Category Archives: Five Mice

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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THE LOVELY BONES Royal, Northampton

HUMANITY RISING FROM HORROR

 

     It is one of the oldest notions in the world: the unquiet grave.   From Sophocles to modern campaigns we are haunted by the idea that the violently dead cannot  rest until the living either avenge them or find – perhaps carve –  some deeper reconciliation.   Alice Sebold’s remarkable novel caught that timeless strangeness:    the restless electricity of superstition that surrounds shock and sudden loss, and weaved it  into a portrait of an ordinary family’s grief.   Susie, the narrator,   is a 14 year old walking home from school across a cornfield.    Polite and trusting (it is set in 1973, more innocent times)  she lets Mr Harvey the lonely neighbour show her a “clubhouse” underground he has built “for the local kids”.  He gags her with her jingling woolly hat,  rapes and kills her, hides her body, keeps a souvenir charm bracelet.    From an inchoate limbo on the way to heaven Susie watches the investigation,  impatient and frustrated, commenting and  hoping; she  wanders a ghost through her shattered family and sees her little brother growing up, her sister’s first love,  her parents’ dislocation.

      

    Bryony Lavery – no stranger to dangerous topics after her unsettlingly brilliant  FROZEN (https://theatrecat.com/2018/03/02/frozen-theatre-royal-haymarket/)  adapts Sebold’s novel for this first stage version, directed by Melly Still.     The topic makes you shudder,  and the opening moments certainly do despite their discretion: the ultimate nightmare is not treated pruriently, but not softened.   Yet what emerges is a powerful, hopeful  triumph of human love.  A theatrical triumph too,  not least thanks to a remarkable set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita:   a shimmering cornfield horizon bisects a world below and its reflection far overhead.  Sometimes it is a true reflection,  sometimes showing something else.   Sometimes Susie is brightly lit, the others dim; sometimes all seem to be together, in flashback or apparitions.   

        

     

        Charlotte Beaumont is a revelation as Susie. Looks easily 14, smaller than the others and briskly childlike in her bright yellow trousers,   she roams around her strange reflected ghost-world among adults and siblings who can’t see  or hear her – but sometimes eerily sense her .    As children do  she mainly  takes the strangeness of her new lot pragmatically,   and afizz with young energy moves between brisk teen impatience, astonishment,  dismay , tenderness, laughter and frustration .  She wills Harvey to “make a mistake!” ,  irritated at the detective’s failure to pick up clues in the field, in his house, in his beige-anoraked, bespectacled persona as a tolerated local weirdo (Keith Dunphy) catches that creepy plausibility horribly well).   “He’s got most of me IN HIS BASEMENT!”  shouts Susie, as he bustles carefully around.  

          

          Altogether she is quite wonderful: more than one of us came out asking “Who’s that kid?”.     As her parents,  Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle are all too credible as their marriage threatens to crumble.  Families in tragedy sometimes do.  He becomes obsessed with nailing the suspect Heckler,   and she needs to move on, feed her other children, grieve and seek solace.  

     Sebold does not indulge in any safe-in-the-arms-of-Jesus sentimentality:   Susie does feel – reflecting every bereaved parent’s cry – the unfairness of young death.   “I want to grow up!”  She  calls on David Bowie music for comfort.  Seeing her younger sister – now older than she was – have a tender initiation to lovemaking  the violated, chopped-up victim says sadly  “My sister sails away from me…”.  Her own school boyfriend is with her friend Ruth now, growing up, they talk of her but move on.   A strange ghost moment reconciles her.    Her own companions in the limbo now are Bhawna Bawsar’s Fran, a social worker in life who has chosen helping newcomers as her own heaven, and eventually  a heartbreaking host of puppet-dresses, the other little girls Heckler killed.    

     

       There is a point just after midway in its tight 110 minutes when you find yourself impatient,  feeling too entangled in the problems of the living.  You want the simple Agatha-Christie relief of seeing the net closing around the killer. But like Susie, like all of them,  you need  to admit that no, just zapping the bastard is not enough.  For human resolution vengeance may  not even be entirely necessary.   The “lovely bones” which at last satisfy and give  a heaven to Susie are those that grow around the people close to her: a new scaffolding of love.   

 

Her heaven is to see the world go on, without her yet with herself still woven into others’ identities and affections.  And to turn in the last moment to the audience ,  grin,  and wish well to the living.     In what should be a long and successful career,  young Charlotte Beaumont will rarely get a line that jerks so many tears.  

box office  royalandderngate.co.uk   to 22 Sept  and touring, to 17 nov, see below

RATING   five   5 Meece Rating

   (co-production: Royal & Derngate, Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep,  in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse

 Everyman Liverpool 25 September to Sat 6 October  www.everymanplayhouse.com

Northern Stage  9 – 20 Oct    www.northernstage.co.uk

Birmingham Rep 30 oct-10 Nov    www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

New Wolsey  Ipswich 13-17 Nov    www.wolseytheatre.co.uk

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THE HUMANS Hampstead Theatre

 GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR IS TRANSPORTED TO NEW YORK, AND FAMILY TRUTH

 

 

The joy of a play like The Humans is that it can take a subject that feels as if it might have been done to death – a family gathering together for their Thanksgiving dinner –  and cause us to forget that it has ever been done before. There is a moment where Arian Moayed’s character, Richard, awkwardly tells his girlfriend’s visiting family about one of his favourite comic books, where aliens share ghost stories about the human race because they consider us to be so frightening. Humans, Richard suggests, are as likely objects of fear and fascination to the monsters as those monsters might be to us. Watching my fellow humans in this superlative performance, I can see his point… 

 

It is making its much-anticipated UK debut, with writer Stephen Karam and director Joe Mantello packing up their Broadway Cast, four Tony Awards and David Zinn’s glorious set to come to London.    The set, recipient of one of those Tonys, is terrific, a rusty, run-down duplex in New York city’s Chinatown, two floors of peeling paint and creaking floorboards with ancient insulation stuffed between. Noisy neighbours thump around upstairs and there is ceaseless whirr and hum of washing machines next door. This transfer has clearly been a labour of love – even the smallest minutiae ensuring that we are absolutely ensconced in modern-day New York with the Blake family for their Thanksgiving. Gifts emerge from plastic bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond, the Coca Cola bottle being poured at the table is the slightly stumpier American shape, so has clearly been imported…there is no suspension of disbelief, everything feels plausible, actual, real. 

 

The play introduces us to the Blakes: Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved into the run-down apartment with her boyfriend, Richard. The two are struggling to make ends meet, Richard is a mature student, Brigid is waitressing whilst trying to find work as a composer. Visiting the apartment for the first time are older sister and lawyer, Aimee (Cassie Beck), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father Erik (House of Cards’ Reed Birney) and his dementia-stricken and wheelchair bound mother, Fiona ‘Momo’ Blake (Lauren Klein). The six characters share a meal – on paper plates, with plastic cutlery – their fold-out chairs squeaking uncomfortably beneath them. All have stories to share: money problems, sickness, revelations that build and break throughout the 90 minutes. Everyone, that is, except Klein’s ‘Momo’ – whose son insists had a ‘good day yesterday’ but whose condition has clearly deteriorated/   We are left with the family to unite in sharing tales of a proud Irish matriarch, who loved a drink and who was once the life and soul of these gatherings. We, the audience, are confronted on stage with only a shell of a person, frail, confused and mumbling unintelligibly.

 

 

 The dialogue is impeccable and authentic, switching constantly and abruptly between hilarity, stubbornness, furious indignation, and complete exasperation in a way that only a family meal can accomplish. All can be forgiven, yet nothing can be forgotten. Multiple conversations take place across both rooms simultaneously and the cast deliver it superbly. There are polite disagreements over the pronunciation of ‘Carnegie’ – settled only by Aimee declaring ‘Everybody’s right, guys!’, and the traditional, tense generational impasse, with Birney’s patriarch at a loss to understand why his daughter is so anxious about money, yet insists on living in an expensive New York apartment .  He smugly asks of her superfood diet, ‘If you’re so depressed, why are you trying to live longer?!’. Over the course of the evening Brigid becomes ever more exasperated with her parents: snapping, interrupting and shutting down even the mildest of statements. The two floors of the cramped apartment work beautifully, everything is seen, everything is overheard – it feels like a real family coming together to make do and endure one another.

 

Karam’s mastery is in making it all so authentic. The play takes place in real time, there are no scene changes – dinner is prepared, served and eaten in the company of the audience and Karam perfectly delivers the clenched jaw and aching temples so easily brought about by a tense family reunion. When the revelations arrive, they hit hard; the Blakes are fondly reminiscing about a past that may never have existed , and reluctantly adapting in the face of merciless change. 

 Believe the hype. The Humans is exceptional. 

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 13 October

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford upon Avon

WHAT LARKS…

 

 

There is a swimming-pool ladder, a rubber-ring shaped like a swan, a robotic golf cart, some decorative flamingos (one used as a weapon) , and a statue of Queen Elizabeth I. Who is heard offstage, – as tradition says she did – ordering a sleepy Shakespeare to revive the character of Sir John Falstaff. In Henry V the fat knight is only mentioned as having died, “babbling o’green fields”, after being denied in IV Pt 2 by the newly virtuous young King and ordered to “get to his prayers”. So by royal order there was this comedy prequel, and another outing for the talents of the clown Will Kemp.

 
Director Fiona Laird (who also composed the splendid renaissance-disco score) makes the wise decision to go for broke with every kind of lark, and to give designer Lez Brotherston free rein with neon-edged skeleton revolving houses and a loony, diversely anachronistic set of mad costumes. Rugby socks, random kilts, slashed Elizabethan pantaloons pinstriped and worn over modern trousers. Mistress Ford is poured into a multicoloured super-spangled catsuit, and a leopardprint Hostess sports an unforgettable cleavage. Laird has cast the splendidly fearless David Troughton as the fat knight and padded him to within an inch of his life. Over that immensity his costumes too, whether tennis, golf, hippie drag or bestial furs are beyond panto: indeed I notice in unsteady writing at the bottom of one page of my notebook the words BLIMEY, FALSTAFF’S CODPIECE…”.

 
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every six years or so the RSC pretty much has to return to this merry farce, and lark around once more with fat-suit and laundry-basket. The challenge is both to make it new (in this case the laundry-basket is a wheelie-bin, with suitably artful adjustments to the original text) and to keep it moving. Last time round, despite Desmond Barritt’s glorious tweedy Falstaff, my review quoted an audience member sadly saying ““There’s an awful lot of admin, isn’t there, before you get to the jokes”. Indeed the triple-wooing of Anne Page and the cozening duel between Parson Hugh and Dr Caius can feel wordy and distancing to a modern audience.

 
Laird’s tactic to stop this happening is to give wild licence to everyone – and I do mean everyone – to overdo it with glee. You decide that nothing can upstage Jonathan Cullen’s comedy Frenchman Dr Caius (“quelle catastrophe ce Brexit..let me speak a word in your arrrse”) and his interchange with the busty hostess proffering “pardon croissant voulez vous coucher avec le cassoulet”. There you are, thinking that what with that , and Luke Newberry’s Fenton falling over all the time and Tim Samuels as a rather camp Shallow, this really is turning into panto, O yes it is, all we need is a singalong… Whereon along comes David Acton as Pastor Hugh , and leads us all in a couple of lines of Bread of Heaven. And then it’s time for the magnificently circular Falstaff himself to attempt a run-up at the wheelie-bin, to a drumroll, and get covered with malodorous steaming rubbish and carted off by manservants who appear to be conversing in Bulgarian , or maybe Russian, with surtitles.

 
A great pleasure of Laird’s production, ceaselessly funny and over-the-top, is that it reminds you that Shakespeare is the honoured ancestor of a hundred sitcoms. Caius is pure ‘Allo ‘Allo, Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page has moments of Sybil Fawlty, while her friend Ford has a definite Miss Brahms moment and another, when acting-out the trickery on Falstaff, remniscent of Eth from Take it from Here. Falstaff himself ,in drag, even offers an unShakespearian hommage to Dick Emery with “ooh you are awful, but I like you”. Again wisely, Laird appoints Toby Park of Spymonkey as physical-comedy director. This is a man who knows , to the finest detail, exactly how to trap a fat man in a codpiece under a sun-lounger.

The panto mood, however, does not extinguish proper RSC respect: the set-piece deception scenes are skilful – especially between Troughton’s fat rogue and Vince Leigh’s suspicious Ford disguised in a Russian hat, dodgy accent, and plastic nose ’n specs set. Nor do we lose that brief electric moment when the comedy slows for a brief moment and the Fords face one another: he suspicious, she denying. And for all t her skintight spangles there is a frisson, an echo of all those other chaste accused women: Desdemona, Hero, Hermione.
But only for a moment. We still have many larks to come. And are grateful for them. As Mr Punch would say (his ancestry is in there too) “That’s the way to do it!”.

 

box office http://www.rsc.org.uk to 5 Jan
rating five. Because being daftly funny is harder than it looks.

5 Meece Rating

 

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