but still simple version of David Woodhead’s two-level, white-railinged set and a slightly bigger ensemble,  it more than fills the space and emotion of the moment.

 

           I wrote at the time “Stirring, decent, strong”, and that still applies.  Yeston uses the human power of a chorale,  and Peter Stone’s book wisely keeps the devised personal stories – aspirational, ambitious, ambiguous – brief and impressionistic.  The choruses intensify the awareness  that all classes, roles and responsibilities were,  literally,   in the same boat.   There is a fidelity to the period’s Edwardian style, and also to its vaulting ambition and belief in a new world of engineering and opportunity, and to the simple fact that on a sea voyage however firm the class distinctions every individual has a right to hopes and dreams.

 

 

      The pride and astonishment of creating “the biggest moving object on earth” is shared, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes,  to the sixty-shilling Irish in third class dreaming of grander lives in the US, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin, again) determined to stand next to an Astor or Guggenheim if it kills her, the first-class passengers who are also given their humanity, and the labouring stokers in the engine-room.    Philip Rham again is the Captain, and  Greg Castiglioni takes over as the designer Andrews from Harland and Wolf ,  passionately scribbling bulkhead changes which might have saved them, even as he knows it is the end.    Simon Green is the arrogant, legend-chasing Ismay from White Star, urging reckless speed, nagging the Captain, never admitting his share of the blame.

 

         Some arias stand out intensely, like the wireless-operator’s hymn to the magical new connection which could have saved them; but it is the choruses,  the swirling strings under Mark Aspinall’s direction  and the simple honesty of the whole cast’s  performances  that create – unforgettably on that late night performance – a sense of taking part in what is as much a meditation as a drama.    Catch the tour if you can.  

box office 02380 711811  to 21st

touring : titanicthemusical.co.uk   to August.   Touring Mouse wide

rating Five  5 Meece Rating

 

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR CORRECT ASSEMBLY Royal Court, SW1

SCI-FI AND SORROW

 
We begin with a tiny proscenium box, an almost Punch-and-Judy window, framing Harry and his wife Max: nice middle-aged people, evoked to sitcom perfection by a bearded, tinkeringly-engineerish Mark Bonnar and a bright Jane Horrocks. They are ordering a DIY kit for Prime next-day delivery, and starting to fuss over it. Meanwhile neighbours at a dinner party boast of their Oxford daughter and brilliant younger siblings. We gather that Max and Harry had one son, Nick. And what to him happened could be – well, could happen to anyone. Neighbour’s brilliant daughter was sorry to miss the funeral.

 

So far, so middle-class observational. But the first bit of the kit completed, as they prattle on, is a foot. Then a leg.. We guess that the little screen will widen, and widen again, and so does the significance of this arresting, original sci-fi domestic tale. They are building a robot, specification “white and polite”. A young man. It keeps them busy. It looks, the uneasy neighours notice, rather like the late Nick. Indeed it and Nick are both played by Brian Vernel, who in a series of flashbacks shows us how the living boy ran off the rails, stole to buy drugs, ran away…

 

The robot will give no such trouble, though for a while it is both creepy and funny as the couple struggle to programme it to their values, nervously zapping the remote to correct “his”’ attitudes and language. Young Vernel is quite superb, an arresting and technically intensely skilful performer zapping in and out of malfunction as the robot and teenage rebellion as Nick,  often confusing us into thinking Nick reformed before he died (“I’m gonna do it this time Mum”) , until a malfunction reveals it as a delusion programmed by the sad parents. Hilariously he flicks between speaking as an ideal, ambitious, nice-minded perfect son and a complete horror picked up from trash TV, as the parents dive for the remote-control. Sometimes there is an eerie sense that the robot’s AI is picking up the resentments each partner has against the other over the dead son.

 

Yet it is a profoundly compassionate, intelligent, heartbreaking play: about parenthood and grief, self-delusion, and the commodification and competitiveness surrounding the idea of an ideal family (Horrocks is happiest when her son seems to be enjoying ironing) . It is about the unintentional wrongs we all do, the terrible sorrow of love, the dogged need to carry on and seem cosy after a climactic disaster, and the painful empty-nest longing to have young hopeful life around the house.

 

It is terrific, and a delight to see the development of Thomas Eccleshare (I loved his PASTORAL at Hightide years ago). Vernel is a talent to watch, and Hamish PIrie’s direction is sharp and sure-footed, handling the deliberate confusions well. It does not need the interludes of robotic, stylized ensemble movement between scenes, which feel as if Pirie thinks we’re too dim to grasp the idea. But that is the tiniest of flaws in the most thoughtful sci-fi since THE NETHER.

 

box office 0207 565 5000

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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CHICAGO Phoenix, WC2

   THE JOINT IS JUMPING!  AGAIN…

 

 

    Openings are running in themed  sets – three Restoration comedies coming along like No.11 buses, and now  two nights running we have  trials as showbiz and showbiz ending in court.  After the neon ITV world of QUIZ , comes the unmatchable razzle-dazzle of Kander  and Ebb’s 1975 shocker,  under its Broadway director and with Anne Reinking and Gary Chryst giving it a loving update of that jerky, threateningly exhilarating Bob Fosse choreography.  Here are the murderous snarls and artful smiles,  supple cynicism on endless sheer  black-stockinged legs, and a hot hot band. Which lives as usual onstage, 1920’s jazz culture itself a character in the telling of the story of Roxie, Velma and the merry murderesses of Cook County , competing for the flourish and finagle of Billy Flynn the lawyer…

 

 

This time round our Billy is the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr, no less, looking happy as a sandboy on the West End stage.  He’s a workaday basic singer but that doesn’t matter when you’re  a slinky mover,  delivering deadpan comic contempt,  and always an exuberant stage presence  whether smothered in fan-dancers or giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle in a rain of sparkles.   Paul Rider is the best Amos I have ever seen:  his Mr Cellophane  brings the house down in that slyly calculated momentary quietening of pace:  Mr Decent Ordinary Sap lost in the predominant whirl of perfect limbs,  stumping bravely puzzled in contrast to that graceful subversive sexy grotesquery of dances which you never forget.

 

 

      The  London cast is glorious:  Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Is a curly blonde doll, a platinum minx vith a voice of honey : Josefina Gabrielle Velma Kelly , venomously acrobatic (O,the cartwheels!).  Our own Ruthie Henshall is a svelte, sharp -suitedly new interpretation of  Mama Morton  (she’s played  both Roxie and Velma in the past, a record triple).  Her voice is glorious, and mingling with Gabrielle’s in the fabulous “Nobody’s got no class” moment, a proper treat. Others get their moment too, notably Nicola Coates as Go-to-hell-Kitty doing an impressive banister slide. Indeed all the movement is well thought of, down to the single drunk juror who manages to feel up both Billy Flynn and Roxie. 

 

     Oh, and cheers to every last member of the band under Ian Townsend, hitting show-off solos and pumping ensembles with authentic jazzman glee.

 

www.atgtickets.com      to 6 october

rating  five5 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Noel Coward Theatre, WC1

SWOTS OR SWINDLERS, VILLAINS OR VICTIMS?

 

 

Sometimes a West End transfer serves a play royally. At Chichester last year I enjoyed James Graham’s playful, thoughtfully mischievous treatment of the case of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and the geeky Tecwen Whittock: the trio convicted of cheating-by-cough-code on ITV’s triumphantly tacky quiz Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But some overdone pub-quizzery in the first half slowed it down (we have to answer questions like a studio audience, and vitally get to vote electronically at the end on their guilt). And I only gave it four. Here’s the original review, with the bones of it:

https://tinyurl.com/ybwhkmbz

But now in the West End it’s actually better, a real five-star piece. With some audience seats onstage and a hellish neon TV studio set, it makes a great gig: continually entertaining, with a shape-shifting cast conjuring up barristers, ITV executives and every popular hero from Hilda Ogden to Craig David, led by Keir Charles becoming bygone peaktime horrors like Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Des O”Connor. And who is frankly and joyfully beyond-wicked as Chris Tarrant the host – mugging and squirming, a blond writhe of showy self-importance.

It has been tightened a bit, with the result that the two central characters, once more Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street, emerge still clearer . Spokes is a marvel as Ingram, James Graham’s delicate writing establishing him from the start as a bit bumbling, a dutiful middle-aged military chap who cares for his job and his family; Street evokes quiz-mad Diana in her .restless but kindly ambition (this is a service wife, remember: hampered by a lifetime of moves and postings and absences and economies). Their love story, a stick-to-it marriage, is a tribute; if they ever see the show, I cannot see them minding much.

 

And Graham’s serious points emerge still clearer too: the rise of “emo-tainment”, the class-conscious manipulation of the masses for profit, and above all the age – then evolving as the century turned, now extreme – of nosey, lipsmacking knee-jerk judgment of strangers: the age of Twitterstorms and whining, hostile identity-politics. Though you laugh aloud every few minutes, it’s a damn serious piece.

 

And yes, once again the audience voted guilty after the first act, paid attention to a fiery performance by Sarah Woodward as the defence barrister in the second – and voted not guilty. We chose to believe the hapless Ingrams over a vindictive and seemingly manipulative TV company. Apparently that happens most nights. Good.

 

box office 0844 482 5140 http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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CAROLINE OR CHANGE Hampstead, NW3

GUEST CRITIC JENNIFER-JANE BENJAMIN FINDS WHAT MATTERS

 

Lights up. A confederate statue. A blackout. And it disappears. It’s November 1963 and we’re in Lake Charles, Louisiana. JFK has just been assassinated. There’s a rumble of a shift of something in the air but for Caroline Thibodeaux, nothing ever changes in Louisiana. She’s 39, divorced, and has four children. For twenty-two of her thirty-nine years she has worked as a maid for a wealthy white Jewish family. She dreams of being kissed by Nat King Cole. 

Musicals rarely get to be this important. And important this one is. The Chichester revival of this play was performed in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting by then 21-year-old white supremacist Dylan Roof. Shortly after the end of the run came the Charlottesville Rally – a rally organised in protest at the proposed removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. It is sobering to think that though more than 50 years have passed since the time of this somewhat autobiographical Kushner piece, black Americans still are still fighting the same fight, still in all the same places.
The state of our world increasingly forces those who live in it to face the conundrum of trying to reconcile diametrically opposed philosophical ideals. It’s a recurring quandary in this play: Should we love the men who abuse us? Is an ally really an ally if they promise change but act in a complacence that perpetuates the status quo? Who is right in the conflict of the elder who just wants a quiet life and the younger who is ready for a revolution? Is it ever OK to use immoral means to attain moral ends? Can we justify the use of moral means to preserve immoral ends? In Caroline’s final solo number she calls to God for an answer, but there are no simple ones.
The power of the 17-strong ensemble produced the the kind of chemistry that draws you to the edge of your seat. I saw much of my younger self in Abiona Omonua’s portrayal of Emmie Thibodeaux, the sixteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ daughter of Caroline, who doesn’t believe in the idea of unquestionable respect and spoke back to the adults around her accordingly. Similarly relatable was Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Dotty Moffett, the bobby sock and saddle shoe wearing black woman who was using education as a means to a better life. The Radio trio that was T’Shan Williams, Carole Stennett and Sharon Rose gave TLC mixed with The Supremes vibes. It was special. In fact, all of The Objects deserve a shout out: Me’sha Bryan as the Washing Machine, Angela Caesar as The Moon, Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus. inanimate by name, but definitely not by nature. And of course, there was Sharon D Clarke. There are places deep inside us that only song can reach; when her – sometimes mellifluous, sometimes scorching – tones reach that place, they shake your soul and awaken your spirit.
The two-and-a-half hour performance is visually gorgeous thanks to stage and costume design by Fly Davis and Ann Yee’s choreography. Jeanine Tesori’s music teamed with Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics were made for each other. Add to that the direction by Michael Longhurst – the man who brought us the five star spectacle that is Amadeus, currently on at the National Theatre – and it is a recipe for a perfect production. It is impossible to fathom how this musical was a Broadway flop; those Americans clearly don’t know a good thing when they see one.
il
Box office 020 7722 9301  TO 21 APRIL
£10 tickets for under 30s
RATING  FIVE
5 Meece Rating

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PRESSURE TR Bath & TOURING

 DANGEROUS DAYS AND COURAGEOUS SCIENCE

 

 

This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…

 

 

Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/ and every last mouse of it.

https://touringconsortium.co.uk/show/pressure/Touring: Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER Empire, Haymarket

FREE HANKY WITH EVERY PROGRAMME (honest..!)

 

Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing . And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.

 

 

Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Noel Coward himself (I’d forgotten Go Slow Johnny.. you’re no Brando, rallentando..). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.

 

 

, My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment-room and station staff ,(Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ‘50s) . The live band onstage and the songs , especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930’s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto. But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.

 

The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh , sky-high. Glorious.

 

 

0844 8717628; briefencounterwestend.com  to Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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