Category Archives: Five Mice

THE NORMAN CONQUESTS Chichester Festival Theatre



In more rigorous technical times there was an art school exercise: “draw an imagined street-scene in perspective as if from an upper window at one end, then the same street and figures as seen from ground level the other end”. What Alan Ayckbourn did in 1973, with this domestic six-handed trilogy, has that quality of intricate, interlocked perspective. Each play shows what is  happening, at the same time or adrift  by minutes, in three parts of a dilapidated Sussex vicarage: dining room, living room, garden. Sometimes a character exits to join another play, or comes in from a scene you will only see in the next show. The final part begins half an hour before the first and ends after them all, providing prequel and sequel by half an hour.




The maestro has said it doesn’t matter which you see first, as each makes sense: Chichester’s 3-play days (there are four more to come) put them in the order above. Otherwise, take your pick.     The concept in itself brilliant, but could have been hell. It isn’t: being vintage, observational, sad-heartedly compassionate Ayckbourn executed with flair, it is a treat. The Festival Theatre has been set in the round as the playwright intended, as stage seats enable us – like the chaotic, overgrown garden – to circle Simon Higlett’s elegantly evocative sets (love the broken gnome, and the real roses).  Blanche McIntyre directs with pace and wit: the cast – notably Sarah Hadland’s brittle nervously controlling Sarah – are superb. The quality of direction is such that even when Trystan Gravelle’s seductively irresponsible Norman had his back to our side at the table for a long speech, the back of his scruffy neck and his fine Welsh projection were quite enough. Indeed throughout the plays the body language is particularly fine, from John Hollingworth’s amiable lolloping vet Tom to Sarah’s furious trip-trapping step and Annie’s glum hunch. Three of them even use the garden swing in character.




But goodness, among the considerable laughs (you can’t miss at Chichester with the East Grinstead joke) there is classic Ayckbourn pain. It deepens like a coastal shelf, and that Larkin echo is deliberate: glancing references betray that the three adult siblings Reg, Ruth and Annie were well f—d up by their unseen, now invalid, monster of a mother. So their own partnerships take the brunt. Hadland’s Sarah, brisk and neat and nervously controlling, has taken on the peacefully dim Reg (a touching mole-like Jonathan Broadbent in awful driving gloves). He yearns  back to boyhood balsa aeroplanes, and nobody will play his invented board game. Sister Annie (Jemima Rooper) is festeringly lonely and has been landed with caring for Mother in a dowdy life leavened by the big literal-minded hunk Tom who frustratingly never makes a move.  And sister Ruth (a fine striding Hattie Ladbury) is the forerunner of all these 21c women who in profiles find that out-earning their husbands causes problems. But she has scored the maverick assistant-librarian  Norman.




For Norman, wild-bearded in a beanie hat, is the wild card. Gravelle is perfect as the irresponsible spirit of chaos: seducing Annie, beguiling prim Sarah even in her moments of greatest fury like Richard III wooing his Anne, and easily disarming his own scornful wife. His refrain is desire to make women “happy”. His weapon is claimed vulnerability and absurd humour. The strength of this subtle production is that you are quie often rooting for Norman, disgrace as he is. Since none of them are happy as they are, you might as well give it a roll…when he fixes you with that glittering eye, at least fun lies beyond it.




The skill of script and production is that facets of  each of the six emerge , haphazard as life itself. By the last one we understand that Norman’s yearnings and manipulations come from need as well as mischief, and that his relationship with Ruth is necessary to both of them. It is all gloriously achieved, detailed and paced: no cardigan, traycloth, jam spoon, deckchair, lettuce, biscuit box or opaque carrot-wine flagon fails to contribute to the psychological jigsaw. It is as polished as the dining table, as evocative of life’s erosion as the shabby living-room, as pleasingly disorderly as the brambly grass around. The first and last plays are perfection; the middle – living-room – one is play is perhaps the least, though after a slower start its second act springs to vigorous life. The ensemble is a joy.



Box office. 01243 781312    To 28 oct
Sponsors: Conquest bespoke furniture and Irwin Mitchell
Ratings :
Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden FIVE   5 Meece Rating
Living Together FOUR   4 Meece Rating





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INK up West Duke of York’s WC1




Nipping late into the Almedia after the opening,   I concurred with every word of Luke Jones’ review on (still up, scroll down).

“Solid stunner of a play…sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, morals and ideas of Britain and of the press…snappy and dramatic condensation…director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous…whip through like a snappy TV drama..”


Bang right. But having seen it again up West – with the cast solidly settled, never a duff moment – there are other praiseful reflections I would want to add. Carvel’s Murdoch is remarkable, adopting a forward-pressing, tense keen hunch (almost his Trunchbull hunch) denoting a young(ish) man in a hurry, and in a temper with the hidebound old country which has snubbed him often enough. The rendering of his TV interviewer with a scornful snob is beautifully imagined. This is a hater of establishments, a newspaper professional with ink in his blood who impatiently says he could reconfigure the presses for tabloid with his own hands, and bloody well will if there’s any lip from print unions (at whose old power one shudders). It is no simplistic portrait: here’s a populist and a man of power, yet a shy one who dislikes the limelight; a ruthless man but one who when horror approaches his actual friends, is struck with proper pain. He kicks scornfully aside old shibboleths like not covering TV – because “its our rival!’ as the old guard say. Cudlipp’s speech about how populism leads to fascism resonates today all right, strongly enough (Graham makes sure of that) but so does the rising Sun’s desire to acknowledge that the chin-stroking bien-pensant establishment can’t have it all its own way. “What do people want?” asks Richard Coyle’s driven, tense Larry Lamb, and his hilariously ramshackle staff answer one by one and arrive at booze, fags, gossip, telly, free stuff, jokes. The portrait of Joyce Hopkirk by Sophie Stanton is irresistible: one forgets how dreary “women’s” pages were until then.




There is real understanding here, a real kick of freedom, and when the figures rise gradually towards the Mirror’s, it is impossible not to share the triumph. But by the time they top it, the scene has darkened. In the interval, after a first half of almost solid laughter punctuated only by sly enjoyment and caricature, a veteran journalist friend told me that he had covered something terrible at the time, the case of the horrible murder of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy, in a bungled kidnap attempt meant for his own wife. The implication was that this merry comedy was airbrushign it. What he – a newcomer to the play who hadn’t read reviews – did not know was that in the second half, the murder happens.



Graham uses this piece of history – startlingly intwerwoven with the birth of Page 3 and the pain of its first model – with delicate, shocking skill. It darkens a comedy into a play of real depth; Coyle’s Lamb stands before us scarred by the moral cost of victory, Murdoch by real human pain of his loss. Comedy has edged to tragedy; the black tide of ink falls across Bunny Christie’s evocative, nostalgic hot-metal set. It is top, top storytelling.: moral history, on a par with This House. Don’t miss it.



box office to 6 Jan
rating still five!   5 Meece Rating

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OSLO Lytellton, SE1



This is a three-hour historical political play about Middle East negotiations in the 1990s: and it is absolutely thrilling. Pins you to your seat with tension, breaks an audience into sudden barks of laughter – either of relaxation or relief – and in its dénouement wins a tear. It tells the story of back-channel negotiations between two enemies of forty bitter years: the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli government under Rabin and Shimon Peres. Over nine months in 92-93, a Norwegian academic called Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now ambassador here) decided that since their country was perceivedly neutral, it might be possible to set up private, secret talks before – and outside of – the official Washington conference.



With oblique, minimal official agreement from Mona’s ministers, fixing their own hire cars and secret venue, the pair juggled telephone calls and bluffs, called in favours (“Norway is a very small country”) and got it started. The inspiration was idealistic: they had visited Israel, he blown away by how “fantastically not Norwegian!” it was, and both shaken by the grief and waste of bombings and shootings. They knew it would be fraught. “You don’t make peace with people you’d have dinner parties with. You make peace with people who shoot you and bomb your buses”. They also had to accept that the first participants had to be diplomatic, if not positively secretive, with their own superiors back home.



But they did it. The optimistic dilettante non-diplomat Larsen felt that the “grip of history was loosening’ as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell, and that informality beat cards-on-the-table negotiations . He plunged into it in a feet-first spirit (Toby Stephens is often very funny in the part) while his wife, a junior diplomat played by Lydia Leonard with a marvellous quiet grace, took a more professional, exasperated but always hopeful approach. They got far closer to peace than anything dreamed of before: Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed in Washington on 23 September, 1993:later, when the Israeli premier was assassinated by an extremist of his own nation, Arafat wept.


J.T.Rogers’ play won a Tony, and deserves it for a perfectly paced, intensely clear structure combining direct documentary-style explanation with fast-sparking dramatic dialogue. Bartlett Sher’s direction is equally clear and fast, and the performances remarkable. Indeed very seldom do you remember you are watching performances. You think you’re seeing, with the hopeful young Larsens, the pairs of real adversaries matching and fighting their inherited hatreds. There is a degree of comedy (not least in Paul Herzberg iand Thomas Arnold as economics professors in scruffy raincoats, the nearest Israel would come at first to deliberately unofficial envoys) and moments of tenser astonishment . One comes when Philip Arditti , as the senior Israeli negotiator who eventually in a moment of extreme détente does an impression of a rather camp is Yasser Arafat, and doesn’t get shot down for it by the PLO men . Another memorable scene sees Arditti and Peter Polycarpou as the PLO man persuaded after a nasty scene to take a late night walk in the woods together, when they find that both their daughters have the same name: Maya. That semitic closeness of Arab and Jew…


At these moments, holding your breath, you do pay mental tribute to the actors. But you are looking through them , as you should be, marvelling at history and hope. And danger. As the communist PLO man Hassan, Nabil Elouahabi is tremendous, a tense ball of fury from his first refusal to be jovial (“the petit-bourgeois concept of family does not interest me”) who moves through sullenness and anger to acceptance.



It is a story which should be told. And which, at a time when not only is the West wondering if it can ever talk to ISIS, but when our own little shenanigan finds Britain and Europe less than inspiring as negotiators. One dreams of such a back-channel for Brexit. In the lighter moments of this play Geraldine Alexander , as Tori the kindly Norwegian housekeeper wound in folksy plaits, plies the smouldering negotiatiors with vanilla waffles. We could do with her in Brussels.



box office 020 7452 3333
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating


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“There is no such thing as the imagination” says August Strindberg indignantly. “Things are real or they are not.”. Right now, holed up in a shabby hotel room in Paris in 1896 the exiled Swedish playwright is grappling with reality and illusion , his dignity gone, green-speckled feet poking from grimy long-johns beneath an alchemist’s leather apron. He converses angrily with a strange sharp insulting voice he himself utters – “my anti-me” which lives in the wall and is in league with unseen electrical forces trying to thwart his mission to find the Philosophers’ Stone and turn base metals into gold in the hotel bath. And now on top of these unseen forces, the poor man is being hounded by women.



First a pert and scornful maid (Laura Morgan, very sharp) invades the room, then one after another his two wives turn up, indignantly recounting, re-living and reanimating their turbulent past. Issues range from mere infidelities to crimes like his putting the first one – Siri – insultingly into a plays and a novel, and as his scientific mania grew, going round the park injecting the flowers with morphine to prove they have nervous systems. And sending his children recipes for levitation involving crushed ants and vinegar, which upset their stomachs. Ah yes, it was not only our millennium angst that spawned barmy New-Ageism: there was another one a century earlier.



This is a terrific coup for director Tom Littler’s debut as AD of the little Jermyn, now becoming a full producing-house. He commissioned this extraordinary 90-minuter from no less a writer than Howard Brenton, whose thoughtful but light-handed gift for historical reimagining goes back to The Romans In Britain, and more recently such hits as Anne Boleyn and Dr Scroggy’s War at the Globe, 55 Days and Ai Wei Wei at Hampstead. The preoccupation with Strindberg’s mysterious breakdown of Strindberg is well-researched but, as importantly, dazzlingly imagined. Against screens of iridescent fiery colour, real conversations with the women are abruptly blue-lit as interludes of delusion, their voices and tones changing accordingly; they rail and insult or seduce. Susannah Harker’s wonderful matronly, irritated Siri drips wifely scorn with lines like “Don’t let this slide into your suicide thingy!” and he rails right back, accusing her of a lesbian affair with a woman he detests – “that freethinking horror!” . When Gala Gordon as the slinkier Frida (for whom he left Siri) appears in turn, he is most furious that she slept with Frank Wedekind, though she protests that the fling was merely a quick beer compared to the champagne of Strindberg. Indeed neatly in passing Brenton evokes that rich troubled period: Freud and Munch and l Ibsen, Swedenborg and Schopenhauer, and the couples’ time in louche Berlin and Paris, respectable Stockholm and dreary Gravesend. (Yep, he went there with Frida in 1893, I looked it up – 12 Pelham Road, Frida was seasick and he hated the double bed).




It is altogether a great treat. And Jasper Britton as the crumbling colossus, the psychotic Samson at its heart, is perfect. There is real pain and buoyant playfulness, and beneath the maddest moments a sense of a poet and thinker so avid for change and experiment that on hitting a creative and personal wall, he had to reinvent himself through this crazy psychosis in order to emerge and make something fresh..


And there’s a grandeur, beyond the vigour and earthiness and jokes and shocks of this tumbling ninety-minute journey through madness. Brenton’s Strindberg expresses what all artists seek: “The transformation of what was base and dull and compromised, ambiguous, into incorruptible gold”. Fabulous. Gold or not, this one will last.


Box office 0207 287 2875
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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LATE COMPANY Trafalgar Studios SW1



It often puzzles me why sharp little stage gems like this don’t get pounced on by TV, – notably the BBC – instead of commissioners wasting our eyesight on gloopy dramas custom-built to challenge nobodyYT6YT.  Here it is, a neat 75 minutes, bang-on topical and sharply written by Jordan Tannahill, then only 23. There’s a frugal cast of five and one set, a dinner table.  OK, it is Canadian, but the host of the painfully awkward supper is a soft-right politician and the wife an artist, their guests Michael and Tamara a salesman and a homemaker. All easy to relate to and translate. And the visitors’ son, at the centre of the dark situation, is anybody’s 16 year old. It would be riveting telly.


But never mind. On stage, transferred from the tiny Finborough to the slightly less tiny Traf 2, the intimacy and force of Michael Yale’s production is riveting anyway.  Deb (Lucy Robinson) and the politician Michael (Todd Boyce) have lost their son to suicide after he was taunted online and had his locker defaced for being gay. We only gradually learn that he was theatrical about his differentness, what with the eyeliner and vlogs. “He was just weird. He tried to be.…we did it to be funny” says the visitors’ son, his chief tormentor Curtis.



So months after the disaster and attendant publicity Michael and Deb have invited the boy and his parents, Bill (Alex Lowe) and Tamara (Lisa Stevenson, round. The plan is for some home-made ‘restorative justice’ with formal letters from each side and that modern ideal – “ closure.” Actually, neither of the fathers really believe in that. Michael couldn’t bring himself to write an “open your hearts’ letter like Deb’s, and Bill says in a moment of exasperation that grief can’t be shared around, “it’s yours ,and you carry it all your life”. The party develops into small explosions and rumbles of danger, the two sets of parents rubbing against one another’s small class differences as well as the immense central issue ( one remembers Yasmina Reza’s less dark but equally furious God of Carnage). In the middle, speaking little but always devastatingly to the point, is the boy Curtis: glowering, embarrassed, but with a deep sullen honesty which exposes the adults’ flaws and the inadequacy of the peacemaking mantras to which Deb clings. Until she snaps.


Robinson brings a real sense of danger to the bereaved mother, brittle and over-poised. At one point – just as I was expecting a redemptive moment, she becomes a vengeful Greek Fury. Tamara’s wittering – “Art must be a source of comfort to you” is met by a chilly “I find it devastating” from this determinedly unhealed mother. The two men are hating the whole event.

And I must say that the degrees of delusion in the two women in particular are treated by the young author with a clear and hard, though not wholly pitiless, eye. It emerges in moments of comedy (when Tamara gushes that her own mother was an artist, Bill snaps “sleeping with Leonard Cohen doesn’t make her an artist”). But is seen far more grievously in Deb’s intense focus on her own unchallengeable right to grief and vengeance, at the expense of any real understanding of her lost son, or of the complication and mess of any teenage life.


Of Leopold, fresh out of drama school, I can’t speak too highly: as Curtis he must carry a part which moves him from surly embarrassed irritablity (my God, how teenagers do see through our psychobabble) to a devastatingly open and perfectly delivered expression of nightmare guilt. Tannahill thus confronts us with a spectrum of sensibilities: airbrushed female make-it-all-nice-again sweetness, real pain clutched and corroding into self-pity, inarticulate honest grief, and an impatient “shit-happens-kids-are-cruel” resignation. But it is in Curtis, the boy, that we see a raw, proper, painful clarity and responsibility. He stands ironically closer, if the disaster had not happened, to the wayward and troubled Joel himself. That’s the pity. In the last minute we glimpse it.


box office 0844 871 7615 to 16 Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating


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THE STEPMOTHER Minerva, Chichester




Rarely seen, half-forgotten, Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play is sharp, entertaining, truthful and elegant: Richard Eyre’s direction respects it with delicate precision. It’s altogether a treat, and makes you wail with sadness that – though her better-known Rutherford And Son was a big success – Sowerby never wrote enough to stand known amid acknowledged classics. She is socially as hard-hitting as Priestley, more sharply economical than Shaw, with as good an ear for suppressed emotion as Rattigan. And at moments can be both as agonizing and as humorous as Chekhov.




The story is fuelled by a righteous, exasperated and perceptive anger about the position of women in England either side of WW1. Remarkably, it offers broad human sympathy even to the most appalling character: Eustace Gaydon. He is a marvellous case-study, rendered with (among other qualities) great physical brilliance by Will Keen. Every hunch, every swagger, every snakelike wriggle, reveals almost as much stupidity and deviousness in the man as the script.




Eustace is a middle-aged widower with two young daughters and a taste for vainglorious duff investments. He discovers that he is left nothing by his late sister (who wisely kept her fortune under her own control) . Moreover, she has left the lot to a 19-year-old protegée, the sweetly grieving and grateful Lois (Ophelia Lovibond), In a brief first scene in 1911, he begins a wooing which – as we find on the far side of an elegantly designed time-lapse – results in her marrying him. And devoting herself to his daughters. And finally funding his household by working very hard and setting up a fashion business.




The 1921 scenes are tremendous, as the eldest flapper daughter Monica (a spirited Eve Ponsonby) is in love with a boy back from the war whose father knows how financially flaky Eustace is, and demands a settlement; Lois lovingly promises it from her capital, but we can guess what has happened to that…



Let there be no spoilers, but the brilliance of the play, revelation after revelation and shock after shock, is served neatly and gorgeously by Lovibond as the now matured, businesslike Lois, by Keen as Awful Eustace and by David Bark-Jones as Peter, the man she should have been with. The audience gasps sometimes, moans sometimes. At one point three of us in our row clapped our hand over our mouths. That’s when Eustace arrives at the fashion shop, his ruined uncertainty buoyed by delusional vanity, and pronounces “I’m our husband, I look after your wealth” . It was all we could do not to shout “O No You DONT!” panto-style.


Yet the play’s heart is warm: sharply written lines from the blustering Eustace are balanced by a remarkable tolerance of sexual temptation and some gentle, very womanly wisdoms: not least Peter’s warning to the devoted stepmother not to strip herself of everything for the young. “Life has taken hold of Monica..she’ll have children. Children make everything else a memory”.


It is terrific. And I have hardly space to mention that Joanna David, playing far older than usual as Great-Aunt Charlotte, gives it another layer of warmth and a pivotal moment of real sadness, and of awareness of where female self-sacrifice can lead. . The final , expected lines from Eve Ponsonby as the suddenly matured Monica are superb. Eustace’s final firework of spite fizzles, as well it should. We leave happy. or 01243 781312 to 9 Sept
rating: blimey, it’s another five for the new regime’s first season!

5 Meece Rating



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Ah, now this is what the National Theatre is for1 A great reckless sprawl of a brand-new play, with spectacular technology, extraordinary design (Katrina Lindsay!) and the very best of actors: all thrown at it, and directed with wit, clarity and humanity by Rufus Norris . It’s not perfect, but it’s not afraid of anything. That is to love. That wins the fifth mouse.


For Lucy Kirkwood’s latest is a Catherine-wheel run amok, hurling out ideas and themes , questions and feelings and paradoxes and jokes. It is about cutting-edge physics, cosmology, grief, adolescence, pregnancy, sisterhood, sexting, psychosis, exasperation, the limitations of intelligence , and sad physical decay. It is set amid scientists on the Great Hadron Collider , with added Toblerone and three very funny jokes about Switzerland.

Possibly there are too many themes in it, streaming out and colliding like the proton chaos far below, sometimes threatening that there won’t be enough gravity to hold the play’s atoms together, or creating a Black Hole too dense to comprehend (see how dizzy atomic physics makes us laymen, and that indeed is part of the point). But Kirkwood it fetches you back, generally with a snort of laughter. Not least from Amanda Boxer as Granny Karen, mother of the two ill-assorted sisters at its heart, who steals every scene she stumps into. She isn’t quite its centre, but has a doll of a part as the matriarch who once nearly won a Nobel prize and has no illusions left. “Love! Everyone thinks love is the greatest force i the cosmos and it isn’t, you know. The greatesr force in the cosmos is the Nuclear Strong Force. Love’s about twelve things down the list, after gravity and superglue..”



At its heart, though, displaying the complexities and infuriations of family love with pitiless admiration, are two tremendous performances: Olivia Williams as Alice, a brilliant atomic physicist working on the Great Hadron Collider at Cern, and her sister – the matchlessly funny, subtle, nuanced Olivia Colman as her dimmer but sparkier sister Jenny. In the opening scene clever Alice is on a flying visit to her sister, who after eleven years and IVF is pregnant and anxious, Googling too much and refusing an ultrasound because she read it causes dyslexia (in rats!) she provokes Alice’s cry of “Just because you have access to information doesn’t mean you’re equipped to use it!” . Ah, that speaks for many exasperated experts in the age of the Internet.

Then we are in Geneva, where the physicist’s son Luke, a wonderful portrayal by Joseph Quinn as a mass of teenage hormones, anxiety and goodwill, is online with a minx called Natalie. Overbright, underconfident, lonely at his international school, at odds with his mother, infuriated by the merry illogicality of his aunt Jenny, he careers towards a tiny personal collision which, in the moment, is cosmic to him. His father by the way has disappeared, becoming a strange wandering narrator and scientific expatiator who wanders throughout around the edge or occasionally takes the centre of the round stage in a whirl of projected atoms to explain the beginning and end of all matter: in the cast list he is”The Boson” (Paul Hilton) but the part has is a human resonance and importance to the others which is intensely moving.




The family dynamic, driven by a real and ordinary sadness, is as unpredictable and potentially disastrous as the rumours about the great machine beneath them. The GHC is switched on with fabulous sounds and lights, on the very day that Jenny and the troublesome old mother Karen turn up on a visit to a too-small apartment. No spoilers, but as particles collide so do sisters, parents and children. A black hole of despair is swallowing Jenny. The perils and glories of ignorance are nicely counterbalanced by those attached to intense, brain-frying intelligence. It is an intimate family story and a chalice of familiar bitterness , capable in its fearless author’s hands of lurching into a sci-fi-future and back into a messy redemption. Love it.



At the Dorfman to 28 September
rating five atomic mice  5 Meece Rating

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