Category Archives: Four Mice

THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…

   

  The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly    to our own.  

 

      The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents,  hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

 

      Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from  above the bare stage,  into the combative craziness of the modern world .  The row, alas,  will be all too recognizable to a 21c  medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).  He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters.  Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward.   I am not sure why this works, but it does.  It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics. 

        

          Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism,  religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’,  Icke hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.     As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into  separate identity groups we know where that led.  To tattoos on people’s wrists”.    Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

         

          But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.         

    

    As a show it is pure essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving.  In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping.  Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both  concerned with faith and hope.  

     

  The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag  will only be noticed by Catholics,  because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was  – as “Extreme Unction”for  deathbeds only.  Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed.   But that’s a quibble.  You won’t regret the ticket.    

box office  020 7359 4404    to  28 september      www.almeida.co.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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COUNT ORY Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS INTO THE BLITZ SPIRIT WITH OPERA ALEGRIA AT GRIMEBORN
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a flirtatious farce in which a naughty young Count drives everyone demented with his relentless erotic enthusiasms: and it glitters, musically and dramatically, with madcap Rossinian flair all the way through. For Grimeborn, Opera Alegria have moved the setting from the Crusades to the Second World War, with Count Ory as a feckless young aristocrat who hasn’t joined up, instead running rings around his exasperated tutor, the redoubtable air-raid warden and the hapless Home Guard as he searches for a way to seduce the delectable Adele. Lindsay Bramley’s brilliant translation-adaptation romps home joyfully with the goods: the wartime update lands the tone somewhere between a (very) cheeky Gilbert & Sullivan and a slightly sweary Carry On film, especially once the lads get the nun costumes out (oh, yes, they do). But while the tone is refreshingly light and firmly tongue in cheek, the music making is unrepentantly good stuff. We get an hypnotically elegant piano accompaniment arranged and played by Bramley, and a team of superb singers who attack both dramatic and comic moments with lyrical gusto. This strong ensemble boasts several eyecatching talents: Alistair Sutherland’s richly sonorous bass never fails to impress as Hopkins the tutor, a poised and sassy Caroline Carragher excels as a gorgeously bossy Venetia Trumpington-Hewitt, and Naomi Kilby’s luminous soprano (which has developed exciting depth and strength in recent years) is both engaging and affecting as the innocent heroine Adele. The combined comic skill of Ian Massa-Harris, Christopher Killerby and James Schouten make the Home Guard a well-rehearsed delight, while smaller roles are capably presented by Fae Evelyn as a pleasing Alice and Alicia Gurney as Nathaniel, a plucky little farmer who’s caught Adele’s eye.
Jokes abound in the text, in the score and on the stage: this production fizzes with taut energy all the way to its unusual bedroom climax, which here culminates in a rather joyous (and mercifully unsquirmy) threesome, rather than the usual red-faced mistaken gender reveal. Artistic director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith keeps his fine cast on their toes with slick choreography and continuously well-observed dramatic detail, exploring the piece with care; from the priapic possibilities of carrots to the real tension of an air raid during the storm scene (complete with siren), Newhouse-Smith is unfailingly on the case. Vegetables crop up regularly in Christopher Killerby’s design, which is cleverly simple, using wartime posters to set the scene, while Churchill’s announcement of war opens the piece with admirable tension, the radio extract movingly played over a steadily darkening stage.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 17 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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GO BANG YOUR TAMBOURINE Finborough, SE10

A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH

 

       ANother fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough,  buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour .    As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community.   The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger.  The one he accepts,  to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber ,  is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion.   The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one:  the quartet  work through  a counterpoint of innocence and experience,  old resentments,  father-son rivalry,  religious devotion and simple friendship .        

      

        David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21c,  loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising  and utterly containing a character from another age.   Calver emerges from the sophistication of  London’s E15 Acting School  to become with utter commitment  a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire.  Here’s a boy grieving his mother,  living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off  years before with a Doris.     Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness  – and a struggling stubbornness  – which show the man he might become.      Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…   

          

       It’s a fine performance.  So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath  her  neat  bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of  the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour.  John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy,  is the father;  and there’s a really lovely,  explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess. 

    

  In one fine   scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine  into his daily life.   That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists,  whose band echoes briefly between scenes,  is obvious, but King is not sending them up.   Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable,   and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father.   Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco. 

    

        Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly.   Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set,  build a past  world without caricature and with understanding,  reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness.   It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders.  It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?

 

boxoffice   finboroughtheatre.co.uk   to  31 August .  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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DIE FLEDERMAUS Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES BATS FOR BASELESS FABRIC’S SOCIAL MEDIA TAKE ON STRAUSS

“I’m not saying I’m Batman. I’m just saying nobody has ever seen me and Batman in a room together,” reads the slogan on trendy Falke’s ironic t-shirt. Furious at a recent drinking prank played on him by his pal Eisenstein, in which photos of a blind-drunk Falke dressed as Batman went viral on social media,  Falke now wants to get his own back – with the aid of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde  and Adele, their family nanny, though only Falke knows where it’s all headed. Baseless Fabric Theatre’s contemporary interpretation of Strauss’ operetta brings it to where it has always, to some extent, lived: the world of social media, of rife gossip, giggling humiliation of others , and schadenfreude. Even though Strauss didn’t have an app for it in the 18th century, he perceived our egotism and vulnerability when it comes to what others think of us with an unerring eye in this tightly-drawn, fast paced farce.

It’s rather a treat to be allowed to sit still for Joanna Turner’s lean, entertaining production for Grimeborn: Baseless Fabric are known for their promenade opera, often on high streets (I last chased their excellent mobile Così round the streets of Merton, including in and out of Morrison’s). Marina Hadjilouca designs with simplicity and economy for the Arcola’s petite Studio 2, using a handful of large balloons, some white boxes, sculptural lighting, and not much else beyond a strong sense of contemporary urban chic to place the action squarely in London today. Costumes are brilliantly on point: Falke and Eisenstein are designer-label yuppies, Rosalinde an immaculately dressed but overwrought mother to Eisenstein’s twin boys, and Adele defiantly casual in denim, trainers and braids. With so little visual fuss, yet so much trouble quietly taken, Hadjilouca’s design stands back and lets the piece flow, the ideal backdrop for Joanna Turner’s skilfully choreographed, high-energy direction. Compressing a cast of eleven into four characters comes off remarkably well: Falke absorbs Prince Orlov quite naturally. Eisenstein is facing, not prison, but community service as a punishment for previous drunken behaviour, and in the most delicious comic moment he shuffles grimly across the stage in silence in a COMMUNITY PAYBACK tabard, sourly using a grabber to pick up the shards of golden foil left over from Falke’s fateful party, which he attended in the guise of a footballer, and flirted with his own wife, disguised as a model – all of which is, of course, filmed on iPhones for viral distribution in Falke’s revenge.

The laughs come thick and fast; the score is cleverly conveyed by bassoon, violin and accordion (arranged by bassoonist Leo Geyer); and the singing is glorious. The exceptional Claire Wild is on top form as Rosalinde, her passionate, agile soprano bringing real dramatic verve to the whole, acting with true panache. Wild is well matched by a memorably sassy, smooth and melodious Abigail Kelly as Adele, whose control during musically-annotated laughter is breathtaking. James McOran-Campbell’s honeyed tones make Falke rather lush, which is no bad thing: McOran-Campbell inhabits the world of the piece throughout with joyful intensity, even waltzing a little with the boxes as he rearranges the stage between scenes. David Horton’s lovable lager-lout Eisenstein perfectly hits the grey area between objectionable oaf and endearing Peter Pan, sometimes sweet with winning charm, occasionally vile and unreconstructed, in a clever and appealing performance from this talented young tenor.

Turner may not dig deep into the blacker bits of this operetta, but she mines its surface for fresh, light and coruscating comedy gold: and comes up trumps.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (6-7 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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MISS HAVISHAM’S WEDDING NIGHT /12 POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES MAD FOR AMERICAN MONODRAMA

A pairing of two American music dramas promised plenty of angsty feminist fun for a Friday night at Grimeborn; and I admit, in less accomplished hands, the angst might have overwhelmed the fun. But thanks to a tour de force solo performance from talented soprano Sarah Minns, directed with exceptional care and detail by Ralph Bridle, we were treated to a spellbinding trip inside two extraordinary brains: one real, the other imaginary, both fantasists par excellence. Miss Havisham and Emily Dickinson are icons of deserted womanhood who compel our curiosity alongside compassion, victims of their own time and of themselves. Yet, despite their outer frailty, each is marked by tenacious stubbornness, a determination to bring the world to heel by sheer force of imagination: each makes a sustained creative protest against their reality. Composer Dominick Argento (who died this February) took more than one attempt to realise Miss Havisham’s story as an opera, finally deciding on a monodrama as absorbing as it is unnerving. To soften us up for Argento’s final attack, Aaron Copland’s setting of a dozen Emily Dickinson poems, each dedicated to a different composer friend, is a powerful, elegant exploration of the poet’s extraordinary, tidal emotions, swaying ever further away from sanity. David Eaton’s lustrous piano accompaniment delivers each score with warm, resonant flourish.

Designer Amy Watts sets the stage with a large dining table, surrounded by chairs shrouded in dust sheets, one clearly hiding an inanimate seated figure. A washing line is pegged with letters which will turn out to be from the deceitful Compeyson. Minns enters in a black 1950s dress with a crisp floral apron (perhaps a nod to Dickinson’s legendary gift for baking?) and purrs into the Copland, discovering a Dickinson who is playful, paranoid, divinely inspired and desperate by turns; a glorious human conundrum revealing herself with disarming frankness and fragility through music. Copland’s lieder-like approach endows each poem with its own private world of melody, while Dickinson’s skill with assonance and inner rhyme proves a gift for song: these poems are not so much expressed as emblazoned in Copland’s forensically poised score, and Minns’ gorgeous soprano presses every button in an intense, lyrical performance gently leavened with conspiratorial charm. Director Ralph Bridle adds a toy toucan, which allows Dickinson a friend, pet and confidant, and Minns merrily invites us, toucan and all, on a wild adventure into Emily’s bewildered mind. It is Emily who carries in the wedding cake, adorned with dead flowers and sporting a theatrically-stabbed-in knife, which is vital for the second, darker piece, where we find Miss Aurelia Havisham reliving and re-enacting her fateful jilting. To roll from one piece to another in minutes tests both acting and singing, and the Arcola’s smaller space allows no room to hide, but Minns simply relishes this: her confidence and focus carry all before her, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand as she traces Miss Havisham from her memories as an excited ingénue in cream silk to a haggard, trembling alcoholic, warped by bitter disappointment, alienated, feral, haunting herself rather than living. John Olon-Scrymgeour’s libretto brims with pathos: “It is now, now, always the eternal NOW,” Miss Havisham cries, falling on her knees in anguish before the stopped clock, crushing Compeyson’s last letter of rejection to a ball. By the end, shaking with emotion, smeared with lipstick and blood, Minns can purr, sneer or howl – we are equally mesmerised.

This is what Grimeborn is all about, for me: vibrantly powerful, high quality opera at near-terrifying close quarters, tough but intriguing, with a few surprises tucked in for good measure. Guts, brains and, above all, beauty.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (1-3 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER Jermyn St, SW1

HEROIC ENDURANCE  

    

    In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless,  finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island,   and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men.  It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter,  Harry McNish,  who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.

  

  He is.   On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat,  raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts.  Derelict, delusional,  defiant but near to death,  he addresses Shackleton,  himself already a ghost,  and other shipmates.   Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle,  Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery,   survival in grim Antarctic beauty,  pride ,  trauma and not least,  fury.

   

    He has never  forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat,  Mrs Chippy  (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups .  (Of course he  would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done:  the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death.  The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that  dark cold Antarctic winter.  But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance.  And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy,  who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…). 

      

      Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels.   He was denied  the Polar medal for his defiance,  and also – it seems to him – for having been  right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes.   A brilliant workman,  he had other ideas for escape when the  great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes.  Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services.  But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum,  twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality.  Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night.  “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”. 

    

    Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death,  This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory.   If you catch it, you won’t forget it.  

 

Box office  0207 387 2875   www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to August 17  

tour dates uk & Ireland :    shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS

   

    I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser,   the bit that sticks, and stimulates,  is that troublesome  “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.  

        Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand  they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife,  and in the scuffle is killed.   And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral,  the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork.  So off go the happy couple in a jalopy,  and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.   

 

\    Everyone white, that is.  For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast.   He was indeed  drunk and threatening,  but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey    she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover  to hang himself,   in the weirdly compelling  “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events  the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy. 

  

    Edgy and interesting;  just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans).    Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey,  and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait.   Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not?   The result is that for all the merriment,   the production has uneasy overtones.  These come  to a head in the  extraordinary sexual  ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography)   as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys,   and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence.   Until  the real Jed,  anxious and spruced-up for courtship,  wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.  

  

    All this adds astringency,  and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong.    Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it,  the political-racial unease helps.   Not least because the early scenes felt oddly  conventionally, almost disappointingly so.    We have enjoyed the  musical-theatre lollipops:   the Surrey with a Fringe On Top  and the lively nonsense of  Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having  excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish  pedlar.   But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.  

   

      Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is  a perfect Laurey:   the finest voice of the year,   soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness.    If the overall effect is more of  a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better.    Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.     

 

box office cft.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating four      4 Meece Rating  

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