Category Archives: Four Mice

THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

     Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany,  are the Harry Potter team.  They know how not to bore.   But they’ve been here before too in a  Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood,   and they can make that just as gripping.  HOPE was a wonderful,  unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man ““It’s possible I will have a better life than you.  The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”.    And this play picks up that theme  of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better. 

 

A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents:  children of the spirit of ‘68, protest marchers, idealists.  He is immersed,  over his newspaper,  in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education.  She is lively, dryly funny,  a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran,    disappointed in  Tony Blair.  The children were all named after socialist icons.

 

As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s  Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash.  The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family,   and Carl needs his pro-choice  liberal parents to fund her abortion.   Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave.    Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife  in  the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter,  irritable warmth and familiar  allusions of the host family.

 

Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.

 

An important achievement  is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family,  as firmly as in EM Forster’s  Schlegels (to whom they may well  owe a debt: certainly  Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So  we follow them,  engrossed by the way that  the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as  the 21c world  of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit.    Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ;  Carl disappointed, thwarted,  drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out.  But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson  gives up,   in every glance and gesture,  a vulnerability that stops your heart.

 

      However,  caringly and  without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!”  used to be in melodrama.  I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom .  Beat, beat,  pause  – family look at one another aghast –  someone runs off    there’s a shot or a horrified scream.     It’s too easy.  Mike Leigh has done it,  the  normally subtler  Florian Zeller has just done it.  Now Thorne.  Enough already!  it’s becoming  emotionally cheap.   And some of us can see it coming minutes early.    Capeesh?

 

Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 boxoffice@royalcourttheatre.com

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE GED 13 3/4 THE MUSICAL Ambassadors, WC2

GROWING PAINS IN THATCHER-TIME…

 

It is almost eerie to plunge back into the 1980s for early teens of our hero,  especially if you have been listening to the latest R4 reading of his adult life,  long post- Thatcher, deep in Brexit with Pandora in Parliament and his love life still a  slo-mo disaster..  But this little musical, developed in Leicester (where else!) is the result of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary  badgering the late sue Townsend to be allowed to do it,  and with poppy tunes and a high-spirited cast under Luke Sheppard,  it works surprisingly well.

    

    Its charm is partly retro – boy-nature is perennial, and all of us, of both sexes,   who were once teenage poets and dreamers of intellectual grandeur can relate to poor Adrian’s travails.   Even if our parents were less ghastly than his.    But young Mole predates our age of social media, smartphones and the problems of wiredly connected anxious FOMO-victims. Today one could wistfully hope that teenage intellectual ambition would find a tribe.   And, with luck, his mother Pauline’s feminism would have lost its recklessly selfish 1980’s élan and taken his emotional welfare too seriously to dump him with a boozy Dad and run off with Mr Lucas. 

 

    Shouldn’t be nursing these reflections during what is a stompingly funny, pleasantly daft and relentlessly energetic musical,  but the sadness of Adrian Mole always did rather get to me. And the poignant performance of the boy himself (on press night Michael Hawkins) serves that very honestly.    His timing, and sense of bathos, is magnificent:  underlining the perennial problem of any child looking up at the terrible absurdities and unpredictable behaviours of the adult world (not just his parents  – Andrew Langtree and a willowy Amy Ellen Richardson –   but Ian Talbot’s old Baxter with his views on women (“whip ‘em, slap ‘em, ride ‘em”) and the fierce grandmother (Rosemary Ashe).    The adults double as schoolchildren, which is simple but frankly hilarious;  though in the ensemble of real children the palm must go to the diminutive Charlie Stripp as Barry the Bully,  whose macho posing, gritted jaw and squared shoulders elicited barks of delight.   He works the delightfully patched, ragged family dog puppet beautifully as well. 

 

  So it’s good fun, irresistible really, and should cheer up the school holidays no end while reminding parents of their own awful 80’s childhood.   The Nativity play is well over the top and down the other side.   But at its core is the sadness that Adrian will never quite, even in his own inflated opinion, fulfil his chant of “I’ll be great, I’ll be strong, I’ll be friends with Elton John!”.  

 

Box Office: 0843 904 0061  to 12 October

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

    Savagely observed  absurdity, blinding flashes of insight,  profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel  swamp of humanity.  This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges .  Though  wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling;   and intelligently,   rather than clutter the set realistically, she  uses the striking , noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions .  The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening. 

      

  The play  starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes:  religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice,   and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere:   a superb Jemima Rooper ,  voguing around in shabby leopardprint.  She  is doubly disreputable  for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”.  She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken.  In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus  she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night –  and what they say is “Live!  live!”.  Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.  

        

  This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things:  that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation,  that his wife Lady has run and improved the business , and  that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals.  BUt who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to blacks,  was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames.  This left Lady destitute  so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – ‘Jabe Torrance bought that woman,  and he bought her cheap”. 

          Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis,    Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”.  Lady is efficient but not fond,  brisk and chilly and cleverer  than the rest, standing apart.   Into this little world descends the Orphean Val,    with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith,  wanting to  to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life.   After some sparring,  and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches,  he gets a job in Lady’s store.  

     

  From that moment   Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage,  control the tension,  drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,.    The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval .  Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later).   She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” .   Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter  – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”,  and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven.  When the moment comes that they finally kiss,   movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.  

      

      Too deep involved,  too sorrowful for the trapped lives,  you  long for this pair to make a break for it,  assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully).     You are rapt until  the last terrible moments.  Uncle Pleasant looks on,  steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world,   and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way.   Stunning, strange, unforgettable.  

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

 

 

 

      There’s something special about fin-de-siecle anger in any century: this is from 1697,  years later than Wycherley and the mellower Sheridan,  and  best described as a furious sex-comedy wrapped around real tragedy. 

        A vicious, drunken rich husband, Brute, eloquently hates his wife and resents the whole entrapment of matrimony  – “If I were married to a hogshead of claret I would hate it!”.   Poor Lady Brute  once “thought I had charms enough to govern him..” but didn’t.  Their bickering (sharp, funny, this is the author John Vanburgh at the top of his game) is so poisonous that with her niece Belinda she plots to cuckold him with a handy gallant,   just for vengeance.   In a playfully daring argument, very much of the period ,  she explains that the scriptural ban on infidelity”might be a mistake in the translation”. 

        There are  two available men –  John Hodgkinson’s aquiline, grey-suited cynic Heartfree, who against his will eventually falls for Belinda,  and the more naive and gilded Constant (Rufus Hound) who fancies Lady Brute.  Meanwhile Caroline Quentin,  in crazy rouged-clown makeup,  foot-high ginger wig and patisserie-frilled crinoline,  is Lady Fancifull.  She is teased by Heartfree , sets her cap at him and adds to the chaos..  

           It is the usual Restoration affair of masks, ruses, meetings,  and razor-sharp mutual insults between the sexes. Cheeky assaults are made on the fourth wall,  and the laughs keep coming.   Jonathan Slinger’s dissipated Brute ends up, for no very good reason, being arrested drunk in a woman’s dress:  he puts on a bravura display of shrill camp violence as he wipes out the  watch and insults the Justice.  Quentin’s Fancifull  too is all one could ask  this side of an actual pantomime dame, as she pirouettes surrounded by looking-glasses on sticks.  

   

    The comedy is excellent,  the Restoration wordiness enlivened by some terrific movement  direction by Ayse Tashkiran – Fancifull’s obedient household rarely move at less than a fast scuttle .  There are a couple of rather lovely songs ,  and Sarah Twomey as a bravura bilingual French maid.    Incidentally,  this and next week’s Venice Preserved mark the RSC debut of Les Dennis:  possibly the first time someone gets both a Stratford debut and an award for Best Ugly Sister in the same month.  He’s not too busy in this – just a bit of fine drunken collapsing, and a spry participation in the scuttling entourage. But very welcome.   

         The tragedy, though, is real and angry:   it is the living death  of Lady Brute,  and the horribly well-evoked depressive nastiness and cowardly despair of her husband.   Alexandra Gilbreath is stunning:  she moves from an initial playfulness, coyly carnal as she plots her  affair,   into later moments of intense and queenly stillness as Brute grows filthier and more violent.   We are told Vanbrugh wrote the part , darker than in his first play,   for Elizabeth Barry,   an experienced  tragedienne.  It shows.  When the sodden and bloodstained Brute  violently kisses then tries to rape her –   smearing her , glorying in making her  filthy as him –  it is one of the nastiest scenes of the year,  for all the frills and furbelows.   Her face, and dutiful shuddering curtsey  afterwards , tell all.   The central tragedy is  simply that she is stuck with him.  And his power. 

       Vanbrugh  was a phenomenon: shipping agent commented for bravery under fire, four years a prisoner in France,  he came home and wrote two comedies – this being the second – before turning into an architect and designing Castle Howard.  Historically, he is credited by director Philip Breen with influences on both Tennessee Williams (is Blanche Dubois just Lady Fancifull, with added pathos?) and Pinter; his trio of men – lover, husband, sceptic – he links to the three in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.     But few other writers simultaneously evoke  quite the savage cynicism,  torrential verbal wit  and real anger  of this slightly alarming and ceaselessly entertaining piece about men, women, and social hypocrisies.   When Heartfree – who has fallen genuinely in love –  and the yearning Constant have a rare moment of insight together,  they define with sudden odd beauty what is lost in libertinism:  “To be capable of loving one is better than to possess a thousand”.  

box office rsc.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

LOVE  AND LOSS AND ‘THAT’S THE DEAL’

 

 

   Jack is a middle-aged Oxford English don of the ’50’s , a bachelor and apologist for Christianity.  Graceful, witty books and lectures justify such theological puzzles as “the problem of pain”.   Within him, carefully protected by theology and cautious habit,  is still a desolate 8-year-old grieving his mother:  retreats into  childlike imagination have fuelled the children’s books which have made him famous round the world, and (naturally)  regarded with a slight envious suspicion in the senior Common Room.   He corresponds across the Atlantic, with a mouthy , witty American woman with a bad marriage who admires his religious writing and children’s books alike.    She visits. His friends in the Common-room are pretty appalled, but the friendship deepens enough for them to go through  a civil marriage so she can legally live here.   Her cancer diagnosis makes him  see that they are in love;   real marriage  and remission give Jack and Joy three years of great happiness before he meets the  great unanswerable pain.

 

 

  Jack of course is C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books;   William Nicholson’s  play a modern classic.  I had seen it several times, most recently Alistair Whatley’s marvellous touring production with Stephen Boxer ( https://theatrecat.com/2016/03/28/shadowlands-touring/   ) .   Frankly,    I had qualms about Hugh Bonneville in the role:  too handsome, too familiar in his evocations of dullish  decent steadiness in  both Downton  and his hapless W1A role.  

 

        But before many minutes in the chaffing common-room scenes which open the play,  I could see the point.  It’s a different Lewis, but a valid one.   Bonneville points up Lewis’ essential goodwill, contrasted with the nicely viperish Christopher Riley (Timothy Watson).   It also brings out the touching tolerant sweetness of his relationship with his bufferish alcoholic brother Warnie:   no intellectual and initially more than wary of  Liz White’s noisy, assertive Joy,  but possessed of more emotional commonsense than his brother.    Andrew Havill is a joy, both in his alarmed early evasions and the grandfatherish warmth he shows in the crisiS, towards the interloper’s young son (the night I saw it,  a fine Ruari Finnegan).  

 

          All the jokes and little British uneasinesses are there ,  pointed and sharp and elegant under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction.  I wondered at first if the vast stage would drown the play’s intimacy,  but filmically fast-changing scenes on the revolve work brilliantly while in street scenes characters  walk past a lamp-post (nice touch, we readers remember both its origins in The Magician’s Nephew and its appearance beyond the Wardrobe).    Joy’s hospital bed stands in the second half as  a small,  pathetic focus in the centre while  the irrelevances of the outside world  circling distant around it:   there’s emotional truth in that .  The yawning black gap between two vast library shelves has its symbolism too, in Lewis’ heart, but  also enables the child’s glimpses of Narnian divinity.    The moment in the hotel when the boy rings the bell and a woman rises is magic. 

 

      One companion worried that Bonneville’s natural, possibly incurable,  suavity would damage belief in his newfound ardour and the  immense wrecking shock of his bereavement, as he has to accept that giving your whole heart means having it broken: ‘that’s the deal’.    I didn’t find any problem with the Bonneville version:  he  did it his way.     There is one gloriously telling moment when he and Joy are not just intellectual friends but physically married,  and he lauds the ordinary, domestic happiness of it.  For the only time in the play we see Lewis not at a desk or lecturing or poised in company, but lounging:  feet up on a stool,  relaxed,  contented.  A man made new.  Strangely, that was the moment a tear pricked.

 

box office  cft.org.uk  to  25 may

rating four  

4 Meece Rating

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JUDE Hampstead, NW1

ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY ,  FRESHNESS OF YOUTH

    

    It’s a storming performance. Young  Isabella Nefar  as Judith erupts upon us:   adolescent, exuberant,  afire with defiance and poetry,  language and sexual vigour and contempt and high ancient longings.  She is a Syrian-Christian  refugee, without settled status,  a teenage cleaner ,an autodidact drawn like a moth to the great Greek classics.   Her nightmares are about border crossings, Turkish back-streets,a father horribly dead.  Her dream is to read Classics at Oxford.   Found reading a volume of Euripides  – “stealing makes it better!” – by her academic employer  she speaks the great lines and translates with eloquent beauty,  ordering the sacred rivers to run backwards and start the world anew. 

 

      Howard Brenton’s new play is a deliberate echo of Thomas Hardy’s darkest work, Jude the Obscure:  an updated riff on his angry theme of how passionate genius in humble people is stifled and thwarted by society.   Hardy’s is a famously grim book  (especially the bit I slightly despise him for when the stonemason’s three children die in a murder-suicide  with a note saying “done because we are too meny”.)     Brenton does not go so far,  though at one point one feels the temptation rising;  the important thing is that he picks up and flies with the idea of how underprivileged genius  today can “fall through the rotten floorboards”  of Britain,  what with tightening asylum rules callously applied, MI5 witch-hunts,  snobbery, and middle-England’s distaste for  stroppy, ungrateful foreigners however brilliant they are.  There’s even, in a final lavish twist, a reference to a trade deal about American pork post-Brexit.. 

   

If this sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, fear not.  Nefar is a marvellously engaging Judith: infuriating,  elevated, never passive but hopeful and joyful and furious: she burns before us on the fuel of poetry, wild intelligence and terrifying ancient sensibility.  Euripides himself turns up – Paul Brennen in a brilliant, blank mask by Vicki Hallam,    haunting her dreams and visions,  sometimes awe-inspiring, deeply other, yet finally with an unsettling edge of Geordie -accented camp.

   

    Jude is bent on A levels, cleaning by night and living with rough Jack (Luke MacGregor) a rustic pig thief.  This enables some very Greek throat- cutting as,  drunk with words , memories and vodka,  the wild girl bathes herself sonorously in blood on the soaking sand.  The Oxford scenes are both funny and satirically sharp, as  Caroline Loncq’s  matchless Professor Deirdre – a sort of drunker Mary Beard –  is captivated by her passion, fixes her a scholarship and cannily lists the advantages: “Arab – single mother – female – from a persecuted religious minority –  I can see those boxes ticking themselves!”.   But she is then intimidated out of it, not wholly credibly to be honest,   by a security service warning and the risk to the University’s reputation.    

        It grips constantly and sometimes, especially with the great shiver of Homeric or Euripidean words,  shakes you. The last scenes move in a satisfying way between surrealism, sharp practicality from Jude’s rather fine aunt (Anna Savva)  and exasperated drunken ranting from the pig man. There are streaks of  over-Hampsteady paranoia about the present government,  logical holes which don’t matter  and one psychological one which does pull you up a bit :  Judith piously proclaims  that Syrians respect family more than our lot ,  while having apparently forgotten that she walked out on Jack and her infant son to lay siege to Oxford and seduce her reluctant, religiously intense cousin.  

         But “ poets are only echoes” says Euripides, and so are playwrights.  Distortions, crumples and ragged edges make them all the more beguiling, and Howard Brenton never lets you down in the end.   All in all, it’s a rather fabulous swansong for Ed Hall’s Hampstead years.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 1 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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