Category Archives: Five Mice

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT Wyndham’s, WC2

A WATCHFUL SORROW

 

 

There are some evenings when, as the cast take their bow with that half-relaxed half-smile, you are shocked: you feel you have not been watching a performance but witnessing a great human ordeal. Eugene O’Neill’s best play, a three-and-a-half hour fugue of unhappiness and love, is both exhausting and strangely invigorating. Maybe it is as simple as “they survived, so we can”. But more likely it is that in its acknowledgement of vast insoluble human pain, it becomes a hand reaching out across time to take yours. Whether you believe like the morphine-addled Mary that the Virgin Mary is still up there, or like her tubercular son Edmund that Nietzsche was right and God is dead, the point is that others have felt it all before you. And as Mary says “None of us can help the things life has done to us..”.

 

 

Lesley Manville, whose wrenching, delicately controlled pain scorched through Richard Eyre’s unforgettable production of Ibsen’s GHOSTS a while back, now shines in an extraordinary performance under the same director . The immense, intimate epic of addiction and love is set in Rob Howell’s blue-glass, skewed imagination of a summer house by the sea. She is in turns flirty, scared, angry, manic, cooing, sly, spiteful, querulous, loving, dangerous, excited, resentful: changing within seconds. She is the Tyrone family’s madonna, their fount of love, their toxic time-bomb: the eternal addict who is the enemy of ease because of what is (for a long time) not spoken of: the hypodermic, the stash upstairs.

 
The long day unfurls into nightmare from the initial family banter, breakfast-time prattling as if nothing was wrong except the patriarch’s snoring, Edmund’s “summer cold” and Jamie’s dissipation. But Eyre’s meticulous detailing shows the opening of cracks which will widen to chasms. Jeremy Irons is the retired actor, growlingly affectionate, exasperated by his sons then suddenly lovingly amused, pulling his beloved wife onto his lap. But he betrays an anxious need for control in sudden tidiness, picking up Jamie’s cup off the sofa and fussily plumping cushions. His Mary is too bright, to chatty for comfort; elder son Jamie is watchful, his brother Edmund aware of his own illness but being constantly pulled back to share in the observation of his mother. For after the bright hope of her return from the sanatorium, she is relapsing. Dare they believe it ? Jamie explicitly does; his father attempts denial. Through that first act the most telling (and truthful) detail is often just a stillness: anyone who has lived with an addict, a relapsing alcoholic, or self-harming depressive will recognize that nervous stillness: everyone watching, hoping this isn’t the bad thing back again, knowing it probably is.

 

 

Every one of them must find refuge: old Tyrone in memories of the great Shakespearian he thinks he might have been, Edmund in Swinburne and Schopenhauer and Ibsen (“filth and degenerates” says his father), Jamie in drinking and whoring. Every ordinary weakness is magnified by the central, demonic thing in their midst. The fog comes down, swirls beyond the glass walls. Back-story emerges: a nomadic theatrical life, bare hotel rooms and dirty trains, her babies born on the road, his near-miserly fear of poverty and absurd land deals, the baby who died, the doctor who hooked her on morphine when Edmund was newborn, the social gulf between the couple when they married. But as most of this comes through Mary’s rattling monologues and resentful mood-swings, you are never quite sure what to count.

 

 

Absurdity runs alongside the tragedy, horribly funny moments always a second away from a lethal shaft of pain. Later, when the morphine is openly spoken of, Manville’s prattling insistence that when Edmund is better and things are easier she will definitely beat it, Matthew Beard’s Edmund stares sideways out at us, hollow-eyed, defeated by her denial. When Rory Keenan’s Jamie comes home drunk and obscene, baiting a tipsy father and brother, it cannot be long before the restless footsteps upstairs bring the dreaded, loved mother into their midst, drifting farther away from them than ever. The poetry is in the pity. I have rarely seen anything more delicately, honestly, skilfully sorrowful.

 

http://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk to 7 april

RATING five 5 Meece Rating

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JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

Before the start, singing along with Eye of the Tiger in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beercans,  we of the 1968 generation felt  quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.

 

But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre , this is a Caesar for today.   Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale. Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny.   Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful , liberal Brutus. So they do, and in their moment of bloody  achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and headshakingly offering that fatal line of  faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… “ . And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.

 

Hytner, who over  a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current  parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes  – and gleefully  refashioned his new theatre to allow some 200 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob. In the starry hot-ticket  scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony,  and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s  earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh  as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.

 

 

And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower.  The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change,  so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness.  Promenade performances can be both boring and  hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense  silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.
 

So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo  boxes  of noble  Brutus’ final battle,   I felt smugly   sorry for the poor static comfy lumps  in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was.  We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots,  suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s  brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too   ,As  Henry V  would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves  accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.

 

. Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 15 april Broadcast in cinemas on NT Live on 22 March
rating: five  5 Meece Rating
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse for the guys who kept us on the move…

Stage Management Mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedand a design mouse for Bunny Christie.

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WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS Jermyn St theatre

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM WALKS AGAIN

 

 

You cross the stage floor to the toilets and a warning sign on the little set alerts you to the danger of tripping over a “solid stone” bench. So I tapped it, expecting polystyrene or MDF but no – solid. Apparently it was hell getting it down the narrow stairs. Quite right though: nothing but quality has a place in the classy whiteness of Erika Rodriguez’ set for this evocation of Peggy Guggenheim’s life, art collection and robust attitudes. And when Judy Rosenblatt prowls onto the stage to dump on it an armful of posh frocks and reminisce (“I danced all night with Duchamp in this” etc), the dresses are pretty classy too. Director Austin Pendleton and – even more deservingly – writer Lanie Robertson won plaudits for this one-woman show in the US, and it is a feather in the cap of the little Jermyn to bring it here. Try not to miss it. Really, I mean it..

 

 

Rosenblatt – chirpy, confidential, demanding – catches precisely the masterful and irritable energy of the woman who – wealthy, but from “millionaire not billionaire” branch of the family – almost singlehandedly supported, bought, promoted and championed the most important art of the mid-2oth century. Drawing from interviews and her own writings, Robertson has picked out the anecdotes, the boasts, the tragedies and the vital moments of insight and woven them into something moving, arresting, often very funny. It was, she says, one of her lovers Samuel Beckett who told her – a Renaissance-lover – to collect and pay attention to the art of her own time, Europe’s turbulent years, and to support those who expressed it. There was beauty too in her adoption of Venice, where the astonishing collection is now safe in her little palazzo under the aegis of her (often heavily disparaged ) “ugly uncle” Guggenheim in America, The melding of old aestheic sensitivities and the shockingly new is what makes visiting it so marvellous. I nearly booked another flight to Venice in the train going home, so passionately did she evoke the marvels of Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Giacometti and the rest.

 

 

But it is entertaining too, as she shrugs through anecdotes about great figures of the century, whether dancing the night away with her, accepting bungs of money to get on making art painting, or in one case being exasperatingly holed up “in the spare room with a couple of Russian soldiers”. Her hopes and sorrows and admiration for her artist daughter Pegeen – and Pegeen’s sad end – are handled with finesse and real feeling; her passion for colour, form, soul and honesty in all art forms is infectious, her blasts of spite at her uncle’s “Tyrolean bitch” enchanting. The description – never laboured – of how close she came to being rounded up by Nazi soldiers as a “Juive” while on her way to flee through the Med with the precious “decadent” artworks is superb. “Je suis Americaine!” she spat, and they backed off.

 

It came alive, every minute of it. A tremendous performance, a jewel.

http://www.jermystreetheatre.co.uk to 3 Feb
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – revisited Noel Coward Theatre

My principal review from the Old Vic is here (http://tinyurl.com/y8u2na24) . But now it transfers (with glorious irony to the Noel Coward Theatre..it’s the least Cowardy of all plays ever).

So I see it for the third time (the second, I booked a ticket of my own on the way home from press night. The fourth will be in March, as I did the same last night…).

A few brief observations.

I had not given enough weight to the  important anchoring performance of Ciaran Hinds as Nick, the landlord:  a beautifully understated, self-effacing lead.

 

There is something profoundly moving too in what McPherson has done with the democratic sharing of limelight and songs, a device sweetly in tune with the play’s broad understanding and compassion for all the characters: the weak, the criminal, the mentally disabled, the desperate .

 

The brilliance of Simon Hale’s  score of arrangements is more remarkable every time you hear it;  and  the clever thing is that  that taking Dylan’s music out of his lifetime and into America’s harshest Depression years smooths away any 1960s self indulgence and shallowness of young love,  and takes the lyrics deeper than ever .    The 1978 “Is your love in vain?” , after the love and loss and guilt of the xx family almost unbearable, and as for Forever young.. an audacity of compassion almost unbearable.

 

The ensemble remarkable as before: Sheila Atim has been Cumbered with praise rightly but for me Shirley Henderson expressing in every move the dementia and disinhibition of Elizabeth, and suddenly emerging through it into great anthems from the primal depth of emotion and perception, is dazzling. But bloody hell, they all are. I have seen it three times,  and have bought a high balcony ticket to go again before it ends. For my soul’s sake.

 

http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk      to 24 March

5 Meece Rating

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THE TRANSPORTS Union Chapel & Touring

Touring Mouse wideTOP FOLK ON THE ROAD 

 

There are boxes , planks, a rope; around and upon them, singly and severally, still or moving, the aristocracy of modern folk music. Strings, accordion, guitars, oboe; voices hard and clear, powerful and determined, channeling timeless emotion.    Theatrecat wouldn’t usually do gigs, concerts, even opera. But this brief January tour is so remarkable, so theatrical In the power of its storytelling , that unless you have a real antipathy to folk you should know about it.

 

Besides, it comes apropos on top of that grander chronicle of the late 18c , Hamilton: because it was after the American colonies had broken free, and because they were not short  of slave labour, that our penal system resorted to the more distant transportation whose story inspires Peter Bellamy’s majestic song-cycle. The First Fleet took thousands of convicts thousands of miles to Botany Bay and founded white Australia (the narrator does make, in passing, the point that in effect we stole it from the aboriginal peoples).

 

 

Anyway, on the 40th anniversary of Bellamy’s creation, with prisons full again and our own world’s refugees crossing dark water to make new lives, arranger Paul Sartin and Matthew Crampton, who has written about refugee peoples, felt it the moment to revive it.   The Refugee Council (www.refugeecouncil.org.uk) has a stand at every performance, and an extra song about the drownings in the eastern Mediterranean by Sean Cooney is added to the original. But it’s the tre historical tale that thrills, and brings together a unique stageful of folk musicians and voices : The Young ‘uns, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, Rachael McShane, Faustus. Crampton narrates, Tim Dalling directs.

 

 

Told with authoritative passion, the tale is a true and remarkable one, from my own bleak East Anglian fields  at a time of agricultural poverty it moves to to Norwich Jail, where young Henry Cable meets Susannah Holmes, both reprieved from the noose for theft. Allowed cohabitation but not marriage in the harsh jail they bear a child; but Susannah is taken for transportation to found the colony at Botany Bay. An extraordinary series of events around her embarkation – a separation, a baby saved by unlikely heroism, an ambush of the Home Secretary at his own table – are so well told that I will not in is context spoil it for newcomers.

 

 

In performance it is remarkable: building , mesmerising, Bellamy’s deliberately naif folk rhymes and choruses sometimes rising to poetry but always direct: your nape prickles when Nancy Kerr as the mother who loses her man to the hangman and her son to transport sings . “The leaves in the woodland and the gulls on the shore, cry “you never will walk with your menfolk no more””. There are plaintive songs, but sharp satirical moments as the astonishing Rachael McShane scorns the life of a serving-maid, and lively moments in the Robber’s song and the storming Plymouth Mail on its mission of mercy. The farewell to England brings the whole company together. The great room shakes with it. Can’t stop listening to the album…

 

http://thetransportsproduction.co.uk/tour On tour till 24 January. Final show, Norwich, where it began…
rating  FIVE  5 Meece Rating

 

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RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO Royal Court SW1

GIRLS ON THE EDGE

 

Honour to the Royal Court for two things. First for the initial wobble, then  for executing a rapid u-turn over Andrea Dunbar’ s rather wonderful play . So after all it completes its tour, as planned , by returning to the theatre where under Max Stafford Clark it first opened in 1982. That made, with sad brevity, a star of the 19 year old Bradford author – “a genius from the slums” someone wrote – and it stands firm in the Court’s tradition of making Britain look itself squarely in the face.

 

 

The initial panicky cancellation was understandable. Not only because  Stafford Clark of its parent company Out of Joint is now being accused of sexual misconduct (he left the production at the start of the rehearsal period) but for a subtler reason: the present-day common rhetoric paints all underage and exploited girls as purely victims, frozen and terrified – or drugged and bullied like the Rochdale and other grooming gang victims. Here, the uncompromising honesty of the author rather blows the doors off that, showing us something more complex. Another way it can be. Dunbar knew of what she wrote: pregnant at 15, her child stillborn , she bore another In her teens and two more, spent time in a women’s refuge, and died a heavy drinker at only 29.

 

 

But what a flare, what a shooting-star she was .  Her voice is that of women not only poor but very young, caught in a doldrum of social change and poverty but not pathetic, not cowed, nor burdened with adult commonsense . She does not underrate her protagonists’ excitement, animal energy and touching hopeless ambition for life and love.  The two  15 year old babysitters who have it off in turn in the car – or anywhere they can – with the bored husband and father Bob , twelve years their senior, are certainly being exploited. But they are also very much up for it in the , first eyewateringly explicit scene in the car (simple onstage chairs, it’s nicely stark with a hilltop Bradford backdrop). Rarely is the banal absurdity of congress so unflinchingly shown as in Kate Wasserberg’s production) . Rita and Sue continue as prime movers in the liaison, keen as mustard, unafraid, undrugged, funny and raunchy.

 

 

Of course the situation falls to pieces – with a delicacy of understanding and compassion which makes you weep again that Dunbar died young and. Of course the pain of Bob’s wife is real, and the girls’ final estrangement harder on one than the other; but in the centre of the  story, when the trio chase one another playfully round the theatre and collapse snuggled a trois on their hilltop , breathless and laughing, there is a real sense of fondness and fun. People can show spirit in the face of their various bleaknesses.  Only a writer who has lived it can show that.

 

 

It is played with fast, funny, touching honesty by them all: the girls are terrific, both in their teenage mercilessness and their moments of awkwardness in the adult world for which they aren’t as ready for as they want to be. Taj Atwal is a skinny, ambitious, more thoughtful Rita, and Gemma Dobson Sue (a great professional debut) bossy and brash but helpless with her dreadful father and dotingly  defensive Mum (Sally Bankes as everyone’s toughYorkshire matriarch) . The dynamic between the girls – best mates, fleetingly jealous, sharing Bob with wonderfully dismaying matter-of-fact immodesty – is perfect.

 

 

Bob’s initial seduction, a mixture of teacherly sex-education and employerly authority (oh, that two quid tip, seven in today’s money! Cider and chips money!) gives way to a kind of imprisoment. Most incorrectly in modern terms , Dunbar makes us momentarily sorry for the man who has created a monster in these two demanding teenagers wanting ‘a jump” , just at the moment when he is getting on a bit better with his children’s mother. He’s in a trap too, a declining economy costing him both work and virility: James Atherton’s momentary sob of despair when he fears losing his car is more moving than any abuser of fifteen-year-olds has a right to be.

 

Oh, it’s clever. And funny. And every laugh rings with bittersweet truths about youth and disillusion, the hunger for fun and fondness, the dislocating and liberating and destructive and absurd power of sex. Without sentimentality or piety or correctness, it captures life. And the ending, an older woman and a young one and a couple of rueful drinks, is perfect. No wonder Dunbar was reportedly so furious when Alan Clarke’s 1987 movie messed up her ending and made it crass. This is the real thing.

 

box office 020 7565 5000 to 27 Jan

rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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IMPERIUM – PART 2 AND REPRISE Swan, Stratford

AT LAST…AND FINE TO THE LAST

 

After snowbound frustration in December drove me onto the road after part I, I saw the first again and  that evening reached the second play in one of those epic, unforgettable two-show days. So I can report on the final act in Mike Poulton’s magnificent adaptation from Robert Harris’ novels about the republican orator Cicero. After the Catiline conspiracy comes the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the ensuing conflicts and tragedies.

 

 

Either play stands alone – the first perhaps more easily than the second – but together the rich intelligence and lively wisdom of this political, intimate saga is to be treasured. My review of the first play’s three acts is here: https://theatrecat.com/tag/imperium/ – so I will not repeat it. There’s the corpse in the river, the masterclass in the running dilemma of power politics, the t human portrait of a great, flawed, unforgettable man and his times. The quality of Poulton’s neat sharp filleting and fast-flowing narrative endures into the second – again split into three acts – and so does the clarity and tone of Doran’s direction, always allowing lively absurdity to lie alongside the deepest tragedy. Modern echoes vibrate, especially about America: OK, Pompey’s Trump wig is a good jok, but more fascinating is the general reflection – as Senate and wannabe dictators clash – of how very Roman are the structures and concepts of US politics; a different shape from ours, descended firmly from monarchy and Church…

 

 

So now just some brief reflections on that second play, DICTATOR. At first we have a vaunting Caesar in gold and scarlet, a spectacular chariot crash, assassination, a chaotic and comedic political panic, some crashing oratory and a really excellent ghost. All within the first fifty minutes.

 

 

But as the tale continues, with dismay, conflict, and Cicero’s exile and return, there’s pleasure in the growth: Joseph Kloska, the slave and scribe (now a freeman) was an entertaining and likeable guide-narrator in Part 1 and here flowers into an assertive, alarmed adviser to the ageing Cicero in his last decade as he tries, rashly, to reclaim his influence and revive Republican democracy in the face of Joe Dixon’s immense, craggy, thuggish, and noisy Mark Antony ( not Shakespeare’s artful politician at all). Scenes between him and Cicero are stunning, his eruptions volcanic. The problem of populism, and of the swirl and murk of chaos which follows the death of tyrants, speaks as strongly to us as in the first part. But intensely too come the two parts of the Roman dream , sword and plough ; military glory and quiet, philosophical farm life with wine and olives by the sea, as the freed Tiro the scribe is taken from it, back into the fray with a reviving Cicero,

 

 

McCabe’s Cicero, ageing before our eyes, his old virtues and vanities warring within him as he returns to the political fray and ultimate defeat, is superb as before, his family’s fraying and sadness a counterpoint to his fluctuating, flatterable urge to return, his integrity steelier as death comes nearer. Fascinating in counterpoint is Oliver Johnstone as Octavian, the adopted heir of Caesar and only 19. At first he gives us a virtuous school-prefect, almost a Harry-Potter saviour, who gradually hardens into something quite different. And the staging, fluent and evocative, gives us a sense of the Roman mob: always a presence, unseen but heard, or running shouting in the shadows or rising through the great trapdoor to bay at the Capitol steps.
It does not end well for Cicero, or for ideals of liberty. And yet, this most intelligent epic booms down the centuries to us, a tribute to the power of the word and to faith in reason, however doomed.

 
box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to 10 feb
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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