Category Archives: Four Mice

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR Jermyn, SW1

THE SAVAGE BEAUTY OF THE FIRST AIR WAR

  

Britain did not stand alone  in WW1.    As our hero sings in John MacLachlan Gray’s  1982 play:

“South Africa and Canada and Australia to boot /   Are saying ‘Mother, here we are!  Now  tell us who to shoot?”

    This  1982 Canadian play is a fascinating sidelight in this centenary week,  a biography of one star pilot in that war.  It not only takes us above the terrible trenches and into the skies but reminds us of that  “Colonial”contribution.  Those Anglophone lands lost many sons but in the process  gained a new confidence in their future independence.  It also reminds us that WW1 began, incredibly,  with cavalry charges – Billy came over in a boat full of army horses – but ended with the newest of technology.   War moved aloft, in the canvas and prop planes of the Royal Flying Corps.   Without parachutes,  youthful pilots  flew them with an average 11-day survival , and in one model  were sent out – for reasons of weight -with only bombs, no guns.

 

 

. Among them was our hero. Billy Bishop, a callow, rebellious young Canadian who failed his military academy finals by cheating and arrived, seasick and shocked by a voyage through torpedo attacks, as a cavalry officer.    Weary of the mud and boredom in camp he looked up to see a plane, and discovered that he might manoeuvre himself into a job as an Observer. Despite daft laddish injuries,   a  weak heart and being disgraced in training he came good.  He trained as a pilot, patronised by Lady St Helier (who had Canadian connections). He   won the  MC and VC and to his horror was paraded socially before political grandees as a kind of human trophy.   He was  one of the highest scoring fighter pilots and so valuable as a symbol  that he was pulled off duties before the Armistice and sent home  because  Canadian morale needed encouraging and,  unaccountably to the sombre English mind,  that young nation preferred its heroes to survive.

 

It is the well-worn wartime  tale of impossibly young men  thrown into the desperate exhilaration of war, losing friends daily, impassioned against “the Hun”,but sometimes suddenly softening  at the burning realities of death.   But it is also a universal portrait of a bad-boy coming good, finding a metier,  hurling himself at his talent almost too hard, in and out of drink and depression: almost a rock star story. 

 

  Most of the time, in Daisy Blower’s painstakingly detailed set (including a piano for the many atmospheric songs),  two men are on stage:Charles Aitken as young Billy, lean and manic, half annoying and half irresistible, shares the narration with Oliver Beamish as his older self , the Air Marshal of the 1950s . Neatly and deftly each becomes other characters:   Beamish often authority figures, Aitken at one point almost worryingly convincing as a French bar chanteuse .  They meld beautifully, each a part of the other, singing together sometimes.

       There is for my taste slightly more evocation of dogfights and of  Billy’s remarkable solo raid on a German airfield.  But it is brilliantly done, probably necessary. Gray’s writing is often startlingly poetic;   the songs – some from the period –  vibrate with atmosphere.  Early on, the sense of a  lonely Canadian’s longing for his own peaceful skies is poignantly beautiful.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

to 24 nov

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HONOUR Park Theatre, N4

LOVE’S PRECEDENCE AND CRUELTY

 

      George is a journalist-intellectual, award-winner, amiably vain and sixtyish..  He  twinkles for England,  with much black-rimmed-specs-play,  when being  interviewed by an ambitious young graduate, Claudia.   At home is his wife Honor, laughingly at ease with  him, the pair exuding long-accustomed affection and joking about an old friend who has left his wife for a young girl and, ridiculously,  goes out clubbing with her (“He’s so old they think he’s a performance artist”).  Claudia the interviewer  comes to lunch:  unsuspicious, Honor talks about their long marriage and how – charmingly –  enjoying sex becomes as much to do with memory and “knowing what each other used to be”.  

     

        But Claudia is on navel manoeuvres,  casually baring a bellybutton in the next interview session, letting her hair hang loose,  making her questing intellectual chat daringly intimate.  George succumbs.  and  announces to his baffled wife that he is leaving. So  begins the to- -and-fro of pain and disillusion,  adjustment and remorse.  And the play asks   hard questions about the primacy of the heart and the usefulness of dull old virtue. 

  

  It’s an old story indeed –  and an artfully updated 1995 play by Joanna Murray-Smith –  but so beautifully  performed in Paul Robinson’s austerely set production that it feels very up to date.  Its forensic examination of love , exploitation and the male-female balance enthrals, amuses and prods painfully at the emotional culture of today.  Henry Goodman is superb as the donnish George:    vain in his early self-possession, defensive in his headlong passion, wounded at last and  dryly saddened.  Imogen Stubbs is magnificent too as Honor:   she has a powerful capacity to portray love’s huge pain  yet hold within it a kind of surprise :  her finely timed humour hits hard at moments , and in extremis she can kick the furniture over with whirling force.   

 

      As for Katie Brayben  as Claudia, she is suitably dismaying in her icy, juvenile intellectual ambition and her very modern  feminist ruthlessness:  she sees no problem in  luring a husband from a woman she considers less worthy because of her loyal wifeliness and lesser career. She is brutal: not  so much MeToo as the MeFirst .   Her worship of her own sexual allure is coldly selfish,   and she  snaps “I don’t plan to give up anything for anyone”. 

 

    In sweet softer contrast to her damaged cleverness is the daughter of the wrecked marriage, Natalie Simpson’s  Sophie:   defiantly furious with her father, accusing her mother,   then  crumbling at the loss of safe familial warmth. 

     There are good laughs, not least the gloriously predictable moment when George rashly criticises Claudia’s writing for lack of nuance, and when she is horrified by his boyish dream to sail round the world with her instead of being a power-couple.   But at the play’s heart is the question even she finally understands enough to ask.  Why against fairness, loyalty and gentler loves,  does passion think it can take precedence?

 

  box office 0207 870 6876  to 24 nov  

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE WILD DUCK Almeida, N1

LOVE,  LIES AND THE PAIN OF TRUTH

 

   Is it better to live in a lie,  a happy story,  or to admit the messy sinful truth?  Should you  assume that every person you meet is the worst part of themselves, even if there’s evidence of that worst?   

    

This is Ibsen,  so you know it won’t end too well. If there is a poisoned secret it will come out, if a gun it will be fired, and the sins (and sicknesses) of the fathers will fall on the children.   There will also be a metaphor, in this case a wild duck kept tame in the attic alongside a few rabbits , pigeons and old Christmas trees.  Old Ekdal,  broken by his business partner’s treachery and a prison term, likes to go up there and play at hunting.  The duck was winged one day by the wicked partner,  and legend says that when wounded,   a wild duck dives deep and holds on to the weeds until it drowns. But a dog retrieved it, and Ekdal’s son James  keeps it because his daughter Hedwig loves it. They’re all wounded, clinging on in the deep.  All their stories are broken-winged.

 

  Director Robert Icke, most ingenious of re-framers and refreshers, presents this classic of pain and lies with a touch of meta-theatre as Kevin Harvey’s  Greg -son of the corrupt rich partner – arrives on the bare stage with a microphone to inform us, with a touch of patronage, that when he wrote it in 1884  Henrik Ibsen had a secret  illegitimate child,  so this  underlies his sense of lies growing like tumours.  He adds that since the original play is in Norwegian and all translations are a sort of untruth, there is no point us expecting the ‘true’ version.   Props are at first picked up from the front row;   at various moments he, or other characters, will use that mic again to offer bits of narrative or stage directions.  Cards on the table:   I get a bit irritable at such devices, and didn’t quite buy the parallel between deep family lies and theatre itself.  

  

 

    But it pays off,  not least because Greg proves to be a walking truth-bomb himself, and in the final moment gets the contumely such irresponsible truth-tellers sometimes deserve.   And the emotional core of the play is beautifully, tenderly, sadly rendered:   true to the playwright, with all Ibsen’s fin-de-siecle desperation to blow apart 19c secrecies  and grope painfully towards a more honest society.  Most of it – as items of furniture turn up – take us to the household of the ruined Ekdal’s son James, his wife Gina and their daughter, the enchanting and beloved twelve year old Hedwig  (on press night Clara  Read, superb).  

 

        Edward Hogg gives James a brittle energy: fragile, eager, optimistic but wounded and ineffectual,  resenting the secret subsidy from his father’s old enemy and trying not to believe in it.    Lyndsey Marshal is superb as Gina:  she has her own secret, indicated by occasional malapropisms that create an odd unease.  When she says “men need something to abstract themselves with” and is corrected to “distract”, we pick up the other meaning.    Nicholas Farrell is touching as the old ruined hunter abstracting himself from reality with the gun in the attic.     The strength and love of family, soon to be shattered by revelations and heredity, is intensely affecting, the intermittent scene-change grabbing of the microphone taking nothing from its illiusion of reality.  Actually,  it is even more poignant to feel that the players are helplessly manipulated by Ibsen, the way  we all are by life.   The rising tension near the end is almost unbearable.  

    

      And although until the final five minutes one might  think designer Bunny Christie got away with providing nothing but a few chairs and tables, you eat your words when a black screen rises on the world above,  and the bitterest of fairylights.

 

box office  0207 359 4404  to 1 Dec

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE MARINER Touring

ALONE ON A WIDE, WIDE SEA 

    

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be studded with overfamiliar quotations,  but taken in its entirely,  has power to disturb .  It is about guilt, terror, hallucination, terror, “the nightmare death-in-life” and prescient sense of human vandalism of the natural world.  It yearns for forgiveness and the power to pray.    It came, after all,  from a man  brilliant,  revolutionary in his politics and sexual morality,  possibly bipolar,  a tricky husband , quarrelsome  friend and opium addict. 

         

      Now,  on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 246th birthday,  these Eastern counties are seeing a tour of this fascinating reimagining, from letters and records,   of the way the poem resonates through the man’s own life. Pat Whymark writes and directs;   her partner Julian Harries plays the Mariner.  Their tiny company Common Ground is better known round here for cheerful Christmas-show  spoofs  but this is more ambitious and  – despite some good dry laughs at the poet’s behaviour – more serious.   We find the poet (Richard Lounds) in lodgings in 1810,  away from his family and estranged from some friends,  doing his lectures on Shakespeare and Miltonwith the laudanum-bottle on the table,  the landlady chatty but exasperated,   and Thomas de Quincey (Anthony Pinnick) his loyal and exasperated friend and fellow opium-eater,  occasionally dropping in.    

 

 A series of flashbacks gives us his fairly unhappy marriage to Sarah and her grief at his neglect (when one of their infants died, he refused to come home but continued a walking tour of Germany and told her to “Bear it with Fortitude”).    There is also an amusing glimpse of the Wordsworths, William (Pinnick again) and his besotted sister Dorothy;  we get a nice evocation of how annoying they must have been to Sarah Coleridge, especially when her husband  cries “William and Dorothy are like food and drink to me” and points out that she lacks  “high sensibilities”  and that Dorothy is “perfect electrometer of feeling” .  

 

      Indeed the two women in multiple parts – Eloise Kay and Emily Bennett – are important not only in contrast to the self-obsessed Coleridge but because Whymark, also a composer,  gives the piece a hypnotic, disturbing vocal and instrumental score (the two women and Pinnick play guitar , serengi and violin).  Sharp harmonies and eerie sounds create almost as much atmosphere as the poem itself.  They sing verses from it,  and  from a sloping deck and ragged sail stage left,  the whole narrative is performed by the rather magnificent Julian Harries.  Each section reflects a time of  dissolution, temper or torment for Coleridge,   at his desk stage right or with the others at the centre.  Projections create sea, sky, cloud; but it is Harries’ grey beard and glittering eye that carry it.  

 

     This is one of the problems for the writer,  and for Lounds as Coleridge. As so often, the poet is a lesser creature than his work.  It would take a peculiar brilliance in any actor to make him more than mainly, frankly,   annoying.   Some trimming of the script showing moments from his life would  help (and may yet, tours always develop).   The saturnine elegance of Pinnick’s de Quincey certainly does help, though.  Lounds is best when at his most agonized, not least because that is when the Mariner Harries (not a bad electrometer-of-feeling himself) is at his most tormentedly stormy. In an excellent late moment the mariner explains to us why he bearded the poor flustered wedding-guest:  

 

     “I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.”.   Harries fixes the wayward poet with his glittering eye:  out of his own lines Coleridge stands rebuked.  Nice.  

 

Touring Mouse widetouring mainly one-night stands:
  box office https://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/shows    to 11 Nov.   Bures, Southwold, Aldeburgh next 

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

LECHERY AND TREACHERY,  MACHISMO AND METAL…

 

  ‘I had forgotten” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming,  “how syphilitic that play is”.  Not a bad word for it:  or try bitter, angry, violent, messy:  more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason.  Which makes it curiously modern:  Jarry or Beckett would nod approval.   The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, ..cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.   

 

      Set in an endless, pointless war,   the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced.  That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments,  not to mention an  appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.   Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute.  Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator  to  inform us that we are seven years in to a war between the Greeks and Troy,  after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.

 

  The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length  on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).   But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title:  Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster.  Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction,  but so is Pandarus in his way:   his shock at realizing that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.   

  

      It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s  Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all,  funny in her irrepressibility  then suddenly creepy in  gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love.  There’s joy too in  Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight.   The theme of reputation recurs,  Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal  by-words for infidelity,  and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough. 

 

 

        But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss.  For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies,  objects of derisive desire.  It feels horribly current.  The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness,  shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare .  When Achilles is driven to fight,  his  “myrmidons” are  half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who.    It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage :  it builds to a climax you don’t forget.    

          

    box office  http://www.rsc.org    uk  to 17 November

rating four      4 Meece Rating

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THE WIDER EARTH Natural History Museum

THE YOUNG DARWIN RISES AGAIN

  

 

    The Jerwood Gallery is for the first time a theatre: in the small excitement of a new space dark shapes loom ahead of us,  angular, wooden.  Spotlights throw moving blobs of light on the floor, shining amoebae.  A voice speaks words from Genesis.  

   

      Thus artfully we are put into a settled,  clerical 18th century mood: a Biblical earth only 4000 years old,  unchanging, each creature designed and signed off in its permanent form by the hand of God.   Then, against an English sky,  young Charles Darwin returns to his future wife Emma after five years at sea, hoping she has not changed.  He has changed, though,  in deeper ways.  The voyage of the Beagle, and the natural marvels the young naturalist saw and reflected on,   would lead all the way years later to the  magisterial Origin of Species:   the evolutionary theory that shook conventional Christian bigotry and, God help us, in some quarters still does.  

 

     David Morton’s play has had success in Australia ,  and now is refined – with careful input from the Natural History Museum’s paleobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of Darwin’s Fossils.   It shows us a young man,  urged towards the clergy by his father but keener to wonder about things like why marine fossils turn up on mountainsides.   He is encouraged by the Rev. Henslow at Cambridge to apply for the naturalist’s post on a naval expedition and look at everything  afresh “It’s the small things that change the world…if you send a trained naturalist into the field, everything he finds with reassure him of what he already knows”.  

 

      Bradley Foster is perfect as Darwin,  youthful and keen, at first striking the wrong note with the dourly RN Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) . They argue about slavery, Darwin being passionately abolitionist and Fitzroy both approving its economic advantage and thinking “civilization”  good for the slaves.  He  had actually got on board a captive Fuegan he named Jemmy Button:  he had been tended with care and “Christianized”, to be delivered back to Tierra del Fuego as a missionary.   

  

    The  marvellous, revolving, tricksy angular wooden set (with projections by Justin Harrison of 18c drawings or roaring seas and volcanoes) becomes the Beagle’s cramped quarters, and English hillside,  or the ridges and tracks where from Patagonia to the Galapagos the young man clambers and slithers, finding new creatures.  These are lovely wooden puppets;  scuttling iguanas, a majestic giant tortoise, strange birds,  shoals of fish, a whale, fireflies,  a pricelessly dignified armadillo. 

 

 

      There is jeopardy in Patagonia,  a volcano,  Fitzroy feeling he has failed in his own mission and Darwin intent, always wondering, but understanding Jemmy’s tribal idea of “the heat of the gods” running through every living thing.  The Biblical Christian  impediment to the growing knowledge  of evolution and natural selection,  the realization that it is about millennia not years – is strongly evoked.  The cruelty of nature shakes Darwin too – “such suffering and such majesty”  but  the Duck-billed platypus recalls him to admiring belief in a Creator, so brilliantly adapted is it.    Something can be a natural wonder but still a miracle…

      A show like this, in a museum and with a simplicity of script perfectly adapted to school groups, might well be nodded by as an educational kids’ show for the Christmas season.  Actually, it is dramatically more than that.  Unassumingly spectacular,  unwhimsically playful,  it is an affecting, respectful,  important story of a green young man who kept his eyes open and endured seasickness and doubt  and discomfort and danger.  And made great discoveries.     

 

http://www.thewiderearth.com/  to 30 Dec

rating four highly evolved mice     4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Donmar WC2

LUKE JONES TAKES THE MEASURE..

 

This is a made for measure Measure-For-Measure. Its greatest achievement is hacking the flabby old Jacobian down to the right side of 90 minutes. It rollicks through, giving a booster jab to the drama but keeping quiet pauses and poetry. 

However. Director Josie Rourke is having so much fun she runs it twice. The first, set in 1604, is a flat-out 5-mouse rendition. Then, as the interval looms, in flashes of light and a booming soundtrack we wind forward in moments to 2018. Old dress is whipped off for modern,  and we’re back at the beginning.   Ed Miliband (sitting in front) turned to his wife the QC with gasps of delight. She nodded back like a mother responding to a young boy who has just pointed out a JCB.

 

 

In this transition Isabella (the abused sister of imprisoned Claudio) switches roles with Angelo (the pious Deputy ruling over Vienna’s vices who begins to indulge his own lusts with Isabella as the target).

 

 

The problem is that the first rendition was brilliant. Jack Lowden’s Angelo a charismatic menace. His incredibly natural, humanely sinister delivery is brilliant “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, my vouch against you, and my place i’ the state” could come straight out of a modern tale of power, sexual assault and the justice system.  Likewise Hayley Atwell is a perfect Isabella, the rage bubbling in her incredible to watch. The lines dance out of her mouth as if written yesterday. Rather than silently accepting her fate at the end of the play she lets out an almighty roar which blew tears out of my eyes. When Lowden’s creepy hands run up her skirt, her trembles are petrifying.

 

 

The twist turns this on its head, and the result is fascinating. There’s Atwell’s vicious, leery smile when she takes the role of the tyrannous Deputy, Jack Lowden’s twitchy, emasculated desperation; even the way characters like Claudio accept their death sentence when it’s delivered by a woman rather than a man.

But fascinating doesn’t quite get me over the line. You are still being forced to watch the same play again, having just seen it a Gin and Tonic ago.

 

Although the 2018 revamp tries to be achingly relevant ,  what it reaches is just more laughs. Neither Lowden nor Atwell play the opposite role as well as their original. I never buy into his horror, and her abuse seems half-hearted. Everything is slightly watered down, a bit more glib. Jokes which landed well in the first half are skipped past in the second in favour of something shoehorned in. It’s the lean 1604 telling that is a punch in the gut:  a pertinent MeToo story with heart and bite.

 

Box Office 020 3282 3808   Until 24th November

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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