Category Archives: Five Mice

INSTRUCTIONS FOR CORRECT ASSEMBLY Royal Court, SW1

SCI-FI AND SORROW

 
We begin with a tiny proscenium box, an almost Punch-and-Judy window, framing Harry and his wife Max: nice middle-aged people, evoked to sitcom perfection by a bearded, tinkeringly-engineerish Mark Bonnar and a bright Jane Horrocks. They are ordering a DIY kit for Prime next-day delivery, and starting to fuss over it. Meanwhile neighbours at a dinner party boast of their Oxford daughter and brilliant younger siblings. We gather that Max and Harry had one son, Nick. And what to him happened could be – well, could happen to anyone. Neighbour’s brilliant daughter was sorry to miss the funeral.

 

So far, so middle-class observational. But the first bit of the kit completed, as they prattle on, is a foot. Then a leg.. We guess that the little screen will widen, and widen again, and so does the significance of this arresting, original sci-fi domestic tale. They are building a robot, specification “white and polite”. A young man. It keeps them busy. It looks, the uneasy neighours notice, rather like the late Nick. Indeed it and Nick are both played by Brian Vernel, who in a series of flashbacks shows us how the living boy ran off the rails, stole to buy drugs, ran away…

 

The robot will give no such trouble, though for a while it is both creepy and funny as the couple struggle to programme it to their values, nervously zapping the remote to correct “his”’ attitudes and language. Young Vernel is quite superb, an arresting and technically intensely skilful performer zapping in and out of malfunction as the robot and teenage rebellion as Nick,  often confusing us into thinking Nick reformed before he died (“I’m gonna do it this time Mum”) , until a malfunction reveals it as a delusion programmed by the sad parents. Hilariously he flicks between speaking as an ideal, ambitious, nice-minded perfect son and a complete horror picked up from trash TV, as the parents dive for the remote-control. Sometimes there is an eerie sense that the robot’s AI is picking up the resentments each partner has against the other over the dead son.

 

Yet it is a profoundly compassionate, intelligent, heartbreaking play: about parenthood and grief, self-delusion, and the commodification and competitiveness surrounding the idea of an ideal family (Horrocks is happiest when her son seems to be enjoying ironing) . It is about the unintentional wrongs we all do, the terrible sorrow of love, the dogged need to carry on and seem cosy after a climactic disaster, and the painful empty-nest longing to have young hopeful life around the house.

 

It is terrific, and a delight to see the development of Thomas Eccleshare (I loved his PASTORAL at Hightide years ago). Vernel is a talent to watch, and Hamish PIrie’s direction is sharp and sure-footed, handling the deliberate confusions well. It does not need the interludes of robotic, stylized ensemble movement between scenes, which feel as if Pirie thinks we’re too dim to grasp the idea. But that is the tiniest of flaws in the most thoughtful sci-fi since THE NETHER.

 

box office 0207 565 5000

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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CHICAGO Phoenix, WC2

   THE JOINT IS JUMPING!  AGAIN…

 

 

    Openings are running in themed  sets – three Restoration comedies coming along like No.11 buses, and now  two nights running we have  trials as showbiz and showbiz ending in court.  After the neon ITV world of QUIZ , comes the unmatchable razzle-dazzle of Kander  and Ebb’s 1975 shocker,  under its Broadway director and with Anne Reinking and Gary Chryst giving it a loving update of that jerky, threateningly exhilarating Bob Fosse choreography.  Here are the murderous snarls and artful smiles,  supple cynicism on endless sheer  black-stockinged legs, and a hot hot band. Which lives as usual onstage, 1920’s jazz culture itself a character in the telling of the story of Roxie, Velma and the merry murderesses of Cook County , competing for the flourish and finagle of Billy Flynn the lawyer…

 

 

This time round our Billy is the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr, no less, looking happy as a sandboy on the West End stage.  He’s a workaday basic singer but that doesn’t matter when you’re  a slinky mover,  delivering deadpan comic contempt,  and always an exuberant stage presence  whether smothered in fan-dancers or giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle in a rain of sparkles.   Paul Rider is the best Amos I have ever seen:  his Mr Cellophane  brings the house down in that slyly calculated momentary quietening of pace:  Mr Decent Ordinary Sap lost in the predominant whirl of perfect limbs,  stumping bravely puzzled in contrast to that graceful subversive sexy grotesquery of dances which you never forget.

 

 

      The  London cast is glorious:  Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Is a curly blonde doll, a platinum minx vith a voice of honey : Josefina Gabrielle Velma Kelly , venomously acrobatic (O,the cartwheels!).  Our own Ruthie Henshall is a svelte, sharp -suitedly new interpretation of  Mama Morton  (she’s played  both Roxie and Velma in the past, a record triple).  Her voice is glorious, and mingling with Gabrielle’s in the fabulous “Nobody’s got no class” moment, a proper treat. Others get their moment too, notably Nicola Coates as Go-to-hell-Kitty doing an impressive banister slide. Indeed all the movement is well thought of, down to the single drunk juror who manages to feel up both Billy Flynn and Roxie. 

 

     Oh, and cheers to every last member of the band under Ian Townsend, hitting show-off solos and pumping ensembles with authentic jazzman glee.

 

www.atgtickets.com      to 6 october

rating  five5 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Noel Coward Theatre, WC1

SWOTS OR SWINDLERS, VILLAINS OR VICTIMS?

 

 

Sometimes a West End transfer serves a play royally. At Chichester last year I enjoyed James Graham’s playful, thoughtfully mischievous treatment of the case of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and the geeky Tecwen Whittock: the trio convicted of cheating-by-cough-code on ITV’s triumphantly tacky quiz Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But some overdone pub-quizzery in the first half slowed it down (we have to answer questions like a studio audience, and vitally get to vote electronically at the end on their guilt). And I only gave it four. Here’s the original review, with the bones of it:

https://tinyurl.com/ybwhkmbz

But now in the West End it’s actually better, a real five-star piece. With some audience seats onstage and a hellish neon TV studio set, it makes a great gig: continually entertaining, with a shape-shifting cast conjuring up barristers, ITV executives and every popular hero from Hilda Ogden to Craig David, led by Keir Charles becoming bygone peaktime horrors like Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Des O”Connor. And who is frankly and joyfully beyond-wicked as Chris Tarrant the host – mugging and squirming, a blond writhe of showy self-importance.

It has been tightened a bit, with the result that the two central characters, once more Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street, emerge still clearer . Spokes is a marvel as Ingram, James Graham’s delicate writing establishing him from the start as a bit bumbling, a dutiful middle-aged military chap who cares for his job and his family; Street evokes quiz-mad Diana in her .restless but kindly ambition (this is a service wife, remember: hampered by a lifetime of moves and postings and absences and economies). Their love story, a stick-to-it marriage, is a tribute; if they ever see the show, I cannot see them minding much.

 

And Graham’s serious points emerge still clearer too: the rise of “emo-tainment”, the class-conscious manipulation of the masses for profit, and above all the age – then evolving as the century turned, now extreme – of nosey, lipsmacking knee-jerk judgment of strangers: the age of Twitterstorms and whining, hostile identity-politics. Though you laugh aloud every few minutes, it’s a damn serious piece.

 

And yes, once again the audience voted guilty after the first act, paid attention to a fiery performance by Sarah Woodward as the defence barrister in the second – and voted not guilty. We chose to believe the hapless Ingrams over a vindictive and seemingly manipulative TV company. Apparently that happens most nights. Good.

 

box office 0844 482 5140 http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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CAROLINE OR CHANGE Hampstead, NW3

GUEST CRITIC J.N.  BENJAMIN FINDS WHAT MATTERS

 

Lights up. A confederate statue. A blackout. And it disappears. It’s November 1963 and we’re in Lake Charles, Louisiana. JFK has just been assassinated. There’s a rumble of a shift of something in the air but for Caroline Thibodeaux, nothing ever changes in Louisiana. She’s 39, divorced, and has four children. For twenty-two of her thirty-nine years she has worked as a maid for a wealthy white Jewish family. She dreams of being kissed by Nat King Cole. 

Musicals rarely get to be this important. And important this one is. The Chichester revival of this play was performed in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting by then 21-year-old white supremacist Dylan Roof. Shortly after the end of the run came the Charlottesville Rally – a rally organised in protest at the proposed removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. It is sobering to think that though more than 50 years have passed since the time of this somewhat autobiographical Kushner piece, black Americans still are still fighting the same fight, still in all the same places.
The state of our world increasingly forces those who live in it to face the conundrum of trying to reconcile diametrically opposed philosophical ideals. It’s a recurring quandary in this play: Should we love the men who abuse us? Is an ally really an ally if they promise change but act in a complacence that perpetuates the status quo? Who is right in the conflict of the elder who just wants a quiet life and the younger who is ready for a revolution? Is it ever OK to use immoral means to attain moral ends? Can we justify the use of moral means to preserve immoral ends? In Caroline’s final solo number she calls to God for an answer, but there are no simple ones.
The power of the 17-strong ensemble produced the the kind of chemistry that draws you to the edge of your seat. I saw much of my younger self in Abiona Omonua’s portrayal of Emmie Thibodeaux, the sixteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ daughter of Caroline, who doesn’t believe in the idea of unquestionable respect and spoke back to the adults around her accordingly. Similarly relatable was Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Dotty Moffett, the bobby sock and saddle shoe wearing black woman who was using education as a means to a better life. The Radio trio that was T’Shan Williams, Carole Stennett and Sharon Rose gave TLC mixed with The Supremes vibes. It was special. In fact, all of The Objects deserve a shout out: Me’sha Bryan as the Washing Machine, Angela Caesar as The Moon, Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus. inanimate by name, but definitely not by nature. And of course, there was Sharon D Clarke. There are places deep inside us that only song can reach; when her – sometimes mellifluous, sometimes scorching – tones reach that place, they shake your soul and awaken your spirit.
The two-and-a-half hour performance is visually gorgeous thanks to stage and costume design by Fly Davis and Ann Yee’s choreography. Jeanine Tesori’s music teamed with Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics were made for each other. Add to that the direction by Michael Longhurst – the man who brought us the five star spectacle that is Amadeus, currently on at the National Theatre – and it is a recipe for a perfect production. It is impossible to fathom how this musical was a Broadway flop; those Americans clearly don’t know a good thing when they see one.
il
Box office 020 7722 9301  TO 21 APRIL
£10 tickets for under 30s
RATING  FIVE
5 Meece Rating

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PRESSURE TR Bath & TOURING

 DANGEROUS DAYS AND COURAGEOUS SCIENCE

 

 

This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…

 

 

Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/ and every last mouse of it.

https://touringconsortium.co.uk/show/pressure/Touring: Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER Empire, Haymarket

FREE HANKY WITH EVERY PROGRAMME (honest..!)

 

Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing . And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.

 

 

Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Noel Coward himself (I’d forgotten Go Slow Johnny.. you’re no Brando, rallentando..). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.

 

 

, My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment-room and station staff ,(Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ‘50s) . The live band onstage and the songs , especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930’s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto. But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.

 

The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh , sky-high. Glorious.

 

 

0844 8717628; briefencounterwestend.com  to Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS Bury st Edmnds Theatre Royal, and TOURING

DICKENS EXCEEDING  EXPECTATIONS

 

 

Putting great literary masterpieces onstage is an erratic business. Within the same week we see the Artistic Director of the National Theatre buggering up Macbeth – despite a stellar cast and centuries of interpretation to draw on – while elsewhere in our unpredictable theatrical jungle a shoestring company tours a respectfully inventive, pretty much perfect version of something which far harder to stage: Dickens’ Great Expectations with its knotty, preposterous interwoven plots.

 

 

But Tilted Wig, co-producing with Malvern Theatres, have done just that. Ken Bentley’s adaptation (relevantly, he is a radio drama veteran) makes unfussed use of Dickens’ narration, enabling him to include some of the author’s sarcastic asides on matters such as lawyers. It is picked up by different cast members as the scenes flow naturally into one another : some have to achieve instant changes from deep-involved character and accent to calm RP narration. Which is particularly striking in that it never actually strikes you at all – the story just goes on.

 

 

James Turner’s set is perfect: an iron-framed box on two levels, both refuge and cage, evoking just enough Victoriana. This elegant device (with Ollie King overhead on the concertina and some really classy sound and light design) contains with panache the set-piece moments – from the shock on the bleak marshes to the smithy, the filmy-draped world of mad Miss Havisham, with a dead rat in her jewel-box, the storm, the fire and the desperate moments by the steamer on the dark Thames tideway. Lantern-light, a trap and rapid-folding doors do it all.

 

 

So easy is it to relax into the story, and so neat and credible are the characters (nine actors for the 27 characters plus ensemble) , that it is surprisingly easy to pick up modern echoes : Estella (Isla Carter) after all is a trafficked child, stolen from the underclass by Jaggers and deliberately radicalized by Miss Havisham in her personal jihad against men. The theme of class barriers is more obvious, Sean Aydon beautifully carrying Pip’s yearning to be an educated gentleman , the overwhelming his decent nature by teenage cockiness, an his final taming to gentle regret at the sourness of his elevation. The heartbreaking division between him and Joe Gargery strikes home when that decent blacksmith gently but firmly refuses to dine with him in London because it wouldn’t be fitting . Actually, I have long regarded Joe Gargery as one of the most beautiful characters in fiction, and the performance by curly-haired, open-faced Edward Ferrow had me in tears several times. Actually, blast him, he rather set me off when he was Wemmick as well. Oh, and so did Daniel Goode’s Magwitch.

 

 

And I haven’t even mentioned the big-name star, the Olivier name: Nicola McAuliffe is Miss Havisham. Wow. A tower of lacy off-white netting, a vulturous, wearily ironic frilly tragedienne, she towers over Pip and Estella like a puppetteer. Her final emotional meltdown and immolation could bring Dickens himself applauding from the other side. Only my beloved Joe Gargery stands up to her with dignity: I nearly cheered.

 

So terrific. And while the fifth star or mouse is often supposed by tradition to belong only to life-changing innovation, in awarding it now I must make it clear that for me the fifth one is often more fitly represented by a heart. I loved the production. A thrill to see it in Bury’s Georgian theatre, but it will be a delight to Dickensians everywhere, and a means of conversion to others. Bravo.

 

https://www.tiltedwigproductions.com/productions
touring to 23 June nationwide, Richmond next!   Touring Mouse wide

rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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IOLANTHE ENO Coliseum, WC1

FAIRY DUST AND PHYSICAL COMEDY

 

I am happy to say that in the second act there is some inappropriate sexual harassment. By garishly clad fairies, deploying weaponized soprano trills and terrorism-by-tutu as they move in crazed by desire for the middle aged, timidly bachelorly members of the House of Lords. That their Queen and their faery laws forbid marriage to mortals means nothing to the reckless, trippingly St-Trinian chorus: Iolanthe got away with it and bore a camp demi-fairy son Strephon after all. And any minute now, assisted by some legislative sleight of hand, their Queen too will succumb to a philosophically minded mortal guardsman and give him instant wings.

 

 

I was not always a devotee of Gilbert-and-Sullivan , having been depressed by too much D’Oyly Cartery in youth. But newer productions – notably the hilarious all-male ones – have drawn me back, and this completes it. For English National Opera to recruit Cal McCrystal – our most precise and inventive creator of physical comedy – to direct this feyest of politico-legal satires from 1882 is a masterstroke.

 

 

Musically of course it is splendid, under Timothy Henty and with the ENO chorus and seasoned soloists (Samantha Price as Iolanthe is, wisely, allowed the show’s one un-comical and genuinely moving operatic moment as she pleads for her son near the end). Paul Brown’s design, with pretty Pollock-theatrey cutouts and a very nice wheel-on House of Lords, is beautifully Victorian , with added nonsense when the peers crash through the paper backdrop aboard Stephenson’s Rocket . Several fairies (and one peer) do fly. But McCrystal’s touch, and comic vision, is what makes it special.

 

 

From the first moment when the fairies, of all shapes and sizes, trip into their opening chorus in dazzling chaotic outfits, acorn-capped or daffodil-daffy, and move like a determined keep-fit class for mature Lacroix fashion-victims, you have to laugh. At the dances, the moves, the drink-dispensing unicorn, the gloriously absurd puppetry going wrong. The director has brought in three of his regular performers for the extreme physicality – notably Richard Leeming as the Chancellor’s page is hurled around almost distressingly and emerges gamely every time. But the operatic regulars are more than up for it, stomping and tripping and milking every good joke. When Marcus Farnsworth’s amiable nitwit Strephon sings his lovely duet with Ellie Laugharne’s Phyllis, they gamely ignore the fact that the black-masked puppeteers manoeuvring sheep behind them can’t see through their masks, and bump into one another as helplessly they search for the wings. Which feels, delightfully, like a nod of acknowledgement to the hundreds of am-dram productions of G &S down the years which kept the flame alive..

 

 

Anyway, it’s a delight. Really is. The new jokes – notably the fireman one – are a pleasure, but not too much is done to modernize it. And surtitles, if you can tear your eye away from the mayhem on stage, remind us of the utter brilliance, the absurdism, mad rhymes, unexpected neatness and damn sharp satire which WS Gilbert flung out like a literary Catherine-wheel. Gorgeous. I recant. I regret the years of avoiding G&S.

 

box office 0333 023 1550 to 7 April
rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

 

 

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

A WATCHFUL SORROW

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

RATING five 5 Meece Rating

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JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS Jermyn St theatre

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM WALKS AGAIN

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – revisited Noel Coward Theatre

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

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

A few brief observations.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

5 Meece Rating

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THE TRANSPORTS Union Chapel & Touring

Touring Mouse wideTOP FOLK ON THE ROAD 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO Royal Court SW1

GIRLS ON THE EDGE

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

box office 020 7565 5000 to 27 Jan

rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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IMPERIUM – PART 2 AND REPRISE Swan, Stratford

AT LAST…AND FINE TO THE LAST

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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HAMILTON Victoria Palace, SW1

IT IS JUST AS WONDERFUL AS THEY SAID IT WAS. 

 

It could have been just a novelty: the biography of a half-forgotten Founding Father of the USA, an orphaned immigrant who rose to be George Washington’s right-hand man; a revolutionary hero and architect of modern American politics. With an all-black cast, and mainly interpreted in hip-hop and rap.  It sounds like the ultimate fringe oddity. Instead, after a sellout off-Broadway, it became is an almost instant legend of the stage thanks to Broadway audiences battling for tickets, the heartily applauding Obamas and a rattled, disapproving Trump.

 

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it – book, lyrics, music – after finding out about Alexander Hamilton from a biography, and starred in it himself on Broadway. From there Thomas Kail directs, Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs , and now a British cast sails into the big refurbished theatre with high expectations foaming around it.

 

 

It fulfils every one. Sometimes hype is entirely justified. This is marvellous: different, daring, joyful and intelligent, a show for today and not only for America. It is rolling, roistering, leaping political and personal saga, and performed superbly (chap next to me says the cast are actually better than the Broadway one he saw, in diction and musicality). The joy is that if fits: grom the first moment when in tailcoat and tight breeches Giles Terera strides on as Aaron Burr (the narrator- rival who eventually shot Hamilton), you realize that actually the satirical, witty energy of hip-hop rhythms happens to be a perfect fit for 18th century politics. It catches the quality of defiant, Enlightenment demand for independence ; “I may not live to see the glory, but I’m glad to join the fight!”. So when King George III (a very funny, furious, heavily ermined and crowned Michael Jibson) comes on to sing furiously in a parodic Lloyd-Webbery style “You’ll be back! Just you see! YOu’ll remember you belong to me!”, excoriating the sheer nerve of these people, the contrast is perfect.

 

 

That this should come just as America’s Trump moment was about to happen is a kind of blessing. Not just because it endorses diverse popular energy (“Immigrants – we get things done!” sings Jason Pennycooke’s Lafayette) but because it is so fly, so closely observant, about the human qualities that make politics work. Burr, initially a friend of the energetic, idealistic Hamilton, warns him “Talk less, smile more”, but Hamilton barges through, gets things done. Our Hamilton is Jamael Westman, a newcomer not long from Rada but with a virile, striding stage presence, towering over many of the others, handling the fast-moving text with assurance and brio and, as his family story builds and darkens towards the second half, he has real emotional heft. The rap-duels between him and the entertainingly camp purple-velvet Jefferson (Pennycooke again) zing with real political energy; it is not hard to see why he entranced both the Schuyler sisters (Rachel John as Angelica and Rachelle Ann Go as his wife Eliza).

 

 

The dancing is explosive, around an unfussy set of wooden steps and gantries, and the rhyming dazzles (gotta love the rappy rhymes – “How does a ragtag army in need of a shower / Defeat a superpower?” or ‘Do you haveta assume / Your’e the smartest in the room?”) But there are changes of pace into lyrical, bluesy numbers; especially for the women, who are glorious singers, but also profoundly movingly when the two rival principals each have newborn children and feel the changing, deepening responsibility. The family tragedy of Hamilton’s son is wrenching.

 

 

Every change of mood is perfect: domestic dissolution after a disastrous liaison and political overwork, then a snapped “Can we get back to the politics?” with changes of alliance. Great numbers rattle through: Burr’s furious wish to be “in the room where it happens” says it for all sidelined suspicious politicians, and one treasures the moment when Hamilton recklessly publishes a pamphlet admitting his sex scandal in order to clear himself of embezzlement, whereon furious George III joins the dance of triumph of Jefferson and his rivals singing “You’ll never be President now”. Oh, the echoes…

 

It’s exciting, it’s redemptive, it’s human and serious and funny. It’s wonderful. Believe the hype.

 

http://www.victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk to 30 june

5 Meece Rating
rating five

 

 

 

 

 

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CELL MATES Hampstead, NW3

ESPIONAGE, ESCAPE, AND THE WORLD’S WORST FLATSHARE

 
This is the one that got away. Simon Gray’s 1995 play, set largely in Moscow, is about the Cold War ‘60s spy George Blake and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke, who sprang him from a 42-year sentence Wormwood Scrubs. It toured, but its West End run closed rapidly after Stephen Fry, playing Blake, abruptly ran away to Belgium after some lukewarm critical comments. So the play itself – intelligent, sharp, eloquent, humane and in some ways better than Alan Bennett’s Burgess and Blunt plays – was never given its due. All honour to Ed Hall for reviving it now in his theatre, fretfully apt in the age of Putin and cyberspying and just as the Death of STalin film is creeping us out in cinemas.

 

 
Gray is not interested in the jailbreak, giving only a brief prison scene where the prim, foreign-office-polished Blake makes an unlikely connection with the roguish, street-smart Bourke who edits the prison newsletter. A subsequent one establishes how , while they lay low after the ladder-and-van escape, young Sean became a touchingly kind carer to the concussed, panicking older man. But most of the action takes place in the grimly grand little Moscow apartment – beautifully evoked by Michael Pavelka – where Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Blake is dictating his pompously self-justifying memoirs on tape, and Sean Bourke turns up for what he thinks is a week’s holiday: a bit of exotic experience to add to his own book. It rapidly emerges that the two KGB minders need his passport and are wholly in charge of whether he will be allowed to leave. At all: in case he is a planted British spy.

 

 
Emmet Byrne is wonderful as Bourke, bright but out of his depth, as nonplussed, homesick and intermittently panicky as anyone would be; Streatfeild superbly evokes Blake’s twisted chilly neediness ( though it is only late on that we discover just how twisted). For the most part what unfolds before us, with ever more delays and co-dependent conflicts, is the world’s worst flatshare.
I notice that some commentators want a more homoerotic subtext, but I don’t see any need: friendship on close quarters, after all, can be as difficult as any love affair. Blake, telling himself not to be homesick for his wife and three children because “I am home – morally and spiritually – in the country of the future”, is classically (and literally) buttoned-up, vain of both his advancement in the Foreign Office and his support for Stalin’s murders. About which he comes back often and ever more unconvincingly to the old metaphor about not making an omelette without breaking eggs. ZInaida the housekeeper, played with poignant comedy and drop-dead timing by Cara Horgan, polishes the spy’s Order of Lenin medals daily and likes him to wear them, but gets on at a more human level with Rourke , who just hits the vodka and teaches her to sing Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes with glorious mispronunciations. When it becomes clear that he is trapped here for years (in the end it was two and a half) he tries making Blake’s domestic life hell.

 

 
It is a play less about political belief (Gray prefers to despise it) than about friendship and dependence between men, which he handles with heartbreaking finesse. It is often very funny, because he of all writers understood audiences: the two KGB men nicely combine cartoonish absurdity and real menace: a marvellous performance comes especially from Danny Lee Wynter, rapidly becoming one of my all time favourite character actors. He is KGB Viktor, manspreading to the max, arrogantly terse, shrugging about his gymnast daughter getting too fat, never cracking even the shadow of a smile. Indeed when he grinned at the curtain call it was quite a shock.
Hall’s production zips along, and thoroughly deserves a transfer with this cast. But you leave, as Blake delivers one last self-justifying line to tape, wondering, given the play’s theme of betrayal and shipwrecked co-dependence, about the emotional effect the defection of Fry must have had on the playwright, cast and producers. Financially it was a disaster; for Gray, who wrote a bitter book about the affair, it blew his last chance to establish himself in the West End. I doubt Mr Fry will book in. Everyone else, go for it!

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 20 Jan

rating : five (i know everyone says oh no,  save the fives for Hamilton,  swoon swoon, but in this case it is a terrific play and I can’t imagine it being done better. So there)

5 Meece Rating

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IMPERIUM Swan, Stratford upon Avon

CICERO, CAESAR, CATILINE: ELOQUENCE, AMBITION , HORROR

 

 

It begins with a corpse: a horrid human-sacrifice, as we shall learn, as a set of libertines and plotters swear a blood-oath to kill the Consul Cicero. From there the play roams on, thrilling and tense, subtle and shocking and thoughtful. Oh, the sadness of being born fifty years too soon! When I limped gloomily to a D in the Roman History A level it was because that vivid world – precursor and founder of our own civilization – had been rendered unbearably distant and dry by awful textbooks and a dreary teacher. How were we oppressed schoolgirls to know how thrilling it was? Power struggles, shifting alliances, spurts of dishonest populism by wannabe tyrants, class hostility: a perfect preparation for modern politics, with added bloody rebellion and hideous horror-story deeds. If I had seen this then, I might be a classicist now.

 

 
Mike Poulton, who made such a stunning job of Wolf Hall, has adapted Robert Harris’ magisterial novels based on the career and vast writings of Cicero (a vital player, political republican hero and orator, who gets only a few lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Gregory Doran directs with typical pace and his trademark clarity : as with his productions of Shakespeare history plays, never does your mind wander for a second while you worry which Gaius is which, or which side he is (for the moment) backing. Richard McCabe as Cicero is a marvellous creation: a man risen from lowly beginnings through sheer intelligence and lawyerly eloquence, his genuine belief in the Republic and horror of autocracy fading sometimes endearingly into pomposity; his political gift for expediency always at war with his real principles. It is a masterclass in the running dilemma that is politics, and a credible, poignant human portrait.

 

 

 

Often our sophisticated Cicero is confronted with harsh simplicities of greed and ambition, equally often physically overshadowed. Sometimes by the terrifying brute Catiline (Joe Dixon, making me think of a Marvel Comics super-villain, in a good way ). Sometimes our hero seems staid next to the watchful, sexy young Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey, one of those faces you can’t take your eyes off). The device of using the amiable, keen slave-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska) as narrator is entertaining, and again serves that clarity of plot beautifully. The women in the story are few, but make a forceful mark: Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s rich and barely tolerant wife, a sweet Jade Croot as his daughter, and not least the very foxy Eloise Secker as Clodia, sister and incestuous lover of Clodius, the dandyish young aristocrat who renounces his status to be a Tribune of the Plebs , with pleasing echoes of Wedgwood Benn binning his peerage.

 

 

 

There are six parts, in two sessions (what great television it would make, if TV companies had the cojones!). The first three- CONSPIRATOR – I saw: the second set, DICTATOR , not yet. A hideous weather forecast and four-hour drive home in freezing fog made it unsafe to stay. But the quality, my closer-dwelling companion assures me, is the same: a touch darker, more menacing. Cicero struggles to regain influence and stay alive with his family , and a very different view of Caesar’s rule and death emerges, unlike Shakespeare’s. And comes then Mark Antony , the triumvirate and the dark time after…
I shall buy tickets later and watch both in a day, repeating the first part with pleasure. And I apologize to theatrecat readers for not having both at my fingertips now. But can promise, either way, a sharpening, intelligent, theatrically irresistible experience.

 

 

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

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED

 

 

Good to see the Old Vic auditorium in the round again (a Spacey innovation). Though this time, there’s a long transverse thrust stage enabling Marley’s ghost to drag a spectacular 40ft or so of chains and strongboxes behind him, and to be dragged out backwards by it. The book is adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell with many a dangling, swooping lantern, invisible door and pop-up strongbox, It is therefore tempting to start with the grand finish: to refer to Matilda and Harry Potter and the like, and reveal staging-finale matters aerial, textile, meteorological, zipwire and sprout-related.

 

 

But no spoilers. Take the kids to see, mark, draw in its sternly humane morality and wait for the big gasps till the end. Take it as straightish Dickens with artful Thorne adaptations, whose marvellously heartfelt Christmas quality would delight the author of 1843. It begins and ends with the cast playing the silvery simplicity of handbells, and all through it in a mood-setting score by Christopher NIghtingale, there are laced familiar carols. They fit: “In the Bleak Midwinter” can be, after all, eerie for a midnight haunting. And thundering words like “Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!” could hardly be more apt for old Scrooge’s final relieved awakening. And if you are a miserly old bastard being harassed by carol-singers approaching up the long stage, what tune could be more approriately infuriating than “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”?

 

 

 

Scrooge is a dishevelled Rhys Ifans, an actor who can produce mad-eyed mania but keeps it under control in a fine and often movingly anguished process through his ghostly torments, until the great relief unleashes crazed capering. Thorne’s adaptation is clever enough to add surprise and even suspense to the well-worn tale: cunningly, it begins with choral narration by the black-cloaked cast intoning from “Marley was dead”, and sometimes reverts to the letter of the text both in narration and dialogue. But there are differences, surprises; the ghosts are not spectacular but motherly, pram-pushing: there is more emphasis on the harsh father and sad boyhood, without excuses (“These are the bricks you are made from…we are all made. But we make, too”). Fezziwig becomes an undertaker; Scrooge’s lost sister a ghost, his early lover a figure who, in Thorne’s unusually long coda, is modern enough to need a face-to-face reckoning forty years later. There are moments which without losing the cloaked, top-hatted, handbell mood of the piece , seem directed harder at our TV-news generation than at Dickens’ contemporaries. When the ghost shows him Tiny Tim’s likely end Scrooge cries “a dying child – is it wrong not to want to see that?”. Good question.

 

So it is DIckensian and modern, clever and heartfelt, gripping and touching and tuneable and serious and sometimes funny (Ifans is indeed let off the chain for a while in the end, and Marley gets a moment. In restless late November, it began Christmas as it should be.

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 20 Jan
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE Apollo, W1

A GLORIOUS, GANGLING, GRACEFUL PRESENT FROM SHEFFIELD

This is glorious. Hits the bullseye. It’s about kids – the boiling mass of hormones that is a year 11 class grappling with GCSEs and half-formed hope. It’s about a mother and son, anger and kindness and making the best of a bad-dad deal. It’s about our loosening, gentling new attitudes to quirky individuality, gay normality and gender images (not gender itself – our Jamie has no wish to be a girl). It’s about defying inhibitions and sticking by your mates.

 

It bears witness also to the upswelling energy from far beyond London. After a TV documentary showed Jamie Campbell, the Co.Durham boy who fought to wear a dress to his school prom. Dan Evans of Sheffield Theatres commissioned director Jonathan Butterell, with writers Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae, to make it a musical. It ran a humble 19 performances there, but Nica Burns of Nimax checked it out, encouraged new touches and songs, and brings it up West with a sharp new set by Anna Fleischle, to do battle with the greats. Its star John McCrae is not yet a “name”, most of the young cast are on a West End debut. And they rock it: confident, hilarious and heartfelt. And though it is fictionalized , the real Jamie and his Mum recognize its truthfulness.

 

McCrae’s Jamie – a ganglingly graceful streak of a boy – is seen first lounging and cheeking with the rest in a careers class (“Fork lift driver” it offers). He has a camp puppyish exhibitionist streak, leading a larky chorus, already ‘out’ at school and defying the macho meathead Dean (Luke Baker). His best friend is Pritti, an earnest Muslim girl who plans to be a doctor and applauds his nerve “You’re fearless! You’re Emmeline Pankhurst!” . Nicely, there is another hijab-wearing girl in the class who is more airhead: nice for Muslim girls to know they don’t all HAVE to be swots, doctors, or Tory ministers. At home, Jamie has an amused, weary single Mum (Josie Walker), dumped by his Dad after a shotgun marriage. She pretends that his Dad cares and sends him presents, while in fact he is a disgusted homophobe who wanted a “real boy”.

 

Jamie’s pain about this, beneath the camp bravado, is perfectly caught in body language , moments of hunched teenage misery and self-doubt. When he goes to “Victor’s Secret” for a prom dress he finds a better male mentor in Phil Nichol’s Hugo, a gruff bluff figure whose own alter ego down the clubs is Loco Chanelle. He learns about the defiance of the genre: “a drag queen is feared!”. The point is sharply made that even in the age of Grayson Perry you need courage to diverge from the norm: it is only at home that a boy can safely strut his high heels around the kitchen in sequinned hotpants and school tie, saying “Muuum! do you know nothing about divergent gender identities?”.

 

Josie Walker is tremendous as Mum, and her friend Ray (Nina Anwar) a stalwart support: when Jamie says “I don’t think I have a Dad anymore” she barks “You’ve got me!” There are sharp confrontations in class, especially when the demure earnest Pritti rounds on Dean. After a brief, dangerous silence Dean’s best mate just shakes his head sadly with “She nailed you..”. Some people cheered.

 

But a musical stands or falls on the big numbers. Dan Gillespie (of the chart-topping The Feeling) channels both disco energy and lyrical grace; Tom Macrae’s lyrics never jangle but provide neatly casual delights (“John was an agent, but not a gent – took more than his ten-percent!”). The drag-club ‘girls’ have a sharp “Over the Top” number and some pleasingly crude banter, and Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti delivers a really lovely, earnest ballad of identity and suppressed love, “It means Beautiful”. As for Mum, Josie Walker had us on our feet cheering after the immense “He’s my Boy”.

 

They’re musical novice creators, but it is finely built: every song pushes the story and the feeling forward, every joke hits. The moral is subtler than mere gay-lib or modish gender-fluidity, as Jamie’s hard-won confidence spills out to help all the others. Even, in a very touching coda, Dean. And in this age of suspicious social division, there is something cheering about one Muslim girl – Pritti – gently saying she likes her hijab because “It keeps me simple, frames who I am”, while the other plans a prom dress with a squeak of “Allah doesn’t mind a bit of sparkle, as long as you cover up”. Joyful: heart and skill, restraint and jokes, joy and gentleness.

Box office 0330 333 4809 – to April
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN Young Vic Se1

AN ANCIENT CRY, A TIMELESS THRILL

 

Across 25 centuries comes a harsh cry: not of war,  not from savage male throats but from a swaying, chanting, defiant chorus of young women demanding, in the name of the gods and of humanity, freedom, asylum and choice. Aeschylus’ early play , a fragment of  a lost trilogy,  could hardly be more topical. Firstly because the Danaids, arriving on the shore of Argos to beg asylum of King Pelagius, are refugees. Secondly because  because they are women refusing to be treated as chattels. Threatened with forced marriage in  Egypt, they have taken ship, occupied the sacred temple and assure the king that they will, if denied, turn to “the one god who never refuses asylum…death” and hang themselves by their black veils from the holy statues.

 

 

They mean it. They deliver great powerful speeches (what is that ancient magic in a tight chorus that shakes the heart?). They express both plea and defiance, fear and pride.  Sometimes they sing , sometimes voice deep ancient cries of oi and ai! The 27 bodies often move as one with sharp precision,  making shapes as if they were  a single resolute creature.  They are both poignant and terrifying. At one point in pitch darkness they become just points of the candle-lanterns each carries, until the flaring torches of their pursuers surround them and illuminate shapes of resistance, red fire and pale candlelight mingling and separating.  They are never offstage, and drive the action every one of the 90 thrilling minutes.

 

 

And barring their leader (Gemma May)) they are untrained amateurs, a community chorus of Southwark locals pledged only to rehearse for two months of free time.  Credit to the trainers, including Mary King, and to the extraordinary score by John Browne which drives the tension, percussive and weird on the ancient Aulos double pipe. But credit first to the volunteers. They achieve something unique. And although marauders and townspeople also appear, the latter voicing welcome and the eternal fear that “refugees bring cold winds” – most credit to that central suppliant chorus.
 

 

The script is by David Greig who (as i noted lately in his bizarre and wonderful Prudencia Hart) has the ability to write demotic, even slangy, modern language in a rhythmic style which makes it timeless, folkish.  This production by Ramin Gray for the Actors Touring Company delighted Edinburgh in 2016  and is a perfect fit for the young Vic with its tradition of community work.  It is, as in each of its touring venues (350 people in total have been the choruses) prefaced in Greek tradition by a local dignitary acknowledging the honour of supporting drama and pouring a libation to Dionysius. On press night it was John Glen MP.

 

 

The women are diversely  and colourfully in modern casual dress : loose , for the fluid exciting movement by Sacha Milavic Davies is central. That makes the formal politician- grey suit of Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos all the more strikingly apt: across the centuries he is every politician anxiously weighing up humane duty against, in his case, a real risk of war. “I am lashed to this quarrel, my boat hawsers tangled,…if a man intervenes in another man’s war he’s in trouble for ever”.

 
He does the right thing: the women argue a while with the townspeople over their ferocious determination to stay man-free, and Danaos the captain gently warns that migrants must always behave well and gently in their new land: “We’re foreign. We must be respectful and meek..make clear you committed no murder or crime”.
It is Europe 2017, and all times and all migrations. Wonderful.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 25 nov
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

 

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LEAF BY NIGGLE Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MEETS MINDFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF TOLKIEN’S TIMEWASTING

J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other things, is famous for two: his unending ability to procrastinate, and his heated (and repeated) refusals that his work could (or should) be read allegorically. He dismissed those who looked for the mud of the Somme in the grim marshes on the borders of Mordor with cold contradiction; he may well have spent more time playing Patience than writing or working; and he would no doubt have been flatly unimpressed by the myriad allegories my brain kept irrepressibly chasing through Leaf by Niggle, a tale entirely free from elves or dwarves (though its enervating, endearing hero, “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make… but did not hurry with his preparations” might surely have just a pinch of hobbit). This is a story whose undoubted magic is surreal and spiritual, rather than wrought by sorcery: and its intensely imagined world, told with folklore simplicity, seems to glow with hidden meanings from every well-judged word, here delivered complete on stage with exquisite clarity by Richard Medrington in a virtuoso solo performance.

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle starts gently, discursively; the story comes upon us unawares, almost in spite of itself, but grows inexorably gripping, even terrifying, as it twists dynamically from lackadaisical charm to surreal brutalism, and onwards to curious, open-ended enlightenment. Performer Richard Medrington begins by telling us his own history: how, long ago, he thought of adapting Leaf by Niggle for puppetry performance, but the idea never got off the ground; how he started writing an enormous fantasy novel, then “triumphantly!” put it aside unfinished. Irrepressibly, life always kept getting in the way of his creative projects: life’s practical, intimate family tasks, like repairing a house damaged by flood, or going through the accumulated treasures of a large family attic when his elderly mother needed to move into sheltered housing. But this, he realised, on re-reading it several years later, is exactly what Leaf by Niggle is about: the “tremendous crop of interruptions” which constantly distract us from our chosen task if we let them. The props on stage, accordingly, are harvested from Medrington’s own “crop”, with many glorious finds from that attic: each one provokes its own history or memory, often intersecting with parallels or similar pathways in Tolkien’s life (or Niggle’s). Leaf by Niggle thus takes shape inside a peculiarly personal, well-fitting frame which feels genuinely original: and Medrington’s circumstantial, disarmingly direct chat quietly morphs into a masterclass of assured, compelling storytelling, Medrington acting all Tolkien’s small cast of characters in turn, against a gentle, intriguing folk-instrumental soundscape by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.

Niggle is a “footler,” “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees”, and his kind heart constantly distracts him from the canvas he endeavours (but keeps failing) to finish, often helping friends and neighbours instead, to Niggle’s resigned annoyance. The gentle chaos of his life doesn’t suit the Government, and, torn summarily from his art, he is plunged into the horrifying ordeal of the Workhouse Infirmary. But here, in a punishing and boring work regime, “he was becoming master of his own time; he began to know just what he could do with it.” Focusing steadily on tasks which are themselves a distraction, he unlocks, and learns to harness, an extraordinary power of potential. Returning to his work, the results are astonishing.

You’ll have to see what you think it is about. While every tempting allegory can be teasingly dislodged, for me, it was about life, death, Purgatory and Paradise; or about artistic struggle, frustration and fulfilment; or about the price we pay to learn to cultivate raw talent into honed skill… And each time my every allegorical reading slid off the next corner of his multi-faceted plot, Tolkien just winked at me calmly. Ultimately, it’s not about deciding or imposing a final answer. It’s about noticing the thoughts this story provokes in you, mindfully – and learning from them.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating and a touring mouse: Touring Mouse wide

Touring across the UK until 25 November: details here  

Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 15 November 2017 (but no puppets involved!)

Presented by Puppet State Theatre with the support of the Tolkien Trust, the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh and Creative Scotland

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MISS JULIE Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

SEX, SHAME , THE STROP OF THE RAZOR

 

 

I rashly confessed on Twitter that I spent the afternoon before this astringent production of a Strindberg play revelling in the happy furry world of Paddington 2. Got softened up.  Defences down,  comforted by marmalade.   So you may now appreciate the nervous collapse brought on by 95 minutes of this always alarming 1888 play.   Down from the Theatre by the Lake for its London premiere, this is a new, spare, fluent adaptation by Howard Brenton (whose THE BLINDING LIGHT a few weeks back demonstrated just how far he is willing to lurch into the crazier interludes of Strindberg’s soul).

 

 

Tom Littler directs, and is admirably unafraid to start leisurely, almost lazy, with desultory kitchen conversation , a meal eaten, long pauses and passing remarks between valet and cook behind the green baize doors of the Earl’s house while a midsummer servants’ dance is faintly heard beyond the door. But as Miss Julie joins them the pace rises and tragic energy swells, baleful and tense. It is like spending ninety minutes watching a clear, delicate polished piece of fine glass shiver, creak ominously, crack and finally shatter all over you.
 

If there is one image which will haunt my dreams it is James Sheldon as Jean the valet – clever, discontented, seductive, ambitiously angry –  stropping his cutthroat razor over by the sink. Swish, scrape, swish: its metronomic, relentless rhythm is in ominous contrast to the increasingly hysterical young mistress of the house, skittering and jerking across the kitchen, gabbling crazily to the impassive cook Kristin about the escape the three of them could make – a new life, Switzerland, trains, a hotel, art galleries, rich Englishmen to fleece or marry… No.  It’ll come to no good.  Swish, scrape, swish goes the razor, the dead pet bird drips on the sideboard.

 

Well, we know the end, because it is a famous play. But there is something particularly and deliciously unnerving about this production, on the face of it more straightforward than other recent adaptations (like the unbearably irritating Schaubühne Berlin “reinvention for the multimedia age” by Katie Mitchell). It is recognizably, though simply, a late-19c big house kitchen; no gimmicky updating. Jean has the fastidious pomposity of an upper servant who dreads being back amid the ploughmen (he can’t bear Kristin, his cook fiancée, ruffling his immaculate hair) . He brings it an edge of florid, handsome coarseness, the resentful brute slyly peeping out of the smooth exterior even early on as he piously reports the young mistress’ wild unsuitable dancing. Izabella Urbanowicz as Kristin is steady, pious, patient and weary, the social realist among them. And Charlotte Hamblin is magnificent as the volatile Julie, invading the servants’ territory in a midsumme garland, seemingly blithe with Sloaney entitlement, flirting, needling Jean until their disastrous consummation is inevitable.

 

 

It is on the face of it the slightest of stories: posh girl sleeps with valet, valet hopes for advancement and money, things are not so smooth. The brilliance, here clearer and sharper than I have yet seen it in any production, lies in exposing not only the disastrousness of the social and gender hierarchy o the day (a few years before Ibsen did the same) but the peculiar, private and individual disaster of these personalities.Jean and Julie are both needy, but want different things from one another. Sex, which seems a simple answer, is in fact the catalyst for disaster. Female panic and loss meets male rage, Sheldon’s Jean at one point quite terrifyingly vile. It holds you gripped in pity and terror, the angst of a bygone age rattling and echoing down the years with perennial truth. People don’t change: read the crime stories in the papers. There will always be an emotional and social impasse somewhere: that razor strop echoes down the century, swish, scrape, swish.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 2 dec
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

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TWELFTH NIGHT Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

A PERFECT TWELVE

 

“What country, friend, is this?” That soon becomes clear, in this beautiful rendition of Shakespeare’s melancholy comedy of love and misapprehension. From the first glimpse of Orsino’s lounging household beneath its golden dome, with the Duke (Nicholas Bishop, camp as ninepence at this point) dashingly painting his muse Curio as a near-nude Cupid, we know just where we are. Ravishingly designed by Simon Higlett (it’ll look fabulous on screen too) the country where director Christopher Luscombe has landed us is the England of the 1890’s. It is the land of Wilde and Beardsley and Ruskin and Sickert, of Yellow-Book aestheticism and dandyish decadence and romantic exoticism.

 

 

That Imperial-era Orientalism makes it all the more apt that Viola and Sebastian, alien siblings landed and thinking one another drowned, are Indian: Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi. Thus when Viola joins Duke Orsino’s court it is understandable that he can wear modern suits while she casts off the sari for the gold tunic , red sash and braided pillbox hat of an easternesque page. It is fitting too that Feste, in Olivia’s otherwise soberly late-Victorian household, should have a dash of exotic sartorial glamour, while Toby Belch is just a big bluff waistcoated bully and Aguecheek a hilarious dotard in breeches and Argyle socks with (at one point) a sort of deerstalker motoring-hat. It is perhaps no accident that this glorious production comes neck-and-neck with the film Victoria and Abdul, about HM’s preoccupation with her own Indian “munshi”.

 

 
This perfection of design and setting contributes not a little to the real heart of the play: the gender-bending, the unbalancing sibling griefs of Olivia and Viola, the love and delusion and desire which shine romantic in the heroines and ludicrous in the shamed Malvolio. Not a nuance is missed, not a joke fails, Shakespeare’s balance of dark and light shimmers as bright as the golden dome and as dark as the wood where the “mad” steward is confined.

 

 

There are lines sometimes lost which grow new feeling , emotional meanings teased out with throwaway precision, absurdities gleefully milked . The garden eavesdropping scene is wonderfully done, as the three plotters play garden-statues around the ecstatic Malvolio (Adrian Edmondson capering for England). You haven’t lived till you see Michael Cochrane’s fabulously hopeless Aguecheek suddenly popping head-up from behind a very explicit neo-Grecian statue, or John Hodgkinson’s Belch providing the Venus de Milo’s arms. It is also oddly shattering how clear Hodgkinson makes it that Toby Belch is a real Bullingdon-bully and Aguecheek , for all the merry dancing, his fool. HIs final contempt of the rich knight, which I had forgotten, is up there with Prince Hal’s “I know thee not, old man”. It strikes as much of a chill as Malvolio’s humiliation: and that, again, is deepened in significance by the dismay of Kara Tointon’s finely drawn Olivia, and Beruce Khan’s calculatedly capering Feste, fuelled by anger and melancholy.

 

 

AS for the gender-bending, we have lately seen Simon Godwin’s good NT production turning the steward into Malvolia, with consequent lesbian desire; but what happens here is, oddly, still more fluidly exciting, which befits the bi-curious fashion of today. Viola’s veiled confessional scene with Orsino – “My father had a daughter loved a man..” shimmers with meaning, their kiss beneath the absurd golden dome shaking the heart. Dinita Gohil, who at first I feared was too declamatory, gives real emotional weight and purity to the scene. The final explanation scene rattles, beneath the joy and laughter, with a sense that while the twins are happy, both Olivia and Orsino are settling for conventional heterosexuality not without a bat-squeak of regret for the homoerotic longings into which they were drawn by mere costume.

 

 

 

But the whole ensemble is perfect: Vivien Parry gives us Maria as a vindictive virago, her dark strength indicating that she will keep the fearful farting Belch in order once she nabs him; Sarah Twomey, Verity Kirk and Sally Cheng are lovely maids, Far more of the company than usual are on an RSC debut season, and there is an exuberance which warms the whole evening, culminating when they dance us off, Globe-style, in glorious vaudeville echoes of the earlier drinking scene. I’d go again tomorrow. Hey ho, the wind and the rain…

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to February
Live screening at many cinemas on 14 February, Valentine’s Day. Don’t miss it.
rating five  5 Meece Rating

oh, and a design mouse for Mr Higlett:

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THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE Hampstead Theatre, NW3

THE LONELY HEARTS OF WARTIME

 

If you need relief from the current outbreak of extreme social primness about male behaviour, you’re going to love the bit with Clive Francis , as the elderly Mr Thwaites, going batshit-bonkers on pickled walnut Martinis when tempted by the generous Teutonic cleavage of Lucy Cohu’s MIss Kugelmann. The first act of this deceptively entertaining play certainly ends with a bang.

 

 

I say deceptively, because although there is some wonderful sly comedy from the start, its strength is in a humane, rueful, oddly hopeful understanding of loneliness and of the way we try to make real connections through what one of them calls the “glass wall” of our separateness and suspicion. Tim Hatley’s design elegantly underlines this theme, its elegant sliding changes offering momentary chiaroscuro glimpses of aloneness. No character is all bad, nor all good; even the most minor of them, in fleetingly sketched moments, reveal both their handicap and their hope. It’s lovely.

 

 

 

This was a novel by Patrick Hamilton, whose famous play GASLIGHT was an enjoyable cod-Victorian melodrama. His novels, though, are different: moodier, their important events internal; and they are set in the world he knew: seedy 1930’s and 40’s:London, bedsits and boarding-houses, scruffy pubs and parties. This late one, with more comic vision and a bit more hope, is now brilliantly transformed for the stage by Nicholas Wright.

 

 

In a boarding-house in Henley we find our heroine Miss Roach (Fenella Woolgar, perfect in every thwarted, eager, scrupulous move and expression). A former teacher who “couldn’t control the boys”, she saw her flat blown open in the Blitz and fled to this sanctuary, reading manuscripts for a publisher , regretting an affair with her married boss, barely tolerating the elderly company. Miss Barratt and Miss Steele are amiable enough (this play is full of glorious moments for maturer actors playing long-formed characters) but from his separate table, over the spam fritters, Clive Francis’ Mr Thwaites is gloriously nightmarish. He’s xenophobic, mocks Roach’s socialist principles, and rarely deviates from coy, codgerish Wallace-Arnold archaisms (“Dost thou foregather in the Rising Sun” etc). He is far from welcoming her new friend, the dangerously charming American Lt Pike (Daon Broni). Artfully, Wright has made the Yank a black GI, thus enabling sarky Thwaites remarks about our “dusky combatant from distant shores” . Perfect.

 

 

On the other hand, despite his hatred of Germans, the old man is very much taken with Miss Kugelmann, a German emigrée. Cohu wickedly gives it her hipswivelling all as a rapidly maturing but determined party-girl with whom the prim Roach has unwisely made friends out of kindness, and introduced in to the boarding-house. The sometimes beautiful delicacy of Miss Roach’s romance with the American is rudely shattered by what Thwaites might call the frolicsome Fraulein, and things escalate disastrously. Indeed Kent has given us a sly flash-forward at the start, which makes us expect something even worse than what happens.

 

 

But the joy of it is that not only their denouement but everyone else’s isolation and cures are evident. All the cast catch the Hamilton , period, mood perfectly, not least Richard Tate as the elusive Mr Prest, deemed a mere drunk by the old ladies, but who wisely stays sane by nipping up to the Leicester Square pubs to meet his old showbiz friends. Or there’s a seventeen-year-old soldier (Tom Milligan) who remembers Miss Roach as his old teacher (an extraordinarily moving, transformative moment between them is again delicate , fleeting).

 

 

There is a sense of each character’s past, and potential redemption: there’s Miss Steele the Oxford classicist, unwillingly retired after a 35 year career in archaeology, cheerful Mrs Barrett . And the latter’s sister (Gwen Taylor plays both, in a cheeky twin-sister-twinning) becomes a dea ex machina, a GP more than pleased to be back in harness for wartime. She delivers, indeed , the briskly important line “If one is lonely at a time like this, one deserves to be”. Ah yes. It is as if Hamilton’s moody 1930’s fictions (like Hangover Square) grew in the rough soil of wartime into something more purposeful. Maybe much of Britain did. After a fragmenting Christmas chaos in several lives, Miss Roach’s final vision is that life trudges on: “There will be more love, more hate, more goodbyes, more sudden deaths… God help us every one” .

The dry echo of Dickens’ Tiny Tim is no accident.

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 25 Nov
rating five. Because I can’t resist it.

5 Meece Rating

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RODELINDA Coliseum, WC2

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI LOSES HER HEART TO HOODLUMS

Even ruthless, psychotic gangsters have to fall in love sometimes. And Rodelinda is all about what happens when the people at the top of the cruel power pyramid have got their minds on… other things, like other people’s faithful wives, as well as their crime kingdoms. Director Richard Jones translates Rodelinda’s setting (originally 7th century Lombardy) to gangster warfare in 1950s Milan: a brilliant decision which at once rehabilitates the casual violence and thrilling power games of this constantly developing story, not to mention its dangerously volatile characters, each one plotting and sub-plotting away fervidly, both for and against Fate. Jeremy Herbert’s set design takes us from dilapidated rooms, paired and later stacked on stage to provide us with plenty of simultaneous action, to brutally plain outdoor street scenes, where three treadmills allow characters to chase after each other fruitlessly, and glorious wedding-cake Italian death monuments of statuesque ghastliness. As the evening unfolds, the treadmills can start to feel a little over-used, but just wait till you see the hapless Unulfo’s toe-twinkling dance routine (a fabulously vivid, heartbreakingly loyal Christopher Lowrey). In another stunning scene, exiled kingpin Bertarido drowns his (mistaken) sorrows in an empty neon bar which screams loneliness and despair, a lurid update of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Characters demonstrate love and loyalty by tattooing names on their bodies, which means the faithless traitor Grimoaldo hilariously stacks up rather more names on his skin than he eventually needs: quite something to explain in the shower.

Richard Jones’ production thrums with vigour, his characteristically taut balance of marked formalism with naturalistic acting delivering tension, suspense and above all emotional legitimacy to each twist of the plot, which speaks with faultless clarity. Best of all, Jones opens this opera’s humour vein again and again, comedy hovering dangerously over the dark side of mafia life as hoodlums have fun deciding which murder weapon to use, or threaten gruesome deaths by acted gesture. The best of these come from Flavio, definitely Mummy’s little psychopath, silently acted with unnerving poise by Matt Casey, but a talent for physical comedy runs throughout this fine cast, not least from Neal Davies’ ruggedly coarse murderer-for-life Garibaldo.

Tim Mead’s astonishingly beautiful, poignantly strong-man-down Bertarido has us utterly in thrall from his first note to last, Handel’s plangent arias sounding spellbinding in his haunting countertenor. Rebecca Evans reprises her superb Rodelinda to gorgeous effect, an intoxicating combination of Evans’ cool, creamy, unhesitatingly clear soprano and fabulous acting, an Italian warrior princess in haute couture and heels. Juan Sancho steadily finds his way with Grimoaldo, the creepy usurper who becomes more and more appealing as his hopeless desire for Rodelinda drives him virtually mad. Susan Bickley’s Eduige veers between a force to be reckoned with, and a querulous, ageing spinster on uncertain ground, which brings interesting depth to this smaller role, although sometimes Eduige just lacks presence.

Christian Curnyn conducts the ENO Orchestra with a sense of pliant bounce and energy, listening sensitively to his singers, who repay him in spades. It’s a night of jaw-dropping musicality and intense drama: not to be missed.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

At the London Coliseum until 15 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Co-production: English National Opera with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating

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LABOUR OF LOVE Noel Coward Theatre WC1

A LESSON IN POLITICS, HUMANITY AND LOVE

 

 

The joyful thing about James Graham is that for all the playwright’s youth, diamond wit and forensic insight, there is a deep humankindliness in his work. He reads the diaries and histories, researches into some bygone crisis and without haughty authorial judgement, reimagines the human motivations of the principal characters. He appreciates, as Shakespeare appreciated both Kings and Dogberries, everything that we are: the combative pomposities and earnest principles of MPs in This House, the knackered , boozy workhorse journalists in INK, the keen election officers of THE VOTE but also the unpredictable electoral rabble of daftheads and drunks, citizens frivolous or earnest, vague or pompous or angry or just proudly new-fledged , all casting their vote. His keen, wondering eye has enough brotherhood to let actors make his characters live as real people, never ciphers or cartoons. Even while we’re laughing.

 

 

 

And so it is in this chronicle of the Labour Party over a quarter of a century, with newsreel flashes from its older, Attlee history. . It is all seen through the focus of a constituency office in a bricky, scruffy street somewhere in Yorkshire, with a gentle, unconventional and very slow-burning love story threaded through it between Martin Freeman as the MP and Tamsin Greig as xxxx, the former MP’s wife who grumpily agrees to be his constituency agent. Told first in reverse from today to 1990, then forward again in the second part, with some quite brilliant costume and wig changes to rejuvenate and re-age the pair in jumps covered by projected news, it is probably the fairest vision of life from Foot to Blair to Corbyn than anything we will to get in print. And it is , though touching and at times eagerly serious about social justice, tremendously funny.

 

 

I am over a week late with this one, such has been the disarray of press nights and family life, and much has been said about it already.
So beyond that reflection on Graham himself, only brief observations. First,
the absolute glory of Tamsin Greig as the agent – tough, devastating in putdowns and dryly dismissive Yorkshire jokes; an OU graduate, mother of five, a toughly demanding democratic socialist and working-class warrior set against the Blairy “social democrat” progressivism of the MP. Freeman is pretty fabulous too, moving between puppyish enthusiasm, furious frustration and real sorrow for his constituents.

 

 

Episodically skilful, it warms and enlightens, gradually the hard political compromises growing clearer. Labour’s cultural gulf is slyly expressed in the person of the MP’s wife, xxx as a fabulously snooty lawyer horrified that her man’s ambition has taken her to hicksville not Westminster. The future is there too in Tamsin Greig’s character : she could be a prototype of Jess Philips, and reminds us that the Jesses – and xxxx s – took time to fight through the sclerotic masculinity of old Labour.

It shines. It makes you hope that Mr Graham is at work on the evolution of the Conservative party over that period too: until you remember that in 2008 for the National Youth Theatre he wrote Tory Boyz about its trouble accepting gay rights. There’s more material there. One can only hope…

 

box office 0844 482 5140 to 2 Dec http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
rating five    5 Meece Rating

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THE NORMAN CONQUESTS Chichester Festival Theatre

A JOYFUL JIGSAW: TABLE MANNERS, LIVING TOGETHER, ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN

 

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

ON SEEING IT AGAIN…THE LATE EDITION IS BETTER STILL…

 

 

Nipping late into the Almedia after the opening,   I concurred with every word of Luke Jones’ review on theatrecat.com (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 http://www.atgtickets.com to 6 Jan
rating still five!   5 Meece Rating

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OSLO Lytellton, SE1

PEACE IN THEIR TIME…HOW TO DO IT

 

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 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

 

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THE BLINDING LIGHT Jermyn St Theatre SW1

A PSYCHOTIC SAMSON AND HIS WOMEN

 

“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 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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LATE COMPANY Trafalgar Studios SW1

SUICIDE, SADNESS, SNIPING  AND SUPPER

 

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

A DELICATE TREASURE

 

 

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.

 

 

http://www.cft.org.uk 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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MOSQUITOES Dorfman, SE1

A COSMIC CLASH OF PHYSICS AND FAMILY

 

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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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Chichester Festival Theatre

FROM HIS MOUTH TO GOD’S EAR…

 

 

We know Omid Djalili best as a comedian: one of our few Iranian standups. Great timing and great heart, a good Fagin but comparatively new to the stage (he improved before our very eyes in What the Butler Saw). Yet he is dream casting here as our hero Tevye the milkman: Ashkenazi Jewish, heart and butt of a 1905 shtetl, a precarious community in Imperial Russia. To lead in this Stein/ Bock/Harnick musical is a challenge: Tevye has been beloved these forty years, and even I have seen both Topol (in distant youth ) and Henry Goodman (recently). But Djalili’s Tevye is, in its freshness, humour and commitment, once again one to love.

 

Beneath his permanent hat there is a grin and a disgruntlement, patriarchal pride and husbandly henpeck and asides of puzzlement shared with us as he reasons with God and neighbours. There are the quips – “Money is a curse? God smite me with it!”. Under the jerkin and woollen prayer-shawl a warm heart beats; on clumping feet Djalili joins the occasional dance, graceful as a Disney hippo and camp as ninepence. Joyful.

 

 

I say “camp” advisedly, by the way, for camp is not exclusive to gayness but a presentation merely rueful, self-mocking, ironic , fluently expressive (even in the wedding-dance with a bottle on his hat). His scenes with Tracy-Ann Oberman as his wearily dominant wife Golde are suitably gold; so are all his interactions, warm and nimble. Whether deploying drop-dead for necessary laughs, becoming suddenly earnest in solemn Hebrew prayer, or flashing into a genuine horror of Faith at his youngest daughter’s defiant marrying-out, he feels quite simply right and real.
Ah, faith. Living in an regime as dangerous and unwelcoming as Tsarist Russia under the pogroms, Faith and community becomes something to cling to. So is a apt and necessary that Daniel Evans’ direction – as in all his work – is joyfully and solidly ensemble. The daughters are excellent – especially Simbi Akande’s   Tzeitel, who longs for Motl the tailor, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel who follows the revolutionary student to Siberia (Louis Maskell is a quietly impressive Perchik) to Siberia. Liza Sadovy is wickedly funny as the appalling matchmaker, and there is some very classy spitting. But there is nobody on that stage who is not heartfelt: part of the picture, more than a stereotype even in the lightest moments. Even the most briefly drawn romance, Fyedka the Russian and the bookish shy Chava, moves the heart almost inexplicably. So do quintessentially Jewish moments: as when Tevye gives bread to the hungry Perchik with a grumpy “to give is a blessing” and Perchik as he leaves the stage, gives a piece of it to Nachum the beggar. For the Talmud lays down that the beggar who receives charity must give a part in turn to a hungrier one.

 

 

The whole production shines as much in such tiny moments as in big showpieces. There is a real fiddler on the roof outside near the car park, safely tethered by a safety-harness as he plays into the rising summer wind, and inside the theatre, perched vertiginously overhead below the orchestra, agaiin here he is: an emblem of defiant fragility . For as Tevye says they all just “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”.

 

 

 

No need to enumerate the laughs and the reflective poignancies in this flawless revival: but by programming it Evans’ Chichester is on particularly sure ground anyway. It feels as sharp as a news bulletin. Consider that Ashkenazi Jewish settlement of Anatevka on the verge of persecution, family-rooted and patriarchal , suspicious of a new and puzzling world of women’s choice . It speaks all too clearly of our own communities which stand aside , poor, wary of the mainstream, loving in families but hopelessly clinging to patriarchal authority as Tevye tries (and fails) to do as his daughters step into a new century. Reflect that perhaps for our own Muslim communities tradition is, as for Tevye, a security blanket: “Everyone knows who is is and what God expects him to to”.

 
And among us too too are refugees from villages flattened with just the same brutality as Anatevka in the last act. Weary processions of men and headscarved women trudge nightly through the ten o’clock news with cases and bags echoing the handcarts and bundles of the past (much of the set’s furniture, significantly, is suitcases). From Syria to Stockport, Fiddler has messages for us. About how a community can be a choking restriction or a defiant victim, but at the same time be security and shelter , a rumbustious family joke and a cherished memory.
Impossible not to reflect on all this as you watch this glorious production.

 

 

But even if reflection and tears for the past and present are not your thing, just go for fun This is, after all, a Daniel Evans production, and stage machinery must not be ignored. Tevye’s dream and Grandma’s ghost will knock your socks off. Oh yes. Send it up West soon. Please.

 

http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 2 September
rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

 

 

We know Omid Djalili best as a comedian: one of our few Iranian standups. Great timing and great heart, a good Fagin but comparatively new to the stage (he improved before our very eyes in What the Butler Saw). Yet he is dream casting here as our hero Tevye the milkman: Ashkenazi Jewish, heart and butt of a 1905 shtetl, a precarious community in Imperial Russia. To lead in this Stein/ Bock/Harnick musical is a challenge: Tevye has been beloved these forty years, and even I have seen both Topol (in distant youth ) and Henry Goodman (recently). But Djalili’s Tevye is, in its freshness, humour and commitment, once again one to love.

 

Beneath his permanent hat there is a grin and a disgruntlement, patriarchal pride and husbandly henpeck and asides of puzzlement shared with us as he reasons with God and neighbours. There are the quips – “Money is a curse? God smite me with it!”. Under the jerkin and woollen prayer-shawl a warm heart beats; on clumping feet Djalili joins the occasional dance, graceful as a Disney hippo and camp as ninepence. Joyful.

 

I say “camp” advisedly, by the way, for camp is not exclusive to gayness but a presentation merely rueful, self-mocking, ironic , fluently expressive (even in the wedding-dance with a bottle on his hat). His scenes with Tracy-Ann Oberman as his wearily dominant wife Golde are suitably gold; so are all his interactions, warm and nimble. Whether deploying drop-dead for necessary laughs, becoming suddenly earnest in solemn Hebrew prayer, or flashing into a genuine horror of Faith at his youngest daughter’s defiant marrying-out, he feels quite simply right and real.

Ah, faith. Living in an regime as dangerous and unwelcoming as Tsarist Russia under the pogroms, Faith and community becomes something to cling to. So is a apt and necessary that Daniel Evans’ direction – as in all his work – is joyfully and solidly ensemble. The daughters are excellent – especially Emma Kingston’s Tzeitel, who longs for Motl the tailor, and Hodel who follows the revolutionary student to Siberia (Louis Maskell is a quietly impressive Perchik) to Siberia. Liza Sadovy is wickedly funny as the appalling matchmaker, and there is some very classy spitting. But there is nobody on that stage who is not heartfelt: part of the picture, more than a stereotype even in the lightest moments. Even the most briefly drawn romance, Fyedka the Russian and the bookish shy Chava, moves the heart almost inexplicably. So do quintessentially Jewish moments: as when Tevye gives bread to the hungry Perchik with a grumpy “to give is a blessing” and Perchik as he leaves the stage, gives a piece of it to Nachum the beggar. For the Talmud lays down that the beggar who receives charity must give a part in turn to a hungrier one.

The whole production shines as much in such tiny moments as in big showpieces. There is a real fiddler on the roof outside near the car park, safely tethered by a safety-harness as he plays into the rising summer wind, and inside the theatre, perched vertiginously overhead below the orchestra, agaiin here he is: an emblem of defiant fragility . For as Tevye says they all just “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”.

 

No need to enumerate the laughs and the reflective poignancies in this flawless revival: but by programming it Evans’ Chichester is on particularly sure ground anyway. It feels as sharp as a news bulletin. Consider that Ashkenazi Jewish settlement of Anatevka on the verge of persecution, family-rooted and patriarchal , suspicious of a new and puzzling world of women’s choice . It speaks all too clearly of our own communities which stand aside , poor, wary of the mainstream, loving in families but hopelessly clinging to patriarchal authority as Tevye tries (and fails) to do as his daughters step into a new century. Reflect that perhaps for our own Muslim communities tradition is, as for Tevye, a security blanket: “Everyone knows who is is and what God expects him to to”.

And among us too too are refugees from villages flattened with just the same brutality as Anatevka in the last act. Weary processions of men and headscarved women trudge nightly through the ten o’clock news with cases and bags echoing the handcarts and bundles of the past (much of the set’s furniture, significantly, is suitcases). From Syria to Stockport, Fiddler has messages for us. About how a community can be a choking restriction or a defiant victim, but at the same time be security and shelter , a rumbustious family joke and a cherished memory.
Impossible not to reflect on all this as you watch this glorious production.

 

But even if reflection and tears for the past and present are not your thing, just go for fun This is, after all, a Daniel Evans production, and stage machinery must not be ignored. Tevye’s dream and Grandma’s ghost will knock your socks off. Oh yes. Send it up West soon. Please.

 

http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 2 September
rating five
 

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QUEEN ANNE Theatre Royal, Haymarket WC1

A MODERN WORLD GROWING, BENEATH THE PERIWIGS

 

 

I saw Helen Edmundson’s marvellous RSC history-play about Anne’s short reign some eighteen months ago; the review is here – http://tinyurl.com/y7u6ydas – a gurgle of pleasure and interest, background sketched in, and five mice-worth concluding with a plea for a transfer.

 

 

So here it is: some cast changes to note, though all more than up to standard. Natalie Abrahami’s cast again centres on Emma Cunniffe’s Anne, touchingly needy then increasingly determined, a woman of sorrows growing into wisdom and a matriarchal affection for the people tormented by war and poverty. Romola Garai becomes the schemingly glamorous Sarah Churchill, Chu Omanbala the great, flawed General Churchill, and Jonny Glynn Swift leading the tavern mob. Hywel Morgan takes over as the endearingly hopeless Prince George, but Carl Prekopp is back as Defoe, and Beth Park reprises her role as the strong, plain, skinny, scornful and decent Abigail.

 

 

 

But I return to it fascinated, because it feels different, stronger even, on this second viewing – in the capital, and in a country which since the first production has become more startlingly riven and confused . Although the personal relationships and court struggles are as fascinating, and the riotous satirical interludes among tavern wags still make our own satirists seem restrainedly wet, I found that the politics resonated far more strongly.

 

 

Wars in Europe, plotters and spinners surrounding power, uneasy alliances and a borderline superstitious horror of religious fanatics at the door (Catholics in this case). There is even a stock market crash scare, and a looming budget deficit, and peculation and bribery in high places, and a tendency in a male hierarchy to feel suspicious and thwarted at any display of “rampant femininity”. Edmundson’s delicate rhythm and powerful bursts of monosyllable (“What mean the Scots? What irks them now?”) are as fresh and sharp as ever. Seek out the bargains. Don’t miss it.

 

 

 

Box Office   020 7930 8800 trh.co.uk to 30 September

rating: still five  5 Meece Rating

 

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LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL Wyndham’s , WC1

A GREAT HEART AND TALENT,  REMEMBERED WITH LOVE

 

O my days! If you have any feeling for jazz and blues, for women, music or the historic trials and triumphs of black America, don’t think of missing this. Fight your way in. In ninety intense, absorbing minutes is distilled a troubled spirit and a half-century of change. As a performance it is unique, electric: as a tribute to a great performer it more than equals Tracie Bennett’s remarkable evocation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.

 

 

This time the subject is Billie Holiday, in the last year of her life: high and drunk and needing to tell her stories in the womblike, midnight world of a run-down Philadelphia jazz club. Tables are scattered on stage and in front of the stalls; the reality of the lamplit setting has a jazz trio playing moodily onstage before the start, with Neville Malcolm astonishing on the bass and Frankie Tontoh jokey and slick on the drums. It draws you into a world.

 

 

Audra McDonald is the real thing. As a singer of course: she catches Holiday’s strength and vulnerability, high moments, delicate phrasing and despairing growl. But equally her acting is shatteringly real: intense, sincere, witty, troubling. Lanie Robertson’s play is rather a marvel too: never a false note. It was written after hearing a friend’s account of a real day in 1959 when, at just such a club, washed-up and unreliable the Lady staggered in with her little dog and performed a handful of songs to half a dozen patrons. She did not have long to live with a weak heart, a heroin habit, a year in jail for possession, a long humiliation by the US colour bar, and a constantly refilled glass. But she was a legend. And the legend is served here with heart-stopping sincerity.
McDonald staggers, giggles, growls, but suddenly straightens, lets herself be carried by the music, a true Lady in white ballgown. She remembers the wonder of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, her mother “the duchess” at the cat-house, the no-good husband who got her onto heroin and her friend the sax player Prez who tried to get her off it. A hard wit condemns Philadelphia as a “ratsass” place , especially its white police who “after dey freed coloured people, dont know what to do with them, so dey lock us up again”. She jibes cheerfully at white people – “like us, only meaner” – but tearfully remembers how Artie Shaw’s white band would eat with her in the kitchen -paying double – when “coloureds” were not allowed in a restaurant, and how when refused use of the lavatory she took revenge.

 

 

She barracks her pianist Jimmy (Shelton Becton) as he visibly tries to coax her out of rambling and into each new number. There’s real tension in that: the drama (directed by Lonny Price with tight attention) rises with some flare of temper, evoking the real uncertainty of a failing maverick talent. Late in the show “Strange Fruit” carries real shock, as it always has done; but is followed by her vanishing offstage, awkward apologies and claims of medical problems from the pianist, and a sudden return of the diva, happily clutching a real chihuaha which licks her face as she belts out “T’aint nobody’s business”.
Go if you can. You’ll not forget it.

 

 

box office https://tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to 9 Sept.
rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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INK Almeida N1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES GLORIES IN JAMES GRAHAM’S SUN BACKSTORY 

It’s a solid stunner of a play which has you punching the air for Rupert Murdoch by the interval. Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch asks in the opening scene, lit only by a sharp smokey beam of light, “What’s a story?”.

The transformation of the stuffy broadsheet into a popular tabloid with knicker week, Page 3 models, free giveaways and chunky font is one. It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press.

And sprawling real-life tales in need of snappy and dramatic condensation is James Graham’s speciality. If he had business cards (I doubt it, who does?) that would be on them. His translation of the potentially dry backroom machinations of the House of Commons under the 74-79 Labour government (This House) got theatrical juices flowing everywhere.

And here they flow freely again. The first year of the rejuvenated Sun could have run for hours and hours on stage. But Graham’s play is pacy and witty. Key moments are in there (the murder of Muriel McKay, the origin of Page 3) but it never feels like just a skip through a timeline. The full arc of the play is neat and laser-focused, and the cast are fat with good lines and fulsome, colourful, sweary and undeniably entertainingly British character.

Director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous. The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama, although of course TV would never be this good. He’s also unafraid of a slightly musical vibe. Bunny Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.

At the helm, Bertie Carvel brilliantly dishes all the dirty ambition of the Dirty Digger. But nicely mixed with the underdog fighting spirit we all like to get behind. The line between charming trailblazer and ruthless exploiter is nailed perfectly with a sly Aussie accent and a slightly twitchy mannerism. Likewise Richard Coyle (as editor Larry Lamb) embodies so smoothly the transition required by the play; go-getting outsiders turned liable players.

The entire cast (many flitting between numerous parts) have perfected the tricky line many of Graham’s characters tread. They’re warm, slightly boozy, bawdily-British triers. But they make mistakes, they misjudge, they veer off the straight and narrow. But the play doesn’t come down on them like a tonne of bricks. There’s no handwringing finale, no “CENTRAL MESSAGE” slapped around the audience’s faces. Graham simply uses the weight of research he’s compiled to confidently open a dramatic window on this world. But always, unlike so many new plays, with an eye firmly on what’s the story.

~ LUKE JONES

Rating: 5 Mice

 5 Meece Rating

Until 5th August

Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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BAT OUT OF HELL           London Coliseum WC1

WHERE ROCK ‘ N ROLL DREAMS COME TRUE

 

“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Or in this case, a red carpet  lined with Hells Angels and three generations of fans. Would you? Swelteringly, yes!. On this hot summer night, the howling, raw-rocking, Fender-bashing wolf can have us, throats and all.

 

 

Jim Steinman’s astonishing rock ballads, brought to our hearts (and my car stereo, pretty well daily)  by Meat Loaf, were originally meant for the stage, rather than just that immortal album. So this isn’t some limp jukebox musical, with a thin storyline by some dreary Ben-Eltonish  hack. They were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of  teenage yearning: “the flesh and the fantasy, the mystery and the muscle of love”.

 

 

So of course they should be onstage: and now they gloriously are, with exploding bikes and flames and a car, and guns and multicoloured smoke and somersaults and projections.    And, at their heart not just  burning jealousies but the sudden  jokes which bubble up in the deadliest of times if you are young, as they have done ever since Mercutio punned on his deathbed.

 

 

 

Jay Scheib’s production is a technical spectacular, Jon Bausor leading the design, and wild exuberant choreography by Emma Portner – the ensemble are unbelievable, both in song (Michael Reed is musical director) and in the street-wild movement. But  its chief glory is narrative and emotional. It is set in a scifi  urban dystopia where a  tribe of the  “Lost”‘ ,permanently mutated to be forever eighteen, live in tunnels under the rule of Falc, the rich property landlord. Nicely topical for London: he  rules  in his tower with his discontented wife Sloane . But Falco’s daughter Raven is loved by the gang leader Strat, who comes to her  bedroom as if in a dream (shades of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, and rather more of Peter Pan and Wendy, since Strat can’t grow older and has a jealous best friend called, er, Tink, who hates Raven).

 

 

 

Andrew Polec, a rising US star, is a powerful intense Strat in both snarling and sentimental rock mode. Christina is Bennington an enchanting Raven:  a Juliet sometimes hesitant, sometimes headlong.  Both have great rock voices, but equalling them , often cripplingly funny and occasionally touching, are Rob Fowler’s Falco and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane. The joy of Steinman’s construction is that the beloved songs are parcelled out to different characters, often  with a chorus and other subplots joining in. So Fowler and Sexton’s rendering of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, (“we were barely seventeen, we were barely dressed”) may, in its wicked hilarity get me back there. Danielle Steers’ bluesy Zahara gets the heartbreak of “One outa three aint bad”, , and – when imprisoned and beaten by Falco –  the gang members in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits get to break your heart with memories of those objects in the rear view mirror: (“So many threats and fears, so many wasted years, before my life became my own..life is just a highway and the soul is just a car..”
 

 

I keep quoting, and call on Keats and Shakespeare,  for good reason. For Steinman is a real poet: an emotionally intense balladeer of thrilled new love, when electricity runs through a beloveds  very hair, and bodies seem to rhyme:  of doubt and desire and daring and regret and absurdity, and longing for sex to be more than the moment. As an expression of eroticism it is the antithesis of porn; as a bard of biker bravura and rebellion Steinman is refreshingly uncynical.
 

 

And the music! Real rock, melodious and violent, ragingly operatic. Generations gather round it like a fire: I went with my daughter; one fan group had been over twenty times, and not all were anywhere near young. Actually, the middle aged even have a new song in which to laugh at ourselves and be laughed: Falco and Sloane’s  furious number “Who needs the young? when all WE have is traces – of the faces we once were..”

 

In short, it’s three kinds of bliss. Only those now locked impenetrably into their middle age will resist it.

 

box office   020 7845 9300        to 5 August     Off to Toronto in autumn.
Rating. Five.  5 Meece Rating

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THE FERRYMAN Royal Court, SW1

IRELAND OF THE SORROWS: THE KIDS, THE  CRAIC AND THE KILLING

 

It is 1982 in  County Armagh. Not a good time to be Irish, not there. Not with internees still in the H blocks and ten recent deaths on hunger strike. The family farm kitchen (Rob Howell’s design so complete you could almost run up the creaky staircase to bed) is getting ready for the comradeship and craic of harvest day. For half an hour the worst that happens is that the fatted goose escapes, Auntie Pat pours cold water on Uncle Pat’s favourite story, and young Oisin gets teased and wrecks his newspaper kite. But two bus rides away in Derry, impassive before a scrawled-wall curtain, we have seen hard men putting the frighteners on Father Horrigan over a dark, dead secret. Which will by slow degrees, interwoven with hearteningly ordinary farmhouse chaos, raise comedy to tragedy.

 

 

For three enthralling hours this is a hell of a piece: theatrical, engrossing, a world unfurling and reaching out hands to the heart in a dozen directions. Fizzes of humour, surprise and shock dart through it. There is immediately a lamp set on fire,  a posse of small and eloquently profane  children, and a real baby staring out the front rows with placid equanimity. There is a live goose and a baby rabbit hauled from the poacher’s pocket of a giant beard-draggled simpleton. There is Quin Carney, father of an extended family with two mothers who each have hard emotional rows to hoe, Uncle Pat who thinks the answer  to most things is in Virgil,  sour passionate Auntie Pat who has wanted to kill Englishmen ever since 1916 and greets the voice of Thatcher on World Service with a fury burning since at Cromwell and honed by worship of Parnell and O’Connell.  There are volatile teenage boys, threatening Provos , an unusual proposal of marriage, and a body in a peat bog all too recognizably preserved. There is every reason for “Aunt Maggie Far-Away” in the chimney-corner to emerge from her placid dementia from time to time with a terrible clarity of prophecy, memory, and justifiable belief in the banshee spirits who wail of death.

 
Jez Butterworth’s immense, ambitious new play takes us deep into that world and – as in his great JERUSALEM – roams beyond it into universal themes of history and legend, memory and love, childhood, song and poetry and national identity and the way national dreams sour to vicious partisan expediency. It is sometimes ragged, always magnificent. And – though after all that you may not be expecting this news – it is very often dryly, shockingly, tenderly funny. Especially in the superbly directed posse of children and teenage scenes.

 

 

Spoilers of plot – or even explaining too soon who is who – would be unforgivable. But know that the performances in Sam Mendes’ production well match up to the material: there is an extraordinary delicacy in the way that apparently comic figures become importantly tragic: not least Dearbhla Molloy’s satirical Pat and John Hodgkinson’s heartbreaking Tom Kettle , a half-witted English foundling drawn into the farm thirty years ago. Notable too are Paddy Considine as Quinn, Tom Glynn-Carney as the half-childish teenage recruit, and Laura Donnelly’s restrained, enduring Caitlin.
And for evocation of the sheer dominant cold-bastard, smart-jacketed IRA commanders of that terrible era, Turlough Convery sends shivers up your spine. The dénouement, half-expected, still shocks.

 
box office 020 7565 5000 to 20 May. Sold out, but West End transfer in June.
rating Five    5 Meece Rating

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THE GOAT or, WHO IS SYLVIA? Theatre Royal, Haymarket

A DANGEROUS PASTORAL

 
You wait months for a violently emotional taboo-smashing play by Edward Albee and two come along at once. After the bitter razor-sharp humanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf down the road Albee’s last play – shorter and more shocking – hits you like a second ten-ton truck. More shocked laughs, more vigorous torrents of scorn, and a bigger taboo. The biggest.

 
Martin (Damian Lewis) as an amiable, absent-minded, celebrated architect on his fiftieth birthday, happily married to the gorgeous light-hearted Stevie. In an interview with his old friend Ross, he says he is in love, headily and physically, outside the marriage. With a goat. Called Sylvia. Their eyes met over a fence – his wide and romantic, hers presumably yellow with that alarming Satanic vertical slit – and that was it. He keeps – and shags – her in a barn in the country.

 

 

Ross, after a moment, dismayedly believes him and writes to Stevie . Whereon, in the long central scene, the previous bantering of the pair turns into one of the most electrically charged confrontations on any London stage for years. Stevie is Sophie Okonedo, meeting each stage of Martin’s ‘explanation” of how beautiful and lyrical his new love is with terrifyingly violent , immaculately timed smashing of some item in their cool bare-brick living room. (“That was my mother’s picture!” “It still is!”). Damian Lewis is excellent, capturing Martin’s dismaying sincerity, but Okonedo’s is the performance which will be remembered for decades. She gives us the wife’s wit, horror, humiliated rage, and incomprehension streaked with all-too-vivid understanding of what this idiot she loves is doing.

 
It is about taboos, but also about all extremes: the moments, as Stevie says, when life throws you something so far beyond the norm that you are wandering in a terrifying darkness. There is also, given the history of racial-sexual politics and slavers listing humans like livestock,  an inescapable frisson in casting a beautiful black woman in the part. The most devastating of her speeches is when she expresses how he must have gone from her bed to the barn and back, putting her on equal terms with the animal. This is a dark moment; but earlier foreshadowed in a wittier, more furious “ “I am a human being. I walk upright. I give milk only ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS..”

 
For indeed there are some wild alarmed laughs to be had in the tense unbroken 110 minutes. Ian Rickson directswith the same finely judged balance of unbearable tension and barkingly funny shocks he brought to Elektra at the Old Vic; appropriately since what Albee was explicitly doing was following the Greek line of tragedy – a respected hero, a fatal flaw, downfall and too-late remorse.

 

 

That is its core, but a more modern theme is simply that of the awkward overspill (mainly in males) from generous love to inappropriate sexual engagement . The edginess of this is too rarely tackled in modern shag-friendly narratives,  but Albee grew up gay in a harsh 20th century when loves now accepted were treated (and indeed medicated) with a parallel horror to what we feel for Martin’s goat-love.

 
To hammer that awkwardness home, an extraordinary scene with his gay son Billy (a fine debut from Archie Madekwe) has father and son in an embrace which tips momentarily into a sexual kiss. Martin then defends it with an even more transgressive account of a father finding himself unwillingly stimulated by a wriggling baby on his knee. An audience which has managed to laugh through an earlier sequence, punctuated by Okonedo smashing crockery as Martin describes his fellow therapy-subjects engaged with pigs, a dog and a goose, is  frankly silenced by that remark.

 

Thus Albee’s job is done. The messiness of the human condition, after all, is our proper study.

 

box office 020 7930 8800 to 24th June
Rating five    5 Meece Rating

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FILTHY BUSINESS Hampstead, NW3

MOTHER COURAGE WITH A CRIMINAL TWIST

 

 

Yetta Solomon survived the Ukrainian pogroms when Cossacks raped and murdered her family. But they didn’t get her. Ten years old in 1919 she kicked, bit , scratched. “They set dogs on us. – I bark back. I bark louder!”. In London sweatshops as a refugee she skinned rats for the East End fur trade, scavenged rubber offcuts from tram tyres and carved shoe soles and bottle stoppers, raised her boys on a market stall.  Now she will do anything to keep the family rubber business going, and the family itself together.

 

 

And when I say she’ll do anything, I mean it.  No  spoilers, but Yetta’s magnificent croneish ruthlessness doesn’t stop at  jeering at her grandson’s dream of being a hairstylist (“Leo! Nat! We got a situation!”). Nor is it just a matter of double-crossing her feuding sons in a business deal, intimidating their wives , spilling lethal information true or false to get her way, felling a knifeman with a length of rubber tubing without breaking a sweat, or just barking “what are you, a moron?” down the phone to foam cushion  clients while marking the price up.. But that is beginners’ stuff: once you really get Yetta going, major criminality is simply no problem.  Not if it’s for the family! For their own good! because she knows best, how wouldn’t she, she’s a mother,? built up the business from a market stall, you gotta work work work, what do they know?

 
You could say that Ryan Craig’s salty, cunningly plotted and often unbearably funny family drama is tailor-made for Hampstead , with its hinterland of a long- established, doughty, opinionated, theatrically minded Jewish diaspora. And indeed it is a Jewish play par excellence, like a hypercharged Arnold Wesker with the pathos and respectfulness stripped out. Like, indeed, Craig’s  earlier The Holy Rosenbergs at the NT, with Henry Goodman as a patriarch. It captures that survivors’ vigour, that  intense family feeling laced with struggling fury as members try to make a dash for it.

 
But compared to matriarch Yetta, no male has a chance.  And played by Sara Keatelman, a compact furious dynamo in a black headscarf, she is breathtaking: whenever Kestelman is offstage, away from the stock-cluttered rubber business or a tense family meal, you hold your breath. Because you know Yetta will be back any minute to upturn everything and regain supremacy. It is, so far,the performance of the year in its humour ,headlong vigour, and a subtlety which allows us to see that it is fear and memory which drives the stubbornness and manipulation.

 

 
But this is not just a niche play, reaffirming the legendary Jewish business hearth.  Set between the mid-sixties and the booming Thatcher era it slyly becomes a state-of-England play: there’s a Nigerian illegal worker and her aggrieved husband, a neo-Nazi attack, infighting between immigrant generations (“Latvians don’t buy nothing, I hope they drown in their own soup”). The aftermath of WW2 is there too, and the way that ‘thirties survival morphed into ‘sixties ambition, and then ‘eighties insouciant greed. Leo, the favoured son (Dorian Lough) is sharp and thrawn, with slick hair and an eye for girls, and was a wartime hero; slower, angry Nat (Louis Hilyer) has retreated into choleric helplessness. Yetta found a way of keeping him home on the stall. The youngest generation are divided into those wholehearted about the business, and those who absolutely are not. The second act, in which a number of revelations excitingly unbuckle the strands of plot, see some spirited fights.

 
There are wonderful laughs, a tremendous coup de theatre involving fire, smoke and crashings (Hampstead loves a big stage moment). And that artful unbuckling of plots includes one line to remember for months. It comes, of course, from old Yetta in the 1980’s section. It just goes “I called in a favour…”. With a shrug.  What a woman.
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 22 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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LOVE IN IDLENESS Menier, SE1

BLUEBIRDS OVER DOVER, RATTIGAN ON A ROLL

 
Yesterday , on her hundredth birthday, Dame Vera Lynn had her face projected on the white cliffs of Dover and a flight of Spitfires was due overhead . OK, the planes were rained off, but the thought was there. So a beautifully apt night to open a glorious – and rare – wartime Terence Rattigan play . Newsreels were projected on a retro net veil , as a goodhearted, mischievous middle-aged love story disentangled itself amid the mess of wartime moralities, rationing and the rising Leftwing idealism of the Spirit of ’45. It was a night to sigh with nostalgia and forget Article 50. Especially with the peerless, the irresistible Eve Best at its heart: an actor who can turn on a sixpence from Chekhovian despair to frothing farce, express two conflicting emotions at once and still let us laugh.

 
We saw a version of this play in the Rattigan centenary, small-scale at the Jermyn under the original title Less Than Kind; the author against his better knowledge messed it about and frothed it up at the request of his stars, the Lunts, and it never got very far. Now director Trevor Nunn – whose Flare Path was so stunning a couple of years back – rebuilds it to stay closer to Rattigan’s emotional strength while keeping the jokes. For  it’s a comedy all right, often howlingly funny with the drop-dead timing of Best, Anthony Head and the rest; but it has that Rattigan tang, the streak of honest agony and conflicted love which shakes the heart.

 
The war is nearing its end, and Olivia, widow of a struggling dentist in Barons Court, has found luxury and love with a government minister – a Canadian industrialist who builds tanks, with a touch of Beaverbrook about him. But they have refrained from troubling prim wartime moralities with a divorce to neutralise his unfaithful wife. Now Olivia’s  son is back from evacuation to Canada after four years, and a prim little lefty he is too, gorgeously evoked by young Edward Bluemel and described by the minister – Anthony Head subtle, funny and heartbreaking by turns – as “a little moral gangster with an oedipus complex”. The lad torpedoes the love affair , carrying on like a cut-price Hamlet, and motherly love takes Olivia back to lonely suburban penury. Until the day when,  assisted by a glorious twist of social politics, her young excrescence grows up a bit.

 

 

Eve Best is a marvel, whether in real pain, resignation, maternal yearning or brittle gaiety (“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk!”). Anthony Head is her match, absolutely – and a joy it is to believe utterly in the intensity of a middle-aged romance. And as his wayward wife we have Helen George: as magically, vampishly appalling as the heart could desire and yet given, with brittle gaiety, a sort of dignity of her own. Rattigan forgives a lady in his heart, he really does.

 
It hasn’t the extreme emotional punch of The Deep Blue Sea or Flare Path, but it is in its way a piece of perfection, especially in this careful, loving production. And there are even moments when Rattigan accidentally predicts his own nemesis John Osborne: for the frightful son Michael does seem, in sly moments, like the prototype for Jimmy Porter. Except that Rattigan insists on him growing up a bit. Anyway, it’s another Menier gem. Hurrah.
box office 020 7378 1713 to 29 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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WORST WEDDING EVER Ipswich, moving to Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

WEDNAPPED: THE HELL BEFORE THE CALM

 
I really fell for this 2014 comedy by Chris Chibnall, writer of such dark telly stuff as Broadchurch. Not just because it is a hoot, a wickedly joyful take on the hilarity and nonsense of weddings; but because one use of theatre is to reflect us back to ourselves, with a sort of exaggerated recognition that turns the laugh right back in our faces with love.

 
SO here, dealing with a crisis in a middling, non-metropolitan side-street family – good grief, they may even be Brexiteers – Chibnall’s wittily written comedy hits right home. It was a joint commission by Salisbury Playhouse, the New Wolsey and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, and I saw it at an Ipswich Saturday matinee where the audience contained at least two hen-party brides in sashes and a great many potential wedding-day Mumzillas howling with laughter. It reflected a good bit of Britain all right. A third reason is that it is not the kind of play which makes reluctant intermittent theatregoers murmur that it might as well be on the telly: there are coup-de-theatre technical surprises, lighting used surreally at times, an improbable rotating sandpit and members of a live band appearing from the ground, a shed, a Portaloo. It is, as theatre must be, an event. It’s fun to be there.

 
The story deals with Rachel – an extraordinarily attractive, responsive evocation of decent if battered young womanhood by Elisabeth Hopper – and her fiancé Scott, Nav Sidhu. He has a very good line in looking appalled, as well he might. Money is short, for reasons we discover late on, so they want a very basic wedding. Mum Liz – Julia Hills with a barnstormingly chirpy bossiness we all recognize – says they must have the full marquee ’n guestlist deal, so she will organize it cheap or free in the garden and a bit of waste land, assisted by her hippy-dopy dog-loving builder husband Mel – Derek Frood, very funny – and the other daughter, Alison. The latter is mid-divorce with skirts at mid-thigh (Elizabeth Cadwallader , again hilarious). Add a nerdy vicar and a self-obsessed idle brother so feckless and untidy that he “even broke Buddhists” into throwing him out in fury, and there you are.

 
The first act has the young couple desperately trying to wriggle out of being “wednapped” by the insistent Liz (when the groom cries “It’s my day too!” she replies briskly “Not really, but you are a welcome participant”.) The second act covers the hour before the event. There are great gags – some offstage dogs, Mel’s dubious DIY skills, Alison’s tipsy rapprochement with the vicar and indeed the groom (“I’m a good listener and an even better shag”). And despite some revelations which shade a bit too close to the melodramatic in the second half, every shock of sadness is followed by a line so funny the laughs rock the room, , and there’s a bracing moral. That, as Liz says “We’re family, and nobody comes out of a family unscathed”.

I arrived in a gloomy mood and emerged giggling, wanting only to high-five one of the be-sashed hen-party brides. I wish it had a wider run: I’ve had far worse nights in the West End.
Now at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch: Box Office 01708 443333 to 1 April
Rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD Old Vic SE1 guest rvw

LUKE JONES, FRESH FROM HAMLET,  SPINS WITH ECSTASY AT THE NEW R & G 

 

I first and last saw this play whilst at school. It was slowly and quite unforgivingly murdered by fellow sixth formers. The morbidity, fear and blood-pumping humanity of it was drained, clearing the way for a flat single-note attempt at the play’s playful side. It was a matter of heads or tails which speech or run of dialogue they would have a stab at next, so unsteady was their grasp of the text. It was hard to appreciate this is one of the best plays a person has written or an audience heard.

But this Old Vic 50th anniversary hoo-ray revival knows that Tom Stoppard offers more than just bouncy a turn of phrase and logical fireworks. Although it does have all of that as well.
Its premise – the offstage story of two of Hamlet’s minor characters – seems predisposed to intellectual fluff and literary grandstanding. But David Leveaux’s production balances the coin on its edge, giving Stoppard’s wit, but also the incredible stench of tragedy. You can see the roots of this in the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Josh McGuire has the spark of a thinking-man’s sitcom lead and Daniel Radcliffe looks like death. But both do both. Each manoeuvre through the semi-automatic dialogue perfectly (and I mean that – not a single misfire) but they also allow space to let the play’s ruthlessness fester and take hold.

 

The perfect tragedy of two unwitting pawns, manoeuvred by events beyond their understanding to an end they have no explanation for suits these two actors beautifully. McGuire is well known on the stage for his zippy tempo and sharp delivery. But to see this collapse every now and again, revealing flickers of despair, is heartbreaking. Likewise Radcliffe’s morose Guildenstern, whipped up into a frantic and repressed fury, is wonderful.  The players are a tightly choreographed musical band of interesting freaks and the proper characters from Shakespeare’s side of the proceedings are nicely hammy.

 
But the over-and-above treat we don’t deserve is David Haig as The Player (the leader of the ragtag group of players who so convincingly replay Hamlet’s uncle’s crime back at him). If life is the terrible game of odds his character convinces us it is, Haig shows us most convincingly both the heads of joy and the tails of cruelty. He plays with more camp abandon than anyone else on stage, he’s slimey, mystical and oddly pervy. He has some of the best speeches and wrings out every last emotional twist.

 
Roll this into a double bill with the Almeida’s knock-out Hamlet up the road and not only will you feel like the cleverest person walking the earth, you’ll also be emotionally knackered.
Until 29th April
Box office 0844 871 7627
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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HAMLET Almeida, N1

LUKE JONES EXULTS: A TACTILE MORIARTY PULLS IT OFF FOR A NEW GENERATION

 

 

We’ve had so many ‘great’ Hamlets it’s hard to either keep track or care. Cumberbatch, Peake, Kinnear, Tennant, Branagh. Older readers can summon more. But with its wit, emotional intelligence, absolute clarity of thought and execution, Andrew Scott’s shits on recent ones from a height.
The court of this Hamlet is fashionably Scandi. The clean, grey, glassy set has been ethically recycled from this theatre’s Oresteia and the Royals who populate it are exactly the kind of Cos-wearing, slender Middletons we’ve come to expect in palaces. Robert Icke –  surely the most accomplished director working – has blown the stuffiness from this too often seen play. Twice tonight – once with a fellow critic, once with a muggle – I had the conversation “have they added bits. Some of this seems very new…suspiciously fresh”.

 

 

Although there has been some clever pruning, to my ear there’s been no wholesale rewriting. Icke has instead fired up a cast with the most natural direction; the most thrillingly believable and sympathetic performances.
Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude perfectly navigates the torments and twists in logic her character demands. Laertes (Luke Thompson) is exactly the right mix of wimpish and headstrong. Ophelia – always an unconvincing turn with a descent into madness even Alton Towers would reject as ambitious – is quietly devastating;  Jessica Brown Findlay turns it round perfectly.

 

 

The entire cast (except, IF I’m being mean, ever-stodgy Angus Wright as Claudius) has this incredibly tactility. They hug, kiss, pat on the shoulder, even shake hands in the most human, un-actorish way I’ve ever seen. The result is something so un-Royal, fluid and passionate. Still moments, the kind always sped past in Shakespeares like this, are properly exploited with flesh, not just words.

 

 

Hamlet’s direction to the players could have been Icke’s own;  “in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

 

 

All of this, of course, falls perfectly into place because of the unfailingly watchable Andrew Scott as Hamlet. Yes, the madness suits the range we’ve already seen him exercise in Sherlock. But this has deep and sturdy emotional foundations. He matches like no actor I’ve ever seen the explosion of passions and the precision of logic Hamlet requires. He centres him, makes sense of him and picks a line, rather than giving himself to some undefined frenzy. Every line (literally – see above) sounds like I’ve never heard it before. Even the battle weary catchphrases (to be or no to be, get thee to a nunnery, alas poor Yorick) are touched up with new life. Where most Shakespearean performances veer between sounding meaningless or over-thought, Scott’s streams out like source water.

So rare, but so fortunate, that this star performance is backed up by an equally star production. If you have a dear friend with a hard to come by ticket, I’d seriously consider harming them to get it.

 
Until 15th April
Box Office 020 7359 4404
5 thrilled, galumphing mice.

5 Meece Rating

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TRAVESTIES Apollo, WC1

FIVE GO ROARING UP WEST…

 
This is a transfer, and well deserved. My Menier review is below…and I stand proudly by every star of it. Five playful mice.
But below you will find an Apollo aftwerword….
Zurich, a century ago: the still centre of a wheel of war, neutral refuge of “spies, exiles, refugees, artists , writers , revolutionaries and radicals” .  James Joyce was there writing Ulysses;  Tristan Tzara was pioneering the redefinition of Art in Dada events in a nightclub,   breaking things and cutting up sonnets and having Concerts of Noise. The exiled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was beavering in the library on his book on imperialism.   And there too  – mentioned in Ulysses  –  was the  insignificant figure of one Henry Carr, invalided from the trenches with a leg wound,   under protection of the British Consulate.  So Joyce – grumpily, we are told – did actually direct Carr in an am-dram performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Well!  What richer soup of personalities could be offered to the acrobatic mental, verbal and parodic skills of a younger Tom Stoppard?  He revives it now, with director Patrick Marber making absolutely the best of its vaudevillian surrealism (I am happy to say there is a stuffed beaver at the edge of the stage, wholly and correctly unexplained) . And the author muses that actually the dates don’t quite fit,  and he couldn’t face much research,  so the answer was “to filter the story through the recollections of a fantasising amnesiac”.

 

The result is a glorious intellectual spritzer,  with Carr at its centre in a magnificent,  defining, wittily commanding and endearing performance from Tom Hollander ( fresh from acting Tom Hiddleston off the screen in The Night Manager). As Carr in senility he frames the tale, a stooping querulous old mole in a  ratty brown dressing gown and long-dead straw boater:   in between times he and the hat reclaim their youth and the  Zurich days.    As old men and dreams will,   he reinterprets memory,   so that  all  the characters drift  in and out of  the war and of Wilde’s world together:  Lenin, Joyce, Tzara,  the play’s Gwendolyn and Cecily, Lenin’s Nadya  and a bolshevik butler (a saturnine Tim Wallers)  who maybe was actually the consul that Carr in reminiscence thinks he was…

 
Treasure the moments:   James Joyce suddenly Lady Bracknell, Clare Foster’s prim Leninist Cecily doing a bump-and-grind with a volume of dialectic over her crotch,;  sudden brief musical numbers decaying into nonsense as dreams do.  There’s    Hollander’s yearning  riff about a magnificent series of Savile Row trousers he ruined in the trenches;   his clipped gentlemanly confusion about the new age (“A socialist revolution ? You mean unaccompanied women smoking at the opera?”).   Cherish  Freddie Fox’s spiritedly arrogant Tzara,  decomposing Sonnet 18 in Joyce’s hat to woo Gwendolyn,  or the Irishman’s first appearance talking entirely in limericks and  the two girls’ Wildean row in rhyme.  Pause for   a curious, sharp solemn moment as Lenin and Nadya board the secret train which (it really did) smuggles them to Russia to join the revolution.

 
This is Stoppard the entertainer, constructor of glittering yet oddly logical follies, silly and serious at once, roaming in the half- imagined chaos that made modern Europe.  It’s a joyful stew of word and thought games, determined frivolity,white-hot belief and  terrible limericks.     But it is also studded with great arguments:  angry Marxist fervour oddly topical now in the age of Corbyn and Momentum,  and – inextricable from it  –  the argument about art:  whether it is or should be useful, its endurance and  the  importance of beauty to the human soul.   Art is championed by Carr and by Joyce,  and debunked sometimes by Lenin’s words  (real ones)  about its only use  being social critique,  and sometimes  by Tzara the dada-iste averring that the age of genius is past and “now we need vandals”.    See? Topical again, in the age of Serota, Saatchi,Emin, Hirst, the Turner Prize.
And a lovely hard hit ,  at a time when affluent artists have bewailed the Brexit vote and excoriated those who did it,  is Carr’s lucid observation that it’s like  having a chit from matron to avoid real work :  “To  be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war”.  Ouch!  It takes a deft playwright to kick himself in the crotch. Gotta love it.

Five mice   5 Meece Rating
And now at the Apollo, some thoughts…
It is interesting to meet this spellbinding cast and learnedly barmy script , now transposed, with a grandeur of exploded scenery, into the Apollo and offering a view from further off.

 
It does grow, and flourish, and gain space for a pair of crazy unexpected dances and a spectacular, oddly moving, evocation of Lenin’s train east.   Still a hock-and-seltzer reviver, though, still with that Stoppardian ability to make you feel  cleverer and better read than you actually are.

 
But what springs from it fresher’ on a second viewing, is how passionate are the arguments about what art is for: Fox as the Dadaist, challenged by Hollander’s practical ex soldier Henry,  speaks for today”s  self-satisfied new redefiners of the very word art: Joyce  by contrast berates him on behalf of art’s value outscoring the world of war and industry.
It shimmies and shimmers. Fills the big theatre. And the limericks are priceless.
If it lasts in the West end – I think it will – it does the London audience’s adventurousness and intelligence credit. But even more,  the credit of Marber’s production rests on the dishevelled, reminiscing, indignant Hollander. What a star!

Still five mice.  5 Meece Rating

Box office 0330 333 4809 to 29 April

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ART Old Vic, SE1

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGET THEMSELVES….

 

 

When Yasmina Reza won an Olivier for best comedy, she joked “I thought I had written a tragedy”. She did both: the French actor-novelist-playwright sees far enough into the cracks in human confidence to illuminate both absurdity and pathos. ART made her name internationally, and for Matthew Warchus to revive it at the end of a chippy 2016, just when we need to wince, laugh, and reflect on the perils and underlying disagreements in any friendship. Hang out together long enough in empty breeziness, and the odds are there will be dangerous things unsaid. Even if it isn’t about Brexit.

 

 

The beauty of this piece is that the unsayable things are well and truly said, by all three characters, as deep chasms open. The trigger is when Serge, a prosperous doctor, spends 100,000 euros on an apparently blank white painting. Except he says it isn’t white, it’s subtler than that, an important work by a contemporary artist. He shows it to Marc, an aero engineer as stubbornly wary of modernism and art-that-needs-explaining as our own dear Michael Gove (very topical, lucky Old Vic!). Marc laughs and says it is shit, and seems oddly affronted by Serge’s purchase; this opens an unexpected vein of vulnerability in Serge. The third of the old-pals trio, Yvan, tries to mediate between them . Disastrous. In between ripping one another apart they turn on Yvan, whose life is tricky enough already, between professional failure (“Does any man wake up every morning looking forward to selling expandable document wallets”) and a wedding involving warring stepmothers, an affronted mother and a demanding fiancée.

 
Too much drama is fed by romantic and marital shenanigans: the glory here is that Reza explores the too-little charted territory of commitment and jealousy among adult friends. We gasp when Marc accuses Serge of betraying him with his new art mates – “Never leave your friends unchaperoned!” and cannot but agree with the reported comment of the shrink “Dr Finkelzone” when Yvan tells the affronted pair that he has discussed them in therapy. It’s actually quite profound: “If I’m only who I am because you are who you are, then I’m not who I am”. Fink has a point there.

 

 
In a series of encounters a-deux or a-trois the men’s friendship ruptures and reshapes, partly with absurd art-talk about “the resonance of the monochromatic” and partly with personal comments about their attitudes, partners, and assumptions. Serge thinks he is about Art and modernity, Marc pretends to tradition and commonsense, albeit laced with obedience to his unseen Paula’s homeopathic prescriptions. Yvan has decided that life’s just about ‘Marriage, children, stationery, death. That’s it”. We learn that “Read Seneca” is a brilliantly dangerous thing to say to anyone, quite as bad as “You have no sense of humour”. I may try it.

 

It zings, it ricochets, it sends a shiver, the cast are perfection. Rufus Sewell as Serge has the stillness and the deadly strike of an affronted black mamba; Paul Ritter’s Marc subtly reveals below his bluff man-of-the-world air an edge of controlling megalomania; Tim Key as Yvan, trapped between them both, has real pain and pathos, knowing his chaotic life is a kind of necessary validation to his more successful mates. His cry “I just want to be your FRIEND!” got an audible “aaahh!” from the audience, as serious as a Miller or Tennessee Williams moment.

 

 

So good grief, it’s another five-mouse night for Warchus’ Old Vic. For this, on its 20th anniversary, sets up echoes in all of us. Indeed anyone who has had a long friendship blow up in their face might even , on leaving, feel a touch jealous of its sheer articulacy. Theatre is better than life sometimes; often, the kind of lines Reza gives these furious, vulnerable men are the sort that in real life one only mutters to oneself, walking angrily down the street after a Wrong Text…

 
box office 0844 8717628 to 18 feb http://www.oldvictheatre.com
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
Rating five   5 Meece Rating

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SHE LOVES ME Menier, SE1

O THE PRETTINESS, O THE JOKES…

 

 

Our heroine gets a job as sales clerk in Maraczek’s perfumery by selling a customer ia gorgeous hand-painted musical candy box. Which sums up the show: a decorative, ravishingly pretty container full of irresistible treats. Characters to love, properly funny jokes, soaring melodies and fabulously witty lyrics (it was a treat to see the lyricst himself, the aged Sheldon Harnick, joining the curtain call and saying, justifiably, that the little Menier’s is the best production of it he’s ever seen.)

 

 

Camp but sincere, mischievous and intelligent, light as air with a fluttering heart and a Christmassy conclusion, this romance of 1930’s Budapest is the tonic for the moment. It’s been around a few times: Miklos Laszlo’s play about sparring colleagues who are anonymous pen-pals inspired the films “The shop around the corner” and “You’ve got Mail” , and better than either this 1963 Broadway musical by Bock and Harnick. Matthew White directs, on its first UK outing since Stephen Mear did it with his own stunning choreography at Chichester. So I feared the dancing might not thrill the heart as much this time.

 
But with little space for big numbers Rebecca Howell delivers sharp wit instead, from the first moment when an arriving worker jumps over a passing postman. The bust-up sequence in the Cafe Imperiale is chokingly funny, daren’t take your eyes off it for a second; the accelerating craziness of the Christmas-shopping finale has the ensemble of eight half breaking their necks while wearing full 1950s rich- ladies-who-lunch finery , perms and feathered hats. As to the look of it, it isn’t often I look at the first line in my notebooka nd fine “O THE PRETTINESS!” in capitals the gilt, roses, grapes, lovebirds, shining bottles and barocco curlicues of old Mittel-Europa are enough to drive you straight onto the Eurostar for a taste of Budapest. Which would probably disappoint, compared to this dream.

 
But the point is that it is really, really funny: Scarlett Strallen as romantic, stroppy yet lovesick Amalia is perfection, all comic sincerity and vulnerable spirit. I want to see her “Where’s my shoe?” number every day for the rest of my life. Her lover Georg is Marc Umbers, just dislikeable enough at first; and as old Maraczek Les Dennis, newly liberated from being a reformed burglar with a heart-attack on Coronation Street, reminds us of what a poignantly likeable, gently funny stage performer he is.

 
But all the roles are taken perfectly, and all have their moment of glory in this peerlessly generous piece. 17 year old Callum Howells as Arpad the messenger-boy; nervous kindly Ladislav is Alastair Brookshaw; Cory English’s head waiter, surrounded by crashing silver trays; all in turn stop the show. And the lovely thing is that somehow this cast convince you, from the start, that they really are daily confreres, colleagues and friends. They make you want to apply for a job in a Budapest parfumerie half a century ago. And if that isn’t pure stage fantasy, what is?

 

box office 020 7378 1713 to 4 March

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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THIS HOUSE Garrick , WC1

DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS….

 
The Parliamentary chaos of the 1970’s – hung parliaments, fragile alliances and lost divisions which predated the dawn of Mrs Thatcher – make for a tale hard to believe now . Even with 2016 Labour in chaos again and rebel-ridden Tories in precarious authority. James Graham wrote this astonishingly perceptive, funny, and thoughtful reconstruction of the mid-70s years, focused on the wrangling in the Whips’ offices and it was first seen in 2010 (Coalition years) in the NT’s little Cottesloe, with the front row seated on green Parliamentary benches. Even then, dazzled by young James Graham’s achievement, I wrote that it would last longer than the half-dozen chaotic years it depicted.

 

 
When it moved to the Olivier, and the Speaker’s Procession in full rig came up the central aisle, its meaning suddenly deepened because the pomp reminded us that these furious combatants were actually – gulp! – running a real country, with real people working, striking , living and dying in it. I said this to Nicholas Hytner who mused “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger play than we thought”. So now at last it reaches the West End: brave for a commercial theatre because it needs an enormous cast. Even with the doubling and trebling of numerous roles, there were sixteen players in the Garrick. Jeremy Herrin has them flowing nimbly around an evocative WEstminster stage (Big Ben overhead, a Speaker’s chair reappearing, an iron stair, offices: at one striking point lighting turns it all into the echoing medievalism of Westminster Hall and its angels). Some lucky audience are in the gallery or on benches; sometimes MPs are down by the front row or yelling from boxes.

 

 

It still bites, perhaps even more now that Labour is in disarray, the SNP ascendant, and Conservative rebels rolling up their sleeves to destabilize the old order still further. Graham has fun with the old 1970’s dualism, real, in the pre-Blair years: a Tory Chief Whip despising “Foul-mouthed, brutish, trade unionist thugs” , his Labour opponent jeering about “silver spoons in their mouths and rods up their arses”. It is more noticeable though how artfully he acknowledged the blurring which was already under way: Steffan Rhoddri’s Labour deputy chief whip listening to Wagner on his own, NAthaniel Parker’s engagingly smooth Weatherill on the other side finding Coronation Street entertaining, much to the horror of the peerlessly funny silver-fox ur-Tory Sir Humphrey Atkins ( Malcolm Sinclair). Mean while the new Chingford member (Tebbitt!) is winced at as “an egg and chips man” and ever more Labour members are not battered, noble old miners and steelworkers but thrusting young Blairish lawyers.

 

 

It’s fabulous drama: the rows, the desperate wooing of the “odds and sods” from the nations and regions, the almost incredible Stonehouse affair, the brief Lib-Lab pact with the preening David Steel, the furious row after the Heseltine mace incident when pairing was suspended and Labour had to wheel in desperately sick MPs to vote and cajole its drunks and recidivists, and a new mother had to come in and breastfeed her new baby, horrifying the prim old-boys’ club that Parliament once was. Capricious minorities and mavericks tormented the whips, one Labour member crossed the floor, 17 died; the supposed government lost no fewer than 57 divisions in the last Parliament.

 
Graham worked from facts and memoirs and an imagination of great wit and flexibility, catching the sometimes brutal tone of politics (“I’d better go and twist a few more Liberal arms” – “Don’t try too hard, they’re flimsy”.) But it is moving, too: these are – especially on the left, because Labour was so beleaguered – individuals wanting to do their best for the country. Phil Daniels as Bob with his ducktail hairdo and savage sweating catches the angry sincerity of the old left; Weatherill’s relationahip with his opposite number is, in a final moment of decency, touching. And ever in the background comes the reported rise of the member for Finchley and the dawn of her 1980’s. During which, of course, James Graham was born. Another salute to him for this fantastic exercise in pre-natal nostalgia. The small flaws – odd awkward doublings and some really dodgy Northern Irish accents – can’t knock off the fifth star. Honour to it.

 
box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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