Category Archives: Five Mice

INK Almeida N1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES GLORIES IN JAMES GRAHAM’S SUN BACKSTORY 

It’s a solid stunner of a play which has you punching the air for Rupert Murdoch by the interval. Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch asks in the opening scene, lit only by a sharp smokey beam of light, “What’s a story?”.

The transformation of the stuffy broadsheet into a popular tabloid with knicker week, Page 3 models, free giveaways and chunky font is one. It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press.

And sprawling real-life tales in need of snappy and dramatic condensation is James Graham’s speciality. If he had business cards (I doubt it, who does?) that would be on them. His translation of the potentially dry backroom machinations of the House of Commons under the 74-79 Labour government (This House) got theatrical juices flowing everywhere.

And here they flow freely again. The first year of the rejuvenated Sun could have run for hours and hours on stage. But Graham’s play is pacy and witty. Key moments are in there (the murder of Muriel McKay, the origin of Page 3) but it never feels like just a skip through a timeline. The full arc of the play is neat and laser-focused, and the cast are fat with good lines and fulsome, colourful, sweary and undeniably entertainingly British character.

Director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous. The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama, although of course TV would never be this good. He’s also unafraid of a slightly musical vibe. Bunny Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.

At the helm, Bertie Carvel brilliantly dishes all the dirty ambition of the Dirty Digger. But nicely mixed with the underdog fighting spirit we all like to get behind. The line between charming trailblazer and ruthless exploiter is nailed perfectly with a sly Aussie accent and a slightly twitchy mannerism. Likewise Richard Coyle (as editor Larry Lamb) embodies so smoothly the transition required by the play; go-getting outsiders turned liable players.

The entire cast (many flitting between numerous parts) have perfected the tricky line many of Graham’s characters tread. They’re warm, slightly boozy, bawdily-British triers. But they make mistakes, they misjudge, they veer off the straight and narrow. But the play doesn’t come down on them like a tonne of bricks. There’s no handwringing finale, no “CENTRAL MESSAGE” slapped around the audience’s faces. Graham simply uses the weight of research he’s compiled to confidently open a dramatic window on this world. But always, unlike so many new plays, with an eye firmly on what’s the story.

~ LUKE JONES

Rating: 5 Mice

 5 Meece Rating

Until 5th August

Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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BAT OUT OF HELL           London Coliseum WC1

WHERE ROCK ‘ N ROLL DREAMS COME TRUE

 

“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Or in this case, a red carpet  lined with Hells Angels and three generations of fans. Would you? Swelteringly, yes!. On this hot summer night, the howling, raw-rocking, Fender-bashing wolf can have us, throats and all.

 

 

Jim Steinman’s astonishing rock ballads, brought to our hearts (and my car stereo, pretty well daily)  by Meat Loaf, were originally meant for the stage, rather than just that immortal album. So this isn’t some limp jukebox musical, with a thin storyline by some dreary Ben-Eltonish  hack. They were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of  teenage yearning: “the flesh and the fantasy, the mystery and the muscle of love”.

 

 

So of course they should be onstage: and now they gloriously are, with exploding bikes and flames and a car, and guns and multicoloured smoke and somersaults and projections.    And, at their heart not just  burning jealousies but the sudden  jokes which bubble up in the deadliest of times if you are young, as they have done ever since Mercutio punned on his deathbed.

 

 

 

Jay Scheib’s production is a technical spectacular, Jon Bausor leading the design, and wild exuberant choreography by Emma Portner – the ensemble are unbelievable, both in song (Michael Reed is musical director) and in the street-wild movement. But  its chief glory is narrative and emotional. It is set in a scifi  urban dystopia where a  tribe of the  “Lost”‘ ,permanently mutated to be forever eighteen, live in tunnels under the rule of Falc, the rich property landlord. Nicely topical for London: he  rules  in his tower with his discontented wife Sloane . But Falco’s daughter Raven is loved by the gang leader Strat, who comes to her  bedroom as if in a dream (shades of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, and rather more of Peter Pan and Wendy, since Strat can’t grow older and has a jealous best friend called, er, Tink, who hates Raven).

 

 

 

Andrew Polec, a rising US star, is a powerful intense Strat in both snarling and sentimental rock mode. Christina is Bennington an enchanting Raven:  a Juliet sometimes hesitant, sometimes headlong.  Both have great rock voices, but equalling them , often cripplingly funny and occasionally touching, are Rob Fowler’s Falco and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane. The joy of Steinman’s construction is that the beloved songs are parcelled out to different characters, often  with a chorus and other subplots joining in. So Fowler and Sexton’s rendering of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, (“we were barely seventeen, we were barely dressed”) may, in its wicked hilarity get me back there. Danielle Steers’ bluesy Zahara gets the heartbreak of “One outa three aint bad”, , and – when imprisoned and beaten by Falco –  the gang members in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits get to break your heart with memories of those objects in the rear view mirror: (“So many threats and fears, so many wasted years, before my life became my own..life is just a highway and the soul is just a car..”
 

 

I keep quoting, and call on Keats and Shakespeare,  for good reason. For Steinman is a real poet: an emotionally intense balladeer of thrilled new love, when electricity runs through a beloveds  very hair, and bodies seem to rhyme:  of doubt and desire and daring and regret and absurdity, and longing for sex to be more than the moment. As an expression of eroticism it is the antithesis of porn; as a bard of biker bravura and rebellion Steinman is refreshingly uncynical.
 

 

And the music! Real rock, melodious and violent, ragingly operatic. Generations gather round it like a fire: I went with my daughter; one fan group had been over twenty times, and not all were anywhere near young. Actually, the middle aged even have a new song in which to laugh at ourselves and be laughed: Falco and Sloane’s  furious number “Who needs the young? when all WE have is traces – of the faces we once were..”

 

In short, it’s three kinds of bliss. Only those now locked impenetrably into their middle age will resist it.

 

box office   020 7845 9300        to 5 August     Off to Toronto in autumn.
Rating. Five.  5 Meece Rating

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THE FERRYMAN Royal Court, SW1

IRELAND OF THE SORROWS: THE KIDS, THE  CRAIC AND THE KILLING

 

It is 1982 in  County Armagh. Not a good time to be Irish, not there. Not with internees still in the H blocks and ten recent deaths on hunger strike. The family farm kitchen (Rob Howell’s design so complete you could almost run up the creaky staircase to bed) is getting ready for the comradeship and craic of harvest day. For half an hour the worst that happens is that the fatted goose escapes, Auntie Pat pours cold water on Uncle Pat’s favourite story, and young Oisin gets teased and wrecks his newspaper kite. But two bus rides away in Derry, impassive before a scrawled-wall curtain, we have seen hard men putting the frighteners on Father Horrigan over a dark, dead secret. Which will by slow degrees, interwoven with hearteningly ordinary farmhouse chaos, raise comedy to tragedy.

 

 

For three enthralling hours this is a hell of a piece: theatrical, engrossing, a world unfurling and reaching out hands to the heart in a dozen directions. Fizzes of humour, surprise and shock dart through it. There is immediately a lamp set on fire,  a posse of small and eloquently profane  children, and a real baby staring out the front rows with placid equanimity. There is a live goose and a baby rabbit hauled from the poacher’s pocket of a giant beard-draggled simpleton. There is Quin Carney, father of an extended family with two mothers who each have hard emotional rows to hoe, Uncle Pat who thinks the answer  to most things is in Virgil,  sour passionate Auntie Pat who has wanted to kill Englishmen ever since 1916 and greets the voice of Thatcher on World Service with a fury burning since at Cromwell and honed by worship of Parnell and O’Connell.  There are volatile teenage boys, threatening Provos , an unusual proposal of marriage, and a body in a peat bog all too recognizably preserved. There is every reason for “Aunt Maggie Far-Away” in the chimney-corner to emerge from her placid dementia from time to time with a terrible clarity of prophecy, memory, and justifiable belief in the banshee spirits who wail of death.

 
Jez Butterworth’s immense, ambitious new play takes us deep into that world and – as in his great JERUSALEM – roams beyond it into universal themes of history and legend, memory and love, childhood, song and poetry and national identity and the way national dreams sour to vicious partisan expediency. It is sometimes ragged, always magnificent. And – though after all that you may not be expecting this news – it is very often dryly, shockingly, tenderly funny. Especially in the superbly directed posse of children and teenage scenes.

 

 

Spoilers of plot – or even explaining too soon who is who – would be unforgivable. But know that the performances in Sam Mendes’ production well match up to the material: there is an extraordinary delicacy in the way that apparently comic figures become importantly tragic: not least Dearbhla Molloy’s satirical Pat and John Hodgkinson’s heartbreaking Tom Kettle , a half-witted English foundling drawn into the farm thirty years ago. Notable too are Paddy Considine as Quinn, Tom Glynn-Carney as the half-childish teenage recruit, and Laura Donnelly’s restrained, enduring Caitlin.
And for evocation of the sheer dominant cold-bastard, smart-jacketed IRA commanders of that terrible era, Turlough Convery sends shivers up your spine. The dénouement, half-expected, still shocks.

 
box office 020 7565 5000 to 20 May. Sold out, but West End transfer in June.
rating Five    5 Meece Rating

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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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