Category Archives: Four Mice

BEAT THE DEVIL Bridge, SE1

BACK IN THE STALLS!   AND A VERY FIENNES START

   

    After nine months’ exile – my chemotherapy ended slap bang at the start of lockdown –  I felt like the Ancient Mariner, good to be back:

        “O dream of joy! Is this indeed a lighting box I see?  

         Is this a stage, is this a show?   Is this mine own countree?” 

         Across Steve Tompkin’s elegant theatre seats have been weeded out and an audience  scattered into pairs or family groups, with the occasional Billy-no-mates like me in solitary splendour in a single comfortable seat in the emptiness.  Leg-room enough for a giraffe.  Onstage three pale screens cast a ghostly bluish light on our masked half-human faces .  Gallant, risk-taking commercial theatre at least is back, as the sad old NT  and South Bank upriver still lie quiet in a blanket of subsidy. 

          The distancing is not the only limit, of course:   for the Bridge a season of one-person shows, minimally set,  lies ahead. There are Talking Heads revivals plus  Yolanda Mercy, Inua Ellams, Zodwa Nyoni.  And Covid-19 must have its say to start with, so off goes the season with Ralph Fiennes directed by Nicholas Hytner and delivering a monologue by David Hare.  It’s about Hare catching the disease (early on), suffering sixteen days and watching the government’s management with rising fury.   Unkind voices have summed it up as “Old bloke gets bad ‘flu, blames Tories”.  Which is of course unfair: it’s worse than ‘flu.  And, importantly, it was  baffling to everybody,  because it’s new.

      Actually, the most interesting parts of Hare’s beautifully written tale are about that newness, though when he first got it – in mid-March – there had not been as much medical information filtering through as there has been later.  We now know the curiosity that many patients can have dangerously low blood-oxygen levels and seem almost OK ,  not as breathless as you’d expect,    though bad damage is being done to their organs in a “cytokine storm”.     It’s a reason to have an oximeter as well as a thermometer at home, and spot early when the oxygen drops towards and below 90.    ((For an easy digest of the science, here’s mine in the Times: weeks later: 

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/longer-self-isolation-may-do-patients-no-favours-vflmsrhnt

        Hare tells how after catching this “piece of bad news wrapped in protein”  in the noisome stuffiness of an editing suite – West End cupboards these are, heated by the machinery – he went through a fairly common experience of being hit hard in the second week.      At first he was ‘air-hungry” but expecting a restful ‘flu, with old war films on telly (“Noel Coward in white shorts pretending to be a captain”)  and thinking, five days in, that he was fit to cook the family supper.   His fever soared,  his fear and anger grew. At one point he refused to go into hospital because people there caught Covid, though  as his GP pointed out, he already had it.  His tribute to his wife Nicole is touching:  as his temperature fell dangerously from a bad spike she laid on him to warm him. Not, as he dryly observes, a woman prone to observing social-distancing in his supposed isolation.  

       It is funnier, more likeable than some reports have suggested and well worth the fifty masked minutes.  Hare’s politics are no surprise,  and there is real perception in his description of Boris Johnson “struggling with his instincts” as a libertarian locking down the nation he had longed to lead,  as the virus is “clearly retro-fitted to find out his weaknesses”.     He rants about the unpreparedness, the PPE shortages, the failure of early testing, the absurd permission for those Cheltenham Festival days.   It seems to him sometimes that the government is deeper in delirium than he is himself.  Across the Atlantic there is Trump, enraging him still more.   

        It’s all true, and refreshing, and  beautifully made, and one has to be glad that on day 16 Hare  revived .Though he still realized he was unfit for ordinary work quite yet – like running the country, as Boris Johnson did, amid a Cabinet for whom, he observes,  the word mediocrity was too flattering.   He sorrows for the victims who died.  He is uncritically adoring of Merkel and Ardern but does not mention Sweden.  Sometimes he fudges the timescale:  when talking of his tenth day –  March 26th –  he rages against the unrepentance of the government over the high death rate in the second week of May.  As a point that is reasonable, as storytelling it’s a bit of a cheat.

     But it was a barnstorming hour, and Fiennes delivers it perfectly.  Power to the Bridge. 

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 30 Oct

rating    four        

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THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE        Bridge Theatre, SE1

 MONSTROUS AND MAJESTIC ,  A NARNIA FOR NOW

  

  How to interpret an old favourite?  A Christian fantasy allegory, the world of Narnia,  the first of C.S.Lewis’ immortal children’s books created in wartime Oxford because evacuee children seemed to lack the fierce imagination on which he – orphaned young – had lived.  We nearly all have our own defensive idea about Aslan’s kingdom and its message of martial courage and redemption through a sacrifice by the innocent leader.  

  

So give it to the inventive director Sally Cookson, in this revamped production of her Leeds production;  let Rae Smith loose on design,  use the fantasy of bare-stage and musicians and some nifty trapdoor work,  and trust a hardworking ensemble.  For they must become the set or deck it at lightning speed:  fast-moving as monsters, fur coats, horrors, animals, plants or (very frequently, and wildly) galloping snowdrifts of blowing white silken cloth on which, astonishingly, even at an early preview nobody slipped.

         She sets it firmly in its wartime context, with the evacuee train, bossy matrons, Tommies in gas masks,  and the audience issued with green evac cards to flutter as leaves when spring comes.  It is also firmly in the  context of children in trauma, puzzlement and separation from parents, and with battle and danger in their minds.  

 

The Pevensies on the classic cover are of course pink-faced middle class 1940s White British.  Not so this cast :siblings of a modern London. They are  Femi Akinfolarin, Shalisha James Davis, Keziah Joseph as a sweet valiant Lucie ,  and a very good John Leader as the treacherous, resentful,  suffering, then repentant Edmund.     It is more than a colour-blind or correctly-inclusive trope though.  Think about it: in modern Britain the children most likely to have been separated and terrified by war are Eritrean, Nigerian, Middle Eastern…it felt fitting. 

         And they’re very good.  Programme notes assure us that they were all encouraged to improvise a bit with a writer-in-the-room to help erase any old prep school cries like “Pax!” or “Jolly good!”,  but  in the event they are in no way tiresomely street or sassy.  

         And it is  all rather fabulous.  Great costumes, some subtly referencing the war – the Badgers in khaki, Biggles helmets and snowshoe tails;  Aslan, brilliantly, is both the huge puppet lion and the human dignified figure of Wil Johnson (very theologically correct, actually, an incarnation of deity).   The final battle is tremendous:   gaping skeletal ragged horrors of improbable ghostly height,  the Witch  (Laura Elphinstone frostily, scornfully, viciously  majestic riding on a great icicle).  There’s aerialism.    The spring conjures up green shoots,  and  crowdsurfing gigantic felt petals.   Maugrim the secret-police wolf is horrible in his savage mask,  despite the distraction of Omari Bernard’s enviable sixpack.  Tumnus is a hoot: Stuart Neal born to play a worried faun.  

    

  Everything is both spectacular and – important, this, for children – it also feels like something you could play at home with tablecloths and cardboard.   If you can’t borrow any children to take,  haul your own inner-child along.  You won’t regret it.  Happy Christmas. 

box office bridgetheatre.co.uk

to 2 Feb 

rating four    4 Meece Rating

AND A STAGE-MANAGEMENT MOUSE (if there was an ensemble-mouse I’d put it up, but clearly they’ll have needed  managing!) Stage Management Mouse resized

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THE SEASON Wolsey, Ipswich & then Northampton

A BIG APPLE ROMANCE WITH CRUNCH

 

     How romantic New York is to the British heart!  From Superman to Friends we seem to know it,  from Elf and 34th Street (not to mention the Pogues)   we hanker for its glamour at Christmas.  So here are the signs, the DONT WALK, a subway map, distant Manhattan lights, and our young hero from dull old England  singing a paean to “A city of stories, where everybody’s sixty storeys high.pizza for breakfast and steam in the air!  .”   At JFK he is met but a considerably less besotted real New Yorker,  a coffee waitress who hard-sells the latest “Chestnut-ccino” to unseen customers on a minimum wage, and finds him really annoying.   Will his enthusiasm melt her, or will she damp him down? 

 

     Traditionally in British criticism it is damning-faint praise to call something “charming” . It  snobbishly implies a lack of depth, a failure to take on The Big Questions.  But you know what? There’s a place for charm,  it needn’t be empty, and some of the biggest questions are the ones which sidle up to you while you’re laughing.   On screen or stage a rom-com can contain much of what you need, and send you out with a spring in your step .    On a rather fraught day  I was step-sprung, charmed  by this miniature musical by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan,  newcomers mentored by Stiles & Drew and  now spotted by the leaders of the Wolsey and the Northampton theatres. 

  

    It is a two-hander, with a three-piece band overhead.   Alex Cardall, fresh out of drama school,  treads the fine line between infuriating and endearing  Dougal, the ingénu arrival with a messy backpack,  thrilled to accept a 36-hour wedding invitation from the NY bigshot father he never knew.  Dad  is marrying a girl half his age, and it is her sister Robyn – the glorious Tori Allen-Martin – who has been told to meet him and make sure he finds his scuzzy Chinatown b & b.  He hugs her crying “Sister!” to which she sharply points out that she is, if anything, his step-aunt-in-law-to-be,  and has no intention of doing the sights with him.   

      She can’t shake him off,  though, and his puppyish enthusiasm produces some softening of her depressed, brittle mood  which, deft back-story makes clear – comes from being fatherless,  raised by a grandmother she now doesn’t see, being poor, and miserably hooking up with wrong ‘uns.     The Christmas NY legend, she says is “All about rich people!..do you know what a Broadway show costs, or dinner in Manhattan?”.    The patter-song when he seizes her phone  to help her judge  Tinder profiles is lovely.  Indeed all the songs – a few melodious, many tightly-built patter – push the story and its psychology on perfectly.   

 

    They are both unmoored,  she  a lonely Cinderella running errands for her sister and the rich old guy she’s caught,   he with a distant mother in Ipswich and a dangerously romantic belief that his father really wants to know him.  The offstage characters – Melissa and Dad Mark –  grow ever more real and less satisfactory and you find that you really care about these twentysomething kids.  If it doesn’t get bought up for a film I’ll eat my Santa hat.

       There’s a splendid transformation scene and splurge of extravagance after Robyn is thrown her demanding sister’s sugardaddy’s credit card for an errand, giving birth to the line “Now that we’ve defrauded / Dad we can afford it!” -(God, I love a silly rhyme!).    There’s a real chill in Robyn’s attempt to curb Dougal’s naivete  and a barnstorming anti-Christmas finale in Chinatown.    “We got dim sum, we got booze/ We got 1960s carpet, and it’s sticking to our shoes!”.  

       Writers and stars are all young, smart, sweet:   it feels like a generation’s cry of defiant merriment:  millennials finding their mistletoe moment.     

box office wolseytheatre.co.uk    to Saturday 16th 

then    19-30 Nov    at royalandderngate.co.uk   Northampton 

rating   four 4 Meece Rating

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WHEN THE CROWS VISIT Kiln NW6

ARROGANCE, ANGER ,   INDIA’S  SHAME

 

  Hema’s is a house of women now.  The old grandmother is in bed below the tall screen doors ,  feeding  crows who move shadow-shapes behind them.   She is  chivvied  by a cheerful young maid Ragini; Hema herself tolerates her mother-in-law with gritted teeth.   Widowed, respectable and bruised,  the mistress of the house is papering over  the emotional cracks left by a brutal husband,  and living for her son Akshay.  He is supposedly making a success of his job in Mumbai,  designing violent computer games for the global market   We see,   in a brief and scornfully entertaining scene,  that he is an arrogant dilettante,   exasperating his colleagues at a bar table and prone to flashes of spoilt-child anger.    Which flares  at his exit when  a  bar girl offstage flips him the bird.   Bally Gill, every inch the peacock-splendid young alpha male,   is horrifyingly perfect in the role: strong-framed,  towering over the women, all feral beauty and untrammelled arrogance, a distillation of Indian machismo.

    

  But Akshay has come home. In a hurry, blustering  about being mistreated by his employers. And the papers report that a bar girl has been found gang-raped, horribly mutilated, broken-bottled.  “They practically vivisected her “ says the policeman brutally when he arrives to disconcert the family.  But hey, the cop himself is open to bribery,  and to maintaining  the middleclass respectability of the family.  For until one devastating scene the mother herself flies to defend her “sensitive, respectful” son, at least from the law. Dharker is exceptional:  subtly conflicted, plunging in and out of angry denial,   aware  from her years of brutal submission of the imbalance of the sexes but blanking out the awful truth about her son.  In one unforgettable midnight scene she joins him  the flicker of the X-box and picks up a controller  herself, just to see how it would be to have violent power…

    

    The culture looms over them all, a dark wing flickering behind. The old woman is  a fount of religious  folklore, telling tales of Rama and his subservient Sita,  and of a wicked king who bathed in the Ganges until all his sins and crimes burst out through his skin  as black crows and flew away, leaving him pure enough for his bride. 

        Anumpama Chandrasekhar has given us a violently disturbing play, and so it should be.  India bleeds at news of  rapes – too often unpunished , too often including violent mutilation as male anger rises against women who are educated, making their way,  insolently looking  them straight in the eye.  Our antihero finds this insupportable.    Diirector Indhu Rubasingham spares us none of the rage and horror of it  and  – this makes you wince –   of female complicity in the middle and oldest generations.   Hema has suffered, but her attempt not to lose face or  to admit enough of it makes her  more liberated sister scornfully say she should be grateful “to be a widow not a corpse”.

 

  There are intriguing echoes of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and indeed there are moments when it has a real Ibsen strength and rage, not least in its terrible conclusion.  In Ghosts  the widow of a sexually wicked man finds her son infected with the syphilis his father left him. But Osvald is an innocent,  doomed to madness and death, so there is additional shock in being asked to accept that Akshay too is a victim,  inheriting his father’s violence. In  a moment of self knowledge he seems to beg for a cure, and prays with his grandmother for redemption.     But as he wriggles clear of the law his arrogance returns, and in the denouement a horrid black tide of crow feathers drowns all innocence and hope.  .When Aryana Ramkhalawon’s cheeky maid laughs “all men think they are Rama these days”  we know that her modern confidence will do her no favours.   Brrr. 

 

box office   020 7328 1000      kilntheatre.com    to 30 nov 

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE Hampstead, NW3

RENAISSANCE  RUTTING,   VENUS AND  VANITIES

 

Sandro Botticelli, he makes clear to us at the start, plans to tell his version. He’s Dickie Beau: skinny and swaggeringly queeny in black ripped jeans and cowlick. He has nipped back after 500 years  to explain why history shows this lushest, most erotic of Renaissance painters renouncing art as sinful , siding with the cold virtue of Savonarola the bigot and burner of sodomites, and consigning many of his own paintings and the gorgeous frivolities of luxury and literature to the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497.

 

  Jordan Tannahill’s  play, premiered here after Canada, is gloriously staged under  Blanche Macintyre’s direction.  James Cotterill’s  sets fluidly, with all Hampstead’s technical brilliance, create before us  the libertine life of the studio, the thudding corpses of the  plague beyond and the  flames that reek of human flesh.     But there are smartphones and jeans  as well as religious habits and cloth-of-gold;  the  powerful  Lorenzo de Medici plays squash with his painter protegé and his wife Clarice  has tantrums about her car keys.  That works fine,  because the  themes suit today nicely:  popular hysteria turning on the outsider, and the poor resenting of rich arty elites.  Not to mention the modern case of another religion  – 500 years younger than the  Christianity of Savonarola –  an Islamism whose extremists in the Middle East and Africa  burn and hang homosexuals just as keenly. 

  

 But back to 15c Florence. Tannahill’s  imagining  is that Botticelli  loves his brilliant assistant Leonardo da Vinci , and screws Medici’s wife while painting her as Venus,  which enrages the violent patron into condemning his lover to the flames in vengeance. So  the artist strikes a bargain with Savonarola that he’ll publicly repent the sin of art and the pursuit  pleasure.   Some lines faintly irritate by  seeming to affirm   (as is quite often the case in such plays) to assume that sole ownership of victimhood and  creativity belongs to gay men of heroic promiscuity.   But Beau’s tremendous performance – moving from arrogance to agony – holds you captive. So do Sirine Saba’s  irresistible Clarice/Venus and the rest.   There’s a gripping sense of being trapped in an awful game with changing rules and threats: on one side a vicious Medici with a knife at your groin and dungeon- power, on the other a mob which wants to burn you.  When Botticelli  and his friends realise the literal use of the word faggot –  bundles of kindling – their  silence chars your spirit. 

There are some marvellous lines: when Clarice wonders if the picture will be too “debauched” our hero chirps indignantly  “Clarice I’m Botticelli, debauched is what I do. If your husband wanted you in a nun’s habit he’d have commissioned Fra Filippo!”

 

It briefly  goes a bit Ru Paul before the interval, with a  burlesque Venus and a chorus in gold lame booty-shorts  filling in while – in real panic –  the painter and his assistant work all night in their underpants to paint veiling hair over Clarice’s genitals before her husband sees the canvas.  But then the  violent reality is  intensified   – Adetowama Edun’s Medici is electrically nasty,  and, later his victim  is cradled by a forgiving mother  like a Pieta (the staging uses lovely Renaissance tableau echoes). There is catharsis as he spectacularly defaces his masterpiece before our eyes, a fierce fire,  and a bland credible chill in the deal with Savonarola.

 

     Obviously and explicitly, with the fourth wall kicked down again   we’re informed it has to end  the way ghost Botticelli wants, so “f*** the historians in the audience”.Da Vinci doesn’t turning his back and move on and up. . Rather,  Epicurean and unafraid,  the men erotically share a peanut butter sandwich.  What’s the point of history if you can’t improve it, eh?

www.hampsteadtheatre.com. To 23 Nov

Rating. Four.  4 Meece Rating

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​LUNGS.    Old vic, SE1​​​

​​IT TAKES TWO​​…​

 

Here’s  a sharp eyed little gem about coupledom and the wary, fretful road towards parenthood in an age of easy contraception and illimitable expectations. It is often  snortingly funny (the young, I suspect, laughing at themselves and their mates, my generation rolling our eyes at their ability to overthink the most basic elements of life and anxious conviction that in pleasing themselves they are ‘good people’).  It’s by Duncan Macmillan , whose plays both showcase actors and demand of them unusual extremes of stamina and truthfulness. So Matthew Warchus does well to recruit, for this 90 minute non-stop two-hander, a duo who do well to shake off their slower screen personae from Netflix.​​​

 

For  now Claire Foy and Matt Smith are no longer dutiful HM and surly Duke from The Crown but a young, scruffy, barely fledged modern couple – he a gig musician with a record shop job, she doing a PhD and unwilling to take paid work. Both feel a bit stale in their Ikea and clubbing life, and go through  angsts about the environment and   birthstrikey worries about whether to have a baby which will emit carbon dioxide all its life. ​   ​​​

 

Their conversation moves elegantly across a floor of jagged solar panels.  With particularly clever physicality and tone we see them over many months and then years in an Ikea queue, homes, a car, bed, a park, hospital: it’s always clear, always flowing from one intensity or absurdity to the next.  There is a plot, an ordinary romcom in some ways but always sharply  edged with the particular absurdities of their attitudes, confusions and fraught but necessary connection.  ​​​​

 

Often Foy’s woman is almost unbearably irritating, witteringly thinking aloud, demanding,  agonizedly self- absorbed while Smith often stands there like a bewildered Easter Island Statue . But then we find we are on her side against his unregenerate blokeishness. Then again, we feel for him in his bewilderment , admiring his ability to grow up and wondering how on earth any man and woman ever do get on together in the age of offence and self-analysis.​​​

 

It could be just a nimble dissection of a generation: yet Macmillan trawls wider, as ever, and the last part sees them within a skilful minute or two, becoming everycouple. Everyfamily. And it moves the heart. Which, given how much we have been laughing,  is a clear win. ​​​

 

​Oldvictheatre.com.  To 29 Oct

​Rating. Four   4 Meece Rating

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[BLANK] Donmar, WC2

A COOL EYE ON SHATTERED LIVES 

   

    Of all the well known flaws of our criminal justice system,  one of the most glaring is how badly it fits women – though they  are only around 7% of prison inmates.  The great majority are non-violent, for things like fare dodging or TV licence evasion: others are abused or have been forced into drug dealing, and most are on short sentences  that do nothing to stabilise their chaotic lives  but mean losing jobs, sometimes children, disrupting a whole chain of lives.   A recent inquest slammed lack of basic care when a young woman was not given prescribed medication;   last month in Bronzefield another gave birth alone and saw her baby die. 

   

The charity Clean Break , marking here its 40th anniversary,   works with drama to elucidate ,express and publicize these problems, not with sentimental blindness or Bad-Girls glamourisation  but by examining  lived experience. Alice Birch’s play is written as a fat book of 100 scenes or playlets,   to be used in any order and cross-casting by companies of all types.  Director Maria Aberg weaves 30 together, some very brief: the effect, at its best is of the fracture of lives, the impossibilty of making sense when your head is in chaos. Her writing is excellent, naturalistic and usually pacy. A mother hears how her daughter has “met someone” but hasn’t admitted she has children. Later we see her again, terrified of him, kids  outside in the car, begging access to a full refuge. Another is startled as her furious , impossible addict daughter breaks in to rob and scream at her – ”it seemed easier than asking for help” .   Later we learn of her end. Another pleads vainly for her mother to take the grandkids and an awful sequel, unbearable  in its self-justifying despair, is a later monologue.  A street worker tells a sex worker to stay safe but she “doesn’t know what safe feels like” and suddenly, lyrically,  talks of how she longs for the cosy whiteness of snow, 

 

      Only occasionally are we in prison – the set is fragmented, small rooms on two levels, a grim glass box of loneliness in one high corner. Once an angry irrational woman is restrained: at visiting time one has a litany of demands to take away everything that she might kill herself with.  A pregnant girl is told the good news – officialdom is not caricatured as brutal – that she can go to a mother and baby unit for the child’s first 18 months and may be released in time to leave with it. But her existing children can’t easily visit so far away. In a final brief scene we see an older mother whose daughter won’t forgive just because she finally “got her shit together thirty years too late” . Sometimes there are children , in and out of fostering.

 

   The longest section – slightly overlong though its  inconsequential cross-chat is bitterly satirical –  rises eventually to a sharp dramatic conclusion. It is  a dinner party of middleclass women . Couples, a police officer, a lawyer ,  two who were aid volunteers “for ten days”, a headteacher , a selfsatisfied gritty TV journalist. The outsider is a new girlfriend, possibly an ex inmate. At one point dealers bring cocaine and stay for some Ottolenghi and chat.  At last from  the outsider comes the accusation which one was yearning for :  that they are rabid hypocrites all, their chic liberalism a “fucking offence to those of us who try…crying for people rather than listening”. 

    Well, we listened.   It is tremendous ensemble work, physically expressive, verbally articulate, ripping off layers of smug delusion with elegant skill. If forced to single anyone out it would be Jackie Clune as an official figure,  Jemima Rooper, and Thusitha Jayasundera with immense sad authority in various parts.  Oh, and little Taya Tower,  a deadpan tot with alarming command both of her lines and of a baseball bat laying about some chinaware.  

box office 0203 282 3808       donmarwarehouse.com

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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ASSASSINS           Watermill, Bagnor Newbury

THE DARK AND THE CRAZY

 

    This is  – for us anyway – the first  production in the Trump era of this savage musical:  a revue reimagining of all the attempts, successful or not,  to kill American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to  Bush and Reagan.  Its mocking – though sometimes moving – portrait is of human fantaticism, disappointment,  inadequacy,  stupidity,  vanity, gun-obsession (“crook a little finger to change the world”)   and sheer attention-seeking.  Which, I have to murmur in passing, makes it doubly ironic and alarming in an age when the President himself  displays at least three of the above most days on Twitter.  

 

    But the show itself is deathless,  one to cherish.  To some it will always seem harsh and dark for comfort,  the brilliance of the Sondheim rhymes inappropriate for a lethal topic.   But Bill Buckhurst’s production has all the necessary vigour and the human seriousness too:  it helps having a stunningly gifted set of actor-musicians roaming the stage (and the sides, at times),  to give vivid life to Sondheim’s echoes of the great American musics:  bluegrass, honkytonk line dance,  gospel, vaudeville, Bernstein, jazz.   It also fits to have a young woman – Lillie Flynn in a western check shirt and jeans –   as narrator:  standing aside, plaintively asking from the start “Why did you do it, Johnny?”  as Wilkes Booth rants about his bad reviews and hatred of the “n—- loving” Lincoln.   

  

      In its tight, unbroken  100 minutes many performances stand out: flamboyantly  Eddie Elliott as the vain Charles Guiteau, Steve Symonds as the enraged, ranting Samuel  Byck in a Santa suit,  decrying and defining Americana; there is light relief in imagined conversations between Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore  – Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer –  who both failed to get Gerald Ford, for no reasonable reason; and pathos in   Jack Quarton  as poor mad Hinkley who thought that Jodie Foster might notice him if he killed Reagan. 

   

    They meet and interact across the decades,  most of all in a tremendous, marvellouslly staged ensemble when the ghosts of past and future gather round the miserable Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas and persuade him that the only way to become immortal, cited and counted in the hall of infamous fame, is to shoot John Kennedy rather than himself .  Their argument, perennial and  insidious , has you holding your breath. Even though you know the outcome. 

     It’s a bravura performance.  And always horribly timely.  Why else do American heads of state travel in armoured limousines even down the Mall, when ours, thank God, still braves a golden coach ?   

box office    watermill.org.uk      to 26 oct

Then to co-producing house, Nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk  ,    30 oct to 16 nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE NIGHT WATCH New Wolsey, Ipswich & touring

PEOPLE OF THE BLITZ 

 

Sarah Waters’ best novel, evoking lives during and after the London Blitz,  was told backward in time.  It is much the same way, indeed, as we meet real people  – see at first the way they are now,  then gradually on acquaintance roll back through their past year and come to understand.  With over a dozen characters, interlinked and significant,  it’s a tricky one to dramatize (easier,perhaps, to film in 2010 for TV).  But Hattie Naylor’s stage version flowers under the sensitive and poetic direction of Alistair Whatley,  and while the seemingly desultory opening scenes may baffle a few strangers to the book,  it grows in clarity and drama to become a  gripping piece of theatre, a testament.  

 

      At its heart is Kay:   gallant and brave,  “more of a gentleman than any man”,  coming of age in an ambulance crew in 1941 among the quiet heroes who saw horrors and returned to cocoa and comradely banter.    Phoebe Pryce is perfect for the role,  tall and boyish,   but in those early post-war scenes is a kind of wandering ghost, going out little,  visibly in private trauma. She is  boarding with the kindly but dotty Christian Scientist Mrs Leonard,   among whose patients is arthritic, emotionally riven Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) and his “nephew” Duncan:    Lewis Mackinnon, visibly the most damaged of all , cowering and awkward, veteran of something we will only learn later.  There’s Fraser,  the conscientious objector who shared his cell, and more, and reappears as a journalist; and the other women, Viv and Julia and Helen and Mickey,  variously involved with Kay.  

 

          Hard to imagine, now, having the city bombed night after night with a heavy toll of death and horror (dreading more mutilated bodies of children,   ambulance crewwoman Mickey blithely sets out in her tin hat hoping for “a slightly injured pink grandmother with a bag of boiled sweets).   Hard too to remember that attempted suicide still meant a prison term, as did ‘procuring an abortion’,   that conscientious objects had their own agonies in a world where their friends were dying,  and that lesbian affairs  – though not illegal  – were best kept hidden.   But as the back-stories unfold in the second half,  the staging serves to make vivid the raids, the rubble,  the quiet moments,  the fear and courage and strangeness of that wartime world. 

 

      Sometimes, as when an air raid makes the prisoners in their tiny lit square shiver in dread , while out in the town a betrayal of love is taking place amid the wreckage,  scenes can interlock at the same time. When Malcolm James’ Munby the warder sings “A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”,  depths of his own eccentricity, loneliness and future open before you.    Kay strides and works and loves and loses against a city in flames.  Nobody is wholly blessed or wholly damned.   It holds you fast.    But you’ll love it even more if you know the book. 

 

New Wolsey, Ipswich until 5 October

   then touring Touring Mouse wideon to 23 Nov.   Edinburgh next, then Coventry, Richmond, Salisbury, Croydon.    Original Theatre production.  

rating four 4 Meece Rating

   

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THE WATSONS. Menier SE1

15 CHARACTERS OBJECTING TO  AN AUTHOR..

 

The Jane Austen industry never flags, in tribute or in parody.  You can barely throw a bonnet without hitting an  Austentatious improv,  popcorn movie, stripped- down Northanger Abbey staged on scaffolding,  or some updated  BridgetJonesery,  Right now we have two writers finishing incomplete fragments, both accepting that it won’t be quite what Jane woulda done, but hey….  Thus Andrew Davies  sexes up Sanditon for ITV with incest , brothels and Theo James leaping on coaches,  and up from Chichester, adapted a bit,  here’s Laura Wade taking on the earlier  Watsons. 

     

We begin in Jane’s world and words, as  Emma (a charmingly spirited Grace Molony) has been dumped by her rich aunt to live in reduced circumstances with an ailing father and two sisters. All of whom must marry or be destitute (or governesses or teachers, generally in Austen considered almost as bad).

 

     It gets going with deft economy under Samuel West’s direction, as Ben Stones’ panelled set slides and opens to establish  a host of locals, militia, toffs and possible husbands. There’s a beautiful dance-with-dialogue including a ten year old  in tailcoat, very authentic-Austen. But 30 minutes in, as the original author stops, Emma is about to accept the dull Lord – as indeed she would have without Aunt Jane to stop her. And  it goes all meta and Pirandello:  author (played by Louise Ford) dashes in from 21c literary reality  and stops her , because Austen heroines must make love-matches.  It baffles Emma, and provokes horror in her sisters who feel that turning down a “not particularly deformed” Lord with a pineapple hothouse is crazy.  

     From here on it’s a battle of wills between the modern author and the characters, who are appalled at being told they aren’t real and  stage a revolution. There are some fabulous laughs: the horror of Jane Booker’s Lady Osborne at the author’s  plastic chair and immodest jeans, the glee of the child discovering her iPhone,  and his poignant horror at the fate of having to be ten forever.  Wade is at her best sending herself up, and when the entire cast of characters start whingeing like am-dram actors (“I don’t seem to be in it much””My character wouldn’t do that”etc) .  

   It also opens up some lovely ironies about the artificiality of all fictional pattern-making, as author-Laura protests that it was a “Feminist Act” of Austen’s to make her characters marry for love, because in her society marriage was the only route to female independence.  The characters hurl arguments from Hobbes and Rousseau, and express  natural  indignation at having a path laid down at all.  

Pleasing  chaos and insubordination keep it moving, and there’s even a brief Napoleonic war, an erotic speech to scare the pants off even Andrew Davies, and a fine moment of glory for Nanny (Sally Bankes) as  the only working-class character.  

      But O, the temptation of writerly  self-pity and self importance!  One can see why, but the pace slows terribly  as “Laura”loses control and sobs at her lot while the rebel characters gather round, leaderless.  Her exhilarating final moral – that unfinishedness is freedom and  a myriad possibilities – is fine, But I (and the novelist pal at my side) both winced  at her injunction to the little boy “never be ashamed to call yourself an artist”.  No, no,no…just don’t..

       But it  was fun. 

Box office menierchocolatefactory.com.  To 17 Nov

Rating four4 Meece Rating

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A TASTE OF HONEY Lowry, Salford and touring

SIXTY YEARS OR ONE MILE AWAY  –  Greater-Manchester guest critic HELEN GASKELL REVELS IN GRIT AND SKILL 

 

Ah, to watch a classic play in the place it was written.  Working class Salford girl Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey at 19, after being disappointed on  a trip to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme.  She reckoned she could do better: of course she was right, and a classic was born.

Recap, for those not familiar with this  northern classic. It is the late 1950s, and 15 year old Jo (Gemma Dobson)  lives in squalor with her vampy, sex-kitten mother Helen (Jodie Prenger).  After Helen swans off to marry a drunken, violent younger man (Tom Varey) Jo is left to fend for herself.  She falls in love with a black sailor named Jimmie, played with perfection in this instance by Durone Stokes.  After he too leaves her in the lurch, she finally catches a break and falls in with her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) – until everything starts falling apart.

Context is key. It is too easy to forget that when it was written, mixed race relationships were extremely taboo and homosexual relationships illegal.  Much of the play hinges on this, and younger audience members might be forgiven for finding some plot points slightly confusing.  For example, Geoffrey might still face persecution for being gay today, but unlikely to find himself homeless when still able to pay his rent.

The production does not attempt to draw clumsy parallels or score political points.  It is unashamedly a period piece.  But its themes are not irrelevant to our current situation: in fact, the poverty  -well depicted in the set  – of the 50s flat Jo and Helen live in would certainly be recognisable to many not a mile away from the Lowry today.  Jo can, at least, turn on her gas stove, and Geoffrey can afford to buy a packet of then-exotic pasta without resorting to a visit to a food bank.   We are deep in I, Daniel Blake territory.

  The National Theatre does not disappoint: the production is absolutely superb, with some of the cleverest staging imaginable. i=It  benefits from the genius incorporation of a live band scattered across the stage, and light smoke giving a wonderfully dingy feel to the already-dirty set. Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume designer, has done an impeccable job of capturing poverty and squalor;  Paul Anderson’s lighting design is highly commended: he is not afraid to let in the dark.   Finally, the team have worked well together: barely noticeable visual tweaks and stolen moments between scenes say as much as the actors themselves.  A dirty tablecloth is replaced with a clean one; a silent dance is glimpsed between absent Jimmie and besotted Jo; a bare lightbulb gets a shade.  This  baked-in aura of northern grit takes weight off the actors, and Delaney’s  natural wit shines through.  Too often British plays of this era are marred by hammy, OTT acting, but not here.  Nearly every performance is outstanding.  It is frankly marvellous to see a gay man portrayed without camp, a lothario as a romantic, and domestic violence no less terrifying due to its subtlety.  

And the singing – gosh, the singing.  Not a croak or a bum note in evidence – nothing at all to distract from the wonderful use of contemporaneous music, which is seamlessly blended into the production. Itwould be perfection, if it were not for the fact that it is hard to suspend disbelief far enough to see a 28 year old woman play a 16 year old.  Dobson is a superb actress, but there are others who could successfully assist an audience in clambering over that mental hurdle.  Do not let that put you off.

 

 

box office   http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-uk-tour . On tour until 16th November.

Rating: Four   4 Meece Rating

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BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS

 

This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.

 

In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up)  to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school .  His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a  (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun,   and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.

 

It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness,  to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.

 

But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame)  is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.

 

As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.

 

There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.

 

Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also  give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.

 

So, all in all,  smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions.   But not in a Big way.

 

box office 0844 847 1775.  to  2 Nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

OLD TIMES,  OLD  SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW

 

With Parliament in uproar upriver ,  the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a  “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”.  Just the night to hurl  some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session.  It’s  a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all. 

 

      It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right,   brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with  that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.     For younger readers who may naively imagine  a binary political split on the question,  it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming:  only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage.  Time moved on.  Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.

 

But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury.    Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am,  stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.    But subtly,  beneath it lies  a more personal  anger whose cause only gradually emerges.    Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty,  and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal  theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.  

 

     .  There are many laughs.  But Robin  is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery.  The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties  unearthed uncomfortably by human reality.    Vulnerabilities widen in both,  in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple  had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened  Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day.  She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it . 

 

        Best not to reveal all,  but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory,  Toynbee ’n Tebbitt,  Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all.    Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression.  Oh, and  the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago  when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise  quite decent people dreaded encountering it.   Regrettable, wrong, cruel,   but true.

 

BOX OFFICE  nationaltheatre.org.uk       to  25  nov

 In cinemas 7 November    www.ntlive.com

Rating   four  4 Meece Rating

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CABILDO Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SWOONS OVER SWASHBUCKLING  AT GRIMEBORN

Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.

Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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TREEMONISHA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS JOPLIN TROUBLINGLY FUN

Scott Joplin was rightly proud of Treemonisha, an opera for which he wrote both libretto and score; it was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime, much to his pain, but its eventual premiere in 1972 led to Joplin being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Musically, Treemonisha is a rare and precious artefact, preserving the sounds and rhythms of slave songs in the cotton fields which Joplin would have known from childhood, something few other composers have ever been in a position to do from known experience – and then bring to an opera stage. It’s a gorgeous score, always easy on the ear and rich with dense umami harmonies throughout, especially in Joplin’s gifted choral writing, with several animated numbers recalling Joplin’s prowess in ragtime. The opera is surprisingly light, given that it depicts life on a plantation eighteen years after the abolition of slavery: a community of freed slaves struggles to shape their new society, besieged by the various temptations of alcoholism, religious fervour, superstition and greed. When the educated young girl Treemonisha is stolen by some “conjurors”, part way between pedlars and witch doctors, the village rise up in fury to avenge her: but Treemonisha herself pleads for mercy for her captors, reminding everyone that to return bad deeds for bad leaves us no better than those who tried to hurt us in the first place. Persuaded to choose the better moral path, the village leave off their vigilante justice, and proclaim Treemonisha leader. The opera closes with a joyous dance celebrating the fact that happiness is restored to all: “The Slow Drag”.

Spectra Ensemble’s production for Grimeborn is as accomplished an account of Treemonisha as you could ever hope to see. The cast is excellent, with wonderful singing across the board. Grace Nyandoro’s cutesy Treemonisha doesn’t have much dramatic depth, though Nyandoro’s soprano is startlingly pretty; Samantha Houston’s tired, bluesy Monisha is much more sophisticated. Caroline Modiba’s Lucy is beautifully drawn, Modiba’s smooth, appealing voice making you wish Lucy had a bigger part. Rodney Earl Clarke takes a brilliant double role as the gruff, sceptical alcoholic Ned and the intoxicatingly enthusiastic Parson Alltalk, an early operatic version of Bishop Michael Curry. Edwin Cotton’s charming Remus bounces around the stage after Treemonisha like a gleeful puppy, his warm tenor thrilling at times, tender at others. Njabulo Madlala feels like true luxury casting for Zodzetrick, the conjuror whose spurious trade in “bags o’ luck” earns him Treemonisha’s displeasure at the outset, Madlala’s well-rounded baritone effortlessly filling the Arcola. The chorus of Aivale Cole, Deborah Aloba, Devon Harrison and Andrew Clarke (also bringing noticeable charisma to the smaller role of Andy) are all stunning. Director Cecilia Stinton has worked hard, with choreographer Ester Rudhart, to foment action and tension on stage, keeping the audience’s attention focused through the numbers: all the characters feel as real as they can, and seem to inhabit a real world, thanks to Raphaé Memon’s elegantly restrained design, using packing crates, a washing line and a rather troubling tree (which opens festooned with manacles and a noose) to suggest the lost world of a plantation, and people, abandoned by the ‘white folks’.

A thoroughly accomplished account, and musically delicious: but it is hard to ignore the fact that Treemonisha is a troublingly naïve piece to view from a post-colonial standpoint today. One exhilaratingly dark moment comes when Treemonisha, finding her captors bound, furiously orders the village to “set them free”: it only takes seconds for the penny to drop, across the stage, that every single one of them knows what it is like not to be free. Their subsequent choice of the moral high ground is noble; their election of Treemonisha, laudable and groundbreaking in its time. But Joplin – perhaps understandably – shies away from driving his point home, and “The Slow Drag” feels like an intellectually flat end, fun though it is musically. Treemonisha has been educated, but her first act as leader is just to get everyone dancing again; this can’t help but feel frustrating. The earlier part of the opera only refers to their situation in the most glancing terms; the noose and the manacles are helpful visual reminders of the full context of the piece, because you don’t hear it very loudly from Joplin. Stinton wisely lets Joplin’s vision be, rather than writing the subtext large: the very fact he didn’t feel he could say more about slavery and its legacy in this opera speaks volumes, and troubles you for days afterwards.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…

   

  The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly    to our own.  

 

      The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents,  hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

 

      Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from  above the bare stage,  into the combative craziness of the modern world .  The row, alas,  will be all too recognizable to a 21c  medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).  He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters.  Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward.   I am not sure why this works, but it does.  It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics. 

        

          Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism,  religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’,  Icke hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.     As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into  separate identity groups we know where that led.  To tattoos on people’s wrists”.    Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

         

          But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.         

    

    As a show it is pure essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving.  In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping.  Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both  concerned with faith and hope.  

     

  The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag  will only be noticed by Catholics,  because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was  – as “Extreme Unction”for  deathbeds only.  Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed.   But that’s a quibble.  You won’t regret the ticket.    

box office  020 7359 4404    to  28 september      www.almeida.co.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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COUNT ORY Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS INTO THE BLITZ SPIRIT WITH OPERA ALEGRIA AT GRIMEBORN
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a flirtatious farce in which a naughty young Count drives everyone demented with his relentless erotic enthusiasms: and it glitters, musically and dramatically, with madcap Rossinian flair all the way through. For Grimeborn, Opera Alegria have moved the setting from the Crusades to the Second World War, with Count Ory as a feckless young aristocrat who hasn’t joined up, instead running rings around his exasperated tutor, the redoubtable air-raid warden and the hapless Home Guard as he searches for a way to seduce the delectable Adele. Lindsay Bramley’s brilliant translation-adaptation romps home joyfully with the goods: the wartime update lands the tone somewhere between a (very) cheeky Gilbert & Sullivan and a slightly sweary Carry On film, especially once the lads get the nun costumes out (oh, yes, they do). But while the tone is refreshingly light and firmly tongue in cheek, the music making is unrepentantly good stuff. We get an hypnotically elegant piano accompaniment arranged and played by Bramley, and a team of superb singers who attack both dramatic and comic moments with lyrical gusto. This strong ensemble boasts several eyecatching talents: Alistair Sutherland’s richly sonorous bass never fails to impress as Hopkins the tutor, a poised and sassy Caroline Carragher excels as a gorgeously bossy Venetia Trumpington-Hewitt, and Naomi Kilby’s luminous soprano (which has developed exciting depth and strength in recent years) is both engaging and affecting as the innocent heroine Adele. The combined comic skill of Ian Massa-Harris, Christopher Killerby and James Schouten make the Home Guard a well-rehearsed delight, while smaller roles are capably presented by Fae Evelyn as a pleasing Alice and Alicia Gurney as Nathaniel, a plucky little farmer who’s caught Adele’s eye.
Jokes abound in the text, in the score and on the stage: this production fizzes with taut energy all the way to its unusual bedroom climax, which here culminates in a rather joyous (and mercifully unsquirmy) threesome, rather than the usual red-faced mistaken gender reveal. Artistic director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith keeps his fine cast on their toes with slick choreography and continuously well-observed dramatic detail, exploring the piece with care; from the priapic possibilities of carrots to the real tension of an air raid during the storm scene (complete with siren), Newhouse-Smith is unfailingly on the case. Vegetables crop up regularly in Christopher Killerby’s design, which is cleverly simple, using wartime posters to set the scene, while Churchill’s announcement of war opens the piece with admirable tension, the radio extract movingly played over a steadily darkening stage.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 17 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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GO BANG YOUR TAMBOURINE Finborough, SE10

A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH

 

       ANother fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough,  buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour .    As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community.   The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger.  The one he accepts,  to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber ,  is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion.   The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one:  the quartet  work through  a counterpoint of innocence and experience,  old resentments,  father-son rivalry,  religious devotion and simple friendship .        

      

        David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21c,  loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising  and utterly containing a character from another age.   Calver emerges from the sophistication of  London’s E15 Acting School  to become with utter commitment  a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire.  Here’s a boy grieving his mother,  living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off  years before with a Doris.     Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness  – and a struggling stubbornness  – which show the man he might become.      Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…   

          

       It’s a fine performance.  So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath  her  neat  bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of  the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour.  John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy,  is the father;  and there’s a really lovely,  explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess. 

    

  In one fine   scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine  into his daily life.   That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists,  whose band echoes briefly between scenes,  is obvious, but King is not sending them up.   Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable,   and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father.   Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco. 

    

        Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly.   Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set,  build a past  world without caricature and with understanding,  reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness.   It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders.  It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?

 

boxoffice   finboroughtheatre.co.uk   to  31 August .  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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DIE FLEDERMAUS Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES BATS FOR BASELESS FABRIC’S SOCIAL MEDIA TAKE ON STRAUSS

“I’m not saying I’m Batman. I’m just saying nobody has ever seen me and Batman in a room together,” reads the slogan on trendy Falke’s ironic t-shirt. Furious at a recent drinking prank played on him by his pal Eisenstein, in which photos of a blind-drunk Falke dressed as Batman went viral on social media,  Falke now wants to get his own back – with the aid of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde  and Adele, their family nanny, though only Falke knows where it’s all headed. Baseless Fabric Theatre’s contemporary interpretation of Strauss’ operetta brings it to where it has always, to some extent, lived: the world of social media, of rife gossip, giggling humiliation of others , and schadenfreude. Even though Strauss didn’t have an app for it in the 18th century, he perceived our egotism and vulnerability when it comes to what others think of us with an unerring eye in this tightly-drawn, fast paced farce.

It’s rather a treat to be allowed to sit still for Joanna Turner’s lean, entertaining production for Grimeborn: Baseless Fabric are known for their promenade opera, often on high streets (I last chased their excellent mobile Così round the streets of Merton, including in and out of Morrison’s). Marina Hadjilouca designs with simplicity and economy for the Arcola’s petite Studio 2, using a handful of large balloons, some white boxes, sculptural lighting, and not much else beyond a strong sense of contemporary urban chic to place the action squarely in London today. Costumes are brilliantly on point: Falke and Eisenstein are designer-label yuppies, Rosalinde an immaculately dressed but overwrought mother to Eisenstein’s twin boys, and Adele defiantly casual in denim, trainers and braids. With so little visual fuss, yet so much trouble quietly taken, Hadjilouca’s design stands back and lets the piece flow, the ideal backdrop for Joanna Turner’s skilfully choreographed, high-energy direction. Compressing a cast of eleven into four characters comes off remarkably well: Falke absorbs Prince Orlov quite naturally. Eisenstein is facing, not prison, but community service as a punishment for previous drunken behaviour, and in the most delicious comic moment he shuffles grimly across the stage in silence in a COMMUNITY PAYBACK tabard, sourly using a grabber to pick up the shards of golden foil left over from Falke’s fateful party, which he attended in the guise of a footballer, and flirted with his own wife, disguised as a model – all of which is, of course, filmed on iPhones for viral distribution in Falke’s revenge.

The laughs come thick and fast; the score is cleverly conveyed by bassoon, violin and accordion (arranged by bassoonist Leo Geyer); and the singing is glorious. The exceptional Claire Wild is on top form as Rosalinde, her passionate, agile soprano bringing real dramatic verve to the whole, acting with true panache. Wild is well matched by a memorably sassy, smooth and melodious Abigail Kelly as Adele, whose control during musically-annotated laughter is breathtaking. James McOran-Campbell’s honeyed tones make Falke rather lush, which is no bad thing: McOran-Campbell inhabits the world of the piece throughout with joyful intensity, even waltzing a little with the boxes as he rearranges the stage between scenes. David Horton’s lovable lager-lout Eisenstein perfectly hits the grey area between objectionable oaf and endearing Peter Pan, sometimes sweet with winning charm, occasionally vile and unreconstructed, in a clever and appealing performance from this talented young tenor.

Turner may not dig deep into the blacker bits of this operetta, but she mines its surface for fresh, light and coruscating comedy gold: and comes up trumps.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (6-7 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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MISS HAVISHAM’S WEDDING NIGHT /12 POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES MAD FOR AMERICAN MONODRAMA

A pairing of two American music dramas promised plenty of angsty feminist fun for a Friday night at Grimeborn; and I admit, in less accomplished hands, the angst might have overwhelmed the fun. But thanks to a tour de force solo performance from talented soprano Sarah Minns, directed with exceptional care and detail by Ralph Bridle, we were treated to a spellbinding trip inside two extraordinary brains: one real, the other imaginary, both fantasists par excellence. Miss Havisham and Emily Dickinson are icons of deserted womanhood who compel our curiosity alongside compassion, victims of their own time and of themselves. Yet, despite their outer frailty, each is marked by tenacious stubbornness, a determination to bring the world to heel by sheer force of imagination: each makes a sustained creative protest against their reality. Composer Dominick Argento (who died this February) took more than one attempt to realise Miss Havisham’s story as an opera, finally deciding on a monodrama as absorbing as it is unnerving. To soften us up for Argento’s final attack, Aaron Copland’s setting of a dozen Emily Dickinson poems, each dedicated to a different composer friend, is a powerful, elegant exploration of the poet’s extraordinary, tidal emotions, swaying ever further away from sanity. David Eaton’s lustrous piano accompaniment delivers each score with warm, resonant flourish.

Designer Amy Watts sets the stage with a large dining table, surrounded by chairs shrouded in dust sheets, one clearly hiding an inanimate seated figure. A washing line is pegged with letters which will turn out to be from the deceitful Compeyson. Minns enters in a black 1950s dress with a crisp floral apron (perhaps a nod to Dickinson’s legendary gift for baking?) and purrs into the Copland, discovering a Dickinson who is playful, paranoid, divinely inspired and desperate by turns; a glorious human conundrum revealing herself with disarming frankness and fragility through music. Copland’s lieder-like approach endows each poem with its own private world of melody, while Dickinson’s skill with assonance and inner rhyme proves a gift for song: these poems are not so much expressed as emblazoned in Copland’s forensically poised score, and Minns’ gorgeous soprano presses every button in an intense, lyrical performance gently leavened with conspiratorial charm. Director Ralph Bridle adds a toy toucan, which allows Dickinson a friend, pet and confidant, and Minns merrily invites us, toucan and all, on a wild adventure into Emily’s bewildered mind. It is Emily who carries in the wedding cake, adorned with dead flowers and sporting a theatrically-stabbed-in knife, which is vital for the second, darker piece, where we find Miss Aurelia Havisham reliving and re-enacting her fateful jilting. To roll from one piece to another in minutes tests both acting and singing, and the Arcola’s smaller space allows no room to hide, but Minns simply relishes this: her confidence and focus carry all before her, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand as she traces Miss Havisham from her memories as an excited ingénue in cream silk to a haggard, trembling alcoholic, warped by bitter disappointment, alienated, feral, haunting herself rather than living. John Olon-Scrymgeour’s libretto brims with pathos: “It is now, now, always the eternal NOW,” Miss Havisham cries, falling on her knees in anguish before the stopped clock, crushing Compeyson’s last letter of rejection to a ball. By the end, shaking with emotion, smeared with lipstick and blood, Minns can purr, sneer or howl – we are equally mesmerised.

This is what Grimeborn is all about, for me: vibrantly powerful, high quality opera at near-terrifying close quarters, tough but intriguing, with a few surprises tucked in for good measure. Guts, brains and, above all, beauty.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (1-3 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER Jermyn St, SW1

HEROIC ENDURANCE  

    

    In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless,  finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island,   and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men.  It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter,  Harry McNish,  who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.

  

  He is.   On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat,  raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts.  Derelict, delusional,  defiant but near to death,  he addresses Shackleton,  himself already a ghost,  and other shipmates.   Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle,  Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery,   survival in grim Antarctic beauty,  pride ,  trauma and not least,  fury.

   

    He has never  forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat,  Mrs Chippy  (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups .  (Of course he  would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done:  the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death.  The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that  dark cold Antarctic winter.  But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance.  And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy,  who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…). 

      

      Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels.   He was denied  the Polar medal for his defiance,  and also – it seems to him – for having been  right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes.   A brilliant workman,  he had other ideas for escape when the  great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes.  Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services.  But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum,  twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality.  Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night.  “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”. 

    

    Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death,  This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory.   If you catch it, you won’t forget it.  

 

Box office  0207 387 2875   www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to August 17  

tour dates uk & Ireland :    shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS

   

    I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser,   the bit that sticks, and stimulates,  is that troublesome  “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.  

        Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand  they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife,  and in the scuffle is killed.   And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral,  the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork.  So off go the happy couple in a jalopy,  and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.   

 

\    Everyone white, that is.  For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast.   He was indeed  drunk and threatening,  but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey    she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover  to hang himself,   in the weirdly compelling  “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events  the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy. 

  

    Edgy and interesting;  just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans).    Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey,  and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait.   Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not?   The result is that for all the merriment,   the production has uneasy overtones.  These come  to a head in the  extraordinary sexual  ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography)   as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys,   and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence.   Until  the real Jed,  anxious and spruced-up for courtship,  wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.  

  

    All this adds astringency,  and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong.    Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it,  the political-racial unease helps.   Not least because the early scenes felt oddly  conventionally, almost disappointingly so.    We have enjoyed the  musical-theatre lollipops:   the Surrey with a Fringe On Top  and the lively nonsense of  Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having  excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish  pedlar.   But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.  

   

      Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is  a perfect Laurey:   the finest voice of the year,   soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness.    If the overall effect is more of  a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better.    Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.     

 

box office cft.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating four      4 Meece Rating  

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THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA       Noel Coward, WC2

FALLEN ANGELS ENDURING THE STORM 

  

    You can feel the heat in Rae Smith’s design,  Mexican sun on the rock overhead, and the corrugated iron roofs of the rundown hotel. Somewhere below the cliffside verandah an  invisible tour-bus hoots impatiently for its leader,   as the disgraced Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon yells down to  his rebellious Baptist ladies that they are staying on here  and to hell with the schedule as per brochure. 

 

      Clive Owen is Shannon,   returning to the London stage with no inconsiderable triumph, a masterfully crumpled white suit and a positively demonic level of energy.   This pastor, fresh out of the Casa Locos asylum with a breakdown,   struggles to reconcile life’s brochure -schedules (and conventional theology and behaviour)  with the vague truth of something beyond.  Unfortunately the something has most recently materialised  as statutory rape of a very eager 16-year- old.    His altercation with a magnificently harsh and furious Finty Williams as the girl’s duenna  is watched with lustful amusement by Anna Gunn as Maxine,   the exuberantly décolletée newly-widowed  scruff who runs the hotel.

  

      Into the mix appear more strangers:   the travelling watercolourist and sketch peddler Hannah, and her 97 year old grandfather Nonno  “the world’s oldest  practising poet”.   In the play’s last moments he will at last speak his final poem, evoking the fall and rot of fruit, “the earth’s obscene, corrupting love”. 

 

My hard-hearted young colleague Luke Jones has observed that you know you’re watching Tennessee Williams if “everyone talks like a teenage poet”. But then, Williams himself quoted an accusation that he had only “ the uncontrolled emotionalism of a minor lyric talent totally unsuited to the stage of life as well as the theatre”.    But if you love him no emotional overkill or slo-mo breakdown will be too much.    I think this is a  tremendous   play,   perhaps without the explosive excitements of Streetcar or the simpler poignancy of the Glass Menagerie,   but distilled Williams, groping for meaning.  Nor does director  James Macdonald jib at letting it tip gruellingly over the three hour mark. I staggered out ,properly overwhelmed but thrilled to have been there.   Williams  has much to say about degradation, breakdown, innocence, guilt, God, sex, pain , wild nature and loneliness.  

 

       His gift is as ever  to say it all through  characters who are  flawed to the point of being reprehensible,   yet inspire irresistible love and empathy.  Indeed the only atypical thing about this play is the intermittent and very funny invasions of the verandah by four rowdy Germans in naff beachwear,  singing Nazi Marching songs and jeering that London is burning. They do not inspire love at all, but are chucked in there simply because the author is remembering his own   depressed exile in 1940,   in just such a tropical flophouse where triumphalist German revellers were indeed part of the scenery.     Life’s patchwork absurdity need not always be simplified for a tidy stage.

 

The central  performances are judged to a hair:  Gunn’s Maxine is endearingly managerial and sometimes on the edge of cruelty,  but emotionally and sexually needy and seeing Shannon’s loneliness through his terrible behaviour.   He  is God-hungry and  sinful,  ranting at the deity as a “senile delinquent”,  struggling back into his clerical collar or ripping off his gold cross and chain. Guilty, mother-haunted, fleeing and needing women and haunted by his  “spook” depression he stands in the tradition of  Greene’s whisky-priest or Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. 

     

    Owen gives a wonderfully physical performance , crazedly vigorous in the crackup which has him literally tied down to the hammock,   but  stilling gradually under the influence of the other key to the play’s troubled heart:  the  straight-backed Lia Williams as the oddball artist,  “a New England spinster and not young”. With her gold choirboy crop and precise calm endurance she is a still cool flame of  generous chastity.  Both do justice to the wild lush text,  rich in wonder  and filth, corruption and beauty.  It tells us only to endure,  and grow as old as  Nonno so we can speak our poem before we go.

 

box office  0844 482 5151     delfontmackintosh.co.uk   to 28 Sept

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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   JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT                London Palladium W1

  IT’S BACK,  YOUNGER THAN EVER…

 

  We love a starry debut, especially on opening night in a huge theatre:   a 21-year-old not yet through drama school making a stonking, belting first professional appearance in a title role.  We get on our feet:  can’t help it.  Cynicism melts, especially in musical theatre where the energy, the leaping and twirling and singing-while-dancing and sheer bodily skill brings a lump to your throat at even the blandest show.  

     

  So Laurence Connor   knew what he was doing when he cast young  Jac Yarrow in the role more often awarded to existing celebrities:   Joseph is a story about youthful dash , innocence and courage,  its school-play origins in are still at its core and deliberately underlined in this zippy new production.    Giving it such a young star underlines its freshness and fun,   and Yarrow does not let his director  down.  When he comes to the end of his big number behind bars, affirming “Children of Israel are never alone!”  we cheer.  And it’s all the cleverer an effect for Connor’s staging it  – in contrast to the previous relentless cheerfulness of the show –  with one of the few moments of sharp contemporary anxiety:  real children trapped behind him, on the iron bars.

 

         MInd you, you need troupers as well:   the Elvis Pharaoh who bursts on us deafeningly in the second half  is Jason Donovan,  and  the peerless Sheridan Smith is the narrator,    frolicking and clowning  and gagging,   whipping a false beard on and off to be Jacob,  every inch the manic primary-school cheerleader as she encourages and leads a wonderfully child-heavy cast (there are 32 of them in rep:   on press night little Potiphar stole his moment, as well he should).  

        As I say, it began as a school musical about the biblical story of Joseph, his jealous brother’s and the prophetic dreams that saved Egypt from famine. It belongs  in the playful youth of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a stage of life when pastiche is mischievous fun, energy raw and you can get away with lines like “All those things you saw in your pyjamas /  Were a long range forecast for your farmers”.    Lloyd Webber’s inalienable romanticism could already soar easy as a bird into  songs like Any Dream Will Do,  and his sense of parody in the developing show include styles  from Country & Western to Maurice Chevalier (“Ah, zose Canaan days..”),  bubblegum pop and retro tap numbers to that gold-plated Elvis moment here awarded to Pharaoh Jason Donovan.  Of the latter,  the only snag is that unlike the excellent verbal clarity of the rest, it is entirely impossible to follow his growly-rock account of his dreams.  But if you bring a child not yet familiar with the Bible stories of the seven years harvests,  shame on you anyway.

        

    So it’s pure pleasure,  in energy and design (Morgan Large has more fun than is decent, what with Egyptian slavers on tricycle-powered camels, a 15ft gold Anubis statue that mimes with a guitar, and hieroglyphs including beefburgers.  The coat itself is magnificent,  with echoes of Edina Monsoon’s taste in OTT Lacroix).   Sheridan Smith frolics with lunatic competence,  a windmill of energy (see her give the Pharaoh a shoulder rub!  Observe  herself wildly flinging herself at poor Joseph  as Mrs Potiphar in a leopardshkin rug, head and all).  Dance styles draw from Riverdance to Breakdance and most stops in between.   Fun is had. 

box office  lwtheatres.co.uk   to 8 September

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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PETER GYNT Olivier, SE1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS CAPTIVATED BY LIFE’S FUTILE MISSION…

 

Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s almost unperformable meandering 1867 epic, –  written as a poem and not really designed for the stage –   has been a problem for directors for more than a century. In Willy Russell’s 1983 film Educating Rita, Julie Walter’s aspiring graduate answered her first essay question about the problem of staging it with the words “do it on the radio”. She could just as well have said “get David Hare”.

 

Because what the veteran playwright has done is nothing short of marvellous – bringing the saga bang up to date, he has made it a searching inquisition into today’s online, self-obsessed world, a place where, as Peter tells us, “people don’t have lives any more, they have stories”. Hare has made as much sense of Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece as seems possible.

 

Peter’s futile mission to discover a sense of his self throughout his story (never mind the human cost of those he encounters) is so redolent of the narrative-making of narcissistic Instagrammers the world over it’s almost eerie. Added to that the prefiguring of Freud in Peter’s dreaming, his egotism and his problems with his mother accentuate a sense that this is an astonishingly prophetic piece of work.

 

James McCardle’s Peter is living on a remote Scottish island in this telling, just back from a war somewhere in the Middle East and full of mendacious claims of his heroism. This obviously allows Hare to scratch all his itches about Tony Blair and Weapons of Mass destruction, which feels a bit overdone.

The moment mid-way though his story when Peter makes his fortune, becoming a reckless Florida gold club-owning businessman and head of Gynt Enterprises is also rather blunt in its satire of You-Know-Who in the White House.  But the play’s Fake Noos-ish assertion that “if people believe you did something then you did it” certainly makes this feel more justified in Hare’s retelling.

 

But he certainly goes a bit far at the close,  when David Cameron pops up to bemoan his failure to understand the wishes of voters who weren’t as privileged as him. It’s a fair point to make, but it didn’t add much dramatically,  and felt more like the kind of jokey insertion you’d expect at the Hackney Empire panto than the National. It also prompted that most irritating of National Theatre traditions – the knowing, liberal guffaw.

 

Still, it’s bonkers in a wonderful way, and you’ll be thinking of it long after the curtain comes down. Not just of our own age and problems but the stories and traditions it emanates from – the story of Job,, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  And director Jonathan Kent’s staging is quite breathtaking at times. Designer Richard Hudson’s clutter-free stage evokes the majesty and grandeur of this epic story with fabulous evocations of a Troll dinner party with a skewed table, the Egyptian desert, and Peter’s sea-voyage complete with enormous ship.

 

But in the end it all comes back to Peter, and his sudden sense at the close that most of our lives, however much we want to be at the centre of the world, are mediocre and hollow.  McArdle is more than up to the job, coping with a hugely demanding night with intelligence and verve; his Peter is infuriating  for most of the play,  and its testament to our lead’s skill  is that we continue to root for him.  And we are left with some hard and painful questions of our own.

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 October

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

     Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany,  are the Harry Potter team.  They know how not to bore.   But they’ve been here before too in a  Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood,   and they can make that just as gripping.  HOPE was a wonderful,  unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man ““It’s possible I will have a better life than you.  The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”.    And this play picks up that theme  of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better. 

 

A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents:  children of the spirit of ‘68, protest marchers, idealists.  He is immersed,  over his newspaper,  in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education.  She is lively, dryly funny,  a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran,    disappointed in  Tony Blair.  The children were all named after socialist icons.

 

As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s  Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash.  The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family,   and Carl needs his pro-choice  liberal parents to fund her abortion.   Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave.    Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife  in  the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter,  irritable warmth and familiar  allusions of the host family.

 

Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.

 

An important achievement  is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family,  as firmly as in EM Forster’s  Schlegels (to whom they may well  owe a debt: certainly  Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So  we follow them,  engrossed by the way that  the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as  the 21c world  of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit.    Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ;  Carl disappointed, thwarted,  drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out.  But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson  gives up,   in every glance and gesture,  a vulnerability that stops your heart.

 

      However,  caringly and  without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!”  used to be in melodrama.  I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom .  Beat, beat,  pause  – family look at one another aghast –  someone runs off    there’s a shot or a horrified scream.     It’s too easy.  Mike Leigh has done it,  the  normally subtler  Florian Zeller has just done it.  Now Thorne.  Enough already!  it’s becoming  emotionally cheap.   And some of us can see it coming minutes early.    Capeesh?

 

Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 boxoffice@royalcourttheatre.com

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE GED 13 3/4 THE MUSICAL Ambassadors, WC2

GROWING PAINS IN THATCHER-TIME…

 

It is almost eerie to plunge back into the 1980s for early teens of our hero,  especially if you have been listening to the latest R4 reading of his adult life,  long post- Thatcher, deep in Brexit with Pandora in Parliament and his love life still a  slo-mo disaster..  But this little musical, developed in Leicester (where else!) is the result of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary  badgering the late sue Townsend to be allowed to do it,  and with poppy tunes and a high-spirited cast under Luke Sheppard,  it works surprisingly well.

    

    Its charm is partly retro – boy-nature is perennial, and all of us, of both sexes,   who were once teenage poets and dreamers of intellectual grandeur can relate to poor Adrian’s travails.   Even if our parents were less ghastly than his.    But young Mole predates our age of social media, smartphones and the problems of wiredly connected anxious FOMO-victims. Today one could wistfully hope that teenage intellectual ambition would find a tribe.   And, with luck, his mother Pauline’s feminism would have lost its recklessly selfish 1980’s élan and taken his emotional welfare too seriously to dump him with a boozy Dad and run off with Mr Lucas. 

 

    Shouldn’t be nursing these reflections during what is a stompingly funny, pleasantly daft and relentlessly energetic musical,  but the sadness of Adrian Mole always did rather get to me. And the poignant performance of the boy himself (on press night Michael Hawkins) serves that very honestly.    His timing, and sense of bathos, is magnificent:  underlining the perennial problem of any child looking up at the terrible absurdities and unpredictable behaviours of the adult world (not just his parents  – Andrew Langtree and a willowy Amy Ellen Richardson –   but Ian Talbot’s old Baxter with his views on women (“whip ‘em, slap ‘em, ride ‘em”) and the fierce grandmother (Rosemary Ashe).    The adults double as schoolchildren, which is simple but frankly hilarious;  though in the ensemble of real children the palm must go to the diminutive Charlie Stripp as Barry the Bully,  whose macho posing, gritted jaw and squared shoulders elicited barks of delight.   He works the delightfully patched, ragged family dog puppet beautifully as well. 

 

  So it’s good fun, irresistible really, and should cheer up the school holidays no end while reminding parents of their own awful 80’s childhood.   The Nativity play is well over the top and down the other side.   But at its core is the sadness that Adrian will never quite, even in his own inflated opinion, fulfil his chant of “I’ll be great, I’ll be strong, I’ll be friends with Elton John!”.  

 

Box Office: 0843 904 0061  to 12 October

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

    Savagely observed  absurdity, blinding flashes of insight,  profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel  swamp of humanity.  This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges .  Though  wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling;   and intelligently,   rather than clutter the set realistically, she  uses the striking , noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions .  The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening. 

      

  The play  starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes:  religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice,   and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere:   a superb Jemima Rooper ,  voguing around in shabby leopardprint.  She  is doubly disreputable  for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”.  She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken.  In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus  she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night –  and what they say is “Live!  live!”.  Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.  

        

  This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things:  that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation,  that his wife Lady has run and improved the business , and  that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals.  BUt who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to blacks,  was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames.  This left Lady destitute  so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – ‘Jabe Torrance bought that woman,  and he bought her cheap”. 

          Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis,    Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”.  Lady is efficient but not fond,  brisk and chilly and cleverer  than the rest, standing apart.   Into this little world descends the Orphean Val,    with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith,  wanting to  to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life.   After some sparring,  and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches,  he gets a job in Lady’s store.  

     

  From that moment   Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage,  control the tension,  drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,.    The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval .  Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later).   She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” .   Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter  – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”,  and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven.  When the moment comes that they finally kiss,   movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.  

      

      Too deep involved,  too sorrowful for the trapped lives,  you  long for this pair to make a break for it,  assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully).     You are rapt until  the last terrible moments.  Uncle Pleasant looks on,  steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world,   and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way.   Stunning, strange, unforgettable.  

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

 

 

 

      There’s something special about fin-de-siecle anger in any century: this is from 1697,  years later than Wycherley and the mellower Sheridan,  and  best described as a furious sex-comedy wrapped around real tragedy. 

        A vicious, drunken rich husband, Brute, eloquently hates his wife and resents the whole entrapment of matrimony  – “If I were married to a hogshead of claret I would hate it!”.   Poor Lady Brute  once “thought I had charms enough to govern him..” but didn’t.  Their bickering (sharp, funny, this is the author John Vanburgh at the top of his game) is so poisonous that with her niece Belinda she plots to cuckold him with a handy gallant,   just for vengeance.   In a playfully daring argument, very much of the period ,  she explains that the scriptural ban on infidelity”might be a mistake in the translation”. 

        There are  two available men –  John Hodgkinson’s aquiline, grey-suited cynic Heartfree, who against his will eventually falls for Belinda,  and the more naive and gilded Constant (Rufus Hound) who fancies Lady Brute.  Meanwhile Caroline Quentin,  in crazy rouged-clown makeup,  foot-high ginger wig and patisserie-frilled crinoline,  is Lady Fancifull.  She is teased by Heartfree , sets her cap at him and adds to the chaos..  

           It is the usual Restoration affair of masks, ruses, meetings,  and razor-sharp mutual insults between the sexes. Cheeky assaults are made on the fourth wall,  and the laughs keep coming.   Jonathan Slinger’s dissipated Brute ends up, for no very good reason, being arrested drunk in a woman’s dress:  he puts on a bravura display of shrill camp violence as he wipes out the  watch and insults the Justice.  Quentin’s Fancifull  too is all one could ask  this side of an actual pantomime dame, as she pirouettes surrounded by looking-glasses on sticks.  

   

    The comedy is excellent,  the Restoration wordiness enlivened by some terrific movement  direction by Ayse Tashkiran – Fancifull’s obedient household rarely move at less than a fast scuttle .  There are a couple of rather lovely songs ,  and Sarah Twomey as a bravura bilingual French maid.    Incidentally,  this and next week’s Venice Preserved mark the RSC debut of Les Dennis:  possibly the first time someone gets both a Stratford debut and an award for Best Ugly Sister in the same month.  He’s not too busy in this – just a bit of fine drunken collapsing, and a spry participation in the scuttling entourage. But very welcome.   

         The tragedy, though, is real and angry:   it is the living death  of Lady Brute,  and the horribly well-evoked depressive nastiness and cowardly despair of her husband.   Alexandra Gilbreath is stunning:  she moves from an initial playfulness, coyly carnal as she plots her  affair,   into later moments of intense and queenly stillness as Brute grows filthier and more violent.   We are told Vanbrugh wrote the part , darker than in his first play,   for Elizabeth Barry,   an experienced  tragedienne.  It shows.  When the sodden and bloodstained Brute  violently kisses then tries to rape her –   smearing her , glorying in making her  filthy as him –  it is one of the nastiest scenes of the year,  for all the frills and furbelows.   Her face, and dutiful shuddering curtsey  afterwards , tell all.   The central tragedy is  simply that she is stuck with him.  And his power. 

       Vanbrugh  was a phenomenon: shipping agent commented for bravery under fire, four years a prisoner in France,  he came home and wrote two comedies – this being the second – before turning into an architect and designing Castle Howard.  Historically, he is credited by director Philip Breen with influences on both Tennessee Williams (is Blanche Dubois just Lady Fancifull, with added pathos?) and Pinter; his trio of men – lover, husband, sceptic – he links to the three in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.     But few other writers simultaneously evoke  quite the savage cynicism,  torrential verbal wit  and real anger  of this slightly alarming and ceaselessly entertaining piece about men, women, and social hypocrisies.   When Heartfree – who has fallen genuinely in love –  and the yearning Constant have a rare moment of insight together,  they define with sudden odd beauty what is lost in libertinism:  “To be capable of loving one is better than to possess a thousand”.  

box office rsc.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

LOVE  AND LOSS AND ‘THAT’S THE DEAL’

 

 

   Jack is a middle-aged Oxford English don of the ’50’s , a bachelor and apologist for Christianity.  Graceful, witty books and lectures justify such theological puzzles as “the problem of pain”.   Within him, carefully protected by theology and cautious habit,  is still a desolate 8-year-old grieving his mother:  retreats into  childlike imagination have fuelled the children’s books which have made him famous round the world, and (naturally)  regarded with a slight envious suspicion in the senior Common Room.   He corresponds across the Atlantic, with a mouthy , witty American woman with a bad marriage who admires his religious writing and children’s books alike.    She visits. His friends in the Common-room are pretty appalled, but the friendship deepens enough for them to go through  a civil marriage so she can legally live here.   Her cancer diagnosis makes him  see that they are in love;   real marriage  and remission give Jack and Joy three years of great happiness before he meets the  great unanswerable pain.

 

 

  Jack of course is C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books;   William Nicholson’s  play a modern classic.  I had seen it several times, most recently Alistair Whatley’s marvellous touring production with Stephen Boxer ( https://theatrecat.com/2016/03/28/shadowlands-touring/   ) .   Frankly,    I had qualms about Hugh Bonneville in the role:  too handsome, too familiar in his evocations of dullish  decent steadiness in  both Downton  and his hapless W1A role.  

 

        But before many minutes in the chaffing common-room scenes which open the play,  I could see the point.  It’s a different Lewis, but a valid one.   Bonneville points up Lewis’ essential goodwill, contrasted with the nicely viperish Christopher Riley (Timothy Watson).   It also brings out the touching tolerant sweetness of his relationship with his bufferish alcoholic brother Warnie:   no intellectual and initially more than wary of  Liz White’s noisy, assertive Joy,  but possessed of more emotional commonsense than his brother.    Andrew Havill is a joy, both in his alarmed early evasions and the grandfatherish warmth he shows in the crisiS, towards the interloper’s young son (the night I saw it,  a fine Ruari Finnegan).  

 

          All the jokes and little British uneasinesses are there ,  pointed and sharp and elegant under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction.  I wondered at first if the vast stage would drown the play’s intimacy,  but filmically fast-changing scenes on the revolve work brilliantly while in street scenes characters  walk past a lamp-post (nice touch, we readers remember both its origins in The Magician’s Nephew and its appearance beyond the Wardrobe).    Joy’s hospital bed stands in the second half as  a small,  pathetic focus in the centre while  the irrelevances of the outside world  circling distant around it:   there’s emotional truth in that .  The yawning black gap between two vast library shelves has its symbolism too, in Lewis’ heart, but  also enables the child’s glimpses of Narnian divinity.    The moment in the hotel when the boy rings the bell and a woman rises is magic. 

 

      One companion worried that Bonneville’s natural, possibly incurable,  suavity would damage belief in his newfound ardour and the  immense wrecking shock of his bereavement, as he has to accept that giving your whole heart means having it broken: ‘that’s the deal’.    I didn’t find any problem with the Bonneville version:  he  did it his way.     There is one gloriously telling moment when he and Joy are not just intellectual friends but physically married,  and he lauds the ordinary, domestic happiness of it.  For the only time in the play we see Lewis not at a desk or lecturing or poised in company, but lounging:  feet up on a stool,  relaxed,  contented.  A man made new.  Strangely, that was the moment a tear pricked.

 

box office  cft.org.uk  to  25 may

rating four  

4 Meece Rating

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JUDE Hampstead, NW1

ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY ,  FRESHNESS OF YOUTH

    

    It’s a storming performance. Young  Isabella Nefar  as Judith erupts upon us:   adolescent, exuberant,  afire with defiance and poetry,  language and sexual vigour and contempt and high ancient longings.  She is a Syrian-Christian  refugee, without settled status,  a teenage cleaner ,an autodidact drawn like a moth to the great Greek classics.   Her nightmares are about border crossings, Turkish back-streets,a father horribly dead.  Her dream is to read Classics at Oxford.   Found reading a volume of Euripides  – “stealing makes it better!” – by her academic employer  she speaks the great lines and translates with eloquent beauty,  ordering the sacred rivers to run backwards and start the world anew. 

 

      Howard Brenton’s new play is a deliberate echo of Thomas Hardy’s darkest work, Jude the Obscure:  an updated riff on his angry theme of how passionate genius in humble people is stifled and thwarted by society.   Hardy’s is a famously grim book  (especially the bit I slightly despise him for when the stonemason’s three children die in a murder-suicide  with a note saying “done because we are too meny”.)     Brenton does not go so far,  though at one point one feels the temptation rising;  the important thing is that he picks up and flies with the idea of how underprivileged genius  today can “fall through the rotten floorboards”  of Britain,  what with tightening asylum rules callously applied, MI5 witch-hunts,  snobbery, and middle-England’s distaste for  stroppy, ungrateful foreigners however brilliant they are.  There’s even, in a final lavish twist, a reference to a trade deal about American pork post-Brexit.. 

   

If this sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, fear not.  Nefar is a marvellously engaging Judith: infuriating,  elevated, never passive but hopeful and joyful and furious: she burns before us on the fuel of poetry, wild intelligence and terrifying ancient sensibility.  Euripides himself turns up – Paul Brennen in a brilliant, blank mask by Vicki Hallam,    haunting her dreams and visions,  sometimes awe-inspiring, deeply other, yet finally with an unsettling edge of Geordie -accented camp.

   

    Jude is bent on A levels, cleaning by night and living with rough Jack (Luke MacGregor) a rustic pig thief.  This enables some very Greek throat- cutting as,  drunk with words , memories and vodka,  the wild girl bathes herself sonorously in blood on the soaking sand.  The Oxford scenes are both funny and satirically sharp, as  Caroline Loncq’s  matchless Professor Deirdre – a sort of drunker Mary Beard –  is captivated by her passion, fixes her a scholarship and cannily lists the advantages: “Arab – single mother – female – from a persecuted religious minority –  I can see those boxes ticking themselves!”.   But she is then intimidated out of it, not wholly credibly to be honest,   by a security service warning and the risk to the University’s reputation.    

        It grips constantly and sometimes, especially with the great shiver of Homeric or Euripidean words,  shakes you. The last scenes move in a satisfying way between surrealism, sharp practicality from Jude’s rather fine aunt (Anna Savva)  and exasperated drunken ranting from the pig man. There are streaks of  over-Hampsteady paranoia about the present government,  logical holes which don’t matter  and one psychological one which does pull you up a bit :  Judith piously proclaims  that Syrians respect family more than our lot ,  while having apparently forgotten that she walked out on Jack and her infant son to lay siege to Oxford and seduce her reluctant, religiously intense cousin.  

         But “ poets are only echoes” says Euripides, and so are playwrights.  Distortions, crumples and ragged edges make them all the more beguiling, and Howard Brenton never lets you down in the end.   All in all, it’s a rather fabulous swansong for Ed Hall’s Hampstead years.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 1 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GHOSTS Royal, Northampton

A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s

 

 

    Wipes you out every time,  Ibsen’s furious, shocking,  violent assault on the cruel decayed conventions  of his century’s end.   Its indecency –  a plot driven by syphilis, prostitution,  illegitimacy,  female victimhood and religious hypocrisy    capsized his first.  “A loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum….an open drain”.      The century since has at least understood that in art such drains are vital and contemplation of appalling things sometimes necessary.  But this was no self-indulgent modern Sarah-Kanery or Edward-Bondism:   it rises to its real greatness in  the bitter, clear-eyed author’s truthfulness about human bonds: not only  between mother and son but in  the dead, thwarted affection between Mrs Alving and the absurd Pastor Manders.

    

      In other words I revere the play, and feared a little that after Richard Eyre’s devastating , taut 100-minute version which last sent me reeling out into the street,  I would have misgivings about returning to two acts with  Lucy Bailey’s production and a Mike Poulton script.  However,  Bailey is always good at finding and expressing the violent shocks of any play.  And this she does here, from the first moments when  in the elegant sea-green set of the decorous Alving home   Declan Conlon’s crude dangerous Engstrand hurls his supposed daughter Regina to the floor.  She shrinks from his touch. And Poulton’s careful wording, here and later in an aside by Mrs Alving,  suggests more strongly than usual yet another “putrid indecorum”;  he’s a sexual abuser as well as a bully.  

   

        All through, indeed,  the physicality of  Bailey’s direction serves the play well,  right through the taut explanatory scenes between Helen and Pator Manders, to the final moments when Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald grapples and begs for a merciful death (“I gave you life!” “Take it back!”).   The lighting is expressive,  the pretty green darkening to an underwater tone suggesting the monstrosities below the bourgeois surface, then at last lightening  with the thin Norwgian sunlight.   Light is at the play’s symbolic core,  in   Helen’s furious “possessed by the decaying spirits of the dead…we are pathetically afraid of the light!”.  

         

    James Wilby as Pastor Manders has a famously difficult task.   He is both a caricatured absurdity    on discovering Regina’s origin he has the nerve only to worry that it “made a mockery of the sacrament of marriage”, which reminded me oddly of ex-Pope Benedict’s recent essay worrying mostly about the status of the Eucharist when speaking of a raped altar-server.   Manders is a booby, a blinkered believer proud of having “crushed the rebellious spirit” in Helen Alving;   and yet we have to believe also that he was the friend to whom she once ran for help, and that they shared a thwarted love.   Wilby just about achieves this, because despite Manders’ terrible statements he physically exudes a kind of clerically suppressed amiability.  

 

 Niel-Mee’s Osvald is strong, too, rising from stiff sullen boyishness  to raging terror and helpless pleading.  But towering above them all, as she always should,   is Mrs Alving.  Penny Downie ,   aquiline and elegant,  is the conscience and heart and victim of the play:  she needs to convey a passionate heart, questioning moral intelligence,  gentleness,  terror, anger, quiet observation,  and an edge of fond mocking humour,  in that extraordinary moment when she sees through Manders yet again,  affectionately and without rancour.   Penny Downie achieves all this.  I would watch it right through again simply to see that performance.   If this were a London production and thus eligible,  I’d glue myself to Albert Hall to demand that the woman gets an Olivier.

 

www.royalandderngate.co.uk    to  11 May

rating four   4 Meece Rating

        

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ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

  It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood.  Banter,  mild irritation,  passing jokes and  irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward.  It makes it real.  No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed:    as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.   It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus:  the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up,  finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.

  

 

        Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time :  there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set,  as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward  out of a video of wartime footage at the opening,  and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone.    Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered. 

   

  Bill Pullman is perfect  casting as Joe:   the “man’s man” and patriarch,  whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war.  He cherishes the surviving son,  Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and  amiably tolerates having his less-educated language  corrected by his heir.   You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes  and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives.   But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease.  One bad thing happened,   one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…

 

        Equally subtle  is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who  suddenly, electrifyingly,  moves  in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night:  her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines.    Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster:   a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread.   But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:.  Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear.   “Certain things can never happen”.

   

      But they did. The remorseless  tide runs on:   below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability  – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously –   as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting  manliness.     

 

      It is an intimate, unshowy production:  its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors:   sitting actors on the floor, downstage,  for  important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them.    But aside from that quibble it has real greatness.    Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos.   The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”.     Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide:  the key recognition is  that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes.  They are all his sons.  Kate’s final departure,  hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality,   breaks your heart. 

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

(Published in Daily Mail on Friday, one must moonlight to support this website’s unfunded free existence –   but here it is  for theatrecat regulars..)

 

       The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive.   Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg:   an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props ,walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960’s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols. 

        

  But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over,  and  every number is irresistible.  Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics,  tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to  Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  A  young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end,  overlook her sexual history.  Even if she was powerless,  seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes ,“Stuck on the flypaper of life”.  The old story still works today, as the MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.   

   

      The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity,  the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’  whose only friends are the other girls.  She is one of our finest serious actresses,   with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe.   She is not known or trained for musicals , so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced  energy and sweet physical wit.   By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down,  every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.  

           In the small space the dances are spectacular, and  Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive.  On one hand we have the aggressive,  sprawlingly sexy  moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music”.   But when Charity is herself,  naively dazzled by meeting  the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life  or parading triumphantly with “I’m a Brass band!”, it’s quite different.   She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl,  graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her  seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds.   She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.     

    

  There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”,  by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting .   On press night Daddy B,  terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin.    Here’s  another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance.  That showed,  hilariously, but he was having such an  indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around,  hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

   The Haymarket these spring mornings is dense with toddlers and their attendants (I’d say  by the look of it  20% parents, 50%  grandparents, and the rest nannies and millennial siblings /aunts).    They are  all emerging dead pleased from the Theatre Royal,  and what more glamorous for your first theatre than those gilded splendours?  One near me was gazing spellbound at the ceiling before the action started, and actually paid less attention to the show throughout than admiring the decor.   But most were rapt, and indeed  my one grudge against the Old Laundry’s loving Beatrix Potter production – first aired three years ago -is that they waited till my youngest toddler was 31.

 

      With Stephen Edis music and some Ayckbourn lyrics,   it is a thousand sweet miles from the ghastly film (Potter was right, in her lifetime , to turn down Disney).   Te set is perfect . There are make-it-at-home flats and simple props ( under fives need  it simple enough to put on their own show baack home) but also with an arch with changing Potter scenes projected like a living book. Joanna Brown as the author introduces  a series of tales for a simple hour, assisted by the dim but benevolent Mrs Puddleduck; we hardly need the celebrity recorded voices of Griff and Miriam.

 

      The main joy is in the puppetry, led by Caroline Dalton  and performed by puppetter-actors,  with notable characterization by Samuel Knight as Jeremy Fisher and Tommy Brock.   The pleasure is in their meticulously witty detail as they invigoarate the the very faithfully-Potter creatures. Great synchro beakwork from both ducks and top hopping from Jeremy Fisher (a gasp all round when the big trout  threatens).  The production takes the trouble to create a menacing offstage squeak from mr MacGregor’s wheelbarrow (another gasp)   and to make sure Mrs Tiggywinkle’s nose does indeed go sniffle-sniffle-snuffle .  But a particular bouquet ,please,  for the way disgusting old Tommy Brock searches his bum.   That’s  my second classy-badger encomium in two days (see below for In The Willows!).   

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE WILLOWS            Oxford Playhouse & touring

A FRESH WIND BLOWING THROUGH AN OLD TALE 

    

  Down on the Riverbank Club,  teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck,  telling the shy diffident Mole   “There is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”.  

  

    Er…blink: OK,  we’re not in 1908 any more.  This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by   Alan Bennett or Disney.  In Metta Theatre’s cheeky,  exuberant hip-hop musical version , Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school,  next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.   The show  raves, cartwheels,  windmills,  head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance,  only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime,  and our fear for the violence alongside it.   The sober grownup  among them is Clive Rowe as Badger ,the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he  exudes his marvellous solid ,tuneful benignity in the middle of therave.  

            Mole  (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically:  after losing a brother to violence at ten,  she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma.    Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on,  and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter:  Chris Fonseca from Def Motion. The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft.   Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping  bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter :  he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison.  Two frivolous rabbits whirl around,  grave Owl is in a hijab,   and the Chief Weasel  – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.      

 

  Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting .  This is  Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so –   pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood.   So it’s part gig.  But characteristically,  Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original.   These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit  he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…

   

    At first  it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable  rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me:  I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?).   But more importantly the musicl  grows emotionally.    In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother,   and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel .  In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs,  it feels oddly urgent.    

  

    Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all –   finds they’ve killed his only pet,  Alan.  This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants  attempting CPR on a goldfish.    There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young:  in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview.  Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism  alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it.  In the second,  he  pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed.  Tears to the eyes.

    

    Of course there is  a secret passage into Toad Hall,   and a battle to oust the weasels.   Naturally,  it’s a dance-off:   Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance  versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter.  But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” –  penal reform .    Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break.  But having seen this I like to think  he got Community Service.   

 

box office   https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows

touring to 8 June:    still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

   

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ADMISSIONS                  Trafalgar Studios , SW1

CRACKS IN THE LIBERAL VENEER

   

  I adored the energy, cleverness and cheek of BAD JEWS so much I went twice, as the pitiless author  set his characters kicking, twisting, protesting and fighting about principles which are as much emotional as moral,.  If  not more so.   ADMISSIONS is by the same Broadway writer – Joshua Harmon   – and even better.   And nicely topical too, both sides of the Atlantic, since it’s about the middle-class obsession with shoehorning their 17 and 18 year old kids into the ‘right’ colleges ,  by hook, crook, donation or ‘legacy’ status, all the while protesting how liberal and inclusive they are.     So I rushed keenly along. And was not disappointed.

    

   Mr Harmon must put in a lot of stage directions saying “Shouting!’  “Furious”  “Ranting”  and  “He/She explodes”.    For as in Bad Jews,  the temperature takes little time to rise past boiling and into superheated-steam.   The setting is a US private school, Hillcrest,  where the extremely correct-thinking dean of admissions Sherri Rosen-Mason  (Alex Kingston )  is the wife of the head and mother of a promising lad Charlie.  Her best friend Ginnie (Sarah Hadland) is married to a black teacher and has an equally promising son,  Perry.   The boys are best friends.   

  

  That Sherri is sincere in her quest to get the  visible “diversity” of the school up to 20% , and has done so with some success,  is sketched in a very funny opening scene where she upbraids poor Roberta from Admin (Margot Leicester, nicely dishevelled)   for not getting enough Students Of Colour in the brochure.   Nice Roberta is baffled “I don’t see colour, I’m not a race person”,  and protests that Ginnie’s son Perry is in it.  But to Sherri,  Perry doesn’t photograph quite black enough, being bi-racial.  There have been complaints from her too about “ethnocentric meal plans”  to which poor Roberta cries “Kids like pizza!”.   They also like Moby Dick, but it’s banned now for being by a dead white male.    You get the picture.

    The glorious central conflict comes when Perry gets into Yale.  His friend white Charlie doesn’t.  And blows his top, saying how hard it is having “no special boxes to tick”, and – tellingly – remembering that on all their college visits the Deans were visibly more interested in Perry than in him,  more conscious eye-contact and laughing at his jokes.  Especially if Perry’s fully black Dad was next to him….

        Ben Edelman as Charlie, over from the US production, is a treat:  six feet of coiled adolescent rage at the world’s unfairness,  his long rant has a Just-William ability to argue :  as when he roars  that a Hispanic student might well be descended from colonialist conquistadors, and that one is the son of the Chilean ambassador,   whereas his grandparents’ cousins were at Auschwitz so where’s the white-privilege in that?  This outrages his father, who is also rabidly PC and fears he has  “raised a Republican”.   But in a savage turnaround wholly credible in a 17 year old boy,    Charlie piously decides he was wrong, so wrong that he must recuse himself from all the high-status universities and privilege in a way that guarantees that his parents shed all their principles in an even more violent emotional conniption. 

      Gales of appalled laughter run through the audience.     Glorious, a sharp and timely treat.

   

box offfice www.atgtickets.com    to 11 may

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE PHLEBOTOMIST                 Hampstead Theatre, NW1

WRITTEN IN THE BLOOD

 

What great timing!  Just as the worried-well Health Secretary gets rubbished for taking a commercial DNA test,  announcing that it has “saved his life” because it posits an increased prostate risk,  and getting firmly told by the profession that he is ‘astonishingly ignorant’, and is wasting NHS resources by “booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist.”   The haplessminister, though, is only a few decades ahead of the curve according to Ella Road’s dark dystopian play. 

 

    In this future world gene sequencing is instant – none of this sending-off to the lab for a fortnight’s wait, but in the phlebotomist’s laptop within minutes.  And everyone is given a “rating”,  according to their physical and mental disease risk.    Hence employers and immigration authorities demand tests and disclosures,   there’s a rising culture of “rateism”  and a Pandora’s box of  consequent evils ranging from “post-natal abortion” for low-scoring babies,  low-raters urged into sterilization,  panicky   blood-cheating and thieves with syringes puncturing high-raters for the red gold.   Not to mention moments of rage and dread in surgeries when the laptop reveals you, as our heroine puts it, as “a cocktail of crap!”.  

  

      The tale is  set in a futuristic but recognizable bleakness, and adorned with mischievous projections which begin with the real Dame Sally Davies looming at us with her view that full gene-sequencing is everybody’s right. They  progress through a dating video,  fragments of political interviews , snake-oil promotions like Crispr gene-editing therapy to improve school performance, and news bulletins.   Our heroine is the gamine Bea (Jade Anouka), a  phlebotomist scoring about 7, who meets and marries the 9+ Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne)   from a smoother, posher family.   In an electric scene Bea has to tell her old friend Char (Kiza Deen, in a cracking mainstream stage debut)  that her score is low, due to Huntingdons likely to flare within years.  

    

        For her friend’s job application she cheats out of kindness,   then over a couple of years and marriage we witness her corruption :   first into cheating for money,  then at last (or almost at last)  internalizing the vicious rateism of society.  In a great reveal  there is rage and dismay and a bit of violent domestic phlebotomy which must be a stage first.  

    

      By contrast, though,  Char with the doom of disease hanging over her abandons the mainstream job she won,  sets off on the hippie trail, embraces risk and fate like a real human, and works  as she declines for a charity for the low-rate ostracized.   It’s a stunning performance,  as is Anouka’s, the counterbalance of the two girls’ trajectories perfect.   

 

  All this is splendid.  There is an oddity in the play, though:  the excellent Mark Lambert plays David, a hospital porter whose attitude to life is the opposite to the poisonous culture.  He speaks of his wife -a  low-scorer due for Alzheimers – and his abandonment of grander careers.  But he is also given a long monologue about a chap he knew who became such a perfectionist gardener that there was no room for his children to play, and choked on a cherry tomato because it was perfectly formed.  Which might be intended as a metaphor, but slows the moment and misses the target by miles ,  not least because (equally inexplicably) this dystopian Britain is also malnutritionally short of fresh vegetables and fruit.   With so much more interesting stuff going on, that chimes oddly.  Not sure either that Aaron’s gambling addiction is wholly necessary.   

      But never mind.  Under Sam Yates’ direction it’s a spirited page-turner of a tale, with some marvellous leads.  Drop a couple of unnecessary scenes and it would be an electrically thrilling 100-minutes- no-interval, giving us no  respite from a satisfyingly likely dystopia. Brrr.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to  20 April

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’         Mercury, Colchester then Southwark

I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A REVIEW…

 

So dress up sassy, shake your chassis, get some mesh on your flesh like the ladies who sing with the band. Sell your vocals to the yokels, get cash for your trash!   

        Tamasha’s romp through the great Fats Waller’s songbook is a two-hour treat,  with a reeling, rocking cast of five and a joyful five-piece combo.  Huggin’, jitterbuggin’, they get the joint jumping with the defiant appeal of the downtrodden:   the 1920s and 30s explosion of black jazz defiance clothed as irresistible entertainment for all.  It’s the music which helped make the Afro-American black experience resonate so strongly for generations,  and to this day inspires the African diaspora across the world.   

        “The music is the star”  in Richard Maltby’s creation, says Tamasha’s debutant-director Tyrone Huntley (more familiar onstage himself in Superstar, Memphis etc).  There is sparse dialogue and no ongoing plot, more a  stream of consciousness.  It is  played out in a Harlem club of extreme glitter, gold staircase and shiny floor,  but sometimes suggesting the hard pavements outside, where a man alone dreams of a reefer five foot long,  “king of everything before I swing”.  Once there’s  an uptown foray to the Waldorf – “Don’t rock, they love jazz but in small doses,  don’t shock, don’t sing loud, muffle the drums , you’ll do swell with the swells..”.    The bass throbs, the piano sparkles, trumpet, sax and clarinet soar in triumph or mourn in melancholy.   The songs yearn, woo, bicker, rejoice, and sell.   Once, the staid Colchester audience is defied to join in with the shout “Fat and greasy, a fat and greasy fool!” and does, mesmerized. 

    

  The choreography, new, is by Oti Mabuse;   Adrien Hansel and Wayne Robinson are the men, smart and cool and agile.   The women are all stunning in different idiosyncratic ways:  Renee Lamb  (SIX’s original Catherine of Aragon)  big and powerfully gorgeous,  Carly Mercedes Dyer the athletic jitterbug-queen, spiky and cheeky,  Landi Oshinowo provocative and wild.  

  

  The energy of them all is  exhausting,  gold heels flashing, tireless.   In the second half particularly the songs become more pointed, poignant:  the quieter moment when all five ask “What did I do to be so black and blue?” pierces the heart.  More of a gig than a play but, who needs an actual story when the whole defiant, struggling story of the black journey to freedom swirls around us still?     

   rating  four   4 Meece Rating    

Box Office: 01206 573948 / www.mercurytheatre.co.uk  to 30 March

THEN

 FRIDAY 19 APRIL – SATURDAY 1 JUNE 2019      SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE

020 7407 0234 / www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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PRIVATE LIVES Avenue, Ipswich

NOT AT ALL FLAT, SUFFOLK…

 

      Exuberantly funny,  elegant as a Deauville  hotel balcony and  sharp as the crack of a 78rpm record over a lover’s head,  Joanna Carrick’s witty miniaturized production  does Noel Coward’s sparkiest comedy full justice.  I say miniature – it’s full length –  only because of the venue:   the tiny but vigorous  home of Red Rose Chain.     An outfit which on the face of it should be far too ‘woke’ for Coward,  being a non-profit but professional theatre company, deep in community projects with young people and care homes (the group working with dementia sufferers put on their five-minute workshop piece after the show on gala night, which is definitely a first for Private Lives).  

 

       But the intimacy, and the cheeky sense of inclusivity which always marks  RRC shows, actually serve dear Noel very well indeed.    I suspect he would rather like the moments when Fiz Waller’s nonchalantly irresponsible Amanda – trying to make light conversation with her fellow-runaway or the other furious couple –  decides to direct  her remarks on the scenery intimately to the front row. Or when Ryan Penny’s furiously virtuous Victor makes them hold his coat while he executes a fist-jabbing haka at the languid Elyot, who stole his wife from their honeymoon balcony.  Setting it in the round, with the balconies separated by a diagonal parterre of flowers, brings us dangerously into the action.

 

       The young cast make the well-worn famous roles their own.   Waller’s Amanda, elegant though she is in pale satin, negligée or daring beach-suit,  is not the slinky cooing seductress some have made her .  Rather she is very Gertrude Lawrence:   a comedienne who one should remember  crossed the Channel on a landing-craft with ENSA after D-Day to perform in shell-wrecked cinemas.    Her insouciant toughness rises to just the right heights in the combative second-act,   with a memorable close-up fight as the couple’s banter turns to fury.     Harriet Leitch as the aggrieved bride gives Sybil the precise,  prim, pleated-skirt virtue covering tyrannical wifely viciousness  which the world’s Cowards so dread.     Ricky Oakley is young, thus a more schoolboyish Elyot in appearance than usual,  but actually Elyot’s  best jokes (“Its a very old sofa”  and “strange noises”)  suit that interpretation well.     So it all holds together beautifully with this young cast;   the grace-notes and scene-shifts are typical of Carrick’s directorial wit,  not least  the deployment of Victor’s golf club in the first half , and Amanda’s final dive for a brioche at the end.  

        And from the volunteer cadre and the youth theatre, Rei Mordue’s cameo as Louise the maid doesn’t miss a trick:  proper French contempt in every move she makes.  I’d go again.  Some days, you can have a prosecco tea before the matinee. 

 

box office  redrosechain.com   01473 603388.   to 7 APril

   

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BETRAYAL Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

POISONED LOVE

  I sometimes wish Harold Pinter had written more plays  like this:  decadent, agonized, helplessly sensitive to the nuances of friendship and treachery.  More praise has always met the political paranoia and over-relished bullying aggression of his other plays, long and short:     Jame Lloyd’s Pinter season has been a triumph.  But for me this was always going to be the treasure. 

 

      Ironically in 1978 it was not well reviewed -critical triumph – my friend and idol Benedict Nightingale was about the only one to spot how good it is.  It is the tale of a seven-year affair,  told backwards in a series of scenes from the guilty couple’s reunion over a drink two years after it ends, right back to its beginnings at a party nine years earlier.   It  had its moment of gossipy fame when we all learned how painfully close its story ran to his own affair – while married – with the equally married Joan Bakewell, whose husband (his close friend) then upset the playwright by revealing that he’d known for ages.  

 

      So here we have Charlie Cox as Jerry the interloper,   chirpy at first about how secret they were (“we were brilliant!”),  Zawe Ashton as his lover,  and Tom Hiddleston as her husband Robert.    Jamie Lloyd directs, in the best and subtlest bit of work of his I have yet seen:  slow-motion,  he gives such weight to the pauses  that you sometimes want to shout out the unspoken words which  each of these helpless, hopeless people should be uttering, if they were not trapped by their selves.   It is  starkly set in a whitish box with three chairs and, briefly, a table;  the protagonists mainly all on stage at once, though one watching,  left out, watchful;   brilliant use is made of the revolve, particularly when Hiddleston, enigmatic and restrained, circles around the lovers.  Once  as he moves past them unseen he is holding closely to his small daughter: the emotion, the sense of a family damaged,  is intense.  

 

    In the scene where he lunches with his rival he is briefly given a chance of volcanic anger,  all misdirected,  snapping at the waiter.  Here’s a man trapped inside masculinity, friendship, shame, bewilderment.  In fact Hiddleston, again in his best performance yet,  is the emotional core of the production.   Charlie Cox as Jerry is chirpy, unrepentant, proud of his own rhetoric (especially in that extraordinary last-but-first  scene where he declares his love in pretentious eloquence)  and striking in a different way.  If you take the parallels,   the play is painfully hard on Pinter himself .  Zawe Ashton’s Emma,  tall and rangy, loose-limbed and unconventionally sexy,  comes increasingly to seem like a pawn between them,  as the real energy is   emitted from the male friendship.  I have never seen a production of this play which made Pinter’s misogyny clearer.    But there is much else in it, worth picking up,  spiky with detail, reekingly honest about dishonesty.   

Box office 0844 871 7622, until June 1.

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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ALYS ALWAYS Bridge, SE1

A GOAD FOR THE GLITTER-ARTY 

  

  Late to the party, due to holiday,  but Couldn’t miss Nicholas Hytner’s bit of mischief :    after  his years of being being alternately feted and rubbished in print,  he displays directorial glee in sending up the noisome denizens of a broadsheet arts desk. Lucinda Coxon’s black-hearted comedy of modern media manners is the tale of a mousy newspaper underling, Frances,  who happens to be first on the scene on an icy Suffolk night when Alys,   lovely wife of a celebrated writer,  is killed (it’s a hauntingly staged car crash for those of us who drive icily home from Manningtree most theatre nights, I winced).  But in the world Frances inhabits, a celebrity tragedy is a foothold.  

     

    The play’s eye is pitilessly sharp.   Sylvestra le Touzel is a queen-bee book editor,  snarling at the idly bitchy Oliver (Simon Manyonda)  “I pay you to party with the PRs”;   Manyonda “a good writer when he bothers” chucks books straight in the bin and hoovers up freebies;  Frances is everyone’s dogsbody,  the rarely-seen Editor obsessed with “clicks and pods”,  and they are all afflicted by  hot-desking and wistful longings for a Russian with a cheque-book.  Sacked,  Oliver snarls “the ship’s sinking, one rat leaving won’t change that”.     Gales of giggling met lines about the meretricious dazzle of arts -cum-celebrity  media and its familiar  rumours of nobodies whose novel got optioned by Spielberg; Alys’ memorial service is crammed with broadsheet-editors, style icons and Melvyn Bragg.   Satisfyingly niche:  wish I’d been there on press night, because  it’s not so much ‘preaching the the choir’  as putting sneezing-powder on the pews, setting fire to its hymn-books and blaspheming its saints. 

 

         Joanne Froggatt’s Frances ably meets the feline subtlety  of the text:  she is kind and humane with the dying woman in the Suffolk darkness, like  any nice girl;  but asked by the police to meet the family and tell about the mother’s last words she refuses.  Until she learns how famous they are, goes, and can’t resist embroidering sentimentally .   She becomes a mentor by the daughter (a nice ghastly rich-teen turn by Leah Gayer) and joins the great and good in their gorgeous second home by the sea.   As she turns to narrate asides to us  – it’s very novelistic –   Froggatt’s little shrugs of rising satisfaction at each opportunist success is perfect.   So  is the way her editor suddenly treats her with respect. 

 

      In the interval one fears that part 2 might be less beguiling,  as her expedition into the Kite family’s glittering lives reveals (quelle surprise) that all was not idyllic after all and the great man himself is up for a fling.   But Coxon has  wicked  fun  with the spoilt rich kids ,  the self-absorbed writer ,  and our heroine’s ever deeper encroachings into the dead Alys’ life and possessions (an artful Manderley theme here, but with a savvier heroine so closer to All About Eve).  When her annexation of the great writer becomes deeper (“Second shot at happiness for tragic brainbox”  cries the Mail-Online) she has new decisions to make.  Like how useful a conquest he really is,  this nicely moth-eaten Robert Glenister who ooofs! at his bad back and  reaches, as the arts journos point out,  the  stage of “sciatica and falling sales” .   But once Frances has changed the locks against his children, copped the Arts Ed job and had her editor to dinner,  she may not stick it as long as patient Alys.  Why would you? 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.  to 30 March

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD THE SECOND Almeida, N1

A HOLLOW CROWN IN MUD AND BLOOD

 

The clue is in the paper hat, worn by a dour-faced Simon Russell Beale on the programme cover.    This is not stately, sacred, shockingly regicidal Shakespeareana.   This is a brawl, a nasty coup against a hopeless king, a howl of rage at what fools, in power politics, these mortals be.

   

     I was curious as to what the iconoclastic director Joe Hill-Gibbins would do with Shakespeare’s most lyrically beautiful  history-play: his Edward II did not thrill, and the sex-dolls in Measure for Measure were yawny too.  But he has done some cracking productions.  And if you cast Simon Russell Beale at the centre,  the greatest of contemporary actors,   it will always be interesting.   He was surprise casting: after Lear and Prospero, an odd and unusually older choice.  The last two memorable Richard IIs have been in the wispier, more glamorously youthful genre to go with the lyricism and the monarch’s petulant self-pitying tendency to “sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.  David Tennant made him a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with all the epicene,  arrogant eloquence of a Russell Brand.   Eddie Redmayne’s still, sad dignity raised a tear of pitiful contempt, slender and hopeless from the start.   But this is different.  Flawed though he is, this King has a deep soul.    And for all the bleak empty stage and the fire-buckets full of red paint, earth and water to be gradually tipped over our hero,  the raucous setting  does reveal something new about a play I have loved for decades. 

  

      Leo Bill is the usurper Bolingbroke throughout,  an unusually weak and self-protective one,   but the other six cast members male and female play all the nobles, courtiers and bishops and the two gardeners.  Who are not humble in the background as usual, discussing apricots and the state of the country,    but viciously taunting and soiling the failing King.  The ensemble scuttle around ratlike, gang up in corners,  fight amongst themselves and are encouraged by the director to gabble their lines at top speed so as to be almost insultingly incomprehensible.   John of Gaunt’s earth-realm-England speech is given reasonable space;  mostly,   though,  it is rattling, meaningless,  gabbly politics.   Just the kind we are used to.  And that  gives extra weight to central figure.   Russell Beale’s intelligent perfection of mood and diction gives us an old lion at bay and accord full weight to the King’s  tragedy of weakness, hubris, indecision and loss.  

    

  It’ll be too rufty-tufty and truncated a show for traditionalists, this,  but  I sort of liked it.   Though I fear for Simon Russell Beale,  who is too precious a national asset to be rudely caked with mud and paint and almost trodden on by scampering younglings eight times a week till Candlemas…   

box office almeida.co.uk     to  2 Feb

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

ENERGY, ANGER, HOPE

       

  It is 1842:  young Charles Dickens, thirty years old and with five novels under his belt, is ranting.    The Industrial Revolution is revving up nicely,  but tens of thousands of the poorest are left behind and so are their children:   slum brats without hope,  infant drudges in factories and sweatshops where bodies and spirits are broken.  Brandishing a report with fury,  he tells his publisher Forster that his next work will be a polemic.  Forster pleads with him, saying a story could have more force.   As they move through a busy London scene the notion catches fire: a cold-faced man in a tall hat brushes aside an urchin,  a heavy office door slams, a father carries his lame child on his shoulders… the majestic Dickens imagination slides down the slipway and the work is under way.

   

  David Edgar’s adaptation, directed as last year by Rachel Kavanaugh,  gives the old story of ghosts and redemption deft additions and expanded scenes;  while the Old Vic’s very different production by Jack Thorne throws emphasis on  Scrooge’s hardening in youth and painful redemption,   Edgar  directs the light more on social conditions, and the unforgivable shame of those who will not look at them.   Both emphases work beautifully, both are appropriate. 

    

  Joseph Timms is a fiery impulsive Dickens, darting in and out of scenes with the quieter publisher alongside him: indeed the only time Forster really panics, publisher-style, is at the point when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge dead, his bedcurtains and linen sold off by some magnificently disgusting lowlife thieves (top cackling crone-work here from Claire Carrie, otherwise having to play various posher ladies and a severe Christmas Past).   Forster, almost weeping with horror,  says you can’ t end on a corpse, at Christmas!   Dickens twinkles that it’s not over yet..

 

    Aden Gillett is a sharp-nosed Scrooge but also an unusually thoughtful one, showing his change of mind more gradually than most interpreters;  Gerard Carey a suitably worried family man as Cratchit.  One of Edgar’s most impassioned additions is to the family scene, with not only the sickly Tiny Tim but  explicit revelations of what is happening to all the other Cratchit children: a daughter losing her sight as a seamstres, on board-and-lodging only,   another due to follow her, a boy who loves to learn taken from the ragged-school to industrial slavery – as Dickens, suddenly sorrowful, remembers being himself.  Most startlingly of all,  Emma Pallant as Cratchit’s wife turns on him, angry at  his failure to prevent these fates.  It is a slap of a moment, a reminder that marriages can crumble under extreme poverty.  

 

    There is, of course, merriment too: Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig wig is as festively fezzy as it should be, again in an expanded scene pointing up the old employer’s benevolence.  There is some wild dancing,  a fine Victorianesque score from Catherine Jayes and a heartbreakingly lovely carol led by Tiny Tim just after the shocking parental row.   There’s even a sly Donald Trump joke in the party game at Fred’s,  and I enjoyed the bluff Mancunian Ghost of Christmas Present  (Danielle Henry) pinching candied-fruit from the table there.   And comedy is attempted too in the one duff note of the script, where (improbably) the reformed Scrooge pretends to sack Cratchit,  who rants against his meanness and lists old grudges.  Somehow, that doesn’t ring true. 

  

    But what stays in the memory, demanding reflection on our new century,  is that gallant  Cratchit family scene, and the silent, accusing, ravaged faces of the children who are Want and Ignorance.    Dickens,  175 years on, has done it again.

 

. Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk    to 20 Jan

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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SNOWFLAKE Old Fire Station, Oxford

  CHRISTMAS,  BREXIT,   GRIEF, HOPE 

   

A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell ,  the little OFS      a  theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett.   Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed.  “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared”  mourns a young remainer,  while an older Brexiteer protests “we’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one”. 

  

        That this argument- now mired in technicalities about customs duties –  has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years, and rarely has.   It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers.   But for today  it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore,    how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the  cruel arrogant certainties of youth,   and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything  pre-millennial.  Which does mean  everything, from bootcut jeans and   the X files to  Blair, Savile and Morrissey –  “everything you grew up with –   most of it very offensive,  and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground” .   

    

         It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though,  and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point.  Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent  of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half , and a double reveal in the second.  Which works very well indeed dramatically , so I am not about to spoil it for you.  Others will. Watch out. 

        

    So just the bare bones:   it is set on Christmas Eve.  Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again.   So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and  a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there.   The first half , until the last moment,  is a monologue in which,  endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age,  the father imagines seeing her again.  It is probably too long a monologue,  the play’s one flaw,   though Levey handles it well.  When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen,  not respecting his  previous booking rights.  The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement,  setting the theme.  

  

Which it does, brilliantly:  the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a  policing of language before feeling,   is set against warm, baffled,  battered and bereaved parental susceptibility.  Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny,  occasionally heartbreaking.  Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander,  that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and  that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee.     Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it,  and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.

     

  And the ending?  Well, it’s Christmas.   Not easy, not pat,  but yes, redemptive.   

box office  oldfirestation.org.uk      to 22 Dec.  Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it. 

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

              

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DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT Oxford Playhouse

 I WENT TO THE PANTO.  O YES I DID.

   

  The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the  audience’s likely cultural uplift,  it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly,  and a firm grip on local in-jokes.    So we get puns on foccaccia and cannelloni,  and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: Anchovy and Cleopatra,  The Comedy of Herrings,  Salmon of Athens, etc.     We also get borrowings off Oliver and Les Mis , a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute. 

  

 

        As for the Cat,  he is a proper urban moggy,  cool as Stormzy:  Alessandro Babalola   breakdancing, cartwheeling,  rapping and hip-hopping and patronizing the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems.   There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), a election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”).  It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh,  so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.     

 

      But never mind the cultural-topical- political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked.  This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls,  the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon.  The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you,   O No It Isn’t,   Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of “Baby Shark”. Which even I know is a Thing. 

  

      The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last  year;  Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices,  Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic.  No reedy tenors here.  Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it,  Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness,   and Steve Marmion , its writer-director,  keeps it hammering along.  All, in short, is as it should be.  O Yes it Is.

 

www.oxfordplayhouse.com    to 6 Jan

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A WONDERLAND WINNER

       

  “Posh panto”,  for wincing parents fleeing the rackety showbiz ’n smut of the season, can be a bit chilly –  neither one thing nor the other.   But Christmas shows can power through both snobbery and the inverted kind, and be a complete delight for all. 

   

  I do mean all:   Joanna Carrick’s adaptation, a spirited three-hander,  is astonishingly faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text and, importantly, spirit;  the crankiest Oxford literary historian could find nothing to miss (despite an artful reference to Bake-Off and the fact that Humpty Dumpty, with his finicky use of words and economic illiteracy,  just happens to have a Boris Johnson hairdo).   It is very Carroll, including a marvellously elegant Victorian nursery set and brilliantly designed costumes by Katy Frost, beautifully echoing Tenniel’s illustrations.    Yet   a row of tiny pre-schoolers sat entranced  for two 40-minute halves, one keenly volunteering as Dormouse and submitting to a ventriloquist’s fake-mouth mask.   

    

    Leonie Spilsbury has the right look for Alice and such a smilingly witty gift with the smaller ones that one checks her programme CV and finds that indeed  she is no stranger to Children’s Theatre (in amid Brecht and Ibsen, it’s a varied life).  In her Alice frock she strides and twinkles around,  playing the guitar sometimes,  confronted by  – or collaborating with  – Darren Latham and Lawrence Russell as the series of Carroll creatures.   Father William, Tweedledum and Dee, Rabbit, a gloriously languid French caterpillar,  a stiffly mad Red Queen though not madder than the gorgeous Hatter,  a properly  barmy Duchess, an Aussie lizard and Dormouse,  the good old wallpaper-roll gag,   and a Cheshire cat who invaded the audience and lay across the laps of patrons, purring violently.   And despite Alice’s “this is not panto”,  there is a  behind-you and a perilous flinging of jam tarts.  Everything for the inner child,  and perfect for the outer ones.   

 

www.redrosechain.com  to 26th     A FEW TICKETS LEFT!!

RATING FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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UNCLE VANYA Hampstead Theatre NW3

,  GEESE CACKLE, LIFE GOES ON   

 

  I have a friend of Russian heritage who boycotts any Chekhov production which lacks scabby birch-trees, a samovar and some parasols.   She’ll do fine here, though the windy autumnal setting precludes parasol-work: Tim Shortall’s setting, indoor and out, is mournfully resonant of its 1890s, pre-Revolutionary rural world.    It is , on the surface, the gloomiest of Uncle Anton’s  works:  country drudgery stirred up by a visit, enervated family relationships , unspoken resentments, lost loves and lives wasted,  the city popinjays carelessly unfeeling and the  decent people stuck quivering like flies in circumstance’s web.   

 

   Yet its very accuracy prevents it from depressing the viewer: some moods,  looked at levelly and with a suspicion of mockery,   have the power to assert something rather beautiful in humanity.  One of the fascinating things about Chekhov’s studies in frustration, disappointment and  ennui is how unfrustrating they actually are. This one has to revolve around Vanya, and Alan Cox  is suitably winning in Vanya’s dismayed, demoralised self-aware failure to count in life,  and  his hopeless mooning admiration of  the lovely Yelena ,who has married his awful old brother-in-law the Professor. 

 

  Cox brings  he part a rare vigour and loveability  just, as it were, below the surface of the grumpy hopelessness.  He gives us all of it:   explosive fury at the Professor after his 25 faithful years of unthanked work on the family estate  “buried alive with my own mother” ,  a moment when he crumbles in painful shame, and the last scene as he weeps alongside his niece Sonia for their two broken futures.    All the cast are very fine indeed,  but alongside Cox a tribute  is particularly owed to Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia: with underplayed glances and tiny moves of urgency she shows all the misery of unrequited love, and how much more than the glorious Yelena she deserves it.  

 

  Terry Johnson, adapting from literal translations and directing, skilfully mines it for all the author’s dry humour and regretful human absurdity:I have rarely seen a more preposterously ghastly old Professor, monster of selfishness and vanity, than Robin Soans’s.  But the other Chekhovian fascination,  which brings  directors and audiences constantly back to the works,  is that because of the intricate subtleties and sympathies every production leaves you with a slightly different heartache. Twice lately,  in the final scene between Sonia and her uncle,   it has been Vanya I wept for (Roger Allan had me in actual tears). This time the greater sorrow  was for Sonia.  

 

And  even a little too for Alec Newman’s Astrov, a fiery forerunner of all our modern fears about the rapine of nature and the rich soil, yet one who cannot see how Sonia would suit his deeper needs because he can only see glorious, idle Yelena –  though “all she does is eat and sleep and glide around entrancing us all”.     She too has her humanity, trapped by her elderly horror of a husband and alienated from her one talent (oh, that slam of the piano lid in he long stormy drunken night !).    And , as if to remind us that only universal sympathy can save us, the awful Professor Sebreriakov,  self-serving hypochondriac fraud,   himself has his moment of aged pain,  looking back at the time when he was someone. “I am in exile from my past. My past, where I belong!”.

 

But  all of them, all of us, are anchored by the old folk,  Nanny and the sweetly useless Teliegin,  who know that geese cackle, life goes on, and as long as you have tea and bread and vodka, it just bloody well has to do.   Can’t think of a better morality for Brexitmas 2018.  

 

www. hampsteadtheatre.com    to  12 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE BOX OF DELIGHTS Wilton’s Music Hall E1

DARK MAGIC,  REAL THEATRE

 

  Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike.   Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a  precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil.  Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia  there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer,  elegantly cold and murderously homicidal.     And well before Pullman  there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says,  in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.

 

    The poet laureate John Masefield is ancestor of  them all,  in his children’s books  picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with magic of E.Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any.   This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.   

 

  So  I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday .   Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter –  must  struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles,  unassisted  (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction)  by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”.     Kay  knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”.    She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing.    The wicked lot want not only the important Box,  but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir are kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).   

  

  My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through.  There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral,  of it being dismissed as  retro and “charming”.  And,  indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes.   But any child or inner-child   should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart  but for the sheer pleasure of  its theatricality.  The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons;   there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky.   The only high-tech is projection, very well used  to create a village, a wood, a cathedral.  Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should:  demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.   

 

 

      Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria,  who likes guns, piracy, fights,  and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of  “parties in  dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”.   It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in  knickerbockers was welcomed.  As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly  cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side;  and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.   

     So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto  but bring them here too.  And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…

 

box office  020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm)   wiltons.org.uk

to 5 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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