Category Archives: Four Mice

THE GRONHOLM METHOD Menier, SE1

MULTINATIONAL MENACE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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IOLANTHE                   Richmond & Touring

BOW, BOW!  THEY’RE ON THE ROAD AGAIN..

 

 

It must be nearly five years since Sasha Regan’s all-male Iolanthe at Wiltons’ caused me to break a lifelong resistance  and enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan.  So – on the far side of Cal McCrystal’s fabulously funny ENO production this year, with the ENO chorus ladies tripping hither and thither with glorious thumps,   it was an act of homage to go back to this revival of the  Regan  boys’-own version as it sets out on its 2018 tour.  It’s tripped down compared to the Coliseum one, of course, with simply a pit pianist  (presumably Richard Baker the musical director) and the simplest of props and sets. 

 

      And in its cheerful way,   it’s almost as glorious. Once again  Regan frames it as a lads’ adventure in a cluttered attic and wardrobe: they creep on with torches in the dark during the overture,  and fool around with costumes from old trunks.  But one,  sitting intent alone stage left, seems to have found an old score of Iolanthe and got engrossed… It’s a lovely idea, though  I humbly offer one tiny note: in a substantial theatre  – like this one, way bigger than Wiltons –   the audience need a bit more light and a moment to notice that detail.  My companion, new to the production, didn’t see the score moment at all.

 

 

       But once the cast get going they’re a joy: more ambitious in dancing than last time (excellent balletic-mimetic movement choreographed by Mark Smith) and vocally strong,  managing the female parts well,  from the prevailing falsetto to a nice counter-tenory soprano from Joe Henry as Phyllis,  an elegant Iolanthe in Christopher Finn  and a remarkable contralto from Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen.    

 

The words – vital as ever,  satirically romantic or elegant patter  – are excellently clear and the physicality hilarious. When Russell Edwards asks plaintively about the banished Iolanthe “Who taught me to curl inside a buttercup?” you snort.  When the chorus of willing fairies are decked out in roll-on suspender belts over their rugger shorts,  the maternal heart melts with the memory of all those sleepovers when we let the son’s mates loose in the dressing-up box.  

 

    As for the Lords,  dressing-gowns, the odd crochet blanket and forgotten bygone hats do the business:  topee and topper, bowler and boater, a mortarboard for the Lord Chancellor, ta-ran-ta-ra, perfect.    The very spirit of play, of disrespectful glee.   As I remarked last time,   it’s as camp as a flamingo in fishnets.   And it works.  Leaving the matinée even the most senior of Richmond’s citizens could be seen doing little skips and humming ‘In for a penny, in for a pound, it’s love that makes the world go round”.

 

box office   http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/iolanthe/

Touring    to 28 July  Touring Mouse wide   

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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NIGHTFALL Bridge Theatre, SE1

ROUGH, RURAL, A NEGLECTED ALBION

 

 

An immense intrusive pipe bisects the stage, a rusty oil tank below it with part of a tractor one side and a cheerless Victorian brick farmhouse indicated on the other. It is dusk, stars emerging behind; brighter starbursts from a welding-torch behind the pipe meet laughing enthusiasm from two lads in overalls. Anyone accustomed to rural dodges will grasp that they are tapping one of the ugly oil-pipes from the coast which – for a useful few quid – a farmer will allow across his Hampshire land. Ryan and Pete, gleeful in matehood, complete the job; Ryan’s sister Lou looks on with resigned scorn. Earlier than expected home, their mother Jenny strides up onto the stage and is not pleased at the felony. Even though, by this time, it is becoming clear that the farm is on its uppers and every little helps.

 

 

Thus the brand-new Bridge continues to defy predictability: after the serio-comic-historic Young Marx and the riotous immersive Julius Caesar here is a plaintive, conversational four-hander by Barney Norris. His marvellous earlier works (Visitors, https://tinyurl.com/ycz2qajc ) and Eventide (https://tinyurl.com/ycxjdw4j ) have been in more intimate fringe theatres. And there are not many 900+ unsubsidized houses which would take a punt like this, on a slice of 21c rural life in decline. Not even after Jerusalem, not even for a short run.

But it worked for me. With a fine-tuned cast, Rae Smith’s immense and atmospheric set and Laurie Sansom’s direction, Norris’ intense personal and social observation command attention: from a dangerously slow-burn start it proves to be not only an engrossing play but quite an important one.

 

It is on the surface a portrait of grief: the family’s father died of cancer a year or so back, and they are stuck in awkward irritable love, and also stuck with a heavily indebted farm which Ryan can hardly cope with and whose financial disaster Jenny, in her nostalgic resentful grief, denies. . Back into their lives comes Lou’s former boyfriend Pete, a childhood friend of both siblings , not a farmer but a council-estate lad fresh out of prison (we learn more, in dramatic second act revelations, about this). He is the skilled welder who has the bright idea about the pipe, his lifetime motto being “as long as you get away with it”.

 

But it is also a play about forgotten lives. A fierce essay in the programme has Norris reminding us that “We live in a country stolen from its people..by a political class, a monopoly capitalism that locks us into wage brackets while leaving the lost of living to go wherever the wind blows; stolen by the swamping homogeniety of middle class white western taste“. These are probably, despite EU agricultural subsidies, Brexit people. Which is another good reason for the Bridge to kick the subject about , however obliquely.

 

The interweaving of the personal stories with that social observation has real power, just as Miller’s did in Death of a Salesman. The humanity of the four is to the forefront: Clare Skinner’s Jenny infuriating, needy, controlling, unhappy, trying to play normal and resolutely middle-class with her M & S nibbles and whatever wine the TV show says is fashionable, her Fevertree tonic and tea-lights. These distractions serve her nothing: “I’m never all right, that’s the trouble”. Ophelia Lovibond as her daughter is equally caught in grief, but more clear-eyed about the missing father’s shortcomings, and has suffered in other ways from the debacle. Ryan, saddest case of the four, struggles under the burden of the farm and of his mother : a terrific Sion Daniel Young, big-eyed, skinnily desperate, struggles on with forced optimism, irritated by the romanticization of his mother (“I chuck chemicals on wheat, Mum, I’m not a tree hugger. I make money, I make food, we’re not Druids living off roots”. Pete is Ukweli Roach, who from the laddish wide-boy of the opening scene reveals himself by stages in a tough, touching decency.

 

They are all, in their way, fascinating. Their diverse grief is part of them, an overarching reason to be stuck; but they are stuck anyway. A lot of people in rural Britain are, but they are not often put into focus, not in the most fashionable and chic of London theatres. There is mischief and usefulness in programming it just as the urban second-homers  return from their  May holiday in the pretty hills and fields, blind to the minimum-wage hinterland …

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 26 May

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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MOOD MUSIC Old Vic, SE1

CREATIVES, C***TS AND  CONTRACTS

 

  The theatrical repertoire has a new monster:   Bernard, created by Joe Penhall  and brought to scorchingly memorable,  sociopathically  irresistible life by Ben Chaplin.   Who is wonderful.  Made for the part.    Bernard is a music producer-creator-arranger,  a drawlingly infuriating musical genius idolised for his long record of successes by the very young singer he decides to “use”- his word – on a two-album deal and US tour.  But she is also a creative, a songwriter and a girl of some spirit (Seana Kerslake, convincingly teenage and even more convincingly troubled).  She is  not a submissive Trilby to his Svengali.    So he likes to confuse and belittle her instinctive, passionate talent with advice that artfully undermines (“Let’s try it with a mandolin. Or a glockenspiel”).    And when it comes to crediting her in the sleeve and at the Novello awards, Bernard doesn’t. Won’t. As he amiably puts it “On the one hand I want to be kind and generous and co-operative. On the other hand, why the hell should I?”.   

 

 

    She’s just another tool for his genius, like the drummer he hit because “drummers don’t feel pain, they’re like fish”.    The music industry happens to be hungry for girl singers ,  now that “girls are the new boys”.   She feels robbed and abused, which indeed she is.    For most of the play we see the pair of them onstage both at once but in different places:  each is giving their version of the poisoned collaboration to a therapist,   with increasing interventions by the respective lawyers.    We learn that it has turned nasty following a US tour and the credit row, and the lawyers fight with increasing viciousness –  Neil Stuke and Kurt Egyiawan, both overwhelmed by their clients’ temperaments  – while one therapist (Jemma Redgrave) spouts psychotheory to her about how music activates the reward centres , and Bernard’s psych makes helpless attempts to humanize him. 

 

 

        Sometimes in flashbacks you see them together, and  get small moments at the keyboard or with the opening words of a song when you think first yes, he’s an old-stage, a perfectionist, he  can enhance what she creates:  make it a hit .  But  then moments later you think   “he is just messing with her head, that glockenspiel business is pure bullying”.   But if he’s a demon, she can be a diva: when she bites back accusing him of “dad-rock” values he winces;  when she dismisses her therapist for not understanding the fiery world of creativity, Seana Kerslake is plain terrifying.

 

       That she is a young girl and he an older, battered, canny man is important, yet this is not another predictable  bit of MeToo outrage. The point is that this is a specific environment, the Winehouse-hothouse of a music industry where private damage and profound feeling -“deeper than sex” says Cait –  are for sale. And, crucially,  intense performances  are achieved on gruelling, drug-fuelled tour schedules.   The most darkly hilarious scenes are between the two lawyers when hers – hearing that she was carried senseless from Pittsburgh to LA and woke backstage in her underwear – realizes that  them taking her across state borders means he can involve the FBI and claim kidnap.  Bernard on his side explains it’s all part of the tour camaraderie. “Esprit de corps,  or Stockholm syndrome?” comes the riposte. 

 

 

       But there are hundreds of wonderful lines and ironic, profound reflections on the business. “A song doesn’t have a heart” says Bernard.  “It has a void” . Yes. These are the soundtrack of all our emotional lives; we creep inside a song with our own pain and longing.  We invest in it. But so do vast multinational corporations, sharp lawyers, promoters and a myriad of session players, roadies, groupies, entourage sycophants and rehab therapists.   Penhall was once  a rock journalist, and had a tough time writing Sunny Afternoon about the warring Kinks. He knows both the power and glory of great songs,   and the potential for appalling behaviour, feuds, neuroses , sexist abominations, exploitation and lawsuits which beset the business.     So with director Roger Michell Michell and an irresistible cast,  he made it into a lethally funny, memorably moving, elegantly threaded play.   Wince and marvel. 

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628   www.oldvictheatre.com   to 16 June

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada 

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ROMEO AND JULIET Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

FAST, FINE  STREETWISE SHAKESPEARE 

  

 

    Running and scuffling, a crowd of kids in  black scatter across the stark stage under an open-sided, distressedly concrete-looking box. They fizz with energy, insult and partisan gang loyalty. And they all have knives.  This young community chorus  share the  opening : Erica Whyman’s take on “fair Verona” and the feud of Montague and Capulet is contemporary,  its lethal blade  culture all too topical.

 

 

     So is the casting of  “Prince” Escalus,   Beth Cordingley striding exasperatedly in a swishing smart coat to stop the latest melée:   a woman in power despairing at immature male aggression.   In another intelligent gender-switch,  the Prince’s  cousin is one of two tough girls as combative as their male peers. Mercutio, normally just one of the most irritating, punning  hyper characters in Shakespeare, is  the quicksilver performer Charlotte Josephine:  androgynous, crop-haired, mocking, a far tougher cookie than Josh Finan’s gentle, lovingly homo-affectionate Benvolio.  

 

 

      But it is not a tiresomely gimmicky ‘now’ production, but one marked all through by that  close-worked RSC concentration on the text which always prompts interesting new thoughts about a play we know well.   Bally Gill’s Romeo is excitable, daft in his mooning for Rosaline ;  but in the freeze-frame moment at Capulet’s wild disco party he grows into a thunderstruck sincerity which, for all continuing puppyish and impulsive moments ,  gives him an enduring open-eyed  dignity.    Though the one bit of textual meddling that raised my eyebrow was when he sees  bright Juliet hanging on the cheek of night “like some rich jewel on an Ethiop’s ear”.   This Romeo says “ebony ear”.  Which just sounds weird, and in a relaxedly diverse cast, more prissily PC than is necessary.

  

      Otherwise it’s wonderful.  Karen Fishwick’s Juliet is fresh, brave,  growing through the play from childlike simplicity to reckless and honourable love.  Her Scottish tones give the lines the poetry they need;   yet the hot reality of the coup-de-foudre affair enables the pair,  without strain,   to get unexpected moments of comedy out of the often overswoony balcony scene.  His attempt to depart is every besotted couple’s “no, you ring off” “No, you..”  The Nurse, Ishia Bennison, is wonderfully funny, cackling about her nursing years, earthy and interfering,   not an “ancient” though she seems so to the young but full of knowing middle-aged familiarity and self-importance.  A small bouquet here too to Raif Clarke as her fed-up attendant Peter: he scores several of his own laughs.  The nurse’s first scenes with Juliet are telling, the girl flopping on her lap and giggling at her feet while the  seeming at times a decent pragmatist,  but suddenly terrifying, a proto-Lear when  he curses his rebellious daughter “Hang, beg, ie in the streets!”.   Again, a thought arises:  this man  feels his status and authority crumbling,  see how he sucks up to Count Paris…

 

 

        And the fighting?  Tybalt is a thuggish Raphael Sowole, knife-happy and aggressive;  when the mocking, slender Mercutio provokes him you sense layers of private animosity.  And for me a new reflection arises: the lazy truism is that it was the feud of the elders that caused the tragedy, of which the young lovers were victims.  But the text makes it clear that the elders are wearying of the old battle – when Romeo has crashed the party,  Capulet restrains young Tybalt with “be patient, take no note of him, he shall be endured”.     Both sets of parents are more than ready to listen to Escalus by the end, blaming nobody, reformed by sorrow as we all wish enemies would be.   It is the young, the impetuous kids in black, who keep the feud alive:  thumb-biting idiots Gregory and Sampson,   swaggering Tybalt defying his uncle in his determination to  punish the outrage of Romeo invading his ‘hood.    And not least Mercutio:   who for all Romeo’s pleading is spoiling for a fight with knife and insult, and won’t let up.  That it should be swagger, stupidity and verbal defiance that  lights the fuse of  disaster  for the lovers is as topical as it always was. 

 

box office  rsc.org.uk  to 19 Jan

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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TONIGHT AT 8.30 Jermyn ST SW1

Part 1: SECRET HEARTS (and an explanation)

 

This is a fabulously quixotic enterprise directed by Tom Littler: a revival of all nine of Noel Coward’s one-act plays, written in 1935 as a showcase for the diverse talents of Gertrude Lawrence and his goodself, under the title Tonight At 830 . Littler has grouped them in three sets, which you may see on consecutive nights or – as I did – take in all of them on a Saturday or Sunday: thus from the 1930s to the Netflix generation comes a prototype binge-watch.

 

Littler’s pattern (the grouping and names are his, not Coward’s) gives each set two lighter ones before the interval and something more poignant (but still with its laughs, believe me) after it. The ensemble of nine players switch throughout, as in old rep companies, and there is something fascinating about seeing them change between these squibs, sympathizing with the way one is in and out of Brylcreem , or startled when you fail for a moment to recognize that the red-nosed northern comedian is the same chap as the timid Malayan planter.

 

From this first set SECRET HEARTS – it doesn’t matter how you see them, but on Sunday it was first off – it is clear from the start that these are all good sharp comedy performers but with a capacity when needed to evoke profound pain: Miranda Foster and Nick Waring are Alec and Laura in Still Life, on which Brief Encounter was based. . But in the main what we get is tophole character-acting. So Jeremy Rose’s debonair old matinee-idol Julian becomes red-nosed comic George Pepper and then a passing soldier in Still LIfe, while Foster’s grande-dame diva turns faded music-hall sketch-actress and then the respectable smalltown housewife Laura suffering in the station buffet . Rosemary Ashe is a diamond-clipped veteran backstage in Star Chamber, a gloriously vulgar Lily Pepper and then an extreme of refinement behind that buffet counter..

 

 

Which all adds to the fun. So to the plays in detail: I had never seen STAR CHAMBER – few moderns have, and in the 30s it only ran once, apparently – , but it is pure essence of Noel: an unashamedly self-indulgent mickey-take of actors’ ways , as eight variously appalling self-absorbed thesps sit on a fundraising committee frustrating a timid accountant’s attempt to read the financial report. In this cast one first notes that the newest-fledged, young Boadicea Ricketts, is a proper gem . Her gloriously ghastly ich-bin-zo ingenue would have pleased Coward no end, passing the Worthington test but unlikely to be bearable for long in a greenroom.

 

Then RED PEPPERS (framed with the deathless “has anybody seen our ship”) reminds us of something which deepens through the ninesome: that Stefan Bednarczyk is a very good character actor as well as the current king of cabaret and musical director. By the time we get to STILL LIFE, he is an Albert Godby to match Stanley Holloway himself.

 

Actually, of all the three STILL LIFE is the revelation: it is far tighter, and in the end move dryly perceptive about love affairs, than the film Brief Encounter. For one thing it moves faster: not a word wasted, no need for other sets, and the couple do, unlike their film versions, consummate their love. And having the buffet and station staff in view all the time, rather than cut-away to, displays Coward’s rueful talent for counterpoint, comedy amid sorrow. Myrtle and Albert’s growing closeness (and implied consummation) is funny, but less cartoonish. And I had never noticed before how Beryl and Stanley, the teenage skivvies, have their fifteen precious minutes of snogging sabotaged by the middle-aged adulterers’ self-absorbed insistence on hanging about in the darkened buffet so Beryl can’t lock up. Tart, knowing, real, unromantic. Beautiful.
And so, rejoicing, on to the next three…

 

SET 2:  BEDROOM FARCES

One of the pleasures for an amateur Cowardologist is spotting echoes and pre-echoes of other plays; and not least marvelling at the Master’s particular gift for sending up situations in one play which he takes with painful seriousness in another. In this case the first – WE WERE DANCING – sends up the coup-de-foudre love at first sight. We are with Colonial-Naval-Mercantile Brits of the stiffupperlip classes on a fictional South Sea Island. Think Somerset Maugham rewritten for Round the Horne: very Charles-and-Fiona. Sara Crowe, an actress who can be heart-wrenchingly innocent but also very funny indeed, has fallen for Karl, a passing agent, in two minutes of dancing. They go through the full this-thing-is-bigger-than-both-of-us routine, to the irritation of her stiff husband (Nick Waring, channelling all that RN rigidity Coward both loved and guyed). Rosemary Ashe, another glorious comedienne, is a furiously snappish sister-in-law, and the divine Bednarczyk a treasurable drunk. Passion flares and collapses at Hay Fever speed.

 

WAYS AND MEANS is slyer, without music (a fair few of these squibs include a song) and finds Miranda Foster and Nick Waring a couple again, but many miles from the earnest doctor and housewife of Still Life. They’re spongers in a Cote d’Azur villa, of a class “brought up to be merely pleasant”, and now being thrown out by a sweetly steely hostess (Crowe again) to make room for the next guest . They’re flat broke owing to the Casino, and resentful of richer guests ( Ricketts this time a predatory Russian princess) Nice exasperated coupledom gives way to mild panic, and then an opportunistic piece of dastardliness, rather P.G.Wodehouse in a way, which one can only applaud.

 

The bed is changed (there is in each set of plays a elegantly deliberate and funny use of the fact that we watch the stage crew, especially where there is no interval, and Louie Whitemore’s set and Emily Stuart’s costumes are quite brilliant in their detail.) So at last the more problematic SHADOW PLAY ends the trio. I found it the weakest: Crowe this time is a betrayed wife, her husband asking for divorce (or so she fears). She is sinking into sleep with three pills and carried back – with more of those plaintively mawkish Coward love songs than elsewhere – into a tangled set of flashback dreams and memories of their ectstatic, if heavily clichéd, courtship and Venetian honeymoon. It is ahead of its time, indeed I felt as if Coward would rather it was a film, and somehow it failed to engage. But in fairness I should say that two of my companions on the long day were intrigued and pleased by it.

 

SET 3:  NUCLEAR FAMILIES

Three drawing-rooms in this set. The first FAMILY ALBUM sees a splendily stiff Victorian 1860s family group of five adult siblings , three of their spouses, and Bednarczyk as a magnificently decrepit and selectively deaf old family butler. They are all in deep old-fashioned mourning, most spectacularly Sara Crowe as the ageing, creaking, resentful Lavinia in half an acre of what must be that legendary fabric, black bombazine. Fuelled by sherry and Madeira they mourn the dead patriarch, who we rather suspect early on (and know later) was a bastard. Coward enjoys a bit of stiff retro naval chat about muzzle-loaders, and gradually the Victorian-photo stiffness of the group dissolves into first contumely, then childhood nostalgia as an old trunk is opened, and finally to creaking Lavinia’s drop-dead revelation and a butler moment to cherish in memory forever. It is a very funny one, this, but with streaks of real pain once more. Chekhov is never far from the edges of your mind in these plays, even when PG Wodehouse is nearer the centre…

 

HANDS ACROSS THE SEA, which follows it, suddenly reminds you in turn that Coward is also a literary ancestor of Ayckbourn. Another navy household, still recognizable today if you mix at all with the brisk, upper-middle professional Services and jolly-hockeysticks classes. Lady Maureen – “Piggie”, blithely entitled and carelessly, cruelly friendly, has been on a world trip and vaguely invited various Rawlinsons, or possibly Wadhursts, from Malaya. A couple turn up, amid a domestic-professional-social bustle of escaping officer husbands and a hilariously stage-stealing, booming, barking Rosemary Ashe as Piggie’s mate the Hon. Clare. The visitors are the wrong couple. They are terrified, cowed, and polite (Ian Hallard back in the Brylcreem). We get some of the best one-sided phone conversations on any stage ever, and Boadicea Ricketts as the most intimidatingly smug of parlourmaids. One wipes sweat from one’s brow, identifying with the timid planters and reflecting that there actually still are upper-middle households as terrifying as this to visit. Gorgeous.

 

THE ASTONISHED HEART is pure, overwrought romantic Coward, returning to the coup-de-foudre of Still Life mingled with a grimmer version of the the impossible relationship of Private Lives, and ending in real darkness. Nick Waring is a psychiatrist, his wife (Miranda Foster) struggling with honourable generosity, shows us a moving Coward attempt to rewrite the conventions of infidelity and pain. She wants to contain and understand the humanity of his sudden affair with her predatory, confused friend (Sara Crowe). The title is taken from Deuteronomy: “The LORD shall smite you with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart”. It is very moving.

ENVOI

The whole enterprise, in the tiny Jermyn Theatre, has involved weeks of intricate work, feats of learning astonishing even for actors , 89 costumes, brilliantly devised by Emily Stuart, and some items of furniture which must be making backstage a bit of an ordeal. And was it worth it? Oh yes.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 20 May
rating four 4 Meece Rating
BUT

with an extra Stage Management Mouse for the crew   Stage Management Mouse resized
and Costume Mouse for the design and the rapid changes..

Costume design mouse resized

 

 

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THE MODERATE SOPRANO returns; Duke of York’s , WC1

MORE THAN A PICNIC

 

 

  I could tell you that it is worth going up West for the transfer of Hampstead’s fine play just to see Roger Allam (his fine quiff sadly suppressed under a bald wig) as John Christie, founder-owner of Glyndebourne’s opera house on the Sussex Downs, issuing one particular indignant horrified nod at the word “Mozart”.  The resulting explosion – absorbed with sphinx-like placidity by his German-Austrian musical hirelings    is one to cherish.  Christie, a small determined almost P.G.Wodehouse character,  has tasted the sublime in Wagner’s great unwieldy Parsifal.  So he finds Mozart “samey..bit jngly…no sense of the spirituaul..intrigue, silly girls and giggling and big wigs… it’s like playing cricket with a soft ball”. 

 

 

      I loved it at Hampstead,  found it a  “ heart-soaring, joyful and sad and humane piece” ,  its vindication of the picnic-rug and black-tie world of high class opera ws gorgeously unexpected from David Hare.   It was after he dramatized his jaundiced memories of a constipated 1962 public-school in  “South Downs” that the producer, Byam Shaw, suggested he take on the story of how John Christie, an eccentric wartime soldier and Eton science master, inherited the estate in the early ‘30s and decided to build an opera house and a festival. 

 

 

     The “moderate soprano” of the title is his wife, the singer Audrey Mildmay, who Christie  besieged with gifts and flowers until she married him: he was already fifty.   She died before him, leaving him bereft: her decline, and his nursing, book-end the play.     For the festival seasons he recruited Rudolf Bing, Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert: its a memory-play of the interaction of those five determined characters.  

 

 

      Sometimes  it is very funny, at times profoundly sad.  For what Hare makes of John Christie’s story is not “heritage theatre” but a hymn to art and its ambiguities, an elegy for the  passing of life  and a portrait of a man self-willed,  choleric, impassioned.  Sometimes Captain Mainwaring, sometimes almost Eric Morecambe,  he is absurd but awe-inspiring,  a “character’ but also a deep and needy personality.    Roger Allam  is perfection: chubbed-up, in a bald wig, he becomes the bluff reckless middle-aged soldier who one night in Bayreuth discovered “the sublime – until I heard that music I had no idea who I was”.   Line upon line he delights:  “Hate music-lovers, awful people, do nothing but complain – but I love music!”. 

 

 

 With his team assembled and the first season coming,  Christie reacts with explosive horror to Bing and Busch telling him it can’t be Wagner – “you’ve built a jewel box, not an epic theatre”.    As for his furious insistence that opera-goers must wear boiled shirts and get on a train to  deep Sussex on a working day, it is superb, and nobody could deliver it like Allam.  These damn people  must, he says, not just fiddle around with “ telephones and whatever they do in offices” then ‘take in a show’.  They must accept “It’s their lives that are the sideshow!  Opera’s the thing! And if it uses up their time and wipes out their savings so be it!”.     

       Nancy Carroll is a perfect foil as Audrey, sinking her identity and her art in his explosive will, loving him,  her postwar decline tragic.  Paul Jesson and Anthony Calf react wonderfully as Busch and Ebert, and  this time round Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is a sinuous,  sardonic Viennese smoothie Rudolf Bing, the maestro who spent  war years working in Peter Jones, enjoying the hair salon because its febrile atmosphere was most like opera – “I love hysteria…Nietzsche said, for art there must be frenzy”.  

 

      The frenzy of a tubby, determined man with a yearning for sublimity receives, in this lovely play, the respect that it should.  And on a second viewing, with the same reservation as at Hampstead – which is simply about a slightly too slow first half –  other thoughts occur.  The elegiac quality seems stronger: Audrey’s last moments, and his late sadness, are truly wrenching.   And it makes sense at last that David Hare, never knowingly under-socialist, should have written it.  Art has no politics, and while opera  needs the money of the rich,  it is in essence not upper-class:   just sublimely human.

box office   atgtickets.com  0844 871 7627

to 30 June

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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