Category Archives: Four Mice




The candlelit Wanamaker has proved its worth as a music-room, notably with All The Angels and the divine Farinelli. This takes it further with the first wordless performance: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble the master-puppeteers create a silent story with half-sized, fully-jointed physically expressive but undecorated hard-foam “bunraku” puppets. Five expert puppeteers control them, one or two at a time in perfect concord so human and object blend into something other. Their narrative is an expression of Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A six-piece orchestra plays overhead: baroque violins, viola, ‘cello and harpsichord/synthesizer.



Which all sounds a bit recherché: could be a tough hour, you’re thinking, since anything drawn from Japanese theatrical tradition can be an acquired taste . Actually, it is a beautiful and accessible performance, somewhere between mime, dance and theatrical epic. Sometimes, indeed, you are so bound up in the emotional lives of the pale puppets that you suddenly think “hang on, what’s that stuck on his foot?” before realizing that it is the fingers of the puppeteer, and that every movement of this seemingly vivid being is being controlled by humans you have somehow stopped noticing…



It is a story they tell – of lovers and their child, of ordeals, travels, death and loss and discovery. But as the creators teasingly insist, it is one onto which we project our own interpretations. However, there is certainly folktale in there, because the puppet figures are sometimes physically literal – walking, running, falling, struggling, fighting their handlers or slumped in wrenching despair – but they can also fly and float surreally as if becoming their own dreams. In one extraordinary sequence near the end the central figure relives the events of a whole life.



The story begins with a sweetly awkward park-bench courtship, and a breathless pause when father kneels before mother as she holds her belly. There is a suitcase and a parting, one parent gone far from a child-puppet who crawls, stumbles, takes first steps with the other. Separation, obstacles, struggle; deaths, a trek home, a graveyard or mortuary of strange gnarled shapes like old bark , weeping desolation. Once mother and child fight together through great hard shapes, leap a ravine. A river, swimming, a corpse…any of it could be a dream, or a real refugee journey, or both.



Late on a lonely figure fights for life, or maybe just sanity, against a cloud of blue flapping inchoate cloths which become ghost figures. You’re engrossed, the music sharp in your head, every note and move significant, very human. By the way, there are a couple of “relaxed performances”: for some, it may form an even stronger connection than it does to us “neurotypicals”. And that is overwhelming enough…



box office
to 21 April
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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If there is one stumbling block for lovers of Graham Greene’s darkly thrilling gangster novel, it is the elegance of Gloria Onitiri. She is Ida; and Greene’s redoubtable warrior for justice is in the book a large Cockney with a beery laugh and a market-trader’s sharpness: her pursuit of the murderous young Pinkie for the sake of the “Fred” he killed is fuelled by righteousness, but of an indeterminate old-fashioned variety . She stands for a sense – so restful to the tormented Catholicism of Greene – that “right and wrong” are very different to sexual sin and virtue. She’s big and bonny and maternal and blessedly common. But in Esther Richardson’s otherwise faithful production of Bryony Lavery’s thoughtful adaptation, for all her excellence as an actor Onitiri is more cocktail-and-torch-song than beery, matey singalong. She just is.



So I stumbled a bit. But in every other way Greene is beautifully served, and not just in Sara Perks’ fabulous dark design – a fraction of iron pier towering overhead, steps which move and swirl and through which once, unforgettably, the skinny villain squirms between the steps to grab his quarry. As Pinkie Jacob James Beswick is physically perfect- scrawny, starveling child of the slums, he has a hard young face and a restless, jerky teenage insolence in every move. HIs moment of arrogant defensive pathos when he is beaten up, his sexual terror and his cowed moment when confronted with the (gender-switched) Colleoni are well-judged: you can’t take your eyes off him: the boy gone wrong. Sarah Middleton is equally perfect as the waitress Rose, catching both her naiveté and the sharp simple intelligence that threatens Pinkie’s alibi. She also makes credible that terrifying Catholic belief that she will “burn” and will be glad to, for love. The extreme youth of the pair is there in all its pathos, extremism and perennial warning. Their story holds you solidly , especially in the second half once the inter-gangster stuff is fading from the foreground.




The latter iswell enough done, though I would plead one cause with all directors who cast inescapably male characters as women (Spicer is Angela Bain) . Just pay more attention to small physicalities, like hair. If Cubitt, Dallow and Pinkie have unforgiving 1950’s cuts you get distracted by female hair under the hoodlum hat. You just do. Which is a shame when such immense care has gone into everything else visual, into beautifully fast, fluid staging moves and a loving creation of that dark 1950’s seaside underworld complete with its slang (lesser adaptors would have given up “buer” and “milky”, but not this one. But the two young principals are more than worth seeing. It tours on.

touring to 26 May. COLCHESTER Mercury theatre this week
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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Is love a Gothic Cathedral, a yearning for a permanent, holy, respectful connection to the best in our nature? Or is it lust and fun, animal attraction, a reckless erotic adventure? Well, at its best it is both: but when Alma the minister’s daughter interprets her liking for John the medical student as part of her yearning for eternity, he meets it with impatient brutal words, makes her look hard at the ugliness of an anatomical diagram . She decries his gambling, even his pose – “Don’t sit like that, you look so indolent and worthless”, he shrugs and turns to Roza the casino-owner’s daughter. Who, in Alma’s view , is part of the distressing, threatening deeper south which alarms and fascinates anyone striving to be a Southern Lady – “all the Latinos dream in the sun and indulge their senses..”



And the sadness of their story, played out in a sultry MIssissippi summer when a disastrous gunshot is never far away, is that each converts the other , but too late. Four years ago I saw Rebecca Frecknell’s production of this rarely seen, elegiac Tennessee Williams play in the Southwark Playhouse tunnel: I called it a jewel. It is fine to see that her directorial passion for the piece endured, for this is the same director’s grander production. In the smart Almeida it is set with remarkable expressionist symbolism, Tom Scutt’s set a shallow ellipse of nine pianos on, behind, around and upon which assorted characters not necessarily in the scene are placed; sometimes playing an obbligato to keep the mood or giving a few notes to represent the coming of the cool Gulf Wind or a doorbell. Sometimes they light up. Composition is by Angus MacRae, musical direction by Mark Dickman.


And it is clever, but for me sometimes a little to the detriment of the play’s beauty. For Tennessee Williams’ world of yearning, damaged, misbehaving, disappointed, painfully lovable characters, hanging on to hope and life by their fingernails, is expressed as always in lyrical language and emotional images so heartbreakingly poetic that you resent missing even a single word due to murmured moments of extreme naturalism; or indeed having an agonised significant pause accompanied by a mere theatrical bit of cleverness. Williams doesn’t need that: the heart beats too strong for any of the modish tropes of modern productions to matter.


But oh, it is a lovely piece, and the performances at its heart honest and finely drawn. Patsy Ferran is beyond superb as Alma the preacher’s daughter, pious and ladylike, prone to hyperventilating, and changing before our eyes, with painful growth, to the moment when she says too late that wrenching line “The girl who said no doesn’t exist, She died last summer” and comes ironically to understand what courtship is after years of condemning the kind of woman who known for “making the acquaintance of travelling salesmen”.


Matthew Needham is equally strong, equally heartbreaking in the end. Their connection, despite his (very Tennessee-Williams) tendency to bully and mock her beliefs, is intense. With economical simplicity other parts are doubled or more, Anjana Vasan particularly impressive (with a fierce torch-song) as Rosa the Latina, the dark sensuous angel, and milder as Nellie. Nothing is wasted, no irony or brief sad laugh unmarked. At times the selfconscious staging irritated me, a little. But the beauty shone through, and honour to Frecknall for championing this gorgeous, gentle play.



box office 0207 359 4404
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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Love stories take many forms. Here – electric, understated, unmistakeable and timeless – the erotic connection is between Ben Batt’s George , farm labourer in a tied cottage in the 1960s, and Jonathan Bailey as the assistant director of the York Passion plays. George has been recruited as an authentic local voice, urged on despite his rugged modesty by the sweet chapel-going Doreen (Katie West a quiet delight) who takes his old Mum to Meetings and knows, deep down, that he is “not for marrying”.



Still illegal, though quietly tolerated by the farm family, the affair is also doomed by the utter divergence of their habitats, lifestyles, and a sense of distance between town and country which today feels both authentic and, mercifully, dated. TV would by now have rubbed some of the rugged chapel-and-calving simplicities off Mother , neighbour Doreen, and the delightfully gormless teenage nephew Jack; fast communication might have held the lads together for longer. Even though John won’t give up his advancing southern career to live in a leaky nearby cottage, while George makes it clear that London and its attractions were fine for visiting but “I live here”! With some sorrow he rejects John’s faith that he could actually have an acting career “I’m past that”. Today, God willing, he would be working in Sheffield Theatre, co-producer of this production.



For Peter Gill’s 2002 play, which won plaudits but not universal acclaim at first (Charles Spencer was entertainingly rude) is rendered in the Donmar’s intimacy by director Robert Hastie as something perfect: delicate, clear and natural as an upland upland brook. It can be earthy – George is the seducer , and has a startling admission of how he found out that he was gay after chasing girls unsuccessfully one evening and then saying to his mate “Better be you, then..”. John, more fey and puppyishly shyer, rises to passionate declaration and thwarted anger only later, after the death of old Mum (a fine Lesley Nicol, ringing utterly true to anyone with Yorkshire relatives of a certain age).



It is full of glancing, important themes, and not just about odd-couple love (it rather helps that the lovers are gay: in a 1960s heterosexual tale the girl would almost certainly have gone to live where and how the man chose). It also reflects on how an urban middle-class had colonized the world of “culture”, as the locals are given their own heritage of mystery plays by directorial incomers. Yet where that’s concerned, the most heartening scene is after the interval as the whole family, including lumpen Arthur the brother-in-law and teenage Jack, get back exhilarated from the show to exclaim about how grand it was, and how swept up they were by the old story and how George, as a tormentor, was “that cruel!”.


box office 0203 282 3808 to 24 March

RATING four 4 Meece Rating


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FROZEN Theatre Royal, Haymarket




Last time I encountered a monologue written for a paedophile abuser, it was by Alan Bennett in a remarkable – and I think unrepeated – TV Talking Heads . That was a brave and haunting performance by David Haig as a tempted, succumbing, park-keeper with an edge of virtuous prissiness about other people’s behaviour. Braver still, because ineffably nastier, but with that same edge of prissiness we have here Jason Watkins’ rendering of “Ralph”. Bryony Lavery’s multiply disturbing play is about a mother’s experience when her 10 year old daughter has been first missing, then confirmed dead ,dismembered and stored in a lock-up shed by a man with a stash of “Lesbian Lolitas” videos who is capable of saying petulantly to a psychiatrist “The only thing I”m sorry about is that it’s not legal. Killing girls”. He got seven of them, over 21 years .



There are three stunning performances – Jason Watkins’ knock-kneed, lame- footed, hunchedly amiable and incurable selfpitying killer shows off his tattoos and brags about his gift for organisation. Suranne Jones is the dead child’s mother, assuredly moving between mundane Midlands practicality beneath her fine ironic eyebrows and the deepest, angriest of griefs before reaching a strange resolution. And you believe in every step. The third, the wild card, is Nina Sosanya as an American-Icelandic psychologist , KCL lecturer and author of a paper entitled “Serial killing – a forgivable act?”  She is of the school that considers atrocities as symptoms, not sins.


Which took Lavery – early on the curve –  into the now-modish dramatic territory of neuroscience and theories about frontal lobe deficiencies, early influence on empathetic connection, bangs on the head leading to irresistible criminal impulses, etc. It all feels very up to date, though the play first aired over a decade ago.   Additional dramatic interest – and a bit of artful internal sabotage – is added because the psychiatrist is a bit of a horror herself. Our first glimpses of Sosanya, in the sequence craftsmanlike initial monologues, shows the learned scientist having the screaming abdabs over leaving New York, then sitting on a plane writing vengeful messages to her illicit lover and research colleague while necking brandy,  insulting the stewardess and greeting the seat-belt sign with a shriek of “We’re all going to die” .Nor are her “boundaries” in a series or prison interviews with Ralph very convincingly set, given that her own self -pity and self-importance are almost as marked as his.



But maybe that’s the point: certainly in the electric, even more uncomfortable second act when against the bossy shrink’s recommendation the mother confronts the killer in a restorative-justice meeting. Rapidly (God, Suranne Jones is good, and Watkins a brave actor!) she reaches more important depths than the expert ever did.  Lavery is never a simplistic writer, so I hope she will forgive a certain bracing conclusion which any of us may make as we shiver in the stalls: that when it comes to understanding the depth, strangeness, redeemability and motivation of human beings you will get more insight from a tough ordinary mother with life-experience than from any self-regarding American psychiatrist who calls herself a “voyager in the frozen wastes of the criminal mind.”



You could also reflect that forgiveness is the best revenge. It certainly turns out that way in the agonizing final scenes. It’s a terrific play, actually. And on a frozen snow-day on the Haymarket, I should record that instinctively most of a middling-thin matinee audience rose to its feet to applaud the three principals. Oh, and turning up late post-holiday, I bought my own stalls ticket and don’t regret it for a moment.


box office 020 7930 8800 to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating




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THE SHADOW FACTORY Nuffield City, Southampton



Two girls on the Downs in 1940 giggle over a spot of rabbit-poaching on Lady Cooper’s land. A roar, Junkers overhead. Figures emerge from smoke and darkness as a chanting urgent chorus,: “Over the river – Woolston way – Quick, this one’s for real , bolt the shutters, fill up the bath, fill up the sinks, water if there’s fire, change of clothes, candles, soap, photo album – Cos if..cos if…come the all-clear and your house has gone…”.



We read and reconstruct a lot about the London Blitz, but this Southampton story deserves telling too: Howard Brenton, a clear eye and eloquent historical storyteller, has immersed himself in the facts about it and found an imaginative intuition. The story of the Spitfires is itself extraordinary: in eight weeks of that year 489 planes were damaged, 785 lost; the Supermarine factory in Southampton was key, and they were constantly in production through the war years with constant improvements in design. When the factory was bombed – as happens at the start of this play – machine tools were saved and other trade premises in the city and beyond were requisitioned under draconian wartime rules. They built components to be assembled at Eastleigh: the fight continued.



Brenton has taken real characters – Beaverbrook, the bombastic newspaper-owner and minister for aircraft production, and the heroic works engineer Len Gooch – but imagined a family business as the heart of his story: a laundry. Avoiding the cliché of a brave united mustn’t-grumble wartime Britain, he acknowledges not only the steadfastness but the wobble, the anger, the fear, the resentment of government.

If there is a faultless wartime hero it is Daniel York’s Gooch; a heroine, Shala Nyx as a young woman thrilled and inspired by her design job at the factory. David Birrell’s laundry-owner Fred meanwhile is pessimistic, indignant at the requisition, hostile and defensive, afraid. His daughter Jackie (Lorna Fitzgerald) is embittered on losing her soldier lover and has to grope her way towards understanding and finding a role. HIs mother, made splendidly terrifying by Anita Dobson who doubles as the aristocratic chatelaine, is as tough an egg in her way as Hilton McRae’s swaggering Beaverbrook.



So the play does not echo that tone of compulsory their-finest-hour heartwarming which marked the patriotic films of the period (which in some ways it does resemble). The differences resolve, and Southampton was heroic in many ways; but the story has variety and bite and human failings. So under Samuel Hodges’ direction and Leo Warner’s inspired design, it takes off. I had to catch an early preview, but nothing faltered. Brenton allows his characters sharp poetry too: when the factory is bombed you need no pictures beyond Jackie’s gasped “The look of it – dust in the air – snakes, no not snakes, fire hoses… everywhere sopping wet…grey – shapes of things that are all wrong…and you see, but don’t see, lying in bricks half a person, no legs..”



It’s the first production in this new space, and what they have done is to set it on a vast thrust stage, blank as concrete, so that the community chorus can come and go and scenes change instantly; projections turn the floor into the grassy Common where terrified householders would “trek out” and camp during bombing raids, or into Whitehall, or the grand house with its carpets and long graceful windows which becomes the design studio and sees its mistress banished to the attics. Above the stage, moving light-bars become roofs high or low . And – spectacularly at last – turn into the graceful, miraculous, moving forms of aeroplane wings.
Oh, and there’s a good surprise at the end, in a sack.


box office to 3 march
rating four   4 Meece Rating



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DRY POWDER Hampstead NW3




The most arresting new character I’ve met this year is the magnificent Hayley Atwell as Jenny; star of a New York private equity investment firm .  Jenny is a high-concept calculating machine-cum-psychopath, as staccato in her statements as the click of her spike heels. She deploys a superb blank does-not-compute’ stare when confronted with some concept like “relating to people”. Even her ruthless boss Rick (Aidan McArdle) is a bit more capable of worrying what people think. Slumped depressedly by his glass desk with his middle suit button defiantly and uncomfortably done up,  he is bothered that the firm’s latest manoeuvre  laid hundreds of workers off to turn a quick profit, and got exposed in the New York Times just as he was throwing a million-dollar engagement party.   Jenny scorns such weakness. “Do we work in- “ she drips with scorn at the words – “public relations? Anyway who takes the New York Times seriously?”
“The entire world” replies a colleague.
“I mean in OUR world!’ says Jenny.



Sarah Burgess’ slyly wicked comedy – she’s a rising US writer – is indeed a porthole into a murky parallel world whose doings , though legal, make McMafia look like Little Women. At least in that, the Russian tribes drip with tearful family loyalty even when commissioning car-bombs. Here, the privateers are driven entirely by the logic of percentage profit: they are piratical asset strippers, experts of the forked tongue and slippery promise.  Newcomers will give three minutes to the programme’s quick guide to leveraged buyouts, LPs, debt-to-capital ratios and the vital “Dry Powder” which a fund holds ready for a quick buy-in ; but in fact with skilful clarity Burgess makes the action clear from the start.



Rick is planning to invest heavily in a luggage manufacturer in California, urged by Seth (Tom Riley) who has been enthused by its ideas about expanding into online bespoke suitcases for middle-management business travellers “No one has harnessed that force”. Jenny sets her team of analysts (one of whom ends up in hospital, overdosed on wake-up pills) to work out that the way to the best fast profits is to close down the Sacramento factory , manufacture cheaply in Bangladesh for an emerging Chinese middle-class market, and rapidly sell on. Rick is still worried that their investors – secretive high net worth individuals and any pension fund with a conscience – will hate the loss of American jobs. Seth agrees. “If you make too many people too mad, they can change things” nervously citing the French Revolution. From Jenny drips icy staccato incomprehension .



Scenes change: it is all elegantly set in front of revolving mirrors reflecting either cold corporate offices ,a warmer California or finally Hong Kong. We meet Jeff the suitcase CEO (Joseph Balderama), enthusing Seth and only slowly suspecting the harsher intentions of Rick and Jenny. The plot thickens, with panic for the fund, an unsavoury rescue, a deal, and from Aidan McArdle the most chilling snorted laugh I have heard onstage for years.


It is barkingly funny, played with quartet precision under Anna Ledwich’s direction, and has at its heart not some jejune fury at “fatcats” but a serious observation: it is about the distinction between the warm breath of business – creating objects, services, value – and the icy mathematical chill of those who finance it. The hard-edged contemptuous purity of Jenny will haunt me for days. Not that she’ll care. As she says to Seth3 ‘ Allow less intelligent people to hate you. It’s their destiny, and it costs you nothing”.
A lesser writer, by the way, might have been tempted to draw the relationship between the two warring colleagues as Benedick and Beatrice, or at least throw in a sex scene. Not this one. Just pitiless mirth and Swiftian wit.


box office 020 7722 9301 to 3 march
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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