Category Archives: Four Mice

SONGLINES Hightide Festival, now Walthamstow

LOOKING OUT TO SEA,  AT PAST AND FUTURE

 

    With the feral teenage violence of HEATHERS (scroll to it below)  all snarling and murdering in the West End, and the manic cheerleader energy of BRING IT ON just finished at Southwark, what more soothing than an hour in a gentler vision of teenage confusion and calf-love?    Especially with an onstage duo of two of the author Tallulah Brown’s band, the  Trills (formerly Vagabond Trills) ,  punctuating and easing on the mood of the story.   Brown and Serafina D’Arby sing beautifully,  and so at one point does Fanta Barrie  ,  playing a stroppy displaced girl with a problem mother who finds herself expelled from her cool Camden-girl London school life.  Her look by the way is perfect, shorts-over-fishnets-and-scowl, with occasional school shirt defiantly hanging out .  

 

    She is dumped with her stern grandmother on the Suffolk coast, which inspired Brown’s last play Sea Fret,  and falls in with a geeky but far more grounded schoolfriend (Joe Hurst) who works on his family farm.     She’s restlessly defiant, he unimpressed but benign.  Her irritable failed seduction – “I thought you were up for it” is bravado, from a generation confused into thinking the only valid contact is sex.  His “I am just here to cut the grass” is one of the lines of the year.   

  

  But the relationship grows better; he introduces her to the bleak quiet beach where he feels history under his feet, Viking ships never far off. She starts to see what he sees.  Events flicker by (it’s a one-hour show) and the music tells the emotional tale as well as anyone could. Nice.   

 

box office hightide.org.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS Chichester Festival Theatre

OUT OF AUSTERITY, A DREAM OF BEAUTY 

     

      A gulf yawns between this musical’s two halves:  a gulf of wealth,  sophistication, hope and colour.   Ida Harris, careworn heroine of Paul Gallico’s novella, is a widowed charwoman in 1950’s London.  A tired place and life: before a smoky panorama of Battersea Power Station and weary grey houses her life is of picking up in richer flats and houses,  stepping in sometimes to “oblige” for the clients of her neighbour Violet.   Doing this for Lady Dant , who awaits Princess Elizabeth to tea,  Ida undergoes a shock of  beauty. A Dior dress in Madam’s wardrobe:  the New Look, loveliest flowering of postwar extravagance and the age of Cecil Beaton (the most famous of his photographs will be beautifully recreated before us later on).   Ida sees the vision Dior called “a return to civilized happiness”, fullskirted and shimmering, desirable, perfect in execution. 

 

 

      We don’t see it. Not yet.   In Daniel Evans’ elegant, heartfelt production, fine-tuned since it ravished our hearts at Sheffield,  we only see the shabby figure of Clare Burt transfixed, kneeling  in a great warm light.  “It’s like somehow I just found a piece of me”.  The sense of that hunger for beauty and perfection is shudderingly powerful.  A widow of Passchendaele, three decades a drudge who consoles herself secretly by talking to her dead husband, she yearns towards the absurd, the impossible ideal.   That new longing even briefly  fractures her friendship with Violet, who cannot understand.   Ida saves and scrimps and struggles month after month,  suffers hungry self-deprivation and hoards a tiny Pools win,  all in the naive belief that she can buy one off the peg in Paris.  Where she goes for the glorious second half. 

         

 

     Rachel Wagstaff’s book deftly amplifies the novella, wisely removing Gallico’s rather embarrassing patronage of Ida’s “twinkly” Cockney ways,  and gives a stronger sense that she is not only starved of beauty but stoically frozen  in her old grief.   Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics are intense and skilful and (in the cleaning sequences, with a witty use of the revolve) they are playful;  but it’s a bit hard going at first.  Light female voices compete too weakly with a ten-piece band below,  in a bit too much operatic sung-through dialogue.    But psychologically, perhaps we need to be a bit impatient.  Because Paris is to come.

 

        There, with nice crossovers, the London cast become Parisians. Lady Dant (Joanna Riding) is haughty Madame Colbert at Dior, who softens towards Ida; Laura Pitt-Pulford’s selfish Pamela plays Natasha, the feted mannequin who dreams of ordinariness,  and London’s gauche lovesick accountant on Ida’s cleaning round  is an  equally awkward accountant at Dior.  She solves all their problems.    Mark Meadows, her lost husband’s imagined ghost,  becomes a silver-fox of a Marquis who also takes to her.

 

 

       They all do.  Shabbiness and simplicity are no impediment to almost instant connection.    That is the  fairytale, the hope.  Seeing it in Sheffield, I observed that one line was an echo from the idealistic founding days of the Arts Council:     “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”  .  But alongside the idea of a humble woman drawn out of her world by beauty runs an even more powerful dream: that a joyful response  (Burt is luminous, astonishing) will draw grateful, comradely  recognition from the makers and guardians of high art.   It should.  It doesn’t always.   

 

        The parade of dresses is spectacular, and had us all gasping and yearning  (Lez Brotherston’s designs breathtakingly re-create  Dior and the nine models are perfect in gesture , period and impossible tiny waists).  But more arresting and touching is the intensity of the dressmakers,   measuring and reeling and ruffling and  hissing in professional perfectionism,  offering to “sew all night” so that Ida can take her treasure away.   Haltingly, the senior seamstress explains that they have seen too many bored and jaded faces at the collections (think of all those Anna Wintour types, in shades..).  The workroom experts, artists, craftswomen,  are simply grateful for the innocent light in Ida’s eyes.  That’s when the tear rises in yours.  

 

box office  cft.org.uk   to  29 Sept

rating four   4 Meece Rating   

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THE HABIT OF ART Theatre Royal, York & touring

ONE OF BENNETT’S FINEST , ON THE ROAD AGAIN

  

   Onstage is a shabby rehearsal room,  an Oxford study scruffily indicated with doorframes and signs; at the side a litter of coffee-cups and props.  Neil,  a nervy and easily offended playwright,  sits in while the Company Stage Manager Kay supervises a rehearsal of his new work:   in which WH Auden is fictionally visited in 1972 by Benjamin Britten,  while the young Radio Oxford reporter Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken for the rent-boy Auden booked.    The actors are costive and restless,  the director  has cut lines the author cherished.  They are all in the mind of Alan Bennett:  so here we have  an artist,  writing about an artist writing about artists,  while manoeuvring round the irritabilities of the performing artists who are his tools.   It is about human friction, sexuality, old age and fractured friendship and the impertinence of biography.  And above all,  about the need to go on making: the habit of art.  “Are you still writing?” asks Carpetnter.  “Am I dead?” replies Auden, surprised…

 

 

   It is nine years since Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre opened Bennett’s fascinating play: high time we had it back, and this York-led collaboration does it proud.  There are lines I had forgotten and others (memory suggests) which must have been cut by Hytner and are reinstated here in Philip Franks’ production.    Importantly,  at its heart  the two great men – fictionally meeting in Oxford in 1972, both not far from their deaths – are superbly rendered by  Matthew Kelly as the veteran “Fitz” who becomes Auden ,   and David Yelland as the more restrained Henry who is being  Britten.   Kelly’s Auden is  rubicund and scruffy, sexually and reputationally reckless but a great and open heart, pining for his ever-unfaithful partner Chester.    Yelland gives Britten all his precise, tweedy nervousness and buttoned-down, closeted  yearning for boyish beauty and innocence.   In the second act, as he agonizes over how embarrassingly close-to-home is that theme in his opera Death  In Venice,    Auden challenges him to admit and even celebrate  those adorations.   “Why are you still sending out messages in code?”. 

 

       If that makes anyone uncomfortable in the age of heightened awareness of paedophilia,   it is meant to.   Impossible and forbidden loves are part of many lives,   and of literature down the ages.   And as Britten says,  he plays with his adored boy sopranos only in a musical sense .   “I don’t prey on them..I attend to them.  I listen”.    The discomfort, unhappiness, confusion is all there.   Auden longs to take over writing the libretto for Britten, serving the music which will express all these yearning impossibilities.   Britten is wary,   closeted,  but also lonely for the sensible adult love of Peter Pears who is in Canada.  

 

           In some ways you sense Bennett – long silent about his own loves, but around this time having become  more open, partnered and happy – debating with himself which kind of gay man to be.    But that is small compared to the greater theme of creativity and its parasites:   the itch to work and make new things , the habit of art, the ruthless following of dangerous tracks and the danger of become a national treasure.  Auden is funny about being considered an “oracle” and endlessly repeating himself, rather like Larkin who complained about “pretending to be me”.  And he jeeringly asks Britten about his adoring Aldeburgh  – “do they call you Maestro?”.    

     It’s sharp, and often funny, teasing and important.    And from Bennett – who has written enough diaries  to be a biographer of his own life better than any other will ever be –  there’s a nice swipe at how biographers  simply “hitch a lift” on others’ achievement and rather look forward to the subject’s death because that will tie it all up nicely.    The play holds up, even better, ten years on.

 

        Just a note on the Humphrey Carpenter character:  we were colleagues years ago, indeed around th time the play is set.  It is Bennett’s fictional dramatist (Robert Mountford nicely fretful as Neil) and  not Bennett himself who traduces him:   Humf was a lot sharper, funnier and less of a blundering clown than in the play .   But  in one of those often unwise actor-interviews in the programme,  Matthew Kelly traduces him further by gaily saying that Carpenter was a “great musician” but  with shocking inaccuracy  “knows b+++ all about literature” ,  and that his Auden book looked boring  “500 pages of “tiniest print” so he didn’t  bother to read it.  O, why do  good actors do these dangerous chats?  Why do programmes print them?   But it’s a fine production.  

Box office: 01904 623568  to 8 Sept then yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Then touring:  www.originaltheatre.com   to 1 Dec

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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HYMN TO LOVE Jermyn St Theatre WC2

LA PETITE PIAF, REVENANTE..

 

  I grew up with Piaf, a temporary French schoolchild in 1960, skated around the patinoire with my friends snarling along with the endless plays of  “Je ne regrette rien!”, at an age with nothing much yet to regret.  No singer – not the young Francoise Hardy lisping Tous les Garcons,  certainly not Les Compagnons de la Chanson, eclipsed the continuing late-career  power of the “little sparrow”.  The romance of street-acrobat’s kid raised among prostitutes, singing for a few sous on the pavements, entertaining troops on both sides in WW2, was only part of it: it was the gravelly voice, the autobiographical ferocity and power and plaintive street-wisdom of the storytelling in her songs that held us, even at the age of nine.   

 

         So I felt nervous of  seeing Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance, not least because Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford have translated the songs (all but one, we’ll come to that..).   The translations are actually excellent,  though I miss “une fille du port, une ombre dans la rue”.  And most importantly   it is a fine, and sparing,  script,  set in bursts of rehearsal-room reminiscence , sorrow or flashback (a haunted telephone gives a good odd moment) .  She recalls the death of her greatest lover the boxer Marcel;  shouts a little at her pianist (Patrick Bridgman),  gradually  fires up, song by song,  to the moment of her last US performance.

 

 

     In the plain black dress and clumping shoes,  Mansfield is at moments the eternal timeworn resolute figure of any concierge booth in old France;  at others a star of instant ferocity and musical passion.  With the slight stoop and the worn, passionate manner  she catches that Piaffian “howl of  a wounded animal”, and that pose which sometimes forgets the cabaret gesticulations and keeps her hands on her thighs “like lizards on a rock” as she did in fear at her first audition.  

 

    There are 13 songs –  of dissipation, prostitution and  headlong reckless love, of tenderness for a lost legionnaire or accordioniste.  But always  “Ecoutez la musique!”.    Faint cloudy projections behind her in the tiny theatre resolve into newsreel footage of her Marcel and herself.  Finally there is the unforgettable, the untranslatable, the final  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  In French. And the illusion is complete, and Piaf walks the pavements and the stages once more.  A phenomenal 90 minutes.  

 

box office  jermynstreetheatre.co.uk     to 18 sept. Best get in there quick.

rating four   

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ARISTOCRATS Donmar, WC2

DREAMS AND LEGENDS OF DECAY

 

Brian Friel’s gift is humane ambiguity, refusing to allow  tidy judgements on his characters .  Or even – though his theme is Ireland’s history  -on the social structures they inhabit.  Here the ‘great house’ and family above humble Ballybeg, now reaching decrepitude in he 1970s,  is not a Protestant Ascendancy mansion lording it over the Catholic peasantry.     It is something rarer, more tribally cramped: a once affluent Catholic family ,  one of those who rose after the 1829 Act of Emancipation through the legal profession .   Now in four generations it has fallen,   from a  Victorian Chief-Justice down  to a county judge and finally a failed solicitor, the nervy, fantasising Casimir.     As Eamon the outsider (a spirited Emmet Kirwan)  cruelly observes, the next logical step down should be to a criminal.

 

So they belong neither to the old Anglo-Irish ruling class nor to the ordinary people of Ballybeg: theirs is an isolated grandeur. All the siblings were sent off at seven to board, the absent Anna is a nun in Africa;  a brother and sister  ran off to fight in the Civil Rights battles over the border in the North.   But Judith has come back, after surrendering an illegitimate child to a nunly orphanage.  She is nursing   their confused and angry tyrant of a father, whose rants  we hear over a baby-alarm on the wall, and watching over Claire the youngest (a touching Aisling Loftus) whose musical career was thwarted by her father and who, depressed and nervous, is heading for marriage to an ageing widower.      Casimir, named for a Polish saint, claims a possibly invented family life in Hamburg;    alcoholic Alice alone mixed with the village and married Eamon, whose granny was a maid in the Hall.

 

   

     If this back-story sounds cumbersome I am wholly to blame. Friel as usual delivers it with casual pinpoint delicacy,  dropping clues, as they gather together in the crumbling house for the wedding and, it turns out, a funeral.   Director Lyndsey Turner is adept at bringing Friel’s world to life with spare, haunting precision: it is set on a clear stage , though Es Devlin’s design makes great effect with a fragmented mural finally torn loose, and  a miniature dollhouse around which the family legends of old-posh-Catholicism are related to a visiting historian.   On this spot GK Chesterton fell over while impersonating Lloyd George, here Gerard Manly Hopkins spilled tea while reciting the wreck of the Deutschland, here Belloc sat, or Newman, or the Papal Count crooner John McCormack….using the tiny house emphasises the futility of it all,  as fragments of past glories are rattled out by Casimir in a stunning, sad, tense performance by David Dawson.  His impossible memory of Yeats’ eyes, and the moment when he claims his   grrandfather heard Chopin play at Balzac’s birthday party in Paris while he was avoiding the Famine fever are with awkward tact  questioned by the American visiting historian.  You wince. 

 

Casimir is at the heart of the play, the most damaged, his bullied inner child flailing for past glories.  Eamon at first mocks them, yet in the end he  too needs the Great House, with a startling, perceptive Irish plaint :  ”Peasants…we were ideal for colonising”he cries despairingly “there’s something in us that needs the aspiration”.   Elaine Cassidy gives his wife Alice a fragile, angry misery, and David Ganly as Willie Diver, who farms their bog and rocky land,   brings a baffled fond solidity.  But the ensemble, the real sense of interlocking relationships,   is what brilliantly locks you in to this damaged world.  

 

     Calling Friel the Irish Chekhov is trite now. But it is all there: the grandeur and delusion, the pull of a half-invented past, the drink and despair, the  half -lives and lies, hope and the humour .    And at last, redemptive, an unexpected harmony.  

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 22 sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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BRING IT ON Southwark Playhouse SE1

HIP HOP HURRAH ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS

 

Here’s a hot one, in every sense.  Clapped till my hands stuck together at this youthful, truthful, touching and funny tale of acrobatics, acting-up and capital-A Attitude.   With Hamilton the city’s hottest ticket it was sharp work by Southwark to host this earlier musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt for extra lyrics and music).   A very room-where-it-happens bit of programming, it has all Miranda’s gift for words and for sudden lyrical slowdowns between rock explosions and rappy rhymes (Glitter/ Twitter/bitter…Pastime/shake-yo-ass time). Not 18c politics this time which drive it, but the featherlight yet anguished world of teenage ambition.

 
It was inspired – with many tweaks – by a Kirsten Dunst movie, one of those US high-school tales which exert such a powerful fascination on this side of the Atlantic (think School of Rock, Clueless etc: and HEATHERS  looming next month in the West End). Teen passions being strong, the genre is a  a grand way to explore ambition, betrayal, leadership, failure, friendship, class, race, redemption and – in this case rather beautifully – forgiveness. St Trinian’s, only with better legs and morals.

 
Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has beaten her rival in senior year Skylar to captain the school cheerleading squad (“Truman girls, superhuman girls”) with its shiny- haired moppets, hunky jocks  and the marginalised, hopeful, chubbier girl Bridget humbly cavorting as mascot in a parrot-suit.  Young Campbell runs a tight ship, informing new recruit Eva that it is like joining the Marines, “you sign your life away”.

 

 

But to her dismay she gets transferred to the rougher and more diverse Jackson School , up the road, where the cheerleaders were disbanded years earlier .   Bridget, an endearing Kristine Kruse with a belting voice and proper scene-stealing funnybones, touchingly assists the prim, preppy middle class Campbell because she has lots of “experience in not fitting in”. But Jackson school, which scorns the ultra-white robotic wholesomeness of cheerleader squads, has a hip-hop crew instead and takes Bridget to its heart. Fabulous they are in their diverse energy: notably glorious Danielle (Chisara Agor) who flips burgers at night and burns with ambition and proud scorn. And among the boys La Cienga (Matthew Brazier) is a long skinny streak of androgyne attitude in a sharp Mohican, minikilt and bare tummy . They make Campbell earn her cred and come down a peg by wearing a humiliating leprechaun suit. Betrayed by her former schoolmates and sore at her loss of cheer-champ ambition,  she then talks them into trying for the national contest and attempting the  “cheer face” instead of the hip-hop scowl of defiance.

 
It goes well, then badly, then well again in the classic romcom pattern, though self-discovery and friendship not romance are to the fore.  Wonderful soft rock numbers turn up between the vivid hip hop , notably Danielle’s anthem of forgiveness and Haroun Al-Jeddal’s “Enjoy the Trip” as he persuades the unhappy heroine that teenage disasters are not lifelong.  But always just when you fear it might get saccharine there always comes a real joke – a look, a line, a number, a Bridget moment or a Lin-Manuel line – which has you laughing and punching the air. It’s a lovely thing. And it’s a youth production by the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible theatre training for under-23s. If BTA keeps on releasing onto the dramatic scene performers this adept, joyful, determined, humorous and (yesterday) amazingly heatproof, salute it.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 1 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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LITTLE MERMAID. Underbelly Festival, S Bank SE1

DANCE AND DEFIANCE BELOW THE WAVES       

 

Metta theatre’s hit JUNGLE BOOK was fashionably hip-hop before Hamilton hit  (and was certainly the only time I ever heard grime and crump bouncing  off the affronted walls of the Theatre Royal Windsor). But Poppy Burton-Morgan’s new one,  an updating and avenging  of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad fable, in circus dance and spare narration,  is of quite another tone.

      She has written and directed, and a fabulously lush romantic score by Matt Devereaux  serves her lyrics beautifully. It is played by onstage strings,  with at one point  the violinist hanging briefly by her feet from an aerial hoop. The fishtailed heroine’s songs are of yearning,  not only for the Prince she rescues,  but for learning and independence and a wider view. But there is rollicking earthbound jauntiness in the bossy court scene  – “he’ll only love you if you’re perfect” and in a marvellous swirling flashing shipwreck.  

 

     The movement is graceful but often witty as well: our adolescent mermaid sometimes touchingly uncertain for a moment, vulnerable. Aerial work , acrobatic lifts and the hoop make her struggles toward the surface feel rightly risky. Her downfall, mute and doomed, to a dark seabed is lit by juggled lightballs becoming snakes and monster eyes. The children around me were as rapt as their adults.  

 

       But it is as I said an updating, a  century on from Andersen. His little mermaid has (rather than becoming sea foam) gone down to the seabed as the Sea Witch. Rupert Jenkyn Jones does terrifyIng giant hoop  cartwheels in ragged flounces, casting the spell which gives the daughter of a century  later human legs and muteness.  His bitter fury in movement is unnerving. The children gasped. 

 

    But sisterhood and goodness this time prevail without resorting to Andersen’s airy soulfulness -we are in the fifties, with flowered rubber swimming caps on the nimble mermaid-acrobats. Women are toughening up in public. And, to the satisfaction of those of us who always wanted it, it is now the Prince’s turn to face a hard choice.

 

       Feminist revisitings are not always un-irritating. There, I’ve said it.  But this is skilful, charming, and lyrically beautiful in music, movement and Burton Morgan’s economical direction (75 minutes and you’re pirouetting back out to the Jubilee Gardens for a Pimms.).   

       

Box office http://www.underbellyfestival.com to 12 Aug

0333 344 4167

Rating. Four4 Meece Rating

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