Category Archives: Four Mice

THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD THE SECOND Almeida, N1

A HOLLOW CROWN IN MUD AND BLOOD

 

The clue is in the paper hat, worn by a dour-faced Simon Russell Beale on the programme cover.    This is not stately, sacred, shockingly regicidal Shakespeareana.   This is a brawl, a nasty coup against a hopeless king, a howl of rage at what fools, in power politics, these mortals be.

   

     I was curious as to what the iconoclastic director Joe Hill-Gibbins would do with Shakespeare’s most lyrically beautiful  history-play: his Edward II did not thrill, and the sex-dolls in Measure for Measure were yawny too.  But he has done some cracking productions.  And if you cast Simon Russell Beale at the centre,  the greatest of contemporary actors,   it will always be interesting.   He was surprise casting: after Lear and Prospero, an odd and unusually older choice.  The last two memorable Richard IIs have been in the wispier, more glamorously youthful genre to go with the lyricism and the monarch’s petulant self-pitying tendency to “sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.  David Tennant made him a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with all the epicene,  arrogant eloquence of a Russell Brand.   Eddie Redmayne’s still, sad dignity raised a tear of pitiful contempt, slender and hopeless from the start.   But this is different.  Flawed though he is, this King has a deep soul.    And for all the bleak empty stage and the fire-buckets full of red paint, earth and water to be gradually tipped over our hero,  the raucous setting  does reveal something new about a play I have loved for decades. 

  

      Leo Bill is the usurper Bolingbroke throughout,  an unusually weak and self-protective one,   but the other six cast members male and female play all the nobles, courtiers and bishops and the two gardeners.  Who are not humble in the background as usual, discussing apricots and the state of the country,    but viciously taunting and soiling the failing King.  The ensemble scuttle around ratlike, gang up in corners,  fight amongst themselves and are encouraged by the director to gabble their lines at top speed so as to be almost insultingly incomprehensible.   John of Gaunt’s earth-realm-England speech is given reasonable space;  mostly,   though,  it is rattling, meaningless,  gabbly politics.   Just the kind we are used to.  And that  gives extra weight to central figure.   Russell Beale’s intelligent perfection of mood and diction gives us an old lion at bay and accord full weight to the King’s  tragedy of weakness, hubris, indecision and loss.  

    

  It’ll be too rufty-tufty and truncated a show for traditionalists, this,  but  I sort of liked it.   Though I fear for Simon Russell Beale,  who is too precious a national asset to be rudely caked with mud and paint and almost trodden on by scampering younglings eight times a week till Candlemas…   

box office almeida.co.uk     to  2 Feb

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

ENERGY, ANGER, HOPE

       

  It is 1842:  young Charles Dickens, thirty years old and with five novels under his belt, is ranting.    The Industrial Revolution is revving up nicely,  but tens of thousands of the poorest are left behind and so are their children:   slum brats without hope,  infant drudges in factories and sweatshops where bodies and spirits are broken.  Brandishing a report with fury,  he tells his publisher Forster that his next work will be a polemic.  Forster pleads with him, saying a story could have more force.   As they move through a busy London scene the notion catches fire: a cold-faced man in a tall hat brushes aside an urchin,  a heavy office door slams, a father carries his lame child on his shoulders… the majestic Dickens imagination slides down the slipway and the work is under way.

   

  David Edgar’s adaptation, directed as last year by Rachel Kavanaugh,  gives the old story of ghosts and redemption deft additions and expanded scenes;  while the Old Vic’s very different production by Jack Thorne throws emphasis on  Scrooge’s hardening in youth and painful redemption,   Edgar  directs the light more on social conditions, and the unforgivable shame of those who will not look at them.   Both emphases work beautifully, both are appropriate. 

    

  Joseph Timms is a fiery impulsive Dickens, darting in and out of scenes with the quieter publisher alongside him: indeed the only time Forster really panics, publisher-style, is at the point when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge dead, his bedcurtains and linen sold off by some magnificently disgusting lowlife thieves (top cackling crone-work here from Claire Carrie, otherwise having to play various posher ladies and a severe Christmas Past).   Forster, almost weeping with horror,  says you can’ t end on a corpse, at Christmas!   Dickens twinkles that it’s not over yet..

 

    Aden Gillett is a sharp-nosed Scrooge but also an unusually thoughtful one, showing his change of mind more gradually than most interpreters;  Gerard Carey a suitably worried family man as Cratchit.  One of Edgar’s most impassioned additions is to the family scene, with not only the sickly Tiny Tim but  explicit revelations of what is happening to all the other Cratchit children: a daughter losing her sight as a seamstres, on board-and-lodging only,   another due to follow her, a boy who loves to learn taken from the ragged-school to industrial slavery – as Dickens, suddenly sorrowful, remembers being himself.  Most startlingly of all,  Emma Pallant as Cratchit’s wife turns on him, angry at  his failure to prevent these fates.  It is a slap of a moment, a reminder that marriages can crumble under extreme poverty.  

 

    There is, of course, merriment too: Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig wig is as festively fezzy as it should be, again in an expanded scene pointing up the old employer’s benevolence.  There is some wild dancing,  a fine Victorianesque score from Catherine Jayes and a heartbreakingly lovely carol led by Tiny Tim just after the shocking parental row.   There’s even a sly Donald Trump joke in the party game at Fred’s,  and I enjoyed the bluff Mancunian Ghost of Christmas Present  (Danielle Henry) pinching candied-fruit from the table there.   And comedy is attempted too in the one duff note of the script, where (improbably) the reformed Scrooge pretends to sack Cratchit,  who rants against his meanness and lists old grudges.  Somehow, that doesn’t ring true. 

  

    But what stays in the memory, demanding reflection on our new century,  is that gallant  Cratchit family scene, and the silent, accusing, ravaged faces of the children who are Want and Ignorance.    Dickens,  175 years on, has done it again.

 

. Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk    to 20 Jan

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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SNOWFLAKE Old Fire Station, Oxford

  CHRISTMAS,  BREXIT,   GRIEF, HOPE 

   

A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell ,  the little OFS      a  theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett.   Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed.  “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared”  mourns a young remainer,  while an older Brexiteer protests “we’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one”. 

  

        That this argument- now mired in technicalities about customs duties –  has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years, and rarely has.   It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers.   But for today  it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore,    how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the  cruel arrogant certainties of youth,   and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything  pre-millennial.  Which does mean  everything, from bootcut jeans and   the X files to  Blair, Savile and Morrissey –  “everything you grew up with –   most of it very offensive,  and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground” .   

    

         It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though,  and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point.  Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent  of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half , and a double reveal in the second.  Which works very well indeed dramatically , so I am not about to spoil it for you.  Others will. Watch out. 

        

    So just the bare bones:   it is set on Christmas Eve.  Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again.   So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and  a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there.   The first half , until the last moment,  is a monologue in which,  endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age,  the father imagines seeing her again.  It is probably too long a monologue,  the play’s one flaw,   though Levey handles it well.  When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen,  not respecting his  previous booking rights.  The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement,  setting the theme.  

  

Which it does, brilliantly:  the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a  policing of language before feeling,   is set against warm, baffled,  battered and bereaved parental susceptibility.  Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny,  occasionally heartbreaking.  Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander,  that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and  that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee.     Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it,  and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.

     

  And the ending?  Well, it’s Christmas.   Not easy, not pat,  but yes, redemptive.   

box office  oldfirestation.org.uk      to 22 Dec.  Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it. 

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

              

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DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT Oxford Playhouse

 I WENT TO THE PANTO.  O YES I DID.

   

  The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the  audience’s likely cultural uplift,  it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly,  and a firm grip on local in-jokes.    So we get puns on foccaccia and cannelloni,  and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: Anchovy and Cleopatra,  The Comedy of Herrings,  Salmon of Athens, etc.     We also get borrowings off Oliver and Les Mis , a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute. 

  

 

        As for the Cat,  he is a proper urban moggy,  cool as Stormzy:  Alessandro Babalola   breakdancing, cartwheeling,  rapping and hip-hopping and patronizing the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems.   There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), a election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”).  It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh,  so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.     

 

      But never mind the cultural-topical- political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked.  This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls,  the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon.  The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you,   O No It Isn’t,   Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of “Baby Shark”. Which even I know is a Thing. 

  

      The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last  year;  Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices,  Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic.  No reedy tenors here.  Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it,  Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness,   and Steve Marmion , its writer-director,  keeps it hammering along.  All, in short, is as it should be.  O Yes it Is.

 

www.oxfordplayhouse.com    to 6 Jan

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A WONDERLAND WINNER

       

  “Posh panto”,  for wincing parents fleeing the rackety showbiz ’n smut of the season, can be a bit chilly –  neither one thing nor the other.   But Christmas shows can power through both snobbery and the inverted kind, and be a complete delight for all. 

   

  I do mean all:   Joanna Carrick’s adaptation, a spirited three-hander,  is astonishingly faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text and, importantly, spirit;  the crankiest Oxford literary historian could find nothing to miss (despite an artful reference to Bake-Off and the fact that Humpty Dumpty, with his finicky use of words and economic illiteracy,  just happens to have a Boris Johnson hairdo).   It is very Carroll, including a marvellously elegant Victorian nursery set and brilliantly designed costumes by Katy Frost, beautifully echoing Tenniel’s illustrations.    Yet   a row of tiny pre-schoolers sat entranced  for two 40-minute halves, one keenly volunteering as Dormouse and submitting to a ventriloquist’s fake-mouth mask.   

    

    Leonie Spilsbury has the right look for Alice and such a smilingly witty gift with the smaller ones that one checks her programme CV and finds that indeed  she is no stranger to Children’s Theatre (in amid Brecht and Ibsen, it’s a varied life).  In her Alice frock she strides and twinkles around,  playing the guitar sometimes,  confronted by  – or collaborating with  – Darren Latham and Lawrence Russell as the series of Carroll creatures.   Father William, Tweedledum and Dee, Rabbit, a gloriously languid French caterpillar,  a stiffly mad Red Queen though not madder than the gorgeous Hatter,  a properly  barmy Duchess, an Aussie lizard and Dormouse,  the good old wallpaper-roll gag,   and a Cheshire cat who invaded the audience and lay across the laps of patrons, purring violently.   And despite Alice’s “this is not panto”,  there is a  behind-you and a perilous flinging of jam tarts.  Everything for the inner child,  and perfect for the outer ones.   

 

www.redrosechain.com  to 26th     A FEW TICKETS LEFT!!

RATING FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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UNCLE VANYA Hampstead Theatre NW3

,  GEESE CACKLE, LIFE GOES ON   

 

  I have a friend of Russian heritage who boycotts any Chekhov production which lacks scabby birch-trees, a samovar and some parasols.   She’ll do fine here, though the windy autumnal setting precludes parasol-work: Tim Shortall’s setting, indoor and out, is mournfully resonant of its 1890s, pre-Revolutionary rural world.    It is , on the surface, the gloomiest of Uncle Anton’s  works:  country drudgery stirred up by a visit, enervated family relationships , unspoken resentments, lost loves and lives wasted,  the city popinjays carelessly unfeeling and the  decent people stuck quivering like flies in circumstance’s web.   

 

   Yet its very accuracy prevents it from depressing the viewer: some moods,  looked at levelly and with a suspicion of mockery,   have the power to assert something rather beautiful in humanity.  One of the fascinating things about Chekhov’s studies in frustration, disappointment and  ennui is how unfrustrating they actually are. This one has to revolve around Vanya, and Alan Cox  is suitably winning in Vanya’s dismayed, demoralised self-aware failure to count in life,  and  his hopeless mooning admiration of  the lovely Yelena ,who has married his awful old brother-in-law the Professor. 

 

  Cox brings  he part a rare vigour and loveability  just, as it were, below the surface of the grumpy hopelessness.  He gives us all of it:   explosive fury at the Professor after his 25 faithful years of unthanked work on the family estate  “buried alive with my own mother” ,  a moment when he crumbles in painful shame, and the last scene as he weeps alongside his niece Sonia for their two broken futures.    All the cast are very fine indeed,  but alongside Cox a tribute  is particularly owed to Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia: with underplayed glances and tiny moves of urgency she shows all the misery of unrequited love, and how much more than the glorious Yelena she deserves it.  

 

  Terry Johnson, adapting from literal translations and directing, skilfully mines it for all the author’s dry humour and regretful human absurdity:I have rarely seen a more preposterously ghastly old Professor, monster of selfishness and vanity, than Robin Soans’s.  But the other Chekhovian fascination,  which brings  directors and audiences constantly back to the works,  is that because of the intricate subtleties and sympathies every production leaves you with a slightly different heartache. Twice lately,  in the final scene between Sonia and her uncle,   it has been Vanya I wept for (Roger Allan had me in actual tears). This time the greater sorrow  was for Sonia.  

 

And  even a little too for Alec Newman’s Astrov, a fiery forerunner of all our modern fears about the rapine of nature and the rich soil, yet one who cannot see how Sonia would suit his deeper needs because he can only see glorious, idle Yelena –  though “all she does is eat and sleep and glide around entrancing us all”.     She too has her humanity, trapped by her elderly horror of a husband and alienated from her one talent (oh, that slam of the piano lid in he long stormy drunken night !).    And , as if to remind us that only universal sympathy can save us, the awful Professor Sebreriakov,  self-serving hypochondriac fraud,   himself has his moment of aged pain,  looking back at the time when he was someone. “I am in exile from my past. My past, where I belong!”.

 

But  all of them, all of us, are anchored by the old folk,  Nanny and the sweetly useless Teliegin,  who know that geese cackle, life goes on, and as long as you have tea and bread and vodka, it just bloody well has to do.   Can’t think of a better morality for Brexitmas 2018.  

 

www. hampsteadtheatre.com    to  12 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE BOX OF DELIGHTS Wilton’s Music Hall E1

DARK MAGIC,  REAL THEATRE

 

  Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike.   Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a  precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil.  Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia  there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer,  elegantly cold and murderously homicidal.     And well before Pullman  there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says,  in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.

 

    The poet laureate John Masefield is ancestor of  them all,  in his children’s books  picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with magic of E.Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any.   This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.   

 

  So  I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday .   Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter –  must  struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles,  unassisted  (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction)  by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”.     Kay  knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”.    She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing.    The wicked lot want not only the important Box,  but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir are kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).   

  

  My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through.  There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral,  of it being dismissed as  retro and “charming”.  And,  indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes.   But any child or inner-child   should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart  but for the sheer pleasure of  its theatricality.  The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons;   there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky.   The only high-tech is projection, very well used  to create a village, a wood, a cathedral.  Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should:  demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.   

 

 

      Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria,  who likes guns, piracy, fights,  and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of  “parties in  dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”.   It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in  knickerbockers was welcomed.  As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly  cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side;  and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.   

     So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto  but bring them here too.  And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…

 

box office  020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm)   wiltons.org.uk

to 5 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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