Category Archives: Four Mice

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE Vaudeville, WC1

OSCAR’S BACK!   IN THE VERY WEEK OF HIS BIRTHDAY…

 

 

A theatrical phenomenon of the 20th century is the way that some of the most perceptive parts for women were written by gay men: Tennessee Williams, RattiganM Noel Coward; Alan Bennett kindly, Joe Orton cruelly. And, in this case, Oscar Wilde. Because of The Importance Of Being Earnest with its demurely comic Gwendolen and Cicely and the absurd Prism, we can forget that he had a savage anger about social justice for women: powerful unease about the double sexual standard and a bracing admiration for tough, outspoken American womanhood. His was, remember, the time when squads of wealthy US girls like Jennie Churchill were coming over and improving our aristocratic breeding-stock no end.

 

 

Of all the plays this is the most melodramatically and explicitly angry: at its heart is the long-wronged, virtuously hiding Mrs Arbuthnot, who finds out at a brittle social house-party that her illegitimate son Gerald has met her faithless lover – now titled and powerful – and been taken on as his secretary. There are terrific, and unfashionable, set-pieces: in among the excellent and familiar epigrams come long speeches of great earnestness both in favour of ‘virtue’ and against it.

 

 

 

But it bounces along, director Dominic Dromgoole allowing absurdity (borderline clowning at times) to keep the mood moving. The casting is wonderful: Eleanor Bron ,as arch as her own eyebrows, expresses aged aristocratic complacency and a throttling dominance of her husband. Anne Reid exudes daffy benignity , and both senior ladies have split-second comic timing and can throw lines away so that they explode unexpectedly a second later, and we guffaw). Harry Lister Smith is a sweetly tousled, eager Etonian Gerald, Emma Fielding the cynical Mrs Allonby, Crystal Clarke the priggish American reformer who comes good in the end. Dominic Rowan makes a convincing coxcomb as the seducer. Gorgeous nonsensical cameos are added by William Gaunt’s senile Archdeacon, William Mannering as a drunk lordling, and Phoebe Fildes as poor dim young Lady Stutfield. But at its heart is Eve Best: mournful and troubled in black velvet, hair tumbling, a humble church-mouse amid the quipping brittle socialites. Her wronged Mrs Arbuthnot is the emotional and moral core of the play, and her sincerity carries the melodramatic – no small feat – to just within the bounds of modern tolerance.

 

 

 

As many don’t know the plot, no spoilers. But I will signal to you the productions grand and suitable joke. Anne Reid, benignly smiling as our stately hostess, turns out to have a fabulous knack for singing the most sentimental and minatory of Victorian parlour songs, trilling thrillingly in a character so extreme that I thought my late and shameless Granny was back to haunt me . She does three unexpected entr’acte moments, so that the three sumptuous sets (by Jonathan Fensom) can be changed in impressive silence as she emerges through the blue velvet curtains with her staff – and Ms Fildes – on fiddle, clarinet and guitars. Thus Reid belts out emotional renderings of “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother” and The Gypsy’s Warning, and we melt and cheer. Give that woman an album, now! These appearances, nicely introduced by her butler as if we were guests at the same social weekend, betray that Dominic Dromgoole, late of the warm and larky Shakespeare’s Globe, does not wish entirely to dispense with its spirit cosy inclusivity and confine his casts entirely behind a fourth wall.

 

 

Actually, talking of that, here’s a nice irony. This week Nicholas Hytner opens his new theatre, The Bridge, and you can hear him on Radio 4 musing on how the Victorian proscenium theatre, a gilded picture-frame, was ideal for plays up to 1950 but is problematic now. (R4 PLANKS AND A PASSION, 1130 tues 17th). While at the same moment Dominic Dromgoole – late of the Globe – begins his Classic Spring series by demonstrating, in this first Wilde revival, precisely how they did work for those plays and audiences.

 

 

 

But some things linger on for centuries. In this Harvey Weinstein week, there was not a little topicality in the theme of women being sexually shamed and hiding while men get away with it, “Women are pictures, men are problems” scoffs Lord Illingworth. His real nastiness emerges through the charm, just as the real pain of the second act gives a sharp sour jangle to the familiar epigrams. Wilde didn’t only use his teeth to smile.

 

 

box office Phone: 0330 333 4814 to 30 Dec
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BEGINNING Dorfman, SE1

 

LUKE JONES RELISHES ELDRIDGE ON MIDLIFE CHAOS

 

When the music stops and the lights click on, your first thought is ‘sweet Jesus what the hell went down at this party”?     I thought twenty year olds were bad. These two late thirty/early forty year olds were knee deep in bottles, stubbed out fags, plates, streamers, scuffs, spills and no doubt smells. They’re the only ones left,  and it’s her flat. It’s a housewarming which has noticeably cooled. But they’re staring at each other intensely.

 

 

 

David Eldridge’s new play is a tense, frustrating flirt. Laura and Danny (absolute champions Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton) don’t know each other but, over an hour and forty minutes,  dig an incredibly intense relationship. Like 2017 Pinter the majority of their chat is bleakly familiar, but still somehow thumps you in the feels. The plot is nicely thin; two strangers lost in loneliness, edging closer to life’s dusty shelf, fall in something resembling love. But Eldridge’s skill –  also down to Polly Findlay’s incredibly naturalistic direction – is in quietly cranking up the tension then puncturing it. Sometimes you feel the dramatist’s direction a little too much, but for the most part you can lose yourself in it. Towards the end as they strip almost naked, kiss and desperately cling to one another, Danny (after a corking pause) asks if Laura could flip the heating on. Reader, we roared.

 

 

Troughton steals the show with his nervy, boyish and damaged 42 year old Essexian. His drunken wobbles and neuroses are a photorealistic portrait. Theatrics  have been parked. Mitchell’s too is a witty performance which nimbly negotiates the gags cracking into profundities.

 

 

My only hesitation about this play is that occasionally – and very briefly –  the pace dipped and my interest slipped. And a few times Mitchell’s performance veered just far enough out of the outstanding naturalism  into something a smidge stagey. Also social media mentions occasionally feel a bit stale and forced, but it is set in 2015 and don’t forget these characters aren skirting forty so….y’know.

 

 

But these gripes are slight. ad I not brought my pen and sharped my critical binoculars as is normally my way, this all would probably have passed me by.   If you’re up for a bleak, honest, comparably brief manifesto for shaky late-love; strap in.

Luke Jones
Box Office: 020 7452 3000  to 14 November

rating  four 4 Meece Rating

 

 

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YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN Garrick SW1

A TRANSYLVANIAN TRANSPORT OF DELIGHT

 

 

Sometimes you just want a bit of fun. That is the moment to turn to Mel Brooks, master of daft parody. At 91, the master strode onstage tonight with director Susan Stroman, and told us that the only thing wrong with this glorious London launch of his 2007 Broadway show – his own musical based on his film – was that all us bastards got in free. Cue cheers, standing ovations and a wild hoofing reprise from the cast during which I fled to write this.

 

 

Because it is a pleasure to tell you that , whatever your doubts about making musicals out of beloved films, this one pretty much works just as well as The Producers did before it. And there is special satisfaction in letting Britain demonstrate that it can effortlessly raise a cast to delight the Brooks and Stroman and the rest of us. So you need a Gene-Wilder type, earnest and bewildered as the grandson of Viktor Frankenstein? We have Hadley Fraser. Want a crazy sinister old housekeeper with a terrifying goose-step and worrying erotic memories? Step forward Lesley Joseph. A diva for a mighty love song ? Dianne Pilkington. Were you worried that nobody can rock a humpback and a bat-flapping cloak like Marty Feldman in the film? Fear not, there’s Ross Noble. He has just the right manic edge. For a one-armed one-legged Mayor doubling as a blind bearded slapstick hermit we can offer Patrick Clancy, who even manages a unique transformation in the curtain call.

 

 

 

And when there is a need for a glorious, shameless, leg-flashing, top-hoofing comedy blonde bombshell who is able and willing to do the splits in frilly knickers on a sinister lab gurney without even holding the rusty chains, Britain can proudly supply a Strallen. Summer Strallen as Inga, in this case, and very fine too. So is the swing chorus: Nathan Elwick in particular getting a nice pair of cameos. Only The Creature himself is a US import – Shuler Hensley. And he played it on Broadway, so it would be criminal not to re-use his talent for roaring, stumping, staggering, and finally bursting into neat tap to Put On The Ritz before miraculously morphing into a Noel-Coward gentleman-roué.

 

 

So pure and almost constant pleasure, sharp and witty from Fraser’s opening number “There is nothing like a brain” which reassures us that Brooks is as determined to pay mocking homage to the musical genre itself as he was to 1930s horror films. It is slyly self-referential all the way through, the numbers echoing everything from Oklahoma to Les Miserables. Favourite jokes from the film are there in script, but it is the newness of the musical line that delights. Frankenstein’s frigid fiancée has a particularly original number Please Don’t Touch Me (“You can squeeze me till I scream, if it’s only in a dream”), waltzing touchlessly into a very good gag about Catholic girls’ schools. As for the hay-cart on which Inga takes Frankenstein to the castle (with splendid horse and wolf behaviour) words fail me. So enjoy hers – “When life is awful, just jump on a strawful, and have a roll in the hay”.

 

 

 

Any time, any time. Enjoy the daft jokes, relish the pace (only slows down a bit, in the villagers’ scenes, before the barnstorming Act 1 closer with the Creature rampaging down the aisle). Cheer for the splendidly disgraceful objectification of women with big breasts and a Creature with unusual endowment south of the belt. Take a happy break from news bulletins about Brexit. Mel Brooks loves us, so we must be all right after all.

 

box office 0844 482 9673 to 10 Feb.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE LIE Menier, SE1

FAITHFUL TO UNFAITHFULNESS, ZELLER SPARKLES AGAIN

 

 

This is a companion-piece to the stormingly funny, cruelly witty THE TRUTH: Florian Zeller, translated from the French with verve by Christopher Hampton, directed by Lindsay Posner, and once again starring Alexander Hanson. An actor who does wounded-insincere-yet-sufferingly- self-righteous infidelity like nobody else. Once again Zeller is playing around with the question of who is lying, who believes who, and who is pretending to lie in order to conceal that the lie is actually a truth, etc. It is not quite as chokingly and constantly funny as The Truth, which was the most sophisticated of farces in shorter sharper scenes. This one is more philosophical, with possible longueurs in at least one scene where the key couple are persuading one another to disbelieve the lie which they have told one another and which is – at some points – actually true.

 

 

Treble-bluff, whip-smart , and it is always entertaining to spot “tells” and think you know better than the protagonists. It begins with the deceptively simple fact that Alice – an elegantly businesslike Samantha Bond – wants to cancel a dinner with their closest friends Michel and Laurence, because she has seen Michel with another woman in the street and feels she should in honesty tell her friend. Her husband Paul – Hanson, who feels sympathy for Michel – says that it is kinder not to, and struggles in the dinner to prevent her having any time with Laurence.

 

 
But the very discussion of infidelity makes Alice, with righteous paeans to truth in marriage, ask him frankly whether he has ever cheated. And for a while we think aha, maybe this is the core of the plot, a solid marriage crumbling on suspicion for no real reason. At last her husband admits it, then says he made it up because she pushed him, so was lying about having lied. Whereon she says she has also cheated. And the complications mount as Michel (Tony Gardner, always a touch satanic) comes round to console the panicking Paul. And the diabolical truth-that-is a lie-about- the -ruth builds up between them and spills over into philosophical craziness and sometimes cruelly funny moments. Hanson, Bond and Gardner all have utter mastery of the half-noticed “tell”, and the faux-tell, so we are never entirely sure who is lying. Except that we pretty much reckon they all are. And in a final coda we find out anyway.

 

 

The laughs are sometimes pure happy shock, sometimes cruel : the blackmailing moral “you have to believe em if you want me to believe you” being pretty much the closest to an ethic we get. But Zeller does have a moral insight – note his remarkable The Father and The Mother, both recently in London . So one suspects that if you drill down, what he actually thinks is that that infidelity is not the end of the world.. So clever, entertaining, not quite the dazzler his other plays have been, but solid pleasure. Though one hopes Mrs May and Mr Davis don’t see it, or they’ll never trust a French negotiator again.

 

 

box office 0207 378 1713 to 18 Nov
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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RULES FOR LIVING Royal, Northampton & Touring

A FAMILY SITCOM UPS ITS GAME…

 

I didn’t much rate its premiere at the National in 2015, despite the achingly chic set I felt was “a kitchen-diner so huge and smart it makes David Cameron’s look poky”. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas, culminating in a very fine food-fight , never quite took off for me: never felt credible despite a top cast. To the extent that I got grumbly about one or two overly obvious gags, like the hyperactive son’s-girlfriend Carrie breaking a precious ornament to a cry of “It was my father’s!”.

 

 

But here’s a thing. In this new English Touring Theatre version directed by Simon Godwin and set in a less futuristic, more cosily domestic scene and in a proscenium theatre, it comes to life and moves closer to Ayckbournian quality. Holcroft’s idea is that people work by a set of rules, colourfully projected overhead, as in some nightmarish devised card game (one takes place in the second act). Thus Matthew can’t lie unless he’s sitting down and eating, his girlfriend Carrie has to dance around when joking until someone laughs, and Edith must self-medicate and clean things to keep herself calm, and so forth.

 

 

Sometimes this feels unnecessary and even intrusive, but at other times gets excellent laughs in its own right. The background to the idea is about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which discusses the use and misuse of rules which may be unachievable: Adam’s daughter Emma is upstairs refusing to get up for family dinner and suffering from fatigue syndrome, and early on there is anguished conversation about the psychological element which may be part of it. Though the fact that her mother Nicole has banished her ineffective husband to the Travelodge might be not unconnected to, as might uncle Matthew’s mawkish emotional dependence on his sister-in-law…

 

 

 

And so forth. But this time (maybe there were tweaks to the script as well?) the play feels unforced and rather touching. Jane Booker is quite wonderful as Edith the compulsively-cleaning, make-it-all-lovely mother, her comic timing fabulous. There’s great work from Carlyss Peer as the hyper Carrie and from  the infuriating Adam who uses accents and impersonations to disguise his sense of  not being wholly himself : both are very annoying characters who pull off the difficult trick of just managing not to alienate the actual audience. And Paul Shelley as the dreadful, monosyllabic, strokebound old wretch of a father does some high-quality scowling beneath his paper hat and – during the worst mayhem – sits eating a sprout on a fork with a magnificent satyr leer I cannot forget.

 

So it works. And the food fight is just as good as the one at the NT. Kev McCurdy as Fight Director , take a bow.

 

 

royalandderngate.co.uk until Sat 30 Sept but then TOURING  Touring Mouse widehttp://www.ett.org.uk
Cambridge next!

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE Marble Arch Theatre, W1

MICHAEL ADAIR GETS IN THE GROOVE

Sometimes the theatre can feel a little bit behind the times. The plots, the casts, the creatives and everything in between have yet to cease to amaze – but this is the age of Netflix, of ‘immersive cinema’, of a man selling a £1000 phone by telling us that ‘augmented reality’ is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. Indeed, when contrasted with all of these innovations in entertainment, stuffing yourself into a heavily carpeted space, with limited legroom and maybe a plastic cup of wine, makes a trip to the theatre, no matter how stunning the show, suddenly feel awfully old fashioned in its formality.

Step forward Five Guys Named Moe at the purpose-built Marble Arch theatre. Here, the venue in itself is an experience, intended as a homage to a 1940s jazz bar. Pre-show, a live band plays above a busy cocktail bar, where sharply dressed staff shake up typical New Orleans classics, Hurricanes and Whiskey Sours aplenty. The show is performed in the round – our cast sing and dance and move around the audience from a spinning circular platform, with the luckiest of ticket holders sitting at cabaret-club style tables in the very centre of proceedings.

The story, written by Clarke Peters, who also directs, is a simple one: Nomax, a borderline alcoholic who is having relationships troubles, is alternately comforted and challenged by a medley of Moes emerging from his radio to sing him the toe-tapping works of Louis Jordan. It’s a fast-paced, funny and stylish cabaret performance from an impressively talented cast, all of whom are terrific, and  bringing a different style and flavour to a  lesser- known back catalogue than you might find at Motown the Musical. Particularly noteworthy is the six-piece band, who are often present on stage alongside the performers – walking basslines, rumbling drums, wailing brass – it’s euphoric and perfectly matches the soft jazz-club lighting and smokey ambience.

The emphasis here is on fun – the plot is incidental to the sheer brilliance and dynamism of the performances, which  help ease the audience into some truly special shared moments – this was quite possibly the first time that I have participated in a cast-led, audience-wide conga line to the bar for the interval.  Long may this concept continue.

Some traditionalists might take issue with the thought of touching a fellow theatre-goer’s shoulders, or, God forbid, running the risk of making direct eye contact – but ignore them. Five Guys Named Moe is an absolute blast. Go on a Saturday night, bring some friends, order a drink (or several); it’s the about the only trace of Old Fashioned you’ll find at this theatre.

~ MICHAEL ADAIR

Until 17th February

Box Office – 03333 444 167
https://tickets.fiveguysmusical.com/london

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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THE KNOWLEDGE Charing Cross theatre SW1

THE CABMAN’S PROGRESS

 

It couldn’t be better placed, here in the arches below Charing Cross station. Under the venerable rules of London licensed cabs – dating back to the 1843 Act – “The Knowledge” that cabbies must have is centred right here. Fifteen thousand streets, within a six-mile radius of this very spot, must be memorized, along with hotels, public buildings and amenities thereon. Then on it goes to the suburbs. Only three in ten succeed in winning their badge; some take years, riding mopeds on the 468 prescribed runs (often at night or in the bleak dawn, around a day job). It is unique in the world.

 

 

So here at its centre, and in a year when the cheapskate, exploitative dark empire of Uber is fast eroding it, this is the place for a double act of commemoration. Jack Rosenthal’s well-loved film, set in 1979, has been adapted by Simon Black into theatrical shape and retains all the dry gentle wit, empathy and humane sweetness of the man. His widow, Maureen Lipman, directs it. So that’s one commemoration; the other is of the cabbies themselves. Who are still with us, surviving the age of vampiric digital minicabs and the customer parsimony which insouciantly drives costs and lesser incomes down. . It isn’t a storming, life-changing play, but it is an honest slice of life and in the second hour, surprisingly satisfying.

 

 

 

Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s nicely conceived set has traffic-lights, street signs, and three sparse domestic interiors below the high terrifying platform of the examiner Mr Burgess’ office, complete with the legendary toy parrot and bonsai tree. Up there Steven Pacey presides as an infuriating, whimsically bullying, ferretily- schoolmasterly figure (no surprise that the interval music includes PInk Floysd The Wall , with its “dark sarcasms”) .At the end of Act 1 Lipman gives us a nice coup de theatre as the cast’s voices become an echoing cacophony of streets, squares, turnings, fire stations , tunnels and warnings while the third candidate panics on the stairs. The evocation of mental stress jars your very teeth.

 

 

 

We are following the candidates, each with their domestic setting, some more finely drawn than others but all given typical Rosenthal sympathy. There’s James Alexandrou’s swaggering Gordon with his fed-up wife, Ben Caplan’s Ted, from a dynasty of Jewish cabbies, Louise Callagnan as a pioneering , tough-edged young woman candidate (this is 1979, remember) . Above all there’s young Fabian Frankel, fresh out of Lamda, as the feckless, jobless, unconfident Chris whose girlfriend (Alice Felgate) buys him a moped and nags him to do The Knowledge and make something of himself.

 

 

Their trajectory is the most interesting, as Chris, at first despairing of himself, gradually finds steely resolve until his girl, dismayed, realizes that as her role vanishes their relationship no longer works. Frankel does this butterfly emergence very well indeed, moving from petulance to resolve and finally to a warm self-amazement which turns your heart over. Ben Caplan and Jenna Augen as the Jewish pair carry their trajectory particularly well too.

 

 

And even Burgess – after enraging us and the candidates equally with his distraction techniques and evocation of awful punters during the bruising examinations – has a moment of sweet humanity. He was a cabbie too, and knows the horror of ”people..they mumble, can’t hear you, don’t know where they’re going..” But as Callagnan’s Miss Staveley says, struggling with her rage at Burgess’ demonstration of the sexual baiting she will get, “I always have to be the better man, Sir”. That, and young Frankel,  and long gratitude to our unique cabbies, won the fourth mouse.

I was going to take the Tube afterwards, but took a cab instead. In tribute.

 

 

box office 020 7930 5868 to 11 Nov
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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