Category Archives: Five Mice

A Christmas Carol. Old Vic SE1

ITS BACK…THIIS TIME GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS THE PURRING THEATRE CHRISTMASCAT

libby, christmas cat

 

A Christmas Carol – with lots of carols? Whoda thunk it? The idea is almost stupefying in its simplicity, but my goodness it works wonderfully, adding weight and meaning and, yes, proper context to Charles Dickens’ oft told story of personal redemption.

 

This is a production that uses timeless songs like The Coventry Carol, O Holy Night and See, amid the Winter’s Snow to unlock so much of the mystery and meaning of Dickens’ story, each one fitting the action like a snug winter glove. What a jukebox director Matthew Warchus has at his disposal, and in these secular times it’s a pleasant surprise to have the Nativity celebrated in this way.

 

Because what writer Jack Thorne’s version of this beloved 1843 novella reminds us above all is that Dickens’ story is not about one magical night of transformation, but for everyone to remember the Christmas message of goodwill and generosity to the world at large; or as Scrooge himself puts it at the conclusion of his journey, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year”. And that is an unmistakeably Christian instruction.

 

This freshened-up production, returning to the Old Vic after its premiere in 2017, is first rate.

 

Rob Howell’s design creates a cross-shaped stage that threads its way through the stalls. Four doors rise up to admit the ghosts, creating portals that act imaginatively in ways that are inevitably both literal and figurative.

 

On a simple set Scrooge sits alone while a crew of wassailers sing around him; of course he rejects their overtures, but, like the three Christmas ghosts (all played by women), they keep returning, a crescendo of kindness he can’t ultimately resist.

 

Stepping into the lead role, and following Rhys Ifans and Stephen Tompkinson in previous years, is Paterson Joseph, familiar to fans of cult comedy  Peep Show as the idiotically vain Alan Johnson, and here giving one of the performances of his life. His humanity simply erupts onto the stage, especially in those moments when he faces up to his treatment of Rebecca Trehearn’s Belle, the woman he once loved.

 

Thorne’s script is also notable for the way it interrogates the question of what made Scrooge who he is and finds part of the answer in is appalling treatment at the hands of his drunken father. He’s not excused, of course, but understanding of that, and Joseph’s skilled portrayal of a man whose sheer humanity allows for nuggets of goodness, means we are consistently pointed us towards the possibility of redemption.

 

And when it comes it feels simultaneously inevitable and gloriously surprising. The stage becomes a cornucopia of Christmas treats and fruits and the final moments of lamplit carolling, bell ringing and snowfall at the close will make your heart leap. I urge you to go and see this truly fabulous show.

 

Until January 18. Box Office: 0344 871 7628.

Rating five   5 Meece Rating

NB here too Below is the link to my last review of it. Ben and I are of one mind…

 

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MARY POPPINS. Prince Edward Theatre. w1

BEN DOWELL AND DAUGHTER POP WITH PLEASURE AT ITS PEP..

It has floated in one the chilly autumn breeze like a much-needed blast of summer sunshine. Yes, this Mary Poppins is as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as one can hope, a riot of good cheer, fun, excellent signing and some quite breathtaking stagecraft.

Most importantly, and I don’t think this is reflected upon often enough, the cast have a blast and it’s infectious. They smile and cheer through two and a half hours of this and it’s hard to resist.

Ironically, though, this production first seen in 2004, is a slightly darker experience than the film we all know. It’s based more heavily on the PL Travers stories and supplements the Richard and Robert Sherman songs from the Julie Andrews Disney film with new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

In some respects, it is an odd hybrid given Poppins author PL Travers’ reservations about the 1964 movie. Here many of the much-loved songs (Chim Chimenee, Feed the Birds, Fly a Kite and of course Supercali) are kept in, as the sunniness we know from many a rainy Saturday or Christmas watch; but this vies with the edginess of Travers’ original vision and one cannot help but wonder that Travers (who died in 1996) would have preferred an even gritter take.

Still, she’d probably be pleased with the opening salvos when we meet the Banks children (played with aplomb on the night I saw it by Nuala Peberdy and Edward Walton) who are terrifically unpleasant, overprivileged little brats, looking down on Bert the chimneysweep and the Bird lady who, fans of 1960s singing legends will be pleased to hear, is played by 86-year-old Petula Clark.

The kids’ mum, Mrs Banks, doesn’t engage in suffragette politics as she does in the film. She begins the action essentially yearning for a better marriage to someone who doesn’t have a broomstick up his backside and doesn’t sneer at her for once being an actress (a detail which enjoys a lot of knowing chuckles on stage).

And theatre’s terror too, not least mid-way through the first half when the children abuse their toys, and Poppins ticks them off rather magnificently and brings them to life, culminating in the rather nightmarish spectacle of a gigantic Mr Punch marionette looming over their playroom.

But this sense of compromise, of a tussle between shade and light, feels, to me, the key to the success of this production, played out in Bob Crowley’s doll’s house design, which fold and unfolds the magic and darkness of the story with consideration and care.

That, and a superb Mary in Zizi Strallen. She vocally on the money, but the success of her performance rests in her capacity to capture good cheer, sternness and otherworldly mystery of the part. She is quite simply dazzling in the role, moving with balletic grace (unsurprising, perhaps since the show is choregraphed by Matthew Bourne) and lighting up the stage whenever she appears.

I also loved Charlie Stemp as Bert, who enjoys the show’s best moment when he tap dances horizontally on the walls of the proscenium and then upside down on its arch. He’s dancing on air. As was I and my 8-year-old daughter.

To 20 June
Rating 5. 5 Meece Rating

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AN INSPECTOR CALLS Touring

INSPECTOR GOOLE,  BACK  BACK ON THE ROAD 

 

Below,  edited, is my original London review of this remarkable production.  This new tour deserves to be marked, though:   regarding the tour cast, Liam Brennan reprises Goole, splendidly, and notably elsewhere is Chloe Orrock as a particularly strong Sheila Birling and Alasdair Buchan an impressive Gerald.  Its strength is undimmed: its social message useful, and now in the age of MeToo the echoes of recent assaults and contempts for young women hit even harder.   And at the end of the first week of the tour,  the extraordinary set behaved exactly as it should at the Oxford Playhouse. Which is a triumph in itself.  You’ll see why when you watch it..

   Go catch… 

OLDER REVIEW EDITED:

     Over 25 years on from its first outing at the National,  Stephen Daldry’s  interpretation of the old JB Priestley standard –  not least due to Ian MacNeil’s design – is one of the most powerful stage metaphors ever.    The smug Birling family are both elevated and nicely cramped – the physical reflecting the mental – in a bright-lit  dolls-house perched above a misty, derelict city and its wandering urchins.   The interrogation and revelations that rock them – and literally bring their house down –  are staged like a ‘40s  air raid, even down to the smoky, climactic moment when members collapse amid wreckage and are swathed in brown blankets by silent citizens..   Yet the house  rises and brightens again in smugness, for a moment.     

 

    There was some astonishment in 1992 that Stephen Daldry, edgy new director,  not only chose Priestley’s morality play but stripped away the fusty Edwardiana which had distanced its capitalist arrogance from our own.  But it blew us away then, and does it again now, its force undimmed.  Daldry, as we know from everything from Billy Elliott to Netflix’s The Crown,  is at his best dealing with dramatic social and moral themes.  And that this production  is back to make a new generation gasp is splendid:  I watched a matinee alongside at least two enormous school parties,  blazers and hijabs all around me,  swaggering or giggling in with squawks about “No interval? Whassat? Miss!”. 

 

  But its hundred minutes saw them quiet, breathingly absorbed and,  more than once,  gasping.  Not bad for a 1912 play about a smug Edwardian family party visited by the artfully titled  “Inspector Goole”,  who gradually makes them all realize that each in turn – father, mother, son, daughter and her fiancé, has been – or may have been – complicit in driving a young woman to a horrible suicide.      Liam Brennan is an unusually emphatic Goole (well, unusually for me as I love the Alistair Sim film, but it works)

 

 Daldry and MacNeil’s sociali-justice metaphor of the rich house  precariously aloft over a changing, struggling city could hardly be more fit for now:  the arrogant, petulant, grasping rich literally besieged  by the reality of wider society and refusing the lessons of justice.   “If we will not learn that lesson” says Goole, to the audience,  “we will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.  Behind him, in the cathartic moment,   Mrs Birling is trying to polish her silverware,  her husband blustering,  only the younger spirits shaken into understanding the responsibility, long denied by old Birling,  for “all having to look after each other like bees in a hive”.  

  

rating five5 Meece Rating

TOURING to 23 May    Newcastle next      

  https://www.aninspectorcalls.com/tour-dates   Touring Mouse wide

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MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS Lyttelton, SE1

A COLLIDING WORLD

   

  Couldn’t miss this: for two years as a teenager (Dad in the Jo’burg Embassy)   I lived alongside the frightened, arrogant paranoia of  white South Africa under apartheid.  The memory cuts deep.   Athol Fugard has long been a voice chronicling with sorrowful understanding that toxic regime ,   its emotional fallout as well as its injustices.   The title matters:  I remember how universal and crushing was the word “boy”, as  the most dignified senior black man could be called it by even the trashiest white.

 

         This play is personal:  a hundred minutes of real-time in a small eastern-Cape tearoom in 1950,  written in tribute to two real men in  the young Fugard’s childhood:  waiters in the family business,   Sam Semela and Willie Malopo.    One of the ironies of apartheid always was the playful, happy familiarity of many white children with black servants or minders,  in even the most racistly convinced families.  But  the approach of adult dignities could turn that relationship sour and shaming,  as a  “Hally”  became “Master Harold” .    Under director Roy Alexander Weise, the play moves with slow atmospheric pace,  building a world before us both onstage and off.  

 

    We first see the ‘boys’ – Lucian Msamati as Sam  and Hammed Animashaun as Willie,  practising and discussing  a ballroom dancing competition.   Sam is older, dapper and dryly witty in his white coat and bowtie, correcting big gangling Willie’s steps and persuading him that if he wants his girlfriend Hilda to turn up to rehearsals he really must stop knocking her about.  Young Harold  stumps in to the family tearoom, fresh from school, shrilly adolescent verging on insufferable, moaning about his homework :  Anson Boon catches the Afrikaner accent, grating alongside the deep voices of the men, at first sometimes hard to make out but rising as the hour goes on.    Sam picks up books and reads with careful slowness, interested in new words,  approving of a history text about Napoleon’s belief in human equality.  Hally tends to patronize him.   But the joshing has warmth too, as they argue about Darwin, Caesar, Jesus;, the boy even forgetting his white dignity when Sam scores a point. 

 

        They start remembering how as a child he would sneak out to the servants’ quarters and hide under Sam’s bed.  Through phone calls from his mother we discover that the father – crippled, and a drunk –  is being brought home from hospital and that Hally dreads the chamberpots, the caring, the spittle, the drinking;  yet  on the phone to his father he is determinedly affectionate.  The mood rises and falls,  Hally’s anger spilling over sometimes to be vented on the patient Sam,  then abating again as they remember a kite the older man once made him.  In a marvellous evocation of excitement,  the two ‘boys’ explain about the ballroom competition and its grace and dignity.  Don’t couples ever collide? asks the lad and Sam .  “It’s like being in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen”.  

 

        Hally fires up, suddenly animated about an idea – “the way you want life to be…get the steps right, no collisions…the United Nations is – a dancing school for politicians!”     He scribbles notes – “native culture, the war dance replaced by the waltz”  but Sam kindly ignores that crassness.   The two  men dance, demonstrating moves;  Msamanti ,  always an actor of awesome depth of dignity and emotion (remember his Salieri?) is a miracle of physical wit and grace.   Animashaun is a touching, effortful Willie.  

   It is beautiful. Then it is ugly:  the father’s imminent return makes Hally defensive ,  defiant.  Demanding respect, sneering at the dance,  despising his father.   Not without reason;   but when the properly fatherlike  Sam pulls him up,   suddenly it’s young-master and despised kaffir.  The shock of the k-word  knocks you reeling. And  there’s worse, and as the world of harmony  tilts into filth you can feel the jolt going through the audience.  

        So it should. Are we given a hint of redemption, of hope?  Yes.  Only just. But it’s enough to bring the house to its feet in mere relief. 

      

www. nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  17 dec   

rating  five  . 4 Meece Rating

 …Note that the fifth is a dancemouse,  because the choreographer and movement director Shelley Maxwell does a fine, fine job…. Musicals Mouse width fixed

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BIRTHDAYS PAST, BIRTHDAYS PRESENT            Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

80 NOT OUT,  THE SAGE OF SCARBOROUGH  

  

Not everything would send me via  divers and standing-room trains from Stratford to Scarborough.  But this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, marking his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as a playwright.   And though it  may  (should!) last and travel like his other best ones,  I needed to see it on his home turf: the round SJT, the  Circus-Maximus where for decades he has thrown Middle England into battle with the wild beats of its nature.   On a wet Friday a sudden rainbow met me as I stumbled from the station.  Old Sir-Alan has earned it again with this :  a play very English, very Yorkshire,  streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkle of sparkles of hilarity as once again he shakes his head, not unaffectionately, at the puzzle of men and women. 

 

  He himself directs :  its a four-hander family tale told backwards through time (like Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along).  First meet Mickey, a graceless grump marking 80 with a fine dry wit,  tended by Meg with her tea-tray.  The son Adrian and his latest girlfriend Grace are coming to birthday tea.   Deft as ever, Ayckbourn reveals the family’s shape:  Adrian is the slowcoach, his siblings higher-flying and often abroad;  he had a failed marriage to a divorcee with children, and always in the background was once Uncle Hal, the black sheep.  This constantly funny opener is enlivened by Mickey’s determination to warn the mousy, churchy Grace that his son is famously sexually voracious,   what women of a past age hushedly called a “satyr” (“Once he gets you into bed, you do well to brace yourself!”).     This reputation feels  blinkingly unlikely as the great smiling lunk himself shambles in, all goodwill and hope for the 42-year-old he met at a church social.  What can Mickey mean? Is he really a sexual Superman? We shall learn. 

 

        For as the stagehands elegantly reposition and unfold the furnishings in the arena (Kevin Jenkins’s ingenious design is part of the pleasure)   the next birthday,  15 years earlier,  is his wife’s 60th, when she has become a bottle-blonde in mumsily pink glamour , brawling over the offstage buffet.  While Adrian and his still-married  wife with touching awkwardness  reveal how far from a satyr he is.  Aha: we are beginning to understand that actually, this is a play about the hardness of being a shy good man in a world of baffling women.  Jamie Baughan’s performance is immaculate in its underachieving sweetness, and later he’ll break your heart even more. For it is his lonely thirtieth birthday next,  and another clue to Mickey’s legend;  finally it is his brash elder sister’s 18th,  setting him at 17 on his life’s trail of kindly, modest humiliation.

     

    Baughan holds the play’s real heart,  and Russell Dixon and Jemma Churchill neatly grow younger over five decades as the parents. But the glorious set-pieces come  from the astonishing Naomi Petersen as four of the women in Adrian’s life:  thwartedly churchy Grace,  a disastrously depressed and self-absorbed wife Faith, a shy schoolgirl of long ago. And,  most gloriously of all,  a mouthy prostitute donated, on Adrian’s birthday  by his Uncle Hal .   For reasons not fit to disclose before you hurry up there with a ticket,  a major highspot is her hen impression – chicken-in-a-basque if you like.  

 

  Yet always underneath it beats Ayckbourn’s sorrowful, understanding heart, showing us that comedy is just tragedy on its way to happening.   Happy Birthday, Sir Alan!

box office sjt.uk.com    to 5 October

rating  Five 5 Meece Rating

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TWO LADIES Bridge, SE1

GLOBAL AND GENDER POLITICS IN  PERFECT MINIATURE

  

  A glass conference-centre in the host nation France;  a visiting US President avid for airstrikes after a terrorist outrage , demanding EU backing. The talks are on,  but we are with the two  first-ladies  in lockdown in a side room. Demonstrators have soaked the US President’s glamorous lady with animal blood, shocking against her chic white suit.  Aides bustle about, keen to spin the  change of clothes into something patriotically symbolic.   But mostly it is duel or duet between the two leads: a fine-drawn cool Zoe Wanamaker  and a brilliant slow reveal by an utterly fascinating, masterfully restrained Zrinka Cvitesic.  

        

In a tight 90 minutes  Nancy Harris’ new play  moves from a sharp,  occasionally funny observation of this wifely condition into a meditation on politics both gender and global: under Nicholas Hytner’s tight directorial hand it rises to a chilling edge and neat final twist :   a Tardis of a play, bigger than its size.    Harris fictionalizes the first ladies well within current reality –   Wanamaker’s  Helen 24 years her French husband’s senior and once his teacher, but British-born and a former  liberal journalist and  speechwriter to her spouse  although “little men with pencils” strike out her best lines. She is irritable at exclusion from the real power-game and the coming futility of a “Women’s Forum” dinner.   

 

         The US President’s younger lady  (Cvitescic)  is Sophia:  East European, every inch a former model and soft-porn actress with her own steely dignity.  Brilliantly telling is her calm peasant acceptance when she strips to her petticoat to clean herself up with a bucket and soap before shrugging on a clean frock .  And, early on and startlingly ,  reveals that the perfume in her handbag is actually poison, for final “control” if she is kidnapped.  It was from “friends”. Not the CIA.  She comes of a harsher culture.   This is one of the first of many moments when she rattles the composure of the sophisticated  Helen, whose handbag has never held anything more practical than an argumentative book. Probably by a Guardian columnist. 

            The beauty of the women’s interaction lies in how this contrast widens into  a meditation on the two Europes.   On a personal level neither has a perfect marriage. One’s a trophy  wife,  the other aware of her younger husband’s infidelity but thinking she holds him by the intellect.   But though both feel thwarted by patriarchy, on one side there is smug educated Western liberalism,  and on the other a fierce Balkan practicality,. When Sophia flatly observes that men will always be able to humiliate women because they have the power,  Helen splutters “not any more!”. Cvitesic’s eyes roll up.

      For the US wife is  clear-eyed,  personally toughened by the brutality of rapist wars, knows she is seen as “the wrong sort of European” and an upstart tart.  Yet as it turns out , politically she  burns with a headlong Antigone spirit  more powerful than the appalled Helen can share.   A third grace-note of female exasperation comes when Lorna Brown’s vigorous Sandy, the US aide,   is patronized by Helen and saltily observes that as a single mother with kids to raise she objects to being  “talked down to by rich-ass liberal white women…while I save the asses of people with a lot more money and power who never say thanks” .  Ouch.  Perfect. 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 26 October

rating  five 5 Meece Rating  

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A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON Old Vic, SE1

IN  PLAYFUL  ANGER,   A TALE FOR OUR TIMES

     

  On his deathbed in 2006  the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed , to make public what had been done to him.  The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble.   He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before-  and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest.   Police work at last pretty much proved this,     but governments of both colours  explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity” .  There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers  Lugovoi and Kovtun,  or to remonstrate with Putin.

 

     But in their teeth,  his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers  fought for a public inquiry,  and ten years later it reported damningly.   She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this  extraordinary evening.   At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A & E,  is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself:  gangling, earnest, decent,  a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB)  who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it,   refused the “wet job”  of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky,  and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts.    He couple believed in British justice ,  but it failed him after his death.   And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”. 

 

     The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience,  meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning.    Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony. The two absurdly incompetent murderers  – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls .   Between the domestic stories of the LItvinenkos and  the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs., one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky  about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs. There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily  patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play,  and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus.    But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real –  based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko.    It is satisfying that Prebble,  who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning,  should do it again with even more fury,   using theatre to entertain and appal  in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might  “go down in flames” .

 

     It won’t.  The very absurdity of the killers  (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral,  and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders .  Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella;  have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide.  There is nothing tasteless about anger  being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it.  And the human reality is held constantly before us  in the  shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko. 

 

     Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city  will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her  and shame at our shabbiness.  It needed telling.  

box office   oldvictheatre.com    to 5 Oct.    It deserves to transfer.

principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

     

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DAS RHEINGOLD Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF GRIMEBORN’S GLITTERING TREASURE

The Ring Cycle is opera’s biggest box set: a sixteen-hour binge of dwarves, nymphs, dragons, gods, heroes and monsters, all suspended inside one of the greatest philosophical conundrums expressed by the human mind – and set to glorious, extraordinary music. Technically, Das Rheingold is a ‘preparatory evening’: it’s the story of why the whole story began (or in Netflix, “Previously on The Ring Cycle…”). Accordingly, it’s got lots of characters, lots of plot; after all, it’s setting up three more huge music dramas, culminating in the death of the gods, the end of everything and the burning down of the entire world (in order for love and virtue to be restored to a purified universe: well, Wagner never did anything by halves).

It therefore may surprise some people that it’s possible to find a Rheingold which takes only 100 minutes to perform (that’s a whole hour shorter than usual), but this year’s Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre offers just that: Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove’s controversially slimmed version in a brilliantly minimalist, tightly honed production directed by the eagle-eyed Julia Burbach. Dove often cuts and joins on the same chord, allowing the piece to flow seamlessly ahead, and if you know it really well, you’ll know where the joins are, and even notice (shock horror) where Dove has interpolated the odd passage to fill the cracks. But, for the rest of us: this Rheingold is a revelation. The only shortcuts taken are in the score itself, which is played with surprising richness (given the confined space) by the 18-strong Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted with care and precision by Peter Selwyn: meanwhile, the singing is top notch, the acting forensic, the staging ingenious. Bettina John’s design uses cardboard boxes as giant building blocks, decorated with hand-drawn graffiti summoning all the iconography of the Ring, as well as Valhalla itself, which can be built and rebuilt at will while Wotan argues with his giant builders about their fee. John’s creativity is literally brilliant: just watch how Alberich steals the gold from the Rhine by snatching all light from the stage in his mirrored palm (my jaw dropped).

Burbach’s direction makes this Rheingold very much Alberich’s story, played with tantalising humanity by Seth Carico: from the first moment he saunters on stage, picks up cardboard headphones and begins to imagine the world into musical and literal being, Carico’s Alberich is a dreamer disillusioned by rejection and stung into bitter vengefulness, soon scared but also intoxicated by the power of his Ring – I’ve never seen a more fascinating Alberich, quite apart from Carico’s crystal-clear tenor. Kiandra Howarth produces a stunning dual performance as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and goddess Freia, her creamy soprano glowing with energy; meanwhile, Claire Barnett-Jones and the stunning Marianne Vidal alternate nightly between Fricka and Wellgunde, which is luxury casting whichever way round you get them, with Angharad Lyddon completing the nymph trio as a vivid, passionate Flosshilde. Barnett-Jones’ Fricka exudes emotional intelligence, yet remains vulnerable in her permanent suspicion of Wotan, marvellously depicted by Paul Carey Jones, who gives us a masterful account of a god of many layers, from ruthless corporate master of the universe to a penetrating world soul, troubled and intrigued by the warnings of Erda (the magnificent Harriet Williams). Andrew Tipple’s huggably innocent craftsman Fasolt is a resonant treat, while Dingle Yandell is spot on with the acquisitive callousness of Fafner, Yandell’s rich bass deep enough for a Rhinemaiden to dive in. Philip Sheffield’s dapper, weaselly Loge is memorably acted, voiced with a distinctive metallic edge which rather suits this sharp dealer in spin. Gareth Brynmor John’s ebullient Donner, complete with immaculate trainers, baseball bat and braggadocio attitude, brings weight to the family dynamic throughout, finishing with the most sumptuous of storm-summoning arias… The world may not be on fire yet, but this cast definitely are, many of them making role debuts. [And meanwhile, guess who’s already booked to be Longborough’s Wotan next year? Paul Carey Jones.]

If you’re a Wagner fan, you’re likely to go one of two ways. One I’d characterise as the “Granny’s china” route: “How dare Jonathan Dove make cuts to the genius of Wagner? How dare anyone mess with my best, most precious Rheingold, which must only be brought out in full on special occasions and handled with the very best dramatic care at all times?” The other way, however, I’d call the “gateway drug” route: “This may be shortened, but it’s musically breathtaking, emotionally gripping, and dramatically convincing, and is a better advert for the genius of Wagner to a new audience than I’ve seen for ages: if they see this, it’s good enough to get them wanting more.”

My vote: if there any tickets left at all, swap your immortal apple-growing sister for one immediately. And don’t take a jumper – the Arcola gets hotter than a Nibelheim mineshaft. But it’s so, so worth it.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 10 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Five

5 Meece Rating

 

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ROMEO AND JULIET           Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead Suffolk

   ROCK ’N ROLL N’ ROMEO 

 

    Deep under the trees, beyond Jimmy’s meerkat and camel enclosures lies a 1960’s beach: shelter, deckchairs and lounging teens,  Mods and Rockers,  Montague and Capulet.   Shakespeare speaks the famous prologue:  “Two households, both alike in dignity…” as a puppet in the Punch-and-Judy booth, interrupted by the crocodile before finishing his appeal to our patience for the “two hours’ traffic of the stage” .   No need for patience: Red Rose Chain’s outdoor production, under Joanna Carrick,   is a blast, a treat,  a serious kind of joy. 

 

         Of course the rock ’n roll setting  suits the play’s youthful vigour,    with blasts of  wickedly appropriate classics from Jerry Lee or Elvis :what better than “Fools rush in”?. There’s a swaggering rock-star Paris,  and Juliet in a  swirling polka-dot jiving  petticoat.   There’s  running,  climbing, larking comedy:  Darren Latham (doubling as Paris and a grumpy  behatted Lady Montague) receives my rarely given  award for a Not Annoying Mercutio.  Not least because Carrick has him deliver that problematic Queen Mab speech as a terrible guitar number,  and the most impenetrable banter is sauced with laddish brawls.  So Mercutio’s death – a boy still valiantly, angrily joking – is a proper shock, as it should be. 

 

           Ailis Duff is the nurse,  all middle-aged raunchy inappropriateness in gingham pedal-pushers, never missing a laugh;    Luke Wilson’s Friar Laurence  – again doubling,  as dangerous Tybalt – is a streak of raw Jamaican mischief, a mentor-mate who can sort you with a potion.   It all fits, and it’s all fun.  

     

     

     And the tragedy?   Oh yes, we feel it, as the light fades in the darker second half.   Jack Heydon’s daftly innocent Romeo and Emmy Rose’s frolicking Juliet are as beguiling as they must be to make us weep for them,   and Carrick knows exactly which scenes to leave absolutely alone,  beautifully delivered without interruption.   The balcony scenes (from a lifeguard tower) are tense and endearing,  and there is clever chopping (smartly lit) between Juliet’s terror learning of the deaths and Romeo’s collapse in the Friar’s cell.   Also frighteningly straight is a rendering of old Capulet’s patriarchal bullying of   the disobedient Juliet :   Soroosh Lavasan,  who has spent most of the play affably being Benvolio in a ridiculous motorbike helmet,  suddenly hauls out a properly horrible, unnerving power,  a father not fully in control of his own darkness.  

  

    Indeed they’re a classy cast:  worth noting mentioning that  although it’s a substantial arena nobody is miked and amped  and the discipline,  despite some fine front-row larks by the nurse,  is impeccable.   Never think that  community-based theatre is just socially useful and virtuously sweet: that several of the young cast wander amiably about greeting visitors and selling programmes does not dilute Red Rose’s professional standards.   Maybe it feeds them:    Carrick hauled up every single member  and helper of every ability to join the curtain call,   and raised a cheer for her fight-choreographers Darren and Alex.  They weren’t there to take a bow:  both are inmates in HMP Warren Hill where she runs a drama programme.  

       

          It could be too, I suppose, that  the group’s social swoop and sense of life’s absurd variety feeds its fearlessness over contrasts in tone.   For just as the growing darkness and impending grief are properly weighing on us,  and the Friar’s vital letter to Romeo has gone amiss, the fatal error  is celebrated.   With a dancing letterbox and a GPO-uniformed chorus line doing adapted words to  “Please Mr Postman”

       .  I am telling you, it works.    On both levels. 

box office 01473 603388    redrosechain.com    to 25 August.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DEVOTION , DISGUISE,  DECADENCE  

  What a strange and stirring play this is!    Set in convent, court and condemned-cell,  it is spiked with moral ambiguities and fuelled equally by sexual desire and sexual distaste,   as Isabella refuses to yield her chastity for a brother’s life.  There’s a Winters-Tale resurrection moment, several powerful emotional cliffhangers,  questions about corrupt power ,   necessary  disguises  and defiances.  Dark villainy is given a curious reprieve and purity questioned.    Last time the RSC did Measure for Measure was in the Swan, with whips, nipple clamps, spiked leather collars, and Mariana hanging out  sullenly in the Moated Grange in a filmy negligée and studded biker belt.  I enjoyed it.   It had ‘élan.   But this production strikes deeper. 

 

       Set in Vienna 1900 under Gregory Doran’s thoughtful, clear and gripping direction,  this time there is not a fetish in sight,   though plenty of stocking-tops and bustiers and no small pleasure –  as Angelo cracks down on the brothelkeepers – in seeing Graeme Brookes’  huge-frocked Mistress Overdone swing both her arresting officers around by their chains .  More pleasure indeed when the said Brookes reappears as Barnadine,  the belching, farting,  degenerate murderer who refuses to be executed because he’s having a kip, and in the end whoops along the walkway to freedom. Pompey the pimp is given full rein by David Ajao, and as for Joseph Arkley poncing around in spats and a malacca cane as Lucio,  and interrupting the final judgement, words fail me.  There are malapropisms from Constable Elbow and a particularly creepy weirdness in Abhorson the executioner, and it’s all done superbly.  

 

        But what Doran frames most brilliantly is the central confusion of morality.  The Duke-Friar is the anchor of   it (if sometimes an unreliable one, Anthony Byrne showing him both determined and troubled).     As  for his better behaved henchmen,  the director’s decision to cast Claire Price as Escalus and  Amanda Harris as a really excellent, watchfully troubled Provost is a gender-switch  used with great intelligence.  Here are  two grown, completed women are drawn into the play’s conflicted atmosphere of sexual sin:   not buying it,  aware that Angelo is wrong,  quietly maternal towards poor Claudio. As indeed we all were:   James Cooney’s delivery of the speech about the terror of death was heart-stopping.   Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a puzzle,   but then Angelo always is:  his smooth-pated suaveness chiefly makes you reflect that the worst villains are often weak characters.  

    

      As for Lucy Phelps’ Isabella,   she is simply tremendous and will be   memorable for years.  She  is credible both in her eager devoutness and solid defiance,   and in the breathtaking moment of despair when her whole body becomes a terrible Munch scream.   The scenes between her and  Mariana are womanly, intense and real;      that Doran leaves us uncertain that this woman will agree to marry the Duke creates an final moment which most excellently serves the play’s problematic quality.  Wonderful. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 4th April 

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

FARCE AS LIFE, LIFE AS FARCE, FRAYN AGAIN TRIUMPHANS

  

    It felt like a pilgrimage,  homage to pay.   37 years ago Michael Frayn’s greatest of comedies, a wicked love-song to the great age of touring rep,   premiered in this very theatre.  Since then it has taken London and Broadway crowns and swept the world in  – as the author muses –  often some pretty ramshackle versions.  “In Prague they performed the play for some ten years without Act 3 and no one noticed until I arrived…One Christmas Eve in Sicily two different touring productions turned up in Catania at the same time”.   

 

         I am glad that before various grander outings I saw it first,  in the late 80’s,  in one of those potentially ramshackle versions.  It was Jill Freud’s Southwold rep, and rather good,  but to this day I cannot understand how they managed to rig up the full front-view set and then, after the interval,   its backstage reverse.  Because St Edmunds Hall is a venue so small that sometimes the only way for an actor  to re-enter stage right is to dart out through the churchyard in the rain. But they did it. 

 

I mention this – though I’ve seen it twice since on grander stages – to emphasise the sheer love this play sparks.  Frayn shows us a theatre company in chaotic dress rehearsal of a banal farce, with doors and sardine-plate props and panicking couples,  deftly  sketching the cast’s cross-currents of personality, relationships and practical difficulties.   After an interval he reverses the scenery  so we see them a month into the tour, from backstage.  As the show is half-heard behind the curtain the players,  tired and mutely furious,   flare into personal conflict.    Then for the brief last act we are out front again watching their total dissolution at the end of the tour.      In doing this Frayn  lays open human life’s compromises, inadequacies and instabilities , and reminds us that much of our existence tends to be a desperate attempt to put on a show and keep our end up in public.   In relieved joy, we recognize it and  laugh. 

 

    We laugh very hard.   Around me in the second act last night several people seeing it for the first time were actually rendered helpless.     It was press night  and therefore,  because the gods of farce are very thorough in their ways,   on that very night Jeremy Herrin’s  faultless production  suffered  a brief  – and real    unscheduled blackout near the end of the backstage act.   The  audience could hardly contain its glee.   It’s rarely that an electrical cock-up actually enhances a show, but it did.     Either it could be called tautology – a theatre-breakdown  in the depiction of a theatre-breakdown –  but I prefer to think of it as an oxymoron:  because here was the most tightly disciplined and controlled of productions being cruelly deprived of control. …

 

  All the cast are bang on the nail, though I must single out Meera Syal as Dotty, playing the old housekeeper, for her physical deftness in moving.   In character she does the shuffling stage-crone thing,   but when pausing over a sardine plate confusion and shouting to the director in the house  (who, blissfully, was striding around right next to my seat) she  uncoils like a serpent to become the magisterial old diva she is.    As the show goes on,  more and more conflicted,   her Dotty sometimes  forgets to shuffle and then suddenly remembers and we choke laughing.

 

    Jonathan Cullen too is is very fine too as poor Freddie,  struggling with his personal life and nosebleeds,  and Debra Gillett catches the cooing, caring, reconciling infuriatingness of Belinda to a T.    And good old Jeremy Herrin makes sure to milk the final moments before and after the third act with some wicked curtain-jokes.   

   And even when it’s over,  you can – as always in this show – take away and cherish the insert in the programme with a spoof- intellectual analysis of the nature of farce (bit to be be reproduced in any Almeida or NT programme without exciting comment) and the company biographies.    I cherish in particular Belinda’s stage CV beginning aged 4 in “Miss Toni Tanner’s Ten Tapping Tots”  and  the claim that Garry Lejeune while stil at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman medal for violence”.   Joy.   

 

box office  lyric.co.uk   to 27 July

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

  This is a dream of a Dream.  One expected fun from the  combination of Nicholas Hytner,  a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit  and a Bunny Christie design which  makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks.  Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals:   beds fly and travel,  pits open, platforms appear,  gymnastic fairies  somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!”  exit move.   

 

     But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things.  He   pursues, as most modern interpreters do,   the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream” , releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court.  That psychological captivity includes Duke  Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.  This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally,  sweetly, awake confused , four in a bed which was once a grassy bank,  looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear,  wakened from his Oberon dream.   

    

    But it’s the other thing that had us whooping,  even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time:  I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes,  went twice,  but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee).    The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines,  so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child.  It is Oberon.  This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince,  everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).    

      

     Making Oberon the patsy,  enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing).     Oliver Chris, on the other hand,  gives the comic performance of a lifetime.  He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun  in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight.    The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile.   Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does:  the immortal Weaver is, in any situation,   a miracle of happy self-flattery.   

    

    The flying fairies are gorgeously  sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of  the young lovers.  I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches.  But not a single thing went wrong.   

 

 And  there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy  king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after ,  decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta.   I always wondered why:  here we know.    It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind.    There’s a quizzical look from his bride,  who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won.   Theseus is humanized.     Thus, bingo!  the reversal serves  both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.  

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse.  It was right to include them in the curtain call… 

Stage Management Mouse resized

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RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying.     At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin:  “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade . . . never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy”.  Actually it is more like Ibsen:   a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society.  Not just the submission of women but the class structure:   all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus  marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them. 

 

    Sowerby knew the turf:  old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks:  she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace  and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers ).

 

But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment,  almost rueful sometimes in its even=handedness.  Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable:  his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman,   and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.  The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off.  The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness.   Richard , the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a  fool”.    And as for the workingman Martin, his  piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet.   Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he  is depicted with both contempt and compassion.

   

I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production  is subtler still.  Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety.  He rises to the roaring bullying tone  at the few times it is necessary,   and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”.    But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because  folk will  do what he wants,  end of.  So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant”  Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter. 

 

  Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit  period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world.  Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary .    Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class,  but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”.   Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution.   Psychology,  social rage,  human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it. 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

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WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

  WHY BE WHITER?

 

  It is useful, if dismaying ,  to be reminded that skin-based racism is not exclusive to Western European bigots.   In Small Island  (scroll below) Andrea Levy pinpointed the depressing belief among traditional West Indians that a lighter skin in ‘better’.  Now in this mischievous satirical 85-minute blast by Anchuli Felicia King –   she’s Australian-Thai, as is the director Nana Dakin  – we see a corporate  crisis in a Singaporean cosmetics firm marketing a skin-whitening cream.  We also plunge into tensions between different Asian communities and attitudes. 

     

  Someone, we discover after a panicky exchange between the assertive MD Priya and the press officer Sunny,  has OK’d a new commercial for the cream.  It is snortingly racist . A girl is jilted for a whiter-skinned one,  uses the cream and gets him back ;  her rival becomes suddenly black,with an Afro and hip-hop soundtrack. Slogan –  “Only works on  inner beauty”.  

       Someone – we find out who, and very funny it is too – has leaked the video online,   and the hits and criticisms are mounting tens of thousands at a time on screens upstage.   Two other staffers are seen overhead in the Ladies’ lavatory:   Chinese Xiao, youngest and most vulnerable, is sobbing in fear of the sack.  “This is not a joke for me. In China people disappear”.  

 

    The  row uncovers not only more corporate dodginess but, blisteringly,   the unspoken differences between the six women  (the only man is a troublemaking boyfriend,  Arty Froushan hilarious as French Marcel).   Boss Priya is of Indian heritage but thoroughly Anglicized;  Sunny is Americanized Chinese, her dude-bro language when excited shading back to Singlish/Hokkien.   Also Americanized is Built,  Thai-Californian.   The company’s chemist is Soo-Jin, who is South Korean;  the other less-westernized “homelanders” are  Chinese Xiao and  Japanese Ruki.    In a brief flashback we see them discussing how all women want to be whiter : “South Asians got the whole caste thing..Thai women wanna look like Korean women..Korean women wanna look like dolls..”.

    

    But Ruki brilliantly point out that while women want whiteness they are a bit ashamed of wanting it,    so instead they should claim “Makes your skin clear and bright”.   As a universal, hilarious swipe at female insecurity and pretences,  it is superb.  Hoots from the audience.   More shocked ones when they discuss the Western outrage at the ad , and Soo-Jin blithely points out that “negroes” are not their customers .    “We do not want to be seen as saying yes to American PC culture..where we sell, Thailand, China, Philippines…ordinary Asians, they still think that blacks are dirty, smell bad, are criminals… so we do not want to be siding with the blacks..In America you have Beyonce, Oprah, Obama. In Asia the blacks are poor, immigrant, they are homeless, they commit many crimes – ”

          Priya and Sunny wince – we all do –  but the Korean blithely continues that “Indians and Middle Easterns” smell bad too,  which freaks out Priya,   until the  Korean chemist reassures her that it’s OK,  “You wear a lot of deodorant and do not eat spices” .   It is shocking, it is funny, it is the best exchange of  insulting mutual incomprehension and tactlessness since Clybourne Park.

   

    It is also useful.  We need reminding that our sensitivities about race are new, and made of historic guilt as much as any real decency.  When Korean Soo-Jin  is comforting the weeping Chinese Xiao in the privacy of the  lav,  they covertly agree that the ad is OK with them.  “Why they take it so serious? It is like they cannot understand when joke is joke. It is not some big politics whatever. It is just fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy…”  ”Asia will not go crazy. We’ll be fine” . 

 

       The relationships are as beautifully worked out as the business manoeuvrings,  embracing  both hostility and affections. The finale is glorious, and taught me Asian insults in several languages.   The author warns us that it is a hellish difficult play to cast,  but the Court triumphs:  here’s to Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe,  Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung.   Five mice,   because it’s different and clever and useful, and horribly good fun. 

box office  020 7565 5000            to 15 June 

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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    SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING  EMPIRE 

 

Hard to overstate what an absolute treat this is , and on how many levels. It is a terrific yarn,  both romantic and tough, about history and Empire and sex and frustration, escape and hope and love and racism:  about promises turned to dross and the great seas of misunderstanding that roll between people.  It reminds us how  distant Commonwealth citizens dreamed of a magical Westminster castle of welcome and prosperity, and how a mean tired grey nation did not know yet how to treasure them.

 

   Andrea Levy’s novel of four families – here concentrated on  three in Helen Edmundson’s admirably clear adaptation – is staged by director Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay in surges, silhouettes, still-life freezes and fluent eloquent interactions on both sides of the Atlantic.  The fast-moving, elegant ensemble-work keeps it arresting,  and Lindsay and the movement and projection teams fill the Olivier as few productions manage :  without clutter , agoraphobia or overstatement. Entertaining pop-ups are doors and windows and furniture,  but also neat tiny cameos of  the sweet shop , the cinema,  and a pig-slaughtering shed complete with carcass  exuberantly  eviscerated as poor Queenie, daughter of the Lincolnshire soil,  flinches in bored disgust and plans escape.  The odd pop-down too:Aunt Dot’s  demise is splendid.

         In Jamaica, equally bored Hortense too dreams of escape, evoking her childhood as a blessedly “golden”-coloured child  (O that terrible hierarchy of skin shade, still troubling)  and remembering her calf-love for her cousin: the war brings the two communities into contact,  interweaving then recoiling.    Sometimes there is a diorama breadth of  projected sea , hurricane or shimmering postwar  Piccadilly glamour, sometimes narrower clips of film. Dramatically,  wartime newsreel is a  counterpoint to  a  squalid cinema  brawl between the famously racist American GIs and RAF sergeant  Gilbert from Jamaica who stands his ground with  “No Jim Crow here!”.  Most beautifully, the vast  Empire Windrush itself ends act 1 not projected on solidity like the rest,  but onto a vast white sheet, which billows and shimmers  like the mirage it proved, for many, to be.

 

You may know the Andrea Levy novel, and the dramatic events which bring together Leah Harvey’s splendidly prim, correct Jamaican Hortense and Aisling Loftus’  freer but frustrated white Queenie in Earl’s Court who woos,  tolerates then grieves -mistakenly – her stick of a husband (Andrew Rothney) who returns from policing the Partition of India with a horror of dark skins.  If you don’t know the book it doesn’t matter, indeed  it might be even better to come to the story fresh.  Because it is such a fine one, and one which we need to be re-told as the Windrush generation grow old and lately are so misused.  Gerschwyn Eustache Jnr as a cheerful Gilbert, making the most of his squalid bedsit, is a particular delight,  But so are they all.  Pure and thoughtful pleasure.  

 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 13 August

and will be almost as damn good on screen – NT LIVE –  27 June. 

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THIS IS MY FAMILY Minerva, Chichester

ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE SONG 

     

 

    This is gorgeous.  Funny,  truthful, wise,  and bravely original in form.   Anyone with a a family – past, present, remembered, or merely observed in cautious auntly incredulity    should see  Tim Firth’s musical.  Or, more accurately, musical play:  it has no traditional blockbusting numbers and no choruses – though sometimes the characters sing across each other in their own preoccupations.   The junctions between singing and speech in fact are so natural that you hardly notice them and its lovely insouciance makes you feel as if breaking into song is the obvious extension of emphasis:   a heightening of what needs to be said or thought in the frenetic pace of ordinary life.  

   

  It is operatic  yet as natural as birdsong;   barkingly funny at times, but never oversignalling its jokes,  poignant but never mawkish.    Emotions or absurdities just bubble up in exasperations all families feel.  It’s a gem.   Daniel Evans opened it at the Crucible in  June 2013, and I cooed with delight then (“enchanting, sweet as a nut, glorying in grumpy family love”.)    Now leading Chichester, he brings it back r  con amore,   revised and musically tweaked.  But the enchantment lives on:  just go!

  

        The story is slight:  Nicky –  Kirsty MacLaren convincingly and marvellously playing a bright, observant  13 –  has won a competition for an essay on “My Family”.  There’s  her sullen 17-year-old brother Matt, Grandma May who sings hymns but listens to the cricket during the sermon, her parents Steve and Yvonne ,  whose tale of their first romantic meeting on a campsite she cherishes.  Oh, and auntie Sian whose romantic career is rather wilder.  Firth’s script,  sitcom-funny but raised to emotional truth by the music,  beautifully evokes the parents’ midlife mutual exasperation .

  

    James Nesbitt’s Steve with a  mid-life bloke crisis is beyond priceless:  rollerskates, free-running,  learning Arabic to impress the Abu Dhabi owners of his company,  and a running series of equally ill-executed and unnecessary DIY projects.  A home-made hot tub in the rockery electrocutes a frog.   Yvonne (Clare Burt, subtle and funny and sad)  is losing her grip on who she is, as the children spread their wings.    Matt – at 17 “on life’s mezzanine”, responds to parental questions with a furious sea-lion bark and flap; he   has gone Goth and done a pagan handfasting marriage ceremony with his girlfriend, who inevitably dumps him.   Auntie Sian careers on down the love-track,  and her song “Sex is a safari park” ought to be top of the charts for years.   Grandma May  (Sheila Hancock, a marvel) is gradually fading mentally:  losing the words of old hymns,  feeling the mist of confusion rise, swirl,  form into old memories,   then clear.    Throughout the play all the family relationships are spot-on, heartshakingly credible.

    

         And the plot?  Nicky’s prize is a holiday of her choice:  as her understated worry about her parents’ separate fractiousness grows, she opts to return to the lakeside camp where they first met.  So they all do.  Richard Kent’s lovely cluttered dollshouse set does some revolving magic,  the rain pelts down, the tent – well, we’ve all been there.  

 

    Everything resolves, but let’s not spoil it.   The tune which Firth’s characters sing is all our songs;  their tale evokes splendours and sorrows of every family on every street.     The jokes work wonders.  “Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and find that what you’re left with is the nut”.  But so do the truths:   “It isn’t the fault of the star that we’ve stopped seeing it”.    

 

box office   www.cft.org.uk   to 15 June

rating  5    5 Meece Rating

    

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Kunene and the King. Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE OLDEST HAVE BORNE MOST…

 

Jack is an ageing, terminally ill, scruffy, alcoholic remnant of an actor, with a grubby cardigan and Falstaff gut. He is muttering lines from King Lear in his chaotic flat. Lunga Kunene – played by the play’s author John Kani – is his nurse, another ageing man but as dignified and calm as Antony Sher’s Jack is chaotic.

HavinG sprung himself and his cancer from hospital on condition he hired a nurse, Jack expected a woman, ideally a white one. Graceless and grumpy, he reluctantly has to accept that “Sister” Kunene will live in – and not in the old servants’ quarters.

 

This is the new South Africa 2019: 25 years after the end of apartheid and Mandela’s freedom and rise to leadership. Even apart from Jack’s shuddering horror of death (“As an actor, you think you know about fear…”) both men have adjustments to make. Both, apart from anything else, need to shake the habit of treating the other as a specimen: one of “you people”, white or black. This is not always easy. Jack’s disavowal “I’m not political” meets contempt from Kunene who observes quite rightly that people who say that are usually profiting from something very political indeed. It’s a scratchy subject in any country, especially here: but in Kani’s hands often funny, sometimes explosive, sometimes poignant, always, arresting and important. Specific though the SA setting is, it opens great vistas of heart-stopping universal wisdom about death, guilt, reconciliation and human need. Its 95 minutes will be with me for months, and if there is any justice it will be seen more widely. I shall go again

 

 

. I should admit that it is close to home for me: for two years at the height of 1960’s apartheid my father was posted to Johannesburg . In termtime I was at school (a racist and brutally odd convent) in Krugersdorp. In the holidays, with parents anxious we should not think apartheid in any way normal or excusable, I helped my mother with food distribution in the townships and got shunned by white neighbours for teaching the maid’s teenage children to swim. Decades later at the elctions I marvelled at the comparative benignity of Mandela and of his people: even in 1963 when nightmares had haunted me that my father, following us home later, would die in a well-justified uprising. Twenty years on, I grieve that justice and equality are so far from complete.

 

 

But it needs no private connection to be swept into this honest, humane and thoughtful play. White-man Jack is determined to play Lear before he dies; Kunene, taught only Julius Caesar at school because it is about conspiracy failing and “one Shakespeare was considered enough for the native child”, doesn’t know Lear. But he becomes engaged with it, though horrified by the unwise King’s lamentable failure to consult “ancestors” like a good African. He remarks that Mandela was a Lear when he stood down to “crawl unburdened towards death” and that Zuma was both Goneril and Regan. Sher is wonderful, attuned in every move, playing against Kani to perfection: part enthusiastic sharer, part furious codger, sometimes horrifyingly a white Massa once more, but sometimes opening fissures of stark feeling. Kunene is patient, gentle, infuriated, repressed, embodying every thwarted human emotion of a downtrodden people and its gentle heart. It takes more than nursely authority to track down all the gin half-bottles in Jack’s stash, and more than professionalism to tolerate his eruptions. It is beyond a nurse’s duty to drape a dying delusional actor in a table-runner to take pictures for the Lear he will never live to play. We laugh aloud often, we gasp in shock, we are confronted by the pity and shame of incontinence , but listen with fascination to Jack’s explanation of how a great actor interrogates every line, learns to mean it. A terrible mutual rage flares, becomes a fiery dance of laughter, subsides to glowing embers in the beauty of still, wry reconciliation.

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 23 April

 

rating five5 Meece Rating

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DOWNSTATE Dorfman, SE1

BRILLIANT, NECESSARY,   QUESTIONING

  

   If we accept that people are widely diverse,  we have to accept that paedophiles are too.   Not all the same identi-monster.    Moreover,  if their horrifying actions pose us questions we need to think very clearly about answers.    If Bruce Norris’ disruptive, thoughtful play for Steppenwolf of Chicago does nothing else it hammers that home.  

 

 It is set in a group-home for released (but tagged and restricted) sex offenders, somewhere in Illinois.  Here is Fred,  Francis Guinan as a gentle Chopin-loving old chap in a wheelchair who used to teach piano.  He is  confronted  after 30 years, in a painful, funny, startling opening scene, by a former victim Andy.  Who has come with a rather pushy wife and  wants a “reconciliation contract” and to inform him to his face, awkwardly from a written script,   “You are a fundamentally evil person”. 

       

          Fred, disarmingly, just says it’s real nice to see him again, and protests mildly that he admitted his crimes years ago in court.    Meanwhile distractingly for poor Andy, the housemates wander through,  in from shopping or arguing about the lavatory.   One by one, we will learn their backgrounds too.  Gio (Glenn Davis) is mouthy, bible-spouting, and slightly delusional about his business future after doing a course in jail.  He’s furious at being in with these ‘grade 3 pederast motherfuckers’ because all he did was sleep with a girl who, he says, lied about her age.   Felix is Latino,  dimly angry, and doesn’t see why he can’t contact the daughter he abused at 13.    Dee, perfectly rendered by K Todd Freeman,  is slightly camp and selfconsciously well-educated (“Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”), and we find that his crime was, in his view,  mutual love with a teenage Lost Boy in a touring Peter Pan where he was dance-captain.   Unlike Gio And Felix he isn’t working because hell, “the job market is limited for the elderly black homosexual ex-convict”.   His care of old Fred – wheelchair-bound after a savage prison assault – is sweetly exemplary. 

   

      Four different men, meticulously acted and wholly credible but in no way excused.  For at the heart of the piece, wonderfully realized,  is Cecilia Noble as the big tough black probation officer,  gun tucked under her shapeless cardigan.  She comes in to inform them of more restrictions on their tag-limits,  meeting great and very non-PC protests about  getting cut off from the better food shops and the “retarded school” being beyond six lanes of elevated highway.   It is she – chiefly in a long confrontation with Felix, but with the others as they flit through the second act – who makes clear their various denials and conflicts.     Felix just expresses dim rage;  others make you stop and gasp at apparent reasonablenss,  as with Dee’s barrack-room-lawyerly argument that while some US states tried to bring in a death penalty for child sex offences,  they didn’t do so  for GBH,  so why (forgive my quoting this one) is it not death for chopping off a child’s penis  but death for sucking it?  

     

    The probation officer, with a caseload of 47 such men,  attempts patience and a little tolerance (really, Gio should not be bringing in his defiant, gum-chewing  trailer-trash workmate  – a very funny cameo from Aimee Lou Wood).   But as she says exasperatedly,   in her line of work “everyone’s a victim, the system’s broken,  the system’s not fair…hey,  if y’all are so victimized,  maybe you can see how you made other people feel?” 

 Andy’s return and more eloquently painful  rage at old Fred – ending in chaos – underlines that too.  But Norris is fly enough to give us a moment to wonder about how necessary, for how many decades, Andy’s pain is, and how reliable his detailed memory.   The audience shivers at that. 

     

    Norris’ wonderful Clybourne Park ten years ago crossed boundaries of the unsayable in matters of race, class and sexuality,    and gave us a famous snowstorm of mutual offence in the second act.  Now he takes it further across the boundaries, and he is right because the resultis both brilliant and necessary.  We do not have the American system of an open register of ex-offenders and their addresses,  and I doubt many of our probation officers are quite like Ivy (she sees through every lie, a fierce Momma to the lying Felix).  But very distancing that this setting brings, as we sit in the civilized Dorfman,    is oddly useful in helping us to think more widely.  What do we do with these guys?   When,  if ever,   can we trust them in the open?  Can they ever convince us that, short of a broken back and a wheelchair like old Fred, they are safe?  

box office  020 7452 3000       nationaltheatre.org.uk  To 27 April

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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NINE NIGHT Trafalgar Studios, SW1

JAMAICA BREEZES UP WEST, WITH GRIEF AND GUSTO

    

 

  Jamaican mourning tradition, longer than the Irish wake and noisier than the Jewish shiva, involves –  we learn    nine nights of hospitality, music,  dancing,  food,  relatives, friends, rackety settling of historic rows and possibly a bit of spirit-banishing by moving the furniture around.      Perfect dramatic material, starting with a deathbed and lurching and weaving towards some kind of reckoning.

    

    At the National Theatre Natasha Gordon’s debut play was an instant hit, (review  from Michael –   https://theatrecat.com/tag/nine-night/) .  So on its west end transfer I was curious. And while it must indeed have been a zinger when the late Gloria’s family kitchen  was set intimately in your face at the little Dorfman, there is as much zing  in this big theatre up West,    and a different buzz in joining a big audience of proper London diversity,  everyone together oohing with shock (twice) and falling silent together,  in moments when in a moment of common prayer your heart begins to lurch.   

  

    For here is all family life:  grief, aggravation, cats unwisely let out of bags, tradition, identity, history, comedy.  Cecilia Noble walks away with the comedy as Aunt Maggie,  truculent and outspoken with old-Jamaica patois, keen to get home for EastEnders with her freedom pass (“Only good t’ing we get out of dis teevin’ government!”.     Two generations on Rebekah Murrell is Anita, a young mother, Anglicized all the way but experimenting with extreme Rasta hairdos to “challenge distinctions of discrimination”.   Her journey from embarrassed reluctance towards the “I get it!” moment some nights later is one of the understated engines of the play.  Maggie’s Vince is a calmer presence, irritated no end by his second-cousin Robert, Anita’s uncle,  who is edgily in business planning to be in the Rich List within years and clearly failing.  Robert’s wife Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) is nervy and so far childless at 45 as a result of issues we only gradually grasp: she is the only white member, alienated by her marriage from her own racist family.   But at the Jamaican home’s heart is Lorraine, Anita’s Mum (a marvellous, steady, emotionally deep performance from Natasha Gordon) . She gave up her job to nurse the matriarch Gloria.  Who dies, in the first act, unseen upstairs but a powerful figure all through.  

  

      Another powerful unseen figure (until she roars into sight late on, laden with yams, rum, mangos and more rum)  is Trudy the half-sister left behind in Jamaica .  Every family has one problematic, or to some iconic, figure after all.   Michelle Greenidge breezes in, such a force of nature that Aunt Maggie is almost eclipsed.  Until she reveals that beneath her galloping-to-Jesus folksiness there may be a real psychic edge.  

          An honest and beautiful play,  which by being so particular and rooted in one community becomes a conduit of universal emotional truths.  Fabulous.          

box office www.atgtickets.com    to 6 Feb

rating:   still five    5 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Arts theatre WC 1

 

ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING

 

.   After two other full cast renderings in a fortnight -David Edgar’s socially angry take at the RSC and Jack Thorne’s warm spectacular at the Old Vic – why go to another?  Because it is, each year, unmissable, an 80 minute  revelation of  skill and feeling.  The tale is the most protean and eternally vitalo: you can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele (dear God never again) or Alistair Sim, Muppet or musical, camp or holy. It does the trick, even when you’re half-hoping it won’t. 

 

      But the way Charles Dickens did it is simpler: alone on a stage, just telling the story in those vivid, close-woven sentences. Sometimes a dry aside, sometimes a Fezziwiggian exuberance, a torrent of adjectives; sometimes earnest, amusing as a nightcap or sorrowful as a gravestone.

 

     Simon Callow does just that.  I have seen this virtuoso, solo performance over the years four or five times, and lately the setting, at the Arts, has been well staged, with unsentimental simplicity: a moving gauzey screen, a few projections of old London, some chairs which Callow moves around as he becomes the grim Scrooge “edging along the crooked paths of life” eschewing fellowship. Then the cautiously alarmed or startled Scrooge, the repentantly delighted, redeemed one. He is Fezziwig, the Cratchits, the merrymakers at Fred’s, and all of us.

 

His script is conversational, feels contemporary, only a few smoothings-out of Victorian language needed. It carries you along. The moral of fellowship strikes home, of course, but in this age of irony so does the late line – gently simplified – in which Dickens reminds us that satire and cynicism always wither to inconsequence and are forgotten. The last word on Scrooge is the last word on every redemption: I have quoted  it before:

“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. And knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”

 

Has  the performance, and Callow, changed over years? Probably, but not from ego or bravura, no cheap tricks, no knowing modernities:if anything the sincerity has deepened. The matinee audience was silent, agog, on edge, even the teenagers in the gallery.  Many stood up to applaud. So we all damn well should.

artstheatrewestnd.co.uk.  

To 12 jan.  He does get Christmas Day off though. Good. 

Rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Menier, SE1

L’CHAIM – TO LIFE!    A SPECIAL NIGHT

   

      We are there, over a century ago, beyond the Caucasus.   Designer  Robert Jones  has wrapped us around in rustic planks and ramshackle cottages, with a village pump and a woodland beyond showing skies of , as the wedding song goes “Sunrise, sunset..”.   Tevye’s dairy cart,   the buckets and brooms wielded by his five daughters and weary wife all  speak of establishment,  domesticity, a homespun and  sometimes hungry community in little  Anatevka .  It breathes old Jewish faith, irony, gossip, feuds , family.  But their world is changing, and before the end the Constable  – himself under orders, reluctant, fed up –   will have given every one of them three days to sell up and clear out.  Hunched, laden shapes will fade into the dusk.   

   

 

    My companion of last night had a father who, at the age of sixteen,  fled from just such a shtetl  in rural Russia, arriving penniless and wandering to make at last a life here. Even without that connection,  in that intimate space Trevor Nunn’s marvellous production would have struck deep into the heart.  For all the characterful jokes and romantic sweetness,  when Stein, Boch and Harnick’s classic musical is well done it always takes  on the air of a ritual commemoration.  So it should.   As Tevye says, they are all,  like the fiddler on the roof ,  “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”.    Like the Highland Clearances,  like any refugee tide in the world,  it is one of the saddest stories.  

 

 

         And the beauty of the show (especially here, so close to the clattering buckets, whirling dances and  exasperated family moments )  is how fast, completely and lovingly ,  the viewer is drawn in to a community which for all its feuds, flaws and absurdities did nothing to deserve it.   Sober, kindly, ancient,  benerous knowing that even for the poor it is “a blessing to give”,  they draw us to them.   Good people in a terribly changing time.  Where,   as our hero remarks “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, makes the whole world blind and toothless”.   

 

       Andy Nyman’s stocky, practical  Tevye is a joy from the start:   grumbling to his God with headshaking informality,  proud of his mastery as Papa and   wedded to tradition,   unable to repress a certain inner joyfulness even in his attempts at sternness.  He kids himself that he is master of his five daughters and who they marry, yet always proves too soft a soul not to talk himself out attempts at correctness.     The daughters are perfect:  Molly  Osborne’s serious Tzeitel determined to avoid the matchmaker’s elderly choice and stick with shy Motl the tailor,  Harriet Bunton’s Hodel who bravely risks dancing with the revolutionary student Perchik at the wedding;  later a more serious dereliction of Jewish duty as their younger sister marries out.   All five are perfect,  catching precisely the combination of irrepressible youth and  sober-frocked traditional demeanour as around them the men drink and laugh and quarrel,  and Judy Kuhn’s equally perfect Mama Golde rolls her eyes impatiently and holds family and community together.   

 

       Close up the show’s great set-pieces are intoxicating: wildest of Cossack dancing from the Russians interleaved with Jewish traditional moves,  every brief fracas timed to perfection,  every gloriously Jewish switch of mood from sentiment to sarcasm timed to a hair.  You gasp and laugh and shiver in recognition and , yes, love.   However many times you have seen it this tight, intimate, heartfelt production sparks new life.  Mazel Tov!   

box office  0207 378 1713  to  

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

           

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES 

 

      It is , if possible, even finer and more heartfelt and gripping, tuneable and serious and moving than last year.   My  former review, https://tinyurl.com/ya6695rs ,  describes the essential glories of Jack Thorne’s adaptation, Warchus’ glorious direction and Christopher Nightingale’s score and  the weaving-in of carols :  old words whose meaning, at each point, shines sharply new-minted.   

 

       So, revisiting it with a new cast – notably Steven Tompkinson as Scrooge – I remembered the glorious handbell-ringing,  the finale with mad potato chutes , parachuting Brussels sprouts, jokes,  its warmth, the perennial quality of its moral and the striking modernity of Thorne’s emphasis on how Scrooge’s awful childhood made him.  I had forgotten, though, the other subtlety he mines from Dickens about  the miser’s lost youth:  the way that parental debts fuelled his frantic financial ambition to become rich before approaching his beloved Belle.  I had forgotten too the poignant coda where the old man meets her again, and her acceptance of his place in her history;   forgotten the moment in Christmas Future when we see the great-hearted forgiveness of Bob Cratchit.  Despite being sacked for poor timekeeping after his son dies  he merely thanks Scrooge for “teaching him discipline”.  

 

 

     All these layers of meaning and benignly sorrowful acceptance of the shapes of life make Thorne’s version something more than a massively entertaining and original rework of Dickens for the 21c. I hope it comes back every year.  But what also needs saying is that Steven Tompkinson – who I remember most from lightish comedy, all the way Drop the Dead Donkey –  is really remarkable here, displaying great range, subtlety and heart .   He takes Scrooge from the familiar nicely ludicrous cantankerousness through unease,  tentative self-understanding,   furious defiance,  shivering fear and a compassion  which torn from him as if by savage violence when  Tiny Tim (very very  gorgeously tiny)  seems lost. 

 

     In the final moments, dark and silent around the solo carol just before redemption’s happy Christmas dawn,  he also evokes the real, unavoidable pain of redemption: how it hurts to throw off the security of  a lifetime’s mental habits and emotional lockdown.   

  

 

    Of course he then capers, as per Dickens, “light as a feather” in the morning,  and masterminds the vast dinner in Warchus’ hilarious coups de theatre (I thought the turkey on the zip-wire would deck him for good).    But there is a sobriety, an aweful seriousness to what has happened to this man,  a wrench which this production recognizes more firmly than most.    The coda makes this real;  and, in a last quiet moment after the charity appeal and bows,  so does the last handbell rendering of Silent Night.   Many Christmas shows end in pure merriment and there is greatness in Warchus’ decision to offer us instead that moment of  quiet reflection,  with Scrooge and the little child kneeling together at the centre of the bellringers,  overcome.  

        Tears.   So there should be.   Even writing it down. 

 

 

box office  0844 871  7628     to 19 Jan

rating Five.  5 Meece Rating

 

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COMPANY. Gielgud, WC2

FOR BETTER FOR WORSE?  FOR FIVE MICE ANYWAY

 

     If you’re going to mess about with a classic but slightly dated Sondheim musical,  be sure to do it brilliantly. Do it like Marianne Elliott.  Get the great Stephen himself on-side,  ask for a few new lyrics, then find a throbbing nerve in the western zeitgeist and give it a good twang. Oh, and be sure to choreograph the funniest seduction , wildest party, and most showstopping display of wedding nerves on any stage anywhere.  And while you’re at it, give Patti LuPone a showstopping chance to snarl out “Ladies Who Lunch”.

  

      Got it? That’s Company, with an enchanting lead, a peerlessly sharp company, bangin’ band , and any number of weird sliding neon-framed rooms by Bunny Christie. Company is the comeback kid, another demonstration that Britain is natural Sondheim country: all  dry wit and laughing resignation

 

       Elliott’s idea was to take the master’s 1970 tale of 35 year old Bobby, whose married friends all think he ought to commit and settl down, but who all in their way are either messed up, patronising or endearingly deluded. But make him Bobbie, because it’s 2018 and we have had the age of the female clock-ticking Singleton,  from Jessica Parker to B.Jones. Then neatly reverse a few other genders in the process.  Brilliant: because while a bachelor midlifer is actually a bit ho-hum-so-what,  a woman with those fading ovaries and atavistic cultural fear of the shelf is already a walking dramatic  crisis. Or may seem so to the dear well-meaning friends. And in the age of gay marriage and heterosexual civil-partnering, it’s coolly up to date.

 

    And goodness, it’s funny and sharp.  Rosalie Craig is perfect as Bobbie, aware of the big 35 – eventually spelt out by the gang in 10ft balloons – but gentle, sane, reasonable, well liked  and not lonely. Until the pressure makes her so and she must wonder if “someone is waiting….”.  She sings like a lark, is immensely moving in “Marry me a little”,and  joins in the gloriously witty choreography (the party scene ensemble contains at least six of the most excruciating adult ‘fun’ games you have ever dodged). Yet she is almost better in her reaction moments, while the peerlessly funny cast members display the joy and horror of the married state. 

 

    There is a Jil-jitsu match (shared hobbies, o the horror) with Gavin Spokes and Mel Giedroyc risking their spines nightly, and a series of vignettes of the sheer oddity of couples, marvellous evocation of their appalling patronising nosiness about poor poor Bobbie: hilarious as the whole cast wander through her bedroom pitying her just as she gets it on with dim-date Andy. And the deathless anthem of bridal nerves , originally female, is given to gay Jamie: Jonathan Bailey hoping to get away from smiley Paul with a despairing “Perhaps – I’ll collapse – in the apse” while a terrifying celebrant bursts for every cupboard in sight.  Bailey steals the show. 

     Patter songs,  scat jazz, ballads, glittering lyrics and elegant musical jokes…aaahh, Sondheim!  It must run forever. And  curiously, it is as comforting a what-the-hell message to us 38-year-wed fogies as to any singleton.  Glorious.

 

Box off. delfontmackintosh.co.uk. 0344 4825138. To 30 March

Rating 5.   5 Meece Rating

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TOUCHING THE VOID Royal, Northampton & Scotland later

THE HEIGHTS OF LIFE 

 

 

      Theatre sometimes gives films – and books – a remarkable translation, making stories deeper ,stranger ,  more tense.   Maybe  it is the very act of pretending:  the shared collusion it takes to turn planks and cloth into a new world (a knack which marks everything director Tom Morris  does). 

       Anyway, this is remarkable.  We know the story of Joe Simpson’s book: climbing in the remotest Andes with his friend Simon Yates,  he had a disastrous fall into a icy crevasse, smashing his leg and hip.  Yates held him on the rope for 90 minutes,  but could not pull him up and had not enough rope to let him down; he did the climbers’ unthinkable, terrifying forbidden thing  and cut it before they both died of exposure and starvation.       Which, as Simpson later acknowledged, ironically gave him a chance and a choice.  Deep in the crevasse, even more injured, in pain and delusion he dragged himself towards a patch of light and found, astonishingly, a way out through the bitter moraine towards the base camp.   

         I missed it at the Bristol Old Vic for logistical reasons,  but as colleagues in the travel-expenses cadre raved,  hastily bought a ticket for its co-producing house in Northampton (It’s off to Scotland in Jan., Fuel’s third collaborators being the Lyceum).   The poet-playwright David Greig has adapted it with his usual imaginative, oddball brilliance,  cleverly framing it by starting at an imagined wake for Simpson (Josh Williams) at the Clachaig  Inn in Scotland. This enables  the character of Simpson’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) , a furious, sorrowful goth , to express doubt and fury at the absurdity of the climbers’ Gore-Tex-and-crampon world,  and to be persuaded by Simon (Edward Hayter) to understand the thrill and challenge of climbing,  -tipping tables and upturned chairs  Agile, scornful and intrigued,  the girl outsider draws us into their world  which is either “reaching for the heights of life”, or else “just another addiction”. 

            So does Patrick McNamee’s backpacking hippie Richard, who looked after their base-camp tents and was equally bemused by their dangerous pastime.    He narrates, often,  excitable and young, oddly suitable.   The wake, of course, is part of the delirium through which the struggling Joe passes;  later,  Sarah reappears by his side, urging and mocking her beloved brother towards life.

   

         The start draws us in, with no props beyond odd pub furniture, to a world, a brotherhood.  Violent jarring shirrrrrrs take us in and out of imagined moments; there is a song, strangely effective.  Then we are there, on Siula Grande:  just a suspended structure of struts , rags and cloth,  but curiously convincing as they clamber around it, dig a snowhole, hit the moment of disaster.

     Sometimes Joe’s struggle is almost too painful to watch.  Yet moments of universality and philosophy –   ice-axes of startling script –   keep us pinned to it, forgetting that we know the end already.   There is a kind of dance; an interaction between sister and brother that moved my heart more deeply even than the imminence of death.   Joe’s near-death brings strangeness, reflection on the animal resistance to dying and the danger of its “surprisingly nice” warmth.  But from that, to live, a struggler must be dragged back in pain.   Adventure, life, death, youth and hope lie all before us on the simplest of stage.      

royalandderngate.co.uk  to  20 Oct, hurry.

In Edinburgh  and Inverness early 2019

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM Wyndham’s, WC2

A MASTERPIECE OF LOVE AND LOSS

 

    I saw this on tour in Cambridge, and heroically held of telling you until the West End embargo lifted.  It’s wonderful: puzzling, moving, clever and humane.

       A daughter, kind and faintly exasperated, coaxes her father .  He stares from the window, speaks with sudden authority about strawberry jam and biscotti and with alarming ferocity .   His ability to cope and think straight is fading before our eyes, and she is edging him towards selling the big book-liined house where he has lived fifty years with his wife. People keep bringing flowers round. So far, so sadly recognisable.  A widower..

 

   But hang on, the wife is still there, bustling in to make mushroom casserole and tutting st the flowers. What? And she and the daughter, then another daughter, are talking in the past tense about the old man’s fame as a great writer, and editing his diaries.  In the first brief, transparent-curtain pause of this 80 minute play the preview audience was muttering “which one is dead?  Both? What?”  “I think it’s in one of their heads”said an uncertain voice. “or the daughter’s”.    “Or she’w mourning because he’s got dementia”.    Which of course is a kind of bereavement too:  maybe the old man, sometimes strangely unheard by the others on thes tage, is the one who is gone..

 

We have learned in the past couple of years just how efficiently the French shape-shifter of a playwright Florian Zeller can thoroughly mess with our heads, and how well-judged and flowing are Christopher Hampton’s translations.  Our heads spin and then, in jerks, our hearts move.  Nobody forgets the sneaky sex-cheating brilliance of The Lie and The Truth, and even more vividly the aloenatied confusions of The Mother and Kenneth Cranham’s triumph in the heartbreaking The Father, exploring the dislocations and irrealities of Alzheimer’s.   He is a master of illusion, confusion, the fierce fleeting certainties and timeshifts of dementia .

 

       In this play, faultlessly directed by Jonathan Kent,  the strangeness and pathos are extreme. Because though indeed Jonathan Pryce’s patriarch is in rising dementia,  and Eileen Atkins his living – or dead – wife,  the theme above all is love:    settled, interdependent , half-century devotion.    It has had challenges;  a disturbing visitor , sometimes from the care home,  sometimes something else entirely, makes that clear.  But  the core of it is bereavement: and as Dr Johnson said , the condition of any friendship is that one party must one day mourn the other.  

 

           The reality of the characters is total: Pryce’s father , Atkins’ patiently affectionate  and occasionally acerbic wife, who at one point reflects, as many an ageing parent does,  that while it is nice when the daughters visit it is good when they go and the pair are together, comfortable.

       

         Gradually we learn which way round it is, which conversations are unreal because they are memories, and which are simply delusions. We are always in the same kitchen with the bookshelves and hall beyond, and the window where the old man looks out for his wife changes its light, so we grasp how times of day and evening shift.    A final lighting effect is honestly devastating.  

box office    0844 4825120  to 1 December

RATING five  5 Meece Rating

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PACK OF LIES Menier, SE1

WARM HEARTS,    COLD WAR 

 

After the Salisbury-Novichok affair there is a sour laugh when Stewart, the MI5 official, reassures the nervous Jackson family that the coming arrest of their neighbours for espionage won’t put them at physical risk -“The KGB doesn’t use hooligans for this sort of operation”.  Clearly things were more civilised in 1960s Moscow than   under Putin.

 

Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play, immaculately set in every humble postwar detail, reconstructs  a real case: the plight of a hapless suburban couple who found their daughter’s bedroom requisitioned for surveillance of the opposite neighbours.  Who were also  their best friends,  amis de la maison,  friendly Canadians Helen and Peter Kroger.  Only they weren’t Canadians and they weren’t friends, but  experienced and  committed Communists transmitting naval secrets to the Soviets.

 

 

If you are an addict of Le Carré  and his Cold War Circus operatives – all  watchers and lamplighters and safe-houses –  you glimpse in his humane books the innocent ordinary people across Europe who are used by agents as “cover”, often for years.   But rarely is the emotional violence of it as beautifully evoked as here.  We first get a delicately, humourously drawn picture of the watching household’s ordinariness:  cosy, affectionate Barbara and Bob and their teenage daughter Juliet.  Then there’s sharp class awareness as steady, worried Bob (Chris Larkin) is awkwardly polite to the patrician MI5officer Stewart :  Jasper Britton, deliberately bumbling with public-school amiability over an edge of steel.  Macy Nyman’s  Juliet is at first thrilled, eyes bright at the excitement but not understanding that her “auntie Helen” might be under suspicion as well as the mystery man.

       

          At the play’s heart though is  the most betrayed of them all:  Barbara, whose decorous life has been enhanced for five years by the loud, funny, risqué, huggingly open friendship of Tracy Ann Oberman’s  Helen.     Finty Williams is a marvellous Barbara, sweetly and humbly housewifely,  sharp-witted enough to suspect her friends and decent enough to try not to; in the end patriotic enough to resist a passionate wish to warn them.  She is endearingly motherly with the policewomen staking out her daughter’s bedroom,   ,and increasingly resentful of the careless patriarchal authority of  Stewart. 

  

 

  Finely and painfully drawn, without a single false note, is the good woman’s distress at having to hide what she knows from her daughter, and keep up a front, in  electrically uncomfortable scenes , with the friend she still loves. The part was created 35 years ago by Judi Dench and won her an Olivier opposite her husband Michael Williams .    Well, nobody could deny their daughter as high an accolade.  It is the hardest kind of part, to be an innocent.   Finty Williams nails it with heart and finesse.

 

 

    The careful precision  of Hannah Chissick’s production takes you right back into that time.  Not only in the latter part when Stewart reminds them of the Lubianka and the ruthless KGB ,  but in the daily details:   Bob’s cardiganed decent ordinariness,  Barbara’s paper- pattern dressmaking for Helen , even the brief scorn of the two young police women changing shifts. They pinch the odd biscuit, accept sausages for lunch,  and make tea in the kitchen while they reflect on the housewife life of poor Barbara “Dusting and washing and polishing and cooking,  no wonder she’s as dull as she is”.

         But she’s not. So Finty Williams deserves an award too. 

Box office.  020 7378 1713. To 17nov

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Olivier, SE1

A GLORIOUS SERPENT OF OLD NILE

  

  This can be a beast of a play:  epic, three and a half hours,  scenes spread across the Mediterranean from Rome to Cairo by land and sea.  It is also prone to disconcert audiences who came for an archetypal story of doomed passion,  by socking them with a binful of ancient international politics and offstage battles.  It can be a bit of an ordeal.   The last RSC one was.   So I am happy to say that this time, and in the trickily vast Olivier,   director Simon Godwin has absolutely pulled it off .  

 

      And not only by casting Ralph Fiennes and Sophie  Okonedo as the leads, either.   Though yes, Fiennes is a giant:   his Antony solidly credible and pulsing with disastrous energy.    He is first seen lounging around Cleopatra’s tiled and elegant pool in a holiday shirt and wraparound palazzo pants  like any eminent man having a midlife crisis with an exotic mistress.   Then struck by “a Roman thought”  as his scornful Cleo puts it,   he gets into  a linen suit and  a political conclave with the other two rulers of the Roman triumvirate:    Tunji Kasim’s  more youthful and rather prim Caesar  and the ageing Lepidus (Nicholas le Prevost) who is clearly almost a cipher already, even before he gets incapably drunk on the treacherous Pompey’s ship.   That Antony is torn between the ease and love of Egypt and the brutalist war-room world of Rome is beautifully evoked by Hildegarde Bechtler’s contrasting, revolving settings.

 

 

     But it is Antony’s decline we are riveted by:  persuaded into his public duty and accepting Caesar’s pious sister as his wife,  he thinks for a while that  he is his old self again;   but in the battles, the Olivier shaking and echoing with  the racket and flash of modern warfare,   he reverts and shames himself by fleeing after Cleopatra. Fiennes becomes a Lear,  bestial and brutal in his self-hate and resentment of her “You were my conqueror!”.    Even his final and famously problematical death  is made to work.  The muffed self- stabbing which always gets an embarrassed laugh,  and the  equally risky process of being hauled up the monument in a sheet ,  contrive to make more sense than usual.  He abdicated responsibility, has been politically disastrous and morally neglectful, thus he earned his un-Roman death, honour and reputation ruined.  Until, of course, Cleopatra’s  extraordinary final encomium shines his name up into the stars again. 

            And what a Cleopatra!  Sophie Okonedo defined herself tonight as her generation’s “lass unparalleled”.  . Slinkily  serpentine and laughingly seductive at first, petulant in jealousy,  a mistress of comic timing and at one point downright drunk in orange flamenco frills,  she manages in increasing flashes to remind us that “Kings have trembled” kissing her hand.   And in her last scenes, stubborn and resigned and queenly proud,  she is mesmerizing.  

 

           But the whole cast is full of treats;  not least Fisayo Akinade as Eros, forever delivering unwelcome messages (he gets thrown in the pool by Okonedo and drips forlornly in his wet suit repeating the bad news).  Yet he too grows to his tragic  moment of truth.  Tim McMullan as the cynical sarky Enobarbus is tremendous too;  as  is Sargon Yelda  as a cocky, amoral Pompey.  

 

    The staging brilliantly respects the pivotal emotional changes of the play.  Once,  Cleopatra’s pool sinks into the great revolve, revealing a moment’s bleak emptiness as the sacrificial Octavia walks alone crumpling her bridal veil,  then in the same movement the side of a great grey warship rises and we are in Pompey’s navy, politics and war always the other side of the romantic coin.    Indeed Hannah Morrish’s  Octavia, a character often shuffled into insignificance in more hurried productions,    has two other tremendous moments: when she learns that her husband has been flaunting himself on twin thrones with Cleopatra and Agrippa says “each heart in Rome does love and pity you”,  she crouches in humiliation as we all do under such pity.  Her short moment addressing Cleopatra on the monument is striking too. so that you come to feel that for all the war and political machismo and the fall of Antony,   this is a play about women.  

 

    By the way, it’s a real snake. They warn you about that.  But so far Okonedo has kept a firm grip on the writhing, colourful beast even when dying,  so it hasn’t made a break for freedom in the front stalls.  But if you’re touchy on the subject, sit a bit further back…

box office  020 7452 3000       nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 19 Jan     

In cinemas live 6 December

rating five    5 Meece Rating

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HOLY SH!T Kiln, NW4

PARENTHOOD, PRAYER , PROSECCO

 

The renamed Tricycle (no, I am not taking sides)   Is open:  its leader Indhu Rubasingham launches her sprauncy new theatre with Alexis Zegerman’s dark, sharp new comedy about one of the great corruptions of British society:    the battle of ambitious ,anxious  but atheist parents to get their children places at “faith”schools.  

 

 

    It’s a scam.  Churches are shamefully complicit,  taking a register of attendance knowing quite well that some  people will spend a year of Sundays pretending to worship  rather than risk a scruffier school or pay privately.   “On your knees to save the fees” is common enough  to deserve all it gets from satirists.  But also,  as here, it deserves  a thoughtful as well as comic  treatment of its psychological risks. Might it  sow real spirituality?  Or kill it off?  Frankly, how safe is it to intrude uncomfortable dimensions of eternity and ultimate morality into the brittle self-satisfactions of middle class life?   Is prayer and prosecco too volatile a mix? .

 

 

.   Zegerman shows courage in weaving together many strands of resentment , hidden unease and  “othering” – not only about religion and  education  but race, antisemitism, class, money, and, divergent styles of marriage and motherhood    Two couples are rapidly and neatly drawn,  but then deepen. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is Simone:   noisy, cynically gung-ho and  Jewish (“its a race not a religion” ).  She is married to the fairly prosperous web designer man Sam ,  a heavy pot-smoker and looseish cannon who as the year goes on hates the hypocrisies which Simone is distinctly enjoying :   her very loud and high entr’acte hymns are a treat, especially in contrast to her friend Juliet  (Claire Goose) who is more heartfelt about religion.    She is married to Nick , a black teacher (a really excellent rending by Daon Broni)  who is the most appealing of the four  . But it isn’t long before the irritation of Simone’s gung-ho assault on choir, congregational socializing and even Confirmation gets Juliet down.  

  

  In a wonderful downstage moment both are singing a hymn and Juliet, the quieter voice, gives up in disgust.   We never see the priest or the bells-and-smells HIgh Anglican church, but it comes alive all right.   A telling scene of a Jewish shiva raises something unexpected in the scornful Sam, and echoes of Ibo heritage and beliefs in Nick:  that sense of spiritual priorities edging in on them all is oddly powerful.   And then of course, both parents learn which four-year-old won the place at St Mary’s, and hell breaks out.

   

  There are echoes of the inter-parent rows in Yasmina Reza’s classic God of Carnage, and In a well-syncopated sequence of symmetrical offence there are parallels with Clybourne Park:  both are damn  good company to be in.  But there is real pain:   Juliet expressing, to her husband’s dismay, the agonised worry of a white mother of a brown child, fearing for the future and humiliated that with her French-braid blondeness she can’t manage a little girl’s hair as well as Nick – who used to do his sister’s .    Pain too in Simone’s bereaved loneliness for her parents, and in a sense for her whole heritage, and in the way Sam’s confused, guilty, self-indulsgent pothead paranoia latches  onto his Jewishness and working class pride, whichever is the handies,   In final moments Nick has a weary, desperate statement of the self-evident but often invisible truth about parenthood.   It’s a fine play, and should have sold out and hasn’t yet, so go..

  

     Oh, and the new theatre renovations? Very comfy, and seemingly good for designers too, lots of height and room for classy, understated  sliding scenesets.   I was sentimentally fond of the old Meccano galleries and comradely tip-up  seats, but time moves on.

Box office 0207328 1000.  kilntheatre.com

To 6 Oct

rating  five  5 Meece Rating

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ONCE New Wolsey, Ipswich

A RARE OLD TIME IN DUBLIN , IN IPSWICH

 

 

The miniature of Libby Watson’s gorgeous Dublin pub set in the foyer raises your spirits straight away.  Sometimes only an Irish pub will do:  a dream of a pub, rarer now in reality, where  everyone can grab an instrument and joke and blend and drum and pluck and fiddle and defy the hard world outside.  And while as we take our seats it’s Behan’s Ould Triangle and the rest to busk us in,  once the show begins it’s Glen Hansard’s marvellous Falling Slowly:  the song that won the film an  Oscar.  And there you are:  up  walking on the moonbeams with Glen Hansard’s lovely songs.

 

 

      Like thousands during the London run of the Broadway production,   I fell joyfully for Enda Walsh’s glorious opening-out of the quirky film about a despairing Dublin street musician whose spirits and hopes are transformed by a young Czech woman in the street.  Hansard and Markéta Irglova wrote the beguiling, memorable bittersweet songs together and devised the simple pavement story;   they starred in the film, but it’s made to be a stage musical with roaming, versatile actor-musicians.    And Walsh’s book mines all its hope and humour, and adds more.  And, notably, it rounds  out the character of the girl whose forthright hopefulness changes more than one life. 

 

    And goodness,  director Peter Rowe strikes lucky in his heroine.    Emma Lucia is barely a year graduated from Mountview, and almost startlingly perfect in the part of the Czech girl.  Which requires her to play both Mendelssohn and the Hansard music, sing beautifully  and remain convincingly Czech throughout in accent and manner.  Not to mention magnetizing  us with a modest but firm stage presence so that we believe the galvanizing difference she makes to the (equally well-cast) ragbag of Dublin pub regulars and struggling new Czech immigrants.

 

  They’re glorious too, notably Sean Kingsley majestically explosive as the leather-jerkined rocker Billy, Kate Robson-Stuart as the exuberantly tarty Reza who dances a tango duet with him,  and Samuel Martin as the buttoned-up gay bank manager who writes a truly terrible song about Bandon.   And leading the pack there’s Daniel Healy  as the ‘broken-hearted fixer-sucker guy” who mends Hoovers and is on the point of dumping his guitar on the pavement and giving up music forever. 

 

      This joint Wolsey and Hornchurch production, the regional premiere long overdue for this lovely show,   raises the heart and hits the spot.  I wish it was touring everywhere, because to see such quality at out-of-London prices is almost a human right.  And in this time of unease (I am not typing the B-word) what better than to enjoy the gorgeous joke of the way that the melancholy and doubt  of us offshore islanders gets startled, then invigorated, by that slightly terrifying East European directness of address,   and  that ruthlessly cheerful pragmatism.   “Serious? I am always serious. I am Czech”.   When the drooping busker asks the girl where she gets her energy, it’s “I am a young mother.”.  Her own mother – Susannah van den Berg – surrounded by keen compatriots learning English off soap-operas – is another powerhouse of exotic energy.   

 

    The staging is smooth and nimble, the movement and breaks into dance adeptly homelike:  despite the star quality of the two leads it feels the most ensemble of pieces, especially in the magical moments when an intimate number begins,  thickens as the band moves forward to wrap around the moment’s emotion,  then retreat until we are back in the shabby flat or pavement .  The redemptive, hopeful theme carries the slight strong story onwards,  all the stronger for denying us the formulaic rom-com ending;    but on another level the whole show is a chain of moments,  of treats:  musical, comic or touching.  Perfect. 

 

www.wolseytheatre.co.uk  this week – then to Queens, Hornchurch.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE LOVELY BONES Royal, Northampton

HUMANITY RISING FROM HORROR

 

     It is one of the oldest notions in the world: the unquiet grave.   From Sophocles to modern campaigns we are haunted by the idea that the violently dead cannot  rest until the living either avenge them or find – perhaps carve –  some deeper reconciliation.   Alice Sebold’s remarkable novel caught that timeless strangeness:    the restless electricity of superstition that surrounds shock and sudden loss, and weaved it  into a portrait of an ordinary family’s grief.   Susie, the narrator,   is a 14 year old walking home from school across a cornfield.    Polite and trusting (it is set in 1973, more innocent times)  she lets Mr Harvey the lonely neighbour show her a “clubhouse” underground he has built “for the local kids”.  He gags her with her jingling woolly hat,  rapes and kills her, hides her body, keeps a souvenir charm bracelet.    From an inchoate limbo on the way to heaven Susie watches the investigation,  impatient and frustrated, commenting and  hoping; she  wanders a ghost through her shattered family and sees her little brother growing up, her sister’s first love,  her parents’ dislocation.

      

    Bryony Lavery – no stranger to dangerous topics after her unsettlingly brilliant  FROZEN (https://theatrecat.com/2018/03/02/frozen-theatre-royal-haymarket/)  adapts Sebold’s novel for this first stage version, directed by Melly Still.     The topic makes you shudder,  and the opening moments certainly do despite their discretion: the ultimate nightmare is not treated pruriently, but not softened.   Yet what emerges is a powerful, hopeful  triumph of human love.  A theatrical triumph too,  not least thanks to a remarkable set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita:   a shimmering cornfield horizon bisects a world below and its reflection far overhead.  Sometimes it is a true reflection,  sometimes showing something else.   Sometimes Susie is brightly lit, the others dim; sometimes all seem to be together, in flashback or apparitions.   

        

     

        Charlotte Beaumont is a revelation as Susie. Looks easily 14, smaller than the others and briskly childlike in her bright yellow trousers,   she roams around her strange reflected ghost-world among adults and siblings who can’t see  or hear her – but sometimes eerily sense her .    As children do  she mainly  takes the strangeness of her new lot pragmatically,   and afizz with young energy moves between brisk teen impatience, astonishment,  dismay , tenderness, laughter and frustration .  She wills Harvey to “make a mistake!” ,  irritated at the detective’s failure to pick up clues in the field, in his house, in his beige-anoraked, bespectacled persona as a tolerated local weirdo (Keith Dunphy) catches that creepy plausibility horribly well).   “He’s got most of me IN HIS BASEMENT!”  shouts Susie, as he bustles carefully around.  

          

          Altogether she is quite wonderful: more than one of us came out asking “Who’s that kid?”.     As her parents,  Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle are all too credible as their marriage threatens to crumble.  Families in tragedy sometimes do.  He becomes obsessed with nailing the suspect Heckler,   and she needs to move on, feed her other children, grieve and seek solace.  

     Sebold does not indulge in any safe-in-the-arms-of-Jesus sentimentality:   Susie does feel – reflecting every bereaved parent’s cry – the unfairness of young death.   “I want to grow up!”  She  calls on David Bowie music for comfort.  Seeing her younger sister – now older than she was – have a tender initiation to lovemaking  the violated, chopped-up victim says sadly  “My sister sails away from me…”.  Her own school boyfriend is with her friend Ruth now, growing up, they talk of her but move on.   A strange ghost moment reconciles her.    Her own companions in the limbo now are Bhawna Bawsar’s Fran, a social worker in life who has chosen helping newcomers as her own heaven, and eventually  a heartbreaking host of puppet-dresses, the other little girls Heckler killed.    

     

       There is a point just after midway in its tight 110 minutes when you find yourself impatient,  feeling too entangled in the problems of the living.  You want the simple Agatha-Christie relief of seeing the net closing around the killer. But like Susie, like all of them,  you need  to admit that no, just zapping the bastard is not enough.  For human resolution vengeance may  not even be entirely necessary.   The “lovely bones” which at last satisfy and give  a heaven to Susie are those that grow around the people close to her: a new scaffolding of love.   

 

Her heaven is to see the world go on, without her yet with herself still woven into others’ identities and affections.  And to turn in the last moment to the audience ,  grin,  and wish well to the living.     In what should be a long and successful career,  young Charlotte Beaumont will rarely get a line that jerks so many tears.  

box office  royalandderngate.co.uk   to 22 Sept  and touring, to 17 nov, see below

RATING   five   5 Meece Rating

   (co-production: Royal & Derngate, Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep,  in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse

 Everyman Liverpool 25 September to Sat 6 October  www.everymanplayhouse.com

Northern Stage  9 – 20 Oct    www.northernstage.co.uk

Birmingham Rep 30 oct-10 Nov    www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

New Wolsey  Ipswich 13-17 Nov    www.wolseytheatre.co.uk

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THE HUMANS Hampstead Theatre

 GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR IS TRANSPORTED TO NEW YORK, AND FAMILY TRUTH

 

 

The joy of a play like The Humans is that it can take a subject that feels as if it might have been done to death – a family gathering together for their Thanksgiving dinner –  and cause us to forget that it has ever been done before. There is a moment where Arian Moayed’s character, Richard, awkwardly tells his girlfriend’s visiting family about one of his favourite comic books, where aliens share ghost stories about the human race because they consider us to be so frightening. Humans, Richard suggests, are as likely objects of fear and fascination to the monsters as those monsters might be to us. Watching my fellow humans in this superlative performance, I can see his point… 

 

It is making its much-anticipated UK debut, with writer Stephen Karam and director Joe Mantello packing up their Broadway Cast, four Tony Awards and David Zinn’s glorious set to come to London.    The set, recipient of one of those Tonys, is terrific, a rusty, run-down duplex in New York city’s Chinatown, two floors of peeling paint and creaking floorboards with ancient insulation stuffed between. Noisy neighbours thump around upstairs and there is ceaseless whirr and hum of washing machines next door. This transfer has clearly been a labour of love – even the smallest minutiae ensuring that we are absolutely ensconced in modern-day New York with the Blake family for their Thanksgiving. Gifts emerge from plastic bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond, the Coca Cola bottle being poured at the table is the slightly stumpier American shape, so has clearly been imported…there is no suspension of disbelief, everything feels plausible, actual, real. 

 

The play introduces us to the Blakes: Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved into the run-down apartment with her boyfriend, Richard. The two are struggling to make ends meet, Richard is a mature student, Brigid is waitressing whilst trying to find work as a composer. Visiting the apartment for the first time are older sister and lawyer, Aimee (Cassie Beck), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father Erik (House of Cards’ Reed Birney) and his dementia-stricken and wheelchair bound mother, Fiona ‘Momo’ Blake (Lauren Klein). The six characters share a meal – on paper plates, with plastic cutlery – their fold-out chairs squeaking uncomfortably beneath them. All have stories to share: money problems, sickness, revelations that build and break throughout the 90 minutes. Everyone, that is, except Klein’s ‘Momo’ – whose son insists had a ‘good day yesterday’ but whose condition has clearly deteriorated/   We are left with the family to unite in sharing tales of a proud Irish matriarch, who loved a drink and who was once the life and soul of these gatherings. We, the audience, are confronted on stage with only a shell of a person, frail, confused and mumbling unintelligibly.

 

 

 The dialogue is impeccable and authentic, switching constantly and abruptly between hilarity, stubbornness, furious indignation, and complete exasperation in a way that only a family meal can accomplish. All can be forgiven, yet nothing can be forgotten. Multiple conversations take place across both rooms simultaneously and the cast deliver it superbly. There are polite disagreements over the pronunciation of ‘Carnegie’ – settled only by Aimee declaring ‘Everybody’s right, guys!’, and the traditional, tense generational impasse, with Birney’s patriarch at a loss to understand why his daughter is so anxious about money, yet insists on living in an expensive New York apartment .  He smugly asks of her superfood diet, ‘If you’re so depressed, why are you trying to live longer?!’. Over the course of the evening Brigid becomes ever more exasperated with her parents: snapping, interrupting and shutting down even the mildest of statements. The two floors of the cramped apartment work beautifully, everything is seen, everything is overheard – it feels like a real family coming together to make do and endure one another.

 

Karam’s mastery is in making it all so authentic. The play takes place in real time, there are no scene changes – dinner is prepared, served and eaten in the company of the audience and Karam perfectly delivers the clenched jaw and aching temples so easily brought about by a tense family reunion. When the revelations arrive, they hit hard; the Blakes are fondly reminiscing about a past that may never have existed , and reluctantly adapting in the face of merciless change. 

 Believe the hype. The Humans is exceptional. 

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 13 October

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford upon Avon

WHAT LARKS…

 

 

There is a swimming-pool ladder, a rubber-ring shaped like a swan, a robotic golf cart, some decorative flamingos (one used as a weapon) , and a statue of Queen Elizabeth I. Who is heard offstage, – as tradition says she did – ordering a sleepy Shakespeare to revive the character of Sir John Falstaff. In Henry V the fat knight is only mentioned as having died, “babbling o’green fields”, after being denied in IV Pt 2 by the newly virtuous young King and ordered to “get to his prayers”. So by royal order there was this comedy prequel, and another outing for the talents of the clown Will Kemp.

 
Director Fiona Laird (who also composed the splendid renaissance-disco score) makes the wise decision to go for broke with every kind of lark, and to give designer Lez Brotherston free rein with neon-edged skeleton revolving houses and a loony, diversely anachronistic set of mad costumes. Rugby socks, random kilts, slashed Elizabethan pantaloons pinstriped and worn over modern trousers. Mistress Ford is poured into a multicoloured super-spangled catsuit, and a leopardprint Hostess sports an unforgettable cleavage. Laird has cast the splendidly fearless David Troughton as the fat knight and padded him to within an inch of his life. Over that immensity his costumes too, whether tennis, golf, hippie drag or bestial furs are beyond panto: indeed I notice in unsteady writing at the bottom of one page of my notebook the words BLIMEY, FALSTAFF’S CODPIECE…”.

 
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every six years or so the RSC pretty much has to return to this merry farce, and lark around once more with fat-suit and laundry-basket. The challenge is both to make it new (in this case the laundry-basket is a wheelie-bin, with suitably artful adjustments to the original text) and to keep it moving. Last time round, despite Desmond Barritt’s glorious tweedy Falstaff, my review quoted an audience member sadly saying ““There’s an awful lot of admin, isn’t there, before you get to the jokes”. Indeed the triple-wooing of Anne Page and the cozening duel between Parson Hugh and Dr Caius can feel wordy and distancing to a modern audience.

 
Laird’s tactic to stop this happening is to give wild licence to everyone – and I do mean everyone – to overdo it with glee. You decide that nothing can upstage Jonathan Cullen’s comedy Frenchman Dr Caius (“quelle catastrophe ce Brexit..let me speak a word in your arrrse”) and his interchange with the busty hostess proffering “pardon croissant voulez vous coucher avec le cassoulet”. There you are, thinking that what with that , and Luke Newberry’s Fenton falling over all the time and Tim Samuels as a rather camp Shallow, this really is turning into panto, O yes it is, all we need is a singalong… Whereon along comes David Acton as Pastor Hugh , and leads us all in a couple of lines of Bread of Heaven. And then it’s time for the magnificently circular Falstaff himself to attempt a run-up at the wheelie-bin, to a drumroll, and get covered with malodorous steaming rubbish and carted off by manservants who appear to be conversing in Bulgarian , or maybe Russian, with surtitles.

 
A great pleasure of Laird’s production, ceaselessly funny and over-the-top, is that it reminds you that Shakespeare is the honoured ancestor of a hundred sitcoms. Caius is pure ‘Allo ‘Allo, Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page has moments of Sybil Fawlty, while her friend Ford has a definite Miss Brahms moment and another, when acting-out the trickery on Falstaff, remniscent of Eth from Take it from Here. Falstaff himself ,in drag, even offers an unShakespearian hommage to Dick Emery with “ooh you are awful, but I like you”. Again wisely, Laird appoints Toby Park of Spymonkey as physical-comedy director. This is a man who knows , to the finest detail, exactly how to trap a fat man in a codpiece under a sun-lounger.

The panto mood, however, does not extinguish proper RSC respect: the set-piece deception scenes are skilful – especially between Troughton’s fat rogue and Vince Leigh’s suspicious Ford disguised in a Russian hat, dodgy accent, and plastic nose ’n specs set. Nor do we lose that brief electric moment when the comedy slows for a brief moment and the Fords face one another: he suspicious, she denying. And for all t her skintight spangles there is a frisson, an echo of all those other chaste accused women: Desdemona, Hero, Hermione.
But only for a moment. We still have many larks to come. And are grateful for them. As Mr Punch would say (his ancestry is in there too) “That’s the way to do it!”.

 

box office http://www.rsc.org.uk to 5 Jan
rating five. Because being daftly funny is harder than it looks.

5 Meece Rating

 

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GREEK Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT GREEK PERFECTION AT GRIMEBORN

Like the roar of an older, bolder London, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s GREEK bounces snarling onto the Grimeborn stage, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in the first ever revival of its world premiere production for Munich and ENO, directed both then and now by Jonathan Moore. The significant privilege of reviving such an iconic production of this groundbreaking work with the original creative team (Turnage himself has been attending rehearsals) has given Grimeborn its jewel for this year’s festival, and the Arcola easily one of the hottest opera tickets in London this summer. But this is no historical re-enactment: GREEK is as raw, angry and daring as ever, and the production feels boxfresh. While references to the social tensions of the Eighties (overflowing bins, unemployment, strikes and riots) still express the ‘state of plague’ in “this seething heap of world,” Moore works in touches of today: the London Riots, mobile phones, and wifi, while a huge graffiti wall beside the stage (a giant painted lightbox, used to screen projections of police brutality and civil unrest) proclaims HIPSTERS OUT! Dalston – you heard.

On a black lacquered stage tantalisingly bare of props, framed by a square of piped, colour-changing light running from floor to ceiling, the action unfolds with visceral immediacy. Designer Baśka Wesołowska produces a clear playing space where Moore creates violent aggression with superbly controlled choreography: fights are brilliantly dislocated across the stage, Eddy and his combatants landing (and realistically receiving) coordinated punches from a distance. Immaculate attention to detail is everywhere: as the orchestra tune up, Eddy attempts to enter the theatre, but is thrown out summarily by security. Moments later, he explodes into the auditorium to tell us his hideous story.

Lithe with physical menace as a young hoodlum, gracefully tense as an older, successful man who nevertheless feels he has more to prove, Edmund Danon’s Eddy is spot on: his London accent perfect, his baritone already richly tender, but capable of scorn and challenge, he seems born for this part, sliding from speech to song with confident command, and exploring the arrogance, fastidiousness and impetuousness of his accursed character with skill. Laura Woods is magnetic as his Wife (and Sis), her mezzo of liquid fullness, her hungry longing for her lost child heartbreaking, their erotic connection thoroughly disturbing. Philippa Boyle’s Mum is a tour de force of versatile character acting, her soprano lyrically expressive, while Richard Morrison’s Dad seethes with fragile machismo: the libretto, adapted from Berkoff’s play by Turnage and Moore, interleaves London slang with historical phrases, producing a Clockwork Orange mosaic which builds its own mythological atmosphere, and Boyle and Morrison in particular use a dazzlingly wide range of vocal styles to deepen this effect. A bowl of blood produces a deliciously grisly eye-gouging scene, but the shocks don’t end there, the opera remaining irrepressibly punk to the last. Turnage’s score, vividly delivered by the Kantanti Ensemble with crisp conducting from Tim Anderson, is astonishing: brimming with visual images, perfectly catching the cadence and textures of the London soundscape, setting words with unfailing clarity, combining mastery and humour like a gangster who grips you by the throat while slapping you conspiratorially on the back.

GREEK’s thrusting, vicious defiance feels like a blast from a braver, riper creative moment. It’s dark, edgy, bloody, and disturbing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted: snowflakes may sob with woke anxiety into their ironic gender-neutral moustaches. For the rest of us, it’s a clarion call of what art can, should and must provoke.

Presented by the Arcola Theatre as part of Grimeborn 2018, with generous support from the Grimeborn Funders’ Circle

Until 18 August. Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating

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KING LEAR Duke of York’s , WC2

MADNESS, MENACE, MAJESTY

      

      You need not be aged – or even a man – to be a memorable Lear.  But there is an intense and concentrated emotion to it when a great actor in the last decades of life takes on the role.  Derek Jacobi, in Michael Grandage’s Donmar production, threw me seriously off-balance.  Now Ian McKellen, even older (80 near year) is  a more military, striding figure; but in dissolution equally wrenching.  The dignity of his late gentleness,  “not in my perfect mind” stops the heart;  so does his moment of pity for the long-neglected poor (who gather, silent ghosts, behind him in the storm).   For this third time in the role we are told that he deliberately chose to play it in the intimacy of Chichester’s Minerva last year;   here in the West End a reconfiguring and reduction of the Duke of York’s   (with a central walkway and false wall) maintains much of that atmosphere.   

 

          Jonathan Munby’s production has military uniforms and modern dress, but the theme of upward appeal to unseen gods, always strong in the text, is signalled by the Latin chant in the first scene and an almost nervous flinging up of hands by court officials at relevant lines;   in Lear himself it gives pathos to the sense that his growing mental fragility is a malignity sent down from above by the gods who toy with all frail humans,  so his own flaws of temper and self-knowledge are only feeding it.  His sudden spurt of rage at Cordelia is wholly credible,  and her unscripted gasp of “What?”  perfect.  As in the Grandage production, Cordelia is of black heritage, a dignified and touching Anita-Joy Uwajeh:  far from being “colourblind” it adds a sense that this most-loved child came from a second, southern wife, perhaps after the chillier mother of Goneril and Regan.    Since we have already heard Gloucester joshing about Edmund and the “sport at his making”,  this small detail adds to the sense of intimate family tragedy, joys and dangers cascading down the generations. 

 

 

      Little sense adding to the praise of McKellen: he is magnificent, both in emotional line and in delivery of certain well-known lines which he makes new.   Mever have I been more chilled than by his flat, prosaic reply to the more musically eloquent Cordelia’s pleading.  With deliberation the father says:  “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”. Brrr.    So just talk of the other excellences:  Sinead Cusack as Kent,  whose character works remarkably well as a decent straight-speaking middle-aged woman;  Lloyd Hutchinson as a Fool with echoes of Eric Morecambe,  Munby’s elegant solution to the old mystery of what happens to him,   Michael Matus a Jeeves-like Oswald, beautifully nasty;   James Corrigan giving Edmund dangerous vitality and not a little humour,  Luke Thompson’s Edgar becoming Poor Tom better than any I have seen. And, not least, Kirsty Bushell as a psychopathic sexual sadist in a flippy short skirt, fit to give you nightmares.   

 

         So,  heroic and beautiful and serious, the terrors of the earth.  Well worth 3 hrs 40 minutes in heat which, despite the theatre’s pretty good ventilation, made you maternally pleased for the cast when after 90 minutes Lear, Edgar, Fool and Kent get wet through to their underpants by some stonking good stage rain.     

       

box office  atgtickets.com   to 3 nov

rating five

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BARRY HUMPHRIES’ WEIMAR CABARET Barbican

A FERTILE DESPAIR

 

This is two hours of  treasure. Barry Humphries of course always was one, in all his characters, and this time he puts on “the most subtle and intricate disguise” as himself, amiable in a purple velvet smoking-jacket, only occasionally bothering with deadly one-liners when necessary. As when Hitler – who, as a future horror overshadows this marvellous exposition – gives him the chance to muse gently and topically “Incredible that a great nation should hand over the reins of government to a loud-mouthed psychopath with a ridiculous comb-over…”

 

But never mind Trump. This is his tribute to a long fascination with the short,fertile period of the Weimar Republic with its snarling cabaret songs , yearning romanticism and destructivepolitical despair: “a fusion of naked liberation and bitterly gay pathos”. Germany was ruined by the First World War, its currency chaotic, the Kaiser gone and corrupt opportunism everywhere; with a reckless sense of rolling the dice the the last chance saloon and speeding up the tawdry roundabout of life to see what it flung off . It gave us Brecht and Weill, Bauhaus, Expressionism, Klee, Schoenberg; painters, composers, anarchic thinkers, breakers and re-creators.

 

The rising Nazi party as the ‘30s progressed saw only decadence: dangerous and often Jewish wit subverting of the neat Aryan dream. When they rose this “degenerate art” was banned. But the fascination of Weimar years, and especially its cabaret, endures. Today there are half a dozen chanteuses, often in underwear, whose act is Weimar wannabe. But the best, the Queen of them all, immaculate in technique and reckless in sexual self-awareness, is Meow Meow from Melbourne. She and Humphries are a perfect pairing: he in exposition of the period’s music, she bringing it to life, sharp and sour and heartbreaking.

 

She growls into “Life’s a swindle – get what you can /from your fellow man”, into a fierce Pirate Jenny, a heartbreaking Surabaya Johnny. Once there is a terrifyIng rendering of an erotic solo Sonata Erotica by Erwin Schulhoff which consists entirely – with sheet music she flings around page on page – of a simulated orgasm. Twice she duets with Humphries, heartbreakingly in “The Ruins of Berlin”, in the three languages of the Occupying Powers of 1945 after the war.   Behind her the Australian Chamber Orchestra delivers a sawing angry passion: its remarkable violinist Satu Vänskä steps forward once to sing with her a lesbian duet by Spolianski, Meine Beste Freundin, again quite brilliantly.
Barry, with an enthusiast’s modesty, talks a little in between: remembering how he met Spolianski, who wrote for Dietrich, and asked him to write one for Dame Edna Everage; he explains how it began for him with a box of forgotten sheet-music, and how in respectable Melbourne he heard, on crackling vinyl, the orignal cast recordign of the Threepenny Opera; and how long before that, as a child collecting stamps, he would be given Germany ones – with Hitler on , latterly – by a Jewish lady down the road. Whose letters from her husband, of course, stopped one day..

 
It is balanced artfully between his drily bufferly scholarship and Meow Meow’s louche sexuality and impassioned growling voice: there are jokes – at one point a supposedly comatose Barry is jerked awake during a spirited jazz tango by the slinky Meow Meow hurling a black-stocking leg over his shoulder and getting stuck in ridiculous flame headdress. But always there is that intensity of emotion: as he reflects, this was a different kind of jazz age to the merrier Parisian and American 20s and 30s. Always the dark was growing.    The orchestra plays the wrenching Lament for Doomed Europe with its final pleading trumpet. Your eyes fill. They should.

 

box office barbican.org.uk only to 29 July.

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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THE KING AND I Palladium, W1

A CLASSIC OF POWER, PUZZLEMENT AND A DIFFICULT WOMAN

 

       Sometimes less is more and understatement gives a show its sharpest edge. Which is not to  suggest, perish the thought , that the Lincoln Center Theatre’s much- awarded production doesn’t do sumptuous. The front cloth alone used 500 books of gold leaf:    lit in rainbow changes it shimmers , a mirage of exotic orientalism, hypnotizing you at ever scene change. The costumes have equal dazzle, from the smallest gold- top-knotted child to King Mongkut and his wives like elegant living jewels;    the Victorian governess’ crinoline is dowdy in contrast  (I had forgotten that wonderful moment when, helping to Westernize the wives, Anna explains that a  crinoline represents the circle of protection around a woman.  “Are your men so aggressive?” asks the royal polygamist, puzzled… 

 

 

    But the restraint in Bartlett Sher’s production lies, notably in the first act, in his ability to resist all temptation to break into the  musical-theatre hoofing which some other productions have embraced. Instead the  court ladies, and often their children,  are static  in pools of shining decorum and crouched obeisance.  It establishes something which  not all the whistling of happy tunes and gettings -to- know-you can disguise (the merriment of Richard Rodgers’ immortal tunes is at times interestingly at odds with the material). What Anna Leonowens took on in 1862, at a tricky political juncture and under an  absolute and alien monarchy, was unnerving and lonely.  That sense of threat really works here, for Ken Watanabe’s King Mongkut is  at times far more genuinely frightening than Yul Brynner in the film.  The ongoing fear that he is, in |Victorian language, “a barbarian” is close to the surface. His accent is at times, in his tortured unaccustomed English, hard to make out, which adds to the alien quality,   and the  twinkle in him is hardly there until the wonderful persuasion scene at the end of the first half when Anna disguises her advice as admiring guesses about his intentions.  O’Hara herself is wonderful, even a bit topical actually,  as the original “Difficult Woman” who must manipulate stubborn male power. 

 

 

         A confession:   I have known every number by heart  from early childhood, from a cracked album and the film;  as a diplo-brat my nursery school was in Bangkok a hundred years later , my schoolmates the image of the little pupils on stage, and my treasure a steepled golden hat,  identical to the ones on the  dancers in the (bizarrely watchable if rather lengthy) exotic Uncle-Tom ballet  in the second act.   But this production has, more than any other  I have seen,   a determined sense of danger alongside the teasing mutuality of Watanabe’s sometimes oafish King and Kelli o’Hara’s gloriously forthright , beautifully sung Anna .   Her showstopping imaginary reproof to his polygamy always raises applause. “A flock of sheep and you’re the only ram – no wonder you’re the wonder of Siam!”   The glorious polka of Shall We Dance, with the palace pillars moving around them as if through great spaces, lifts the heart;  but when moments later Mongkut reverts to older notions of kingship and threatens poor Tuptim with a horsewhip, you believe it.  A move into stylization in the final scenes works extraordinarily well, both alienating and intensifying the sense of a distant, half-understood court.

 

 

         Really, the old show could hardly be bettered.  Beautiful staging  without exaggeration, a real spark between O”Hara and Watanabe, and  perfect support . Not least from a dignified and touching Naoko Mori as Tuptim and from Jon Chew who is engaging as the upright, anxious-to-learn Crown Prince Chulalongkorn.   He did indeed, as the show has him prophesy, abolish the grovelling rules of prostration so despised by Anna.   It is oddly and personally satisfying to know, for all the romanticisation,   that such things are true and that it was the eldest son of that young Chulalongkorn who was on the throne of Thailand a century later.  When I was that small child being taught, unsuccessfully, to do those strange, angular dances in a spiked golden hat.  

 

box office 0207 087 7757        https://kingandimusical.co.uk/     to 29 Sept

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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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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TRANSLATIONS Olivier, SE1

SORROW AND SPLENDOUR IN WORDS THAT SING

 

 

The first act of Brian Friel’s great play ends with a shout of “bloody, bloody, bloody marvellous!”. And so it bloody well is, this comic-tragic-historic-philosophical torrent of words, feelings, arguments, tyrannies and fellowship. The shouter of that line, leaping nimbly onto an old deal table, is young Lt George Yolland: an English soldier of 1833, enchanted with what his mission has brought him to. His duty is to rename and Anglicize Irish place-names as part of the ruling nation’s project to make a survey of this wild, ancient, tricky territory. But George is besotted with Ireland’s wild crags and louring skies above the lonely pinpoints of cottage lanterns (Rae Smith designs, perfect). He is pixillated by lovely Maire, by poteen in a teacup and the prospect of a dance that night at a crossroads whose Gaelic name springs from a long-dry well and a drowned man with a deformity, who nobody much remembers… see how bloody marvellous! When Ireland gets hold of a child of cold careful Protestant England, it brings either loathing mistrust or romantic abandon.

 

 

I adore this play, revived lately in Leicester and in Sheffield, and Ian Rickson’s production here, free from directorial vanity, does even better by Brian Friel. Whose diary of its creation, reproduced in the programme, should be read by every aspiring playwright as he frets over “what has been lost, diluted, confused, perverted” in finally shaping it. For it is a play of big ideas, skilfully framed in a story of unconsidered long-ago people, subsistence farmers rightly alarmed by the arrival of surveying soldiery, their blood-red coats a warning and a fear (Neil Austin does a threatening miracle with the lighting each time they appear beyond the misty crags. So red…).

 
The villagers, Seamus O”Hara’s dutiful Manus and his tipsy learned father Hugh, belong to a hedge-school: one of the remarkable enterprises provoked by the occupying power’s laws against Catholics getting educated, hence possibly disobediant. They fed the hunger for poetry and story with classical texts. Ramshackle old Jimmy-Jack, a fabulously trampish Dermot Crowley, reads Greek aloud, thrills at Homer, lusts after Athene (“If you’d a woman like that at home, it’s not stripping the turf bank you’d be thinking of”) and argues against potatoes and in favour of corn from Virgil’s Georgics. Maire comes in from the dairy for her lesson announcing hersel “fatigatissima”; young Bridget and unruly Doalty answer “Adsum!” to Hugh the master, mute Sarah (a touching Michelle Fox) is coaxed into speech by the patient Manus. The ensemble is tight, as if they had lived on that earthy stage together in reality for all their lives. We believe, English though Friel’s text is, that they are speaking Irish even as Hugh , disgusted by the renaming operation, rails against the imprisoning tongue: “English can’t express us” . There’s a lovely unexpected topicality as he politely explains to the redcoat Captain, “ We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island”. They are all a bit shocked that the English soldiers speak only their own language, so can’t even converse with them in Latin (“Nonne Latino loquitur?”) The scene where the cultured locals suppress hilarity at the sweating, pidgin-English sign language of the English Captain as he tries to explain the concept of a map is priceless. They, “homesick for Athens”, have more solidity and virtue than the soldiery.

 

 

Maire more than any of them feels change coming, as indeed it was: potato blight, famine, emigration, Ireland changing and learning new ways (as it still is) for mere survival. She cherishes the one phrasebook sentence Auntie Mary once taught her without meaning. Which is “In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the Maypole”. Her passionate connection across the language barrier with young George is beautifully, economically written. All through, never a line is wasted despite the cascading wordiness of this play, and when George says, dutifully renaming the place-names, we shudder at his thoughtful young recognition that it is “a sort of eviction..”. And so it will be. The second act darkens, yet ends in a rambling, unanswerable, ancient question.

 
So yes, the play is a marvel, deeper every time you see it . These perfomances serve it to perfection: Ciaran Hinds is a towering, wrecked monument as Hugh, Judith Roddy a poignant, fiery perfection as Maire. And Adetomiwa Edun gives George a shining, enchanting naiveté to remember. It was time the Olivier had an inspiring success again, and this is it. It ought to run longer. It ought to be in cinemas and touring, instead of that awful Macbeth. But there are Travelex £ 15 tickets, so just go.

 

020 7452 3000 To 11 August
sponsor, Travelex. Rating, five.

5 Meece Rating

 

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RED Wyndhams, WC2

THE SHINE AND THE TERROR

 

 

It is no bad thing to have your stage hero effectively co-designing the set. Christopher Oram’s recreation of Mark Rothko’s 1950’s studio is a bleak box with a cluttered workbench and frames and pulleys for his vast canvases. It is dominated by the overbearing, majestic, mysteriously edgeless, tragic and challengine reds and blacks of his Seagram- project canvases. Neil Austin’s lighting design, a miracle in itself, makes them glow and threaten, palpate and shiver in just the way the artist eloquently insists in John Logan’s astonishing play. (on which subject, sign the petition now to save stage lighting from a disastrous new regulation, https://tinyurl.com/yafaaqaz , this matters).

 

 

Michael Grandage brought it first eight years ago to the Donmar, since when it has enthralled Broadway and the world. To general joy Alfred Molina reprises the part of Rothko, more than ably partnered this time with Alfred Enoch as the skinny, intense, thoughtful young assistant Ken who is his awed skivvy. And finally, after the two years covered in this sharp 90 minutes, his conscience. It is an eloquently entertaining duologue stretching from Nietzsche, Jung, Hamlet , Rembrandt and Turner to the emotional and spiritual point of art, its evolution from figurative to abstract, its inheritance and what Rothko calls the moment when “the child must bash the father” as his abstract-impressionists crushed the Cubists (he feels this until young Ken tells him that the pop-art movement is about “this moment and a little bit tomorrow” so he too must give way. Gracelessly.)

 
So it could be overtalky, were it not so electrically theatrical and visual as Ken darts around stretching canvases and mixing paints. At one point the pair of them – wild in separate energy and then strangely, balletically together – prime a huge red canvas at speed to an rising operatic theme. Its emotional shape is intensely satisfying too: clashes, revelations, arguments, absurdities , passions and the perennial joyful mystery of genius. Of the way that a terrible self-absorbed curmudgeon can turn his own restless depressions and terrors into something which feeds the world’s spirit for centuries after.

 

 

“Not everyone wants art that actually hurts” protests Ken in his great diatribe against the master late on, but sometimes we need it. And it is Ken who persuades Rothko in the end to refuse the swanky, lucrative, fashionable Seagram-building money and keep the pictures – which he did, in 1959. Rothko explains why in one of the smaller but most enjoyable soliloquies in which Molina describes, with pitiless detail, the utter ghastliness – the timelessly pretentious horrific Tina-Brownery – of the smart New York restaurant for which they were commissioned.
Perfect. It is a play of fire and poetry, laughter and rage. An imagined colloquy with its own kind of genius.

 

box office https://tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/index.asp?ShoID=2420
to 28 July
rating five (extra thematic mouse  dedicated to design and lighting. Sorry no lighting mouse, will get Roger to draw one..)

5 Meece Rating Set Design Mouse resized

 

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PUT OUT THE LIGHTS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

CLEAR YOUNG VOICES FROM A DISTANT PAST

 

 

   Three children in the 1540’s play in a hay-barn,  built fragrant and real in the tiny theatre.   One has  found a pilgrim medal and they  argue about grown-up matters like the “Popish trash” who might have dropped it, and the famous local statue of “Our Lady Gracious” which has been rightly  (in the view of the censoriously new-Protestant boy Alexander ) rightly sent to London to be burnt .  “The cult of saints is OVER!” he cries. “No one’s is ever allowed a pilgrimage no more”.  The other lad, Edward, rather liked the statue.   There is a fleeting mention of Ann Boleyn, executed four years earlier :    “a whore, but -“  one argues  “no friend to the Pope”. The girl Alice is as engaged as the boys, a forthright and confident farm kid.  

 

 

           The clever thing is that in this short, lively opening scene we easily believe that bright 16c children talked of these things: just as now they talk of global warming, refugees,  Corbyn or – a dark parallel to come later – of jihadi martyrdom. The  three  local youth-theatre children carry the opening with conviction, and Joanna Carrick’s dialogue  is faultless:  naturalistic to a modern ear but with proper Suffolk accents riding archaic idioms and rhythms with ease.   Thus when moments later their young adult selves are before us, we are aware both of their characters and their times. 

 

 

     For  Protestantism caught light rapidly  in these Eastern counties.  Alexander, planning a weaver’s career and Flanders travels, has brought an English Testament to read scripture with them: the youngsters are enthralled by the new  technology and the sense of holding the real original Word, not tired Catholic “superstition” of  statues and ritual.   Contempt for Popery has conspiracies being talked of even on the poorest farm.  The seafaring town has heard a  rumour that the statue of “Mary Gracious” was smuggled to Papist Italy (it’s still there! in Nettuno! Carrick as author-director went to visit it..).   

 

         The trio are increasingly at odds.  Gentle Ed challenges the ever-fiercer Protestantism of his friend with “Why must you be so heartfelt about everything?”.   When Alice’s father dies her grief  is lightened by pious Alex’s “Be strong in faith, be not bowed in spirit!”  but rather more by Ed’s proposal.   At which point I should mention that Isabel Della-Porta, Oliver Cudbill and Ricky Oakley deliver some of the strongest and most honest youthful performances I have seen.    Della-Porta in particular carries the centrally tragic role of the real Alice Driver with remarkable dignity and fire. 

 

        The young pair work together, laugh and joke and matchmake (a very funny scene)  for the earnest Alex.  But the wider story is darkening.    The boy-king Edward dies in 1553,  Jane Grey lasts nine days, then Catholic Mary, Bloody Mary,   has her five years’ terror.  It  bore very heavily on this region with its staunchly stubborn protestants.   When the happy couple come in exhausted and covered in black soot from the stubble-burning,  it is a brief ironic prefiguring of Alice’s end.    For despite electric, passionate scenes where her husband tries to persuade her to take the sacrament,  she will not do so, and finally in 1558 will stand alongside Alexander at the stake in 1558, her ears cut off and her living body burned for calling  Queen Mary a “Jezebel! Papal whore!”.    

 

 

        The political is the personal.   Ed’s cry to his friend Alexander is “leave us, with your liking of danger and darkness!”  and to his wife “Alice, the fire will be hot and the terror great and the pain extreme. And life is sweet…”.  She only says “We love God, that’s all..but do we love him enough?”  .   The heroism of it shakes you rigid:   Alice Driver in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is recorded as saying of the chain holding her to the pyre “Here is a goodly neckerchief, blessed by God for it”.   Della-Porta in her final prison scene makes that seem credible. 

 

 

      I think I will be haunted by this play.  I was by Joanna Carrick’s last one, PROGRESS,  and this is even better.  That was about  the aftermath for  local people caught up in the intellectual thrill and dark savagery of the Reformation. – set in 1561, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich and a fragile peace came to a nation so bitterly, dangerously  divided that our current flouncing irritations over Brexit look like a nursery huff.  What Carrick has done in both is tremendous: no Wolf-Hall aristocracies and political gaming, simply a sense of clear young voices speaking to us from a distant past, suffering and relishing seismic changes in the way a whole western world thought and believed.  The ending has a quietly intense religious and personal force which leaves you silent.   

 

Box office         www.redrosechain.com     to to 27 May

rating  five

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NINE NIGHT Dorfman SE1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR  FINDS  KINSHIP IN  A FAMILY SORROW 

 

 

Well, this is timely. In the shadow of Windrush, a play  immerses us in the colourful traditions of Caribbean funeral culture,   but unites even the uninitiated in a shared understanding of grief and family.

 

Nine Night is a sensational debut written by Natasha Gordon and directed by Roy Alexander Weise. We meet Lorraine and her daughter Anita as they are taking care of Gloria, Lorraine’s dying mother. Gloria is of the Windrush generation who came to the UK 70 years ago, looking for work and opportunity. When Gloria passes, the dark and quiet household is transformed into an explosion of light, colour, food and music. You can smell supper simmering on the hob as the family dances into the kitchen, the table soon covered in bottles of rum, flowers and a feast as they begin the traditional Jamaican Nine Night wake where family and friends drink, dance and eat to share condolences and celebrate the life of their departed loved one.

 

 

The play takes place in Gloria’s kitchen, a set by Rajha Shakiry which pays hugely satisfying attention to detail – from the tropical yellow wallpaper to the rickety kitchen drawers, it all feels real;  it has been lived in by this family. From the kitchen we hear music from the adjacent sitting room, the throbbing bass of reggae music and the busy chatter of voices. We are told the house is full of strangers, all here to join in the festivities. We are introduced to Great Aunt Maggie and Uncle Vince; the former an utterly glorious performance from Cecilia Noble, a domineering matriarch, defiantly rooted in her Jamaican traditions as she criticises and irritates her family relentlessly. Her sassy patois serves up many of the funniest lines of the evening as she boasts that her bush tea recipe can cure diabetes and that her cousin simply must be buried in a new wig, or else she’ll ‘frighten Jesus’.

 

 

But whilst there is much to amuse in this very funny play, it is ultimately a reflection on grief. The loss of Gloria brings about fissures in an already dysfunctional and disparate family unit. Franc Ashman is superb as Lorraine – tensing and shuddering with annoyance at the cringe-inducing insensitivities uttered by her family; not least by her brother, Robert, another terrific performance by Oliver Alvin-Wilson. Robert is coping with his mother’s death in the way that men do best: by bottling up his emotions until they explode as anger and frustration, antagonising his niece and being cruel to his sister. His grief can also be glimpsed behind the veils of a drunken joke shared with the only other man in the play, Uncle Vince, played by Ricky Fearon.

 

It is Gordon’s mastery of the family dynamic and relationships that makes this play such a spell-binding experience. There is a sense that this is what all families are like: an assortment of disparate personalities, everyone rolling their eyes and attempting to get along whilst having been steamrollered by their grief. This becomes all the more poignant when set against the most contradictory of backgrounds – all of these people are suffering, yet the music is still blaring and the rum is still flowing. It’s breath-taking.

  There simply isn’t enough theatre like this. Poignant, authentic, stunning.

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 12 may

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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ABSOLUTE HELL Lyttelton, SE1

A WAR OVER, A WORLD ADRIFT

 

It’s a great tapestry of a play: Rodney Ackland’s portrait of a Soho nightclub as WW2 ended. Socialites and slobs, black-marketeers and failing artists, unaccepted homosexuals, decrepit elders , a lonely streetwalker patrolling outside. It is louche and honest, funny and sad, just what the National Theatre should be doing. Not least because few others can: a cast and ensemble of thirty, a multi-storey set by Lizzie Clachan with the ability to send clouds and lumps of plaster down. And all the way through, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ cast populating that big stage: milling and surging, scattering, mobbing, gathering.

 

All honour to the programme for acknowledging that it was the little Orange Tree theatre which rediscovered this classic, rewritten by an ageing and impoverished Ackland in 1987. For its first outing in 1952 – backed by Rattigan, who lost money over it – was too soon and too strong. Britain wanted a rosier view of the “spirit of ’45’ and the postwar Labour victory. Binkie Beaumont, the great producer, called the play “a libel on the British people”, and that was only the cautious version under the Lord Chamberlain. By the 1980s the elderly Ackland could be more frank about homosexuality. But in real life people knew about that nocturnal underworld, gay or straight: the programme quotes Betjeman’s 1954 poem about an old night-club proprietress -“I’m dying now and done for, What on earth was all the fun for? For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight”.

Yet the play is not depressing, though after three hours of intricate storytelling the hostess – Kate Fleetwood’s brittle Christine – does sit unwillingly alone with a broken gramophone. Honesty, realism and wonderful comic lines keep it going, Hill-Gibbins’ direction and brilliant cast ensure that all the characters – even the most loathsome – are fascinating. At its heart is another marvellous performance from Charles Edwards as Hugh, a failing writer supposedly working at a Ministry but haunting the club every night, promiscuously assenting to GIs who’ll take any “tail” going, and cadging loans. Perhaps off Danny Webb’s prim Austrian Siegfried, who is losing his party-girl Elizabeth (Sinead Matthews, memorable as usual) to a GI. Or from the loathsome, predatorily camp film fixer Maurice , who is stringing him along and leaves reading scripts to his bullied, flouncing secretary Cyril…

 

The core of both pain and comedy is in Edwards’ babbling, intelligent, fretful desperation, at once Wodehousishly funny and as tragic as anything in Chekhov. After the interval we meet his defecting life- partner Nigel (Prusanna Puwanarajah) who is trying to get married to a rich woman. His neat pinstriped exasperation confronts Edwards’ shambolic shabbiness , in a riveting scene of impossible love. A generation’s pain is in Nigel’s stark reluctant condemnation of “the whole idea of queerness, the whole ambience of boring camp and squalid promiscuity, , nostalgie de la boue and hysterical emotionalism”.

 

Yet that is only one strand; right across it runs a mood of the time, magnified in this loose-living microcosm. These are WW1 babies, battered by inter-war fast-living and then a second war which came horrifyingly soon. They are rationing their very hope, escaping, doubting the future. Aged Julia in layers of dirty lace looks at the patrolling Fifi and says “if the Socialists get in , we shall all be hounded into Piccadilly to lurk about offering our charms, and all that we are allowed to keep will be five and a half percent. My dear, they’re going to nationalize women”. Hugh has one drunken rant about how the Soviets at least value artists, but doesn’t believe that either. Violent drunk Michael (Lloyd Hutchinson) rants that true artists like him and Hugh shouldn’t have to “expose themselves in canvas or print” because their beauty lies in their own heads ; but in his sleep he dreams he is using a dead man’s hand as a paintbrush.

 

There are cartoonish moments, but even the crazed Belfast bible-basher Madge has a whiff of deathly darkness . The news of “the horror camps” across the North Sea comes close to the revellers in shocking moments, and the invasion of GIs in animal masks from a party creates a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet odd harbingers of normality strike in: Hugh’s innocently fussing mother, Doris the housekeeper, decent GI Sam, a neat British officer bringing news of Elizabeth’s German friend. I wish I could name every character and all the cast: there’s not one false note in writing or performance. It is very, very good.

 
box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
to 16 June
rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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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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