Category Archives: Five Mice

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Menier, SE1

L’CHAIM – TO LIFE!    A SPECIAL NIGHT

   

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

   

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

box office  0207 378 1713  to  

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

           

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

  

 

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

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

 

 

box office  0844 871  7628     to 19 Jan

rating Five.  5 Meece Rating

 

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COMPANY. Gielgud, WC2

FOR BETTER FOR WORSE?  FOR FIVE MICE ANYWAY

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Rating 5.   5 Meece Rating

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TOUCHING THE VOID Royal, Northampton & Scotland later

THE HEIGHTS OF LIFE 

 

 

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

royalandderngate.co.uk  to  20 Oct, hurry.

In Edinburgh  and Inverness early 2019

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM Wyndham’s, WC2

A MASTERPIECE OF LOVE AND LOSS

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

       

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

box office    0844 4825120  to 1 December

RATING five  5 Meece Rating

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PACK OF LIES Menier, SE1

WARM HEARTS,    COLD WAR 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

       

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

  

 

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

 

 

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

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

Box office.  020 7378 1713. To 17nov

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Olivier, SE1

A GLORIOUS SERPENT OF OLD NILE

  

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

In cinemas live 6 December

rating five    5 Meece Rating

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