Category Archives: Four Mice

WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

   The Haymarket these spring mornings is dense with toddlers and their attendants (I’d say  by the look of it  20% parents, 50%  grandparents, and the rest nannies and millennial siblings /aunts).    They are  all emerging dead pleased from the Theatre Royal,  and what more glamorous for your first theatre than those gilded splendours?  One near me was gazing spellbound at the ceiling before the action started, and actually paid less attention to the show throughout than admiring the decor.   But most were rapt, and indeed  my one grudge against the Old Laundry’s loving Beatrix Potter production – first aired three years ago -is that they waited till my youngest toddler was 31.

 

      With Stephen Edis music and some Ayckbourn lyrics,   it is a thousand sweet miles from the ghastly film (Potter was right, in her lifetime , to turn down Disney).   Te set is perfect . There are make-it-at-home flats and simple props ( under fives need  it simple enough to put on their own show baack home) but also with an arch with changing Potter scenes projected like a living book. Joanna Brown as the author introduces  a series of tales for a simple hour, assisted by the dim but benevolent Mrs Puddleduck; we hardly need the celebrity recorded voices of Griff and Miriam.

 

      The main joy is in the puppetry, led by Caroline Dalton  and performed by puppetter-actors,  with notable characterization by Samuel Knight as Jeremy Fisher and Tommy Brock.   The pleasure is in their meticulously witty detail as they invigoarate the the very faithfully-Potter creatures. Great synchro beakwork from both ducks and top hopping from Jeremy Fisher (a gasp all round when the big trout  threatens).  The production takes the trouble to create a menacing offstage squeak from mr MacGregor’s wheelbarrow (another gasp)   and to make sure Mrs Tiggywinkle’s nose does indeed go sniffle-sniffle-snuffle .  But a particular bouquet ,please,  for the way disgusting old Tommy Brock searches his bum.   That’s  my second classy-badger encomium in two days (see below for In The Willows!).   

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE WILLOWS            Oxford Playhouse & touring

A FRESH WIND BLOWING THROUGH AN OLD TALE 

    

  Down on the Riverbank Club,  teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck,  telling the shy diffident Mole   “There is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”.  

  

    Er…blink: OK,  we’re not in 1908 any more.  This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by   Alan Bennett or Disney.  In Metta Theatre’s cheeky,  exuberant hip-hop musical version , Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school,  next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.   The show  raves, cartwheels,  windmills,  head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance,  only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime,  and our fear for the violence alongside it.   The sober grownup  among them is Clive Rowe as Badger ,the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he  exudes his marvellous solid ,tuneful benignity in the middle of therave.  

            Mole  (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically:  after losing a brother to violence at ten,  she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma.    Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on,  and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter:  Chris Fonseca from Def Motion. The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft.   Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping  bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter :  he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison.  Two frivolous rabbits whirl around,  grave Owl is in a hijab,   and the Chief Weasel  – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.      

 

  Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting .  This is  Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so –   pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood.   So it’s part gig.  But characteristically,  Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original.   These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit  he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…

   

    At first  it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable  rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me:  I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?).   But more importantly the musicl  grows emotionally.    In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother,   and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel .  In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs,  it feels oddly urgent.    

  

    Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all –   finds they’ve killed his only pet,  Alan.  This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants  attempting CPR on a goldfish.    There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young:  in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview.  Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism  alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it.  In the second,  he  pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed.  Tears to the eyes.

    

    Of course there is  a secret passage into Toad Hall,   and a battle to oust the weasels.   Naturally,  it’s a dance-off:   Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance  versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter.  But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” –  penal reform .    Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break.  But having seen this I like to think  he got Community Service.   

 

box office   https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows

touring to 8 June:    still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

   

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ADMISSIONS                  Trafalgar Studios , SW1

CRACKS IN THE LIBERAL VENEER

   

  I adored the energy, cleverness and cheek of BAD JEWS so much I went twice, as the pitiless author  set his characters kicking, twisting, protesting and fighting about principles which are as much emotional as moral,.  If  not more so.   ADMISSIONS is by the same Broadway writer – Joshua Harmon   – and even better.   And nicely topical too, both sides of the Atlantic, since it’s about the middle-class obsession with shoehorning their 17 and 18 year old kids into the ‘right’ colleges ,  by hook, crook, donation or ‘legacy’ status, all the while protesting how liberal and inclusive they are.     So I rushed keenly along. And was not disappointed.

    

   Mr Harmon must put in a lot of stage directions saying “Shouting!’  “Furious”  “Ranting”  and  “He/She explodes”.    For as in Bad Jews,  the temperature takes little time to rise past boiling and into superheated-steam.   The setting is a US private school, Hillcrest,  where the extremely correct-thinking dean of admissions Sherri Rosen-Mason  (Alex Kingston )  is the wife of the head and mother of a promising lad Charlie.  Her best friend Ginnie (Sarah Hadland) is married to a black teacher and has an equally promising son,  Perry.   The boys are best friends.   

  

  That Sherri is sincere in her quest to get the  visible “diversity” of the school up to 20% , and has done so with some success,  is sketched in a very funny opening scene where she upbraids poor Roberta from Admin (Margot Leicester, nicely dishevelled)   for not getting enough Students Of Colour in the brochure.   Nice Roberta is baffled “I don’t see colour, I’m not a race person”,  and protests that Ginnie’s son Perry is in it.  But to Sherri,  Perry doesn’t photograph quite black enough, being bi-racial.  There have been complaints from her too about “ethnocentric meal plans”  to which poor Roberta cries “Kids like pizza!”.   They also like Moby Dick, but it’s banned now for being by a dead white male.    You get the picture.

    The glorious central conflict comes when Perry gets into Yale.  His friend white Charlie doesn’t.  And blows his top, saying how hard it is having “no special boxes to tick”, and – tellingly – remembering that on all their college visits the Deans were visibly more interested in Perry than in him,  more conscious eye-contact and laughing at his jokes.  Especially if Perry’s fully black Dad was next to him….

        Ben Edelman as Charlie, over from the US production, is a treat:  six feet of coiled adolescent rage at the world’s unfairness,  his long rant has a Just-William ability to argue :  as when he roars  that a Hispanic student might well be descended from colonialist conquistadors, and that one is the son of the Chilean ambassador,   whereas his grandparents’ cousins were at Auschwitz so where’s the white-privilege in that?  This outrages his father, who is also rabidly PC and fears he has  “raised a Republican”.   But in a savage turnaround wholly credible in a 17 year old boy,    Charlie piously decides he was wrong, so wrong that he must recuse himself from all the high-status universities and privilege in a way that guarantees that his parents shed all their principles in an even more violent emotional conniption. 

      Gales of appalled laughter run through the audience.     Glorious, a sharp and timely treat.

   

box offfice www.atgtickets.com    to 11 may

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE PHLEBOTOMIST                 Hampstead Theatre, NW1

WRITTEN IN THE BLOOD

 

What great timing!  Just as the worried-well Health Secretary gets rubbished for taking a commercial DNA test,  announcing that it has “saved his life” because it posits an increased prostate risk,  and getting firmly told by the profession that he is ‘astonishingly ignorant’, and is wasting NHS resources by “booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist.”   The haplessminister, though, is only a few decades ahead of the curve according to Ella Road’s dark dystopian play. 

 

    In this future world gene sequencing is instant – none of this sending-off to the lab for a fortnight’s wait, but in the phlebotomist’s laptop within minutes.  And everyone is given a “rating”,  according to their physical and mental disease risk.    Hence employers and immigration authorities demand tests and disclosures,   there’s a rising culture of “rateism”  and a Pandora’s box of  consequent evils ranging from “post-natal abortion” for low-scoring babies,  low-raters urged into sterilization,  panicky   blood-cheating and thieves with syringes puncturing high-raters for the red gold.   Not to mention moments of rage and dread in surgeries when the laptop reveals you, as our heroine puts it, as “a cocktail of crap!”.  

  

      The tale is  set in a futuristic but recognizable bleakness, and adorned with mischievous projections which begin with the real Dame Sally Davies looming at us with her view that full gene-sequencing is everybody’s right. They  progress through a dating video,  fragments of political interviews , snake-oil promotions like Crispr gene-editing therapy to improve school performance, and news bulletins.   Our heroine is the gamine Bea (Jade Anouka), a  phlebotomist scoring about 7, who meets and marries the 9+ Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne)   from a smoother, posher family.   In an electric scene Bea has to tell her old friend Char (Kiza Deen, in a cracking mainstream stage debut)  that her score is low, due to Huntingdons likely to flare within years.  

    

        For her friend’s job application she cheats out of kindness,   then over a couple of years and marriage we witness her corruption :   first into cheating for money,  then at last (or almost at last)  internalizing the vicious rateism of society.  In a great reveal  there is rage and dismay and a bit of violent domestic phlebotomy which must be a stage first.  

    

      By contrast, though,  Char with the doom of disease hanging over her abandons the mainstream job she won,  sets off on the hippie trail, embraces risk and fate like a real human, and works  as she declines for a charity for the low-rate ostracized.   It’s a stunning performance,  as is Anouka’s, the counterbalance of the two girls’ trajectories perfect.   

 

  All this is splendid.  There is an oddity in the play, though:  the excellent Mark Lambert plays David, a hospital porter whose attitude to life is the opposite to the poisonous culture.  He speaks of his wife -a  low-scorer due for Alzheimers – and his abandonment of grander careers.  But he is also given a long monologue about a chap he knew who became such a perfectionist gardener that there was no room for his children to play, and choked on a cherry tomato because it was perfectly formed.  Which might be intended as a metaphor, but slows the moment and misses the target by miles ,  not least because (equally inexplicably) this dystopian Britain is also malnutritionally short of fresh vegetables and fruit.   With so much more interesting stuff going on, that chimes oddly.  Not sure either that Aaron’s gambling addiction is wholly necessary.   

      But never mind.  Under Sam Yates’ direction it’s a spirited page-turner of a tale, with some marvellous leads.  Drop a couple of unnecessary scenes and it would be an electrically thrilling 100-minutes- no-interval, giving us no  respite from a satisfyingly likely dystopia. Brrr.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to  20 April

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’         Mercury, Colchester then Southwark

I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A REVIEW…

 

So dress up sassy, shake your chassis, get some mesh on your flesh like the ladies who sing with the band. Sell your vocals to the yokels, get cash for your trash!   

        Tamasha’s romp through the great Fats Waller’s songbook is a two-hour treat,  with a reeling, rocking cast of five and a joyful five-piece combo.  Huggin’, jitterbuggin’, they get the joint jumping with the defiant appeal of the downtrodden:   the 1920s and 30s explosion of black jazz defiance clothed as irresistible entertainment for all.  It’s the music which helped make the Afro-American black experience resonate so strongly for generations,  and to this day inspires the African diaspora across the world.   

        “The music is the star”  in Richard Maltby’s creation, says Tamasha’s debutant-director Tyrone Huntley (more familiar onstage himself in Superstar, Memphis etc).  There is sparse dialogue and no ongoing plot, more a  stream of consciousness.  It is  played out in a Harlem club of extreme glitter, gold staircase and shiny floor,  but sometimes suggesting the hard pavements outside, where a man alone dreams of a reefer five foot long,  “king of everything before I swing”.  Once there’s  an uptown foray to the Waldorf – “Don’t rock, they love jazz but in small doses,  don’t shock, don’t sing loud, muffle the drums , you’ll do swell with the swells..”.    The bass throbs, the piano sparkles, trumpet, sax and clarinet soar in triumph or mourn in melancholy.   The songs yearn, woo, bicker, rejoice, and sell.   Once, the staid Colchester audience is defied to join in with the shout “Fat and greasy, a fat and greasy fool!” and does, mesmerized. 

    

  The choreography, new, is by Oti Mabuse;   Adrien Hansel and Wayne Robinson are the men, smart and cool and agile.   The women are all stunning in different idiosyncratic ways:  Renee Lamb  (SIX’s original Catherine of Aragon)  big and powerfully gorgeous,  Carly Mercedes Dyer the athletic jitterbug-queen, spiky and cheeky,  Landi Oshinowo provocative and wild.  

  

  The energy of them all is  exhausting,  gold heels flashing, tireless.   In the second half particularly the songs become more pointed, poignant:  the quieter moment when all five ask “What did I do to be so black and blue?” pierces the heart.  More of a gig than a play but, who needs an actual story when the whole defiant, struggling story of the black journey to freedom swirls around us still?     

   rating  four   4 Meece Rating    

Box Office: 01206 573948 / www.mercurytheatre.co.uk  to 30 March

THEN

 FRIDAY 19 APRIL – SATURDAY 1 JUNE 2019      SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE

020 7407 0234 / www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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PRIVATE LIVES Avenue, Ipswich

NOT AT ALL FLAT, SUFFOLK…

 

      Exuberantly funny,  elegant as a Deauville  hotel balcony and  sharp as the crack of a 78rpm record over a lover’s head,  Joanna Carrick’s witty miniaturized production  does Noel Coward’s sparkiest comedy full justice.  I say miniature – it’s full length –  only because of the venue:   the tiny but vigorous  home of Red Rose Chain.     An outfit which on the face of it should be far too ‘woke’ for Coward,  being a non-profit but professional theatre company, deep in community projects with young people and care homes (the group working with dementia sufferers put on their five-minute workshop piece after the show on gala night, which is definitely a first for Private Lives).  

 

       But the intimacy, and the cheeky sense of inclusivity which always marks  RRC shows, actually serve dear Noel very well indeed.    I suspect he would rather like the moments when Fiz Waller’s nonchalantly irresponsible Amanda – trying to make light conversation with her fellow-runaway or the other furious couple –  decides to direct  her remarks on the scenery intimately to the front row. Or when Ryan Penny’s furiously virtuous Victor makes them hold his coat while he executes a fist-jabbing haka at the languid Elyot, who stole his wife from their honeymoon balcony.  Setting it in the round, with the balconies separated by a diagonal parterre of flowers, brings us dangerously into the action.

 

       The young cast make the well-worn famous roles their own.   Waller’s Amanda, elegant though she is in pale satin, negligée or daring beach-suit,  is not the slinky cooing seductress some have made her .  Rather she is very Gertrude Lawrence:   a comedienne who one should remember  crossed the Channel on a landing-craft with ENSA after D-Day to perform in shell-wrecked cinemas.    Her insouciant toughness rises to just the right heights in the combative second-act,   with a memorable close-up fight as the couple’s banter turns to fury.     Harriet Leitch as the aggrieved bride gives Sybil the precise,  prim, pleated-skirt virtue covering tyrannical wifely viciousness  which the world’s Cowards so dread.     Ricky Oakley is young, thus a more schoolboyish Elyot in appearance than usual,  but actually Elyot’s  best jokes (“Its a very old sofa”  and “strange noises”)  suit that interpretation well.     So it all holds together beautifully with this young cast;   the grace-notes and scene-shifts are typical of Carrick’s directorial wit,  not least  the deployment of Victor’s golf club in the first half , and Amanda’s final dive for a brioche at the end.  

        And from the volunteer cadre and the youth theatre, Rei Mordue’s cameo as Louise the maid doesn’t miss a trick:  proper French contempt in every move she makes.  I’d go again.  Some days, you can have a prosecco tea before the matinee. 

 

box office  redrosechain.com   01473 603388.   to 7 APril

   

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BETRAYAL Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

POISONED LOVE

  I sometimes wish Harold Pinter had written more plays  like this:  decadent, agonized, helplessly sensitive to the nuances of friendship and treachery.  More praise has always met the political paranoia and over-relished bullying aggression of his other plays, long and short:     Jame Lloyd’s Pinter season has been a triumph.  But for me this was always going to be the treasure. 

 

      Ironically in 1978 it was not well reviewed -critical triumph – my friend and idol Benedict Nightingale was about the only one to spot how good it is.  It is the tale of a seven-year affair,  told backwards in a series of scenes from the guilty couple’s reunion over a drink two years after it ends, right back to its beginnings at a party nine years earlier.   It  had its moment of gossipy fame when we all learned how painfully close its story ran to his own affair – while married – with the equally married Joan Bakewell, whose husband (his close friend) then upset the playwright by revealing that he’d known for ages.  

 

      So here we have Charlie Cox as Jerry the interloper,   chirpy at first about how secret they were (“we were brilliant!”),  Zawe Ashton as his lover,  and Tom Hiddleston as her husband Robert.    Jamie Lloyd directs, in the best and subtlest bit of work of his I have yet seen:  slow-motion,  he gives such weight to the pauses  that you sometimes want to shout out the unspoken words which  each of these helpless, hopeless people should be uttering, if they were not trapped by their selves.   It is  starkly set in a whitish box with three chairs and, briefly, a table;  the protagonists mainly all on stage at once, though one watching,  left out, watchful;   brilliant use is made of the revolve, particularly when Hiddleston, enigmatic and restrained, circles around the lovers.  Once  as he moves past them unseen he is holding closely to his small daughter: the emotion, the sense of a family damaged,  is intense.  

 

    In the scene where he lunches with his rival he is briefly given a chance of volcanic anger,  all misdirected,  snapping at the waiter.  Here’s a man trapped inside masculinity, friendship, shame, bewilderment.  In fact Hiddleston, again in his best performance yet,  is the emotional core of the production.   Charlie Cox as Jerry is chirpy, unrepentant, proud of his own rhetoric (especially in that extraordinary last-but-first  scene where he declares his love in pretentious eloquence)  and striking in a different way.  If you take the parallels,   the play is painfully hard on Pinter himself .  Zawe Ashton’s Emma,  tall and rangy, loose-limbed and unconventionally sexy,  comes increasingly to seem like a pawn between them,  as the real energy is   emitted from the male friendship.  I have never seen a production of this play which made Pinter’s misogyny clearer.    But there is much else in it, worth picking up,  spiky with detail, reekingly honest about dishonesty.   

Box office 0844 871 7622, until June 1.

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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