Category Archives: Four Mice

DRY POWDER Hampstead NW3

YOU HAVE TO LAUGH OR YOU WOULD WEEP..

 

 

The most arresting new character I’ve met this year is the magnificent Hayley Atwell as Jenny; star of a New York private equity investment firm .  Jenny is a high-concept calculating machine-cum-psychopath, as staccato in her statements as the click of her spike heels. She deploys a superb blank does-not-compute’ stare when confronted with some concept like “relating to people”. Even her ruthless boss Rick (Aidan McArdle) is a bit more capable of worrying what people think. Slumped depressedly by his glass desk with his middle suit button defiantly and uncomfortably done up,  he is bothered that the firm’s latest manoeuvre  laid hundreds of workers off to turn a quick profit, and got exposed in the New York Times just as he was throwing a million-dollar engagement party.   Jenny scorns such weakness. “Do we work in- “ she drips with scorn at the words – “public relations? Anyway who takes the New York Times seriously?”
“The entire world” replies a colleague.
“I mean in OUR world!’ says Jenny.

 

 

Sarah Burgess’ slyly wicked comedy – she’s a rising US writer – is indeed a porthole into a murky parallel world whose doings , though legal, make McMafia look like Little Women. At least in that, the Russian tribes drip with tearful family loyalty even when commissioning car-bombs. Here, the privateers are driven entirely by the logic of percentage profit: they are piratical asset strippers, experts of the forked tongue and slippery promise.  Newcomers will give three minutes to the programme’s quick guide to leveraged buyouts, LPs, debt-to-capital ratios and the vital “Dry Powder” which a fund holds ready for a quick buy-in ; but in fact with skilful clarity Burgess makes the action clear from the start.

 

 

Rick is planning to invest heavily in a luggage manufacturer in California, urged by Seth (Tom Riley) who has been enthused by its ideas about expanding into online bespoke suitcases for middle-management business travellers “No one has harnessed that force”. Jenny sets her team of analysts (one of whom ends up in hospital, overdosed on wake-up pills) to work out that the way to the best fast profits is to close down the Sacramento factory , manufacture cheaply in Bangladesh for an emerging Chinese middle-class market, and rapidly sell on. Rick is still worried that their investors – secretive high net worth individuals and any pension fund with a conscience – will hate the loss of American jobs. Seth agrees. “If you make too many people too mad, they can change things” nervously citing the French Revolution. From Jenny drips icy staccato incomprehension .

 

 

Scenes change: it is all elegantly set in front of revolving mirrors reflecting either cold corporate offices ,a warmer California or finally Hong Kong. We meet Jeff the suitcase CEO (Joseph Balderama), enthusing Seth and only slowly suspecting the harsher intentions of Rick and Jenny. The plot thickens, with panic for the fund, an unsavoury rescue, a deal, and from Aidan McArdle the most chilling snorted laugh I have heard onstage for years.

 

It is barkingly funny, played with quartet precision under Anna Ledwich’s direction, and has at its heart not some jejune fury at “fatcats” but a serious observation: it is about the distinction between the warm breath of business – creating objects, services, value – and the icy mathematical chill of those who finance it. The hard-edged contemptuous purity of Jenny will haunt me for days. Not that she’ll care. As she says to Seth3 ‘ Allow less intelligent people to hate you. It’s their destiny, and it costs you nothing”.
A lesser writer, by the way, might have been tempted to draw the relationship between the two warring colleagues as Benedick and Beatrice, or at least throw in a sex scene. Not this one. Just pitiless mirth and Swiftian wit.

 

box office 020 7722 9301 to 3 march
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN Vaudeville, WC2

A WILDE RIDE WITH A BOLTER

 

 

Beneath the artful fan-shapes of the set, gloriously coloured bustles and ruffles flit between black tailcoats and epigrams ping around the room like flicked rubber-bands. The real delight, though, is in the detail: as the Oscar Wilde season rolls elegantly on it is Kathy Burke’s mischievous, witty direction (and wise pruning of some overlong Wilde persiflage) which brings this tale back to life. There’s a wonderful fleeting portrait gag, a priceless unexpected hereditary snort, once a cheeky glimpse of homoerotic flirtation almost out of sight on the terrace and a cherishable entr’acte music-hall number which Burke has lovingly written for Jennifer Saunders’ matriarchal monster . In which Ami Metcalfe in a maid’s outfit doing percussion offers the most suggestive deployment of a triangle yet seen in the West End.

 

 

It is fun, for all the melodramatic seriousness of the tale, and Wilde’s banked-down fury at the hypocrisy of his time. The lightness of touch keeps a modern audience enchanted, and enables us to suspend mere gawps of absurdity at the Edwardian concepts of female “ruin” (caught visiting a Man!) and the need for a once-fallen woman to claw her way back into the “society” of the frankly idle rich. Tiresomely virtuous young Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) sees everything in black and white and is made suspicious of her husband’s calls on the elegantly cougarish Mrs Erlynne, little suspecting that the lady is in fact the mother she had presumed dead but who was in fact that shocking thing, a bolter. Lord W – a nicely geeky Joshua James – is actually trying to save his wife from this fearful knowledge.

 
But it is Mrs E herself who, at the expense of her own social and economic ambitions, saves the naive young woman from repeating her error and running off with one of WIlde’s identikit, epigrammatic young lordlings. Who are, by the way, in the late night all-men scene, hilarious.

 

Key to the play’s success is of course the fallen woman, and Samantha Spiro is as magnetic as ever: sometimes brittle, a knowing cynic who has dyed her hair and made the best of her disgrace, sometimes defensive, but in the big, desperate scene with her daughter lets it all fall away from her to reveal naked, passionate self-sacrificing honesty. Her plea for the silly girl to go back to her baby silences the theatre. And one perhaps remembers that Wilde had a wife and children, and was to suffer the loss of them.

 

http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 7 April

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

 

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BEGINNING Ambassadors, WC2

CLAMBERING TOWARDS LOVE

 

 

You don’t often, in romances, get lines like “Tomato ketchup’s always been my Achilles heel”. Or indeed proper consideration being given to the erotic potential of fish finger sandwiches. David Eldridge’s 100-minute two-hander won plaudits at the National (Luke Jones’ delight recorded here, https://theatrecat.com/tag/beginning/ ) and everyone had positive awe for Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton . But I was curious to see whether the messy, utterly naturalistic intimacy directed by Polly Findlay in the Dorfman would survive transplantation to even this tiniest of West End proscenium
houses.

 

 

It does. In the back stalls under the overhang you certainly lose a few muttered lines, but not many. And the fascination of the real-time unfolding of a relationship holds you, as the tipsy, clumsy, lonely pair navigate the aftermath of Laura’s flat-warming party, cooling and warming (“I love a Scotch eggs!” “So do I!”) as they gradually reveal themselves and, as Danny puts it “clamber towards one another” as new lovers must. Especially new lovers a bit battered by life and failure.

 

Troughton as the Essex divorcé, living with his Mum and his Nan and mourning for his marriage and distant child is remarkably skilled : not least at looking – until the end – a lot less attractive than he actually is, which is great acting. A hopeless lump , you think sometimes, why would this pretty woman want him, even if she is 38 and a bit desperate for a baby? Mitchell in turn displays sometimes a brittle professional-woman sophistication and sometimes a howling, alarming neediness. The sexual politics of the evening are nicely reversed from the frequent cliché, with her the predator demanding sex and him more able to unfold his simple need for warmth, hugs, connection, family.

 

 

There are some huge laughs, brilliantly evoked by the physical clumsiness, the Dad-dancing from him and exaggerated bop from her at the slightly awful playlist from the party. And often too at his helpless, honest blokey bathos when she soars off into rom-com fantasy. And rarely has there been a more honest erotic exchange than – following each one’s admission tha tthey don’t do cocaine – “I’d go a Ginsters with you” “I”d go a Ginsters with you too”. Beautiful.

 

box office Phone: 020 7395 5405 to 24 March
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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A PASSAGE TO INDIA Royal, Northampton and touring

SULTRY HEAT AND SEXUAL DREAD…

 

 

Our age is beginning, once more, to appreciate E.M.Forster properly: the recent TV Howards’s End caught his wit as well as the social indignation and melancholy, and allowed something of the philosophical-mystical oddity of the man and his dream of “only connect”. This adaptation by Simon Dormandy – who co-directs with Sebastian Armesto – takes his strange, angry, yearningly reconciliatory story about the Raj in its pomp in 1910, with white colonialists and Indians woefully disconnected, and treats it with intelligent care and interesting theatrics.

 

 

I remembered the book mostly for the central event – English Adela wrongly accusing Dr Aziz of molesting her in the Marabar caves, rousing both communities to fury and only recanting at the trial. So I expected the satirical disgust at Anglo-Indian prejudice and the weird sexual dread which – as I remember from a few childhood years in apartheid South Africa – fuels a lot of racism. We get that: the prim policeman McBride averring that “The darker races are physically attracted to the lighter. It’s a scientific fact”. We get the harrumphing voices at the Club, Mrs Callendar saying “Call in the army! Flog the bastards!”, and the stiff fretful young magistrate realizing that Adela’s passion for “the real India” would not be suitable in his future memsahib. We get, also a copybook example of prosecutorial indignation trying to shore up a recovered false memory of abuse. Very topical.

 

 

But I had somehow forgotten, and since have re-read, the religious, mystical strangeness of the book. This is what Dormandy and Armesto arrestingly express by having the ensemble cast open the play by chorally quoting Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title , about “God’s purpose” being to bring all races together. Old Mrs Moore, philosophically aged, first meets Aziz in a mosque, sharing his sense of God. Yet near her end – Liz Crowther quite terrifyingly expressing this – the old woman loses God and her only-connecting beliefs , in a breakdown triggered by the terrifying blank inexpressive “Boom!” echo in the caves, which also disastrously throw Adela into hallucinating panic.

 

 

So the play, like the book, expresses this deep ancient dread of emptiness, meaninglesness: a spiteful pointless universe only alleviated by the wacky irrationality of the final Hindu ceremonies of Krishna’s birth. This production expresses it by creating, alongside the prosaic club and court and tea-party scenes, a sense of otherness: giving that “boom!” sound with voices and breaking into moments of ritual movement, a dim-lit ensemble creating the cave-doors and boats and river with heavy staves. Strong choreography and Kuljit Bhamra’s moody score (the live music onstage was from Meera Raja on press night) make it work. Phoebe Pryce gives us a good Adela in her earnest tripperish naiveté and rising, sexually charged distress: Asif Khan is a fascinating Aziz, initially burbling in cartoonish, nervous-to-please ‘babu’ style, his Muslim purity irritated by “Hindus, so sloppy!”, but after the accusation growing in rage, rejecting white friendship from Richard Goulding’s liberal Fielding, then reaching final reconciliation only in the dreamlike scenes which end it.

 

 

I left more moved than I expected, reflecting on Forster’s redemptive dream and how far we have and haven’t come. But also noting how the heat and feverish colour of India can turn some from the white race to mysticism, some to nervous arrogant pomposity, some to terrified sexual dread. All of which still happen..

 

 

box office 01604 624811. to 20 Jan
touring Salisbury , Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley
Reaches Park Theatre London, 20 Feb.    Touring Mouse wide
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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WILDE CREATURES Vaudeville, WC2

THE OTHER OSCAR,  A DELIGHT

 

What delight, in the midst of Dominic Dromgoole’s  Oscar Wilde season at this theatre, that daytimes this month (11 pm and 2pm) t should see the stage taken over for an hour each time by this enchanting, intelligent hour honouring another side of Oscar. His gentle, heartfelt, poignant morality tales have all the storytelling power of folktale but with both Wilde’s elegant, poignant romanticism and satirical social anger.

 

 

I had perhaps expected the best known stories – the Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince – but the Tall Stories company only mention the Happy Prince as a forgotten statue in a sad town (his gold leaf, remember, pecked off to feed the poor). There are four actor-musicians – Matt Jopling and Steve McCourt on guitar, Lauren Silver on Clarinet and Tom Jude on violin, announcing themselves as the Wilde Creatures and framing three stories in a larky sketch about Mayor Jude (in a bright red suit and opera-hat) wanting to erect a statue of himself and the others enacting stories to see whether we the audience think others are worthy: the selfish, hypocritical Miller, the learned student who despises the self-sacrificing nightingale, or the spoilt-brat Infanta. We bellow NO! each time, and the team conclude that flowers, birds and generous humankindness are better than any statue: so they up-end the set into a glorious tumbling flowering garden.

 

 

 

It is one of the best Christmas kids’ shows I have seen – beats their Gruffalo, actually, though everyone loves old Gruff. Despite the many jokes, it feeds into that essential childish sense of justice, outrage and morality, and doesn’t shrink from the three deaths (though I must say the children near me were trembling a bit when the lousy rotten student who only understands book-learning kicks the idealistic nightingale’s corpse aside. So was I). The music by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw weaves a magic thread round it: it never palls. Altogether wonderful and not running for nearly long enough. If in the remains of this month you are anywhere near the Strand with your children / grandchildren / easily moved friends, do yourself a favour and drop in. And bring it back for the Easter holidays!

 

box office 0330 333 4814 to 31 Dec http://www.tallstories.org.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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BELLEVILLE Donmar WC2

SWEET YOUNG LOVE IN PARIS:  NOT.

 

 

“We’re not going the full Mousetrap here” said the press desk, “but there is a moment at the end…we’re asking..” . Fine, no spoilers. Plenty else to write about, what with the knife thing and the bath thing and the DIY toe surgery thing (eurgghh!) and the screams and the vomit. And to be honest you never expected it to end in a well. The plot, I mean: I mean: as a play Amy Herzog’s piece is a cracker, superbly acted by the two fearless principals as young Americans in Paris , and a beautifully contrasted pair, their respectable Senegalese-Muslim landlords downstairs in the shabby Belleville apartment block. Michael Longhurst’s direction is tense, alarming, sometimes funny. So the whole catastrophic unfolding of it is horribly credible.

 

 

Perhaps dangerously credible, given current widespread suspicion among over-fifties that the milllennial generation, now in late twenties, are messed-up spoilt kids prone to binge drinking, drug use and a whining egotism fed by therapy-theory and the language of obsessive, analytical self-exculpation. As in our heroine Abby’s “I am emotionally abusive. I know that about myself . I’m working on that”.

 

 

 

There is sometimes a dark pleasure to be had in being cruelly judgmental of fictional characters, as one should not be about real people. If that is your pleasure, this will feed it in a most unChristmassy way. If you can raise compassion for the central pair, that’d do too: not least because in Herzog’s artful gradual 100-minute exposition you are never completely confident about which of this couple is to blame for the other’s disastrous state.

 

 

Abby – a magnificent Imogen Poots – is first the likely candidate, nervily  and shrieking when she sees through the door her husband Zack pleasuring himself over porn, grumbling that French people don’t seem to like her, giving up her language class because “they all speak English”, and patronizing Alioune the neighbour  and landlord who has popped by to “pack a bowl” – smoke a bong – with Zack. Who owes him rent. Abby’s hysteria over being thought to be 32 – she’s 28 – is combined with understandable holiday-season homesickness and a refusal to try and stop obsessively mourning her mother after five years . None of this is endearing. She makes strident emotional demands , moans “I wish I was less disdainful of everyone and expected a little less from myself”, and after passing out dead drunk again whines “Why did you let me drink so much?” though when he tries she yowled about his male “controlling” and having her personality “subsumed” . Best place for it, I’d say.   On the other hand there is something fishy about Zack’s job, porn habit and tendency to crash into the flat of respectable Senegalese neighbours at 3 a.m. searching drunkenly for more drugs.

 

 

 

As you can tell, it’s all a bit Albee, and there is something bracingly merciless – in this age of compulsory compassion – about Herzog’s depiction of someone both mentally ill and shrilly entitled who systematically wrecks a life, marriage and indeed a flat. But it is also horribly entertaining. James Norton’s as clean-cut Zack takes a remarkable journey from calm doctorliness to utter dissolution, and Poots is fearless, pitch-perfect and generally mesmerising.   Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi are perfect as the neighbours: younger, saner, their hardworking immigrant decency a shaming foil to the lost-soul , self-indulgent Westerneners.

 

 

I’m not sure where it gets us, but as a portrait of modern disjunction it rivets attention. And an almost silent coda , after the event of which we may not speak, is priceless. Especially when the Macbook Air goes in the binbag. That fact, by the way, wasn’t a spoiler.

 

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 3 feb Principal Sponsor: Barclays
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL BY FITZROVIA RADIO HOUR Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

LARKING  WITHIN TENT

 

 

As an old radio hack, who started a career over forty years ago in the days when “spot effects” in drama studios were one of the more amusing jobs, I have a feeling for the quintet who create the “Fitzrovia Radio Hour”. In play-that-goes-wrong style they not only score off one another’s fictional actor-personae, but ramp up the comedy by struggling to do the sound effects. It rings true: I remember doing“footsteps” in the gravel tray while clutching the doorbell, and hitting cabbages with an axe for the more bloodstained French Revolution-themed plays.

 

 

So the comedy has a double edge of memory for me, but the group’s success has found a wider, younger following, enchanted by the retro struggles onstage. The only thing that doesn’t ring true for me is that, US-style, they’re doing it with ads and product placement. But hey, a lot of the crowd in the Spiegeltent in December are Americans too..

 

Here, four players take the first hour without “Stanley de Pfeffel”, the veteran who always plays Scrooge and who has been (possibly on purpose) hospitalized by the collapse from a theatre fly-tower of “the entire set of the Importance of Being Earnest” .

That the fifth will indignantly reappear is increasingly likely (nice use of the echo-plate here). The others proceed, entertainingly deploying in a witty set their mass of domestic and DIY equipmen. There is sexual tension between one pair and respective mourning / resentment for dePfeffel by the other.

 

There was a point when it lagged a bit, 45 minutes in, but a fine coup de theatre with Scrooge’s third ghost turns it around, and the ripples and barks of laughter start up again as it accelerates. All power to Michael Lumsden here… enuff said.

 

As a merciful 75-minute, £ 18.50 break from the maelstrom of London Christmas shopping, it is good value.

 

 

box office http://christmascarollondon.com 03333 444167
Weds-Sun at 3.30 pm till the 30th, 2pm on Christmas Eve

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY Young Vic SE1

A SPANGLED ANGLESEY ARISTOCRAT WALKS AGAIN

 

 

One way to win, if your own era rejects you, is to be so spectacularly odd that two centuries later a musical theatremaker gets obsessed with you and recreates your avatar onstage. Growing up on Anglesey Seiriol Davies found out about Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth marquess of that isle, descended from a hero of Waterloo and expected to carry on the line. He preferred to cross-dress (sometimes as Eleanor of Aquitaine, sometimes as a butterfly), gut the family chapel to make a theatre starring himself, marry (rather lavenderly) a poor girl for whom he bought an entire jewellers’ stock only to drape it on her naked and leave out the other marital duty; and generally waste the family money until he died near-destitute in Monte Carlo. And was described brutally in obits as “a strange and repellent spirit opaquely incomprehensible and pathetically alone” , though the Times did say that for all his eccentricity Anglesey quite liked him.

 

 

 

Well, these days such a history – though his family burned all the Marquess’ diaries and letters in disgust – is definitely one you can win with. And Davies makes it happen, playing poor Henry himself, with alongside him Matthew Blake as his theatrical follower and helper, and a comically dour Dylan Townley at a keyboard . The result is a strange wild camp and ultimately endearing squib, 75 minutes long, walking  a tightrope between revue (it began at Edinburgh) and commemorative sermon on individuality. In a spangled blue cocktail frock with a slit to reveal silk stockings Davies speaks and sings, sometimes faint and vulnerable and lonely, sometimes beltingly exhibitionist. There are jokes , as he and Blake go on tour, about the touring lives of actors, which are very funny (the “it went well’ chorus particularly telling).

 

 

There is real pain sometimes, though not often, and a proper sense of how confusing it is to be different in a world and rank that wants you solid and Imperial. It is the same message about cross-dressing eccentricity and self- assertion as in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: except of course that Jamie has a Mum who loves him, classmates who come round, and a 21st life. Oh, how we have come on…

 

 

Fine jokes work, not least a spoof interview with the Daily Mail in which he has to pretend he loves tweed more than spangles; but it is the portrait of poor brave extravagant Henry is as a man that sticks. 75 minutes was enough for this romp, but I wouldn’t mind a less arch, deeper imagined biography of him.

 

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 23 dec
rating four, for sheer oddity and rather nice music

4 Meece Rating

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LA SOIREE Aldwych, WC1

EROTICROBATICS, BANANAS, HIGH JINKS

 

 

Relief flooded in with the first act, Cabaret Decadanse from Montreal. Here was a larger-than-life lip-synching puppet diva made of glittering springs , doing a Shirley Bassey version of “If you could read my mind” while rather skilfully groping her own puppeteer’s bra. Splendid. This is what we came for. Then barely time to clap before Rajesh Amrale and Rajesh Mudki, fresh from Mumbai, sprang into action like twin Mowglis in extraordinarily graceful , rapidly accelerating poses and balances and twirls around a fat wooden pole. Next, to lower the tone a bit on came the pleasingly disreputable Mark and Svetlana from Vegas in leopardprint naffery (“Daredevil Chicken” they call themselves ). Their first of several turns was the classic gross-out of long-distance spitting into one another’s mouths. In this case not ping-pong-balls but fragments of banana. One, as it happened, landing in my ringside friend’s lap.

 

 

That one is never my favourite genre, but was somehow reassuring. The relief is because I had wondered whether La Soirée would work without the Spiegeltent on the South bank, the whiff of old hot-dogs and Thames fog. Would Brett Haylock’s fringe-born, “dysfunctional family” of new-variety acrobatics and cabaret be somehow selling out by coming in to the stately Aldwych Theatre? Has it gone all premium-price black tie on us?

 

 

Nope. None of that. Tickets from £ 17, stalls removed for those red folding chairs; a ring in front of the proscenium , a few table seats onstage, a drink in your fist, plenty of smoke and razzle. And – a plus – the full height of the space can be used to spectacular effect for higher aerialist turns than the old tent could accommodate. And actally, this year’s line-up is probably the best they’ve had yet, quite making up for the retirement from nude hanky frolics of Ursula Martinez (she’s up at the Soho by the way, in a new show). Daredevil Chicken were back several times, banana-free and really quite horribly brilliant in their Vegas way, and meanwhile we were dazzled repeatedly by acrobatics (in one case I find I wrote “eroticrobatics” . That was when Leon and Klodi slithered around one another, as if doing a neck-stand upside down on one’s partner’s shoulders was really pleasingly sensual rather than an oof-ouch! moment).

 

 

The sheer marvel of athleticism is an important part of new-variety evenings – a certain blindfold swinging and catching aloft was almost shocking – but in some ways it is pure beauty that stills the heart: Michele Clark’s manipulation of hoops is hypnotic, optically illusionist grace: the remarkable Fancy Chance may dangle alarmingly from her own hair but it is the swirling of her white angel-wing robe and the glitter of her spinning finale that entrance.

 

 

Favourite for me was the dryly, extravagantly witty turns of Amy G from New York. She can perform flamenco on roller-skates with sharp banter and male audience recruitment, deploy risqueé inappropriateess in a 10ft feather boa, caress helpless stage-seat chaps with “Ooh, my lipstick;s on your nose” and fondle men’s ears with her stiletto shoe. Nor do many shows feature a Trump-era rendering of “America The Beautiful” on what I can only call a genital kazoo.

 

 

And the Decadanse puppeteers were back twice, brilliantly. And yes, some stark nudity occurred, male this time and very funny, plus La Serviette, which is a masculine take on the fan-dance with tablecloths. They’re doing a petite soiree for the more easily shocked age group in the afternoon, but – despite a particularly interesting employment of a Beatle-wig as a temporary male merkin – there is nothing which is not , in the last analysis, absolutely admirable.
Well, except the soggy bananas. But no cabaret should take place entirely in anyone’s Safe Space, should it?

 

 

box office 0845 200 7981 http://www.la-soiree.com To Feb.

rating four

 

 

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QUIZ Minerva, Chichester

MULTIPLE CHOICE IN A MANIPULATED WORLD

 

 

“We in this country” says the red judge grandly “Do not have trial by media or by mobs”. Hmm. Tell that to anyone now staring confusedly at the wreckage of reputation and career because an employers took instant fright at a Twitterstorm. James Graham’s new play is a sharp-edged, finally rather poignant comedy which reimagines the affair of Major Charles Ingram. He was convicted – with his wife and a supposed accomplice – of fraud, after his 2001 win in ITV’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. The case was treated as riotous entertainment by he world’s media as m’learned friends argued over whether significant coughs from the studio audience had been giving him clues as he hesitated – rather showily – over multiple-choice double-your-money questions.

 

 

Characteristically intelligent and twistily playful, set on a hellishly shiny neon-edged TV-studio floor, the play explores the crossover between the serious and logical worlds of law and of democracy and the shimmer , manipulation and deception of light entertainment. Himself clearly a keen amasser of facts, Graham enters gleefully in to the world of quiz fanatics (Mrs Ingram and her brother were obsessive autodidacts and Millionaire addicts) . The light-hearted first part of Daniel Evans’ showy production brings gales of laughter as he explains the development of quiz shows from the 70s, with Keir Charles nailing it not only as Chris Tarrant but as Des O”Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth; there is a Syd-Yobbo sketch of the head of ITV programmes David Liddiment, and Greg Haiste slimily watchful as the Celador creator of Millionaire, accurately targeting the psychology of competitive greed, tension, trivia-addiction and the fact that audiences really like to see people sweat. How far these shows were precursors of today’s reality TV becomes suddenly clear. So is Graham’s merciless exploration of the “profiling” of competitors , and the makers’ irritation whentoo many Millionaire candidates were straight, male, middle-class know-alls like the Ingram family, rather than their wider target audience desired. Did this influence the case they built? The edited tapes which made the coughing louder? Who knows?

 

 

The first half had me a bit impatient, fun though it was, because the queasy, toxic, exploitative world of light-ent TV is almost too well evoked. Mr Evans could well trim some of the immersive pub-quizzery (though the electric voting lanyards we all wear have a vital role at the end). But Graham’s gift is always for curious, not unkindly observation of the way that people are. So the human story at its core intensifies, and saddens. GAvin Spokes as Ingram himself is marvellous: a dutiful soldier now deskbound in Procurement: not the brightest, a bit bumbling but entirely decent , worried by his wife and brother-in-law’s obsession. He is drawn into it and coached by his wife as the next family candidate (the session where he learns 90’s pop culture factoids is wonderful, involving both a Hilda Ogden cameo on the revolving ring round the arena and a rendering of Ian Gow’s speech against TV in Parliament (a sharp Graham point here about government-by-personality: topical again on the very day of Gordon Brown’s glum Today interview about why we didn’t love him enough).

 

 

 

The defending barrister’s speech is electric, and the winner’s downfall despite it intensely affecting. In our preent age of public shaming, it is salutary to remember that apart from him resigning his commission and military identity, the Ingrams family had their home attacked, children bullied, dog kicked to death and pet cat shot. Evans and Graham stage that last fact so sharply, shamingly and gently that you shudder. Britain can be vile. Doubt still hangs over the conviction: we all had to vote at the end, and on the opening night it was Not Guilty.

 

 

extended: http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 December
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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WAIT UNTIL DARK New Wolsey Ipswich, & touring

LIGHTS OUT,, CLUTCH YOUR SEAT

 

To be honest I was slightly daunted by the PR point that Karina Jones is the first blind actress in recent years to play Susy (hers was the Audrey Hepburn part in the 1967  film, based like Dial M for Murder on a stage play by Frederick Knott). Though disability casting is great, it felt a bit like special pleading. But Alistair Whatley’s Original Theatre Company tours some terrific work, so I went along and found myself wrong.

 

For Karina Jones is well worth seeing anywhere (she doubles as a circus-skills aerialist, by the way, clearly not a woman to be daunted by anything). And the credibility of her moves, negotiating with accustomed skill round the detailed basement-flat set, is obviously greater than most sighted actors could convey.

 

 

 

But more than that, she has a quality about her – a sort of valiant glamour – which absolutely matches the role of Suzy, beleaguered in her flat with her husband lured away, vulnerable but steely, grasping at straws of understanding while three con-men manoeuvre through the doll-cocaine-smuggling-hospital-double-dealing-telephone-call intricacy of Knott’s plot. She’s wonderful.

 

 

 

Well supported, too. Shannon Rewcroft is the Awful Child Gloria who helps out with shopping (she becomes vital in the second act, very funny and spookily convincing as an 11-year-old ) . And the criminals are good. In particular Tim Treloar as Roat, the murderous one, exudes an excellent suave nastiness, and Jack Ellis hs a credible helplessness as the supposedly friendly one, while he and Graeme Brookes’ Croker try to work well outside their smalltime comfort zone under the evil Roat.

 

 

 

The plot could become a little tiresome, were it not that our focus is so strongly on Karina Jones: a modern feminist sensitivity applauds her brilliance in gaining advantage by disabling all the lights (total darkness, of which Ipswich was sternly warned, no leaving your seat). So I got a bit irritable when Roat seemed to be getting the upper hand by mere boring old-fashioned Hitchcock violence.
But it did the business, got both gasps and the odd whimper from a keen audience, and is altogether one of the classiest of thrillers, neatly done. And I want more of Karina Jones.
box office 01473 295900 to 11 Dec http://www.wolseytheatre,co.uk

Touring Mouse widetouring on to Cardiff, YOrk , Guildford till 2 Dec http://www.waituntildark.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP Touring East

LITTLE NELL, ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

 

Of all Dickens’ works this – originally a serial so gripping that American readers rushed the docks for the new edition – is such a farrago of preposterous, barnstorming picaresque sentimentality that the Irish leader Daniel O”Connell famously burst into tears at the ending, and threw it out of a train window. Oscar Wilde on the other hand said you’d need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
Perfect for the tirelessly prolific duo of Common Ground – Julian Harris and Pat Whymark – to take up, shake about, and tour with their trademark combination of shoestring inventiveness and Whymark’s evocative music.

 

 
So we have Harries (who also designed the extremely portable one-night-at-a-time set) as Nell’s Grandfather . And, with a sub-Sewell accent, as the venal notary Mr Brass. There’s a splendid Eloise Kay as 13-year-old Nell, doubling entertainingly in the same frock, give or take a mob-cap or two, as a terrified Mrs Quilp and the downtrodden maid “Marchioness”. Joe Leat is a foul-spoken Scott, feckless brother Fred and others – most memorably the boot-faced Sally Brass, in a sort of clerical hat and world-beating deadpan scowl. Tristan Teller is among others a rather beguiling Dick Swiveller in purple velvet and high boots, and Ivan Wilkinson most memorable when being the villainous Quilp. Not perhaps quite as dwarfish or hunched as Dickens wanted him in those more robust days, but stubbily vigorous in his evildoing as he cheats the sweet pair out of their Curiosity Shop and provokes their tremendous road-trip across the Midlands encountering every kind of rogue, kindly helper, employer and entertainer dear to the heart of Charles D while the Quilpies plot and pursue from the London end.

 

 

 
My reaction formed a wavering graph: pleased at the framing of it in DIckens’ own wanderings through the London streets, dipping a bit in the first act as the Dickens rhetoric can feel less than convincing on modern lips, but rising to real solid pleasure in the second half. Much of this is to the credit of Whymark’s live music – deep double-bass, guitar, and occasional squeezebox weaving atmosphere and accompanying songs which have a sense both of folksong and Victorian parlour ballad. The schoolmaster’s story of fevers and the song in the Staffordshire potteries send a real shiver down the spine, evoking a suddenly vivid sense of place and time; Dickens’ poeticism suddenly becomes sincere, the villainy richer and nastier, the nuances of Grandfather’s dependency more obvious.

 

 

A rambling tale rambled to its conclusion.   And I begin to suspect that Daniel O’Connell threw the serial out of that window as much in chagrin because it was over as in grief for the offstage demise of Nell. I often feel the same myself at the end of a good Le Carré.

 

In Ipswich next week 01473 211498
Touring Mouse wideTouring on till 25 Nov: information 07928 765153 wwwcommongroundtc.co.uk

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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YOUNG MARX The Bridge, SE1

ROISTERING AND REVOLUTION

 

There is a nice contrarian quality about Nicholas Hytner’s choice for his first production, in the dramatically beautiful new theatre he founded with Nick Starr. Outside is the new Ivy, a river view of the Tower and its bridge and grand modern signage. Inside a chic wide foyer, noble staircase, elegant balconies, leather-trimmed seats… and on this first night, frankly, anyone who is anyone in the social, high-financial and above all theatrical worlds. Dazzling.

 

 

Yet on the stage it is another London, Soho 1850: with Europe in restless disarray the young Karl Marx and  a half-starved rabble of emigré intellectuals huddle in filthy rooms, plotting the downfall of the capitalist society and avoiding the newly invented police. Marx has an  aristocratic Prussian wife at the end of her tether:  Jenny von Westphalen is, he explains airily “ is not adapted well to abject poverty”. She frets over her sick child and the bailiffs hammer on the door and remove all the furniture.  Which she could have redeemed, had the boozy wastrel  Marx not taken her last family heirloom to a pawnshop, been chased as a thief, shinned up a wall onto a lofty rotating London roofscape , run back home and dived up the chimney . Rory Kinnear’s Marx,  unrecognizably hirsute, does more physical stuff than you might expect of a towering economic  philosopher – diving into windows, chimneys, a cupboard, a chaotic duel and several low brawls , including a stonking one in the British Museum Reading Room which almost distracts poor Mr Darwin from his new mollusc.

 

 
As with Ianucci’s new film The Death of Stalin – set a communist century later –  Richard Bean and Clive Coleman in fact have not needed to embroider much. Marx and his mates did find shelter here, and he did carouse and neglect his family’s welfare while he was blocked or unwilling to get on with some work on Das Kapital.  His friend Engels (played by Oliver Chris with an exasperated decency that makes a good foil) did at least meet and record the really downtrodden industrial proletariat of Manchester: he has a fine speech about them which at one stage cuts hard across the rumbustious selfishness of Marx.

 

 
It is as much a personal as a political-historical story: Marx’s heroic wife (a strong, gentle portrayal by Nancy Carroll)  and his equally heroic housekeeper Nym struggle to keep both the family and the flame of revolution alive, hoping that the English poor will understand it and rise. Others in the ramshackle cell, like the menacingly absurd Frenchman Bathelemy -(Milton Yerolemou) want to do it faster, through terrorism and assassinations.  Which feels eerily topical.

 

 

Threaded  through the comedy (sometimes sitcom-broad, often bawdy, shading to darkness later)   Marx spouts shreds of social theory, whether to a whelk-girl or while unaccountably stealing a gate.  Kinnear gives him flesh whenever he can, for all the bawdy: he knows that “I have killed our marriage” and that the Manifesto, written a few years earlier with Engels, had already cost lives across Europe with the “virus of hope”. And there was a nice murmur from the stalls at “there will come a day when the markets have crashed. Money has eaten itself”. But it is family sadness which gets him working again in the final quiet lamplight (Engels obviously paid for the lamps. And paper. Genius demands such service).

 

 

The play sometimes felt a bit disconnected, between historic politics and the broad larking. But its revolutionary paupers got their applause from the not-at-all broke first night crowd. And I have a hunch that it will find its feet better , the laughs sharper, with a younger, wider audience. The rudery, the angry clever poverty and laddish mateship of the tale may strike its surest notes  with the new theatre’s promised15 and 25 quid seats. All the sightlines, after all, are excellent, so the balconies are just fine. And Hytner and Bean know a thing or two about audiences for unlikely comedies after One Man Two Guvnors.  I sense a Cunning Plan. The launch was grand, but it’ll be the run that proves it.

 

box office 0843 208 1846 http://www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 31 Dec
The play will be broadcast live on NT Live to 700 cinemas on 7 Dec
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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THE DREAM FACTORY Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS HALF-TERM HEAVEN AT NORWICH PUPPET THEATRE

“Have you ever wondered where dreams come from? Or how they get into your head?” A thought-provoking debut production from House of Stray Cats, The Dream Factory takes us on an intriguing creative journey into the sometimes dark, sometimes brilliant world of dreams from the point of view of Sophie, a young girl who has suddenly lost her ability to dream. Picking up on the sensitive, courageous spirit of recent works for children like Inside Out, The Dream Factory eventually finds Sophie a new way to dream happily again, but, like life, this is isn’t a straightforward journey. Sophie has plenty of adventures along the way, some dreams that go wrong, and even a nightmare, all animated by beautiful puppets who swoop, swirl and swim before us, sometimes floating right up into the audience to interact with delighted children.

Sophie herself is a puppet, and we have a cast of three fully integrated actor-puppeteers who also appear as characters in the action in their own right, while also voicing the puppets we meet: Katriona Brown, Nicole Black and prime mover Maia Kirkman-Richards, who has also written and produced the show, as well as designing and creating the wider cast of puppets. A vividly evocative soundscape by Paul Mosley illustrates each change in mood as the story unfolds with a flowing combination of synths, piano, strings and other electronic samples, bolstered here and there with percussive ‘found sounds’ (like crunching glass) to give texture. We get plenty of good songs – setting Kirkman-Richards’ naively poignant lyrics to simple, clear melodies ideal for children – though the rest of the piece relies mainly on physical theatre and puppetry, largely ‘voiced’ with inarticulate gasps, cries or sighs, rather than any extended wordy narrative. This comparative wordlessness, outside the songs, allows the production to engage even the youngest children, while its elegant dreamscapes appeal visually to young and old. A simple set of white wooden furniture (designed by Maia Kirkman-Richards and Peter Morton) begins as Sophie’s bedroom, but wardrobe, bed and dressing table soon evolve dynamically into mountains, waves and the Dream Factory itself: like a dream, the action constantly develops, and often in unexpected or unspecified directions. Our own imaginations, happily, get to fill in the tantalising gaps.

Although Inside Out and Up were groundbreaking in their unflinching psychological detail after the shiny Disney universe which had held sway over children’s entertainment for so long, emotional seriousness has always been the backbone of any good children’s story, all the way back to the dark, disturbing tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Dream Factory deals with profound themes of grief, loss and fear in a constructive, original spirit which does not seek to minimise or ignore pain, but rather to acknowledge it, accept it and watch life move beyond it into something not necessarily better, but different and more bearable. It’s an enchanting, enlightening and ultimately comforting watch.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

[Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 23 October 2017]

Touring across the UK until 14 November: details and tickets here Touring Mouse wide

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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INSIGNIFICANCE Arcola, E8

THE SCIENTIST AND THE SEX SYMBOL, IN A PARANOID WORLD

 

 

The uneasy 1950s: Albert Einstein is exiled in America and called to appear before the unAmerican Activities committee for the “are you or have you ever been..?” question. But he has barely got rid of Senator McCarthy before he gets a surprise visit from a restless, intellectually ambitious Marilyn Monroe who wants to talk Relativity. And whose furious husband Joe Di Maggio will shortly hammer on the door to confront her.  Terry Johnson’s 1982 imagining, rooted in history, scientific thought and profound human need, still sparks brightly.

 

 

Because any good play explodes  into fresh topicalities. This imagined night in 1954 has been a 1985 film and a few revivals (notably one set intimately in an actual hotel room). But here and now, in the almost equally intimate Arcola atmosphere, it radiates current themes.  The age of nuclear dread is back, after all, and Einstein’s regret about what his discoveries led to, sharp at the  play’s end, is for us too. America is again producing rightist thugs with a morbid dread of the unAmerican world; only instead of McCarthyist accusations today we have fake news. And – God help us – the poisonous topic of celebrity and exploited , dishonourde female beauty could hardly be more bang-on.

 

 

David Mercatali’s production is beautifully acted by all four of the – teasingly unnamed  – protagonists.  Simon Rouse as The Professor has a deceptively vague but suddenly sharp, always kindly sweetness: Alice Bailey Johnson’s breathy Monroe develops convincingly – dropping the famous littlegirl tones – into the restive thwarted intelligence Johnson imagines. Her expatiation  on the mysteries of relativity with balloons, toy trains , Mickey Mouse ears and hand-torches is entrancing, her final distress dark and wrenching.  Tom Mannion is a a superbly crass Senator Mc Carthy  (“the whole damn war [WW2] was a Soviet plot”). Oliver Hembrough as Joe di Maggio hardly stops chewing and popping his Hubbla Bubbla gum, even when threatening the other men or expressing husbandly outrage (“never put a woman on a pedestal, it makes it easy for her to kick your teeth down your throat”. He keeps the gum going , whether wooing his wife, entering into a bizarre philosophical debate on subjective reality with the Senator, or enumerating how many bubblegum card collections he figured in over his glory decades on the baseball field. Einstein can only compete by citing his appearance in the Great Scientific Discoveries series.
 

For all the comedy, they each fill the parts with humanity, moving the atmosphere away from mere Stoppardian clevertalk (though I do love the Schrodinger’s cat joke). The sparring wit is never far from a kind of sweetness and sadness . Especially from the Professor – “”I want to finish my work and slip off the edge of this dreary painful plant as Columbus sadly never did..”. But it is also there in  Joe Di Maggio ‘s hurt cry to his damaged, tricky wife – “how can a man make love to a wound?”. That turns sympathy on a sixpence: he is no longer just an ape in a suit.
By the way the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, lately adopted to ginger-up into that baggy Simon Stephens romcom, is here a deft grace note at the end : it reflects Monroe’s victimhood as an object of fame, since  “the fact of observing something changes it ”. Not, in her case, for the better.

 

 

020 7503 1646 to 18 nov
rating fourn4 Meece Rating

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A DAY BY THE SEA Southwark, SE1

AFTER THE WARS WERE OVER…

 

 

This is a lovely rediscovery, the kind of thing Two’s Company has repeatedly offered us in this enterprising theatre (we owe them those extraordinary WW1 plays “What the women did”, and the rare , fascinating “The Cutting Of The Cloth”. Both here on theatrecat. archive, below.

 

 

 

This is a substantial, gently-moving play – 2 hrs 45 minutes – but in its meditation on life, attrition, middle-aged disappointment, family entanglements and memory it is as engrossing as Chekhov can be. But it is set nearer in time – 1953 – and closer to home: N.C.Hunter was a West End monarch in the age of Rattigan, and this ran for a year with Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Gielgud ( it was the play during whose run he was actually arrested for cottaging ). He was, like Rattigan and Coward and others, swept out of memory by the Angry Young Men and the Tynan-led revolt against anything involving a drawing room. But in its portrait of midlife, mid-century feelings and doubts and hopes it is fascinating. Some of its emotions are universal and perennial, others deeply rooted in that uneasy post-war time, and in villas like this, away from the city.

 

 

 

20c history is an offstage but vital character. Laura (Susan Tracy) ,the widowed hostess and worried kindly matriarch, has flashes of pure anger at the statesmen who in her lifetime allowed ‘two immense wars and Europe bankrupt’. Julian her son (John Sackville) , is a workaholic, primly. bespectacled and Brylcreemed middling civil servant in the FO. He seems a chill prig but passionately dreams of a tranquil world future , and burns at his dismissal from the Refugee Committee work in Paris. The sense of a world battered by war, searching for equilibrium, wanting to believe in something, is everywhere.

 

 

All the generations have their own struggle. Laura cares for ancient uncle David, nearing his end (a nicely cantankerous David Whitworth). Frances, who grew up there, is visiting with her children and her plain, sad shy nanny miss Matheson (Stephanie Willson). Alix Dunmore as Frances is wispy and sad, widowed by war then shamingly divorced: yet a fascinating portrait of female strength gradually asserting itself, even at its own cost. And in the authentic spirit of postwar compromise and muddle, the household is completed by David Acton as an alcoholic doctor who has – we slowly learn – lost everything and is hired to help old Uncle David. Acton is wonderful, in a wonderful part full of desperate jocose gaiety and banked-down anger at the crazy world: funny, moving, a vital source of the play’s energy, keeping it from mere melancholy. His comradeship with David Gooderson’s family lawyer – who also has a history of regret – is wonderful.

 
Tricia Thorns’ production is strongly paced, but what has to be remembered –  and this applies also to this week’s Oscar Wilde north of the river – is that before TV ruined our attention span, stage plays though it no harm to start slowly, conversationally, almost banally, and work up slowly to their crises. Wilde seasons the wait with epigrams, rather too familiar now; but Hunter does not. So yes, at first it could feel slow.

 

 

 

But  tough directors are right to eschew panicky cutting , and make us all damn well sit still as we would have in 1953, and let the characters grow into reality at their own pace. It is rewarding. It rises to strong, thrilling emotional scenes – some wholly unexpected, even for the seemingly drabbest. Nor is there a cosy last-act resolution, as some might fear in such a middle-British mid-century play.  We do get the new moon moment at dusk (beautiful lighting all through, in Alex Market’s set of overlapping frames with old -ashioned photo corners ). But the balance of hope and resignation in the last act is pure Chekhov, and despite a lovely metaphor Hunter does not insult us with pat answers .
I am glad to have seen it. You have, I fear, only nine more days to do so.

 

 

BOX OFFICE 020 7407 0234 WWW.Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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ALBION Almeida N1

O ENGLAND IS A GARDEN…

 

There’s a lawn and a vast magnificent tree. In dim moonlight before the start a figure in khaki – could be any war – kneels to feel the earth. Your mind flits to every subaltern war- poet dreaming of country houses; a Forty-Years-On mood flickers.  The title has made its intention clear. Yet in the event Mike Bartlett’s play – directed by Rupert Goold – mercifully does not hammer home its metaphors about England, changing values, retrospection, regeneration. You can pick them up, or not bother.

 

 

For it is an intimate epic of one family, and the lost soldier is specific. He was the heroine Audrey’s son, blown up in one of our inconclusive modern conflicts. It is his absence, and his ashes, which dominate the play’s emotional explosions. And how! After the trauma of the TV Doctor Foster saga, if there is one thing we know Mike Bartlett can create  it is an obsessively barmy woman who in the grip of outrage and personal entitlement will stop at nothing. There are two, or possibly three of these  in this long play (just over three hours). Only the brilliance of the writing, a welcome satirical edge in the first hour and some remarkable breathtaking performances all through prevent it feeling like a Hampstead Novel made flesh.

 

 

 

Both Audrey and Anna’s behaviour hover often on the edge of psychological incredibility – especially if you actually are a woman – but then so have all the great tales from Medea to Lady Macbeth. And there are moments where Victoria Hamilton’s Audrey and Helen Schlesinger’s Katherine circle one another like panthers: scenes so stunning, so eloquently perfect in every tone, gesture, word, half-laugh and expression, that the sheer dazzle of it silences criticism.

 

 
Audrey is a chic businesswoman – owns shops where everything is white . She has abandoned London with her languid second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) and her aghast millennial daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope), a  Cambridge graduate with Camden attitudes  who is working as a marketing intern for a publisher (there is perhaps tiresomely much in this play about literary ambition, but this is Islington after all). Anyway, Audrey has bought a 15-room manor house her uncle once owned, with a legendary garden designed in the 1920s and now derelict. She wants to recreate childhood memories and older ideas of grand house life with dressed-up parties and county style.

 

 

The early scenes are very, very funny, as her brisk controlling ways – echoes of every Victoria Wood posh-cow sketch – upset the veteran gardener and his slow-moving wife Cheryl the charlady (grand work from Christopher Fairbank and Margot Leicester) . She replaces Cheryl with a go-getting young Pole who works four times as fast, and the village hates her as she bars them from their traditional fetes in the Big House garden. Visiting is her college friend, the crop-haired, satirically laughing boho lesbian novelist Katherine. Like the bored husband (Rowe is very funny indeed) Katherine provides more laughs and perspective. But fifty minutes in, as Audrey clashes over the ashes with the dead son’s girlfriend Anna (Vinette Robinson) there is a turnaround. Bartlett forces us to accept that even an irritating memsahib draped in asymmetric oatmeal cashmere and business-school ethics can suffer deep, disabling grief.

 

 

 

Something Audrey has done, in her unshareable maternal mourning, enrages Anna: who despite only dating the son for three months has her own tendency to possessive entitlement. Indeed if you get lulled into thinking that you are watching a decorously entertaining tragicomedy with some nice choreographed entr’acte shrub-planting, brace yourself. By the end of the 95-minute first act it goes the full hyperGoold: thunderstorm, heavy real rain, furiously demented sexual raving in wet earth, and a shock announcement. And that is even before the stinger involving Katherine and Zara, and another demonstration of breathtakingly selfish parasitical entitlement from Anna as she and Audrey grapple for possession of the soldier’s memory.

 

 

Nobody behaves rationally – except surprisingly, the husband, and less surprisingly the Polish cleaner. The London business in the background wobbles, as it would; Audrey’s retro dream dies. Or does it? I have to say that the ending convinced me not at all. But after those marvellous performances, excellent startling laughs and virtuoso explosions of OTT DoctorFosterism, one forgives much. Not all, but much.

 

 

Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 24 November

Principal Partner; Aspen
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE Vaudeville, WC1

OSCAR’S BACK!   IN THE VERY WEEK OF HIS BIRTHDAY…

 

 

A theatrical phenomenon of the 20th century is that some of the most perceptive parts for women were written by gay men: Tennessee Williams, RattiganM Noel Coward; Alan Bennett kindly, Joe Orton cruelly. And, in this case, Oscar Wilde. Because of The Importance Of Being Earnest with its demurely comic Gwendolen and Cicely and absurd Prism, we can forget that he had a savage anger about social justice for women: powerful unease about the double sexual standard and a bracing admiration for tough, outspoken American womanhood. His was, remember, the time when squads of wealthy US girls like Jennie Churchill were coming over and improving our aristocratic breeding-stock no end.

 

 

Of all the plays this is the most melodramatically and explicitly angry: at its heart is the long-wronged, virtuously hiding Mrs Arbuthnot, who finds out at a brittle social house-party that her illegitimate son Gerald has met her faithless lover – now titled and powerful – and been taken on as his secretary. There are terrific, and unfashionable, set-pieces: in among the excellent and familiar epigrams come long speeches of great earnestness both in favour of ‘virtue’ and against it.

 

 

 

But it bounces along, director Dominic Dromgoole allowing absurdity (borderline clowning at times) to keep the mood moving. The casting is wonderful: Eleanor Bron ,as arch as her own eyebrows, expresses aged aristocratic complacency and a throttling dominance of her husband. Anne Reid exudes daffy benevolence , and both senior ladies have split-second comic timing, and can throw lines away so that they explode unexpectedly a second later, and we guffaw). Harry Lister Smith is a sweetly tousled, eager Etonian Gerald, Emma Fielding the cynical Mrs Allonby, Crystal Clarke the priggish American reformer who comes good in the end.

 

Dominic Rowan makes a convincing coxcomb as the seducer. Gorgeous nonsensical cameos are added by William Gaunt’s senile Archdeacon, William Mannering as a drunk lordling, and Phoebe Fildes as poor dim young Lady Stutfield. But at its heart is Eve Best: mournful and troubled in black velvet, hair tumbling, a humble church-mouse amid the quipping brittle socialites. Her wronged Mrs Arbuthnot is the emotional and moral core of the play, and her sincerity carries the melodramatic scenes – no small feat – to just within the bounds of modern tolerance.

 

 

 

As many don’t know the plot, no spoilers. But I will signal to you the production’s grand and suitable joke. Anne Reid, benignly smiling as our stately hostess, turns out to have a fabulous knack for singing the most sentimental and minatory of Victorian parlour songs, trilling thrillingly in a character so extreme that I thought my late and shameless Granny was back to haunt me . She does three unexpected entr’acte moments, so that the three sumptuous sets (by Jonathan Fensom) can be changed in impressive silence as she emerges through the blue velvet curtains with her staff – and Ms Fildes – on fiddle, clarinet and guitars. Thus Reid belts out emotional renderings of “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother” and The Gypsy’s Warning, and we melt and cheer. Give that woman an album, now! These appearances, nicely introduced by her butler as if we were guests at the same social weekend, betray that Dominic Dromgoole, late of the warm and larky Shakespeare’s Globe, does not wish entirely to dispense with its spirit cosy inclusivity and confine his casts entirely behind a fourth wall.

 

 

Actually, talking of that, here’s a nice irony. This week Nicholas Hytner opens his new theatre, The Bridge, and you can hear him on Radio 4 musing on how the Victorian proscenium theatre, a gilded picture-frame, was ideal for plays up to 1950 but is problematic now. (R4 PLANKS AND A PASSION, 1130 tues 17th). While at the same moment Dominic Dromgoole – late of the Globe – begins his Classic Spring series by demonstrating, in this first Wilde revival, precisely how they did work for those plays and audiences.

 

 

 

But some things linger on for centuries. In this Harvey Weinstein week, there was not a little topicality in the theme of women being sexually shamed and hiding while men get away with it, “Women are pictures, men are problems” scoffs Lord Illingworth. His real nastiness emerges through the charm, just as the real pain of the second act gives a sharp sour jangle to the familiar epigrams. Wilde didn’t only use his teeth to smile.

 

 

box office Phone: 0330 333 4814 to 30 Dec
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BEGINNING Dorfman, SE1

 

LUKE JONES RELISHES ELDRIDGE ON MIDLIFE CHAOS

 

When the music stops and the lights click on, your first thought is ‘sweet Jesus what the hell went down at this party”?     I thought twenty year olds were bad. These two late thirty/early forty year olds were knee deep in bottles, stubbed out fags, plates, streamers, scuffs, spills and no doubt smells. They’re the only ones left,  and it’s her flat. It’s a housewarming which has noticeably cooled. But they’re staring at each other intensely.

 

 

 

David Eldridge’s new play is a tense, frustrating flirt. Laura and Danny (absolute champions Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton) don’t know each other but, over an hour and forty minutes,  dig an incredibly intense relationship. Like 2017 Pinter the majority of their chat is bleakly familiar, but still somehow thumps you in the feels. The plot is nicely thin; two strangers lost in loneliness, edging closer to life’s dusty shelf, fall in something resembling love. But Eldridge’s skill –  also down to Polly Findlay’s incredibly naturalistic direction – is in quietly cranking up the tension then puncturing it. Sometimes you feel the dramatist’s direction a little too much, but for the most part you can lose yourself in it. Towards the end as they strip almost naked, kiss and desperately cling to one another, Danny (after a corking pause) asks if Laura could flip the heating on. Reader, we roared.

 

 

Troughton steals the show with his nervy, boyish and damaged 42 year old Essexian. His drunken wobbles and neuroses are a photorealistic portrait. Theatrics  have been parked. Mitchell’s too is a witty performance which nimbly negotiates the gags cracking into profundities.

 

 

My only hesitation about this play is that occasionally – and very briefly –  the pace dipped and my interest slipped. And a few times Mitchell’s performance veered just far enough out of the outstanding naturalism  into something a smidge stagey. Also social media mentions occasionally feel a bit stale and forced, but it is set in 2015 and don’t forget these characters aren skirting forty so….y’know.

 

 

But these gripes are slight. ad I not brought my pen and sharped my critical binoculars as is normally my way, this all would probably have passed me by.   If you’re up for a bleak, honest, comparably brief manifesto for shaky late-love; strap in.

Luke Jones
Box Office: 020 7452 3000  to 14 November

rating  four 4 Meece Rating

 

 

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YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN Garrick SW1

A TRANSYLVANIAN TRANSPORT OF DELIGHT

 

 

Sometimes you just want a bit of fun. That is the moment to turn to Mel Brooks, master of daft parody. At 91, the master strode onstage tonight with director Susan Stroman, and told us that the only thing wrong with this glorious London launch of his 2007 Broadway show – his own musical based on his film – was that all us bastards got in free. Cue cheers, standing ovations and a wild hoofing reprise from the cast during which I fled to write this.

 

 

Because it is a pleasure to tell you that , whatever your doubts about making musicals out of beloved films, this one pretty much works just as well as The Producers did before it. And there is special satisfaction in letting Britain demonstrate that it can effortlessly raise a cast to delight the Brooks and Stroman and the rest of us. So you need a Gene-Wilder type, earnest and bewildered as the grandson of Viktor Frankenstein? We have Hadley Fraser. Want a crazy sinister old housekeeper with a terrifying goose-step and worrying erotic memories? Step forward Lesley Joseph. A diva for a mighty love song ? Dianne Pilkington. Were you worried that nobody can rock a humpback and a bat-flapping cloak like Marty Feldman in the film? Fear not, there’s Ross Noble. He has just the right manic edge. For a one-armed one-legged Mayor doubling as a blind bearded slapstick hermit we can offer Patrick Clancy, who even manages a unique transformation in the curtain call.

 

 

 

And when there is a need for a glorious, shameless, leg-flashing, top-hoofing comedy blonde bombshell who is able and willing to do the splits in frilly knickers on a sinister lab gurney without even holding the rusty chains, Britain can proudly supply a Strallen. Summer Strallen as Inga, in this case, and very fine too. So is the swing chorus: Nathan Elwick in particular getting a nice pair of cameos. Only The Creature himself is a US import – Shuler Hensley. And he played it on Broadway, so it would be criminal not to re-use his talent for roaring, stumping, staggering, and finally bursting into neat tap to Put On The Ritz before miraculously morphing into a Noel-Coward gentleman-roué.

 

 

So pure and almost constant pleasure, sharp and witty from Fraser’s opening number “There is nothing like a brain” which reassures us that Brooks is as determined to pay mocking homage to the musical genre itself as he was to 1930s horror films. It is slyly self-referential all the way through, the numbers echoing everything from Oklahoma to Les Miserables. Favourite jokes from the film are there in script, but it is the newness of the musical line that delights. Frankenstein’s frigid fiancée has a particularly original number Please Don’t Touch Me (“You can squeeze me till I scream, if it’s only in a dream”), waltzing touchlessly into a very good gag about Catholic girls’ schools. As for the hay-cart on which Inga takes Frankenstein to the castle (with splendid horse and wolf behaviour) words fail me. So enjoy hers – “When life is awful, just jump on a strawful, and have a roll in the hay”.

 

 

 

Any time, any time. Enjoy the daft jokes, relish the pace (only slows down a bit, in the villagers’ scenes, before the barnstorming Act 1 closer with the Creature rampaging down the aisle). Cheer for the splendidly disgraceful objectification of women with big breasts and a Creature with unusual endowment south of the belt. Take a happy break from news bulletins about Brexit. Mel Brooks loves us, so we must be all right after all.

 

box office 0844 482 9673 to 10 Feb.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE LIE Menier, SE1

FAITHFUL TO UNFAITHFULNESS, ZELLER SPARKLES AGAIN

 

 

This is a companion-piece to the stormingly funny, cruelly witty THE TRUTH: Florian Zeller, translated from the French with verve by Christopher Hampton, directed by Lindsay Posner, and once again starring Alexander Hanson. An actor who does wounded-insincere-yet-sufferingly- self-righteous infidelity like nobody else. Once again Zeller is playing around with the question of who is lying, who believes who, and who is pretending to lie in order to conceal that the lie is actually a truth, etc. It is not quite as chokingly and constantly funny as The Truth, which was the most sophisticated of farces in shorter sharper scenes. This one is more philosophical, with possible longueurs in at least one scene where the key couple are persuading one another to disbelieve the lie which they have told one another and which is – at some points – actually true.

 

 

Treble-bluff, whip-smart , and it is always entertaining to spot “tells” and think you know better than the protagonists. It begins with the deceptively simple fact that Alice – an elegantly businesslike Samantha Bond – wants to cancel a dinner with their closest friends Michel and Laurence, because she has seen Michel with another woman in the street and feels she should in honesty tell her friend. Her husband Paul – Hanson, who feels sympathy for Michel – says that it is kinder not to, and struggles in the dinner to prevent her having any time with Laurence.

 

 
But the very discussion of infidelity makes Alice, with righteous paeans to truth in marriage, ask him frankly whether he has ever cheated. And for a while we think aha, maybe this is the core of the plot, a solid marriage crumbling on suspicion for no real reason. At last her husband admits it, then says he made it up because she pushed him, so was lying about having lied. Whereon she says she has also cheated. And the complications mount as Michel (Tony Gardner, always a touch satanic) comes round to console the panicking Paul. And the diabolical truth-that-is a lie-about- the -ruth builds up between them and spills over into philosophical craziness and sometimes cruelly funny moments. Hanson, Bond and Gardner all have utter mastery of the half-noticed “tell”, and the faux-tell, so we are never entirely sure who is lying. Except that we pretty much reckon they all are. And in a final coda we find out anyway.

 

 

The laughs are sometimes pure happy shock, sometimes cruel : the blackmailing moral “you have to believe em if you want me to believe you” being pretty much the closest to an ethic we get. But Zeller does have a moral insight – note his remarkable The Father and The Mother, both recently in London . So one suspects that if you drill down, what he actually thinks is that that infidelity is not the end of the world.. So clever, entertaining, not quite the dazzler his other plays have been, but solid pleasure. Though one hopes Mrs May and Mr Davis don’t see it, or they’ll never trust a French negotiator again.

 

 

box office 0207 378 1713 to 18 Nov
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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RULES FOR LIVING Royal, Northampton & Touring

A FAMILY SITCOM UPS ITS GAME…

 

I didn’t much rate its premiere at the National in 2015, despite the achingly chic set I felt was “a kitchen-diner so huge and smart it makes David Cameron’s look poky”. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas, culminating in a very fine food-fight , never quite took off for me: never felt credible despite a top cast. To the extent that I got grumbly about one or two overly obvious gags, like the hyperactive son’s-girlfriend Carrie breaking a precious ornament to a cry of “It was my father’s!”.

 

 

But here’s a thing. In this new English Touring Theatre version directed by Simon Godwin and set in a less futuristic, more cosily domestic scene and in a proscenium theatre, it comes to life and moves closer to Ayckbournian quality. Holcroft’s idea is that people work by a set of rules, colourfully projected overhead, as in some nightmarish devised card game (one takes place in the second act). Thus Matthew can’t lie unless he’s sitting down and eating, his girlfriend Carrie has to dance around when joking until someone laughs, and Edith must self-medicate and clean things to keep herself calm, and so forth.

 

 

Sometimes this feels unnecessary and even intrusive, but at other times gets excellent laughs in its own right. The background to the idea is about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which discusses the use and misuse of rules which may be unachievable: Adam’s daughter Emma is upstairs refusing to get up for family dinner and suffering from fatigue syndrome, and early on there is anguished conversation about the psychological element which may be part of it. Though the fact that her mother Nicole has banished her ineffective husband to the Travelodge might be not unconnected to, as might uncle Matthew’s mawkish emotional dependence on his sister-in-law…

 

 

 

And so forth. But this time (maybe there were tweaks to the script as well?) the play feels unforced and rather touching. Jane Booker is quite wonderful as Edith the compulsively-cleaning, make-it-all-lovely mother, her comic timing fabulous. There’s great work from Carlyss Peer as the hyper Carrie and from  the infuriating Adam who uses accents and impersonations to disguise his sense of  not being wholly himself : both are very annoying characters who pull off the difficult trick of just managing not to alienate the actual audience. And Paul Shelley as the dreadful, monosyllabic, strokebound old wretch of a father does some high-quality scowling beneath his paper hat and – during the worst mayhem – sits eating a sprout on a fork with a magnificent satyr leer I cannot forget.

 

So it works. And the food fight is just as good as the one at the NT. Kev McCurdy as Fight Director , take a bow.

 

 

royalandderngate.co.uk until Sat 30 Sept but then TOURING  Touring Mouse widehttp://www.ett.org.uk
Cambridge next!

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE Marble Arch Theatre, W1

MICHAEL ADAIR GETS IN THE GROOVE

Sometimes the theatre can feel a little bit behind the times. The plots, the casts, the creatives and everything in between have yet to cease to amaze – but this is the age of Netflix, of ‘immersive cinema’, of a man selling a £1000 phone by telling us that ‘augmented reality’ is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. Indeed, when contrasted with all of these innovations in entertainment, stuffing yourself into a heavily carpeted space, with limited legroom and maybe a plastic cup of wine, makes a trip to the theatre, no matter how stunning the show, suddenly feel awfully old fashioned in its formality.

Step forward Five Guys Named Moe at the purpose-built Marble Arch theatre. Here, the venue in itself is an experience, intended as a homage to a 1940s jazz bar. Pre-show, a live band plays above a busy cocktail bar, where sharply dressed staff shake up typical New Orleans classics, Hurricanes and Whiskey Sours aplenty. The show is performed in the round – our cast sing and dance and move around the audience from a spinning circular platform, with the luckiest of ticket holders sitting at cabaret-club style tables in the very centre of proceedings.

The story, written by Clarke Peters, who also directs, is a simple one: Nomax, a borderline alcoholic who is having relationships troubles, is alternately comforted and challenged by a medley of Moes emerging from his radio to sing him the toe-tapping works of Louis Jordan. It’s a fast-paced, funny and stylish cabaret performance from an impressively talented cast, all of whom are terrific, and  bringing a different style and flavour to a  lesser- known back catalogue than you might find at Motown the Musical. Particularly noteworthy is the six-piece band, who are often present on stage alongside the performers – walking basslines, rumbling drums, wailing brass – it’s euphoric and perfectly matches the soft jazz-club lighting and smokey ambience.

The emphasis here is on fun – the plot is incidental to the sheer brilliance and dynamism of the performances, which  help ease the audience into some truly special shared moments – this was quite possibly the first time that I have participated in a cast-led, audience-wide conga line to the bar for the interval.  Long may this concept continue.

Some traditionalists might take issue with the thought of touching a fellow theatre-goer’s shoulders, or, God forbid, running the risk of making direct eye contact – but ignore them. Five Guys Named Moe is an absolute blast. Go on a Saturday night, bring some friends, order a drink (or several); it’s the about the only trace of Old Fashioned you’ll find at this theatre.

~ MICHAEL ADAIR

Until 17th February

Box Office – 03333 444 167
https://tickets.fiveguysmusical.com/london

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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THE KNOWLEDGE Charing Cross theatre SW1

THE CABMAN’S PROGRESS

 

It couldn’t be better placed, here in the arches below Charing Cross station. Under the venerable rules of London licensed cabs – dating back to the 1843 Act – “The Knowledge” that cabbies must have is centred right here. Fifteen thousand streets, within a six-mile radius of this very spot, must be memorized, along with hotels, public buildings and amenities thereon. Then on it goes to the suburbs. Only three in ten succeed in winning their badge; some take years, riding mopeds on the 468 prescribed runs (often at night or in the bleak dawn, around a day job). It is unique in the world.

 

 

So here at its centre, and in a year when the cheapskate, exploitative dark empire of Uber is fast eroding it, this is the place for a double act of commemoration. Jack Rosenthal’s well-loved film, set in 1979, has been adapted by Simon Black into theatrical shape and retains all the dry gentle wit, empathy and humane sweetness of the man. His widow, Maureen Lipman, directs it. So that’s one commemoration; the other is of the cabbies themselves. Who are still with us, surviving the age of vampiric digital minicabs and the customer parsimony which insouciantly drives costs and lesser incomes down. . It isn’t a storming, life-changing play, but it is an honest slice of life and in the second hour, surprisingly satisfying.

 

 

 

Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s nicely conceived set has traffic-lights, street signs, and three sparse domestic interiors below the high terrifying platform of the examiner Mr Burgess’ office, complete with the legendary toy parrot and bonsai tree. Up there Steven Pacey presides as an infuriating, whimsically bullying, ferretily- schoolmasterly figure (no surprise that the interval music includes PInk Floysd The Wall , with its “dark sarcasms”) .At the end of Act 1 Lipman gives us a nice coup de theatre as the cast’s voices become an echoing cacophony of streets, squares, turnings, fire stations , tunnels and warnings while the third candidate panics on the stairs. The evocation of mental stress jars your very teeth.

 

 

 

We are following the candidates, each with their domestic setting, some more finely drawn than others but all given typical Rosenthal sympathy. There’s James Alexandrou’s swaggering Gordon with his fed-up wife, Ben Caplan’s Ted, from a dynasty of Jewish cabbies, Louise Callagnan as a pioneering , tough-edged young woman candidate (this is 1979, remember) . Above all there’s young Fabian Frankel, fresh out of Lamda, as the feckless, jobless, unconfident Chris whose girlfriend (Alice Felgate) buys him a moped and nags him to do The Knowledge and make something of himself.

 

 

Their trajectory is the most interesting, as Chris, at first despairing of himself, gradually finds steely resolve until his girl, dismayed, realizes that as her role vanishes their relationship no longer works. Frankel does this butterfly emergence very well indeed, moving from petulance to resolve and finally to a warm self-amazement which turns your heart over. Ben Caplan and Jenna Augen as the Jewish pair carry their trajectory particularly well too.

 

 

And even Burgess – after enraging us and the candidates equally with his distraction techniques and evocation of awful punters during the bruising examinations – has a moment of sweet humanity. He was a cabbie too, and knows the horror of ”people..they mumble, can’t hear you, don’t know where they’re going..” But as Callagnan’s Miss Staveley says, struggling with her rage at Burgess’ demonstration of the sexual baiting she will get, “I always have to be the better man, Sir”. That, and young Frankel,  and long gratitude to our unique cabbies, won the fourth mouse.

I was going to take the Tube afterwards, but took a cab instead. In tribute.

 

 

box office 020 7930 5868 to 11 Nov
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DOUBT – A PARABLE Southwark Playhouse, SE1

HARRIDAN OR HEROINE..?

 

 

The feminist “Bechdel Test” for fiction says that there must be conversations between two women which are not about men. John Patrick Shanley’s tight Pulitzer winner (2005) passes spectacularly, being set in a small convent school in the Bronx in 1964. An innocent hopeful young Sister James faces up stern Sister Aloysius : a principal so fiercely doctrinal that she thinks Frosty the Snowman is heretical paganism. But once updates about Class 8 are done with, they actually are discussing a man, though not romantically. This is the priest, dashing young Father Flynn who plays basketball with the kids and delivers daring sermons about the need for doubt in faith.

 

 

Sister Aloysius doesn’t like him: when the young teacher confides that he has befriended a vulnerable 12 year old, the only black child in the school and seen him alone, she suspects what, with real-life retrospection, we all do. In a tight 90 minutes, on an elegantly simple stained-glass floor with us ranged around as if at a boxing-match, doubt and suspicion play out in a duel between the sour, savvy old nun and the priest. Who may or may not be guilty – Shanley wants us not to know. Certainly his cuddlier, informal, post-Vatican-2 approach makes him appeal strongly to the younger nun, warning “There are people who will go after your humanity, kill kindness in the name of virtue”.

 

 

 

With a very sharp Stella Gonet as the merciless, but personally tormented principal, Che Walker’s production is often breath-holdingly tense, more indeed than the film with Meryl Streep was. The first spontaneous exit-round of applause was for Jo Martin as the black boy’s mother, a bulwark of dignity just glad to have him “safe” in a decent school with prospects and flatly refusing to help rock the boat . The authentic voice of 1960’s minority pragmatism speaks in her shocking words “You accept what you gotta accept and you work with it…maybe my son IS that way..Let him have him then. It’s just till June”.

 

 

 

That plays ironically against Sr.Aloysius’ refusal to accept the limitations of her own status, all too familiar to us 1960s convent girls who well remember how in rigid Catholic authority the callowest young priest held patriarchal authority over even the wisest veteran Mother Superior. “There are parameters” says the principal bitterly “which protect him and hinder me”. After the real abuses uncovered in Boston, Ireland and elsewhere over past decades, many a Catholic nun who didn’t blow the whistle will wince at that. Yet in Gonet’s uncompromising performance the curmudgeonly, bitter Sister Aloysius is no saint herself.

 

 

So is he guilty? It is by disingenuous manoeuvre that the nun finds victory, and we are not permitted to know. But Jonathan Chambers as the priest offers enough clues to make us uneasy. It is not just in choleric outbursts and Shanley’s lines (who, in full innocence, answers a straight accusatory question with “Did YOU never do anything wrong?”) but also in a certain flirtatiousness in his basketball training scene. But maybe he is just suffering from the now endemic suspicion caused by real priestly abusers. It feels timely, uncomfortable, and riveting: a worthy revival. So much sanctimony has veiled horrible crimes that for all our distaste we’re right alongside  Gonet when he pleads “Where is your compassion?” and she snaps, a heroic harridan “Nowhere YOU can get at it!”.

 

 

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 30 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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FOLLIES Olivier, SE1

BROADWAY BABIES IN A BITTER LOVELAND

 

Last time the Olivier stage was this populous was for AMADEUS, with the entire Southbank Sinfonia clambering, flowing and sliding around the stage, shaping and re-forming to play celestial Mozart harmonies on the move. This time it is full of feathers and fans, satin and sequins and spectacular hoofing (choreography by Bill Deamer, brilliant both in precision and character moments – Tracie Bennett, take a faux-hobbling bow. . The music is stunningly directed by Nigel Lilley, and a highly decorative ensemble surrounds four principals and standout cameos. It’s a showbiz dream and nightmare performed, under Dominic Cooke’s bold direction, without an interval in two hours 15 minutes flat.

 

 

 

Not a harsh word can be uttered about any of the big Sondheim numbers, or against the stellar cast – especially the women. Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Tracie Bennett , Josephine Barstow – be still my beating heart! Nor can you not fall heavily for Di Botcher doing Broadway Baby in an Angela Merkel pant-suit, or fail to nod approval at the inclulsion of a high-kicking Strallen (Zizi this time, gotta have one at least: and her reaction acting as a younger Phyllis is outstanding). And never regret seeing Peter Forbes as the maritally disappointed Buddy, acing both his numbers: a heartbreaking The Right Girl and a final hypervaudeville patter-pastiche complete with a BennyHill chase.

 

 

 

Yet it’s a curious beast, this show. To this devoted Sondheimista who had never seen it perfomed but wept at the attrition of lives in Merrily We Roll Along, gasped at Assassins and Sweeney Todd and thrice worshipped Gypsy with Imelda Staunton, it struck a curiously chill, almost bland note. Which is not the fault of the conception – an artful game of duality between past and present, naturalism and pastiche- nor of the production, because any chance of real transmission of feeling is taken seriously: notably by an endearing Staunton and a waspish Dee. Maybe it just feels chilly because that is its theme: the ruins and regrets of mid-life, the attrition of age, the way that feather-helmeted showbiz glamour fades to middle age, a metaphor for the universal loss of youth’s sheen and ambition. And there are nice swipes of disgust at the roles life throws at women getting older: “You’re a wide-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp..” sings the ineffably funny Tracie Bennett as Carlotta, briefly stealing the show with “I’m still here”.

 

 

 

It’s not a complicated idea. Under a nicely half-demolished, backstage-cluttered set of the Weinstock Follies (“Celebrating the American Girl”) a final reunion of the old “girls” sees a meeting of two old flatmates: Staunton’s effervescent awkward Sally and Dee’s cool, queenly Phyllis. Their respective husbands, successful Ben (Philip Quast, terrific) and salesman Buddy have come reluctantly. They know it’ll be trouble, and it is, as the foursome’s middle-aged interactions interlace with their young selves, wandering through memory, dancing the old dance of emotional entanglement which saw Sally and Ben marrying the wrong ones. Mature dishonesties and delusions melt as the evening gets drunker (a bold and wise stroke from Cooke to run it without an interval: we’re at that party). It culminates in a spectacular eightsome-riot melting into four great “Loveland”  set-pieces,  mocking vaudeville parodies of real and tearing emotions.

 

It is all done brilliantly, as well as it could be, and yet does not quite move the heart. Even – no, especially – in the redemptive moments at the end. So a grand entertaining evening, and some of the showiest showbiz in town. But the eyes stay dry.

 

box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3 Jan

On screens nationwide 16 nov http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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LOOT Park Theatre, N4

 

THE BAD BOY WE NEEDED ONCE , AND STILL DO

 

 

The corpse is the talking point and to some extent the star. Certainly Anah Ruddin, hopping out of the coffin spry as a fox for the curtain call, is rightly given centre stage: well deserved for her preternatural ability to keep still and flop with horrid corpsy helplessness, even when being s propped upside down in a cupboard. Or stripped butt-naked of her WRVS uniform while half-straddled by Sinead Matthews,,  parcelled in sheeting and old tights, and generally manoeuvred mercilessly by Sam Frenchum as her panicking son and Calvin Demba as his bisexual boyfriend and fellow-robber Dennis.

 

Yes, it’s Joe Orton’s LOOT back for the 50th anniversary of his violent and premature end. And Michael Fentiman’s production not only reverses the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on using a real and visible actress as the dead body, but reinserts certain banned lines , apropos Jesus Christ being framed. Which, of course, He was, if you come to think about it. It’s in the gospels. But as Inspector Truscott piously says, “the Authorities no doubt had good reason for framing him”.

 

 

I sometimes feel a wobble in seeing Orton again, with his rhetorical flights and superbly absurd one-liners . In this caper about a bank robbery’s takings being stashed in a coffin, there are plenty of both -“But what will you do when you’re old?” “I shall die”. But early in the first act, the banter between the robbers did for a moment feel stilted, out of time: it was wise of Fentiman to play a bit of Mary Whitehouse sententiousness in voiceover at the start, to put us in period.

 

 

But the play picks up fast. Sinead Matthews as the murderous nurse is fabulous, never missing as she fires off Orton’s drop-dead lines with pinpoint timing and a nice air of disdainful confidence. Christopher Fulford’s Truscott shouts a lot, but that is what he is there for .   Ian Redford as the grieving husband , a simpleton finally rising to indignation just as the rest of the rogues finally shaft him, is memorable, providing the moments of real pathos which make us indignant.

 

 

And that’s the point. Orton doesn’t want us shocked at what the censor called his “repellent atmosphere”, but at institutions and hypocrisies: the overbearing, incomprehensible, patriarchal domineering, unquestionable and nit-picking authority represented by Truscott. “If I ever hear you accusing the police of brutality, I’ll take you down the station and beat the eyes out of you”. And “How dare you involve me in a situation for which no memo has been issued?” .

 

 

 

This is real indignation, from the Orton who with Kenneth Halliwell was imprisoned for longer than mere defacing of library books could ever merit (see how one catches the intricate pomposities he loved to write). The play is a kick, a howl, a demand for things to be different, less restrictive and hypocritical. Even if that means a lot of wreckage and extreme taboo-breaking. One critic felt the play had dated, but some things are worth saying – shouting, jeering – in every generation. Thus, daft as it is, it endures a lot better than the far less enjoyable iconoclasm of Look Back In Anger.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 24 Sept
then Watermill, Newbury from 28th Sept
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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SAMSON AND DELILAH Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT MARIANNE VIDAL

Aylin Bozok’s productions of French opera for Grimeborn have all been marked by their elegance, restraint and psychological intensity. Bozok exchanges the orchestra for a piano accompaniment (played here with plangent, unmistakeable panache by Kelvin Lim), keeps the singing in French but projects a clear English translation above the stage, and places our focus squarely on her characters’ inner lives, their turmoils and crises. A Bozok production can feel unnervingly slow to start, but soon we realise that she takes simplicity as her tool, surgically removing any distracting elements and excavating the psychological dynamics of each work with thoughtful tenacity. As the evening unfolds, the poised stillness of Bozok’s stagecraft, which can initially seem static, foments a tension on stage which slowly becomes searing, direct and inescapable. Samson and Delilah, her third Grimeborn outing, refines the distinctive Bozok formula to a new level of minimalism: there is no scenery at all in this placeless, timeless setting, no props to speak of, and characters in simple costumes inhabit a flat stage dressed only with light and smoke. All the drama is in their heads – and in ours.

There is, therefore, nothing to shield us from a truly electrifying central performance from Marianne Vidal as a sultry, vengeful, yet perturbed Delilah, driven over the edge by her desire for Samson, wrung with unanswered questions as she tests Samson’s love while, we suspect, she searches vainly for a limit to her own passion. Vidal’s clear, lyrically expressive mezzo (and perfect native French) make her voice an ideal vehicle for Saint-Saëns’ score, while her seamless acting commands our attention, whether she writhes on the floor in dreaming ecstasy, demands male attention with confident eroticism, or cowers from a menacingly cruel High Priest (sung with flair, in fluid French, by baritone Thomas Humphreys). Vidal can sing even as she teases Samson with tempting kisses, her lines seeming to pour into his very mouth, yet still reaching the back of the theatre. This sophisticated portrayal of Delilah shows a woman devastated by a love which confuses her, bringing her both joy and pain, fulfilment and loneliness, and her need to discover Samson’s secret seems part of the development of their relationship, rather than the achievement of a plotted goal.

Bozok brings Samson’s psychological struggle right before our eyes, often pairing Leonel Pinheiro’s Samson on stage with Ozgur Boz, a silent actor who represents Samson’s vision of God. Movingly, this allows Samson to address many of his lines directly to God, as we see him first entreat for strength to resist Delilah, then finally reject God altogether in favour of his catastrophic love. Boz, sprayed mainly gold and streaked with white under a long coat, wears remarkable spiked goggles which are stolen by the High Priest when Samson, intensely provoked, allows Delilah to see his divine vision for herself (no haircuts here). Some initial tightness to Pinheiro’s tenor, and a few issues of vocal control, prevent him from being a true match for Vidal, but his muscular sincerity is movingly heroic and ultimately affecting. Bozok’s use of the Chorus, who double smaller roles while also illustrating “thoughts which attach themselves to different characters”, relies on disciplined, dynamic group choreography to project ideas of fear or threat; extremely challenging musically, but her cast’s concentration never flickers.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 26 August

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating 

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THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK Vaudeville, WC1

PRETTY MUCH A BOOJUM

 

I must admit I yearned towards this production – for 4 years old upwards, though there were some younger infants having a hell of a good time, even without booster seats (Vaudeville, please note that need). It is a favourite Lewis Carroll poem, and I did rather hope for a few of the boldly scanned rumbustious quartets and images, especially the bowsprit getting “mixed with the rudder sometimes” and the Bellman landing his crew with care, with a finger entwined in their hair.. But despite one final softly-and-silently-vanished-away, Alice House Theatre merely take the notion as an inspiration for a song-studded adventure of their own.

 

 

 

One day I want the poem itself, possibly rendered by McKellen, Russell Beale and Olivia Coleman. But hey, no complaints about this interpretation. Annabel Wigoder’s take is framing it with a schoolboy stowing away on the adventure funded by his negligent, money-obsessed Mr-Banks type father (Simon Turner) , and led by a splendid Bellman explorer in full 1920s RGS outfit of breeches, leather jerkin and mad gadgets. Gareth Cooper’s songs are fun, sometimes nicely startling (especially the father’s one about how money is all anyone can ever need).

 

 

There are Carroll snark-hunters in it: the Beaver is an enchanting puppet, knitting furiously, the dim-witted Baker is Will Bryant, who is also (there are other Carroll characters introduced) a quite magnificently camp Bandersnatch in Madame Jojo ruffles and shiny lurex tights, and the villainous butcher is Polly Smith (I do like a scary woman). I am not sure which of them plays the Jub-Jub bird, stealing the Banker’s trousers so the Beaver has to knit him a skirt, but I have to say its moment was the highlight for me on Snark Island, being pleasingly reminiscent of the time Rod Hull and Emu assaulted Michael Parkinson.

 

 
Around me very small children gasped and oohed from the moment the theatre darkened, especially in the very noisy shipwreck; deep concentration met the silliness, and real sympathy the marooning of the boy and beaver, unsure (as per The Tempest) whether anyone else was alive. It felt like a proper introduction to theatre, which is the important thing. Though the small boy in front who demanded to see it through again – a true child of the video age – will have to go home, get some ruffles and feathers and soft toys, and re-enact it for himself. Hope he does.

 

 

box office 0330 333 4814 to 2 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

 

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Old Vic, SE1

BOB AND CONOR: A NEW DIRECTION HOME…

 

 

Bob Dylan songs – from each of six decades – woven into a musical by Conor McPherson? At Dylan’s own suggestion? What? But here it is: moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep.

 

 

 

It is actually an inspired match, for Dylan’s songs share the playwright’s Irish sensibility. Apart from the obvious folk and hymn roots there is a particular melancholy, a dry regret, a sense of poverty knowing itself impotent but maintaining an irony, the consolation of a dance step or a late-night lock-in. Dylan and Irish song both tend to a melodic, poetic yearning which taps at the heart’s door with emotional authority and transcends time and circumstance. You can listen alone to It Ain’t Me, Babe even twenty years into a happy marriage; or weep in exile for The Old Bog Road even if you are at home.

 

 
Wisely, Matthew Warchus of the Old Vic left it to the writer to direct, and Rae Smith’s setting is sparse, unpretending, with microphones and onstage instruments as if the story was being told by buskers , as well as lived before us. Simon Hale’s arrangements and musical direction allow for a slight roughness, an air of spontaneity. The setting is a cheap lodging-house in Duluth, in 1934. The players are a community living on the edge. Ironically, just as the sunny Annie is playing just across the river with its orphan chirruping advice to the President, this is the second musical play about FDR’s Depression America to open this summer. But there is no New Deal for Duluth here. As its hero says, “We ain’t go no nets to catch us”.

 

In early film style, the local doctor (Ron Cook) narrates posthumously at beginning and end, adding to the sense of distance.   Nick (Ciaran Hinds) is the solid, striving host , on he last three weeks before  foreclosure on his house. One hope is his mistress and  lodger, widowed Mrs Neilson, with whom he has a fragile plan to start another hotel. His care for his wife continues, through the hopelessness of her dementia: there is a basic decency in the big beaten man, understated,  sometimes immensely moving, feeding her chicken stew as she berates him.  Their foundling negro daughter Marianne (a magnificent, dignified Shiela Atim, towering over her tiny adoptive mother) is pregnant: Nick hopes to marry her off to the only affluent man they know, a widower thrice  her age.

 

 

 

In from the Minnesota storm come two more to drive and aggravate the plot: Michael Shaeffer as a smoothly nasty Bible salesman, Arinze Kene as as an ex-convict boxer. Whose first welcome , in that racist age, is being called “Boy” and taunted by the son of the house, a drunken would-be writer Gene (Sam Reid). In the house too are the Burkes, failed in business, and their feebleminded, threateningly strong son Elias who is growing beyond safe control.

 

 

 

It is a big cast to manage, each with depths of hurt and failure and disappointment; but the songs knit them together in a poetic weave as powerful as the stormbound austerity itself. All the actor- musicians sing, superbly, resonantly, from depths of feeling,  with a particularly astonishing, mould-breaking performance by Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth. Every line of her slight, skinny body is expressive of dementia, disinhibition and disillusion. Sometimes she is cowering like a scared animal, coaxed towards food or restrained from violence  by Nick and Marianne: sometimes dancing, unsettlingly wild, a mad Maenad parting her legs at any man, speaking inappropriate truths. But sometimes she comes to a stillness, and in an immense bluesy voice sings the wisdoms , sorrows and strangeness of some half-forgotten Dylan song.

 

 

 

I say forgotten, because drawn from fifteen different albums, only two or three are familiar anthems like Slow Train. Under McPherson’s guidance they simply grow almost miraculously from the unfolding story, from the desires and despairing secrets of these people on their various edges. Here is lost love, compromised love, failure, weakness, loneliness, endurance. Solos become duets, lines are handed from one to another, sometimes choruses form: women group round a microphone in 1930s radio-hour style, or echo the gospel roots with tambourines.  Some solos are beyond electrifying: Elizabeth’s Like a Rolling Stone, or her final, heartshaking Forever Young, an anthem of hope in the dark, a hand held to humanity. Which comes right out of one of the bleakest speeches on any stage. Duquesne Whistle makes your hair stand on end; Is Your Love In Vain, from the Burkes in their darkest moments, stuns.

 

 

Dylan and McPherson are both poets. Here they meld, mesh, converse. The roughness is necessary. It’s a privilege to watch.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 7 oct
Principal partner: ROyal Bank of Canada
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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KISS ME Trafalgar studio 2 SW1

 

ANOTHER KIND OF ETERNAL TRIANGLE

 

 

I have a taste for plays about the years between the wars. The WW1 anniversary saw some fascinating contemporaneous ones, often at the Jermyn. There is rich material in it: the weight of grief, survivor-guilt, the shadow of the next war only 21 years later, and not least the new awareness and independence of women who had done tough wartime jobs in munitions or nursing, but then found that the great toll of young male deaths left them as “surplus women” with no family future. So it was irresistible to see how Richard Bean, in our own time and best known for sharp comedy, would deal with it in this two-hander set in 1929, as strangers meet in a bedroom with all this weight of history and sadness still heavy upon them ten years after the Armistice.

 

 

It succeeds, in the most curious of ways beyond both its comedy and its setting, creating by the end a perennial meditation on the triangular relationship between love, sexual desire, and procreation. In an age when so much fiction centres on zipless hookups which try to avoid both emotional entanglement and pregnancy, what we have here is a fictional – but not improbable – situation where a rogue Dr Trollope (unseen) arranges insemination by anonymous sex for women esperate for babies, whether widowed or with damaged husbands.

 

 

Our young woman (Claire Lams) is an independent widow of ten years who drives a munitions lorry. She waits in her lodgings for the appointment, nervous, checking the mirror, smoothing the eiderdown. The man (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is youngish, bowler-hatted, with an umbrella over his arm. He prissily removes his tiepin, lays down the doctor’s rules about no-kissing and no-real-names. The woman is the brighter spirit, chatting and bantering; he, a sober and at first unreadable veteran of these excruciating encounters, wants less talk. But he has to explain why he was not enlisted, is not dead… his very survival proves too much, at first, for her to carry on.
 
Yet they do, because to separate feelings from sex is never as easy as moderns like to think. We see a development over months of encounters: the back-story of her lost husband and brief teenage marriage, a weird, unsettling glimpse into the man’s motivation and his damage. It is alternately touching, absurd, thoughtful, painful and poignant . Anna Ledwich directs, drawing a whole reality from the two characters. You can laugh with the banter – Lams is superb in her evocation of spirited, awakened, hurt womanhood – and wince at the psychological scars on both of them, and on the reflection that no war is every really over. The angel of death has long, dark wings.
It is a curiosity of a play, unexpected and impossible to forget. I’m glad I went.

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ANNIE Piccadilly theatre, W1

BET YOUR BOTTOM DOLLAR ON IT…

 
If Nikolai Foster’s production of Annie came in a tin, it would prove to be exactly what the label promised. Feelgood, joyful, corny, gorgeous. Ruby Stokes’ chirpy first-night Annie manages to deliver a flawless first “Tomorrow” even while having her face licked by a large hairy dog (a labradoodle, anachronistic for 1934 but hey, who cares?). The orphans are choreographed with ferocious playfulness and naturalism – no eyes ’n teeth artificiality and some cracking good bucket-and-mop percussion work in “It’s a hard Knock Life. The natural mode of adult group emotional expression is,, of course, the tap-dance, both in and out of natty sailor-suits. The set, framed in jigsaw pieces of the old NY street map, turns featly from orphanage to Hooverville shanty to mansion, radio station and cabinet room without wasting a minute.

 
And as the tin promised, the first entry of the villainous oppressor Miss Hannigan is met with a deafening cheer from stalls and circles. For it’s Miranda Hart: a national TV treasure too long absent from both singleton horseplay and retro midwifery. She’s back, storming a West End debut as beneath the part’s entertainingly drunken malevolence there bubbles the familiar gleeful larkiness. This is a pratfalling, artfully hapless comedienne whose every gawk and absurdity is calculated with the professional finesse of a Chaplin.  She can put across a song, too, at times swooping down to a near- baritone range which dips below even Alex Bourne’s sonorous Daddy Warbucks.

 

 
The show (for whose London debut in 1978 I was sent to interview an endless line of auditioning tots outside the VIctoria Palace) is of course a fairytale, a fond imagining of childish gallantry in the Great Depression. Who does not sigh with nostalgia at the idea that a lonely unmarried billionaire could innocently summon up an orphan to share his fifth avenue Christmas, even specifying hair colour? Who knew that Roosevelt’s New Deal was inspired by the optimism of a pigtailed ginger orphan carolling “The sun’ll be out tomorrow!” in the Cabinet room? Or that a Republican billionaire would soften towards FDR (“Find out what Democrats eat!”) until together America , orphans and all, could walk to the sunlit uplands. While, of course, foiling a plot by Hannigan and her crooked brother (Jonny Fines is a fine Rooster, Djalenga Scott a perfect bad-broad).

 

 

Actually, so entangled are we today with the absurdities of US politics that I found myself nodding in relief at the way Bourne is playing Daddy WArbucks shaven-headed,not a blond lock real or fake in sight, presumably in order to stop us musing about parallels between another billionaire businessman who can “summon up the FBI” and call detectives off the Capone case when he has a personal issue to resolve…

 
Perish the thought. Such dark cynicisms are unfit for an Annie audience. Stick with the joyfulness, the crazy optimism, the triumph of simple goodness and the leaping exuberant orphans. Stokes is a lovely Annie, and I am sure the other two alternates are as well, and the orphan ensemble are terrific. But you’ll be in particular luck if you hit on a night when a mop-headed Nicole Subebe,on a professional debut, is playing Molly the smallest orphan with extreme pizzazz, drop-dead timing and glee. Every time she and the mob spill onto the stage the energy rises. The child is yeast.

 

 
Box office http://www.anniewestend.com 0844 871 7630 to Jan 2018 (Miranda Hart until 17 Sept)
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE ISLAND Southwark Playhouse , SE1

PITY, TERROR, TRIUMPH

 

 

For the first fifteen of the hundred minutes no word is spoken by the two men in ragged prison cottons: Edward Dede as the younger Winston, Mark Springer a powerful monolithic figure as John. As we sit around silent, almost awkward,they mime intense labour. Muscles gleam, sweat breaks, as they lift and shovel and push and strain with harsh breaths. It becomes oppressive. It is meant to. John Terry’s direction does not spare us because nothing spared these prisoners. Athol Fugard’s play about Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27years to 1988, needs to make it clear that what the political internees endured was not only imprisonment but enslavement.

 

 
He wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the originals of these two characters, who performed it for many years (and several arrests) during the years when the island was still in use, its very name forbidden. It has become a modern classic, a hard and dour and ultimately redemptive vision of endurance and imagination. The two men, once released (and releasing us) from the day’s labour sit with their bedrolls and single cell bucket and begin to talk, to plan, to become the humans they are and no longer labouring beasts. In a moment of sudden piercing pathos John says of the sweltering beach they work on “same old sea sand I used to play with when I was young..”.

 

 

They are to perform a version of the trial of Antigone at a prison concert (this happened) and there is humour and no small conflict as John, the more educated, nags Winston about his part; they bring out the pathetic props – Creon’s tin-lid medallion, Antigone’s daft rope-ringleted wig and necklace of nails. It seems as if Winston won’t do it: but their bond is strong, built on their shared, consoling fantasies: of phone calls home or acted-out nights at the “bioscope”. Tha word jolted me with familiarity: I hadn’t heard cinema called that since I was a child in Johannesburg, a diplo-brat as aghast as my parents during the apartheid years .

 

 

The simple account – jolted again by the agony of both after hearing that John will be released in three months. Winston agonizes because he has years to run; John – in a way only prisoners can understand – because the very act of counting days, fearing and hoping, is a new and strange kind of pain in itself. Winston overcomes his fear of mockery in the daft wig as John teaches him the great theatrical lesson “behind all this rubbish is me…if they laugh at the beginning and listen at the end…”. Antigone’s trial is performed. One of the oldest stories of law, power, injustice and rightfulness in the world, yet still we hold our breath. Southwark is its last point on the tour: it is a co-production with Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster. It has lost none of its pity and terror.
 

box office     www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk 020 7407 0234 to 24 June
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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TWITSTORM Park Theatre, N4

THE PERILS OF PC, THE TERROR OF TWITTER

 
This little  theatre is on a roll, catching topicalities as they fly. After David Henry Hwang’s wonderful CHINGLISH. about trade with China, this play by Chris England is the ultimate British mediaclass, middleclass, middle-aged nightmare. As such it is, of course, enjoyably vicious on every level. It was time that both social media pieties and the snarky, jokes-are-sacred comedi-ocracy both got a good slapping-about, and here it is. England’s tale, performed with frighteningly recognizable accuracy and directed with glee by Jonathan Guy Lewis, is about a Twitterstorm: the contumely that falls with tedious regularity on public figures who step out of line in a world whose hobby is taking offence.

 
Screens overhead give us arch or vapid tweets, and then a blast of “Arguing the Toss”, a TV comedy chat-show halfway between Piers Morgan and Charlie Brooker: all sarky superiority and scripted gags. Below it, in a smart urban kitchen, meet its host Guy, our pleasingly dislikeable hero. Jason Merrells gets him to the last detail: a man forever hovering between sincerely felt grumpiness and tiresome auto-banter (he’s the kind of man who calls his patio barbie “the Klaus”). His sweet-natured charity-supporting wife Bex writes chick-lit novels he despises, and has a direct debit to sponsor a “Child 4 Africa”. They are suppressing their post-Christian smugness to schmooze their child into a faith school . Oh yes: the only thing missing on Anthony Lamble’s set is an unread Guardian.

 

 

Like all propsperous bien-pensants they have serfs. Lumbering amongst them in Lycra, having cycled miles every day to write Guy’s jokes for him, is Justin Edwards as Guy’s old pal Neil, who the star and his manager secretly plan to dump. The pair used to do fringe shows together as “The Potato People” – very Edinburgh – and now Neil just writes Guy’s endearing daily tweets to reinforce the brand. But a stranger comes to the door, a cuckoo in the nest not unconnected to Bex’s charitable direct-debit. And a chain of events, driven largely by Guy’s own smug comedic persona, leads towards comeuppance.

 

 

Never mind exactly how. I won’t spoil a fun plot which tips over at the end into eventful improbability. . And which also reminds us, among other things, how thin the partitions are these days between comfy middle England and Africa’s failing states. There are masses of one-line jokes of suitable tastelessness, an artful navigation round the n-word (never spoken) and a rare banana-skin moment which does not even involve taking the skin off the banana. There is also a nice moral turnaround, as PC rage implodes and eats its own backside. And there’s a beautiful, deadpan, deliciously hateable star turn by Ben Kavanagh as a gender-fluid ponytailed PC smugatron with a video blog.

 

 

The performances are beautifully judged all round: whether in the moment when Guy’s cool-dude persona slips into unadmitted middle age as he has to peer, without reading-glasses, at the unfolding twitstorm on someone else’s phone, or in the body language of Justin Edwards’ amiably hapless Neil or Claire Goose’s patient appalled Bex. The author himself plays the horrified agent.

 

 

But most of all I loved Tom Moutchi as Ike the interloper, all African openness and an impoverished dignity calculated to spread unease. It is necessary that we should never be quite sure whether his innocence is real or not: Moutchi carries this manner off with delicate mischief. Apparently he is an instagram star himself among under-25s, but I don’t see why they should get all the fun. So I am looking him up.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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TWELFTH NIGHT Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

GUEST REVIEWER MICHAEL ADAIR ROCKS ALONG WITH RICE AT THE GLOBE…

 
“In Love We Trust” – is the motto of the SS Unity, the ship that swiftly sinks moments into Emma Rice’s take on Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre. Yet there is nothing to trust about love in a play where each of our hapless character’s affections are so easily and inexplicably won.

 

 

Set on a Scottish island in 1979, this Twelfth Night has all of the hallmarks that has made Rice’s tenure at the Globe so controversial, and so, well…fun. We have the music of Sister Sledge, we have sequins and we have a show-stopping performance from acclaimed cabaret performer, Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. The whole performance is caught somewhere between campy 70s sitcom and full blown-pantomime – and it is wonderful.

 

 

As Joshua Lacey sweeps to the stage as Orsino, complete with trench coat and mullet a la John Cusack in Say Anything, there isn’t the faintest whiff of a suggestion that Rice has sought to appease her critics and opt for the more ‘traditional’ staging of the Bard that some feel is more befitting of the Globe’s unique setting – and more power to her. Fusing the 400 year old language of Shakespeare seamlessly with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is startling, amusing and just one way of freshening up an ancient comedy and giving it relevance to a younger audience. The gender fluidity in this tale feels modern and well-managed. Annette McLaughlin’s Olivia rolls her eyes and chastises herself in despair for asking Cesario ‘What is your parentage?’ toying with the source material and very much letting the audience in on the joke.

 

 

Amidst the funk of a slap bass guitar there were some indisputably outstanding performances. Of our comic performers, Marc Antolin brings the joy as Sir Andrew, sashaying around the stage, chomping on Monster Munch and exposing himself at every opportunity. Katy Owen is an inspired Malvolio – shifting ceaselessly between comic and tragic, a character who explodes before our very eyes in a burst of mad energy, to be seen wildly humping a tree in a fit of passion before ultimately giving us the play’s sincerest glimpse at poignancy.

 

 
This was a warm summer’s eve where young and old came together beneath a blue sky to find new life in the work of our most celebrated playwright. The joy of the Globe is that it is inclusive – amongst those standing or sitting there was laughter, applause and a palpable sense of participation and togetherness that is unique to this wonderful space. We shouldn’t, therefore, seek to stifle innovation in the name of historical accuracy, merely because it is in this particular theatre- it should simply be about the sheer pleasure that we find there. This play is silly, powerful and reflective in part, but above all it is a fabulous, sparkling, spectacle that demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare and his Globe is theatre for all.

 

 

Box Office – +44 (0)20 7401 9919  to 5 Aug
https://tickets.shakespearesglobe.com/

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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WOYZECK Old Vic, SE1

 

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS LOVE, PITY AND HORROR IN EQUAL MEASURE AT THE OLD VIC

Jack Thorne’s explosive new Woyzeck brings Büchner’s unfinished working class tragedy to Berlin in 1981, with our hero a British Army private, trying to adjust to life on the German border between capitalism and communism after a hideous stint in Belfast. Strapped for cash, patronised by those in authority, and frantic to shore up his fragile new family of girlfriend and baby in the face of widespread disapproval, Woyzeck’s increasingly desperate cries for help fall on deaf ears in a cynical, hypocritical world which only wants to exploit him. Quite what happened to Woyzeck on his service in Troubles-torn Ireland, and what dark deeds he witnessed in an exceptionally traumatic childhood, tease us throughout Thorne’s version; military characters mutter about Woyzeck’s past career, Thorne brings Woyzeck’s mother onto the stage as a terrifying spectre haunting his memories and nightmares (grittily played by a compelling Nancy Carroll, also glorious as callously posh officer’s wife Maggie), and a boy actor represents Woyzeck’s childhood self, witnessing casual atrocities whose psychological impact only deepens over time.

As his mind unhinges, Woyzeck clutches desperately at hope, love and goodness, but the perennial uncertainty implicit in hope steadily drives him mad. We tread the path of insanity with him as his nightmarish insecurities take over during a medical trial; even such staunch realities as the gender of his child become bewilderingly uncertain in his increasingly surreal mindscape. Meanwhile, Thorne gives Marie’s own story more prominence and poignance, her wholehearted commitment to Woyzeck clear, making her murder a final tragedy for them both. A selection of Büchner’s characters are synthesised into Andrews (Ben Batt), Woyzeck’s charismatic comrade with an unquenchable thirst for life, especially other people’s wives. Thorne has certainly been busy: but these additions all serve to build a quiveringly taut narrative structure, full of pathos, with Woyzeck’s disintegration implicit from early on. In other words, it’s a barnstorming success.

Joe Murphy’s blistering production does full justice to Thorne’s text, with no holds barred when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and gore, yet nothing otiose either; pace is relentlessly high, tension even higher. Design by Tom Scutt communicates a brutal landscape almost sterile with constant aggression and inactivity, as menacing walls of rough insulation swoop down from the sky, alternately enclosing and exposing characters who live by definitions, by barriers, and above all by hiding what they truly are. But it is John Boyega’s astonishing Woyzeck which is the powerhouse of this piece, beginning with unassuming gentleness and sincere affection, and culminating in a truly exceptional depiction of madness. In a performance of frankly terrifying physical and psychological intensity, Boyega balances a soldier’s physical machismo with profound inner vulnerability to produce a Woyzeck both utterly lovable and undeniably frightening, ravenous for an impossible level of emotional reassurance from Marie (movingly played by Sarah Greene), and endlessly haunted by his past, always worried that the present is “too good” to stay that way for long. Woyzeck’s betrayals by the two father figures on stage, Steffan Rhodri’s nicely observed Captain Thompson and Darrell D’Silva’s delightfully creepy Doctor Martens, feel as appalling as they are inevitable. Boyega’s profoundly affecting portrayal goes to the very heart of this character, a man driven to madness and violence by a cruel world – and, crucially, by his own doomed determination to do good in it.

In such a generally slick, potent play, it’s surprising to note that we do still find the odd clumsy or under-rehearsed moment, and lines don’t always flow seamlessly; but this is nevertheless an emotionally challenging, deeply unsettling must-see.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 0844 871 7628. At The Old Vic until 24 June 2017

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating

 

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RICHARD III Arcola, London E8

TWISTEDLY IRRESISTIBLE 

I would not like you to think that I stalk Greg Hicks (though obviously I do: aaah, that odd strong Caesar, that agonized Leontes, that bonkers newspaper editor in CLARION…). But hearing that Mehmet Ergen had cast him as Richard III, close-up in the intimacy of the Arcola, meant a three-line whip. And there he was as we came in: sitting in a leather jacket at a bar table, ignoring us, spinning a brass miniature top, slouching and menacing. Everyone’s most feared biker badboy.

Ergen’s production is casually set, minimally propped, modern dress but with suggestions of robe or crown when we need it. The focus is on the text, served with respect and energy by all: especially Hicks, who always speaks Shakespeare as if he had just, in a fit of anger or mischief, had the thought himself. He has Richard’s irresistible wicked vigour: a painedly malicious tension, and plays him as more seriously crippled than most, dragging his lame foot by a chain to his withered arm. Often he bent almost double, head oddly averted from many of his families’ and enemies’ curses, a twisted satirical child grown monstrous. In the small space it sometimes seems a pity he does not catch our eye. But this Richard never willingly catches anybody’s.

Except by a fierce act of willpower and savagery, when he lasers in on Anne. The first test of a Richard is this: Shakespeare’s most audacious scene when he must convince us that he, misshapen and avowedly murderous, can seduce her over the very coffin of the husband he slew. This extraordinary scene, followed by the shrugfed “was ever woman In this humour won?” is particularly breathtaking in this production. Hicks’ hypnotic energy, and the sensuality in both word and fumbled gesture, is properly chilling.

But Ergen’s production is above all ensemble: a real actors’ show, glorying in the language, the violence, and evoking the perennial unease of any country fresh from wars and murders, under a weakening king (Jim Bywater is excellent – quavering, horrified, weakly blaming others for not making him prevent Clarence’s murder). In such a state nobody knows how the dice will fall. A heady neurosis hangs over every character, anxious and wary.  Each lord in turn balks at some Ricardian horror and is dispatched: from Mark Jax’ bluff Hastings to Peter Guinness’ long-serving Buckingham.

Only Catesby in his business suit and prim glasses (Matthew Sim, unnervingly a dead ringer for Lord Birt) endures to the last battle, an ice-cold functionary. Brackenbury the Tower keeper, is given an unusual gentleness by Jamie de Courcey; Paul Kemp is a poignant gentle Clarence. All serve the play, moving swiftly, too close to us for comfort, so three hours pass in alarmed fascination.

But it has to revolve around Hicks’ Richard: poisonous, sarky, sometimes hitting a one-line riposte to raise a bark of shocked laughter in the close audience, often hunched inside his private world of hollow hatred. Here is Richard the ultimate unreadable creepy uncle, baited by the cheeky boy Duke of York, who jerks him violently off his feet by his chain, rousing God knows what memories of crippled childhood in a macho world. Here is Richard sadistically preposterous in his final demand for the child Princess’ hand and womb: but also here is a Richard who, with a sudden involuntary jerk, reaches a vain hand towards the mother who has terrifyingly cursed him. His final rising fear is genuinely chilling: the hauntings on the battlefield stand quiet, free of melodrama, ruthless in the play’s flat return to moral certainty.

Box office 0207 503 1646.  To 10 June. Arcolatheatre.com
Rating four    4 Meece Rating

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LETTICE AND LOVAGE Menier, SE1

ENLARGE, ENLIGHTEN , ENLIVEN…ENTERTAIN!

 

 

Expatiating on the Grand Staircase of a dreary Tudor stately home (built with ironic love by designer Robert Jones) our tour guide Lettice Douffet opens with a virtuosa display of highly embroidered historical legends, growing wilder for each tour party. Felicity Kendal hurls herself through it, bright-eyed and irresistibly overdramatic, plucking ever more nonsense from the air: the gawping ensemble definitely give excellent Tourist, reappearing as a stage-army three days running in satirically diverse leisurewear. Only after her last wild flight about a tragic bride spending years mewed up “howling the wedding song specially composed by Henry Purcell” is Lettice hauled in to the Trust GHQ by the uncompromisingly stern Miss Schoen from Personnel. And sacked. And when Kendal sweeps in to her fate in a Mary Queen Of Scots full-length velvet execution gown, another piece of dream casting sees the desk of judgement occupied by Maureen Lipman in a stern tweed suit, deploying her most reproving bureaucratic staccato.

 

 

Yet after the deed is done Lotte Schoen cannot quite let go the acquaintance with this wild romancer who feels that fantasy must “rush in where facts leave a vacuum”; this storytelling self-dramatist who reckons that if an Elizabethan knight didn’t really leap fifteen stairs in one bound to catch Gloriana in his arms and feed her on swans and gilded hedgehogs, he damn well should have. So Lotte reappears, ten weeks and a slidingly ingenious scene-change later, in Lettice’s basement flat. Thence flowers one of the oddest, most beguiling buddy-stories imaginable.

 

 
The late Sir Peter Shaffer’s play is revived under Trevor Nunn in memory of his friend: it is not Shaffer’s most famous (that would be Equus – or Amadeus , so brilliantly realized now at the National Theatre. It is a curiosity, not just as an unfashionably rhetorical piece of writing, but because though nearly thirty years old it is startlingly in tune with modern defiances. For it is entirely about the friendship of two middle-aged women: eccentric women, women whose hearts and imaginations gloriously defy their plain-bread histories and single status. Indeed no mainstream play currently onstage would so triumphantly pass for the vast majority of its length the Bechdel Test: “two women talking together about something apart from a man”.

 

 
Lettice lures the seemingly stern Lotte into her world of dramatic historical romance; Lotte warms and unbends and tells her own story, with its own startling incident and deep-felt romance about the beauty of buildings and the atrocity of 1960’s architectural vandalism. Artfully Lipman, warmed by a terrifying home-made beverage of her new friend’s, regains a softer German lilt as she recalls her father’s love of lost European beauties: of Dresden.

 
It is a lovely duet, the two women’s natures and imaginations in contrast and counterpoint. Their talk expands Shaffer’s theme into the shrinking of the communal soul and the hunger for the beautiful and dramatic. Even if – as is generally the case with Lettice Douffet – it tips over rapidly into preposterous invention. As to the dramatic thing which seems to have happened over six months while we were out for the interval, the play is sufficiently forgotten now to prohibit detailed spoilers. Let it just be said that another startlingly unforgettable costume appears on Felicity Kendal, and that for a period Maureen Lipman’s face takes on an unwontedly sullen, grumpy, infuriated expression before lighting up – again and for good .

 

 

And that we all sail with the ladies into the mental world of Lettice , where despite the banal mere-ness of the age one may be “enlarged, enlivened, enlightened” . And warmed.
box office 0207 378 1713 to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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LIFE OF GALILEO Young Vic SE1

LET THERE BE LIGHT!

 
The year 1632 : we are halfway through the epic conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Holy Roman Church, an authority in its day quite as ruthless as Stalin and as doctrinaire as Mao.  Our hero has wisely gone quiet for eight years after the initial exuberant stirrings of his realisation , deduced from the moons of Jupiter, that the earth does not actually lie “serene and motionless” at the heart of a universe of crystal spheres with immobile stars. No: it is one of many  spinning, orbiting worlds. What every schoolchild learns today is still for Galileo a dangerous doctrine: .the Fathers fear it will make peasants restless, destroy their sense of meaning, upset the orderly disciplines of Christendom and lead (as it did) to the Enlightenment and the age of Reason outranking Faith.

 

 
At this particular point, though, near the end of the first half of Bertold Brecht’s sprawling political fable, our hero is returning to his astronomical studies, inspired by a proof involving sunspots. His personal glee becomes ours as, to a great vibrating, deafening roar from Tom Rowland’s disco-dramatic score, we stare up mesmerised. The overhead planetarium screen, until now merely for stars or Cathedral ceilings is boiling and dazzling, the sun’s very surface a sea of golden swirling brightness…

 

 
But then comes the Inquisition, and in 1633, Galileo’s forced recantation. The moment feels horribly modern, ideology trumping demonstrable truth and reason overruled by power.
The play is intellectually and politically chewy, but despite one overlong rant near the end it should swirl any half-willing spirit along with ease. Joe Wright’s exuberant direction uses bursts of puppetry, an anarchic carnival scene, and the cast of 11 ripping round Lizzie Clachan’s circular (orbiting!) platform as 68 characters, often invading the sprawled young groundlings in the centre. The staggering projections by 59 Productions finally evolve into the heartshaking beauty of modern astronomical pictures of swirling nebulae. For a serious political play, it’s a hell of a light-show.

 

 
Glowing at its centre is the phenomenal Brendan Cowell as Galileo: burly and bearded, moving over its three hours from teacherly excitement and optimism – “People will be delighted..it is a new age! ” , to incredulity at the dreadful old clerical scholars who refuse even to look through the telescope but prefer an Aristotelian “disputation” about why it can’t be true. Thence he moves into cautious depression, alleviated by his practical empathy with “craftsmen, precision toolmakers “ (Jason Barnett is particularly good as the lens-grinder). He finds renewed energy at the advent of a Pope reputed to respect science. But the sight of the “instruments” of persuasion lead to recantation . It feels, in the hollow, echoing dramatic moment Wright gives it, a real blasphemy. Finally in old age there is Galileo’s self-loathing defiance as his old pupil Andrea (an excellent Billy Howle) returns to reprove him.

 

 

It is full of ideas: about power, truth, social structures (including economics) and personal cowardice or courage. When Andrea cries in disappointment “Unhappy is the land without heroes!” the riposte is “No – unhappy is the land which NEEDS heroes”. As true today as in Brecht’s restless 1940’s. So is the core message: “If you don’t know the truth, you are an idiot. If you know it and call it a lie, you are a criminal”.

 

 

box office 020 7922 2922 http://www.youngvic.org to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR Duke of York’s, WC2

IN WHICH MICHAEL ADAIR LOSES HIS THEATRE-CRITIC VIRGINITY TO A PACK OF SCOTTISH MINXES

 

 

A few years ago, when High School Musical and Glee were in their pomp, we were forever seeing beautiful American schoolchildren with immaculate teeth, bursting into song and overcoming life’s adversities in glaring colour and merciless cheer.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour provides the glorious antithesis: directed by Vicky Featherstone, adapted by Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s novel ‘The Sopranos’, it follows six Catholic school girls from Oban on a day trip to Edinburgh for a choir competition. Thy are warned by Sister that they are not just representing the eponymous school (nicknamed ‘The Virgin Megastore’) but also God himself. Their response? ’Let’s go fucking mental’.

 

 
What ensues is 105 straight minutes of wonderful chaos , as our girls wend their way through the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh – swearing, singing, searing with energy. At first we have the angelic choral harmonies of Mendelssohn, soon replaced by an angry and defiant burst of Jeff Lynne’s Mr Blue Sky as the school uniforms are inevitably ditched for mini skirts and fishnets as the anything-but-virtuous pupils authoritatively swagger around the set in true rock n’ roll style. It’s sneering and it’s sleazy, in marvellous fashion and Francis Mayli McCann as Kylah, in particular, gives an electrifying, caustic energy to the musical numbers.

 

 

The girls are funny – and what a joy it is to see a cast made up entirely of young, funny women. The banter and teasing are quick-witted and constant, in a way that feels almost improvised; their language is filthy. For instance Orla (Isis Hainsworth), recovering from cancer and with less sexual experience than her equally underage friends, asks Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) what jizz is. She is soon matter-of-factly informed that it is ‘just like snot, only warmer.’

 

 
Chloe Lamford’s set evokes memories of the worst worn-out British dive-bars of a certain era – a sticky tiled dance floor, inexplicable carpet and colour palette to match any childhood school disco. There is seating at bar stools at the side of the stage for some of the audience, leaving no place to hide for a hugely talented cast who are not given a single moment’s respite in an energetic performance.

 

 
The six leads are the only actors, joined by three female band members lingering in the background. The story is cleverly woven together as each cast member ducks in and out to play the motley crew of characters they encounter in their journey across the city- lecherous drunks, nuns, police officers. More to praise than to take issue with, but if there was to be any criticism it would be that the quick pace of the dialogue and static nature of the set sometimes made it hard to pick up when we were encountering a new secondary character, or indeed where we were supposed to be.

As the floor of the stage becomes more prominently coated in empty bottles, shot glasses and cigarette packets, the play fizzes with hormones and the quest for sensation. The six girls’ appetite for the moment is infectious, yet for these young women – of whom only one to aspires to university – growing into adulthood is essentially a process of losing your potential. To burn brightly seems like the most reasonable decision of all.

 

 

So for all of its humour and mischievousness, the play is ultimately lifted to a higher level by a flickering poignancy. The girls are perhaps no older than 16 and yet we see Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) sincerely lamenting on ‘what we could have been’. Chell’s (Caroline Deyga) ‘We’ve got the rest of our lives ahead of us!’ becomes a rallying cry for self-destruction, and not an optimistic claim to a broader horizon. For Orla, death could well be part of that blind journey sooner than the others, and it’s an obstacle she’s ill-equipped to circumvent seeing losing her virginity, symbolising entry into adulthood, as a way to make it ‘all feel ok’. This tension of hopelessness and impending doom makes it more than a reversioning of St. Trinians.

 
box office 0844 871 7623 to 2 Sept
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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CAROLINE, OR CHANGE Minerva, Chichester

BLEACH, BLUES, AND BLACK AMERICA RISING

 
Here’s a pocket musical with huge themes, a blues opera of historic seriousness but with a singing washing-machine in a bubbled minidress. A tiny domestic upheaval opens up deep sorrow and the sharpest of human and civil rights: this intimate epic by Tony Kushner, with Jeanine Tesori’s music, wears far better than his Angels in America which occupied eight hours last week at the National.

 
There is apparent whimsy – the tumble-drier sings too, only more baritone and Satanic, and the radio is three foxy Supreme-alikes with aerials on their heads and a succession of fabulously tight costumes – but also real darkness. Its ending, balanced between revolution and resignation as Afro-American generations move on, is the first page of modern America. To see it with the fresh memory of the Obama White House farewells is moving.

 
On the face of it the story is tiny. Caroline – the redoubtable, powerful Sharon D.Clarke – is a maid, doing laundry in the hot humid Louisiana basement of a fractured family – ‘Sixteen feet down and feeling low, talkin’ to the washer and the radio!”. She has three children at home – including the rebellious, stunningly fiercely sung Emmie (Abiona Omonua) and can barely meet the rent and food. The father (Alex Gaumond) is a vague clarinettist, still grieving his dead first wife and disconnected from his 8-year-old Noah: a stunning little Daniel Luniko the night I went. He has remarried the New-York Jewish Rose (Lauren Ward) . She’s homesick for the Hudson river, and Noah dislikes her.

 
So the lad spends his time hanging out in the basement with the grudging, grumpy Caroline, sometimes allowed to light her one cigarette of the day for her. He has a habit of leaving his loose change in his pants pocket, and she saves it for him in the bleach cup. Until Rose, with a glorious mean-white-madam tactlessness probably all too familiar to many a Filipina here today, decides that it would both teach Noah a good Jewish lesson in the value of money and supplement the low wages she pays Caroline, if she tells the maid she can keep any coins she finds.

 

 

This system, and Caroline’s dignity, throw the whole fragile, artificial equilibrium of racism and inequality into a personal and political crisis. For it is 1963: Kennedy is dead, Luther King on the march, black America impatient. The frogs chirp at night in the damp, explosive heat: young rebels have topped the Confederate Soldier’s “Defender of the South” statue .

 

 
Under Michael Longhurst’s direction and Nigel Lilley’s musical leadership (its a substantial little orchestra) the almost through-composed score carries this domestic miniature into the huge theme of coming change: there are great blasts of blues and moments of mischievous exuberance : Emmie and two more young children pull out a stunning fantasy, assisted by Angela Caesar flying overhead as the Moon. There are moments mournful, demonic, whimsical, passionate, comic , threatening.

 

 

The gulf grows politically between the middle-aged maid- solid, enduring, unhappy and conflicted – and her fiery daughter and equally ambitious friend Dotty (“Some folks go to school at night, some folks march for civil rights!”). Another gulf is opening too, in a Hannukah scene both vigorously funny and dangerously threatening: Rose and her visiting New York parents fail to quench her firebrand grandfather (Teddy Kempner), a 1930’s Communist who thinks the negroes should give up this “non-violence nonsense” and get on with smashing capitalism for all the workers.

 

 

Yet the big themes all feed in to one point: the solid, the sorrowful, the melodious, the banked-fire unhappiness of Caroline herself, trapped in a cleft of history. The political is the personal, wonderfully so.

box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk to 3 june
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE CARDINAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

FRESH AS A (VIOLENT) DAISY AFTER 376 YEARS

 

 

What wonders, sir, are these? How beauteous fringe theatre is! We Tuesday matinee-goers, paying peanuts for the smaller space in an  unlovely hangar near  the Elephant, hardly deserved such riches.   We got an impeccably mischievous RSC-grade performance in a long-forgotten play, a voice from the turbulent London of Charles I rising ragingly agai, with Stephen Boxer himself in Cardinal”s robes (albeit in need of an iron). This actor, seen nicely close-up in the small room rather than across a vast Stratford arena, can be studied rewardingly as he deploys a pleasing ability to express villainy as convincingly with one furry eyebrow as with a crazed ranting fury. Around him a fine – and mainly young – cast must be inspired to what will certainly be higher things. Not least Natalie Simpson as a fiery, passionate wronged noblewoman with a vivid emotional range (the part needs it, they were starting to take women ever more seriously . Simpson’s energetically un-corset-bound  body-language brings her dizzyingly close to any modern miss appalled at being betrothed to the wrong bloke and plotting to cut loose.. And that is as it should be.

 

 
This rumbustious tale of old Navarre, unseen in London for nearly four centuries, was a victim of the closure of theatres under Cromwell. It belongs firmly to the English Protestant tradition of Wicked-Foreign-Papists plays – like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.  And in that genre it is a cracker: taut, clear, personal rather than political, revolving round a strong woman.  It is unusual to have to avoid spoilers in a 1641 play, but since John Shirley’s  revenge tragedy hasn’t been seen – certainly in London – its Blackfriars opening after which  the puritan axe fell,  I will give little away.

 

 

 

Just know that the Cardinal wants the rich Duchess Rosaura to marry his warlike nephew Columbo. She prefers Don Alvarez and begs to be released from the expected marriage, and the Cardinal is not happy about that. The King (Ashley Cook) is prone to trust far too many people who let him down – possibly Mr Shirley was sucking up to Charles I here. Rosie Watt and Sophia Carr-Gomm are entertaining, and involved, companions of the Duchess; Phil Cheadle a pugnacious Hernando, who hates Columbo (Jay Saighal a turkey-cock of offended hyperactivity). Expect masked and murderous revellers, blood on a bridal robe, deceit and anger and letters , lovers betrayed, two cracking sword and dagger fights (it’s a very small space, we flinched in the front row). There’s bloodshed ,spitting, a barely thwarted rape and a poisoning so complicated it makes the end of Hamlet look straightforward.

 

 
All shall unfold before you before the last corpse gasps its last, and a storm of applause meets them all as led by the wonderful Boxer they rise from the floor to a well deserved bow. It may be theatrical archaeology, but by God it’s entertaining. Honour to Troupe, director Justin Audibert (another RSC chap) and the Southwark. With luck someone will pick up the play for a candlelit reprise at the Wanamaker. It’s made for it…

 

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 27 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALL OUR CHILDREN Jermyn St Theatre

A CRIME, A CARDINAL, A CONFLICT

 

 

It is Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, 1941. In the Jermyn’s tight intimacy we are sitting in the clinical director’s office of a home for disabled and mentally incapable children: “incurables”.   We watch a series of the paediatrician’s meetings, from chill dawn light to evening candleglow , in a study beautifully evocative of old bourgeois Germany and bathed from time to time in equally evocative Bach and Mozart from the radio Dr Victor impatiently tunes away from broadcasts about Herr Goebbels.
He is ailing, coughing and weakened: his clinic is three months in to a new regime laid down by the National Socialist government. Each week a grey bus arrives (with blanked out windows to avoid distressing “hardworking families of the Third Reich” ). It collects some thirty of the inmates, between infancy and the age of 25, and takes them off to be gassed. The principle is economic: they are deemed “lebensunwurtens Leben” – lives not worth of life . The cost of their maintenance would, in the sternly pragmatic thinking of the New Germany, be better deployed on the productive citizenry,. And of course on armaments.

 
This is history: in the first two years of war some 100,000 disabled people were killed from such clinics. Writer-director Stephen Unwin, himself devoted father of a son with learning disabilities and chair of the national KIDS charity, infuses the awful record with a powerful and palpably personal eloquence as he imagines Victor’s encounters on a day which may move him from a depressed but helpless complicity to a dangerous moral resistance. Colin Tierney is strong in the difficult central role, not least when the doctor nerves himself to argue the case he cannot really believe; and also when, confronted by a suspicious mother of a boy already dispatched, he cracks and admits the truth.
Sometimes the author’s determination to air enough aspects of the ghastly business creates an unevenness in the hero’s psychological progress, but in the end that hardly matters. It is the meetings which strike home. There is the good motherly Catholic maidservant, Martha (Rebecca Johnson, sweetly credible) and the rather brilliantly appalling SS man Schmidt, seconded as administrative director. Edward Franklin is immaculately Nazi, with clean-cut cheekbones and a cold eye, whistling the Horst-Wessel-lied and punctilious in his Heil-Hitlers. He brings in files of names to which Victor must say “yes..yes…yes… yes…yes…No, not yet for young Karsten I think…yes..yes…No, not Edith Manstein. Really no. I heard her singing the other day…”

 

 
At this point one wonders whether the play might have had more bite if we hadn’t been told, in publicity beforehand, what is happening. But the shock is pretty good all the same. Especially when a grateful mother, the widowed Frau Pabst, brings the good doctor some stollen and enquires about her son Stefan, who it inevitably turns out was a “Yes” only last month. Lucy Speed is wonderful in the role: a tiny, bright-eyed, overalled factory worker whose Cockney humility turns into a towering, furious rage when she finally understands.

 

 

And then there is David Yelland as a pivotal historic figure in the whole story: Cardinal Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, an aristocratic Catholic prelate and fierce traditional conservative, who during that year preached strongly against the cull of disabled people and challenged the entire ideology of Nazism. He survived Hitler’s displeasure, probably because of fear of alienating the many German Catholics who could just about put up with the regime or preferred not to know. But in Unwin’s imagined encounter Galen takes on the weary Victor with immense eloquence and principle, his unassailable moral confidence battering down all the weak arguments (“all medicine is a matter of priorities..doctors are always involved in making touch choices”) like a sainted bull in a china shop.

 

 

 

So – while the whole theme is historically fascinating, and the character and pathos of each character is well done – it is this duel scene which gives the play proper dramatic fascination. Because what we are watching is a clash of two men: one is a hardworking functionary who is tired, ill and in mental torment and has just been spat upon by a grieving mother and threatened by his SS subordinate . The other is a well-fed, aristocratic, self-confident and bullying presence, a grandee who has been wafted here by his driver from a bishop’s palace, resplendent in a red skullcap and sash. The human instinct to feel for the hectored victim – Victor – is at odds with the plain fact that the overbearing Cardinal is absolutely right. And that is dramatically interesting and unsettling.

 

 
After a final swaggering entrance from the terrible Schmidt , voicing drunken disgust at the “blind dumb faces, drooling mouths” of the inmates and glorying in the new Reich, and a corresponding moment of good Martha as she begins to understand the horror, you emerge sober. You feel as if you’d been there, and were more than glad to be home in 2017.
box office to 3 june http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
4 Meece Rating

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OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS Hampstead, NW1

AFTER SADDAM: WHAT’S LEFT WHEN YOU TAKE AWAY A TYRANT?

 
An electrifying moment in this sharp, riveting play sees two bitter rivals, in a moment of stillness between blood-feud brawls, shaking hands. A miraculous moment, inspired by the unity of a young Muslim’s prayer, and a passionate speech about an ancient clay tablet by a naively romantic Scot. “The outlaw days are passing” he says: this land, cradle of civilization, is no longer torn by tyranny but looking for a stable democratic peace…

 

 

Ah, if only! This is Iraq, 2003. Rory Stewart (now an MP) was thirty: a Foreign Office drop-out and fascinated Arabist who had walked six thousand miles across the Middle East and Afghanistan. So fuelled by idealism about the reconstruction, he went to Baghdad after the invasion and found himself in charge of Maysan province in the South. He was to organize a democratic council to elect a local governor, himself holding the preposterous title of “Governorate co-ordinator”. But it was all preposterous: how can an unelected foreigner smoothly enforce ‘democracy’, under the protection of British tanks?

 
Stewart’s memoir of events in his nine months there has been carved with great clarity and drama into a gripping 100-minute play by Stephen Brown and director Simon Godwin. It is riveting, funny, depressing and inspiring by turns: an angry fragment of a history still not played out.

 

 
And it is a personal story too. Stewart (played with eerie likeness in speech and intensity by Henry Lloyd-Hughes) addresses us at the start with an apologetic “it is about the confidence of youth”. The overconfidence of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad is expressed too, by a breezy John Mackay as Paul Bremer optimistically predicting a “multicultural decentralized democratic state”: Doubling as the Colonel on the spot, Mackay is rather sourer in tone, reluctant to let Stewart even speak to the local Islamist leader Seyyed, whose followers have just murdered six of his men.

 

 

He looks with more favour on Seyyed’s more liberal-minded rival, Karim , a Marsh Arab leader and on the face of it more democratically minded and less fanatical. Both rivals fought hard against Saddam, but hate one another with deep sincerity. Stewart must bring them together. And , ideally, not to get them both falling on him with cries of “capitalist imperialist crusader!”, provoking riots in the square and tribalist murders. Even putting the Council together is like getting scorpions to dance a highland reel, or as Stewart says “the table plan for the world’s most awkward wedding”. Every scene has its shocks (and, occasionally, black laughs).

 
It is played out against a sparse, evocative Paul Wills design of sliding concrete walls, indicating the stern makeshift of a battered land where even getting the electricity and water to work is a fragile triumph. Wonderful performances crackle through it: Silas Carson as Karim, initial dignity blooming dangerously into arrogance, Johndeep More’s stubbornly devout Seyyed, Aiyisha Hart representing the few women who tried to step forward. Abu Rashid, ally of Karim, is Vincent Ebrahim, who doubles as Professor Khaled, an exasperatedly pessimistic non-aligned museum historian of Iraq’s 5000 years. And there is a particularly subtle, touching performance by Nezar Alderazi as Ahmed, trying to assist the impossible process.

 
It did prove pretty impossible. As the Colonel says, exasperated by Rory’s arrival “You say these people want democracy? They want to be not fucking dead!”. Many more of them were dead before the chaos abated, and what they got was not a multicultural tolerant democracy, but today’s stern brutal Islamism.

 
But whatever you think of the invasion with hindsight, the Colonel’s last words to Stewart feel right. “Forgive yourself. You should be proud”. Certainly proud of giving us this account, and letting it be staged. An account from a pariticipant, rather than just journalists and polemicists, is useful. And the question echoes in our ears as we leave: what’d we do another time in a collapsing country? “Sit and watch as they blow each other into bonemeal?” Or try to reconstruct?
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 3 June

RATING  four 4 Meece Rating

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ANGELS IN AMERICA : MILLENNIUM APPROACHES Lyttelton, SE1

REAGAN, RELIGION, AND REMEMBERING…

 

Direct comparisons are dangerous, even when – as this week – two consecutive days see major works opening in London, both set in the 1980s and concerned with nation, ancestry and internal division. Butterworth’s magnificent THE FERRYMAN last night showed a Northern Ireland divided in the age of hardline Thatcherism; this NT revival under Marianne Elliott’s direction is of Tony Kushner’s Reagan-era howl of liberal dismay, combined with a threnody for gay men’s victimised alienation in the dawning of AIDS.

 
So there are parallels. But it is hard, after the fizzing warm naturalism of Butterworth’s farm-kitchen, to bond immediately with Kushner’s often self-conscious wordiness. His characters are sometimes almost Shavian in their  reluctance to stop gnawing repetitively over every socio-political bone. The play’s odd pacing jars too : there is really no need for two intervals, as Ian MacNeil’s setting of revolving roomlets needs no fussy resetting (indeed in the last acts the set does its own tricks, spectacularly). But the double interval breaks up an already episodic play, making it feel oddly more dated than it need be.

 

 

It need not, because in the age of Trump the echoes are useful. Kushner uses the real Republican lawyer and keen McCarthyite homophobe Roy M. Cohn as a key character, weaving in and out of the lives of two fictional couples. And when as Cohn Nathan Lane – always a treat! – breaks out into roars of contempt for legality (“Law is pliable! What the fuck is, this, Sunday school? This is enzymes, bloodshed, politics!”) you sense a proto- Trump. There’s the same contempt, the bending of truth, the same dismaying but almost attractive jollity of energy. Though there is no jollity when Denise Gough – normally rather wasted as the disturbed, depressed housewife Harper Pitt – slimes onstage crossdressed in a sharp suit as the Reagan insider Heller.

 

 

That sense of a runaway, opportunistically religious political right shouting for “the end of liberalism, of ipso facto secular humanism” is topical. The gay angst at the play’s heart is less so, thank heavens, but it is worth remembering that first terror of AIDS, and the sudden, sometimes unmeetable, duty on young healthy men to become carers for disintegrating lovers. Not to mention the fear of coming out at all, for fear of being branded a danger to society and probably a Commie.

 

 

But a play must work on an emotional level too, and here it is fitful. Kushner does fatally over-write, though there are treasurable lines: Jewish Louis’ at a funeral moaning “I always get so closety at these family things” , his dying lover Prior’s “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when drag is a drag”. Or Susan Brown’s Mormon Mum Hannah, losing patience asking for street directions from a rambling homeless woman : “I’m sorry you’re psychotic, but just make the effort!”. There are some tremendous short scenes, too, which keep it moving. Even though caring deeply about these people is harder than it should be.

 

 

Some do at moments touch the heart. Russell Tovey’s anguished Mormon Joe is restrainedly moving in his pious, panicked denial of his nature, fascinated from childhood with a picture of Jacob wrestling with a particularly buff angel. James McArdle is Louis, who can’t bring himself to stay with his sick lover, and is at his best in a scene delivering Kushner’s satirically observed paranoid-liberal-Jewish ramblings about racism to the patient, irritated Belize: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the most sympathetic character, an Afro-American nurse and drag queen. Indeed Stewart-Jarrett, fondly tending the dying deserted Prior, is one of the standout stars of the play.

 
The other is Prior Walter himself, its dying centre: camp but movingly gallant, it’s a humorous, suffering and boyishly open-hearted performance by Andrew Garfield. He is perfect, from the first jokey awareness that the curse has come upon him to the extraordinary near-death hallucination scenes where he is greeted by a 15c ancestor (broad Yorkshire, earthy, grumpy) and a 17c forebear ( Nathan Lane again , flouncing for England this time in a curly periwig). It is hard to play princessy-queeny with so much real, mortal feeling beneath it. Garfield achieves that.

 
box office 020 7452 3000   to 19 August
Rating for MILLENNIUM APPROACHES : four  4 Meece Rating

Afterword`: regarding PERESTROIKA

It was for critics a two-show day, but I must leave star-ratings and final analysis of this second one to an (angelic?) host of colleagues online and in print. For 95 minutes in, the first interval found me hosting a sweating temperature and spinning head (no fault of the production) so the mice and I had to bail out for everyone’s sake. Nothing spoils a retro “gay fantasy on national themes” like women keeling over in the stalls.
So here’s what I can report for theatrecatters:
Those who know PERESTROIKA, the sequel to the above, will remember that we meet again the same characters, who gradually grope towards personal and political reconciliation, albeit by way of a some ornately written dream-sequence mystico-bollocks involving a multiple-vaginaed angel seducing the still-dying Prior, and a wrenching separation for Louis and Mormon Joe because it transpires that a whiny New York Jewish liberal can never quite get along with a Reaganite, however luscious.
I can confidently report, though, from seeing the long first act that production and design do it even prouder this time, with acrobatic Finn Caldwell puppetry making a sinister angel of Amanda Lawrence, and Tovey becoming a Mormon-visitor-centre diorama puppet. And also note that for anybody with a taste for magnificently villainous invective there is the AIDS-stricken Cohn in a hospital bed now, outraged by only having one phone line, selfishly hoarding AZT. Glad I didn’t miss Nathan Lane splenetically informing the other Nathan – Stewart-Jarrett as the tolerant gay nurse – that when he had pubic lice once, he actually admired them for their itchy tenacity because they exemplified his hard-Republican philosophy : “Fuck nice! You want to be nice or you want to be effective?!”
Enjoy. Hope it makes your head spin in a more benign way than mine.

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CYRANO Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

NOBILITY AND THE NOSE  on tour  Touring Mouse wide

 

You’ve hardly sat down before there’s a jolly mass drinking-song in pantaloons, leather breastplates and hat-feathers being romped through in front of cod-17c drapes covered in zodiac signs, followed by a magnificent somersaulting dwarf pickpocket emerging from a bustle, a wild chase, a fabulous spread of patisserie and a violent duel with rapiers in a theatre not unlike our own dear Bury. During which Cyrano simultaneously swashbuckles, leaps on and off tables and recites a complicated duel-poem. Then off he goes to fight a hundred men waiting in ambush for a friend, bring their hats home as trophies and proceed with sighing of love and despairing of his ugliness.

 

Which is to say, of his huge nose. Which, be reassured ladies, though a fine prosthesis which never falls off even in extreme fight scenes, does not entirely quench the gorgeous Christian Edwards’ appeal. Energy attracts, even accompanied by the strangest of noses, and energy is what Edwards has in abundance.
It’s a mad, poetic, roistering, barnstorming thing, Rostand’s original 1890’s play. Cyrano’s ugliness makes him despair of being loved by the lovely and brilliant Roxane, but also fuels a headlong, pugnacious arrogance and “ferocious integrity”. And, as it turns out, a sort of self-sacrificing but bonkers nobility which (I speak as a past French schoolchild) strikes me as the rich rank fruit of a Roman Catholic culture. There were a lot of martyrs in our convent school curriculum, back then. Also, a lot of rhetorical flourishes, and Rostand is not short of those: so in adapting it Deborah McAndrew goes for broke with the long speeches, rhymes, and almost rap-style rapid assonances dear to Cyrano and his cohort of warlike cadet poets, plus the devoted patissier Ragueano and the drunken yet musically gifted Ligniere.

 

 

So, very French, not least in a plot which makes even Shakespeare’s more exotic flights seem realistic. Roxane, here a dignifiedly mournful-looking Sharon Singh, is desired by the wicked count De Guiche, who tries to marry her to a wet nobleman who will be willing to share her favours. Cyrano, her cousin, loves her purely, to the extent that he’ll disrupt a theatre with that crazy rhyming duel merely out of fury that the star once looked lustfully at her. She, however, falls for pretty-boy Christian (Adam Barlow) who has no gift of language. So Cyrano writes the love letters – a beloved Victorian-era trope, that – prompts the dimbo lover from a dark bush and finally takes over, standing aside only for Christian to claim the actual kiss and the bride, leaving our big-schnozzled hero bereft. Everyone off to war, then, and there’s a death, and a revelation of how Roxane really feels. Fourteen years pass and, amid some nuns, there’s the love ’n death scene.

 
Which goes on too long. That is a problem. At 2 hrs 45 minutes a generally highly enjoyable romp could have done with stern trimming by director-composer Conrad Nelson: too many long poetic flights, so that at some moments you feel you actually have lived through the Thirty Years War. But take away twenty minutes and it’d be perfect. The songs are lovely, Edwards is tremendous, and the ensemble are Northern Broadsides at their merriest: broad Yorkshire and Lancashire voices suiting the military rowdiness and banter brilliantly well .

 

Indeed all the cast are smart, funny and elegantly choreographed. A particular palm should go to Francesca Mills as the tumbling pickpocket, the patissier’s apprentice and a small but resolute nun . 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.
01284 769505, http://www.theatreroyal.org to 6 May Then TOURING on – dates, www. northern-broadsides.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating
joint production by NOrthern Broadsides and New Vic

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THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI Donmar Warehouse WC2

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS THE DONMAR’S NEW VERSION OF BRECHT CRIMINALLY IRRESISTIBLE

How do you get, keep and wield power? What do you use it for, and why? And, if you will stop at nothing, how can the rest of society stop you? Brecht’s satirical attack on the political rise of Hitler and the Nazis, in a vibrant new translation by Bruce Norris bolstered by punchline rhymes and lashings of Shakespeare, bounds onto centre stage blazing pinstripes and Tommy guns galore as part of the Donmar’s timely ‘Power’ season. Simon Evans directs a slick, fast-paced and deliciously brutal production which involves and implicates us in the inexorable success of Arturo Ui, as Evans whisks us into Brecht’s imagined world where “small-time racketeers and fascist politicians…illuminate each other reciprocally.” As Brecht intended, we’re in Chicago, rather than Germany, and the power everyone wants is over the lucrative cauliflower racket – not to mention a dodgy council deal or two, sliding public funds into the pockets of criminals who go on to forcibly wrest public office from the weak, the partially honest, and the easily silenced.

Peter McKintosh’s design welcomes us into a speakeasy bar at whose centre is a clear playing space, ringed by stalls seats collected around cabaret tables – and beware, if you sit in the stalls, audience participation beckons its determined finger. But this is entirely apt for a play which Brecht designed to provoke the German people into understanding how Hitler rose, in the hope of empowering them to resist corrupt populist dictators in future; Norris’ scattering of Trump references show the Western political system is still not immune to the charms of any rich, ruthless bully who sets their mind to power. Scene changes are beautifully and simply engineered by light (designed by Howard Harrison) and scraps of live music, as cast members each take turns to grab a swinging microphone from the air to serenade us with a few gorgeous bars of the Blues; Ed Lewis creates a luscious period soundscape with live piano, scratchy samples, and blistered radio transmissions. Meanwhile, violence is sharp, convincing and bloody, with just enough sour humour to keep pace and tension relentlessly high. Brechtian directness – ‘dead’ actors walking off stage, potted plot narration delivered through the fourth wall – reigns supreme, giving us a riotous evening which is theatrically unpretentious, fun, and sometimes unnervingly profound.

Lenny Henry gives a generally commanding performance as Arturo Ui, though occasionally struggles to exert Ui’s full authority on a stage chock full of frighteningly talented actors. However, Henry can conjure wonderful menace from stillness, and is particularly brilliant at channelling the Shakespearian roots of Ui: wheedling Betty Dullfeet over her husband’s coffin with the revolting magnetism of Richard III, portraying real terror when Ernesto Roma’s bloodied ghost (Banquo-style) appears. Henry finds the self-conscious weakness at the heart of the power-hungry, and exploits it well; still, a more solid sense of nastiness might improve things further.

Giles Terera is chillingly convincing as Ernesto Roma, a keen killer with a short fuse, in it for the long game. Roma’s death, literally stabbed in the back as Ui looks on, genuinely feels like a betrayal of trust – suddenly, we realise how enmeshed we are, Evans successfully warping our sympathies into Brecht’s illuminating web. Guy Rhys is unfailingly and brilliantly oily as Giuseppe Givola. Justine Mitchell makes a spectacularly elegant, proud and vulnerable Betty Dullfeet. Exceptional further contributions from the rest of the strong cast, including Michael Pennington’s memorably pathetic Dogsborough, keep things vivid, as well as lurid, in this finest of history lessons.

~ Charlotte Valori

Box office: 0844 871 7624 until 17 June

Principal sponsor: Barclays

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating

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THE TREATMENT Almeida N1

BILIOUS BUT BRACING: THE METROPOLIS AND THE MOVIES

Simon may be from the wrong side of New York, a roughneck who ties his wife Anne to a chair and tapes her mouth for being “critical” of his neighbourhood. But he does have a way with words. Encountering a playwright on the sidewalk he snarls “I have no interest in the theatre…I will not pay good money to be told that the world is a heap of shit”.

Huzzah! That’s telling the Almeida set. We titter nervously,  and suddenly everything is great. For Martin Crimp, master of the sour perspective, may veer into surrealismos about blind cab drivers,  and be served by programme-notes speckled with tags from  Kafka, Baudrillard, Egon Schiele , Uncle Tom Cobbleivich and all. But  unlike some writers of the  dark ‘n furious  persuasion, Mr Crimp knows that his job is also to be entertaining.

And so he is, in a deliciously horrid fable about the  unfeeling urban jungle , coupled with the way  that  film and TV elites exploit  real people’s stories. Especially pretty  women’s.  Since half our screen entertainment today seems to involve either memories of rape and abuse, or fictions about it accompanied by the producers’ bragging about how they interviewed real victims,  this 1993  play is well worth a revival.  Especially under Lyndsey Turner’s crisp clear direction.

So Reader, I loved it. Right from the opening  scene where Jennifer the producer,  (a fabulously avid Indira Varma) is hearing Ann’s account of her ordeal and is thrilled by the detail of the gag being shiny-backed tape because it will catch the light better “the glint of it. That’s good”.

Within the general message about urban unease and dehumanisation – blurry , threatening windscreen cityscape  projections between starkly set scenes – lies a straightforward story. Anne’s abuse by a controlling husband is colonized by Jennifer and Andrew’s film idea. The project is assisted by the money and clout of the  actor – Gary Beadle having  hellish good fun as a cocky controlling megastar -and by a fading  playwright who has written an  Edward-Bondish screenplay , rather droolingly,  about a fading artist who gets invited to live with a young couple and watch them have elaborate sex (sure I’ve seen that play somewhere).

There are numerous lines so cleverly tacky that you almost whoop with recognising laughter (“John is attracting a great deal of money to this, Anne. Your new hotel. Your clothes…” reproves Jennifer when the subject protests). There is a truly horrid burst of violence from Simon in defence of his victim-wife’s stolen reality. So the play keeps you  – if not edified – well on edge.  And if you feel unease at Ann’s quiescence about her treatment and imprisonment, at least that too is challenged with shrill feminist disapproval by her screen avatar Nicky  (Ellora Torchia) “I think that kind of passivity is totally degrading…. This”  she cries,  pointing rudely at the actual Anne ” is not MY idea of Anne “.  It reminded me of that terrible film of Mansfield Park which made Fanny Price into a feisty, whipcracking heroine so as to feed the vanity of the star or the principles of the modern-minded director.

Thus the Crimpian shudders come at you in stereo from right and left alike. And the best definition yet of corruption is  there, albeit with the playwright’s voice channelled improbably through the normally blandish Andrew:  “Corruption has three stations. The first is the loss of innocence. The second is the desire to inflict that loss on others. The third is the need to instil in others that same desire”. Brrr.

Aisling Loftus is a superb Anne, sensitive to every flickering uncertainty and pragmatic realism, and the splendid Ian Gelder gives Webb all the pathos of the faded has-been writer.   But to be honest,  the palm this time goes to Matthew Needham as Simon. His dead-eyed, needy, savage realism genuinely scared me.

box office 0207 359 4404 to 10 June

Principal Partner: Aspen
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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FORTY YEARS ON Chichester Festival Theatre

1918..1968..AND NOW.. ALAN BENNETT’S ENGLAND

 
In his 1994 diaries Alan Bennett described the funeral of a Dunkirk veteran in a village church. “crammed with the men who won the war. Young officers then, now in their sixties, good, solid, old-fashioned faces, never wavering, never doubting and singing their hearts out – “For all the Saints” “Immortal, Invisible”. It’s like Forty Years on – all that one loves and hates”.

 

 

This 1968 revue-style play, a tapestry of national memory and mockery, affectionate nostalgia and determined revolution , encapsulates exactly that conflict in the British heart. To revive it in a Brexit year, as we grasp more urgently the dangers of harking-back by the wrong people, is a canny if risky move by the theatre’s new leader Daniel Evans, who directs it himself with all the big-stage brio and playfulness he showed in Sheffield.

 
Risky, because it is hard to gauge how far the new generation will get its references to another era: schoolmasters uninhibited by childcare-correctness, Confirmation Classes, and legends like T.E.Lawrence and Sapper. On the other hand the WW1 centenary has re-sensitized us to both wars, so at least some history will resonate. For me, fifty years on the echoes were still all there. For newcomers , know that we become the parents and alumni watching, behind a huge posse of grey-uniformed boys, a frequently disrupted end of term play at imagined Sussex public-school, “Albion House”,: a metaphor for England itself. The retiring headmaster remembers starting on Armistice Day 1918, teaching boys who twenty years later fought in the second war. His successor-to-be the progressive Franklin has devised a series of scenes in which a posh 1940’s couple see out the second war with their old nanny in the basement of Claridge’s, remembering and lamenting their childhood Edwardian England which vanished in 1914, and their adult one which in 1945 was replaced by “a sergeant’s world, of the lay-by and the civic improvement scheme”.

 

 

So Franklin, Miss Nisbitt, Tempest and Matron and the boys zigzag through riotous sketches guyings of Wildean Edwardiana, Bloomsbury, John-Buchanesque “snobbery-with-violence”, and legendary 20c figures like Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell (strikingly depicted as a 10ft pantomime giantess by two puffing boys in a long frock). Between these, using diaries and poems, songs of the period and a tap-break and revealing political memoirs, the wars themselves are more soberly, movingly taken, still within the play’s odd beguiling structure. Bennett’s balance is artful: for every loopy tap-break, you get a Last Post from the gallery; for every mockery, a tribute. As the headmaster protests to Franklin “Memories are not shackles, they are garlands!”.

 
Except that, on the press night, that beloved line didn’t quite make it, for Richard Wilson, taking on at eighty the Headmaster’s very funny interventions and indignations, was not a hundred percent off-the-book, and made slightly more use than expected of his headmasterly stationery. Yet because he is representing just that stiff romantic old England a-dodder – it didn’t particularly matter. My own worry had been that I couldn’t able to shake off the ghost of Gielgud ’s gloriously querulous voice on the classic stage and radio version; but Wilson’s is a strong flavour himself, and I forgot it almost instantly. The odd fluff and fumble almost added to the charm.

 
And he is supported by not only a beautifully choreographed and flowingly vivid ensemble of boys, but by Alan Cox’s excellent Franklin and an utterly magnificent Jenny Galloway as Matron (ahh.. reminiscing about how fat legs didn’t put off men in her ATS wartime heyday). Lucy Briers is an nicely querulous Miss Nisbett and Danny Lee Wynter the master Tempest, particularly memorable as the pearl-draped, Wildean Aunt Cedelia in a bath-chair. Give that man more drag parts!

 

 

Lez Brotherston’s design excels itself too, with a full organ loft above and stone rolls of honour becoming screens with fragments of film or dates clarifying, as the play flits capriciously about, which year it is. So, even if it mystifies the young, it’s good to have it back after fifty years to watch it yearning back another fifty. The final For Sale notice on Albion House – five years before the 1973 vote – has a mischievous topicality, too:
“For Sale. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary”.
All that one loves and hates. God bless Alan Bennett.

 

box office 01243 781312
box.office@cft.org.uk    to 20 May

rating  Four   (the boys deserve no less)

4 Meece Rating

 

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THE PLAGUE Arcola, E8

A JOURNEY THROUGH A PLAGUE YEAR

 

With the horror of Syria fresh on us, and Africa’s travails with Ebola still haunting, this sombre, unforgettable treatment of Albert Camus’ LA PESTE feels urgently present. Neil Bartlett has pared down the novel’s characters to five – the central Dr Rieux played with remarkable balanced strength by Sara Powell, and alongside her Joe Alessi, Burt Caesar, Billy Postlethwaite and Martin Turner as Cottard, Grand, Rambert and Tarrou : I note that for those who know the book, but you don’t need to in order to feel the force of this 85-minute play.

 
Bartlett – who also directs – stages it with just five chairs and two tables, but within that simplicity all the vigour and surprise we associate with Complicité, where he began. We seem to be the audience in a sports hall (the kind of place, in modern disasters, so often turned into emergency mortuaries), and the characters, led by Dr Rieux, urgently tell the story. “Understanding what happened” is their theme. Recording, remembering, accepting its terrifying truth, recording their city’s journey through death and horror, from the time when like any modern conurbation it was “frenetic and vacant”, hardworking and businesslike and neglectful of fellow-men’s reality.

 

So first there were the dead rats, merely a nuisance, but soon too many to ignore: corpses underfoot. Then the infection, the bubonic swellings, the gaping agony, the medical arrangements holding good for a while but people “properly unsettled”. Then it grew to quarantine proportions with people outraged, wanting exceptions, a reporter (Postlethwaite, swaggering at first) demanding to be allowed to leave because it isn’t his city anyway. As the horror mounts, the uncoffined dead thrown desperately into pits, he changes, and resolves to stay.

 
The doctor, and the others, flash back into the work they did, struggles with both practicality and despair; the people begin to find even love “useless, unfit for purpose” in this terrible captivity. A sequence when, invisible, a child dies before them is agonizing. But plagues end: the aftermath is strikingly a mixture of rejoicing and blame and the one hopeful conclusion:
“There is more to admire about one’s fellow-citizens than to despise or despair of. Of course it wasn’t a victory. It is what it is: an account of some things that had to be done, and which I am sure will have to be done again…Joy is always under threat”.
The plague bacillus – whether literal, or as Camus may have equally been indicating in that postwar year , political – is only ever dormant. It will be back. But somehow, from this harsh haunting show you emerge into the bustle of East London encouraged.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 8 May    RATING four 4 Meece Rating

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