Category Archives: Four Mice

POLSTEAD Eastern Angles, touring




    Founding this touring company 36 years ago,  Ivan Cutting swore a great oath that one local story they wouldn’t do was Maria Marten, murdered in the Red Barn by William Corder, and  famous not least for the spooky circumstance of her body being found buried there a year later after her stepmother was guided in dreams.    The 1827 sensation spawned several Victorian plays and adaptations and a silent film,  generally adjusting reality to make her more of an innocent,   and her killer more of a toff.     But this is a good moment for female indignation, so up she comes again in Beth Flintoff’s spirited new play. It is  directed by Hal Chambers who brought this company that terrific Prudencia Hart and the elaborately bonkers Norse saga Ragnarok, and is superbly staged by Verity Quinn.      


      Maria (Elizabeth Crarer)  takes centre stage from the first electric moment when,  a ragged, battered and rotting ghost, she strides defiantly forward to reminisce about her killing by pistol, strangling and spade. She observes that in the moment of death she at last realized that she was not mad or criminal as Corder persuaded her:   guilt was all his, not hers.     Around her from the shadows come five other women,  friends from her childhood  who tenderly lave and dress her, singing in harsh simple harmony (Luke Potter’s music, folk or bluesy, adds a great deal to the atmosphere and so does very effective lighting and a simple barn frame).  



      The six-woman cast evoke Georgian village life with glee:  children playing,  farmwork, chickens fed and seeds sown, gnawing breadline anxiety about work,  orphaned ten-year-old Maria keeping house for her father the molecatcher and coming to affectionate terms with a stepmother.  Adolescents, they girls josh about kisses and more, excited by the new two-shilling contraceptive sponge.  Lydia Bakelmun as Sarah embarks cheerfully on serial pregnancies as they discuss “bastardy orders” for their support,   repressed shy Lucy (Lucy Grattan) is more prim and churchy ,though the religious sensibility  of an 1820s rural community is oddly underemphasised.    That, however, is probably because a strength in the play is this sense of female solidarity and peasant confidence that all in all, a baby is an asset to the hardworking community,  even on the wrong side of the blanket.



    Maria, in a time or particular hardship, submits unenthusiastically to Thomas Corder the tenant farmer’s son in return for farmwork and bread (Lucy Grattan , with a quick gender switch is oddly convincing as the man).  Maria  bears his child, which dies:  the social hierarchy is nicely nuanced when up at the manor Lady Cooke (Bakelmun , again neatly transformed) nods at the relationship and takes up Maria as a protegée.  But of course she is then horrified when the village girl  falls in love with her own brother, a cut above mere farmers (another gender switch as Bethan Nash strides on in smart breeches) .  Milady makes her give him up, his baby lives and he supports them from a distance.  But when predatory Thomas Corder dies, Maria disastrously falls for William Corder, his brother.   



           And he is the killer , but before that does the adept “gaslighting” hinted at in that opening scene, persuading her into paranoia and conviction that she , not he, kills their baby.  We never see him:  only Maria’s dissolution.  Flintoff, having worked with Lighthouse Women’s Aid and discovered the many parallels over what “coercive control” does to women,  resolved not to give Corder a voice but to take Maria through the now well-attested stages of confusion and self-laceration.   Dramatically it is very effective that we don’t see the villain.  However,  the final twenty minutes of discovery, anger, grief  and divisions among the surviving friends do take away from the dramatic energy of the play, which up to then was so bracing.  The characters are still strong and coherent,  but the anti-coercion message gets hammered home just that bit too hard.  Cut ten minutes to sharpen up that ending and it becomes a very fine and honest play.  But even without that surgery,  it’s well worth catching on its tour.  A few more days in Ipswich (nice tent on university dockside campus).  For the rest –    link below:  TOUR Touring Mouse wide

to 5 August

rating four     4 Meece Rating


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Theatre owes a lot to Joan Littlewood: daughter of East End larkiness , music-hall jangle and tough 1930’s socialism; idealist and bully, stridingly inventive, a populist elitist (“I want only the truly disenfranchised to grace our stage”). Any theatre-maker now who chucks out the scenery, forces a cast to create the script, indicates change of character with a hat , revels in actors using their own accent and veers from earthiness to fantasy and back to make a point – every one of them is nodding to her legacy. She wrote her own story, in every sense; some swashbuckling anecdotes raise an eyebrow – did she really walk to Manchester to beard the BBC man? But her values and unshakeable self-confidence blew a breeze through the polite, Lord-Chamberlained theatre of her beginnings. She was disgusted even at school when the Porter in Macbeth had the same accent as the King, and left RADA scorning to graduate with a “West End Letter” , remarking that all you learnt there was to drink fake sherry while moving downstage to a better sightline. She championed Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and Barbara Windsor too; she transferred her work up West albeit with disgust at it being “pickled” in this way while the BBC “plundered her casts”.



All this lies before us in the Swan, and it is a joy to have Greg Doran’s RSC hosting a musical about her: itself a debut by the composer Sam Kenyon creating book, music and lyrics, and with a cast full of RSC first-timers including Clare Burt as Joan herself. At least, as the leading Joan: observing, meta-theatrically directing the action while six others portray her in different times or different moods. Particularly apposite is the fact that some of the Joans are black women: when RADA speaks patronizingly of the pupil’s “predicament” – meaning Joan’s illegitimacy and roughness – there is a dry topicality , in this age of concern about diversity in the profession, that the line is addressed to Aretha Ayeh.


It is skilfully woven, and Kenyon shows a mastery of styles from silent-movie tinkling to lush waltzes, big belting numbers, Sondheim style jerks and mellow agit-prop folk (naturally we meet Ewan MacColl, formerly Jimmie Miller of the Theatre of Action, and there is a fabulous moment when he walks out and Joan accuses him of just being jealous of young Shelagh Delaney’s new fame) .


The second act is tighter and better than the first, with a stunning evocation of the creation of O What A Lovely War, but Joan’s story rolls through always with both theatrical panache and decent human poignancy: her Gerry Raffles, debonair and devoted and unfaithful, is Solomon Israel. Emily Johnstone gives us a storming display as Barbara Windsor: though I was sorry not to have the famous moment when at her audition Joan ordered her to sit on her hands and abandon the vaudeville gestures to make the song tell its own story.



The period after Raffles’ death and Joan’s retirement when “Nothing much happened” is given us with a clever, sharp shrug of brevity. It was, as she would have wished, the shows that mattered. The art. Not a lot of “bloody acting”. In the end, she stands before us Joan Alone once more. Herself.


box office 01789 403493
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MACHINAL Almeida, N1



‘These modern neurotic women, doctor. What are we going to do with them?’ says one exasperated male character to another. Here, right on time for the #MeToo generation, is a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal… first performed in 1928.   90 years on, some men are still making our skin crawl, and Natalie Abahami’s superb direction of this prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare.


This is a play about Helen, played by the hypnotic Emily Berrington. Helen works as a stenographer in New York. She lives beneath a noisy train track in a tiny apartment with her impoverished mother (Denise Black) until her employer, Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone), takes a shine to her. Why? Because Helen has such lovely hands, of course. Despite Helen wincing every time that her oblivious boss touches her, the two wed and she despondently sobs throughout their honeymoon. Mr Jones doesn’t care. Mr Jones barely notices. Mr Jones wants to sit with his legs spread telling his beautiful wife his anecdotes, he reasons that he’s worked hard so he should be allowed to enjoy his life. At one point he even dares to utter ‘I understand women’.


Although the subject matter wrings your stomach, as a visual spectacle this is an utterly beautiful play to watch. There is ceaseless cacophony of sound – the thud of metal doors and bins, the relentless grind of typewriters and pneumatic drills, even the repetitive 8-bit bleeps of a child’s Gameboy helps to build a wall of noise that surrounds us, imprisoning us with our protagonist. The rhythmic, breathless dialogue matches it – clicking back and forth as if set to a metronome. All of the music and sound effects are perfectly chosen and placed, huge credit to Ben and Max Ringham for Sound and Composition.  The set by Miriam Buether matches this. A slanted mirror takes up the entire back of the stage  – we see everything in double, further adding to the claustrophobia. Each of the story’s nine chapters is separated by an increasingly blinding light.


It’s not all hell and nightmares though. As Helen seeks to escape from the shackles of a husband she never loved and the straitjacket of social convention, she heads to a bar. As the stage becomes filled with cigarette smoke, we become privy to the conversations of other couples – one pair are negotiating an affair, whilst an older man is extolling the virtues of amontillado sherry to a younger man in a bid to seduce him. It’s a heady mix of sight, sound and smell that serves to seduce the audience themselves – and in this midst, Helen, in a grasp for freedom, begins an affair. In its aftermath, the mechanical noises temporarily ease away and are replaced by the soothing patter of rainfall, the claustrophobic mirror suddenly seems to reflect a limitless night sky.


This is a brilliantly crafted work, where the biggest plaudits must go to those involved in the technical production. Urgent and compelling, it is remarkable that Treadwell’s work is as relevant now as it would have been 90 years ago.


BOX OFFICE  020 7359 4404 TO JULY 21

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating





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TWO NOBLE KINSMEN Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1




Barrie Rutter and the Globe are made for each other:. Fresh out of his storming leadership (and frequent personal performances) with Northern Broadsides, he returns here under the new regime, merrily reminiscing in the programme about 1996 , when none of the costumes arrived from the airport until the interval. This time he is director of a pretty ridiculous Shakespeare collaboration with John Fletcher, loosely based on Chaucer. Palamon and Arcite, in prison after a defeat, vow eternal bromance but promptly drop that when they sight King Theseus’ sister Emilia (Ellora Torchia) , and both want her. Arcite is banished and Palamon is released by the jailer’s daughter (just like Mr Toad ,though with an even more preposterous disguise) . So on it goes, with some storming rustic dances and shouting, to the point when the King decides to solve it all with a fight.


For when you’ve got a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance from the classical canon, the obvious thing is to introduce a great deal of clog-dancing, morris , stave-clashing, barmy multicoloured ragwear, a Green Man, and some symbolic straw animals on sticks. Add some fine over-the-top acting, with King Theseus irritably baffled about the whole thing (favorite line – “What ignorant and mad malicious traitors ARE you?”). Second favourite : “Emilia, if one of them were dead, would you take the other to your husband?” “I cannot! They’re both too excellent!”. And there’s even a comedy Ophelia. Jude Akuwondike is a grand Theseu, and the rival knights are splendid, Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick going it large like a couple of gap-yah lads, but the one who walks away with every scene she’s in (not least when dancing insanely with the cloggers, driven nuts by thwarted love) is Franesca Mills as the tiny, vigorous, sweetly naive and rompingly mischievous jailer’s daughter . She loves Palamon and gets persuaded by a very dodgy doctor to settle for Jon Trenchard in custard-coloured harem pants instead.


She has a special quality: an expressive, innocent face combined with a crazy determined fire in performance which makes everyone else look vanilla. She was last a hoot in Northern Broadsides’ touring Cyrano, and I wrote then that she stole the show “Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company” . I say that again.


Oh, and the poetry? Yes, that’s there too, not top-rank Shakespeare but some lovely lines. And the moral (given that the final twist is hardly down to any conventional tragic flaw, but rather to an offstage stallion) is soothing enough. Poor Theseus resignedly hands over his sister to an unexpected winner and says “Let us be thankful for that which IS”.

Dear Barrie Rutter. Come again to the Globe, do. Next time let’s get you out there roaring at the groundlings yourself, where you belong.


box office 020 7902 1400 to 30 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating



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STITCHERS Jermyn St theatre WC1




         Lady Anne Tree was the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, sister in law of Kathleen Kennedy and Debo Mitford:   grand as they come.   Kept from school,   like the Mitford girls she grew a maverick streak  and learned from the bereavements of war to think for herself.    She was a lifelong prison visitor , and at home she found artistic and meditative relief in fine needlework,  so it occurred to her there was one group who had a lot of time to fill…  So twenty years ago she founded Fine Cell Work.  It teaches prisoners fine needlepoint  and quilting and sells it in the top shops. So the men (and some women, but most prisoners are men) can build up a modest fund for when they are freed.  


         Full disclosure: I am a patron of it, and have watched a group as ladies from the Royal School of Needlework taught, advised and provided materials (but not scissors..) to the most unlikely of seamsters for the next week’s in-cell work.  It is extraordinary and inspiring, and hard to believe that getting approval took Lady Anne thirty years of being treated as a “tiresome woman”. 



        Esther Freud’s debut play, drawn from the foundress’ letters and diaries and from observing today’s groups,  is an impression of those early trials and, in the background,  her struggles with the Home Office (where junior staff framed her increasingly furious letters: it’s not every day a Duke’s daughter calls you a load of shits).  At last, under John Major, permission was given. The rest is history, and a great deal of beautiful work.  Because as the redoubtable Lady said,  it had to be “top notch, none of this church hall nonsense” .


      Sinead Cusack is dream casting, with her strong humorous face,  drop-dead timing and ability to convey personal stress and frustration behind the gung-ho, matter-of-fact manner of the old aristocracy.  She’s got you,  from the moment when she first appears in a sensible brown coat and solid hat in front of Liz Cooke’s layered  set of wire mesh and bars. This set is  tough enough for vigorous chin-ups,  and rings often with the frustrated, angry prison percussion of banging and echoic shouting.  Director Gaby Dellal (better known for film work)  punctuates and underlines the action this way;  the tiny theatre easily creates the sense of a claustrophobic cell and bleak corridors behind.  

       Around Cusack we have Michael Nardone as  Lukasz the Pole,”strongest man in the prison”  and his scared new cellmate Tommy (Frankie Wilson),  in denial about his conviction.  There is Trevor Laird as tough Len,  the wheelchair- bound Busby,   and Victoria Elizabeth as the troubled trans “Denise” . One by one they succumb to the project and become its cheerleaders.  Freud treats the process carefully, using the reality of things actual inmates have said down the years.


  At times in the first half I had (being partisan) an  uneasy fear that it was not growing  enough narrative energy,  but becoming ironically imprisoned in its novelistic desire to show gradual personal change.   But there is fascination in that too,  and the physicality of the situation is especially striking:   brawls and chin-ups and thrown punches are set against the fine, fiddly  motor skills of the needleworkers’ hands .  You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to see how benign that could be to the scrambled angry brains in a macho environment.  The perfectionism of Lady Anne is entertainingly set against the  well-evoked grim squalor of the cells.  When Len snarls angrily “I made a pig’s ear of it!”   rather than cooing encouragingly she trills “Oh, dear, so you did. Unpick!”.    When he  man refuses to help a newcomer she says “Oh come on!” like any schoolmistress.   

        The unprisonerlike virtues of neatness and patience grow, and the sense  that it is worth – in embroidery or in life – being willing to start again.   The names of colours shine out against the grey-green dreariness:  emerald, cinnamon, Aquamarine, burnt umber, scarlet.. The sense of an outside world’s appreciation grows too. Busby gets the first letter since his mother died,  from a customer who cannot know his name.   And when the prison officer sceptically asks “How many embroidery-loving, criminal-sympathising, letter-writing people are out there, do you think?”  Lady Anne replies “Legions!”.  


       And so there  have proved to be.   It is quite hard to review this play  simply as drama without just succumbing, dazzled, to  the fineness of its late heroine and her charity.   Sometimes I did wonder just how useful it was of the author to appliqué on little bits of Lady Anne’s travel diaries and the loss of her dog: Cusack can create a real and rounded character without that obvious kind of help.    But it does find dramatic catharsis, in the second short half,  and leave you both triumphant, and thinking harder about prison than most people do.  Result. 


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to 23 june      Rating Four     4 Meece Rating


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THE BE ALL AND END ALL       Theatre Royal Windsor, tour ending



     A late catch-up for this short tour from Theatre Royal York:  but blimey, well worth it.  sA drawing-room drama of manners with deep, tangled universally familiar roots.   It is the second of Jonathan Lewis’ new trilogy on education  and the national neurosis surrounding it which skews and poisons our cultural, class, political and economic life.  



         We meet Mark and Charlotte:  he an MP,  she a high-flying publishing executive  recovering from cancer treatment.   Lewis himself, debonair and affable, all too credible as a Tory MP, plays Mark;  Imogen Stubbs is the mother,  clever and a touch fragile.   They are coaxing and helicoptering their privately educated son Tom through A levels, determined that he will get enough A-stars to meet his Cambridge offer;  his girlfriend Frida has an offer too, and they are planning their gap year.   The fact that Tom would really rather go to film school is brushed aside.  It is clear that the worst they can all imagine, even Tom, is not only missing the star on the A but “something fucking tragic like a B”.  



       Lewis has a marvellous ear for dialogue: banter and mild argument at the start (we’re on the cusp of the referendum vote) place the family precisely and not unlikeably in their class, and neatly suggest the cracks which will widen to chasms later.   It is in the best sense Ayckbournian British realism (Damian Cruden directs, fast and deftly).     You could argue that one  absurdly overambitious, entitled rich family represent only a tiny sliver of society and education;  but what is so gripping is the realization that they matter.  Their expectations and behaviour reverberate through the whole system.  


  Not only is Mark, as we gradually realize, engaging in a piece of shockingly unethical cheating on his son’s behalf, and involving the cleverer, poorer, academy-educated girlfriend in it,    but they have been gaming the system ever since he was born.   Mark does it with his mantra “Honesty will always be trumped by audacity…we’re not in the age of threepenny bits and the Railway Children”.  And Charlotte, technically moral,   does it with her desperate oversight and anxiety to get her chick to the top of every list.   For all her separate career and her cancer,  she cries during his A level ordeal,   “I am turning over every paper with you, writing every essay, checking every spelling..”.   In the past – a very funny sequence makes clear – some of this has been literally true.  She actually wrote his prizewinning story about a lonely clown,  and Mark too did his share of both interference and political schmoozing for Tom.   

       But Tom hates it all.   The weight of their deluded expectation has carried him through his ten GCSEs with stars,  but he self-harms,  has no confidence that he can do anything for himself,   and is emotionally dependent on Frida.  In the second , more intense act we get a lot more back-story (some usefully disgraceful, some marginally unnecessary) and some vigorous  fighting fury.   Stubbs,  who I have admired ever since her gloriously violent Private Lives in Manchester,  explodes like a rocket and shoves the MP’s phone down the sink shredder.    The political importance of Lewis’ anger  at the gameable system swings over into real, universally relatable family pain.    They may be high-flyers, but they are a mess.


        As a play, traditionally well-built,  it’s an engaging, tense and horribly enjoyable evening, and I hope it goes further.  Lewis is unnervingly convincing as the MP,  at once a loving parent and a self-absorbed popinjay; Imogen Stubbs can, as ever,  express the hugest of emotions, especially maternal, and all the volatility of a fragile, stress-seeking personality cracking through an elegantly groomed facade.   Matt Whitchurch gives Tom a nice lunkish, sullen desperation,  shot through with anxious loyalty – God, we underrate that in teenagers!      Robyn Cara is Frida, sanest of them all but caught up in their affluent craziness and upper-middle assurance. 


     Lewis’ last education play – A Level Playing Field – was good, but this one moves sharply up a notch and should get a wider tour or some capital attention.    All the more impressive since Lewis is fresh from creating and directing Soldier On with a group of PTSD veterans only weeks ago.   Scroll down for that… 



rating four   4 Meece Rating

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It is always a dilemma, for those of us who despise star-ratings as a measuring device, when a 90 minute play seems set fair to earn three, or three-and-a-bit, trundling along amusingly but not life-changing or extremely hilarious, and then zaps you in the last few minutes. With a twist, a reverse-ferret U-turn on the twist, and then a bravura final line which throws doubt on the whole lot.


This pleasing trick is pulled off by Jordi Galceran in a play born in Barcelona and translated by Anne-Garcia Romero with later tweaks, some from the Broadway director BT McNicholl. It’s been in 60 countries in 20 languages. It has struck a note. Which, among other things, cheeringly displays how widely in the corporate working world people fear and despise human-resources psychologists and tricksy interview techniques…


For the setting of the play is a small conference room, against skyscraper windows, in a Fortune 500 company in New York. Four candidates wait for a group interview. It’s a high-powered sales job and they’re all ambitious. Three are men, which just about reflects the 25% presence of women in such posts. Frank, the first arrival, is a rangy, arrogant alpha male (Jonathan Cake), followed by cherubic Carl (Greg McHugh) who happens to know Melanie (Laura Pitt-Pulford) from college days. And there’s Rick (John Gordon Sinclair) who tries to be friendly with the impassive, grumpy Frank and offers Tic-Tacs all round.


But no interviewer comes. Instead, a robotic filing drawer in the corner opens and delivers them “challenges” to test their interaction, role-play, reaction to stress and strategic reasoning. Galceran assures us that all the increasingly preposterous manoeuvres perpetrated by this multinational HR psych department are drawn from life. Though maybe not all at once. Being a serious researcher-critic I took along a friend , a scarred veteran of several companies, Harvard Business School and the Institute of Directors,. With a gulp she assures me this is how it is. Manipulative, often infantile, and profoundly disrespectful of the human workforce .


But it is for that reason often very funny, with spoutings of corporate jargon (“Profit is everything. But people are everything too”) and fine bursts of ill-tempered distrustfulness (Cake is wonderfully aggressive ,with nice comic timing). Pitt-Pulford as the only woman shakes out some of of the sexist prejudices but other more arcane ones start to emerge as bits of personal live are exacted by the challenges. No spoilers, but there’s a lot of lying going on. |And over the whole operation hovers the question as to whether such a company really wants “a good man who looks like a sonofabitch or a sonofabitch who looks like a good man”? Don’t answer that…


After a slight slowing-down it roars forward into U-turns , revelations and one very strong and nicely nasty scene between Cake and Pitt-Pulford. And the fourth mouse, shudderingly pleased to be too much of a rodent even for the corporate world, staggers towards the prize..


box office 0207 378 1713 to 7 july
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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