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OSLO Lytellton, SE1



This is a three-hour historical political play about Middle East negotiations in the 1990s: and it is absolutely thrilling. Pins you to your seat with tension, breaks an audience into sudden barks of laughter – either of relaxation or relief – and in its dénouement wins a tear. It tells the story of back-channel negotiations between two enemies of forty bitter years: the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli government under Rabin and Shimon Peres. Over nine months in 92-93, a Norwegian academic called Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now ambassador here) decided that since their country was perceivedly neutral, it might be possible to set up private, secret talks before – and outside of – the official Washington conference.



With oblique, minimal official agreement from Mona’s ministers, fixing their own hire cars and secret venue, the pair juggled telephone calls and bluffs, called in favours (“Norway is a very small country”) and got it started. The inspiration was idealistic: they had visited Israel, he blown away by how “fantastically not Norwegian!” it was, and both shaken by the grief and waste of bombings and shootings. They knew it would be fraught. “You don’t make peace with people you’d have dinner parties with. You make peace with people who shoot you and bomb your buses”. They also had to accept that the first participants had to be diplomatic, if not positively secretive, with their own superiors back home.



But they did it. The optimistic dilettante non-diplomat Larsen felt that the “grip of history was loosening’ as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell, and that informality beat cards-on-the-table negotiations . He plunged into it in a feet-first spirit (Toby Stephens is often very funny in the part) while his wife, a junior diplomat played by Lydia Leonard with a marvellous quiet grace, took a more professional, exasperated but always hopeful approach. They got far closer to peace than anything dreamed of before: Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed in Washington on 23 September, 1993:later, when the Israeli premier was assassinated by an extremist of his own nation, Arafat wept.


J.T.Rogers’ play won a Tony, and deserves it for a perfectly paced, intensely clear structure combining direct documentary-style explanation with fast-sparking dramatic dialogue. Bartlett Sher’s direction is equally clear and fast, and the performances remarkable. Indeed very seldom do you remember you are watching performances. You think you’re seeing, with the hopeful young Larsens, the pairs of real adversaries matching and fighting their inherited hatreds. There is a degree of comedy (not least in Paul Herzberg iand Thomas Arnold as economics professors in scruffy raincoats, the nearest Israel would come at first to deliberately unofficial envoys) and moments of tenser astonishment . One comes when Philip Arditti , as the senior Israeli negotiator who eventually in a moment of extreme détente does an impression of a rather camp is Yasser Arafat, and doesn’t get shot down for it by the PLO men . Another memorable scene sees Arditti and Peter Polycarpou as the PLO man persuaded after a nasty scene to take a late night walk in the woods together, when they find that both their daughters have the same name: Maya. That semitic closeness of Arab and Jew…


At these moments, holding your breath, you do pay mental tribute to the actors. But you are looking through them , as you should be, marvelling at history and hope. And danger. As the communist PLO man Hassan, Nabil Elouahabi is tremendous, a tense ball of fury from his first refusal to be jovial (“the petit-bourgeois concept of family does not interest me”) who moves through sullenness and anger to acceptance.



It is a story which should be told. And which, at a time when not only is the West wondering if it can ever talk to ISIS, but when our own little shenanigan finds Britain and Europe less than inspiring as negotiators. One dreams of such a back-channel for Brexit. In the lighter moments of this play Geraldine Alexander , as Tori the kindly Norwegian housekeeper wound in folksy plaits, plies the smouldering negotiatiors with vanilla waffles. We could do with her in Brussels.



box office 020 7452 3333
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating



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Filed under Five Mice, Preview Mouse, Theatre

TIPPING THE VELVET Lyric, Hammersmith

At last. The question tormenting many a fretful middle-aged man – what do lesbians actually DO? – is answered. Aerialism! When the giddy moment comes, in Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ picaresque-erotic novel of Victorian lowlife, the participants are hoisted ten feet above the bed, still in their corsets, to swing acrobatically entangled. From silk slings – if romantically and innocently in love – or if involved in a more vicious encounter, from a chandelieresque iron frame above a cupboard-ful of strap-on leather dildos. Think Fifty Shades of Gay. However, if the encounter takes place in a worthily socialist community in Bethnal Green it is more basic and just involves a blanket over the head to facilitate tipping of the more homespun Corbynite velvet. So now you know, gents. Rest easy.
Sarah Waters’ novel made a sensation and a TV series for the good reason that it treated female same-sex love as having always been with us, absolutely natural albeit annoyingly disapproved of by the mainstream. It tells of Nancy the simple Whitstable oyster-girl, drawn into a music-hall career and downhill from there – transvestite rent-boy, Mayfair sex slave – until socialism saves her . It is not Waters’ best fiction (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger, The Paying Guest, infinitely better and more credible). But it is, as Wade and director Lyndsey Turner demonstrate, ideal for a rompy, pantomimic show (there’s even a songsheet for a massed ukelele version of These Boots Are Made for Walking. You slightly expect the trousered heroine to slap her thighs and cry “Twenty miles from London and still no sign of Dick!”.

Turner, under whose authority Mr Cumberbatch is still being and not being over the river at the Barbican, lets rip with all sorts of merriment. There are singing beef carcasses with xylophone ribs, a seaside-type cutout of clients receiving masturbatory attention through groin-level holes which are bells and whistles on which Nancy plays the National Anthem. And a nice cameo from Ru Hamilton as a be-tighted Soho renter called Sweet Alice.

The adaptation – starting with a lovely joke about the 1895 Lyric itself – takes the music-hall format of a tophatted MC – David Cardy – narrating young Nancy’s romantic intitiation, banging a gavel to speed up scenes to the interesting bit, and alternately relishing and deploring her activities. And if you suspect it is a leeeetle bit creepy to have a middle-aged man jovially supervising the first sexual encounters of a teenage girl, you’re not wrong. It is. Though we get a redemptive moment at the end where she takes the gavel off him, accepts the worthier of her lovers, and becomes “empowered” . But sometimes yes, creepy all right.

It romps along, with Sally Messham making a creditable debut as Nancy (though her singing voice is not yet firm enough to hold the songs for long) and Laura Rogers as her first love, the swaggering male-impersonator Kitty, a Burlington-Bertie in tails and topper. I say Burlington Bertie, but the play does not use – or pastiche – musichall songs, preferring a sort of early rock-n-roll approach, which usually (not always) works.

The psychology of Nancy’s decline into prostitution – boy-clad, tending to the gents in Soho Square – and her instant capitulation as kept sex slave to Madam Diana is wobbly, though her final conversion to the socialist-feminist cause is fairly convincing, with a perceptive sequence in which every serious question from her girlfriend causes her to grow a spotlight and rattle off a series of standup jokes. And anyway, in compensation for any flaky psychology we have sketches like Diana’s evil posh-tweedy-lesbian club, which is funny if a bit tiresome with its clitoris-fantasies, and a magnificent riff in which Nancy explains how to eat an oyster with such slimy, salty eroticism that the tweedy ladies collapse into chairs.

Well, you get the idea. It’s a big sprawly picaresque novel rendered into a pantomimic, polemic, ironic- erotic, hurrah-for-the-gay-girls night out, about half an hour too long. And the biggest laugh of the evening, given which week it is, is not about sex. It comes when the Bethnal Green Municipal Socialists panic that there aren’t enough sandwiches, and heroic Florence (Adelie Leoncie) cries “It’s a socialist rally! People will SHARE their sandwiches!”. Yeah, right.
box office 020 8741 6850 to 24 Oct
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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