Category Archives: Four Mice

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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