Category Archives: Five Mice

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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PACK OF LIES Menier, SE1

WARM HEARTS,    COLD WAR 

 

After the Salisbury-Novichok affair there is a sour laugh when Stewart, the MI5 official, reassures the nervous Jackson family that the coming arrest of their neighbours for espionage won’t put them at physical risk -“The KGB doesn’t use hooligans for this sort of operation”.  Clearly things were more civilised in 1960s Moscow than   under Putin.

 

Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play, immaculately set in every humble postwar detail, reconstructs  a real case: the plight of a hapless suburban couple who found their daughter’s bedroom requisitioned for surveillance of the opposite neighbours.  Who were also  their best friends,  amis de la maison,  friendly Canadians Helen and Peter Kroger.  Only they weren’t Canadians and they weren’t friends, but  experienced and  committed Communists transmitting naval secrets to the Soviets.

 

 

If you are an addict of Le Carré  and his Cold War Circus operatives – all  watchers and lamplighters and safe-houses –  you glimpse in his humane books the innocent ordinary people across Europe who are used by agents as “cover”, often for years.   But rarely is the emotional violence of it as beautifully evoked as here.  We first get a delicately, humourously drawn picture of the watching household’s ordinariness:  cosy, affectionate Barbara and Bob and their teenage daughter Juliet.  Then there’s sharp class awareness as steady, worried Bob (Chris Larkin) is awkwardly polite to the patrician MI5officer Stewart :  Jasper Britton, deliberately bumbling with public-school amiability over an edge of steel.  Macy Nyman’s  Juliet is at first thrilled, eyes bright at the excitement but not understanding that her “auntie Helen” might be under suspicion as well as the mystery man.

       

          At the play’s heart though is  the most betrayed of them all:  Barbara, whose decorous life has been enhanced for five years by the loud, funny, risqué, huggingly open friendship of Tracy Ann Oberman’s  Helen.     Finty Williams is a marvellous Barbara, sweetly and humbly housewifely,  sharp-witted enough to suspect her friends and decent enough to try not to; in the end patriotic enough to resist a passionate wish to warn them.  She is endearingly motherly with the policewomen staking out her daughter’s bedroom,   ,and increasingly resentful of the careless patriarchal authority of  Stewart. 

  

 

  Finely and painfully drawn, without a single false note, is the good woman’s distress at having to hide what she knows from her daughter, and keep up a front, in  electrically uncomfortable scenes , with the friend she still loves. The part was created 35 years ago by Judi Dench and won her an Olivier opposite her husband Michael Williams .    Well, nobody could deny their daughter as high an accolade.  It is the hardest kind of part, to be an innocent.   Finty Williams nails it with heart and finesse.

 

 

    The careful precision  of Hannah Chissick’s production takes you right back into that time.  Not only in the latter part when Stewart reminds them of the Lubianka and the ruthless KGB ,  but in the daily details:   Bob’s cardiganed decent ordinariness,  Barbara’s paper- pattern dressmaking for Helen , even the brief scorn of the two young police women changing shifts. They pinch the odd biscuit, accept sausages for lunch,  and make tea in the kitchen while they reflect on the housewife life of poor Barbara “Dusting and washing and polishing and cooking,  no wonder she’s as dull as she is”.

         But she’s not. So Finty Williams deserves an award too. 

Box office.  020 7378 1713. To 17nov

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Olivier, SE1

A GLORIOUS SERPENT OF OLD NILE

  

  This can be a beast of a play:  epic, three and a half hours,  scenes spread across the Mediterranean from Rome to Cairo by land and sea.  It is also prone to disconcert audiences who came for an archetypal story of doomed passion,  by socking them with a binful of ancient international politics and offstage battles.  It can be a bit of an ordeal.   The last RSC one was.   So I am happy to say that this time, and in the trickily vast Olivier,   director Simon Godwin has absolutely pulled it off .  

 

      And not only by casting Ralph Fiennes and Sophie  Okonedo as the leads, either.   Though yes, Fiennes is a giant:   his Antony solidly credible and pulsing with disastrous energy.    He is first seen lounging around Cleopatra’s tiled and elegant pool in a holiday shirt and wraparound palazzo pants  like any eminent man having a midlife crisis with an exotic mistress.   Then struck by “a Roman thought”  as his scornful Cleo puts it,   he gets into  a linen suit and  a political conclave with the other two rulers of the Roman triumvirate:    Tunji Kasim’s  more youthful and rather prim Caesar  and the ageing Lepidus (Nicholas le Prevost) who is clearly almost a cipher already, even before he gets incapably drunk on the treacherous Pompey’s ship.   That Antony is torn between the ease and love of Egypt and the brutalist war-room world of Rome is beautifully evoked by Hildegarde Bechtler’s contrasting, revolving settings.

 

 

     But it is Antony’s decline we are riveted by:  persuaded into his public duty and accepting Caesar’s pious sister as his wife,  he thinks for a while that  he is his old self again;   but in the battles, the Olivier shaking and echoing with  the racket and flash of modern warfare,   he reverts and shames himself by fleeing after Cleopatra. Fiennes becomes a Lear,  bestial and brutal in his self-hate and resentment of her “You were my conqueror!”.    Even his final and famously problematical death  is made to work.  The muffed self- stabbing which always gets an embarrassed laugh,  and the  equally risky process of being hauled up the monument in a sheet ,  contrive to make more sense than usual.  He abdicated responsibility, has been politically disastrous and morally neglectful, thus he earned his un-Roman death, honour and reputation ruined.  Until, of course, Cleopatra’s  extraordinary final encomium shines his name up into the stars again. 

            And what a Cleopatra!  Sophie Okonedo defined herself tonight as her generation’s “lass unparalleled”.  . Slinkily  serpentine and laughingly seductive at first, petulant in jealousy,  a mistress of comic timing and at one point downright drunk in orange flamenco frills,  she manages in increasing flashes to remind us that “Kings have trembled” kissing her hand.   And in her last scenes, stubborn and resigned and queenly proud,  she is mesmerizing.  

 

           But the whole cast is full of treats;  not least Fisayo Akinade as Eros, forever delivering unwelcome messages (he gets thrown in the pool by Okonedo and drips forlornly in his wet suit repeating the bad news).  Yet he too grows to his tragic  moment of truth.  Tim McMullan as the cynical sarky Enobarbus is tremendous too;  as  is Sargon Yelda  as a cocky, amoral Pompey.  

 

    The staging brilliantly respects the pivotal emotional changes of the play.  Once,  Cleopatra’s pool sinks into the great revolve, revealing a moment’s bleak emptiness as the sacrificial Octavia walks alone crumpling her bridal veil,  then in the same movement the side of a great grey warship rises and we are in Pompey’s navy, politics and war always the other side of the romantic coin.    Indeed Hannah Morrish’s  Octavia, a character often shuffled into insignificance in more hurried productions,    has two other tremendous moments: when she learns that her husband has been flaunting himself on twin thrones with Cleopatra and Agrippa says “each heart in Rome does love and pity you”,  she crouches in humiliation as we all do under such pity.  Her short moment addressing Cleopatra on the monument is striking too. so that you come to feel that for all the war and political machismo and the fall of Antony,   this is a play about women.  

 

    By the way, it’s a real snake. They warn you about that.  But so far Okonedo has kept a firm grip on the writhing, colourful beast even when dying,  so it hasn’t made a break for freedom in the front stalls.  But if you’re touchy on the subject, sit a bit further back…

box office  020 7452 3000       nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 19 Jan     

In cinemas live 6 December

rating five    5 Meece Rating

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HOLY SH!T Kiln, NW4

PARENTHOOD, PRAYER , PROSECCO

 

The renamed Tricycle (no, I am not taking sides)   Is open:  its leader Indhu Rubasingham launches her sprauncy new theatre with Alexis Zegerman’s dark, sharp new comedy about one of the great corruptions of British society:    the battle of ambitious ,anxious  but atheist parents to get their children places at “faith”schools.  

 

 

    It’s a scam.  Churches are shamefully complicit,  taking a register of attendance knowing quite well that some  people will spend a year of Sundays pretending to worship  rather than risk a scruffier school or pay privately.   “On your knees to save the fees” is common enough  to deserve all it gets from satirists.  But also,  as here, it deserves  a thoughtful as well as comic  treatment of its psychological risks. Might it  sow real spirituality?  Or kill it off?  Frankly, how safe is it to intrude uncomfortable dimensions of eternity and ultimate morality into the brittle self-satisfactions of middle class life?   Is prayer and prosecco too volatile a mix? .

 

 

.   Zegerman shows courage in weaving together many strands of resentment , hidden unease and  “othering” – not only about religion and  education  but race, antisemitism, class, money, and, divergent styles of marriage and motherhood    Two couples are rapidly and neatly drawn,  but then deepen. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is Simone:   noisy, cynically gung-ho and  Jewish (“its a race not a religion” ).  She is married to the fairly prosperous web designer man Sam ,  a heavy pot-smoker and looseish cannon who as the year goes on hates the hypocrisies which Simone is distinctly enjoying :   her very loud and high entr’acte hymns are a treat, especially in contrast to her friend Juliet  (Claire Goose) who is more heartfelt about religion.    She is married to Nick , a black teacher (a really excellent rending by Daon Broni)  who is the most appealing of the four  . But it isn’t long before the irritation of Simone’s gung-ho assault on choir, congregational socializing and even Confirmation gets Juliet down.  

  

  In a wonderful downstage moment both are singing a hymn and Juliet, the quieter voice, gives up in disgust.   We never see the priest or the bells-and-smells HIgh Anglican church, but it comes alive all right.   A telling scene of a Jewish shiva raises something unexpected in the scornful Sam, and echoes of Ibo heritage and beliefs in Nick:  that sense of spiritual priorities edging in on them all is oddly powerful.   And then of course, both parents learn which four-year-old won the place at St Mary’s, and hell breaks out.

   

  There are echoes of the inter-parent rows in Yasmina Reza’s classic God of Carnage, and In a well-syncopated sequence of symmetrical offence there are parallels with Clybourne Park:  both are damn  good company to be in.  But there is real pain:   Juliet expressing, to her husband’s dismay, the agonised worry of a white mother of a brown child, fearing for the future and humiliated that with her French-braid blondeness she can’t manage a little girl’s hair as well as Nick – who used to do his sister’s .    Pain too in Simone’s bereaved loneliness for her parents, and in a sense for her whole heritage, and in the way Sam’s confused, guilty, self-indulsgent pothead paranoia latches  onto his Jewishness and working class pride, whichever is the handies,   In final moments Nick has a weary, desperate statement of the self-evident but often invisible truth about parenthood.   It’s a fine play, and should have sold out and hasn’t yet, so go..

  

     Oh, and the new theatre renovations? Very comfy, and seemingly good for designers too, lots of height and room for classy, understated  sliding scenesets.   I was sentimentally fond of the old Meccano galleries and comradely tip-up  seats, but time moves on.

Box office 0207328 1000.  kilntheatre.com

To 6 Oct

rating  five  5 Meece Rating

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ONCE New Wolsey, Ipswich

A RARE OLD TIME IN DUBLIN , IN IPSWICH

 

 

The miniature of Libby Watson’s gorgeous Dublin pub set in the foyer raises your spirits straight away.  Sometimes only an Irish pub will do:  a dream of a pub, rarer now in reality, where  everyone can grab an instrument and joke and blend and drum and pluck and fiddle and defy the hard world outside.  And while as we take our seats it’s Behan’s Ould Triangle and the rest to busk us in,  once the show begins it’s Glen Hansard’s marvellous Falling Slowly:  the song that won the film an  Oscar.  And there you are:  up  walking on the moonbeams with Glen Hansard’s lovely songs.

 

 

      Like thousands during the London run of the Broadway production,   I fell joyfully for Enda Walsh’s glorious opening-out of the quirky film about a despairing Dublin street musician whose spirits and hopes are transformed by a young Czech woman in the street.  Hansard and Markéta Irglova wrote the beguiling, memorable bittersweet songs together and devised the simple pavement story;   they starred in the film, but it’s made to be a stage musical with roaming, versatile actor-musicians.    And Walsh’s book mines all its hope and humour, and adds more.  And, notably, it rounds  out the character of the girl whose forthright hopefulness changes more than one life. 

 

    And goodness,  director Peter Rowe strikes lucky in his heroine.    Emma Lucia is barely a year graduated from Mountview, and almost startlingly perfect in the part of the Czech girl.  Which requires her to play both Mendelssohn and the Hansard music, sing beautifully  and remain convincingly Czech throughout in accent and manner.  Not to mention magnetizing  us with a modest but firm stage presence so that we believe the galvanizing difference she makes to the (equally well-cast) ragbag of Dublin pub regulars and struggling new Czech immigrants.

 

  They’re glorious too, notably Sean Kingsley majestically explosive as the leather-jerkined rocker Billy, Kate Robson-Stuart as the exuberantly tarty Reza who dances a tango duet with him,  and Samuel Martin as the buttoned-up gay bank manager who writes a truly terrible song about Bandon.   And leading the pack there’s Daniel Healy  as the ‘broken-hearted fixer-sucker guy” who mends Hoovers and is on the point of dumping his guitar on the pavement and giving up music forever. 

 

      This joint Wolsey and Hornchurch production, the regional premiere long overdue for this lovely show,   raises the heart and hits the spot.  I wish it was touring everywhere, because to see such quality at out-of-London prices is almost a human right.  And in this time of unease (I am not typing the B-word) what better than to enjoy the gorgeous joke of the way that the melancholy and doubt  of us offshore islanders gets startled, then invigorated, by that slightly terrifying East European directness of address,   and  that ruthlessly cheerful pragmatism.   “Serious? I am always serious. I am Czech”.   When the drooping busker asks the girl where she gets her energy, it’s “I am a young mother.”.  Her own mother – Susannah van den Berg – surrounded by keen compatriots learning English off soap-operas – is another powerhouse of exotic energy.   

 

    The staging is smooth and nimble, the movement and breaks into dance adeptly homelike:  despite the star quality of the two leads it feels the most ensemble of pieces, especially in the magical moments when an intimate number begins,  thickens as the band moves forward to wrap around the moment’s emotion,  then retreat until we are back in the shabby flat or pavement .  The redemptive, hopeful theme carries the slight strong story onwards,  all the stronger for denying us the formulaic rom-com ending;    but on another level the whole show is a chain of moments,  of treats:  musical, comic or touching.  Perfect. 

 

www.wolseytheatre.co.uk  this week – then to Queens, Hornchurch.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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