Category Archives: Four Mice

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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DON QUIXOTE Garrick. WC2

THE KNIGHT WINS HIS SPURS AGAIN:  A NOBLE DELUSION

  

  Need a Christmas outing? Quailing at panto, feel you and the kids need some Euro-culture to counteract Brexidepression? Trust the RSC, and a return of James Fenton’s version of the deluded knight-errantry of Cervantes’ 17c satire.  Our hero traverses Spain on a cobbled-up Rosinante, aglow with well-meaning chivalry and succeeding only in annoying tavern-keepers, shepherds, clergy and his dismayed volunteer squire Sancho Panza. As a parable of the apparent inadequacy of  legend in a real world it is timeless and matchless. 

 

  Angus Jackson’s production makes everything of it: countless visual jokes, horseplay , bread rolls hurled between ensemble and audience, cast members collapsing on the laps of the front rows.  Sancho Panza is Rufus Hound ,to whom I am at last reconciled, and able to forgive his awful excursion into Coward as Gary Essendine at Chichester.  He does his amiable joshing standup to get us going , well in his natural element and a massive fat-suit, but by the strange end is emotionally engaged, credible, even touching. 

 

     There are Pythonesque, Blackadderish nonsenses to enjoy and some nice windmills and dodgy flying.  But the real and central delight is David Threlfall as the self-styled Don Quixote de La Mancha.    From the first moment, an old old man so deep in his books that the ensemble gathers around him singing the legend of Lancelot in his poor head,  I was in love with every straggling white lock.  When repeatedly his visor falls over one eye and his enthusiasm overcomes  sense he radiates a dignity-in-absurdity that has heart as well as  humour. He inhabits the character totally as good comic actors must:  unaware, sincere, genuine, mad.

       

 

The second half  darkens into real old-Spain torments and mockeries, though  enlivened by an excellent two-man lion, a hawk, a joust, innumerable puppet cats and some more horsing around by the horses (this is very RSC in its allowing ensemble individuals to shine).    The near-Lear  death scene is particularly harrowing to those of us by this time helplessly in love with every clank of Mr Threlfall’s cuirasses:  perhaps have a couple of drinks in the interval, and tell the kids it  really is all right in the end, in the best of all peculiar Spanish worlds.

 

box office  0330 333 4811   To 2 feb

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HADESTOWN Olivier, SE1

A SWING AND SWIRL THROUGH HELL

 

  It’s certainly not family-panto time along the glittering Thames riverbank:  what with Martin McDonagh’ grossout-silly Dark Matter downstream at the Bridge, and the NT’s buffet of Labour politics, infertility, Edgar Allen Poe and World War I  now joined by  this portrait of a modern Hades.  A dark smoking hell of labouring slaves under a tyrant King swallows young love and foils a melodious rescuer.   With the Orpheus myth it can’t end well.  “It’s a sad song”  says the gorgeously dapper Hermes, shooting his cuffs and flashing his lurex waistcoat, “But we sing it all the same”.  

 

          So they should, and not just as he consolingly suggests because one day a bad world might come good instead.   Bluesy, folky, beautifully paced and musically satisfying, it is a treat:  touching without sentimentality and with enough topical bite to startle without hammering the point.   My jaw actually dropped when the basso-profundo King Hades (oooh, Patrick Page, what a showstealer)   closed the first half with his minions in a chanting, thundering  hymn “Build the Wall! To keep us free! The enemy is Poverty! Because they want what we have got…”.    Anais Mitchell’s concept album, developed and directed as a stage musical with Rachel Chavkin,  wowed New York two years ago  and should make a legion of whooping new fans for her here.  Like me. 

  

    From the start it grips and intrigues: Rachel Hauck’s set is moody, shadowy, a bar-room with a balcony above and seven musicians disposed around – though others, notably Orpheus himself and the three elegantly scornful Fates in floaty grey chiffon  – pick up instruments and play at times.   Amber Gray as a marvellously slutty, drunk, high party-girl Persephone tear it up gleefully on her six months holiday from being Hades’ dutiful wife below,  capering amid the street-dance ensemble,  keeping up the energy.  

 

  Reeve Carney’s youthful Orpheus and Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice are scruffy, ordinary, ineffably sweet as they fall in love. And hungry.  It’s a time of grinding poverty, a New Orleans 1930 world.  Which is how Eurydice is suckered into signing up with King Hades, tyrant of the underworld slave kingdom, where gloomy labourers in dungarees and goggles work “..there aint no rest for the weary soul, Hades keeps you toiling”.    Orpheus finds his way down by playing a song so beautiful the stones of the very wall weep,  and through despair and hope gets inexorable Hades to melt briefly:   “What has become of the heart of that King, Now he has everything?”    

         

Staging all through it is wonderful:    fluid, startling, great use of  smoke and shadows and a brilliant triple revolve with a circular pit into which characters sink or rise to dominate.    Orpheus’ terrifying walk , trying not to look back ,  is tense and nightmarish,  the three rings turning like the circles of hell itself.   I hadn’t expected to enjoy it this much.  But I did .  

 

box office  020 7452 3000  to 26 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR Jermyn, SW1

THE SAVAGE BEAUTY OF THE FIRST AIR WAR

  

Britain did not stand alone  in WW1.    As our hero sings in John MacLachlan Gray’s  1982 play:

“South Africa and Canada and Australia to boot /   Are saying ‘Mother, here we are!  Now  tell us who to shoot?”

    This  1982 Canadian play is a fascinating sidelight in this centenary week,  a biography of one star pilot in that war.  It not only takes us above the terrible trenches and into the skies but reminds us of that  “Colonial”contribution.  Those Anglophone lands lost many sons but in the process  gained a new confidence in their future independence.  It also reminds us that WW1 began, incredibly,  with cavalry charges – Billy came over in a boat full of army horses – but ended with the newest of technology.   War moved aloft, in the canvas and prop planes of the Royal Flying Corps.   Without parachutes,  youthful pilots  flew them with an average 11-day survival , and in one model  were sent out – for reasons of weight -with only bombs, no guns.

 

 

. Among them was our hero. Billy Bishop, a callow, rebellious young Canadian who failed his military academy finals by cheating and arrived, seasick and shocked by a voyage through torpedo attacks, as a cavalry officer.    Weary of the mud and boredom in camp he looked up to see a plane, and discovered that he might manoeuvre himself into a job as an Observer. Despite daft laddish injuries,   a  weak heart and being disgraced in training he came good.  He trained as a pilot, patronised by Lady St Helier (who had Canadian connections). He   won the  MC and VC and to his horror was paraded socially before political grandees as a kind of human trophy.   He was  one of the highest scoring fighter pilots and so valuable as a symbol  that he was pulled off duties before the Armistice and sent home  because  Canadian morale needed encouraging and,  unaccountably to the sombre English mind,  that young nation preferred its heroes to survive.

 

It is the well-worn wartime  tale of impossibly young men  thrown into the desperate exhilaration of war, losing friends daily, impassioned against “the Hun”,but sometimes suddenly softening  at the burning realities of death.   But it is also a universal portrait of a bad-boy coming good, finding a metier,  hurling himself at his talent almost too hard, in and out of drink and depression: almost a rock star story. 

 

  Most of the time, in Daisy Blower’s painstakingly detailed set (including a piano for the many atmospheric songs),  two men are on stage:Charles Aitken as young Billy, lean and manic, half annoying and half irresistible, shares the narration with Oliver Beamish as his older self , the Air Marshal of the 1950s . Neatly and deftly each becomes other characters:   Beamish often authority figures, Aitken at one point almost worryingly convincing as a French bar chanteuse .  They meld beautifully, each a part of the other, singing together sometimes.

       There is for my taste slightly more evocation of dogfights and of  Billy’s remarkable solo raid on a German airfield.  But it is brilliantly done, probably necessary. Gray’s writing is often startlingly poetic;   the songs – some from the period –  vibrate with atmosphere.  Early on, the sense of a  lonely Canadian’s longing for his own peaceful skies is poignantly beautiful.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

to 24 nov

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HONOUR Park Theatre, N4

LOVE’S PRECEDENCE AND CRUELTY

 

      George is a journalist-intellectual, award-winner, amiably vain and sixtyish..  He  twinkles for England,  with much black-rimmed-specs-play,  when being  interviewed by an ambitious young graduate, Claudia.   At home is his wife Honor, laughingly at ease with  him, the pair exuding long-accustomed affection and joking about an old friend who has left his wife for a young girl and, ridiculously,  goes out clubbing with her (“He’s so old they think he’s a performance artist”).  Claudia the interviewer  comes to lunch:  unsuspicious, Honor talks about their long marriage and how – charmingly –  enjoying sex becomes as much to do with memory and “knowing what each other used to be”.  

     

        But Claudia is on navel manoeuvres,  casually baring a bellybutton in the next interview session, letting her hair hang loose,  making her questing intellectual chat daringly intimate.  George succumbs.  and  announces to his baffled wife that he is leaving. So  begins the to- -and-fro of pain and disillusion,  adjustment and remorse.  And the play asks   hard questions about the primacy of the heart and the usefulness of dull old virtue. 

  

  It’s an old story indeed –  and an artfully updated 1995 play by Joanna Murray-Smith –  but so beautifully  performed in Paul Robinson’s austerely set production that it feels very up to date.  Its forensic examination of love , exploitation and the male-female balance enthrals, amuses and prods painfully at the emotional culture of today.  Henry Goodman is superb as the donnish George:    vain in his early self-possession, defensive in his headlong passion, wounded at last and  dryly saddened.  Imogen Stubbs is magnificent too as Honor:   she has a powerful capacity to portray love’s huge pain  yet hold within it a kind of surprise :  her finely timed humour hits hard at moments , and in extremis she can kick the furniture over with whirling force.   

 

      As for Katie Brayben  as Claudia, she is suitably dismaying in her icy, juvenile intellectual ambition and her very modern  feminist ruthlessness:  she sees no problem in  luring a husband from a woman she considers less worthy because of her loyal wifeliness and lesser career. She is brutal: not  so much MeToo as the MeFirst .   Her worship of her own sexual allure is coldly selfish,   and she  snaps “I don’t plan to give up anything for anyone”. 

 

    In sweet softer contrast to her damaged cleverness is the daughter of the wrecked marriage, Natalie Simpson’s  Sophie:   defiantly furious with her father, accusing her mother,   then  crumbling at the loss of safe familial warmth. 

     There are good laughs, not least the gloriously predictable moment when George rashly criticises Claudia’s writing for lack of nuance, and when she is horrified by his boyish dream to sail round the world with her instead of being a power-couple.   But at the play’s heart is the question even she finally understands enough to ask.  Why against fairness, loyalty and gentler loves,  does passion think it can take precedence?

 

  box office 0207 870 6876  to 24 nov  

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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THE WILD DUCK Almeida, N1

LOVE,  LIES AND THE PAIN OF TRUTH

 

   Is it better to live in a lie,  a happy story,  or to admit the messy sinful truth?  Should you  assume that every person you meet is the worst part of themselves, even if there’s evidence of that worst?   

    

This is Ibsen,  so you know it won’t end too well. If there is a poisoned secret it will come out, if a gun it will be fired, and the sins (and sicknesses) of the fathers will fall on the children.   There will also be a metaphor, in this case a wild duck kept tame in the attic alongside a few rabbits , pigeons and old Christmas trees.  Old Ekdal,  broken by his business partner’s treachery and a prison term, likes to go up there and play at hunting.  The duck was winged one day by the wicked partner,  and legend says that when wounded,   a wild duck dives deep and holds on to the weeds until it drowns. But a dog retrieved it, and Ekdal’s son James  keeps it because his daughter Hedwig loves it. They’re all wounded, clinging on in the deep.  All their stories are broken-winged.

 

  Director Robert Icke, most ingenious of re-framers and refreshers, presents this classic of pain and lies with a touch of meta-theatre as Kevin Harvey’s  Greg -son of the corrupt rich partner – arrives on the bare stage with a microphone to inform us, with a touch of patronage, that when he wrote it in 1884  Henrik Ibsen had a secret  illegitimate child,  so this  underlies his sense of lies growing like tumours.  He adds that since the original play is in Norwegian and all translations are a sort of untruth, there is no point us expecting the ‘true’ version.   Props are at first picked up from the front row;   at various moments he, or other characters, will use that mic again to offer bits of narrative or stage directions.  Cards on the table:   I get a bit irritable at such devices, and didn’t quite buy the parallel between deep family lies and theatre itself.  

  

 

    But it pays off,  not least because Greg proves to be a walking truth-bomb himself, and in the final moment gets the contumely such irresponsible truth-tellers sometimes deserve.   And the emotional core of the play is beautifully, tenderly, sadly rendered:   true to the playwright, with all Ibsen’s fin-de-siecle desperation to blow apart 19c secrecies  and grope painfully towards a more honest society.  Most of it – as items of furniture turn up – take us to the household of the ruined Ekdal’s son James, his wife Gina and their daughter, the enchanting and beloved twelve year old Hedwig  (on press night Clara  Read, superb).  

 

        Edward Hogg gives James a brittle energy: fragile, eager, optimistic but wounded and ineffectual,  resenting the secret subsidy from his father’s old enemy and trying not to believe in it.    Lyndsey Marshal is superb as Gina:  she has her own secret, indicated by occasional malapropisms that create an odd unease.  When she says “men need something to abstract themselves with” and is corrected to “distract”, we pick up the other meaning.    Nicholas Farrell is touching as the old ruined hunter abstracting himself from reality with the gun in the attic.     The strength and love of family, soon to be shattered by revelations and heredity, is intensely affecting, the intermittent scene-change grabbing of the microphone taking nothing from its illiusion of reality.  Actually,  it is even more poignant to feel that the players are helplessly manipulated by Ibsen, the way  we all are by life.   The rising tension near the end is almost unbearable.  

    

      And although until the final five minutes one might  think designer Bunny Christie got away with providing nothing but a few chairs and tables, you eat your words when a black screen rises on the world above,  and the bitterest of fairylights.

 

box office  0207 359 4404  to 1 Dec

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE MARINER Touring

ALONE ON A WIDE, WIDE SEA 

    

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be studded with overfamiliar quotations,  but taken in its entirely,  has power to disturb .  It is about guilt, terror, hallucination, terror, “the nightmare death-in-life” and prescient sense of human vandalism of the natural world.  It yearns for forgiveness and the power to pray.    It came, after all,  from a man  brilliant,  revolutionary in his politics and sexual morality,  possibly bipolar,  a tricky husband , quarrelsome  friend and opium addict. 

         

      Now,  on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 246th birthday,  these Eastern counties are seeing a tour of this fascinating reimagining, from letters and records,   of the way the poem resonates through the man’s own life. Pat Whymark writes and directs;   her partner Julian Harries plays the Mariner.  Their tiny company Common Ground is better known round here for cheerful Christmas-show  spoofs  but this is more ambitious and  – despite some good dry laughs at the poet’s behaviour – more serious.   We find the poet (Richard Lounds) in lodgings in 1810,  away from his family and estranged from some friends,  doing his lectures on Shakespeare and Miltonwith the laudanum-bottle on the table,  the landlady chatty but exasperated,   and Thomas de Quincey (Anthony Pinnick) his loyal and exasperated friend and fellow opium-eater,  occasionally dropping in.    

 

 A series of flashbacks gives us his fairly unhappy marriage to Sarah and her grief at his neglect (when one of their infants died, he refused to come home but continued a walking tour of Germany and told her to “Bear it with Fortitude”).    There is also an amusing glimpse of the Wordsworths, William (Pinnick again) and his besotted sister Dorothy;  we get a nice evocation of how annoying they must have been to Sarah Coleridge, especially when her husband  cries “William and Dorothy are like food and drink to me” and points out that she lacks  “high sensibilities”  and that Dorothy is “perfect electrometer of feeling” .  

 

      Indeed the two women in multiple parts – Eloise Kay and Emily Bennett – are important not only in contrast to the self-obsessed Coleridge but because Whymark, also a composer,  gives the piece a hypnotic, disturbing vocal and instrumental score (the two women and Pinnick play guitar , serengi and violin).  Sharp harmonies and eerie sounds create almost as much atmosphere as the poem itself.  They sing verses from it,  and  from a sloping deck and ragged sail stage left,  the whole narrative is performed by the rather magnificent Julian Harries.  Each section reflects a time of  dissolution, temper or torment for Coleridge,   at his desk stage right or with the others at the centre.  Projections create sea, sky, cloud; but it is Harries’ grey beard and glittering eye that carry it.  

 

     This is one of the problems for the writer,  and for Lounds as Coleridge. As so often, the poet is a lesser creature than his work.  It would take a peculiar brilliance in any actor to make him more than mainly, frankly,   annoying.   Some trimming of the script showing moments from his life would  help (and may yet, tours always develop).   The saturnine elegance of Pinnick’s de Quincey certainly does help, though.  Lounds is best when at his most agonized, not least because that is when the Mariner Harries (not a bad electrometer-of-feeling himself) is at his most tormentedly stormy. In an excellent late moment the mariner explains to us why he bearded the poor flustered wedding-guest:  

 

     “I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.”.   Harries fixes the wayward poet with his glittering eye:  out of his own lines Coleridge stands rebuked.  Nice.  

 

Touring Mouse widetouring mainly one-night stands:
  box office https://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/shows    to 11 Nov.   Bures, Southwold, Aldeburgh next 

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

LECHERY AND TREACHERY,  MACHISMO AND METAL…

 

  ‘I had forgotten” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming,  “how syphilitic that play is”.  Not a bad word for it:  or try bitter, angry, violent, messy:  more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason.  Which makes it curiously modern:  Jarry or Beckett would nod approval.   The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, ..cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.   

 

      Set in an endless, pointless war,   the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced.  That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments,  not to mention an  appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.   Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute.  Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator  to  inform us that we are seven years in to a war between the Greeks and Troy,  after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.

 

  The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length  on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).   But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title:  Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster.  Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction,  but so is Pandarus in his way:   his shock at realizing that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.   

  

      It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s  Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all,  funny in her irrepressibility  then suddenly creepy in  gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love.  There’s joy too in  Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight.   The theme of reputation recurs,  Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal  by-words for infidelity,  and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough. 

 

 

        But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss.  For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies,  objects of derisive desire.  It feels horribly current.  The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness,  shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare .  When Achilles is driven to fight,  his  “myrmidons” are  half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who.    It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage :  it builds to a climax you don’t forget.    

          

    box office  http://www.rsc.org    uk  to 17 November

rating four      4 Meece Rating

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THE WIDER EARTH Natural History Museum

THE YOUNG DARWIN RISES AGAIN

  

 

    The Jerwood Gallery is for the first time a theatre: in the small excitement of a new space dark shapes loom ahead of us,  angular, wooden.  Spotlights throw moving blobs of light on the floor, shining amoebae.  A voice speaks words from Genesis.  

   

      Thus artfully we are put into a settled,  clerical 18th century mood: a Biblical earth only 4000 years old,  unchanging, each creature designed and signed off in its permanent form by the hand of God.   Then, against an English sky,  young Charles Darwin returns to his future wife Emma after five years at sea, hoping she has not changed.  He has changed, though,  in deeper ways.  The voyage of the Beagle, and the natural marvels the young naturalist saw and reflected on,   would lead all the way years later to the  magisterial Origin of Species:   the evolutionary theory that shook conventional Christian bigotry and, God help us, in some quarters still does.  

 

     David Morton’s play has had success in Australia ,  and now is refined – with careful input from the Natural History Museum’s paleobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of Darwin’s Fossils.   It shows us a young man,  urged towards the clergy by his father but keener to wonder about things like why marine fossils turn up on mountainsides.   He is encouraged by the Rev. Henslow at Cambridge to apply for the naturalist’s post on a naval expedition and look at everything  afresh “It’s the small things that change the world…if you send a trained naturalist into the field, everything he finds with reassure him of what he already knows”.  

 

      Bradley Foster is perfect as Darwin,  youthful and keen, at first striking the wrong note with the dourly RN Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) . They argue about slavery, Darwin being passionately abolitionist and Fitzroy both approving its economic advantage and thinking “civilization”  good for the slaves.  He  had actually got on board a captive Fuegan he named Jemmy Button:  he had been tended with care and “Christianized”, to be delivered back to Tierra del Fuego as a missionary.   

  

    The  marvellous, revolving, tricksy angular wooden set (with projections by Justin Harrison of 18c drawings or roaring seas and volcanoes) becomes the Beagle’s cramped quarters, and English hillside,  or the ridges and tracks where from Patagonia to the Galapagos the young man clambers and slithers, finding new creatures.  These are lovely wooden puppets;  scuttling iguanas, a majestic giant tortoise, strange birds,  shoals of fish, a whale, fireflies,  a pricelessly dignified armadillo. 

 

 

      There is jeopardy in Patagonia,  a volcano,  Fitzroy feeling he has failed in his own mission and Darwin intent, always wondering, but understanding Jemmy’s tribal idea of “the heat of the gods” running through every living thing.  The Biblical Christian  impediment to the growing knowledge  of evolution and natural selection,  the realization that it is about millennia not years – is strongly evoked.  The cruelty of nature shakes Darwin too – “such suffering and such majesty”  but  the Duck-billed platypus recalls him to admiring belief in a Creator, so brilliantly adapted is it.    Something can be a natural wonder but still a miracle…

      A show like this, in a museum and with a simplicity of script perfectly adapted to school groups, might well be nodded by as an educational kids’ show for the Christmas season.  Actually, it is dramatically more than that.  Unassumingly spectacular,  unwhimsically playful,  it is an affecting, respectful,  important story of a green young man who kept his eyes open and endured seasickness and doubt  and discomfort and danger.  And made great discoveries.     

 

http://www.thewiderearth.com/  to 30 Dec

rating four highly evolved mice     4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Donmar WC2

LUKE JONES TAKES THE MEASURE..

 

This is a made for measure Measure-For-Measure. Its greatest achievement is hacking the flabby old Jacobian down to the right side of 90 minutes. It rollicks through, giving a booster jab to the drama but keeping quiet pauses and poetry. 

However. Director Josie Rourke is having so much fun she runs it twice. The first, set in 1604, is a flat-out 5-mouse rendition. Then, as the interval looms, in flashes of light and a booming soundtrack we wind forward in moments to 2018. Old dress is whipped off for modern,  and we’re back at the beginning.   Ed Miliband (sitting in front) turned to his wife the QC with gasps of delight. She nodded back like a mother responding to a young boy who has just pointed out a JCB.

 

 

In this transition Isabella (the abused sister of imprisoned Claudio) switches roles with Angelo (the pious Deputy ruling over Vienna’s vices who begins to indulge his own lusts with Isabella as the target).

 

 

The problem is that the first rendition was brilliant. Jack Lowden’s Angelo a charismatic menace. His incredibly natural, humanely sinister delivery is brilliant “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, my vouch against you, and my place i’ the state” could come straight out of a modern tale of power, sexual assault and the justice system.  Likewise Hayley Atwell is a perfect Isabella, the rage bubbling in her incredible to watch. The lines dance out of her mouth as if written yesterday. Rather than silently accepting her fate at the end of the play she lets out an almighty roar which blew tears out of my eyes. When Lowden’s creepy hands run up her skirt, her trembles are petrifying.

 

 

The twist turns this on its head, and the result is fascinating. There’s Atwell’s vicious, leery smile when she takes the role of the tyrannous Deputy, Jack Lowden’s twitchy, emasculated desperation; even the way characters like Claudio accept their death sentence when it’s delivered by a woman rather than a man.

But fascinating doesn’t quite get me over the line. You are still being forced to watch the same play again, having just seen it a Gin and Tonic ago.

 

Although the 2018 revamp tries to be achingly relevant ,  what it reaches is just more laughs. Neither Lowden nor Atwell play the opposite role as well as their original. I never buy into his horror, and her abuse seems half-hearted. Everything is slightly watered down, a bit more glib. Jokes which landed well in the first half are skipped past in the second in favour of something shoehorned in. It’s the lean 1604 telling that is a punch in the gut:  a pertinent MeToo story with heart and bite.

 

Box Office 020 3282 3808   Until 24th November

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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PEARLS FROM THE GRIT                     Bethel, Lowestoft, tour

THE EXTINCTION OF ENGLAND’S EASTERNMOST VILLAGE

        

     There is no Grit fishing-village now on the Lowestoft shore,  but in 1900 there were homes, shops,  bakeries, laundries,  and Happy  Wellum the Chimney-sweep with his donkey and cart.  You didn’t,  says old Ruby contentedly,  “need to go up town for nothin’”.  Town people would look down on the fisherfolk if you did, anyway.   But on the Grit all thirteen pubs had a piano , because 17 had been salvaged from a shipwreck, in good order in their crates and “bootiful” condition.   

 

 

       Stories like this are studded through this glorious 65-minute piece  of by the poet Dean Parkin, with music by Maurice Horhut and from tradition.   Parkin  himself sits almost apologetically at the back of the stage behind his books,  while in the foreground three actors with his wordsand verbatim memories,  recreate a world.    David Redgrave and Sally-Ann Burnett are in chairs reminiscing as Ned, born Jubilee year, one of thirteen, and Ruby who lost a father at sea.  Tim Fitzhigham is the third,  sometimes a rousing MC but more often the decent, troubled ghost of a skipper who used to send that little daughter postcards every time they reached one of the ports on the wild, cold dangerous North Sea.  

 

      Sometimes Parkin calls up voices recorded in his long painstaking study of Lowestoft past,  and we hear the  late Jack Rose with another drily salty tale or observation.  The men and their nicknames rise up before you:  Tar, Strawberry (for his red nose), Puffin, and one known as Posh because of his friendship (maybe more) with Edward Fitzgerald, who wrote the Rubaiyat and at one point bought Posh a herring-boat.  We are told of the vicar on the lifeboat crew tearing to a call, supposedly shouting the end of the sermon as he ran;   of the Scottish herring-lassies descending in thousands, sonsy and singing and tough as whipcord;  of the hooks on every cottage windowframe for the net-mending.  We are reminded    of the many floods, the 1897 one so severe that a Grit donkey was taken up cottage stairs for its own safety,  and the 1916 unexploded bomb .  Happy dragged it into his garden and demanded tuppence-a-look from passers by.  

 

      It was a homeland, a belonging-place of strong flavour, and for a while, never forget it, a source of huge wealth and success.  In 1913  there were through the port 770 vessels  – more than half Grit men – landing ten million herrings. Exports to Russia and Germany boomed.   The 1920’s saw poverty and decline, but the fishing industry carried on;  daughters ending up working at Birds Eye,  the town growing.  Then dying away.   “I don’t weep for it”  says Ned, from the past.  “It served its turn.  But they coulda kept some of it. It’s like they want to forget us”.

    

     Shows as powerful, thoughtful and elegantly assembled as this should travel beyond the small compass of towns whose very old people remember them.  As one remarks in Dean’s spare, powerful words,  Dunwich gets made much of because of its history, but that was centuries past.  The Grit is recent history, its mark still on families around. 

 

     Two more performances in Lowestoft, as I write.   But it should tour , as the herring-girls’ play by Ann Coburn did    – see https://theatrecat.com/tag/get-up-and-tie-your-fingers/ .   

four  4 Meece Rating

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SIX Arts Theatre WC1

DIVORCED BEHEADED DIED – REVIVED!

 

 

Took me a shameful while to catch up on this clever little riot of a feminist musical, down from an Edinburgh triumph and packing the Arts theatre for weeks with whooping gigsters. But just as I hit a late matinee came news that it’ll be back there in 2019.

 

So hurrah, and worth mentioning why you should book in  for 75 minutes of rackety song and dance about the six wives of Henry VIII, sisters in indignation springing loud ‘n   liberated from the dismissive old rhyme of divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived.

 

By Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who will go far, It’s a histor-remix: a  Tudor Beyoncé-castle funfair of a show. From Katharine of Aragon to Catherine Parr the ladies are reunited in the afterlife as a Spice-girly band in spectacular discobethan outfits – all jewelled splendour and fishnet legs. They  storm on to a techno Greensleeves,  to stage a competition and bitch-in (finally turning  sisterly) about which of them got the worst deal.

 

The types as it neatly happens are feminist perennials: wronged loyal wife, dangerous condemned flirt, loving but ailing , rejected wallflower (Alexia McIntosh is particularly funny as Ann of Cleves) followed by  Katherine Howard with her stained past, and the enduring, if not wholly willing Catherine Parr as the survivor. Who, as she sharply points out, was a scholar, supporter of female education, and worth more tribute than most popular history gives her.

 

It’s clever,rackety , the manic disco twerking alleviated by two quietly  heartfelt torch-songs of real emotion. It is also stuffed with laugh-out-loud rappy lyrics.  Boleyn trills “tried to elope – but the Pope said nope -everybody chill! it’s totes God’s will”.   So come in, get on down like it’s 1499. The  young audience whooped and cheered. So did I.

. All I long for now is for Dr David Starkey to come, admit its  historical smartness, and lead  the disco finale.

On till 14 Oct, but back in 2019.   artstheatrewestend.co.uk.

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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SKETCHING Wilton’s Music Hall E1

TALES OF A CITY   

 

  “I see a beautiful city” says a spotlit actor, and the rest take it up in styles from Radio 4 to rap,  then group and regroup, changing with the shrug of a jacket or clap of a hat.     There’s a Billingsgate porter shaking his head at the unreality of banking while his apprentice dozes, a Kensington squat turned gallery,  fatbergs and heartbreak, modern slavery and murder , Westminster Abbey and Pentonville prison.  Oh,  and an internet hack , a drag queen, stage doors ,Soho bars, a bedsit in Catford and a nightingale miles from Berkeley Square.  All in 24 hours of a tense Mayoral election as a flawed diamond of a city revolves to show in turn its darkest, funniest, kindest, quirkiest facets.  

  

       There are eight authors and as their leader – and contributor of three of the strands –  the ever-fertile,  ever-fascinated James Graham.   He brought them together in the spirit of Charles Dickens’ “Sketches by Boz”, vignettes of London life;   the atmospherically crumbling old music-hall wraps itself around them happily.  And as Graham is a man of the theatre, there are a couple of West End jokes and a correct use of Chekhov’s Gun Rule.  Some of the stories work better than others, obviously,  some have clearly been dropped since the publicity,  and one or two are more obvious than intriguing.  But I definitely took a fancy of HImanshu Ojha’s The Hand Of Hozan,  and Alan Gordon’s mournful evocation of the drag queen Shona.  Graham himself is to be credited with the idea of a convict using his probation to  blackmail a Yeoman Ravenmaster at the Tower into releasing the ravens , which as any fule kno will bring chaos on city and monarchy.  The idea of “stealing the internet” is nicely evoked iwith Daniel Denton’s video backdrops, with a real sense of wonder and doom about how it is so full of everything from love notes to money, a digital bloodstream.  

 

      Thomas Hescott’s direction keeps it all rattling along nicely and  the cast are nimble and witty, notably Samuel James in various absurd personae and Sophie Wu switching between ingenue and absurd faux-galleriste within milliseconds. Towards the interval three of the stories pleasingly start to merge and meld, though they will divide again.   The  second half sees a satisfying bit of detective work , the exposure of one truly bad villain, and a revelation about the drag queen: there’s a moment of melodrama in the gallery of Westminster abbey which Victorians would approve of,  and a return to the young lovers.  Which, just when you think it might be getting a bit too Love-Actually,  sees the emergence of a second serious villain.  

  

    But the heart of this tangled, intriguing show is sweet as a nut.  The heroic sewerman, wrangler of fatbergs,  says it for all of us:  “the trick is wading through the muck day after day and not letting it get inside you”.  Dickens’ ghost nodded, satisfied,  from the crumbling balcony.  

 

box office wiltons.org.uk    to 27 Oct  

rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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TARTUFFE                 Swan, Stratford upon Avon

MOLIERE IN THE MODERN MIDLANDS 

 

       It says something good about our arts establishment  that this sharp caper comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, not some daring pub-room ensemble.   It was Gregory Doran, the RSC’s leader,  who surprised  Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (veterans of The Kumars, Citizen Khan etc) with the suggestion they adapt Moliere’s 17c comedy of hypocrisy,  and set it in a Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham, directed by Iqbal Khan.   

 

      Stroke of genius, that:   the play is about a pious fraud,  a religious con-man who dazzles a rich merchant into promising him his wealth and daughter even as he sets about seducing the wife.  It was an attack on corrupt “spiritual directors”  of a more pious era:  logical to head for the most pious community in our midst.   Tartuffe is Tahir Taufiq Arsue,  a showy worshipper from the mosque,  his victim Imran a second-generation immigrant with a  glamorous second wife, flashy house and  “Norwegian spruce decking  on the patio, seven thousand pounds”.  

 

 

       Simon Nagra, round-faced and earnest,  is an absolute delight as Imran:   the  Brummie accent with its plaintive upswing works extraordinarily well in evoking his dangerous innocence as he  feels guilt at his wealth and yearns for the wonders of Tartuffe’s “true Islam”.   The laughs come early with the glorious Amina Zia as the essential bossy old Mama-ji Dadimaa:  the woman has a unique ability to turn her mouth down in a perfect crescent of disapproval, I’ve been practising in the mirror ever since and  really resented her exit.   Raj Bajaj is the teenage son, Zainab Hasan the endangered daughter.    Tartuffe himself only appears after forty minutes:    Asif Khan with flowing robes and beard ,  a faux-Arab accent and rolling r’s grafted on to his Small Heath vowels (the appeal of exoticism is handy for false prophets) .  

 

 

        Cleverly, the framing narrative comes from a very Moliere character, the scornful maid who defies Tartuffe and Imran’s absurd worship :  she too is Muslim, a Bosnian cleaner.  Michelle Bonnard is the sane comedy core, magnificently streetwise in raggedy denim and leggings, and stands up for the appalled, obedient daughter in one of the few almost properly  troubling scenes when the father orders her to marry.  “This is not medieval times”  she snarls, but the girl,  though a university student and supposed feminist,  is cowed. That’s clever too: her subservience is culturally as hard to kick off  as if she was a 17c chattel-daughter in the original.  

 

           Mostly the comedy is good; if at times one tires of Khan’s fearful Tartuffe  artificiality  the glint in his eyes wins you back.  The scene in the second act when the spirited wife (Sasha Behar)   hides her husband in a sofa to trap the holy man into open predation is weepingly hilarious even before the leopardprint underpants.  

 

But it’s the sharp commentary on extreme religiosity which hits home:  there’s Tartuffe’s insistence that the maid cover her hair and her quoting the Qu’ran that she needn’t, while he snarls about “wrong translations “.   There’s  his dismissal of the convert Khalil because the only “real” Muslims are “brown ones”, and when  challenged about Syria  his eye-rollingly pious    “I will never condemn a man for acting as his faith tells him to”.  

 

    Above all there’s Khalil’s  plaintive  “How did we get to a point where the most tolerant and academically inquisitive religion in the world ended up being hijacked by people like you?”   Bravo.    So it’s a fun, sitcom  evening, and though I could have done with fewer rapping, hip-hop rhyming outbreaks  they too are fun in their way and might bring in the kids. Who should, absolutely, see it.   As for the ending, Moliere’s was due to force-majeure and Louis XIV,   so  Gupta and Pinto have freely adjusted it.  Who needs the Sun King when you can have a twist more credible than  Jed Mercurio’s ,  some comedy West Midlands Police, and the  reappearance of  old Dadimaa with the downturned mouth.  ,Who I had been really starting to miss.. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 23 Feb

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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SONGLINES Hightide Festival, now Walthamstow

LOOKING OUT TO SEA,  AT PAST AND FUTURE

 

    With the feral teenage violence of HEATHERS (scroll to it below)  all snarling and murdering in the West End, and the manic cheerleader energy of BRING IT ON just finished at Southwark, what more soothing than an hour in a gentler vision of teenage confusion and calf-love?    Especially with an onstage duo of two of the author Tallulah Brown’s band, the  Trills (formerly Vagabond Trills) ,  punctuating and easing on the mood of the story.   Brown and Serafina D’Arby sing beautifully,  and so at one point does Fanta Barrie  ,  playing a stroppy displaced girl with a problem mother who finds herself expelled from her cool Camden-girl London school life.  Her look by the way is perfect, shorts-over-fishnets-and-scowl, with occasional school shirt defiantly hanging out .  

 

    She is dumped with her stern grandmother on the Suffolk coast, which inspired Brown’s last play Sea Fret,  and falls in with a geeky but far more grounded schoolfriend (Joe Hurst) who works on his family farm.     She’s restlessly defiant, he unimpressed but benign.  Her irritable failed seduction – “I thought you were up for it” is bravado, from a generation confused into thinking the only valid contact is sex.  His “I am just here to cut the grass” is one of the lines of the year.   

  

  But the relationship grows better; he introduces her to the bleak quiet beach where he feels history under his feet, Viking ships never far off. She starts to see what he sees.  Events flicker by (it’s a one-hour show) and the music tells the emotional tale as well as anyone could. Nice.   

 

box office hightide.org.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS Chichester Festival Theatre

OUT OF AUSTERITY, A DREAM OF BEAUTY 

     

      A gulf yawns between this musical’s two halves:  a gulf of wealth,  sophistication, hope and colour.   Ida Harris, careworn heroine of Paul Gallico’s novella, is a widowed charwoman in 1950’s London.  A tired place and life: before a smoky panorama of Battersea Power Station and weary grey houses her life is of picking up in richer flats and houses,  stepping in sometimes to “oblige” for the clients of her neighbour Violet.   Doing this for Lady Dant , who awaits Princess Elizabeth to tea,  Ida undergoes a shock of  beauty. A Dior dress in Madam’s wardrobe:  the New Look, loveliest flowering of postwar extravagance and the age of Cecil Beaton (the most famous of his photographs will be beautifully recreated before us later on).   Ida sees the vision Dior called “a return to civilized happiness”, fullskirted and shimmering, desirable, perfect in execution. 

 

 

      We don’t see it. Not yet.   In Daniel Evans’ elegant, heartfelt production, fine-tuned since it ravished our hearts at Sheffield,  we only see the shabby figure of Clare Burt transfixed, kneeling  in a great warm light.  “It’s like somehow I just found a piece of me”.  The sense of that hunger for beauty and perfection is shudderingly powerful.  A widow of Passchendaele, three decades a drudge who consoles herself secretly by talking to her dead husband, she yearns towards the absurd, the impossible ideal.   That new longing even briefly  fractures her friendship with Violet, who cannot understand.   Ida saves and scrimps and struggles month after month,  suffers hungry self-deprivation and hoards a tiny Pools win,  all in the naive belief that she can buy one off the peg in Paris.  Where she goes for the glorious second half. 

         

 

     Rachel Wagstaff’s book deftly amplifies the novella, wisely removing Gallico’s rather embarrassing patronage of Ida’s “twinkly” Cockney ways,  and gives a stronger sense that she is not only starved of beauty but stoically frozen  in her old grief.   Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics are intense and skilful and (in the cleaning sequences, with a witty use of the revolve) they are playful;  but it’s a bit hard going at first.  Light female voices compete too weakly with a ten-piece band below,  in a bit too much operatic sung-through dialogue.    But psychologically, perhaps we need to be a bit impatient.  Because Paris is to come.

 

        There, with nice crossovers, the London cast become Parisians. Lady Dant (Joanna Riding) is haughty Madame Colbert at Dior, who softens towards Ida; Laura Pitt-Pulford’s selfish Pamela plays Natasha, the feted mannequin who dreams of ordinariness,  and London’s gauche lovesick accountant on Ida’s cleaning round  is an  equally awkward accountant at Dior.  She solves all their problems.    Mark Meadows, her lost husband’s imagined ghost,  becomes a silver-fox of a Marquis who also takes to her.

 

 

       They all do.  Shabbiness and simplicity are no impediment to almost instant connection.    That is the  fairytale, the hope.  Seeing it in Sheffield, I observed that one line was an echo from the idealistic founding days of the Arts Council:     “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”  .  But alongside the idea of a humble woman drawn out of her world by beauty runs an even more powerful dream: that a joyful response  (Burt is luminous, astonishing) will draw grateful, comradely  recognition from the makers and guardians of high art.   It should.  It doesn’t always.   

 

        The parade of dresses is spectacular, and had us all gasping and yearning  (Lez Brotherston’s designs breathtakingly re-create  Dior and the nine models are perfect in gesture , period and impossible tiny waists).  But more arresting and touching is the intensity of the dressmakers,   measuring and reeling and ruffling and  hissing in professional perfectionism,  offering to “sew all night” so that Ida can take her treasure away.   Haltingly, the senior seamstress explains that they have seen too many bored and jaded faces at the collections (think of all those Anna Wintour types, in shades..).  The workroom experts, artists, craftswomen,  are simply grateful for the innocent light in Ida’s eyes.  That’s when the tear rises in yours.  

 

box office  cft.org.uk   to  29 Sept

rating four   4 Meece Rating   

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THE HABIT OF ART Theatre Royal, York & touring

ONE OF BENNETT’S FINEST , ON THE ROAD AGAIN

  

   Onstage is a shabby rehearsal room,  an Oxford study scruffily indicated with doorframes and signs; at the side a litter of coffee-cups and props.  Neil,  a nervy and easily offended playwright,  sits in while the Company Stage Manager Kay supervises a rehearsal of his new work:   in which WH Auden is fictionally visited in 1972 by Benjamin Britten,  while the young Radio Oxford reporter Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken for the rent-boy Auden booked.    The actors are costive and restless,  the director  has cut lines the author cherished.  They are all in the mind of Alan Bennett:  so here we have  an artist,  writing about an artist writing about artists,  while manoeuvring round the irritabilities of the performing artists who are his tools.   It is about human friction, sexuality, old age and fractured friendship and the impertinence of biography.  And above all,  about the need to go on making: the habit of art.  “Are you still writing?” asks Carpetnter.  “Am I dead?” replies Auden, surprised…

 

 

   It is nine years since Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre opened Bennett’s fascinating play: high time we had it back, and this York-led collaboration does it proud.  There are lines I had forgotten and others (memory suggests) which must have been cut by Hytner and are reinstated here in Philip Franks’ production.    Importantly,  at its heart  the two great men – fictionally meeting in Oxford in 1972, both not far from their deaths – are superbly rendered by  Matthew Kelly as the veteran “Fitz” who becomes Auden ,   and David Yelland as the more restrained Henry who is being  Britten.   Kelly’s Auden is  rubicund and scruffy, sexually and reputationally reckless but a great and open heart, pining for his ever-unfaithful partner Chester.    Yelland gives Britten all his precise, tweedy nervousness and buttoned-down, closeted  yearning for boyish beauty and innocence.   In the second act, as he agonizes over how embarrassingly close-to-home is that theme in his opera Death  In Venice,    Auden challenges him to admit and even celebrate  those adorations.   “Why are you still sending out messages in code?”. 

 

       If that makes anyone uncomfortable in the age of heightened awareness of paedophilia,   it is meant to.   Impossible and forbidden loves are part of many lives,   and of literature down the ages.   And as Britten says,  he plays with his adored boy sopranos only in a musical sense .   “I don’t prey on them..I attend to them.  I listen”.    The discomfort, unhappiness, confusion is all there.   Auden longs to take over writing the libretto for Britten, serving the music which will express all these yearning impossibilities.   Britten is wary,   closeted,  but also lonely for the sensible adult love of Peter Pears who is in Canada.  

 

           In some ways you sense Bennett – long silent about his own loves, but around this time having become  more open, partnered and happy – debating with himself which kind of gay man to be.    But that is small compared to the greater theme of creativity and its parasites:   the itch to work and make new things , the habit of art, the ruthless following of dangerous tracks and the danger of become a national treasure.  Auden is funny about being considered an “oracle” and endlessly repeating himself, rather like Larkin who complained about “pretending to be me”.  And he jeeringly asks Britten about his adoring Aldeburgh  – “do they call you Maestro?”.    

     It’s sharp, and often funny, teasing and important.    And from Bennett – who has written enough diaries  to be a biographer of his own life better than any other will ever be –  there’s a nice swipe at how biographers  simply “hitch a lift” on others’ achievement and rather look forward to the subject’s death because that will tie it all up nicely.    The play holds up, even better, ten years on.

 

        Just a note on the Humphrey Carpenter character:  we were colleagues years ago, indeed around th time the play is set.  It is Bennett’s fictional dramatist (Robert Mountford nicely fretful as Neil) and  not Bennett himself who traduces him:   Humf was a lot sharper, funnier and less of a blundering clown than in the play .   But  in one of those often unwise actor-interviews in the programme,  Matthew Kelly traduces him further by gaily saying that Carpenter was a “great musician” but  with shocking inaccuracy  “knows b+++ all about literature” ,  and that his Auden book looked boring  “500 pages of “tiniest print” so he didn’t  bother to read it.  O, why do  good actors do these dangerous chats?  Why do programmes print them?   But it’s a fine production.  

Box office: 01904 623568  to 8 Sept then yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Then touring:  www.originaltheatre.com   to 1 Dec

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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HYMN TO LOVE Jermyn St Theatre WC2

LA PETITE PIAF, REVENANTE..

 

  I grew up with Piaf, a temporary French schoolchild in 1960, skated around the patinoire with my friends snarling along with the endless plays of  “Je ne regrette rien!”, at an age with nothing much yet to regret.  No singer – not the young Francoise Hardy lisping Tous les Garcons,  certainly not Les Compagnons de la Chanson, eclipsed the continuing late-career  power of the “little sparrow”.  The romance of street-acrobat’s kid raised among prostitutes, singing for a few sous on the pavements, entertaining troops on both sides in WW2, was only part of it: it was the gravelly voice, the autobiographical ferocity and power and plaintive street-wisdom of the storytelling in her songs that held us, even at the age of nine.   

 

         So I felt nervous of  seeing Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance, not least because Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford have translated the songs (all but one, we’ll come to that..).   The translations are actually excellent,  though I miss “une fille du port, une ombre dans la rue”.  And most importantly   it is a fine, and sparing,  script,  set in bursts of rehearsal-room reminiscence , sorrow or flashback (a haunted telephone gives a good odd moment) .  She recalls the death of her greatest lover the boxer Marcel;  shouts a little at her pianist (Patrick Bridgman),  gradually  fires up, song by song,  to the moment of her last US performance.

 

 

     In the plain black dress and clumping shoes,  Mansfield is at moments the eternal timeworn resolute figure of any concierge booth in old France;  at others a star of instant ferocity and musical passion.  With the slight stoop and the worn, passionate manner  she catches that Piaffian “howl of  a wounded animal”, and that pose which sometimes forgets the cabaret gesticulations and keeps her hands on her thighs “like lizards on a rock” as she did in fear at her first audition.  

 

    There are 13 songs –  of dissipation, prostitution and  headlong reckless love, of tenderness for a lost legionnaire or accordioniste.  But always  “Ecoutez la musique!”.    Faint cloudy projections behind her in the tiny theatre resolve into newsreel footage of her Marcel and herself.  Finally there is the unforgettable, the untranslatable, the final  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  In French. And the illusion is complete, and Piaf walks the pavements and the stages once more.  A phenomenal 90 minutes.  

 

box office  jermynstreetheatre.co.uk     to 18 sept. Best get in there quick.

rating four   

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ARISTOCRATS Donmar, WC2

DREAMS AND LEGENDS OF DECAY

 

Brian Friel’s gift is humane ambiguity, refusing to allow  tidy judgements on his characters .  Or even – though his theme is Ireland’s history  -on the social structures they inhabit.  Here the ‘great house’ and family above humble Ballybeg, now reaching decrepitude in he 1970s,  is not a Protestant Ascendancy mansion lording it over the Catholic peasantry.     It is something rarer, more tribally cramped: a once affluent Catholic family ,  one of those who rose after the 1829 Act of Emancipation through the legal profession .   Now in four generations it has fallen,   from a  Victorian Chief-Justice down  to a county judge and finally a failed solicitor, the nervy, fantasising Casimir.     As Eamon the outsider (a spirited Emmet Kirwan)  cruelly observes, the next logical step down should be to a criminal.

 

So they belong neither to the old Anglo-Irish ruling class nor to the ordinary people of Ballybeg: theirs is an isolated grandeur. All the siblings were sent off at seven to board, the absent Anna is a nun in Africa;  a brother and sister  ran off to fight in the Civil Rights battles over the border in the North.   But Judith has come back, after surrendering an illegitimate child to a nunly orphanage.  She is nursing   their confused and angry tyrant of a father, whose rants  we hear over a baby-alarm on the wall, and watching over Claire the youngest (a touching Aisling Loftus) whose musical career was thwarted by her father and who, depressed and nervous, is heading for marriage to an ageing widower.      Casimir, named for a Polish saint, claims a possibly invented family life in Hamburg;    alcoholic Alice alone mixed with the village and married Eamon, whose granny was a maid in the Hall.

 

   

     If this back-story sounds cumbersome I am wholly to blame. Friel as usual delivers it with casual pinpoint delicacy,  dropping clues, as they gather together in the crumbling house for the wedding and, it turns out, a funeral.   Director Lyndsey Turner is adept at bringing Friel’s world to life with spare, haunting precision: it is set on a clear stage , though Es Devlin’s design makes great effect with a fragmented mural finally torn loose, and  a miniature dollhouse around which the family legends of old-posh-Catholicism are related to a visiting historian.   On this spot GK Chesterton fell over while impersonating Lloyd George, here Gerard Manly Hopkins spilled tea while reciting the wreck of the Deutschland, here Belloc sat, or Newman, or the Papal Count crooner John McCormack….using the tiny house emphasises the futility of it all,  as fragments of past glories are rattled out by Casimir in a stunning, sad, tense performance by David Dawson.  His impossible memory of Yeats’ eyes, and the moment when he claims his   grrandfather heard Chopin play at Balzac’s birthday party in Paris while he was avoiding the Famine fever are with awkward tact  questioned by the American visiting historian.  You wince. 

 

Casimir is at the heart of the play, the most damaged, his bullied inner child flailing for past glories.  Eamon at first mocks them, yet in the end he  too needs the Great House, with a startling, perceptive Irish plaint :  ”Peasants…we were ideal for colonising”he cries despairingly “there’s something in us that needs the aspiration”.   Elaine Cassidy gives his wife Alice a fragile, angry misery, and David Ganly as Willie Diver, who farms their bog and rocky land,   brings a baffled fond solidity.  But the ensemble, the real sense of interlocking relationships,   is what brilliantly locks you in to this damaged world.  

 

     Calling Friel the Irish Chekhov is trite now. But it is all there: the grandeur and delusion, the pull of a half-invented past, the drink and despair, the  half -lives and lies, hope and the humour .    And at last, redemptive, an unexpected harmony.  

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 22 sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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BRING IT ON Southwark Playhouse SE1

HIP HOP HURRAH ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS

 

Here’s a hot one, in every sense.  Clapped till my hands stuck together at this youthful, truthful, touching and funny tale of acrobatics, acting-up and capital-A Attitude.   With Hamilton the city’s hottest ticket it was sharp work by Southwark to host this earlier musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt for extra lyrics and music).   A very room-where-it-happens bit of programming, it has all Miranda’s gift for words and for sudden lyrical slowdowns between rock explosions and rappy rhymes (Glitter/ Twitter/bitter…Pastime/shake-yo-ass time). Not 18c politics this time which drive it, but the featherlight yet anguished world of teenage ambition.

 
It was inspired – with many tweaks – by a Kirsten Dunst movie, one of those US high-school tales which exert such a powerful fascination on this side of the Atlantic (think School of Rock, Clueless etc: and HEATHERS  looming next month in the West End). Teen passions being strong, the genre is a  a grand way to explore ambition, betrayal, leadership, failure, friendship, class, race, redemption and – in this case rather beautifully – forgiveness. St Trinian’s, only with better legs and morals.

 
Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has beaten her rival in senior year Skylar to captain the school cheerleading squad (“Truman girls, superhuman girls”) with its shiny- haired moppets, hunky jocks  and the marginalised, hopeful, chubbier girl Bridget humbly cavorting as mascot in a parrot-suit.  Young Campbell runs a tight ship, informing new recruit Eva that it is like joining the Marines, “you sign your life away”.

 

 

But to her dismay she gets transferred to the rougher and more diverse Jackson School , up the road, where the cheerleaders were disbanded years earlier .   Bridget, an endearing Kristine Kruse with a belting voice and proper scene-stealing funnybones, touchingly assists the prim, preppy middle class Campbell because she has lots of “experience in not fitting in”. But Jackson school, which scorns the ultra-white robotic wholesomeness of cheerleader squads, has a hip-hop crew instead and takes Bridget to its heart. Fabulous they are in their diverse energy: notably glorious Danielle (Chisara Agor) who flips burgers at night and burns with ambition and proud scorn. And among the boys La Cienga (Matthew Brazier) is a long skinny streak of androgyne attitude in a sharp Mohican, minikilt and bare tummy . They make Campbell earn her cred and come down a peg by wearing a humiliating leprechaun suit. Betrayed by her former schoolmates and sore at her loss of cheer-champ ambition,  she then talks them into trying for the national contest and attempting the  “cheer face” instead of the hip-hop scowl of defiance.

 
It goes well, then badly, then well again in the classic romcom pattern, though self-discovery and friendship not romance are to the fore.  Wonderful soft rock numbers turn up between the vivid hip hop , notably Danielle’s anthem of forgiveness and Haroun Al-Jeddal’s “Enjoy the Trip” as he persuades the unhappy heroine that teenage disasters are not lifelong.  But always just when you fear it might get saccharine there always comes a real joke – a look, a line, a number, a Bridget moment or a Lin-Manuel line – which has you laughing and punching the air. It’s a lovely thing. And it’s a youth production by the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible theatre training for under-23s. If BTA keeps on releasing onto the dramatic scene performers this adept, joyful, determined, humorous and (yesterday) amazingly heatproof, salute it.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 1 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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LITTLE MERMAID. Underbelly Festival, S Bank SE1

DANCE AND DEFIANCE BELOW THE WAVES       

 

Metta theatre’s hit JUNGLE BOOK was fashionably hip-hop before Hamilton hit  (and was certainly the only time I ever heard grime and crump bouncing  off the affronted walls of the Theatre Royal Windsor). But Poppy Burton-Morgan’s new one,  an updating and avenging  of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad fable, in circus dance and spare narration,  is of quite another tone.

      She has written and directed, and a fabulously lush romantic score by Matt Devereaux  serves her lyrics beautifully. It is played by onstage strings,  with at one point  the violinist hanging briefly by her feet from an aerial hoop. The fishtailed heroine’s songs are of yearning,  not only for the Prince she rescues,  but for learning and independence and a wider view. But there is rollicking earthbound jauntiness in the bossy court scene  – “he’ll only love you if you’re perfect” and in a marvellous swirling flashing shipwreck.  

 

     The movement is graceful but often witty as well: our adolescent mermaid sometimes touchingly uncertain for a moment, vulnerable. Aerial work , acrobatic lifts and the hoop make her struggles toward the surface feel rightly risky. Her downfall, mute and doomed, to a dark seabed is lit by juggled lightballs becoming snakes and monster eyes. The children around me were as rapt as their adults.  

 

       But it is as I said an updating, a  century on from Andersen. His little mermaid has (rather than becoming sea foam) gone down to the seabed as the Sea Witch. Rupert Jenkyn Jones does terrifyIng giant hoop  cartwheels in ragged flounces, casting the spell which gives the daughter of a century  later human legs and muteness.  His bitter fury in movement is unnerving. The children gasped. 

 

    But sisterhood and goodness this time prevail without resorting to Andersen’s airy soulfulness -we are in the fifties, with flowered rubber swimming caps on the nimble mermaid-acrobats. Women are toughening up in public. And, to the satisfaction of those of us who always wanted it, it is now the Prince’s turn to face a hard choice.

 

       Feminist revisitings are not always un-irritating. There, I’ve said it.  But this is skilful, charming, and lyrically beautiful in music, movement and Burton Morgan’s economical direction (75 minutes and you’re pirouetting back out to the Jubilee Gardens for a Pimms.).   

       

Box office http://www.underbellyfestival.com to 12 Aug

0333 344 4167

Rating. Four4 Meece Rating

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END OF THE PIER Park, N4

BEYOND THE JOKES, A WHIFF OF SULPHUR…

    

 

  Danny Robins’ funny, credible, sharp-tongued play pivots round four figures of central cultural importance  to modern Britain: three comedians and a comedy commissioner.   It’s set in Blackpool.    Les Dennis is the classic benign seaside comic of the 20c , , battered and baffled by change,  once in his heyday untroubled by political correctness but latterly ruined by one racially insensitive joke, spotted at a gig by a pious Guardian journalist.  For him  (to our considerable entertainment in the script early on) everything is still a feed-line .

 

 His son Mike (Blake Harrison), lean and hirsute,  is more of a modern  observational standup, a sort of stingless Russell Brand whose only barbs are for safe targets like Trump.  He’s big on TV with lame amiable jokes about lemon tea. They are at odds over what is comedy and what is banter,  and not least about class tastes.  The young man’s  piety is the kind which demonizes the old working class because their observational comedy  – in a fast changing 20c  –  tended to observe that suddenly their familiar town had a lot of brown strangers in it, making curry and not as yet making friends with them.      Which strand of humour  may not actually have been hostile in intent, but was of course  wounding to the minorities, and had to end. 

     

         The third pivotal figure is Mike’s fiancée Jenna – Tala Gouveia – who is young, glamorous and of mixed race,   and takes offence at the lightest wrong word from a minimum-wage hotel receptionist, snarling at her “clearly the black in Blackpool is ironic, I tweeted that, got a lot of retweets” .   She is  an affluent TV commissioning editor who drips with contempt for Blackpool and everyone in it  “truly horrific. Geratrics or drug addicts…true horror… they don’t have a Pret…mobility scooters and people shooting up..”.     Being a TV comedy executive she has insufficient irony to notice that her contempt for a poor working-class town  is actually not so different from the  jokes for which she lacerates Bobby. She hasn’t invited him to the wedding.

 

      Whether it is entirely healthy for our culture to be so vitally centred on the profession of comedy and its power, you might well ask.   But while – as Peter Cook put it – we all sink giggling into the sea,   the question of comedy as power is beautifully teased out here.  So is the question of how shallow is the liberal veneer.   On Mike’s stag night, dressed as a Smurf and lurching between bars that “smell of jäger bombs and chlamydia”, he picks a  drunken fight.  With a Bangladeshi.   Using language which can end a media career in seconds. Especially if the victim’s son has recorded it…

       In the second act, in his dressing-room,  Michael – supported by his father – meets the victim, Mohammed,  and Nitin Ganatra steals the show, .  It is a horribly, awkwardly, brilliant scene with Ganatra wholly in charge, an imp of mischief who has a neat demand and – it turns out – isa rather better comedian than either of the professionals.    Young Mike unravels into something darker and angrier than his bland  liberal TV persona;  Les Dennis, always a gem, with a face creased with pain and understanding   shows up as the more adult and thoughtful of the two.  Jenna’s attitude to Mohammed is also a beautifully uncomfortable example of patronizing BAME-on-BAME attitudes.  

       It is sharp, entertaining, actually rather important.  I hope it transfers up West and spreads its healingly intelligent discomfort further as it questions not only the past generation’s pier-end comedy but the right-on,  resentful, cruel, lucrative faux- kindliness of the new.    

www.parktheatre.co.uk   to  11 August

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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GENESIS INC. Hampstead Theatre

RATHER LATE BUT WORTH IT….A FERTILE ARGUMENT 

 

Forty years ago as a Today reporter I helped cover the first IVF baby , Louise Brown. A Scottish cardinal told me that it was sinful:  not because of interfering with nature but because of “the means the sperm was gathered” – masturbation. The sin of Onan. The editor wouldn’t play the tape because we couldn’t, on the BBC,  mention seminal fluid.  Another row followed over whether the words “fallopian tubes” were suitable for early morning.

 

Well, as Jemma Kennedy’s lively play marks the anniversary,  Britain  and its notions of taste have changed. And, like most others, I know half a dozen happy young twentysomethings conceived that way . And, on the downside,  several women whose lives and marriages, were capsized by the  strenuous , disruptive and expensive processes of repeated failed in vitro attempts.

 

The social, political and attitudinal changes IVF brought need facing, and the virtually unregulated private-clinic industry challenging.    So,  good for Kennedy and Hampstead.  And one of the stimulating things about the play is that as well as painfully expressing female need and the awful self doubt – for some –   of infertility , it considers the fallout on men too.   Women of course have the  sharp end:  who wants a talking womb voiced by Jenni Murray, interrupted by two querulous ovaries and a judgmental mother vagina,  all bickering over her while she eats disgusting fertility recipes and surfs an AIBU-laden fertility forum?    Especially if Karl Marx appears at her bedside too, pointing out that for all the (rather ironic) victories of feminism over contraception and abortion,  our innards are now a patsy of profiteering capitalism..

 

    This argument rages, in one of the few surreal scenes , over  Serena (Ritu Arya in  a bravely heartfelt performance). She is the most pained of the clients, or victims, of the Genesis clinic run by a beautifully oleaginous Harry Enfield (love those faux posh consultant vowels –  “wimmin bettling infertility”). She   has borrowed, spent, hoped, abstained and tried her man’s patience (Oliver Alvin-Wilson is tremendous)  having  multiple cycles of a process where only 30per cent  ever succeed.  As another richer client, Bridget the investing financier with frozen eggs, exultantly puts it,   profiting from 70 per cent failure is a unique situation in business.   Laura HOward, by the way, absolutely nails the manner, aggression and vulnerability of the affluent corporate queen. Sure I’ve met her. 

 

But men suffer too.  From disappointment, from being regarded as sperm banks, from the distortions of love and longing,  Geoff, husband of the desperate Serena, already has a child , foisted in him by an ex but loved.   . Miles (Arthur Darvill)   is gay,  conflicted, and unwilling to be Bridget’s donor despite a close friendship. Which had, we learn with even more irony, once went further.  

 

At times I felt that in its 2 hr 30 there was one subplot too many – social worker Geoff’s struggle with his own adoption and with his rough-edged client Sharon. The disco fantasy clinic scene was annoyingly self consciously theatrical.  But this is cavilling.  Overall the play is fresh and funny, (Laurie Sansom directs , and knows just how to orchestrate a row in an A and E department with an eagerly caring security man).   If it is a bit more ambitious than is prudent, who needs prudence? The ghastly doctor’s  view that “love is unnecessary now we have deregulated the conception market”  is kicked aside by a final, beautifully sentimental hymn to all kinds of messy, awkward unsymmetrical human affection.    Worth catching, one more week to run. 

 

www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to  28 july  

RATING four  4 Meece Rating

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ALLELUJAH! Bridge, SE1

DRIPS ‘N DRUGS ‘N ROCK ‘N ROLL…

 

   Alan Bennett may fear he is a national teddy bear these days, but the crafty old bugger still has a gnarled finger on the nation’s trickier pulse points. This latest play, steered by his vicar-on-earth-Nicholas Hytner, delivers a proper theatrical punch. It does this the old fashioned way, by lulling you into sentimental affection in a first act rich in vintage Thora-Hirdery and affectionate laughs, then slapping you round the chops with a first act close which I hope no critic will spoil (oops,just looked, two of the previews just have, though west end whingers remain innocent).  And then he resolves it with a  mixture of black humour and genuine pathos in the second half.

   Classy. Moreover he lards it with retro song routines, both naturalistic and fantasy, from You Made Me to Good Golly Miss Molly and Get Happy, thus neatly  prodding the associative nerve in anyone from , say, 50 to 110.  Not to mention turning an aged-up Simon Williams into a  superannuated chorus captain in striped PJs , his game if wobbly ensemble in some cases still attached to drip- stands.

     It is set in the geriatric wards of a small Yorkshire community hospital, afflicted by “bed blockers” in substantial numbers because there are no care home places and families cannot or will not cope.  It’s a facility which the Minister for Health plans to close (“we don’t like small, we don’t like cosy..the state should not be seen to work”).  His pet management consultant (Samuel Barnett) an escaped local lad turned nervy gay Lycraboy, is also visiting his miner Dad, a cantankerous Jeff Rawle,  while a local TV crew prowls around, the puffed-up Trust Chairman Salter (Peter Forbes) grandstands with statements like Yesterday is the New Tomorrow, and David Moorst does an appallingly, wickedly funny turn as a hostile and gormless work-experience porter.

     But enough of the blokes: the heart and glory of the show is female.  There’s Deborah Findlay’s wearily efficient nurse whose idea of success is a “dry ward” (it’s a very urinary and bowel-haunted piece) and whose demeanour hides much.  But above all there is a  gorgeous collection of wry or wandering old ladies : Patricia England as Mavis the ex dancer, Julia Foster a vital driver of the plot, ex librarian, Jacqueline Clarke the Batley Nightingale – all eight are gems in drooping cottons, the deathless Bennett  lines well divided among them. They sing, they sort of dance, they reflect on life and death and sex and men.  Sue Wallace’s Hazel lays siege to poor Ambrose the cultured schoolteacher as barriers of class and taste melt in the universal doom of decrepitude.  And of irritatingly continuing existence: “it isn’t Death who has jaws, it’s Life”. 

     It’s resolution is not one to spoil, except to say that Mr Bennett has perhaps by chance hit two topical news hot-potatoes – barely a week old -even while deliberately tackling more obvious fave targets like NHS cuts and the Thatcher legacy. But the strength of the evening is that there are wider,  older, inescapable  themes: ageing, pathos, tenderness, moral equivalence, peristaltic progress and progress chasing, in and out of the bowel…and the indomitable spirit that dances and sings in the last gutter, because why the hell wouldn’t you?

Box office.  Bridgetheatre.co.uk  to 29 Sept

Rating. Four. 4 Meece Rating

     

      

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POLSTEAD Eastern Angles, touring

MARIA MARTEN STRIDES AGAIN:  A WOMAN’S STORY

 

 

    Founding this touring company 36 years ago,  Ivan Cutting swore a great oath that one local story they wouldn’t do was Maria Marten, murdered in the Red Barn by William Corder, and  famous not least for the spooky circumstance of her body being found buried there a year later after her stepmother was guided in dreams.    The 1827 sensation spawned several Victorian plays and adaptations and a silent film,  generally adjusting reality to make her more of an innocent,   and her killer more of a toff.     But this is a good moment for female indignation, so up she comes again in Beth Flintoff’s spirited new play. It is  directed by Hal Chambers who brought this company that terrific Prudencia Hart and the elaborately bonkers Norse saga Ragnarok, and is superbly staged by Verity Quinn.      

 

      Maria (Elizabeth Crarer)  takes centre stage from the first electric moment when,  a ragged, battered and rotting ghost, she strides defiantly forward to reminisce about her killing by pistol, strangling and spade. She observes that in the moment of death she at last realized that she was not mad or criminal as Corder persuaded her:   guilt was all his, not hers.     Around her from the shadows come five other women,  friends from her childhood  who tenderly lave and dress her, singing in harsh simple harmony (Luke Potter’s music, folk or bluesy, adds a great deal to the atmosphere and so does very effective lighting and a simple barn frame).  

 

 

      The six-woman cast evoke Georgian village life with glee:  children playing,  farmwork, chickens fed and seeds sown, gnawing breadline anxiety about work,  orphaned ten-year-old Maria keeping house for her father the molecatcher and coming to affectionate terms with a stepmother.  Adolescents, they girls josh about kisses and more, excited by the new two-shilling contraceptive sponge.  Lydia Bakelmun as Sarah embarks cheerfully on serial pregnancies as they discuss “bastardy orders” for their support,   repressed shy Lucy (Lucy Grattan) is more prim and churchy ,though the religious sensibility  of an 1820s rural community is oddly underemphasised.    That, however, is probably because a strength in the play is this sense of female solidarity and peasant confidence that all in all, a baby is an asset to the hardworking community,  even on the wrong side of the blanket.

 

 

    Maria, in a time or particular hardship, submits unenthusiastically to Thomas Corder the tenant farmer’s son in return for farmwork and bread (Lucy Grattan , with a quick gender switch is oddly convincing as the man).  Maria  bears his child, which dies:  the social hierarchy is nicely nuanced when up at the manor Lady Cooke (Bakelmun , again neatly transformed) nods at the relationship and takes up Maria as a protegée.  But of course she is then horrified when the village girl  falls in love with her own brother, a cut above mere farmers (another gender switch as Bethan Nash strides on in smart breeches) .  Milady makes her give him up, his baby lives and he supports them from a distance.  But when predatory Thomas Corder dies, Maria disastrously falls for William Corder, his brother.   

 

 

           And he is the killer , but before that does the adept “gaslighting” hinted at in that opening scene, persuading her into paranoia and conviction that she , not he, kills their baby.  We never see him:  only Maria’s dissolution.  Flintoff, having worked with Lighthouse Women’s Aid and discovered the many parallels over what “coercive control” does to women,  resolved not to give Corder a voice but to take Maria through the now well-attested stages of confusion and self-laceration.   Dramatically it is very effective that we don’t see the villain.  However,  the final twenty minutes of discovery, anger, grief  and divisions among the surviving friends do take away from the dramatic energy of the play, which up to then was so bracing.  The characters are still strong and coherent,  but the anti-coercion message gets hammered home just that bit too hard.  Cut ten minutes to sharpen up that ending and it becomes a very fine and honest play.  But even without that surgery,  it’s well worth catching on its tour.  A few more days in Ipswich (nice tent on university dockside campus).  For the rest –    link below:  

 

https://easternangles.co.uk/event/polstead#tab-0=dates-and-times  TOUR Touring Mouse wide

to 5 August

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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MISS LITTLEWOOD Swan, Stratford

STRIDING OUT OF THE FRAME : A KICK-ASS HEROINE OF THEATRE

 

Theatre owes a lot to Joan Littlewood: daughter of East End larkiness , music-hall jangle and tough 1930’s socialism; idealist and bully, stridingly inventive, a populist elitist (“I want only the truly disenfranchised to grace our stage”). Any theatre-maker now who chucks out the scenery, forces a cast to create the script, indicates change of character with a hat , revels in actors using their own accent and veers from earthiness to fantasy and back to make a point – every one of them is nodding to her legacy. She wrote her own story, in every sense; some swashbuckling anecdotes raise an eyebrow – did she really walk to Manchester to beard the BBC man? But her values and unshakeable self-confidence blew a breeze through the polite, Lord-Chamberlained theatre of her beginnings. She was disgusted even at school when the Porter in Macbeth had the same accent as the King, and left RADA scorning to graduate with a “West End Letter” , remarking that all you learnt there was to drink fake sherry while moving downstage to a better sightline. She championed Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and Barbara Windsor too; she transferred her work up West albeit with disgust at it being “pickled” in this way while the BBC “plundered her casts”.

 

 

All this lies before us in the Swan, and it is a joy to have Greg Doran’s RSC hosting a musical about her: itself a debut by the composer Sam Kenyon creating book, music and lyrics, and with a cast full of RSC first-timers including Clare Burt as Joan herself. At least, as the leading Joan: observing, meta-theatrically directing the action while six others portray her in different times or different moods. Particularly apposite is the fact that some of the Joans are black women: when RADA speaks patronizingly of the pupil’s “predicament” – meaning Joan’s illegitimacy and roughness – there is a dry topicality , in this age of concern about diversity in the profession, that the line is addressed to Aretha Ayeh.

 

It is skilfully woven, and Kenyon shows a mastery of styles from silent-movie tinkling to lush waltzes, big belting numbers, Sondheim style jerks and mellow agit-prop folk (naturally we meet Ewan MacColl, formerly Jimmie Miller of the Theatre of Action, and there is a fabulous moment when he walks out and Joan accuses him of just being jealous of young Shelagh Delaney’s new fame) .

 

The second act is tighter and better than the first, with a stunning evocation of the creation of O What A Lovely War, but Joan’s story rolls through always with both theatrical panache and decent human poignancy: her Gerry Raffles, debonair and devoted and unfaithful, is Solomon Israel. Emily Johnstone gives us a storming display as Barbara Windsor: though I was sorry not to have the famous moment when at her audition Joan ordered her to sit on her hands and abandon the vaudeville gestures to make the song tell its own story.

 

 

The period after Raffles’ death and Joan’s retirement when “Nothing much happened” is given us with a clever, sharp shrug of brevity. It was, as she would have wished, the shows that mattered. The art. Not a lot of “bloody acting”. In the end, she stands before us Joan Alone once more. Herself.

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MACHINAL Almeida, N1

MICHAEL ADAIR SHUDDERS AT THE HARD OLD PATRIARCHY…

 

‘These modern neurotic women, doctor. What are we going to do with them?’ says one exasperated male character to another. Here, right on time for the #MeToo generation, is a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal… first performed in 1928.   90 years on, some men are still making our skin crawl, and Natalie Abahami’s superb direction of this prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare.

 

This is a play about Helen, played by the hypnotic Emily Berrington. Helen works as a stenographer in New York. She lives beneath a noisy train track in a tiny apartment with her impoverished mother (Denise Black) until her employer, Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone), takes a shine to her. Why? Because Helen has such lovely hands, of course. Despite Helen wincing every time that her oblivious boss touches her, the two wed and she despondently sobs throughout their honeymoon. Mr Jones doesn’t care. Mr Jones barely notices. Mr Jones wants to sit with his legs spread telling his beautiful wife his anecdotes, he reasons that he’s worked hard so he should be allowed to enjoy his life. At one point he even dares to utter ‘I understand women’.

 

Although the subject matter wrings your stomach, as a visual spectacle this is an utterly beautiful play to watch. There is ceaseless cacophony of sound – the thud of metal doors and bins, the relentless grind of typewriters and pneumatic drills, even the repetitive 8-bit bleeps of a child’s Gameboy helps to build a wall of noise that surrounds us, imprisoning us with our protagonist. The rhythmic, breathless dialogue matches it – clicking back and forth as if set to a metronome. All of the music and sound effects are perfectly chosen and placed, huge credit to Ben and Max Ringham for Sound and Composition.  The set by Miriam Buether matches this. A slanted mirror takes up the entire back of the stage  – we see everything in double, further adding to the claustrophobia. Each of the story’s nine chapters is separated by an increasingly blinding light.

 

It’s not all hell and nightmares though. As Helen seeks to escape from the shackles of a husband she never loved and the straitjacket of social convention, she heads to a bar. As the stage becomes filled with cigarette smoke, we become privy to the conversations of other couples – one pair are negotiating an affair, whilst an older man is extolling the virtues of amontillado sherry to a younger man in a bid to seduce him. It’s a heady mix of sight, sound and smell that serves to seduce the audience themselves – and in this midst, Helen, in a grasp for freedom, begins an affair. In its aftermath, the mechanical noises temporarily ease away and are replaced by the soothing patter of rainfall, the claustrophobic mirror suddenly seems to reflect a limitless night sky.

 

This is a brilliantly crafted work, where the biggest plaudits must go to those involved in the technical production. Urgent and compelling, it is remarkable that Treadwell’s work is as relevant now as it would have been 90 years ago.

 

BOX OFFICE  020 7359 4404 TO JULY 21

boxoffice@almeida.co.uk

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating

 

 

 

 

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TWO NOBLE KINSMEN Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

THE RUMBUSTIOUS AFFAIR OF THE CLOGS IN THE NIGHT TIME

 

 

Barrie Rutter and the Globe are made for each other:. Fresh out of his storming leadership (and frequent personal performances) with Northern Broadsides, he returns here under the new regime, merrily reminiscing in the programme about 1996 , when none of the costumes arrived from the airport until the interval. This time he is director of a pretty ridiculous Shakespeare collaboration with John Fletcher, loosely based on Chaucer. Palamon and Arcite, in prison after a defeat, vow eternal bromance but promptly drop that when they sight King Theseus’ sister Emilia (Ellora Torchia) , and both want her. Arcite is banished and Palamon is released by the jailer’s daughter (just like Mr Toad ,though with an even more preposterous disguise) . So on it goes, with some storming rustic dances and shouting, to the point when the King decides to solve it all with a fight.

 

For when you’ve got a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance from the classical canon, the obvious thing is to introduce a great deal of clog-dancing, morris , stave-clashing, barmy multicoloured ragwear, a Green Man, and some symbolic straw animals on sticks. Add some fine over-the-top acting, with King Theseus irritably baffled about the whole thing (favorite line – “What ignorant and mad malicious traitors ARE you?”). Second favourite : “Emilia, if one of them were dead, would you take the other to your husband?” “I cannot! They’re both too excellent!”. And there’s even a comedy Ophelia. Jude Akuwondike is a grand Theseu, and the rival knights are splendid, Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick going it large like a couple of gap-yah lads, but the one who walks away with every scene she’s in (not least when dancing insanely with the cloggers, driven nuts by thwarted love) is Franesca Mills as the tiny, vigorous, sweetly naive and rompingly mischievous jailer’s daughter . She loves Palamon and gets persuaded by a very dodgy doctor to settle for Jon Trenchard in custard-coloured harem pants instead.

 

She has a special quality: an expressive, innocent face combined with a crazy determined fire in performance which makes everyone else look vanilla. She was last a hoot in Northern Broadsides’ touring Cyrano, and I wrote then that she stole the show “Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company” . I say that again.

 

Oh, and the poetry? Yes, that’s there too, not top-rank Shakespeare but some lovely lines. And the moral (given that the final twist is hardly down to any conventional tragic flaw, but rather to an offstage stallion) is soothing enough. Poor Theseus resignedly hands over his sister to an unexpected winner and says “Let us be thankful for that which IS”.

Dear Barrie Rutter. Come again to the Globe, do. Next time let’s get you out there roaring at the groundlings yourself, where you belong.

 

box office 020 7902 1400 to 30 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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STITCHERS Jermyn St theatre WC1

A TAPESTRY OF HOPE

 

 

         Lady Anne Tree was the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, sister in law of Kathleen Kennedy and Debo Mitford:   grand as they come.   Kept from school,   like the Mitford girls she grew a maverick streak  and learned from the bereavements of war to think for herself.    She was a lifelong prison visitor , and at home she found artistic and meditative relief in fine needlework,  so it occurred to her there was one group who had a lot of time to fill…  So twenty years ago she founded Fine Cell Work.  It teaches prisoners fine needlepoint  and quilting and sells it in the top shops. So the men (and some women, but most prisoners are men) can build up a modest fund for when they are freed.  

 

         Full disclosure: I am a patron of it, and have watched a group as ladies from the Royal School of Needlework taught, advised and provided materials (but not scissors..) to the most unlikely of seamsters for the next week’s in-cell work.  It is extraordinary and inspiring, and hard to believe that getting approval took Lady Anne thirty years of being treated as a “tiresome woman”. 

 

 

        Esther Freud’s debut play, drawn from the foundress’ letters and diaries and from observing today’s groups,  is an impression of those early trials and, in the background,  her struggles with the Home Office (where junior staff framed her increasingly furious letters: it’s not every day a Duke’s daughter calls you a load of shits).  At last, under John Major, permission was given. The rest is history, and a great deal of beautiful work.  Because as the redoubtable Lady said,  it had to be “top notch, none of this church hall nonsense” .

 

      Sinead Cusack is dream casting, with her strong humorous face,  drop-dead timing and ability to convey personal stress and frustration behind the gung-ho, matter-of-fact manner of the old aristocracy.  She’s got you,  from the moment when she first appears in a sensible brown coat and solid hat in front of Liz Cooke’s layered  set of wire mesh and bars. This set is  tough enough for vigorous chin-ups,  and rings often with the frustrated, angry prison percussion of banging and echoic shouting.  Director Gaby Dellal (better known for film work)  punctuates and underlines the action this way;  the tiny theatre easily creates the sense of a claustrophobic cell and bleak corridors behind.  

       Around Cusack we have Michael Nardone as  Lukasz the Pole,”strongest man in the prison”  and his scared new cellmate Tommy (Frankie Wilson),  in denial about his conviction.  There is Trevor Laird as tough Len,  the wheelchair- bound Busby,   and Victoria Elizabeth as the troubled trans “Denise” . One by one they succumb to the project and become its cheerleaders.  Freud treats the process carefully, using the reality of things actual inmates have said down the years.

  

  At times in the first half I had (being partisan) an  uneasy fear that it was not growing  enough narrative energy,  but becoming ironically imprisoned in its novelistic desire to show gradual personal change.   But there is fascination in that too,  and the physicality of the situation is especially striking:   brawls and chin-ups and thrown punches are set against the fine, fiddly  motor skills of the needleworkers’ hands .  You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to see how benign that could be to the scrambled angry brains in a macho environment.  The perfectionism of Lady Anne is entertainingly set against the  well-evoked grim squalor of the cells.  When Len snarls angrily “I made a pig’s ear of it!”   rather than cooing encouragingly she trills “Oh, dear, so you did. Unpick!”.    When he  man refuses to help a newcomer she says “Oh come on!” like any schoolmistress.   

        The unprisonerlike virtues of neatness and patience grow, and the sense  that it is worth – in embroidery or in life – being willing to start again.   The names of colours shine out against the grey-green dreariness:  emerald, cinnamon, Aquamarine, burnt umber, scarlet.. The sense of an outside world’s appreciation grows too. Busby gets the first letter since his mother died,  from a customer who cannot know his name.   And when the prison officer sceptically asks “How many embroidery-loving, criminal-sympathising, letter-writing people are out there, do you think?”  Lady Anne replies “Legions!”.  

 

       And so there  have proved to be.   It is quite hard to review this play  simply as drama without just succumbing, dazzled, to  the fineness of its late heroine and her charity.   Sometimes I did wonder just how useful it was of the author to appliqué on little bits of Lady Anne’s travel diaries and the loss of her dog: Cusack can create a real and rounded character without that obvious kind of help.    But it does find dramatic catharsis, in the second short half,  and leave you both triumphant, and thinking harder about prison than most people do.  Result. 

 

box office http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

to 23 june      Rating Four     4 Meece Rating

   

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THE BE ALL AND END ALL       Theatre Royal Windsor, tour ending

THE EDUCATION JUNGLE

 

     A late catch-up for this short tour from Theatre Royal York:  but blimey, well worth it.  sA drawing-room drama of manners with deep, tangled universally familiar roots.   It is the second of Jonathan Lewis’ new trilogy on education  and the national neurosis surrounding it which skews and poisons our cultural, class, political and economic life.  

 

 

         We meet Mark and Charlotte:  he an MP,  she a high-flying publishing executive  recovering from cancer treatment.   Lewis himself, debonair and affable, all too credible as a Tory MP, plays Mark;  Imogen Stubbs is the mother,  clever and a touch fragile.   They are coaxing and helicoptering their privately educated son Tom through A levels, determined that he will get enough A-stars to meet his Cambridge offer;  his girlfriend Frida has an offer too, and they are planning their gap year.   The fact that Tom would really rather go to film school is brushed aside.  It is clear that the worst they can all imagine, even Tom, is not only missing the star on the A but “something fucking tragic like a B”.  

 

 

       Lewis has a marvellous ear for dialogue: banter and mild argument at the start (we’re on the cusp of the referendum vote) place the family precisely and not unlikeably in their class, and neatly suggest the cracks which will widen to chasms later.   It is in the best sense Ayckbournian British realism (Damian Cruden directs, fast and deftly).     You could argue that one  absurdly overambitious, entitled rich family represent only a tiny sliver of society and education;  but what is so gripping is the realization that they matter.  Their expectations and behaviour reverberate through the whole system.  

 

  Not only is Mark, as we gradually realize, engaging in a piece of shockingly unethical cheating on his son’s behalf, and involving the cleverer, poorer, academy-educated girlfriend in it,    but they have been gaming the system ever since he was born.   Mark does it with his mantra “Honesty will always be trumped by audacity…we’re not in the age of threepenny bits and the Railway Children”.  And Charlotte, technically moral,   does it with her desperate oversight and anxiety to get her chick to the top of every list.   For all her separate career and her cancer,  she cries during his A level ordeal,   “I am turning over every paper with you, writing every essay, checking every spelling..”.   In the past – a very funny sequence makes clear – some of this has been literally true.  She actually wrote his prizewinning story about a lonely clown,  and Mark too did his share of both interference and political schmoozing for Tom.   

       But Tom hates it all.   The weight of their deluded expectation has carried him through his ten GCSEs with stars,  but he self-harms,  has no confidence that he can do anything for himself,   and is emotionally dependent on Frida.  In the second , more intense act we get a lot more back-story (some usefully disgraceful, some marginally unnecessary) and some vigorous  fighting fury.   Stubbs,  who I have admired ever since her gloriously violent Private Lives in Manchester,  explodes like a rocket and shoves the MP’s phone down the sink shredder.    The political importance of Lewis’ anger  at the gameable system swings over into real, universally relatable family pain.    They may be high-flyers, but they are a mess.

 

        As a play, traditionally well-built,  it’s an engaging, tense and horribly enjoyable evening, and I hope it goes further.  Lewis is unnervingly convincing as the MP,  at once a loving parent and a self-absorbed popinjay; Imogen Stubbs can, as ever,  express the hugest of emotions, especially maternal, and all the volatility of a fragile, stress-seeking personality cracking through an elegantly groomed facade.   Matt Whitchurch gives Tom a nice lunkish, sullen desperation,  shot through with anxious loyalty – God, we underrate that in teenagers!      Robyn Cara is Frida, sanest of them all but caught up in their affluent craziness and upper-middle assurance. 

   

     Lewis’ last education play – A Level Playing Field – was good, but this one moves sharply up a notch and should get a wider tour or some capital attention.    All the more impressive since Lewis is fresh from creating and directing Soldier On with a group of PTSD veterans only weeks ago.   Scroll down for that… 

 

THREE MORE PERFORMANCES –  TOUR ENDING

theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk      to Saturday

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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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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CATHY Soho Theatre and touring

CATHY, STILL NOT HOME AFTER FIFTY YEARS

 
Homeless charities like to remind us of the mantra: we are all just two bad decisions away from the pavement. The trajectory of our heroine Cathy’s decline is carefully drawn. A zero-hours contract as a cleaner keeps her short of money, rent arrears build up. The owners of the building want to take away her home of ten years anyway, at 14 days notice, so as to rent or sell it to “young professionals”. Affordable private rents are beyond her and the arrears put her at risk of being “voluntarily homeless”. But she has a dependent daughter, Danielle, moving towards her GCSEs, so the Council must help. It does so by sending them to a temporary b & b room in a grubby tower in Luton,. Danielle has to spend £20 a week and on trains in to school and get bullied as a “pikey” by local girls. Cathy has to find another lavatory-cleaning job.

 

 

The “temporary” placement stretches to months, until an offer of a 2-bed maisonette comes through. In Gateshead. Cathy panics: when you have very little, your neighbourhood and community are precious, and what about Danielle’s exams next month?. She is told it could be seven years before East London finds her home again. The mechanical, helpless council responses “this is our offer” and “You are at liberty to arrange an alternative” are a blank wall. Sofa-surfing with a sister in Braintree ends sharply; she is now 497th on a list, and fears contact with the Council as Danielle could be taken into care. So to the streets, the night buses, a desperate pick-up, a refuge.

 

 

Fifty years after Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s impassioned film about homelessness, the anniversary was marked by the campaigning theatre group Cardboard Citizens with this play, a fictional demonstration – with occasional verbatim recordings – of how clunkingly hopeless our public housing system is. And how woefully underresourced. Two years on, after the horror of Grenfell it returns for an eight week tour. Which is a particularly bitter irony, since if you think about it the council tenants in Grenfell flats were luckier than Cathy: they had flats. The piece has been played f at the House of Lords, where a series of audience suggestions for palliative laws were handed over. Audiences are asked for solutions, public and personal. It is a moving, unsentimental moment.

 

 

The strength of Ali Taylor’s play, directed by Adrian Jackson, is that there is enough credible, flawed, troublesome humanity in it to convince. Cathy Owen as the central figure is decent, hardworking, and at first just unlucky, but the streak of stubbornness which keeps her going contributes to her downfall. Ironically, the things which accelerate her fall (apart from lousy national housing policy) are “bad decisions” which might in a wealthier woman be praised as good feisty qualities. She has refused to try and make her estranged gambling ex-husband contribute, and keeps her daughter away from him; she visits her old Dad once a week, backs her daughter’s education with pride, and cherishes her community. Hence the horror at the blank-wall Gateshead offer.

 

 

As Danielle, Hayley Wareham is heartbreakingly true to teenage temperament and desperation. as her path to upward social mobility is blocked by the struggle even to get to school; Amy Loughton plays a series of council officers, a Latvian fellow-cleaner, and most movingly a kind Arriva lady at the bus station who lets Cathy use her phone , gives her tea and accepts the night-bus sleepers with gentle resignation. Alex Jones is the men: horribly chirpy rent collector, hopeless father, bullying supervisor.
It is set brilliantly against a set of giant Jenga blocks – which of course look like a council building and which get gradually demolished as Cathy’s life is. It reminds us how sharply urgent is the public housing crisis; but also how crushingly unfair it is, in an age of mass immigration and an overcrowded capital, to disregard the needs of the old white working-class. Needs not only for roofs and safe beds, but for a known neighbourhood and extended family.

It will be a great day when this play no longer needs to tour. But for the moment, it is an essential.

 

https://www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/Cathy2018
Soho to 14th April, touring to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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THE WAY OF THE WORLD Donmar, WC1

KNAVES AND FOOLS, BRAIDED COATS AND BASTARDRY

 

 

It’s suddenly a wig-and-fan season, with Mrs Rich at the RSC and now Congreve’s sour, witty classic revived by James MacDonald. There’s even The Country Wife at the Southwark (though apparently fan-free, will report next week). Maybe we need the high-society rogues , dupes and posers of Restoration comedy to distract us from our own set.
This is a full period-dress production, executed immaculately but probably needing another few cuts to be unalloyed joy. The plot is labyrinthine, with a wordy torrent of finely honed wit and derision, fuelled by greed more than love. Congreve is the angriest of the Restoration dramatists. While the lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, end by both admitting their love and winning one another, there can be an Arctic chill of cynical despair at human nature. Knaves and fools, gulls and grabbers are everywhere, adulteries and insincerities part of the game. And to be honest, some of the witticisms have dated too much to resonate in an age without formal manners.

 

 

So the first part at 90 minutes, can occasionally drag and baffle, though alleviated by the truly astonishing costumes. Here’s Witwould in a crazy floral coat: Fisayo Akinade, lately St Joan’s camp Dauphin here thoroughly releasing his inner camp dandy ;he is the funniest thing in Act 1 by far. Here’s Millamant in pistachio frills like a giant toilet-roll cover, and of course the men with tumbling hair fabulously breeched , weskited and braided in their gilt frock coatings. Except of course for Christian Patterson giving it large in check tweeds as the drunken squire Sir Wilful.

 

 

And of course there’s Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort: controller of the money and marital permissions they’re all after but not of her own plaintive ageing desires. This magnificent, towering figure evolves from a mirror-fearing deshabilée in a dressing gown to a glorious spectacle , beflowered, frilled, netted, petticoated , bustled and topped with half a rose-garden. We do not see her for the first fifty minutes, but just as we grow a little weary of the dandies and plotters and disentangling which discontented belle is sleeping with which scheming beau, Gwynne breaks on us like a tsunami. Hard to remember that she was a late booking after a drop-out: she is born for it, magnificent, tall and angular and quivering with eagerness and vanity; nicely contrasted with a brisk Sarah Hadland as the motherly little Foible as her foil ,dresser and secret member of the conspiracy to cheat her.

 

 

 

The great set-piece where Wishfort tries to decide how to be found lolling when her “lover” arrives will never date – “nothing is so alluring as a levée from a couch in some confusion”. Equally grand is her encounter with the fake “Sir Rowland” – Alex Beckett with a faux posh accent and tragedian manner, the impression of Primark-sale Olivier reinforced by the black wig. The scene is both very funny and touched, as it must be, with pathos – Wishfort is, after all, only silly and lonely for love, not an out and out bastard like Fainall, or an opportunist like Geoffrey Streatfeild’s complicated Mirabell.

 

 
As for the lovers, Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell’s brittle, damaged, confined Millamant lay down their conditions about marriage and “dwindling into a wife” with enough sudden seriousness to hold us silent between laughs. And the final showdown at last lets us properly feel for them, and for Wishfort and indeed Foible. But goodness, it is a harsh comedy still. Which is, I suppose, its greatness.

 

 

box office 0203 282 3808 to 26 may
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH Swan, Stratford

FROTHING OVER WITH FEMALE HILARITY

 

 

A pre-curtain ensemble  of one harpsichord and a quartet of periwigged lady saxophonists, playing Mozart with a touch of oompah, is always a good sign. The RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran has a kindly sense of balance, so the dourly modern, blokey, bleak and inevitably joyless Macbeth just down the corridor is offset by this merry bit of Restoration fluff and female scorn, by the largely forgotten 17c writer Mary Pix. Good move, Mr D. Bring on the ridiculous crinolines, insane wigs, good-natured romantic cynicism, absurd fights and outrageous social caricature . Add a pair of huge hairy lurchers lunging for a sniff of the front row (British audiences always smell faintly of dog-biscuits) . And there you are. Fun.

 

 

Pix’s play is intensely and typically complicated: in brief, it centres on the ambition of Mrs Rich, a banker’s widow, played with endearing gusto by Sophie Stanton as a prototype Hyacinth Bucket with a dash of Mrs Slocombe. She is desperate to be one of The Quality, having in the opening scene arrived with her crinoline askew after being “disrespected in the open street” by a passing duchess, even though “I spoke with the mien and tone proportionable to my équipage”.  Her staid grey brother in law (Michael Simkins keeping a nobly straight face) entreats her not to make a fool of herself , while she dreams of netting a title – the absurdly fey, pink-pantalooned and curlicued Sir John – and gets cheated at cards by her posher friends. Notably Lady Trickwell : Sandy Foster, who manages to distort her fine features throughout into a constant sourly discontented snoot, and in the second act hurls herself into some unexpected sword-fighting in ballooning underdrawers.

 

 

Plot and subplot intertwine: the maid Betty conspires with Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger) in series of ill-advised tests of virtue on a disinherited yet virtuous lad whose elder brother is a rumbustious squire from Yorkshire, hallooing and singing rude hunting songs with two hairy dogs and an assistant, artfully gender-swopped to be Amanda Hadingue in a tweed skirt and raucous she-baritone. Tangles of deceit and misapprehensions are enhanced by background jokes you might just miss (I love the dust cloud in Mrs Fidget’s flophouse , and the squire drinking out of his saucer).

 

 

What director Jo Davies has done, pacing it up , camping along and adding new music-hall style songs by Grant Olding, is to create a perfect showcase for a dozen wonderful stage comediennes: it is a masterclass for fearlessly funny women. The men, a minority for once, are pretty wonderful too , notably Leo Wringer as the appalling squire and Solomon Israel as his brother, both plunging joyfully into the necessary self-parody. Indeed Israel is given, by the wicked pen of Ms Pix, an opportunity to send up every soliloquizing, self-pitying hero of Jacobean tragedy. And a fascinating aspect of the play is how much at home this woman writer , wife of a merchant in the 1690s, was in mocking not only theatre itself but every layer of society: parvenue socialites, starchy bankers, indigent aristocracy, cheating gamesters, hunting gentry, rooming-house landladies . She was up for a lark, was Mary Pix. She’d have no truck with this new idea that women are too sweet and banter-phobic to go on Have I Got News…

 

 

box office 0844 800 1110 to 14 June
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

 

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MISS NIGHTINGALE Hippodrome, Leicester Square WC2

IT’S THAT SHOW AGAIN, AND VERY WELCOME TOO

 

It’s WW2 themed. Gas masks, posters, programmes in an ARP fire-bucket and rude songs to cheer the troops on leave and show Hitler that Britain can take it. Our rorty show is upstairs while below on the broad casino floor black-tie gamblers – the real 2018 ones at the Hippodrome, serving unknowingly as atmospheric decor – rake the chips and spin the wheels as in frenzied semi-legal blackout London dive. For Matthew Bugg – creator, director producer of this spirited musical – has found the ideal glam-louche  venue for his tale of cabaret and illicit love. I always knew it would work even better at tables with drinks on them.

 

 

I feel inappropriately maternal, or auntly, about this show because I welcomed it first in 2011 at the Kings Head, writing that “Its theatrical roots spread from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret to new burlesque, with a dash of Design for Living, touches of Rattigan angst and echoes of many a nightclubby, Blitzy, wartime-blackout romance of gin, gents and garter belts”. It was only 90 minutes then, with Ilan Goodman as the male lead; later I caught it on tour in Ipswich, all-grown-up and full length, and here it is again: tweaked and polished with a group of six versatile actor-musicians including the author himself and a hero who can play the kazoo and concertina simultaneously while his character’s heart is breaking. Lauren Chinery, brings to the title role of Maggie, the Lancashire nurse breaking into cabaret by night , a tough sturdiness which does fishnet glamour or comedy character songs with equal relish,  but gives the emotional, heartfelt numbers a real pindrop quietness.  When she reads a telegram about her soldier brother and sings , “They promised there’d be bluebirds” , it is a strong, sudden mood-changer.

 
For this is the balance the show has to strike, between Bugg’s  gorgeous pastiche ,comic-daring  patter songs and the emotional engine of a plot set against the serious miseries and social clashes of wartime. Maggie took into her lodgings George the Polish-Jewish exile , who now writes songs to launch her night job and falls in love with Sir Frank, the war hero and club impresario . This, remember, at a time when homosexuals were illogically arrested as presumed spies, “the enemy within” ; when fleeing into a sham marriage with a girl pregnant by a caddish blackmailing black-marketeer might be a way out of trouble. A time when George, as a gay Jew who fled Berlin, can say with ironic bitterness of gay arrests “This is how it begins…I have seen it”.

 
The show works a treat here, assisted by the Hippodrome ’s own echoes of Judy Garland . I still think Bugg’s first half is hampered by slowing the development of the plot and the tricky three-way relationship by indulging in one too many big cabaret numbers. But hey, we liked the songs for themselves. And there are some very different, seriously plot-developing emotional songs too. Matthew Floyd Jones is a find,  perfect casting as a waspish, pallidly troubled, camp and reckless George.  He is homesick for love and for Weimar freedoms:  his Meine Liebe Berlin (“fount of original sin..”) is unbeatable. Oliver Mawdsley’s Frank catches the awkward public-school-toff dread of scandal and exposure, and grows convincingly through cowardice to courage. Both acts  have  tremendous, complex trios as the three of them express their unachievable crossed desires.  And Chinery’s ability to change costume at lightning speed and storm through rude character sons about sausages, joysticks etc brings the house down. Welcome to Meine Liebe Hippodrome.     Not bad prices, either.

 

missnightingale.co.uk to 6 may
raating four  4 Meece Rating

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SOLDIER ON Playground, W10

HARD HOMECOMINGS FOR THE DOGS OF WAR

 

Boots, boots, boots, boots: stamping out the immemorial rhythm of army discipline, nineteen men and women move as one, expressionless, freed for a time from the burden of individuality .Then, a moment later, there is just one lone figure surrounded by empty boots. In the first of the strong visual metaphors in Jonathan Lewis’ play about ex-servicemen with PTSD devising a play together, a cleaner briskly sweeps the empty , useless boots away. There have been so many deaths.

 
That ensemble movement is echoed at times during the absorbing, sometimes violent, often funny, always engaging piece: Lily Hawkins’ movement direction is stunning, at times exploding into unexpected violent encounters, at others abruptly bringing the fractured , fractious group together in something beautiful. The first-half closing moment in particular sees a dignified officer crippled by MS and memory (played by Mark Kitto, ex Welsh-Guards). Ashamed of his deterioration in that most physical of environments, HM Royal Marines base at Lympstone he admits his tears and is supported by reaching hands, and lifted flying by an ensemble singing Coldplay’s “Fix You” . The heart lifts too.

Lewis – an actor and playwright now but formerly serving in the Army, is known for his west end success Our Boys, but in creating and directing this he focuses on PTSD: the disorder driving too many veterans of our recent wars to the divorce courts, streets and prisons. It is set in what the reluctant Sgt Major (Thomas Craig) calls a “rehabilitation exercise” – he would prefer some healthy Invictus sport. It is David Solomon as an eager director who has to entice a motley group into drama school improv and “sharing” stories which are still real and troublesome to them. A few are wives or mothers , struggling with their men’s impossible behaviour; one is a nurse from the Afghan front line who cannot forget one trembling, mutilated child.

 

The edge here is that Lewis is mixing professional long-term actors with veterans, only a few of whom have previous stage experience. Or in the case of Cassidy Little who plays “Woody”, subsequent experience: we remember him and his prosthetic leg as the star of the successful ex-soldiers play Charlie F, and he has worked widely on screen since. Not hampered, I must say, by rock-star looks and a certain risky energy. In this role, Lewis makes bountiful and aggressive use of that: . you really wouldn’t relax in a drama-school trust exercise with Woody in a bad temper. But then Jacko, Flaps, Hoarse and the rest are not peaceable or predictable either, and the pain and reluctance of real experience of horror is no easy fit with the (sometimes very entertaining) theatricality of the director.

 

Role-play of their real lives melts in and out of rehearsal arguments, army banter, a few sly jokes at the expense of theatre people and explosions (usually from Woody). A mother greets her returning soldier son: a wife tries to hear a precious five minute satphone call from the Indian Ocean while her children bicker in the kitchen, a squaddie with PTSD breaches an injunction to visit his alarmed wife and plead that it was his medication that had made him violent. And the real experience of the personnel from Soldiers’ Arts Academy melts seamlessly into the professionalism of staging and script. Theatre of war, theatre of theatre. Hard to beat.

 

 

box office 020 8960 0110 theplaygroundtheatre.london to 31 March
Planned transfer to York and Oxford. Keep raising the money. It’s worth it.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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THE FOUR SEASONS – A REIMAGINING Wanamaker, SE1

SILENT, SIGNIFICANT CREATURES

 

The candlelit Wanamaker has proved its worth as a music-room, notably with All The Angels and the divine Farinelli. This takes it further with the first wordless performance: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble the master-puppeteers create a silent story with half-sized, fully-jointed physically expressive but undecorated hard-foam “bunraku” puppets. Five expert puppeteers control them, one or two at a time in perfect concord so human and object blend into something other. Their narrative is an expression of Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A six-piece orchestra plays overhead: baroque violins, viola, ‘cello and harpsichord/synthesizer.

 

 

Which all sounds a bit recherché: could be a tough hour, you’re thinking, since anything drawn from Japanese theatrical tradition can be an acquired taste . Actually, it is a beautiful and accessible performance, somewhere between mime, dance and theatrical epic. Sometimes, indeed, you are so bound up in the emotional lives of the pale puppets that you suddenly think “hang on, what’s that stuck on his foot?” before realizing that it is the fingers of the puppeteer, and that every movement of this seemingly vivid being is being controlled by humans you have somehow stopped noticing…

 

 

It is a story they tell – of lovers and their child, of ordeals, travels, death and loss and discovery. But as the creators teasingly insist, it is one onto which we project our own interpretations. However, there is certainly folktale in there, because the puppet figures are sometimes physically literal – walking, running, falling, struggling, fighting their handlers or slumped in wrenching despair – but they can also fly and float surreally as if becoming their own dreams. In one extraordinary sequence near the end the central figure relives the events of a whole life.

 

 

The story begins with a sweetly awkward park-bench courtship, and a breathless pause when father kneels before mother as she holds her belly. There is a suitcase and a parting, one parent gone far from a child-puppet who crawls, stumbles, takes first steps with the other. Separation, obstacles, struggle; deaths, a trek home, a graveyard or mortuary of strange gnarled shapes like old bark , weeping desolation. Once mother and child fight together through great hard shapes, leap a ravine. A river, swimming, a corpse…any of it could be a dream, or a real refugee journey, or both.

 

 

Late on a lonely figure fights for life, or maybe just sanity, against a cloud of blue flapping inchoate cloths which become ghost figures. You’re engrossed, the music sharp in your head, every note and move significant, very human. By the way, there are a couple of “relaxed performances”: for some, it may form an even stronger connection than it does to us “neurotypicals”. And that is overwhelming enough…

 

 

box office https://tickets.shakespearesglobe.com/
to 21 April
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BRIGHTON ROCK Touring

A DARK SEASIDE PARABLE

 

 

If there is one stumbling block for lovers of Graham Greene’s darkly thrilling gangster novel, it is the elegance of Gloria Onitiri. She is Ida; and Greene’s redoubtable warrior for justice is in the book a large Cockney with a beery laugh and a market-trader’s sharpness: her pursuit of the murderous young Pinkie for the sake of the “Fred” he killed is fuelled by righteousness, but of an indeterminate old-fashioned variety . She stands for a sense – so restful to the tormented Catholicism of Greene – that “right and wrong” are very different to sexual sin and virtue. She’s big and bonny and maternal and blessedly common. But in Esther Richardson’s otherwise faithful production of Bryony Lavery’s thoughtful adaptation, for all her excellence as an actor Onitiri is more cocktail-and-torch-song than beery, matey singalong. She just is.

 

 

So I stumbled a bit. But in every other way Greene is beautifully served, and not just in Sara Perks’ fabulous dark design – a fraction of iron pier towering overhead, steps which move and swirl and through which once, unforgettably, the skinny villain squirms between the steps to grab his quarry. As Pinkie Jacob James Beswick is physically perfect- scrawny, starveling child of the slums, he has a hard young face and a restless, jerky teenage insolence in every move. HIs moment of arrogant defensive pathos when he is beaten up, his sexual terror and his cowed moment when confronted with the (gender-switched) Colleoni are well-judged: you can’t take your eyes off him: the boy gone wrong. Sarah Middleton is equally perfect as the waitress Rose, catching both her naiveté and the sharp simple intelligence that threatens Pinkie’s alibi. She also makes credible that terrifying Catholic belief that she will “burn” and will be glad to, for love. The extreme youth of the pair is there in all its pathos, extremism and perennial warning. Their story holds you solidly , especially in the second half once the inter-gangster stuff is fading from the foreground.

 

 

 

The latter iswell enough done, though I would plead one cause with all directors who cast inescapably male characters as women (Spicer is Angela Bain) . Just pay more attention to small physicalities, like hair. If Cubitt, Dallow and Pinkie have unforgiving 1950’s cuts you get distracted by female hair under the hoodlum hat. You just do. Which is a shame when such immense care has gone into everything else visual, into beautifully fast, fluid staging moves and a loving creation of that dark 1950’s seaside underworld complete with its slang (lesser adaptors would have given up “buer” and “milky”, but not this one. But the two young principals are more than worth seeing. It tours on.

 
http://pilot-theatre.com/performance/brighton-rock

touring to 26 May. COLCHESTER Mercury theatre this week
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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SUMMER AND SMOKE Almeida, N1

SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE

 

 

Is love a Gothic Cathedral, a yearning for a permanent, holy, respectful connection to the best in our nature? Or is it lust and fun, animal attraction, a reckless erotic adventure? Well, at its best it is both: but when Alma the minister’s daughter interprets her liking for John the medical student as part of her yearning for eternity, he meets it with impatient brutal words, makes her look hard at the ugliness of an anatomical diagram . She decries his gambling, even his pose – “Don’t sit like that, you look so indolent and worthless”, he shrugs and turns to Roza the casino-owner’s daughter. Who, in Alma’s view , is part of the distressing, threatening deeper south which alarms and fascinates anyone striving to be a Southern Lady – “all the Latinos dream in the sun and indulge their senses..”

 

 

And the sadness of their story, played out in a sultry MIssissippi summer when a disastrous gunshot is never far away, is that each converts the other , but too late. Four years ago I saw Rebecca Frecknell’s production of this rarely seen, elegiac Tennessee Williams play in the Southwark Playhouse tunnel: I called it a jewel. It is fine to see that her directorial passion for the piece endured, for this is the same director’s grander production. In the smart Almeida it is set with remarkable expressionist symbolism, Tom Scutt’s set a shallow ellipse of nine pianos on, behind, around and upon which assorted characters not necessarily in the scene are placed; sometimes playing an obbligato to keep the mood or giving a few notes to represent the coming of the cool Gulf Wind or a doorbell. Sometimes they light up. Composition is by Angus MacRae, musical direction by Mark Dickman.

 

And it is clever, but for me sometimes a little to the detriment of the play’s beauty. For Tennessee Williams’ world of yearning, damaged, misbehaving, disappointed, painfully lovable characters, hanging on to hope and life by their fingernails, is expressed as always in lyrical language and emotional images so heartbreakingly poetic that you resent missing even a single word due to murmured moments of extreme naturalism; or indeed having an agonised significant pause accompanied by a mere theatrical bit of cleverness. Williams doesn’t need that: the heart beats too strong for any of the modish tropes of modern productions to matter.

 

But oh, it is a lovely piece, and the performances at its heart honest and finely drawn. Patsy Ferran is beyond superb as Alma the preacher’s daughter, pious and ladylike, prone to hyperventilating, and changing before our eyes, with painful growth, to the moment when she says too late that wrenching line “The girl who said no doesn’t exist, She died last summer” and comes ironically to understand what courtship is after years of condemning the kind of woman who known for “making the acquaintance of travelling salesmen”.

 

Matthew Needham is equally strong, equally heartbreaking in the end. Their connection, despite his (very Tennessee-Williams) tendency to bully and mock her beliefs, is intense. With economical simplicity other parts are doubled or more, Anjana Vasan particularly impressive (with a fierce torch-song) as Rosa the Latina, the dark sensuous angel, and milder as Nellie. Nothing is wasted, no irony or brief sad laugh unmarked. At times the selfconscious staging irritated me, a little. But the beauty shone through, and honour to Frecknall for championing this gorgeous, gentle play.

 

 

box office 0207 359 4404
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE YORK REALIST Donmar, WC2

LOVE AND THE NOT-FOR-MARRYING MAN

 

Love stories take many forms. Here – electric, understated, unmistakeable and timeless – the erotic connection is between Ben Batt’s George , farm labourer in a tied cottage in the 1960s, and Jonathan Bailey as the assistant director of the York Passion plays. George has been recruited as an authentic local voice, urged on despite his rugged modesty by the sweet chapel-going Doreen (Katie West a quiet delight) who takes his old Mum to Meetings and knows, deep down, that he is “not for marrying”.

 

 

Still illegal, though quietly tolerated by the farm family, the affair is also doomed by the utter divergence of their habitats, lifestyles, and a sense of distance between town and country which today feels both authentic and, mercifully, dated. TV would by now have rubbed some of the rugged chapel-and-calving simplicities off Mother , neighbour Doreen, and the delightfully gormless teenage nephew Jack; fast communication might have held the lads together for longer. Even though John won’t give up his advancing southern career to live in a leaky nearby cottage, while George makes it clear that London and its attractions were fine for visiting but “I live here”! With some sorrow he rejects John’s faith that he could actually have an acting career “I’m past that”. Today, God willing, he would be working in Sheffield Theatre, co-producer of this production.

 

 

For Peter Gill’s 2002 play, which won plaudits but not universal acclaim at first (Charles Spencer was entertainingly rude) is rendered in the Donmar’s intimacy by director Robert Hastie as something perfect: delicate, clear and natural as an upland upland brook. It can be earthy – George is the seducer , and has a startling admission of how he found out that he was gay after chasing girls unsuccessfully one evening and then saying to his mate “Better be you, then..”. John, more fey and puppyishly shyer, rises to passionate declaration and thwarted anger only later, after the death of old Mum (a fine Lesley Nicol, ringing utterly true to anyone with Yorkshire relatives of a certain age).

 

 

It is full of glancing, important themes, and not just about odd-couple love (it rather helps that the lovers are gay: in a 1960s heterosexual tale the girl would almost certainly have gone to live where and how the man chose). It also reflects on how an urban middle-class had colonized the world of “culture”, as the locals are given their own heritage of mystery plays by directorial incomers. Yet where that’s concerned, the most heartening scene is after the interval as the whole family, including lumpen Arthur the brother-in-law and teenage Jack, get back exhilarated from the show to exclaim about how grand it was, and how swept up they were by the old story and how George, as a tormentor, was “that cruel!”.

 

box office 0203 282 3808 to 24 March
BUT GOING TO SHEFFIELD NEXT https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk 27 March-10 April

RATING four 4 Meece Rating

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FROZEN Theatre Royal, Haymarket

SIN OR SYMPTOM? A HUMAN TURNED TO A HORROR

 

 

Last time I encountered a monologue written for a paedophile abuser, it was by Alan Bennett in a remarkable – and I think unrepeated – TV Talking Heads . That was a brave and haunting performance by David Haig as a tempted, succumbing, park-keeper with an edge of virtuous prissiness about other people’s behaviour. Braver still, because ineffably nastier, but with that same edge of prissiness we have here Jason Watkins’ rendering of “Ralph”. Bryony Lavery’s multiply disturbing play is about a mother’s experience when her 10 year old daughter has been first missing, then confirmed dead ,dismembered and stored in a lock-up shed by a man with a stash of “Lesbian Lolitas” videos who is capable of saying petulantly to a psychiatrist “The only thing I”m sorry about is that it’s not legal. Killing girls”. He got seven of them, over 21 years .

 

 

There are three stunning performances – Jason Watkins’ knock-kneed, lame- footed, hunchedly amiable and incurable selfpitying killer shows off his tattoos and brags about his gift for organisation. Suranne Jones is the dead child’s mother, assuredly moving between mundane Midlands practicality beneath her fine ironic eyebrows and the deepest, angriest of griefs before reaching a strange resolution. And you believe in every step. The third, the wild card, is Nina Sosanya as an American-Icelandic psychologist , KCL lecturer and author of a paper entitled “Serial killing – a forgivable act?”  She is of the school that considers atrocities as symptoms, not sins.

 

 
Which took Lavery – early on the curve –  into the now-modish dramatic territory of neuroscience and theories about frontal lobe deficiencies, early influence on empathetic connection, bangs on the head leading to irresistible criminal impulses, etc. It all feels very up to date, though the play first aired over a decade ago.   Additional dramatic interest – and a bit of artful internal sabotage – is added because the psychiatrist is a bit of a horror herself. Our first glimpses of Sosanya, in the sequence craftsmanlike initial monologues, shows the learned scientist having the screaming abdabs over leaving New York, then sitting on a plane writing vengeful messages to her illicit lover and research colleague while necking brandy,  insulting the stewardess and greeting the seat-belt sign with a shriek of “We’re all going to die” .Nor are her “boundaries” in a series or prison interviews with Ralph very convincingly set, given that her own self -pity and self-importance are almost as marked as his.

 

 

But maybe that’s the point: certainly in the electric, even more uncomfortable second act when against the bossy shrink’s recommendation the mother confronts the killer in a restorative-justice meeting. Rapidly (God, Suranne Jones is good, and Watkins a brave actor!) she reaches more important depths than the expert ever did.  Lavery is never a simplistic writer, so I hope she will forgive a certain bracing conclusion which any of us may make as we shiver in the stalls: that when it comes to understanding the depth, strangeness, redeemability and motivation of human beings you will get more insight from a tough ordinary mother with life-experience than from any self-regarding American psychiatrist who calls herself a “voyager in the frozen wastes of the criminal mind.”

 

 

You could also reflect that forgiveness is the best revenge. It certainly turns out that way in the agonizing final scenes. It’s a terrific play, actually. And on a frozen snow-day on the Haymarket, I should record that instinctively most of a middling-thin matinee audience rose to its feet to applaud the three principals. Oh, and turning up late post-holiday, I bought my own stalls ticket and don’t regret it for a moment.

 

box office 020 7930 8800 to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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THE SHADOW FACTORY Nuffield City, Southampton

A CITY’S MEMORY

 

Two girls on the Downs in 1940 giggle over a spot of rabbit-poaching on Lady Cooper’s land. A roar, Junkers overhead. Figures emerge from smoke and darkness as a chanting urgent chorus,: “Over the river – Woolston way – Quick, this one’s for real , bolt the shutters, fill up the bath, fill up the sinks, water if there’s fire, change of clothes, candles, soap, photo album – Cos if..cos if…come the all-clear and your house has gone…”.

 

 

We read and reconstruct a lot about the London Blitz, but this Southampton story deserves telling too: Howard Brenton, a clear eye and eloquent historical storyteller, has immersed himself in the facts about it and found an imaginative intuition. The story of the Spitfires is itself extraordinary: in eight weeks of that year 489 planes were damaged, 785 lost; the Supermarine factory in Southampton was key, and they were constantly in production through the war years with constant improvements in design. When the factory was bombed – as happens at the start of this play – machine tools were saved and other trade premises in the city and beyond were requisitioned under draconian wartime rules. They built components to be assembled at Eastleigh: the fight continued.

 

 

Brenton has taken real characters – Beaverbrook, the bombastic newspaper-owner and minister for aircraft production, and the heroic works engineer Len Gooch – but imagined a family business as the heart of his story: a laundry. Avoiding the cliché of a brave united mustn’t-grumble wartime Britain, he acknowledges not only the steadfastness but the wobble, the anger, the fear, the resentment of government.

 
If there is a faultless wartime hero it is Daniel York’s Gooch; a heroine, Shala Nyx as a young woman thrilled and inspired by her design job at the factory. David Birrell’s laundry-owner Fred meanwhile is pessimistic, indignant at the requisition, hostile and defensive, afraid. His daughter Jackie (Lorna Fitzgerald) is embittered on losing her soldier lover and has to grope her way towards understanding and finding a role. HIs mother, made splendidly terrifying by Anita Dobson who doubles as the aristocratic chatelaine, is as tough an egg in her way as Hilton McRae’s swaggering Beaverbrook.

 

 

So the play does not echo that tone of compulsory their-finest-hour heartwarming which marked the patriotic films of the period (which in some ways it does resemble). The differences resolve, and Southampton was heroic in many ways; but the story has variety and bite and human failings. So under Samuel Hodges’ direction and Leo Warner’s inspired design, it takes off. I had to catch an early preview, but nothing faltered. Brenton allows his characters sharp poetry too: when the factory is bombed you need no pictures beyond Jackie’s gasped “The look of it – dust in the air – snakes, no not snakes, fire hoses… everywhere sopping wet…grey – shapes of things that are all wrong…and you see, but don’t see, lying in bricks half a person, no legs..”

 

 

It’s the first production in this new space, and what they have done is to set it on a vast thrust stage, blank as concrete, so that the community chorus can come and go and scenes change instantly; projections turn the floor into the grassy Common where terrified householders would “trek out” and camp during bombing raids, or into Whitehall, or the grand house with its carpets and long graceful windows which becomes the design studio and sees its mistress banished to the attics. Above the stage, moving light-bars become roofs high or low . And – spectacularly at last – turn into the graceful, miraculous, moving forms of aeroplane wings.
Oh, and there’s a good surprise at the end, in a sack.

 

box office nstheatres.co.uk to 3 march
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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