Category Archives: Five Mice

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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