Category Archives: Four Mice

SAMSON AND DELILAH Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT MARIANNE VIDAL

Aylin Bozok’s productions of French opera for Grimeborn have all been marked by their elegance, restraint and psychological intensity. Bozok exchanges the orchestra for a piano accompaniment (played here with plangent, unmistakeable panache by Kelvin Lim), keeps the singing in French but projects a clear English translation above the stage, and places our focus squarely on her characters’ inner lives, their turmoils and crises. A Bozok production can feel unnervingly slow to start, but soon we realise that she takes simplicity as her tool, surgically removing any distracting elements and excavating the psychological dynamics of each work with thoughtful tenacity. As the evening unfolds, the poised stillness of Bozok’s stagecraft, which can initially seem static, foments a tension on stage which slowly becomes searing, direct and inescapable. Samson and Delilah, her third Grimeborn outing, refines the distinctive Bozok formula to a new level of minimalism: there is no scenery at all in this placeless, timeless setting, no props to speak of, and characters in simple costumes inhabit a flat stage dressed only with light and smoke. All the drama is in their heads – and in ours.

There is, therefore, nothing to shield us from a truly electrifying central performance from Marianne Vidal as a sultry, vengeful, yet perturbed Delilah, driven over the edge by her desire for Samson, wrung with unanswered questions as she tests Samson’s love while, we suspect, she searches vainly for a limit to her own passion. Vidal’s clear, lyrically expressive mezzo (and perfect native French) make her voice an ideal vehicle for Saint-Saëns’ score, while her seamless acting commands our attention, whether she writhes on the floor in dreaming ecstasy, demands male attention with confident eroticism, or cowers from a menacingly cruel High Priest (sung with flair, in fluid French, by baritone Thomas Humphreys). Vidal can sing even as she teases Samson with tempting kisses, her lines seeming to pour into his very mouth, yet still reaching the back of the theatre. This sophisticated portrayal of Delilah shows a woman devastated by a love which confuses her, bringing her both joy and pain, fulfilment and loneliness, and her need to discover Samson’s secret seems part of the development of their relationship, rather than the achievement of a plotted goal.

Bozok brings Samson’s psychological struggle right before our eyes, often pairing Leonel Pinheiro’s Samson on stage with Ozgur Boz, a silent actor who represents Samson’s vision of God. Movingly, this allows Samson to address many of his lines directly to God, as we see him first entreat for strength to resist Delilah, then finally reject God altogether in favour of his catastrophic love. Boz, sprayed mainly gold and streaked with white under a long coat, wears remarkable spiked goggles which are stolen by the High Priest when Samson, intensely provoked, allows Delilah to see his divine vision for herself (no haircuts here). Some initial tightness to Pinheiro’s tenor, and a few issues of vocal control, prevent him from being a true match for Vidal, but his muscular sincerity is movingly heroic and ultimately affecting. Bozok’s use of the Chorus, who double smaller roles while also illustrating “thoughts which attach themselves to different characters”, relies on disciplined, dynamic group choreography to project ideas of fear or threat; extremely challenging musically, but her cast’s concentration never flickers.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 26 August

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating 

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THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK Vaudeville, WC1

PRETTY MUCH A BOOJUM

 

I must admit I yearned towards this production – for 4 years old upwards, though there were some younger infants having a hell of a good time, even without booster seats (Vaudeville, please note that need). It is a favourite Lewis Carroll poem, and I did rather hope for a few of the boldly scanned rumbustious quartets and images, especially the bowsprit getting “mixed with the rudder sometimes” and the Bellman landing his crew with care, with a finger entwined in their hair.. But despite one final softly-and-silently-vanished-away, Alice House Theatre merely take the notion as an inspiration for a song-studded adventure of their own.

 

 

 

One day I want the poem itself, possibly rendered by McKellen, Russell Beale and Olivia Coleman. But hey, no complaints about this interpretation. Annabel Wigoder’s take is framing it with a schoolboy stowing away on the adventure funded by his negligent, money-obsessed Mr-Banks type father (Simon Turner) , and led by a splendid Bellman explorer in full 1920s RGS outfit of breeches, leather jerkin and mad gadgets. Gareth Cooper’s songs are fun, sometimes nicely startling (especially the father’s one about how money is all anyone can ever need).

 

 

There are Carroll snark-hunters in it: the Beaver is an enchanting puppet, knitting furiously, the dim-witted Baker is Will Bryant, who is also (there are other Carroll characters introduced) a quite magnificently camp Bandersnatch in Madame Jojo ruffles and shiny lurex tights, and the villainous butcher is Polly Smith (I do like a scary woman). I am not sure which of them plays the Jub-Jub bird, stealing the Banker’s trousers so the Beaver has to knit him a skirt, but I have to say its moment was the highlight for me on Snark Island, being pleasingly reminiscent of the time Rod Hull and Emu assaulted Michael Parkinson.

 

 
Around me very small children gasped and oohed from the moment the theatre darkened, especially in the very noisy shipwreck; deep concentration met the silliness, and real sympathy the marooning of the boy and beaver, unsure (as per The Tempest) whether anyone else was alive. It felt like a proper introduction to theatre, which is the important thing. Though the small boy in front who demanded to see it through again – a true child of the video age – will have to go home, get some ruffles and feathers and soft toys, and re-enact it for himself. Hope he does.

 

 

box office 0330 333 4814 to 2 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

 

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Old Vic, SE1

BOB AND CONOR: A NEW DIRECTION HOME…

 

 

Bob Dylan songs – from each of six decades – woven into a musical by Conor McPherson? At Dylan’s own suggestion? What? But here it is: moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep.

 

 

 

It is actually an inspired match, for Dylan’s songs share the playwright’s Irish sensibility. Apart from the obvious folk and hymn roots there is a particular melancholy, a dry regret, a sense of poverty knowing itself impotent but maintaining an irony, the consolation of a dance step or a late-night lock-in. Dylan and Irish song both tend to a melodic, poetic yearning which taps at the heart’s door with emotional authority and transcends time and circumstance. You can listen alone to It Ain’t Me, Babe even twenty years into a happy marriage; or weep in exile for The Old Bog Road even if you are at home.

 

 
Wisely, Matthew Warchus of the Old Vic left it to the writer to direct, and Rae Smith’s setting is sparse, unpretending, with microphones and onstage instruments as if the story was being told by buskers , as well as lived before us. Simon Hale’s arrangements and musical direction allow for a slight roughness, an air of spontaneity. The setting is a cheap lodging-house in Duluth, in 1934. The players are a community living on the edge. Ironically, just as the sunny Annie is playing just across the river with its orphan chirruping advice to the President, this is the second musical play about FDR’s Depression America to open this summer. But there is no New Deal for Duluth here. As its hero says, “We ain’t go no nets to catch us”.

 

In early film style, the local doctor (Ron Cook) narrates posthumously at beginning and end, adding to the sense of distance.   Nick (Ciaran Hinds) is the solid, striving host , on he last three weeks before  foreclosure on his house. One hope is his mistress and  lodger, widowed Mrs Neilson, with whom he has a fragile plan to start another hotel. His care for his wife continues, through the hopelessness of her dementia: there is a basic decency in the big beaten man, understated,  sometimes immensely moving, feeding her chicken stew as she berates him.  Their foundling negro daughter Marianne (a magnificent, dignified Shiela Atim, towering over her tiny adoptive mother) is pregnant: Nick hopes to marry her off to the only affluent man they know, a widower thrice  her age.

 

 

 

In from the Minnesota storm come two more to drive and aggravate the plot: Michael Shaeffer as a smoothly nasty Bible salesman, Arinze Kene as as an ex-convict boxer. Whose first welcome , in that racist age, is being called “Boy” and taunted by the son of the house, a drunken would-be writer Gene (Sam Reid). In the house too are the Burkes, failed in business, and their feebleminded, threateningly strong son Elias who is growing beyond safe control.

 

 

 

It is a big cast to manage, each with depths of hurt and failure and disappointment; but the songs knit them together in a poetic weave as powerful as the stormbound austerity itself. All the actor- musicians sing, superbly, resonantly, from depths of feeling,  with a particularly astonishing, mould-breaking performance by Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth. Every line of her slight, skinny body is expressive of dementia, disinhibition and disillusion. Sometimes she is cowering like a scared animal, coaxed towards food or restrained from violence  by Nick and Marianne: sometimes dancing, unsettlingly wild, a mad Maenad parting her legs at any man, speaking inappropriate truths. But sometimes she comes to a stillness, and in an immense bluesy voice sings the wisdoms , sorrows and strangeness of some half-forgotten Dylan song.

 

 

 

I say forgotten, because drawn from fifteen different albums, only two or three are familiar anthems like Slow Train. Under McPherson’s guidance they simply grow almost miraculously from the unfolding story, from the desires and despairing secrets of these people on their various edges. Here is lost love, compromised love, failure, weakness, loneliness, endurance. Solos become duets, lines are handed from one to another, sometimes choruses form: women group round a microphone in 1930s radio-hour style, or echo the gospel roots with tambourines.  Some solos are beyond electrifying: Elizabeth’s Like a Rolling Stone, or her final, heartshaking Forever Young, an anthem of hope in the dark, a hand held to humanity. Which comes right out of one of the bleakest speeches on any stage. Duquesne Whistle makes your hair stand on end; Is Your Love In Vain, from the Burkes in their darkest moments, stuns.

 

 

Dylan and McPherson are both poets. Here they meld, mesh, converse. The roughness is necessary. It’s a privilege to watch.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 7 oct
Principal partner: ROyal Bank of Canada
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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KISS ME Trafalgar studio 2 SW1

 

ANOTHER KIND OF ETERNAL TRIANGLE

 

 

I have a taste for plays about the years between the wars. The WW1 anniversary saw some fascinating contemporaneous ones, often at the Jermyn. There is rich material in it: the weight of grief, survivor-guilt, the shadow of the next war only 21 years later, and not least the new awareness and independence of women who had done tough wartime jobs in munitions or nursing, but then found that the great toll of young male deaths left them as “surplus women” with no family future. So it was irresistible to see how Richard Bean, in our own time and best known for sharp comedy, would deal with it in this two-hander set in 1929, as strangers meet in a bedroom with all this weight of history and sadness still heavy upon them ten years after the Armistice.

 

 

It succeeds, in the most curious of ways beyond both its comedy and its setting, creating by the end a perennial meditation on the triangular relationship between love, sexual desire, and procreation. In an age when so much fiction centres on zipless hookups which try to avoid both emotional entanglement and pregnancy, what we have here is a fictional – but not improbable – situation where a rogue Dr Trollope (unseen) arranges insemination by anonymous sex for women esperate for babies, whether widowed or with damaged husbands.

 

 

Our young woman (Claire Lams) is an independent widow of ten years who drives a munitions lorry. She waits in her lodgings for the appointment, nervous, checking the mirror, smoothing the eiderdown. The man (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is youngish, bowler-hatted, with an umbrella over his arm. He prissily removes his tiepin, lays down the doctor’s rules about no-kissing and no-real-names. The woman is the brighter spirit, chatting and bantering; he, a sober and at first unreadable veteran of these excruciating encounters, wants less talk. But he has to explain why he was not enlisted, is not dead… his very survival proves too much, at first, for her to carry on.
 
Yet they do, because to separate feelings from sex is never as easy as moderns like to think. We see a development over months of encounters: the back-story of her lost husband and brief teenage marriage, a weird, unsettling glimpse into the man’s motivation and his damage. It is alternately touching, absurd, thoughtful, painful and poignant . Anna Ledwich directs, drawing a whole reality from the two characters. You can laugh with the banter – Lams is superb in her evocation of spirited, awakened, hurt womanhood – and wince at the psychological scars on both of them, and on the reflection that no war is every really over. The angel of death has long, dark wings.
It is a curiosity of a play, unexpected and impossible to forget. I’m glad I went.

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ANNIE Piccadilly theatre, W1

BET YOUR BOTTOM DOLLAR ON IT…

 
If Nikolai Foster’s production of Annie came in a tin, it would prove to be exactly what the label promised. Feelgood, joyful, corny, gorgeous. Ruby Stokes’ chirpy first-night Annie manages to deliver a flawless first “Tomorrow” even while having her face licked by a large hairy dog (a labradoodle, anachronistic for 1934 but hey, who cares?). The orphans are choreographed with ferocious playfulness and naturalism – no eyes ’n teeth artificiality and some cracking good bucket-and-mop percussion work in “It’s a hard Knock Life. The natural mode of adult group emotional expression is,, of course, the tap-dance, both in and out of natty sailor-suits. The set, framed in jigsaw pieces of the old NY street map, turns featly from orphanage to Hooverville shanty to mansion, radio station and cabinet room without wasting a minute.

 
And as the tin promised, the first entry of the villainous oppressor Miss Hannigan is met with a deafening cheer from stalls and circles. For it’s Miranda Hart: a national TV treasure too long absent from both singleton horseplay and retro midwifery. She’s back, storming a West End debut as beneath the part’s entertainingly drunken malevolence there bubbles the familiar gleeful larkiness. This is a pratfalling, artfully hapless comedienne whose every gawk and absurdity is calculated with the professional finesse of a Chaplin.  She can put across a song, too, at times swooping down to a near- baritone range which dips below even Alex Bourne’s sonorous Daddy Warbucks.

 

 
The show (for whose London debut in 1978 I was sent to interview an endless line of auditioning tots outside the VIctoria Palace) is of course a fairytale, a fond imagining of childish gallantry in the Great Depression. Who does not sigh with nostalgia at the idea that a lonely unmarried billionaire could innocently summon up an orphan to share his fifth avenue Christmas, even specifying hair colour? Who knew that Roosevelt’s New Deal was inspired by the optimism of a pigtailed ginger orphan carolling “The sun’ll be out tomorrow!” in the Cabinet room? Or that a Republican billionaire would soften towards FDR (“Find out what Democrats eat!”) until together America , orphans and all, could walk to the sunlit uplands. While, of course, foiling a plot by Hannigan and her crooked brother (Jonny Fines is a fine Rooster, Djalenga Scott a perfect bad-broad).

 

 

Actually, so entangled are we today with the absurdities of US politics that I found myself nodding in relief at the way Bourne is playing Daddy WArbucks shaven-headed,not a blond lock real or fake in sight, presumably in order to stop us musing about parallels between another billionaire businessman who can “summon up the FBI” and call detectives off the Capone case when he has a personal issue to resolve…

 
Perish the thought. Such dark cynicisms are unfit for an Annie audience. Stick with the joyfulness, the crazy optimism, the triumph of simple goodness and the leaping exuberant orphans. Stokes is a lovely Annie, and I am sure the other two alternates are as well, and the orphan ensemble are terrific. But you’ll be in particular luck if you hit on a night when a mop-headed Nicole Subebe,on a professional debut, is playing Molly the smallest orphan with extreme pizzazz, drop-dead timing and glee. Every time she and the mob spill onto the stage the energy rises. The child is yeast.

 

 
Box office http://www.anniewestend.com 0844 871 7630 to Jan 2018 (Miranda Hart until 17 Sept)
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE ISLAND Southwark Playhouse , SE1

PITY, TERROR, TRIUMPH

 

 

For the first fifteen of the hundred minutes no word is spoken by the two men in ragged prison cottons: Edward Dede as the younger Winston, Mark Springer a powerful monolithic figure as John. As we sit around silent, almost awkward,they mime intense labour. Muscles gleam, sweat breaks, as they lift and shovel and push and strain with harsh breaths. It becomes oppressive. It is meant to. John Terry’s direction does not spare us because nothing spared these prisoners. Athol Fugard’s play about Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27years to 1988, needs to make it clear that what the political internees endured was not only imprisonment but enslavement.

 

 
He wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the originals of these two characters, who performed it for many years (and several arrests) during the years when the island was still in use, its very name forbidden. It has become a modern classic, a hard and dour and ultimately redemptive vision of endurance and imagination. The two men, once released (and releasing us) from the day’s labour sit with their bedrolls and single cell bucket and begin to talk, to plan, to become the humans they are and no longer labouring beasts. In a moment of sudden piercing pathos John says of the sweltering beach they work on “same old sea sand I used to play with when I was young..”.

 

 

They are to perform a version of the trial of Antigone at a prison concert (this happened) and there is humour and no small conflict as John, the more educated, nags Winston about his part; they bring out the pathetic props – Creon’s tin-lid medallion, Antigone’s daft rope-ringleted wig and necklace of nails. It seems as if Winston won’t do it: but their bond is strong, built on their shared, consoling fantasies: of phone calls home or acted-out nights at the “bioscope”. Tha word jolted me with familiarity: I hadn’t heard cinema called that since I was a child in Johannesburg, a diplo-brat as aghast as my parents during the apartheid years .

 

 

The simple account – jolted again by the agony of both after hearing that John will be released in three months. Winston agonizes because he has years to run; John – in a way only prisoners can understand – because the very act of counting days, fearing and hoping, is a new and strange kind of pain in itself. Winston overcomes his fear of mockery in the daft wig as John teaches him the great theatrical lesson “behind all this rubbish is me…if they laugh at the beginning and listen at the end…”. Antigone’s trial is performed. One of the oldest stories of law, power, injustice and rightfulness in the world, yet still we hold our breath. Southwark is its last point on the tour: it is a co-production with Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster. It has lost none of its pity and terror.
 

box office     www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk 020 7407 0234 to 24 June
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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TWITSTORM Park Theatre, N4

THE PERILS OF PC, THE TERROR OF TWITTER

 
This little  theatre is on a roll, catching topicalities as they fly. After David Henry Hwang’s wonderful CHINGLISH. about trade with China, this play by Chris England is the ultimate British mediaclass, middleclass, middle-aged nightmare. As such it is, of course, enjoyably vicious on every level. It was time that both social media pieties and the snarky, jokes-are-sacred comedi-ocracy both got a good slapping-about, and here it is. England’s tale, performed with frighteningly recognizable accuracy and directed with glee by Jonathan Guy Lewis, is about a Twitterstorm: the contumely that falls with tedious regularity on public figures who step out of line in a world whose hobby is taking offence.

 
Screens overhead give us arch or vapid tweets, and then a blast of “Arguing the Toss”, a TV comedy chat-show halfway between Piers Morgan and Charlie Brooker: all sarky superiority and scripted gags. Below it, in a smart urban kitchen, meet its host Guy, our pleasingly dislikeable hero. Jason Merrells gets him to the last detail: a man forever hovering between sincerely felt grumpiness and tiresome auto-banter (he’s the kind of man who calls his patio barbie “the Klaus”). His sweet-natured charity-supporting wife Bex writes chick-lit novels he despises, and has a direct debit to sponsor a “Child 4 Africa”. They are suppressing their post-Christian smugness to schmooze their child into a faith school . Oh yes: the only thing missing on Anthony Lamble’s set is an unread Guardian.

 

 

Like all propsperous bien-pensants they have serfs. Lumbering amongst them in Lycra, having cycled miles every day to write Guy’s jokes for him, is Justin Edwards as Guy’s old pal Neil, who the star and his manager secretly plan to dump. The pair used to do fringe shows together as “The Potato People” – very Edinburgh – and now Neil just writes Guy’s endearing daily tweets to reinforce the brand. But a stranger comes to the door, a cuckoo in the nest not unconnected to Bex’s charitable direct-debit. And a chain of events, driven largely by Guy’s own smug comedic persona, leads towards comeuppance.

 

 

Never mind exactly how. I won’t spoil a fun plot which tips over at the end into eventful improbability. . And which also reminds us, among other things, how thin the partitions are these days between comfy middle England and Africa’s failing states. There are masses of one-line jokes of suitable tastelessness, an artful navigation round the n-word (never spoken) and a rare banana-skin moment which does not even involve taking the skin off the banana. There is also a nice moral turnaround, as PC rage implodes and eats its own backside. And there’s a beautiful, deadpan, deliciously hateable star turn by Ben Kavanagh as a gender-fluid ponytailed PC smugatron with a video blog.

 

 

The performances are beautifully judged all round: whether in the moment when Guy’s cool-dude persona slips into unadmitted middle age as he has to peer, without reading-glasses, at the unfolding twitstorm on someone else’s phone, or in the body language of Justin Edwards’ amiably hapless Neil or Claire Goose’s patient appalled Bex. The author himself plays the horrified agent.

 

 

But most of all I loved Tom Moutchi as Ike the interloper, all African openness and an impoverished dignity calculated to spread unease. It is necessary that we should never be quite sure whether his innocence is real or not: Moutchi carries this manner off with delicate mischief. Apparently he is an instagram star himself among under-25s, but I don’t see why they should get all the fun. So I am looking him up.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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