Category Archives: Four Mice

JULIUS CAESAR Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

SPQR: THE ROMAN SEASON STRIKES HOME WITH COLD STEEL

 
The trumpet sounds for the RSC’s Roman season, the mob is rowdily onstage, and the turbulent politics of 44 BC are reflected through the prism of Shakespeare’s 1599 England to throw light forward onto our own age . Dictatorships, depositions and painful realignments are always with us. Angus Jackson’s thoughtful production is visually classical: togas and breastplates, columns and flickering braziers and a tense atmospheric soundscape by Mira Calix and Carolyn Downing. But the careful, colloquial, muscular handling of the text by Jackson’s cast brings the play’s moralities and relationships harshly close, vivid and often thrilling. Too-famous lines emerge new, hard-edge and even shocking. Characters emerge individual and recognizable, and there is a timeless, sad grainy familiarity in the play’s political shape – conspiracy, assassination and messy, conflicted consequences.

 

Martin Hutson’s Cassius is particularly fascinating, catching the character’s lean hungry hysteria from the start as he begins to woo Alex Waldmann’s decent worried Brutus into the conspiracy gently , then explodes into passionate fury; his second-act tantrum in Brutus’ tent is nicely all of a piece with every appearance. Caesar himself, in this production, is made a more obvious swaggerer than in the last RSC production with Greg Hicks: Andrew Woodall giving him a rather Trumpish self-certainty from the start, which nicely justifies the chief conspirators’ anxiety. Brutus’ early hesitancy is sharply caught, not least in a particularly touching scene with his wife (the women don’t get much of a look-in in this play, but Hannah Morrish makes a striking Portia). Later, in the military scenes, Brutus’ bereaved despair is the more powerful for having glimpsed the reality of his marriage.

 

Yet most arresting of all is James Corrigan’s black-browed, faintly satanic Mark Antony . After the big brutal moment (there’s a sign outside warning us about the stabbing, as if we hadn’t guessed) Corrigan’s honest-john handshakes with the killers and faux humility before Brutus do little to prepare us for his surge of focused anger beside the corpse. As for the funeral oration, the pivot of the play, I have never heard its wickedly brilliant artfulness done with such cynical care. Corrigan never, for a minute, lets us be entirely certain of Mark Antony’s motives, and you have to love that. Brutus in comparison is a clear pool, his private griefs and resigned ending quietly moving.

 

 

The boy servant Lucius, by the way, meets such a sharp and unexpected ending in the brutality of the ending that the audience gasps in horror. Young Samuel Littell did the press night, a professional debut likeable and tuneful in the moody pre-battle scene. We were all more than relieved to see the little lad back at the curtain call.
box office rsc.org.uk to 9 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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STEPPING OUT Vaudeville, WC2

TOP HATS AND TALES

 

A nice gag in Richard Harris’ 1983 play comes in some desultory chat between the ladies of the tap-dancing class. Referring to a play one of them has recommended to another the victim snaps “We didn’t even understand the interval”.

 

No such problem faces audiences at the Vaudeville, as Maria Friedman’s loving redirection of this gentle classic comedy poses no questions of understanding. We merely spend a couple of hours (plus wholly comprehensible interval) in the company of seven women and a lone man , amateurishly learning tap at evening class with their teacher Mavis and a grumpy middle-aged pianist. It has conflict and a dénouement, because they are preparing for a display in which mere competence is the best that can be hoped for. But it doesn’t sizzle or shock. Its heartbeat is steady.

 

 
Which is fine. Anna-Jane Casey, the most distinguished of the dancers in life as well as the show, is standing in as Mavis the leader before Tamzin Outhwaite returns from injury on 1 April, and is excellent: not least in the second act when she loses her temper (and something else). She also dazzles in a brief solo moment under dreamy lights, reminding us that this is, like many evening-class teachers, an erstwhile professional who didn’t make it out of the chorus. Amanda Holden, whose initiative this Theatre Royal Bath production originally was, is perfect as Vera, the upmarket and interfering new member – I have been enjoying watching this performer’s funny-bones develop ever more beautifully from Shrek to Cinderella. And the ensemble give us a nice mixture of shapes, incompetences (until the big brilliant finale) and streaks of personal pain. Nicola Stephenson’s wounded, anxious DSS assistant Dorothy, Sandra Marvin’s rumbustious Rose with bust-bounce problems, and Lesley Vickerage as the tense troubled Andy are particularly good. The gruff , easily-offended Irving-Berlin fan and piano-basher Mrs Fraser is the splendid Judith Barker, who twice wins exit-rounds of applause. The lone man (how rarely one writes that) is Dominic Rowan as Geoffrey: a lonely City insurance man struggling manfully with cane , hat, box-step and female teasing.

 

 

The first act is unquestionably slow, for all that the peerless Friedman direction can do with it; the second picks up humour and, gradually and with a discretion baffling until you remember it is a 34 year old play, reveals that it is not only hoofing and body image that make life tricky for these women There are some bad marriages in the background, a termination, loneliness, money worries, and the hint of a really sinister husband-and-stepdaughter relationship. A more recent play would have hammered these home harder. But the sheer enjoyableness of this sweet-hearted play and the hopefulness of the final dance, make it a more than agreeable evening.

 

 

By the way my daughter, who is cleverer than me, points out that the nearest thing it reminds her of is the achingly hip “Circle Mirror Transformation” of the Royal Court’s outreach- East-London production a couple of years ago, where participants in a drama-therapy group gradually reveal themselves . So I looked up what I wrote about that play, and it was thus:
‘“”You expect a climax, a comeuppance dreadful but dramatically inevitable. But then, overcome by their own tastefulness, such plays unsportingly refuse to provide any such thing. They peter out in a thoughtful headshake. Just like real life.”

 

 

Well, at least Stepping out doesn’t peter out thoughtfully but rises to a double dose of barnstorming, top-hole good old fashioned tapping-up-a-storm. A footshake, not a headshake. So I”ll just about give it a fourth mouse and a hug.

 
Box Office: 0330 333 4814 to 17 June
rating four  3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

THE DARK HEART OF MARRIAGE

 

One audience tweeter emerged calling James Macdonald’s fine production “exhilarating”. A wet rag after three hours’ exposure to it, I wouldn’t echo the word. More stunned than exhilarated. And anyway, Edward Albee himself wanted his work to be “disturbance..an attack on the unconscious” and decried the idea of art as “pacification”. He was out to get us,. And he does.

I am a good guinea-pig for his effectiveness, since by chance it is the Albee play I have never seen (not even the Burton-Taylor film) or read. I considered reading it by way of preparation, but for the sake of experience opted to arrive as innocent as the 1962 audiences (who kept it running for 664 performances ) and the Pulitzer committee (who found it “filthy” and refused it the prize). So I got the full shock of its hideous raging vigour, its violent brilliance in an unsparing portrait of a toxic, drunken co-dependent marriage in a stiff New England academic community.
The crisis portrayed is between 2 am and dawn as Martha – the Principal’s daughter – and George, who feels a failure as writer and academic, host young newcomers Nick and Honey after a faculty party. It hit me like a truck, as it should: not least because of the explosive substance that is Imelda Staunton, firmly at its black bitter suffering heart as Martha.
There is deep cunning in the way it opens, as the couple burst in half-tipsy and quarrelling with Martha effing and blinding because her – apparently – wearily enduring klutz of a husband can’t help her remember the name of a Bette Davis film. We’ve all been there. Well, a bit. But before long George too reveals his nightmare side, as Conleth Hill’s performance ranks alongside Staunton’s in its fury and pain. Despite its classic status, I will eschew spoilers in case there are other Albee-virgins out there: but we are plunged into shocks, sudden revelations which might not be true, unspeakably painful torrents of scorn and the spectacle of the guests- Imogen Poots both fragile and hilarious, and Luke Treadaway struggling to hold on to his preppie-scientist dignity. They are drawn in to the hosts’ rackety fantasy world. It is the nadir of social hell.

 

The play’s gruelling brilliance is served superbly by all the cast. But then, it has to be – especially by Martha – or it would be downright unbearable. It edges towards that, but is always drawn back by the profound identification of Imelda Staunton as the damaged and desperate harridan; especially in the third exorcising act, her intensity draws out compassion and understanding. But it is still terrifying.

 
Albee was fighting against an enduring 1950’s stuffiness in American society (itself a reaction against the disruption of war) and attacking the safe hokey image of the perfect, indissoluble American marriage and family. It flits through one’s mind occasionally that we are now so far from taking that sort of image for granted that the play might be dated. Would not this terrible pair have torn themselves asunder today and found quieter lives? But maybe not, God help us. The play’s pitiless razor-sharp humanity is universal enough for a good shudder, anyway.

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 27 May
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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LIMEHOUSE Donmar, WC1

LET COWARDS FLINCH AND TRAITORS SNEER…WE’LL KEEP THE LAFITE FLOWING HERE

 

 
Some moments of modern history deserve reimagining by honest playwrights: we need to remember and reflect, shake our heads and laugh and recognize that politics is just people. It is passion and personalities, vanity and absurdity, comradeship and betrayal, faith and hope and often a distinct lack of charity. This funny, serious, timely play brings all those qualities to the forefront in 105 minutes. Steve Waters, who gave us the marvellous TEMPLE about the St Paul’s Occupy protest, turns now to the year 1981, the day after a disastrous Labour Party “special conference” at Wembley. Four of its rebels met at Dr David Owen’s kitchen table in Limehouse to see whether they could agree to form a new party. There were two MPs of shadow cabinet rank, Owen and Bill Rodgers,; the redoubtable Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but remained on the Labour NEC; and the orotundly magisterial Roy Jenkins , once Home Secretary and now back from four agreeable years as President of the European Commission.

 
By early afternoon the “Gang Of Four” had drafted the Limehouse Declaration and founded the Social Democratic Party. Some Labour loyalists never forgave the defection, and blamed them for giving Mrs Thatcher a free run: by the 1990s the remnant had united with the Liberals as Lib-Dems. But it was a quixotic moment, and not for nothing does Nathalie Armin as Debbie Owen – wife, hostess, and often peacemaker through that tempestuous morning – deliver at the end a plaintive “what if?”.

 
The personalities are gloriously, sometimes mischievously created. Tom Goodman-Hill as Owen is a striding, short-fused impatient crusader, a doctor-knows-best column of energy still coping with a young family and insufficient sleep. Paul Chahidi as Bill Rodgers tracks a finely judged, nuanced progress from playing it plumply prattish , wincing at his bad back, humbly awed by “Woy” Jenkins, yet rising to painful sincerity in his foreboding about the people in Labour he will hurt. Debra Gillett is Shirley Williams, spry and determined and knowing her value, at one point walking out to do the World at One and threaning to derail the whole idea. The final arrival (having got lost in Shoreditch and come via Mile End) is Roger Allam, gloriously funny as Roy Jenkins: a man so used to deference that he has no idea what do do when nobody takes his coat. Within moments he is suavely deploring anyone taking “umbwage” and asking plaintively , as he reminisces on Brussels, whether Wiesling can “even be classified as a wine”. Debbie, who emerges as heroine of the play, plies him with two vintages of Chateau Lafite and takes no umbwage when he cannot manage her homely Delia Smith macaroni cheese.

 

 

The glory of this surprisingly moving play, directed by Polly Findlay at a sharp pace, is that it is no cynically hopeless Thick Of It. It does not despise politicians. It gives each of this ill-assorted quartet credit for real faith and real decisions: for caring about voters who “deplore extremes but hunger for justice”, who feel deep loyal roots in Labour but see it collapsing, who remember Attlee and the spirit of ’45 and doubt their own ability to conjure a new party out of a tasteful middle-class kitchen. People who suspect one another , too, and have come from different directions. As Owen says “Bill thinks I’m a wrecker, Shirley thinks I’m a lightweight, Roy thinks I’m Oswald Mosley..”.

 
But hey, they did it. It was a good try, and could hardly be more timely for the yearning leftie in any of us: again today there is an ageing and ineffective leader of the opposition, a Tory PM, Labour divided and mocked; again it ought to be the centre-left’s big moment, if only the LibDems were not obsessed with overturning the referendum. You could feel the sighs in the audience as we centre-lefties trooped out into the night, with nowhere to go.

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to
Principal sponsor: Barclays
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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THE GIRLS Phoenix, WC2

SWEET AS A NUT, SHARP AS A TACK

 

Helpless, really: I was putty in its hands. And I caught it a few days late, so no risk that the ecstatic giggles in the stalls or the standing ovation were contrived by artful first-night insiders. No, it is a happy thing: this musical about sadness, loss, betrayal and imperfect female bodies getting their kit off for charity. Happy because human, a loving tribute to rural England, friendship and ordinariness.

 
Fact is, It made me cry. Not just the at delicate sadness of the cancer story, as James Gaddas’ decent funny kind John declines through the first half , and Joanna Riding as his Annie – in a standout, starry, subtle performance – sings the most beautiful of wistful domestic laments in advance. It wasn’t even just when John finally rose hairless and unafraid from his wheelchair to climb out of sight over a set of Yorkshire Fells made – in a witty design by Robert Jones – entirely of kitchen cabinets.

 

 

No. The tears really were a tribute to the way that Tim Firth celebrates unpretending commonplace lives: ordinary loves, jokes, rivalries, pretensions, communities and families. He did it before, without needing to piggyback on a famous film (which of course is his too: Calendar Girls, based on the true story of a small WI embarking on a witty nude calendar). For a few years back Firth gave us at the Crucible in Sheffield a marvellous studio musical This Is My Family.  This bigger show – jointly with Gary Barlow – is recognizably of the same family in its elegiacally comic tone and the way it uses music to lift and launch a message of endurance and wry affection, because real life is “all about coping, fabulously, with terrible mistakes” . The lines are just as slyly surprising too: Cora the choirmistress remembering “I started my career as a mother behind Morrison’s with a blues guitarist” , and the outing of Celia the ex-air-hostess as having “increased the capacity of her overhead lockers – who cares how silicon is the valley?”.

 

 

Interestingly, my companion found the first half too slow, impatient for the eureka moment when the flirtiest of the women –  Claire Moore as Chris  – gets the calendar idea. But me I just enjoyed the build up , harmonic set-pieces and all: the Christmas float, the WI meeting, the flirting teenagers and the fete where “Every year on the first of May / England puts Englishness out on display / Showing how fun used to be/ Sometime around 1683..”

 
Yes, sharp enough. The second half takes us into the conflict and argument, with a few lovely cameos from the husbands about how rarely they actually see full wifely nudity “like in the film Jaws, you never see all of the shark”. And, of course there is the vigorously staged hilarity of the photo-session. It is a true ensemble, where every one of the cast shines: Riding is centrally remarkable, as is Moore, but there is some beautiful work from Debbie Chazen as reluctant Ruth, from Michele Dotrice’s doughty old Jessie and from the teenagers, especially Chloe May Jackson. Tim Firth himself directs, with Jos Houben credited for “comedy staging”, which pays off very nicely indeed.
But the main fact is, I did tend to keep on crying. It is an unusual fit for the unforgiving West End, but deserves a very good run indeed.
box office 0844 871 7629
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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TWELFTH NIGHT Olivier, SE1

THE WHIRLIGIG OF TIME AND BENDING OF GENDERS..
It’s a grand thing to be seduced and succumb. To suspect a director of vainly messing about with a Shakespeare play too close to your heart, updating it into trendily symbolic revolving triangles made of stairs, casting with deliberate perversity,  and rollicking irreverently with the bits you associate with the melancholy beauty of hopeless love (I met this play first at seventeen. Enough said). But the suspicion recedes inch by inch as you are led, by seemingly frivolous pathways, to the true right end of the play with all its meaning.  darkness and unanswerable mystery of pathos. T o the place where happy redemption is not for everyone, and the rain it raineth every day.
I should have trusted director Simon Godwin more, and expected honesty in his innovative take on the play. Admittedly, when I first heard that the NT was adding extra gender-bending to Shakespeare’s already complex line – girl-dressed-as-boy loves Count, who loves Olivia, who loves boy-girl and is sought by the deceived prim steward but settles for cross-dressed girl’s identical presumed-drowned male twin – I thought he might as well go all the way and turn drunk Uncle Toby and his mate into Auntie Tib and Edna Aguecheek. Why not?  But he’s simply made the proud steward Malvolio into Malvolia, with a lesbian passion for Lady Olivia. Which, come to think of it ,would have been even more interesting in the last Globe production because Olivia was actually Mark Rylance.

 
The transformation, even without buying in to the fashionable gender-bendy-agenda of the day with a programme note by Jack Monroe, works perfectly. Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia is very funny, well over the top for a long time, but tipping with full and terrible courage into the the darkness of her final humiliation: hard to watch, a bully turned victim whose collapse neatly exposes the nasty futility of all comeuppances. Her end is all wrecked dignity and unbearable grief; but we have seen her at first striding around at first in black culottes, with a Richard IIII coal-black fringed bob ike Claudia Winkelman gone to the dark side, giving it all she’s got of comic excess and prim rage.   It takes a lot to steal scenes from a breakdancing Tim McMullan as Sir Toby and Daniel Rigby’s fool Aguecheek in a  pink check suit and ginger man-bun, but Greig can do it. So indeed can Phoebe Fox’s unusually sprightly Olivia, especially when she lures poor Viola – in her Cesario disguise – into a home spa, proffering gold pool-boy trunks and hauling her prey into the hot tub where Viola panickingly disguises her breasts under the wet shirt.

 

 

I worried at first about Tamara Lawrance’s Viola (a very neat match for Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian, give or take a couple of inches) because to me Viola’s grief and unrequited love are poetic expressions of the greatest melancholy in the language. There is an unquenchable valiant merriment in Lawrance which seemed to belie it. But she charmed me before long, and her unbridled physical expressiveness is a joy, reminding you that she is supposed to be very young indeed. Adam Best’s Antonio – the other unfulfilled character – is impressive, the straightest of the characters. And as for Doon Mackichan’s Feste, another gender-bent casting, she prowls the stage in shorts and tights as one of the most effective Fools I have seen for years. Insolent, contemptuous, a sullen competent wit in her Feste makes deep sense of the “whirligig of time bringing in its revenges”. Sings wonderfully, too.

 

 

You could see it just for the treats: Tamsin Greig’s Malvolio crossgarter strip with revolving nipple-tassels, a top brawl in the Elephant tavern while a 7ft tinfoil drag queen belts out To Be Or Not To Be in torch-song style, the ridiculous duel, the drunks. But it adds up, as it should, to far more than that .

 

box office 020 7452 3000 to 13 May
shown in cinemas on NT Live 6 April
Rating four

4 Meece Rating

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BEAU BRUMMEL an elegant madness – Jermyn St, SW1

AN AGED ELEGANCE

 

Beau Brummel is back in Jermyn Street, a century on from his decline, bankruptcy, royal disfavour and exile to a Calais convent madhouse. Down the road from his statue, the most restrained of fancies is strutting again, underground: a battered colossus of arrogant elegance and monochrome taste whose poses and gestures are restrainedly impeccable, whose stained asylum remnants call up again the the austere shaded greys and blacks against starched white linen which foreshadowed and pioneered modern male business suits (“one must tame the waistcoat!). He’s back, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

 
Ron Hutchinson’s play is a two-hander, and demands an immense amount from both Brummel and the disreputable valet Austin who attends him. Sean Brosnan and Richard Latham certainly deliver, holding together the play’s occasional longuers and weaknesses. Brosnan is tall and slender, his contemptuous-camel expression like Lear’s bearing an indelible mark of authority. He hauls obedience, even in his plunges into entire delusional dementia, from Latham’s fretful, half-cowed and half impatient terrier of a valet. It becomes clear just why he both dominated and then outraged the Prince of Wales , that tubby overdecorated walking Brighton-Pavilion of a man , with the fatally famous final quip “Who’s your fat friend, Albany?”.

 
Now that Prince is George IV, and his visit to France spurs Brummel’s delusion that he might call by their squalid room and the valet’s revolutionary ambition to shoot him from the balcony. It is a wonderfully elegant script, and Peter Craze’s production for the European Arts Company does do us a favour in reviving it. One is grateful for many lines – whether as light as “No man over twenty stone looks his best in pink knee-breeches” or as defiantly political as Brummel’s conviction that the mysteries of dress – of a finely-tied stock and a master glovemaker who does only thumbs – are, being personal, in the last analysis more important than the great tides of war and social unrest.

 
It would perhaps work better shorter, without an interval, but it sticks in your mind and haunts you twelve hours later with the image of senile defiance, remembered grace and crazy nobility. I can’t erase Brosnan’s gestures, arms outstretched for shirt, fingers turning a metre of fine linen into the perfection of a bow, or the way the valet’s scuttling exasperated obedience is dragged from him by the old man’s sheer force of personality.
It’s an oddity: but that is what small theatres like this do best. Can’t get it out of my head.

box office 020 7287 2875 or http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 11 march
rating four    (slightly to my own surprise..it’s Brosnan…)

4 Meece Rating

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