Category Archives: Five Mice

NINE NIGHT Trafalgar Studios, SW1

JAMAICA BREEZES UP WEST, WITH GRIEF AND GUSTO

    

 

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

    

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

  

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

  

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

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

box office www.atgtickets.com    to 6 Feb

rating:   still five    5 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Arts theatre WC 1

 

ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

artstheatrewestnd.co.uk.  

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

Rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Menier, SE1

L’CHAIM – TO LIFE!    A SPECIAL NIGHT

   

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

   

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

box office  0207 378 1713  to  

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

           

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

  

 

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

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

 

 

box office  0844 871  7628     to 19 Jan

rating Five.  5 Meece Rating

 

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COMPANY. Gielgud, WC2

FOR BETTER FOR WORSE?  FOR FIVE MICE ANYWAY

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Rating 5.   5 Meece Rating

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TOUCHING THE VOID Royal, Northampton & Scotland later

THE HEIGHTS OF LIFE 

 

 

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

royalandderngate.co.uk  to  20 Oct, hurry.

In Edinburgh  and Inverness early 2019

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM Wyndham’s, WC2

A MASTERPIECE OF LOVE AND LOSS

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

       

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

box office    0844 4825120  to 1 December

RATING five  5 Meece Rating

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