Category Archives: Four Mice

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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BURKE AND HARE               Jermyn St Theatre SW1

DARK DOINGS AND DISSECTION

 

  Oyez, Oyez.   Let it be known that this suspenseful yet dreary political season has become officially the Year Of Dark Panto.  Down at The Bridge we had Martin McDonagh’s “very very very” dark –  and somewhat silly –   imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s Congolese attic-dwarf-prisoner who never was.   Now,  with fewer pretensions and a lot more laughs ,  give a hand to  Tom Wentworth’s spirited and largely true story of Burke and Hare.  Their trade in 1828 was murdering lodgers in Mrs Hare’s boarding-house and selling their bodies, for seven to ten quid apiece,  to a keen anatomist of the Edinburgh medical school.   Up from the Watermill at Newbury,  directed con brio by Abigail Pickard Price, it is an absolute blast.  It is done in the dramatic-cum-vaudeville-reduced-Shakespeare-National-Theatre-of-Brent  genre :  rapid costume changes, doubling and tripling  and deliberate undermanning.     Its two-hour merriment should keep the tiny Jermyn packed nicely from here to nearly Christmas.

 

    It’s a three-hander, with Alex Parry as Hare,  Hayden Wood as Burke and the hilariously fierce Katy Daghorn (like Wood, she has Play that Goes Wrong experience, always a good sign) .   She is both their womenfolk, and also introduces the piece as Monro,  the indignant rival surgeon who lost out by not being on the Burke and Hare customer list.    But equipped with a splendid variety of pre-Victorian lowlife costumes –  leprous tailcoats, repellent mufflers,  broken hats and disgusting bloodstained aprons –    they all play random others : locals, doctors, visitors, a large extended family : anyone,  depending on who’s needed at that moment on the tiny stage . A stage which is  – courtesy of designer Toots Butcher –  atmospherically decorated with anatomical drawings and  filthy side curtains .   The hurtling exchanges of mop-caps, fancy hats and aprons is rapid, but  you soon work out that whoever’s temporarily got the maroon tailcoat and top-hat is having to represent  Ferguson, a thick medical student and boozy habitué of the lodging-house bar and its passing tarts. 

 

    They are all three rapid, adept and funny, and when strictly necessary co-opt one of the front row as a corpse, on which the anatomists lavish repulsively descriptive insults while it shakes helplessly like the rest of us (“Och, aye…a little gas escaping from the mooth there”).     From time to time Burke and Hare, being Irishmen,   break out into choruses of “Nancy Whisky” and “Whisky in the Jar”.   

  

  There are some fine set-pieces, like the pair’s attempt to shop around Surgeons’ Square for a buyer, with windows opening and shutting to reveal various versions of Daghorn.  The pathetic  bumbling stupidity of the pair  and the brisk exasperation of  Mrs Hare endears the awful trio just enough to take our minds off their  murderousness .  And like all the best nonsenses in this genre, the play has the nerve to offer one moment of proper heart and pathos:   dropping into quieter song and a moment of very brief historical narration when a late victim –  Daft Jamie –  is disposed of .  He was a pathetic but beloved figure in the Edinburgh community and his murder caused, it is reported,  the greatest outrage . So he gets his moment ,  Parry giving him a brief, elusive moment of dignity before the next joke .  Nice. 

 

boxoffice   jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to 21 dec

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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AN HONOURABLE MAN                   White Bear, Kennington SE11

BREAKING THE MOULD….

 

 Our politics is  partisan, quarrelsome, dated in its pattern of two-parties-plus-minnows.   A nest of weary careerists,  pointless betrayals and illogical loyalties,  lined with nervous SPAD-ism and manifesto muddle.     So break the mould!  We often carelessly cry. Bring on a saner spirit of moderate co-operation.    But what happens when you break a mould?  Might you end up with a terrible mess of melting jelly, dripping in all directions?    Or in another image, a brick made ,as the Bible warns they shouldn’t be, utterly without straw?  

        

     Enough with the metaphors. Michael McManus  – writer, formerly of the Press Complaints Commission and IPSOr,  has been a  special adviser in three government departments over decades, and made valiant attempts at getting selected himself.   He knows the mould, and how mouldy it can get.  So this fascinating, timely play is steeped in bitter  experience.

 

  Not that it is embittered: indeed there’s a pleasing streak of idealism in his imagining of what might happen a year or so from now.  Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve had a hard, soft, or non-Brexit because as it makes clear we’ll still be fretting about the NHS,  transport,  crime, the borders, free speech, the EU’s attitude, all that.   Its hero is  Joe Newman, (Timothy Harker) who has been de-selected in the Corbyn age and re-elected as  independent Labour on Teesside. 

 

  Joe is a sweet, slightly shy, faintly camp voice of well-meant moderation, who once was in love with Josh (Thomas Mahy), a cross, hirsute Momentum gorilla who is now his enemy.   On his team is the forceful Anne, (Lisa Bowerman), a young thrusting intern Sam,  the older Maggie, and his sensible, kindly “failed fringe actress”  neighbour Liz:  a lovely blowzy performance by Dee Sadler.   So it begins with banter and excitement, which grows into talk of a new party.  And the new party forms fast because, as the veteran Maggie says “What voters want is to emasculate the political class”  .  Britain,  in a memorable metaphor, is like a cat which doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out, so just sits around licking its balls. 

  

    But a new party – as Shirley Williams warned  before forming one  eight years later – risks having “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”.   And poor Newman, in a series of alarming sessions with hyped-up advisers scribbling on blackboard walls,  finds himself  dragged to and fro, promising to sort out special needs, schools, hospital matrons, Scotland, knife crime, housing, banks – the lot.   Ann, a tough egg, draws lines from all of these challenges to the dread  word –  “Immigration”.  

  

  Only   Maggie quotes Mencken,  warning him against crazy populist promises :  “For every complex problem there is an answer which is simple, clear, and wrong”.    By the second half Newman hears himself sounding alternately like Farage and Blair,  Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.  They worry about his image too much: “It might help if you pretend to like football” “But I do..”  .  We watch the polls on screen (there are plenty of TV bulletins throughout, including one with Ken Clarke in it, sounding just like himself). 

   

  At one point when his  new party’s popularity is sagging poor Joe loses his temper with a heckler and lays into him physically, and to everyone’s slight dismay this raises his ratings no end.  One cannot choose one’s followers any more than one’s enemies in politics , and some will be thugs.  Or terrorists, no spoilers.  Suffice to say I enjoyed it no end, in a terrified sort of way.   All it needs to add to the frisson would be a figure in dark glasses,  an International Rescue Committee baseball-cap and heavy false moustache , ordering his fish and chips at the White Bear in a suspiciously familiar voice.  .  We all have to stare bravely into the centre-party abyss, do we not?

   

Box Office  www. whitebeartheatre.co.uk

0333 012 4963  to 8 dec

rating. four 4 Meece Rating

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MACBETH Wanamaker, SE1

THE EMPTY DARKNESS OF THE HEART

 

  Third time  lucky:  after two glumly disappointing 2018 productions steeped in directorial gimmicks   – RSC and NT –  the candlelit cramp of the Wanamaker gives us back Macbeth.  Here in Robert Hastie’s careful production  is all the  horrror, psychological acuity and profound , terrified morality of Shakespeare’s darkest play.   Darker it is than the wickedly playful Richard III or the ludicrously bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus, because of its very intimacy and humanity.   This is the trapped struggle  of the ordinary, unpsychopathic heart afraid of its own deeds –  sleepless, hallucinating, crazed.  It plays out in claustrophobic darkness, sometimes total when the sconces and candelabra are doused.  Sometimes it is just stricken, anguished faces you see, so close in this small space,  illuminated alone by flickering individual  candle lanterns black-shielded towards us.

 

 Proper Jacobean witches?  Oh yes:   not  period, not comic, cartoonish , or having   their lines too apologetically  trimmed by squeamishly unsuperstitious directors.  Just  quietly horrible: eerie in whispering the incantation, matter-of-fact in their workaday discussion about raising tempests on a seafarer to avenged on his wife who arointed them.    Later,  when the guilty Macbeth’s recalls them they are disembodied, a scuffling of ratlike footprints, a voice from the gallery, a door opening under unseen hands, a face glimmering for a moment.

 

  Good productions bring each viewer private  fresh perceptions and textual flashes of authorial genius. Here for me in Paul Ready’s  performance  it was Macbeth’s naïveté: the smile of sudden ambition in the lamplight, the self-consciously masterful decision  to tell his wife it is all off,  the caving in to her, the hysteria, the dismayed realisation of each new necessary murder.   This is exactly the kind of man who WOULD  do something stupid like bringing the bloody daggers out of the Kings chamber, so that his wife had to take them back and bloody the grooms.  As the desperate tale goes on, we see him ever more alone and ever less able to tolerate it.  

  

  As for her, Michelle Terry is enigmatic, troubled:   part brisk housewifely organiser, part deeply damaged woman : her speech about giving suck and dashing a baby’s brains out is tremblingly intense.  The relationship is interesting,  she weakening visibly each time the hysterical Macbeth rejects her hand after the deed.   Her final sleepwalking screams into the gloom are shocking,  but her return to housewifely briskness  ‘“a soldier and afeard? To bed, to bed” even more so.  She fascinates. And so, in his growing resignation, does Ready,   slowly understanding the futility of his track to dusty death, the aridity of what he has won.

 

See? Keep away from bleeding polystyrene heads and gimmicks and the play itself comes back, timeless and terrifying.     Hastie eschews both full modernity and period dress  for universal black and grey with detail of 18-20c shapes;   the bloodied messenger is in an Aran sweater.  The Globe’s policy of inclusiveness gives us among other 21c castings a female Macduff – Anna-Maria Nabirye in a performance strong enough to be the last thing you’d notice about him/her .   Laura Moody’s score -mostly vocal  from herself and two other women above – expresses both the discordant wickedness of the play and, sometimes,  its powerful religious sense:    Duncan kneels to pray by the candlelit footlights; so do the rebel thanes .   When Macbeth cannot say “Amen” makes his stricken face, in the flickering light,  says it all.

 

box office shakespearesglobe.com   0207 401 9919

to 2 feb

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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