Category Archives: Five Mice

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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