Category Archives: Theatre

THE RUBENSTEIN KISS              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

 MARTYRS OF THE MCCARTHY YEARS

    

    Ideological hostilities across the world,   fake news and paranoia, a resurgent deep left,  uneasy relations with Russia, antisemites questioning the patriotism of Jews:  no bad time to revive James Phillips’ powerful play.   It is based on the 1950’s trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing details of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union.    Revulsion at McCarthyism and the electric chair provoked decades of liberal rage and campaigns to prove their innocence:   still later, records revealed that they probably were indeed doing it.  

       With little changed but names,   Phillips creates a play in the spirit of Arthur Miller:    about belief and betrayal, idealism and vanity, family shame and pride.   With deft timeshifts it is set half in their time, half in  the 1960s where the couple’s son falls for his cousin, daughter of the uncle whose evidence betrayed them.  Sometimes they  are onstage together,  the four elders like ghosts;  sometimes round a very significant table.    As Joe Harmston’s long, careful production swings into its second act, you can hardly breathe for tension and pity.  

 

           But it takes time. I must be honest and say that the first half didn’t engage me fast enough.  Henry Proffit, long and lean and scholarly,  is a marvellous Jakob,  every generation’s dangerous academic idealist;  his passion is reflected back to him in Ruby Bentall’s fragile romantic Esther, forever singing snatches of opera because it “makes working people big inside”,  while her bluff brother complains that it is bourgeois and Italian a “fascist language”.   But in that first act the growing relationship of the young people drags a bit,  and it is only after the interval that we get an electric, eloquent,  Milleresque piece I would kick myself to have missed. 

 

        Never mind.  When Stephen Billington as the FBI agent Cranmer engages with Jakob then Esther,  pity and terror crackle as violently as Matthew Bugg’s menacing soundscape.  Cranmer says his  war service was against  “the enemies of my country”;   Jakob, excused the draft on health grounds,  only wanted to “fight Fascists”.  It’s a telling distinction:    the Soviets after all were allies.   Deeper division is philosophical and practical:   trying to persuade them to make a deal and talk  Cranmer cites Stalin’s murders  while Jakob refuses to believe it.  To Esther’s proud “we have courage because of our convictions” Cranmer cries “you are dying for a lie…you will orphan your son for an idea!” . Jakob piously returns “Ideas are more important..I can’t deny the man I have spent my life trying to become”.   With ten days to go before execution,  Esther’s operatic preoccupation makes her sing “Un bel di” from Madam Butterfly and vaunt her “pure hope” to the interrogator;  the FBI agent exasperatedly begs “don’t wait for the white ship in the harbour, Esther!” .

  

    Echoes of Antigone, of Joan of Arc of the perilous streak of vanity in martyrdom.  It is  reflected again as 25 years later  when Katie Eldred as the niece confronts her father with a half-hearted suicide attempt.  Phillips is grimly aware of every irony:  when Jakob (more scared than his wife) shudders about the inhumane horror of his coming death,   we sharply remember his insouciant blindness about Stalin.  The coda, with a final physical reveal and a still more ironic decision by Dario Coates as the son Matthew,  leaves you reeling.      

box office 020 7407 0234 | www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

to   13 april

RATING  THREE

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ALYS ALWAYS Bridge, SE1

A GOAD FOR THE GLITTER-ARTY 

  

  Late to the party, due to holiday,  but Couldn’t miss Nicholas Hytner’s bit of mischief :    after  his years of being being alternately feted and rubbished in print,  he displays directorial glee in sending up the noisome denizens of a broadsheet arts desk. Lucinda Coxon’s black-hearted comedy of modern media manners is the tale of a mousy newspaper underling, Frances,  who happens to be first on the scene on an icy Suffolk night when Alys,   lovely wife of a celebrated writer,  is killed (it’s a hauntingly staged car crash for those of us who drive icily home from Manningtree most theatre nights, I winced).  But in the world Frances inhabits, a celebrity tragedy is a foothold.  

     

    The play’s eye is pitilessly sharp.   Sylvestra le Touzel is a queen-bee book editor,  snarling at the idly bitchy Oliver (Simon Manyonda)  “I pay you to party with the PRs”;   Manyonda “a good writer when he bothers” chucks books straight in the bin and hoovers up freebies;  Frances is everyone’s dogsbody,  the rarely-seen Editor obsessed with “clicks and pods”,  and they are all afflicted by  hot-desking and wistful longings for a Russian with a cheque-book.  Sacked,  Oliver snarls “the ship’s sinking, one rat leaving won’t change that”.     Gales of giggling met lines about the meretricious dazzle of arts -cum-celebrity  media and its familiar  rumours of nobodies whose novel got optioned by Spielberg; Alys’ memorial service is crammed with broadsheet-editors, style icons and Melvyn Bragg.   Satisfyingly niche:  wish I’d been there on press night, because  it’s not so much ‘preaching the the choir’  as putting sneezing-powder on the pews, setting fire to its hymn-books and blaspheming its saints. 

 

         Joanne Froggatt’s Frances ably meets the feline subtlety  of the text:  she is kind and humane with the dying woman in the Suffolk darkness, like  any nice girl;  but asked by the police to meet the family and tell about the mother’s last words she refuses.  Until she learns how famous they are, goes, and can’t resist embroidering sentimentally .   She becomes a mentor by the daughter (a nice ghastly rich-teen turn by Leah Gayer) and joins the great and good in their gorgeous second home by the sea.   As she turns to narrate asides to us  – it’s very novelistic –   Froggatt’s little shrugs of rising satisfaction at each opportunist success is perfect.   So  is the way her editor suddenly treats her with respect. 

 

      In the interval one fears that part 2 might be less beguiling,  as her expedition into the Kite family’s glittering lives reveals (quelle surprise) that all was not idyllic after all and the great man himself is up for a fling.   But Coxon has  wicked  fun  with the spoilt rich kids ,  the self-absorbed writer ,  and our heroine’s ever deeper encroachings into the dead Alys’ life and possessions (an artful Manderley theme here, but with a savvier heroine so closer to All About Eve).  When her annexation of the great writer becomes deeper (“Second shot at happiness for tragic brainbox”  cries the Mail-Online) she has new decisions to make.  Like how useful a conquest he really is,  this nicely moth-eaten Robert Glenister who ooofs! at his bad back and  reaches, as the arts journos point out,  the  stage of “sciatica and falling sales” .   But once Frances has changed the locks against his children, copped the Arts Ed job and had her editor to dinner,  she may not stick it as long as patient Alys.  Why would you? 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.  to 30 March

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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THEATRECAT TAKES A BREAK

NOT YET DEAD CAT BUT…

 Since I stopped being The Times Chief Theatre Critic  it has been five years:  on this site there have been  930 posts,  over half a million words, all still free and searchable. A dozen or more plays reviewed are still running, and well worth catching.      
    But being a singlehanded review website, and living in Suffolk,   is expensive in travel , and means  heavy use of  writing time and brain-space.   And I need to try and finish a book . Playwright Mouse resized
SO  –  I am taking three months off reviewing here. 
         May be found doing  the odd newspaper review as a substitute if asked, and flitting through the cheaper stalls occasionally.  Maybe tweeting a five-word comment.  But it would be wrong to clutter up press seats without uttering a view (even a wrong one!)
     
        I am not, let me stress,   yet quite a Dead Rat  (here’s a picture. I hardly ever award Dead Rats. They come below 1mouse). 
Dead Rat

  

  All being well, theatrecat.com  will be back late March.    Twitter (I am lib_thinks)  shall announce it.   .  

Thank you for all your support,. And from the theatrecat ,  all its mice (including the Panto-Damemouse)  Dame mouse width fixed   A HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AUDIENCES, THEATREMAKERS AND RANDOM INTEREST GROUPS WHO ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO READ THIS SITE !  MAY YOUR HEARTS MOVE AND YOUR HEADS BE DAZZLED IN 2019. 
  
libby, christmas cat

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THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD THE SECOND Almeida, N1

A HOLLOW CROWN IN MUD AND BLOOD

 

The clue is in the paper hat, worn by a dour-faced Simon Russell Beale on the programme cover.    This is not stately, sacred, shockingly regicidal Shakespeareana.   This is a brawl, a nasty coup against a hopeless king, a howl of rage at what fools, in power politics, these mortals be.

   

     I was curious as to what the iconoclastic director Joe Hill-Gibbins would do with Shakespeare’s most lyrically beautiful  history-play: his Edward II did not thrill, and the sex-dolls in Measure for Measure were yawny too.  But he has done some cracking productions.  And if you cast Simon Russell Beale at the centre,  the greatest of contemporary actors,   it will always be interesting.   He was surprise casting: after Lear and Prospero, an odd and unusually older choice.  The last two memorable Richard IIs have been in the wispier, more glamorously youthful genre to go with the lyricism and the monarch’s petulant self-pitying tendency to “sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.  David Tennant made him a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with all the epicene,  arrogant eloquence of a Russell Brand.   Eddie Redmayne’s still, sad dignity raised a tear of pitiful contempt, slender and hopeless from the start.   But this is different.  Flawed though he is, this King has a deep soul.    And for all the bleak empty stage and the fire-buckets full of red paint, earth and water to be gradually tipped over our hero,  the raucous setting  does reveal something new about a play I have loved for decades. 

  

      Leo Bill is the usurper Bolingbroke throughout,  an unusually weak and self-protective one,   but the other six cast members male and female play all the nobles, courtiers and bishops and the two gardeners.  Who are not humble in the background as usual, discussing apricots and the state of the country,    but viciously taunting and soiling the failing King.  The ensemble scuttle around ratlike, gang up in corners,  fight amongst themselves and are encouraged by the director to gabble their lines at top speed so as to be almost insultingly incomprehensible.   John of Gaunt’s earth-realm-England speech is given reasonable space;  mostly,   though,  it is rattling, meaningless,  gabbly politics.   Just the kind we are used to.  And that  gives extra weight to central figure.   Russell Beale’s intelligent perfection of mood and diction gives us an old lion at bay and accord full weight to the King’s  tragedy of weakness, hubris, indecision and loss.  

    

  It’ll be too rufty-tufty and truncated a show for traditionalists, this,  but  I sort of liked it.   Though I fear for Simon Russell Beale,  who is too precious a national asset to be rudely caked with mud and paint and almost trodden on by scampering younglings eight times a week till Candlemas…   

box office almeida.co.uk     to  2 Feb

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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NINE NIGHT Trafalgar Studios, SW1

JAMAICA BREEZES UP WEST, WITH GRIEF AND GUSTO

    

 

  Jamaican mourning tradition, longer than the Irish wake and noisier than the Jewish shiva, involves –  we learn    nine nights of hospitality, music,  dancing,  food,  relatives, friends, rackety settling of historic rows and possibly a bit of spirit-banishing by moving the furniture around.      Perfect dramatic material, starting with a deathbed and lurching and weaving towards some kind of reckoning.

    

    At the National Theatre Natasha Gordon’s debut play was an instant hit, (review  from Michael –   https://theatrecat.com/tag/nine-night/) .  So on its west end transfer I was curious. And while it must indeed have been a zinger when the late Gloria’s family kitchen  was set intimately in your face at the little Dorfman, there is as much zing  in this big theatre up West,    and a different buzz in joining a big audience of proper London diversity,  everyone together oohing with shock (twice) and falling silent together,  in moments when in a moment of common prayer your heart begins to lurch.   

  

    For here is all family life:  grief, aggravation, cats unwisely let out of bags, tradition, identity, history, comedy.  Cecilia Noble walks away with the comedy as Aunt Maggie,  truculent and outspoken with old-Jamaica patois, keen to get home for EastEnders with her freedom pass (“Only good t’ing we get out of dis teevin’ government!”.     Two generations on Rebekah Murrell is Anita, a young mother, Anglicized all the way but experimenting with extreme Rasta hairdos to “challenge distinctions of discrimination”.   Her journey from embarrassed reluctance towards the “I get it!” moment some nights later is one of the understated engines of the play.  Maggie’s Vince is a calmer presence, irritated no end by his second-cousin Robert, Anita’s uncle,  who is edgily in business planning to be in the Rich List within years and clearly failing.  Robert’s wife Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) is nervy and so far childless at 45 as a result of issues we only gradually grasp: she is the only white member, alienated by her marriage from her own racist family.   But at the Jamaican home’s heart is Lorraine, Anita’s Mum (a marvellous, steady, emotionally deep performance from Natasha Gordon) . She gave up her job to nurse the matriarch Gloria.  Who dies, in the first act, unseen upstairs but a powerful figure all through.  

  

      Another powerful unseen figure (until she roars into sight late on, laden with yams, rum, mangos and more rum)  is Trudy the half-sister left behind in Jamaica .  Every family has one problematic, or to some iconic, figure after all.   Michelle Greenidge breezes in, such a force of nature that Aunt Maggie is almost eclipsed.  Until she reveals that beneath her galloping-to-Jesus folksiness there may be a real psychic edge.  

          An honest and beautiful play,  which by being so particular and rooted in one community becomes a conduit of universal emotional truths.  Fabulous.          

box office www.atgtickets.com    to 6 Feb

rating:   still five    5 Meece Rating

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THE CANE                Royal Court, SW1

PSYCHOPATHIC LIBERAL MEETS DINOSAUR PARENTS

   

  Can we, I wonder, ever  learn to deplore past attitudes without being vengeful about it?  Hot on the heels of Mike Bartlett’s heartfelt SNOWFLAKE,  here’s another three-hander , another estranged daughter and another go at the subject of intergenerational affront and cold, angry youthful righteousness.  This, though, is a  more mischievously satirical – and unsettling – imagination by Mark Ravenhill.  We find Anna (Nicola Walker) a composed, professional young woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a single mother visiting her parents after a long gap:   her mother is both depressedly defensive and seething with lifelong frustration (Maggie Steed gives a note-perfect performance,  catching every resentment, fear and disappointment of a generation of women).   

  

      Father, a teacher on the verge of retirement after 45 years at the same school,  is initially upstairs working on a rebuttal of a damning OFSTED.   Parents and daughter have, we learn, become estranged because of her Academy chain,  which hopes to take over the failing school and impose its frozen eyes-front silent righteousness on it.    But, as also becomes clear, they never got on: Anna was an ‘angry child” who once threatened her father with an axe and ripped up the room.  In the eerily bleak, high-ceiled set, the marks are still on the wallpaper, underlining a sense of parental stasis. 

 

 

  But the point is that children from Dad’s school are gathering outside, throwing bricks through the window in protest at the father (Alun Armstrong) who appears, fretting about his report and as weirdly ambiguous about his daughter as his wife is.  It turns out that until the ban thirty years ago,  father was deputy head and therefore responsible for caning naughty boys.   There’s a ledger that proves it,  complete with “parental permission” signatures and carefully recorded number of strokes  (on the hand, by the way, not the backside, no skin broken).    He never liked it, as becomes clear:  Armstrong gives a wonderful picture of the old-style, basically caring Mr Chips trapped in a rigid system, doing his job.       Now, though, having suddenly found out this bit of pretty obvious social history and discovered that the mild teacher they know was once a “child-beater”,   the new generation are hunting him down in their hundreds and carrying on as if he was Josef Mengele.

    

          The core of the conflict and its absurdity is nicely summed up  when the mother says”They’re snowflakes. These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own. They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today.  If something was done differently int he past they bawl and they whine, kick and spit and attack”. 

     To which the pious daughter replies”Young people today are much more aware of issues relating to coercion, personal space, violence”.  She suggests formal apologies to the new generation (which hasn’t personally suffered)  and a safe space for them to discuss feelings. “To indulge themselves further in their introspection and self-pity” replies Mum sharply. 

  

    Sympathy and irritation swing (well, mine did) between the hidebound, slightly bullying but  long-serving older generation and the almost psychopathic liberalism of the bossy modern daughter,  with her pious jargon about “pupil voice” and prating about Best Practice and the inadvisability of Off Site Meetings.  Not to mention a grating tendency to say  “utilize” not “use’, and a millennial assumption that whatever is in the attic must be pornography, because her father being male must want some.  “I wouldn’t judge”.   After an hour I did wonder what Mr Ravenhill and director Vicky Featherstone would do with the remaining 45 minutes , stuck in a bleak set with three bleak people.  But the drama did rise – to the point of improbability  – with more argument, a minor coup-de-theatre by Chloe Langford’s set,  and an increasingly violent and improbable conclusion. 

 

    The last speech also revealed the fact that the liberal-caring-personal-space daughter  probably always was as mad and vindictive as a box of fascist frogs.    On the way out audience members over 50 muttered about how they got leathered at school ,so what?   And a nice young man next to me almost fainted when I told him that in 1965 Mother Rita in Krugersdorp  used to lash out with a ruler without any parental signature.   

box office  royalcourttheatre.com  to 26 Jan

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Arts theatre WC 1

 

ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING

 

.   After two other full cast renderings in a fortnight -David Edgar’s socially angry take at the RSC and Jack Thorne’s warm spectacular at the Old Vic – why go to another?  Because it is, each year, unmissable, an 80 minute  revelation of  skill and feeling.  The tale is the most protean and eternally vitalo: you can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele (dear God never again) or Alistair Sim, Muppet or musical, camp or holy. It does the trick, even when you’re half-hoping it won’t. 

 

      But the way Charles Dickens did it is simpler: alone on a stage, just telling the story in those vivid, close-woven sentences. Sometimes a dry aside, sometimes a Fezziwiggian exuberance, a torrent of adjectives; sometimes earnest, amusing as a nightcap or sorrowful as a gravestone.

 

     Simon Callow does just that.  I have seen this virtuoso, solo performance over the years four or five times, and lately the setting, at the Arts, has been well staged, with unsentimental simplicity: a moving gauzey screen, a few projections of old London, some chairs which Callow moves around as he becomes the grim Scrooge “edging along the crooked paths of life” eschewing fellowship. Then the cautiously alarmed or startled Scrooge, the repentantly delighted, redeemed one. He is Fezziwig, the Cratchits, the merrymakers at Fred’s, and all of us.

 

His script is conversational, feels contemporary, only a few smoothings-out of Victorian language needed. It carries you along. The moral of fellowship strikes home, of course, but in this age of irony so does the late line – gently simplified – in which Dickens reminds us that satire and cynicism always wither to inconsequence and are forgotten. The last word on Scrooge is the last word on every redemption: I have quoted  it before:

“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. And knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”

 

Has  the performance, and Callow, changed over years? Probably, but not from ego or bravura, no cheap tricks, no knowing modernities:if anything the sincerity has deepened. The matinee audience was silent, agog, on edge, even the teenagers in the gallery.  Many stood up to applaud. So we all damn well should.

artstheatrewestnd.co.uk.  

To 12 jan.  He does get Christmas Day off though. Good. 

Rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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