Category Archives: Four Mice

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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THE BOYS IN THE BAND Vaudeville, WC2

YOUNG, CONFLICTED AND GAY: VOICES FROM 1968

 
It feels dated now: the shrieking queenery, the preening Jules-and Sandy camp, the insider camaraderie. Oh and the angs: the misery of self-hating defiance. Young gay men today, especially from outside the bubble of modern metropolitan ease, may recognize some of it but for many, it will provoke not nostalgia but a shiver.

 

 

Matt Crowley’s 1968 play about a group of gay New Yorkers at a birthday party turned sour was revolutionary in its day, showing this coterie of young – and not-so-young – men in a network of friendship , love and conflicted feelings in the years before the first US gay pride marches and well before the spectre of AIDS both devastated and strengthened their community. Its very datedness makes it worth reviving. We need to acknowledge the continuing legacies of what social attitudes did to gay people.

 
It is also fascinating in the way Crowley tracks the spectrum of the men’s different characters and feelings from glorious (very entertaining) flippancy to despair. The widest trajectory is by Ian Hallard as Michael the host, preparing to celebrate the birthday of the acerbic Harold (Mark Gatiss, who appears towards the end of the first act). His friend Donald (Daniel Boys) is in therapy; Hank and Larry are a couple, and from a slightly older generation James Holmes as Emory in appalling shorts gives it all the extreme limp-wristed screaming-queen-cum-den-mother action we had half forgotten in the age of normalization.

 
The catalyst is Michael’s old roomate Alan, who turns up having had (we presume) a bust-up with his wife. The anxiety of Michael about this judgmental straight turning up at his party mounts, justifiably; Harold arrives late, a saturnine elder who they all regard with a certain nervous respect, and he is presented with a ridiculous dim bare-chested hunk in a cowboy hat as his “present” (Jack Derges is very funny in the part).

 
And so it collapses – two fight-directors are credited in Adam Penford’s production – and Michael’s fragility is exposed. The figure of Harold – Gatiss deploying a menacing, amused stillness seated upstage – is a mixture of cruelty and the harsh wisdom of resignation. When he rounds on Michael with a flat “You are a homosexual and you don’t want to be” it is harsh, but feels somehow necessary. And when Michael says in despair “If we could just not hate ourselves!” that cry from the past should crack open the hardest, nastiest, most intolerant heart.

 

box office 0845 505 8500 http://www.vaudevilletheatre.com to 18 Feb
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DIRTY GREAT LOVE STORY Arts Theatre, WC2

DAFT,  DIRTY,   BUT GREAT

 

I remember it at Edinburgh a few years ago : a sly, elegant witty refreshment on an arid Fringe day. Poet-actors Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna deployed “comic precision, heart and unflagging pace” , relating a rom-com of hookup, hostility and loving redemption in a genuinely original style which mixed naturalism with mock-heroic couplets. I never forgot Richard’s line, as mates at the stag night teased him mercilessly “Oooh…aaah…their cruel vowels stick into my bowels. Like owls . With trowels”.

 

 
At the Fringe, in a brisk fifty minutes the authors performed it themselves. Now, extended to 90 minutes, and still directed by Pia Furtado with the same neat energy, the players are Felix Scott, and Ayesha Antoine – who I remember as immense fun in Birmingham’s Tartuffe. They plunge (assisted by minimal props and artful lighting tricks) into an extended, sometimes a bit over-eventuful, tale of two years after a seriously drunken one-night hookup ( “Katie” doesn’t actually remember it, she says, so we are in the territory which today risks ending in court) .

 

 

Its ripening into love, by way of each finding unsatisfactory others, is artfully traced as the pair neatly morph into other characters in their lives: the honkingly posh girlfriend CC pairing up with Richard’s uncouth stag-night friend, first met putting table RESERVED signs on his trousers and hanging round his mate’s shoulders like “a reckless necklace”. Antoine’s rendering of CC’s line about her first meeting with him is priceless. “I thought, he’s Northern, he’s a pisshead, he’s got a Reserved sign hanging on his crotch so….yah!”. Scott has to morph not only into this glorious oaf. but into a Hooray-Henry boyfriend for Katie: his body language is masterly as he moves between the hesitant bespectacled nerd hero and the swaggering Etonian.

 
The story is in territory lately familiar from FLEABAG: guilt-free but loveless shags, liberated girls on the town who would really prefer love. This, though, gives equal weight to the young men who actually feel the same but lack the emotional courage to say so. It is warmer than Fleabag, and actually funnier too: not only in the spirited performances but in the glory of the language and images. Poor Katie is described by the yearning Richard as “flung like a sack of drunk spuds across the bed”, as he chivalrously refuses to take advantage this time but sets out to buy her breakfast in the gentrifying South London neighbourhood. “Free range eggs from hens that do yoga”.

 

 
It is good to see Marsh and Bonna’s creation grow. Better still, for fogeys like myself, to be among a young audience laughing, ruefully, at the uselessness of the empty hookup and illusive bravado; and at the triumphant, magnificent final speech. Richard at last proclaims the pleasure of realistic, clear-eyed, tolerant romance. She’s awful, she puked in his trousers trying to inflict an unwanted blow-job, but she’s perfect. He’s awkward, he’s not the cool Etonian rival, but he’s just exactly what she needs. God bless ‘em. Beautiful, funny, eloquently original.

 

BOX OFFICE 0207 836 8463 artstheatrewestend. co.uk to 18 March
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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RAISING MARTHA PARK THEATRE N4

RIBBIT! RIBBIT! FROGS, FOOLS, FABULOUS

Here’s a tonic for theis flat , glum season! Divinely tasteless, bracingly cynical , hootingly funny (jokes from subtle to silly) and directed with pacy intelligence. David Spicer has written what should be a breakthrough play, in a gorgeously black-hearted Ortonesque spirit. Michael Fentiman’s cast could not be better.

 

 

Jeff Rawle is a dim, self-confident whiskery rural Inspector telling us the story of his investigation into an animal rights outrage: the theft of a five-years-dead corpse (don’t worry, nice clean bones). Martha was the unregretted matriarch of a family frog farm, supplying specimens for dissection and experiment: as the show opens we see, digging overhead, the animalrighteous Jago (Joel Fry) and his wonderfully whiny dupe sidekick (Tom Bennett, increasingly funny as the show goes on).

 

 
But for me the greatest treats began with the dishevelled middle-aged son Gerry, who runs the frog farm in between glumly strumming a guitar unable to find a rhyme for “Linda” (who turns out to be, unseen, key to the plot). Gerry has actually given up frogs and secretly diversified into cannabis laced with hallucinogenic cane-toad venom : those creatures exotic stoners like to lick. A side-effect of his habit is the frequent arrival, seen only by him – and us, of course – of 6ft tall frogs with great prop heads and white doctors’ coats, threatening to vivisect Gerry with a lot of learned scientific discussion of whether he can feel pain. And the big treat is that Gerry is played by Stephen Boxer: an RSC veteran, who was stunning as Tyndale in Written on the Heart, as Petruchio, as the Archbishop in The Heresy of Love, as the NT’s Gloucester in Lear…

 

 

As so often, a classic class-act gives a broad , absurd and loopy part real power, subtlety and conviction, with sharp timing to which the others rise with matching glory. Julian Bleach is the apparently saner brother Roger, gradually himself driven manically nuts (one gets a strong sense of who Martha was, and how she is probably better company as a series of bones, flung around and brandished by the various camps) . Roger’s daughter Caro, who is not at all what she at first seems, is Gwyneth Keyworth.

 
They all play the accelerating chaos with farcical skill (the final fight is spectacular) and all are given the sort of lines you scribble down. Some are satirical: Clout the policeman pleased when the attackers are defined as terrorists because “You can get away with murder if you’re defending freedom..you are now a police budgetary priority!”. Some are magnificently silly (there’s a Yorick joke, oh yes). Everything skewered is a pleasure, including a splendid definition of the modern noir TV cop-hero: “All they have to do is drive around looking gloomy and arrest the first person who’s more psychologically damaged than they are”.

 

Me, after a rough day I feel psychologically healed by two hours of this rude black-hearted absurdity. It’s nearly as good as licking a cane toad.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 11 Feb
Rating four   4 Meece Rating

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STOAT HALL Seckford, Woodbridge and touring

MOCK TUDOR, RIOTOUS BUT NOT RUFF

 
It’s described by its creator Pat Whymark as “a sort of Tudor/Muppets mash-up with a respectful nod to Blackadder and DIY SOS”. To which I would add edges of panto, a soupçon of Python and a curtsey to Horrible Histories (though it’s far funnier). Whymark and Julian Harries have done many a Christmas lark for Eastern Angles, but this is my favourite since their (less-comic) Dick Turpin’s Last Ride at Bury St Edmunds.

 
It lards on the jokes with such generous recklessness that even if one genre leaves you cold, another will be along in mere seconds to disarm you. There are puns and puppet moments, telly jokes and anachronisms, sly politics, sent-up history, joke props, audience-baiting and plain surrealism. A sudden bluebird, bumblebee or (local reference) the demonic dog Black Shuck appear at random, and ravens on sticks gnaw the thatch.

 
So determinedly, gaily , its cast of five lurch energetically through a spoofolicious tale of sir ROGER de Polfrey, secret and reluctant Plantagenet heir of Richard III, struggling with castle rebuilding works (jokes about incompetent Masons go down very well in this vicinity). He is burdened with two daughters, a discontented wife and a grandmother descended from Chaucer who can only speak in Middle English (Violet Patton-Ryder, pleasingly posh). He is unaware of a secret society with ceremonial stoat headgear lurking in his undercroft, because to add to his troubles  Henry VIII announces a royal visit, through a camp Gerald The Herald who gets lustfully captured by his 6ft , uncouthly bearded basso-profundo chuckling daughter  Hedwig. Meanwhile both the jester-narrator and the sinister house apothecary, a recreational pathologist with many a gruesome prop, are in love with the other daughter, the fair Rosamund..

 
You get the idea. But the strength of Whymark’s production is that it is never allowed to plod. The only breathing spaces are some rather beautiful songs in the Renaissance manner, also the creator’s composition. And some brief comic musical interludes like the mad cook’ kazoo solo or the Apothecary’s “Should you die of anything – from haemhorroids to gout – I”ll lay you on table , and pull your innards out”. I tell you, the kids will love this. As I did.

 
Altogether, a pleasure. And the cast’s comic versatility in changing roles is pure Reduced-Shakespeare, straight-faced and backed by a stage manager (Penny Griffin) who one must presume has six or seven arms. Patrick Neyman, whether as apothecary, monarch, fierce Hedwig or the ghost of Richard III, is a particular treat, and Geri Allen’s transformation from mother to daughter is so baffling that I am sure I once saw the two onstage at the same time. I was driving, but have a weird hankering to see it again on its tour, with a couple of drinks inside me.

 
rating four  4 Meece Rating
http://www.easternangles.co.uk to 21 Jan then to  Peterborough

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THE KITE RUNNER Wyndham’s WC2

AN AFGHAN EPIC TO REMEMBER

 
Khaled Hosseini’s novel is an intimate epic: a flawed, damaged, remorseful man’s journey through thirty years of turbulent history. Amir is the privileged Pashtun son of a peaceful Afghanistan before its wars, USSR and US invasions, and the vicious Taleban years . The story, familiar now, traces his awkward growing-up into exile, immigrant struggles and college in California; from a cowardly childhood moment with a terrible consequence it culminates in his redemptive return thirty years later,. When, tellingly, he is roughly told by a guide (as many of the world’s upper-middles might well be) ‘You always were a tourist here ”.

 
It became a successful film, but Matthew Spangler’s play – far more arresting and vivid – was written before that.. This version under Giles Croft (jointly for Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman) was honed to perfection by a substantial tour, and deserves all the attentive pin-drop silences , sighs and applause it meets in the West End. Atmosphere and honest emotion radiate outwards: there is a kind of urgency about it, a spur to meditations about class, tribalism, migration, fatherhood, and not least the spectrum of glories and horrors within Islam itself. The melodramatic almost fairytale elements of the story are grounded by an earthy credibility, moments of frightening brutality, and the fantastical but factual elements of modern global migration: Afghan flea-markets and ceremonial marriage-services flourishing in San Francisco in the age of MTV.

 
Spangler, of necessity with a vast rambling story, uses the adult Amir to narrate much of the story, dropping back into childhood or adolescent scenes. I was uneasy at first: plays-of-novels can be ruined this way, losing the show-don’t-tell energy of theatre. The treatment did Faulks’ Birdsong no favours. But Spangler uses it more carefully, and Ben Turner as Amir does both with skilful ease, becoming in turn the shy, bookish, culpably timid child self, the modernized US teenager , the young husband at last admitting his guilt, and the fully adult narrator remembering it all. It is a tough job, for Amir is often frankly despicable in his behaviour, right up to a wonderfully self-pitying outburst in the presence of the dignified, dying old Rahim. He holds on to sympathy though, rather thrillingly by his fingernails at times.

 
The first act is all set in the early 70’s childhood, and the friendship Amir betrays with the servant-boy Hassan: in which role the young Romanian West-End debutant Andrei Costin is quite superb. His is an even more tricky part because “goodness writes white”: the devotion and hurt forgiving sweetness of the servant boy must be made credible. In Costin, it is: every gesture both loving and subservient, channelling a forgotten and deeply un-modern kind of retainer’s loyalty. But all the supporting cast are strong: notably Nicholas Karimi who genuinely terrifies in both halves as the bully Assef , Emilio Doorgasingh bluff, macho, harsh and in one remarkable scene heroic as the father Baba; and Ezra Faroque Khan striking in an old-Afghanistan dignity as the servant Ali and later, the guide Farid.

 

 

Barney George’s set design – with William Simpson’s projection – is elegantly simple, trees and rocks and skyscrapers craggily suggested , great fans descending for middle-eastern interiors and the dove-like white innocent kites of childhood a curiously moving sight in themselves. If I could raise one quibble as it comes into London , it is that the lesser slope of Wyndham’s stall seats makes it frustrating when – naturalistic though it is – the director stages some important conversations with both characters seated on the floor. One tall fidgety head in front and you lose them. But story, strength, performance and sincerity deserve all honour.

 

box office 0844 482 5120   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to
rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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