Category Archives: Theatre

THE WIND IN THE WILTONS.        Wiltons Music Hall, E1

A GLORIOUS DOWNSTREAM WILLOWS FOR OUR AGE

You won’t see a prettier, more refreshing or  sustainable stage this Christmas:  natural colours, riverbank rushes, a bare tree (which will have green rag leaves and bright rag blossoms hauled up it as the play’s seasons roll), and just a few white fairylights along the edge of this old hall of pleasure.   As we sit down, lovely dawn or dusk mistiness makes it special  (the lighting is particularly clever: Zoe Spurr’s design) .  

     Only few odd objects  – a vintage lifering, a ladder, a traffic cone, a faded buoy, a bit of rubbish  – artfully suggest that this sylvan setting is actually closer to Wilton’s home turf. .  And indeed Piers Torday has adapted the up-Thames rural setting of Kenneth Grahame’s book to be an urban take,  London’s own stretch of river.   And the weasels? You’ve guessed it:  the Wild Wood is the City,  the weasels and stoats the financiers and developers.   They’ve turfed poor Mole out of his hole in Hyde Park to build a private road,  and that is how the dear chap – Corey Montague Sholay, in a lovely furry black coat – gets to meet the insouciant Ms Ratty (Rosie Wyatt) and become one of the troop who are friends to one another and to the great River itself.

      It’s a lovely idea, and directed with gleeful pace by Elizabeth Freestone.  Chris Warner’s music is played on bass, fiddle, guitar and clarinet by the cast, sometimes picking up on Grahame’s words sometimes fresh, sometimes a bit rappy.  Rosie Wyatt has a particularly lovely voice – with a nice sharp music-hall edge, very fitting for the setting.   Sholay the mole is a pleasing tenor,  though nothing brings the house down like Darrell Brockis’ as Toad, a baritoad, a delight, we’ll come back o that.  The ducks in yellow tights and random beachwear lead duck-aerobics;  the weasels snarl and shout through loudhailers;  the faint wild music of the God Pan who rescues the baby otter from sewage poisoning has just the mystical shiver it needs. 

         The fun is in the modern message – keep the river clean, defy Weaselpower, have some sympathy for those like Mole who today search the capital in vain for somewhere to make a home.   But important too the characterization, pretty faithful to Grahame.  Mole is obsessed with risk- assessments and only rises to heroism in the final battle; Ratty on his rolling raft (built of recycled junk and pallets) enjoys his life and his river, with the famous picnic being made of scavenged litter food – kebabs,fried chicken bits, Pret salads.  Otter has a Tik Tok site about how he’s a hotter otter.    I wondered how in this context Torday would create the grumpy powerful Badger, but it’s perfect:  Melody Brown is a gruff hippyish old campaigner, garlanded with former campaign badges to ban the bomb and save the stoat.   She delivers a fine folksong in early Bob Dylan style,  and explains to the junior animals that Toad’s affluent absurdity is because he an inevitable victim of late capitalism and the intellectually bankrupt profiteering elite who are destroying the world.  

        But Toad himself!  Mr Brockis, possibly now my new comedy favourite if not pin-up, renders him as a fruity, middle-aged thespian showoff , springing onto the scene with a cry of “Ratty darling!”,  in a  silk dressing-gown and green pantaloons.  He leaps, he dances,  he brags, he poses with a nimble hilarious pomposity. When reformed by the hippie old Badger  as per the book, sorrowfully confessing “I’ve been on a journey” , he reverse-ferrets beautifully into entitled arrogance. His toys are not canary-coloured carts and motorcars but a ridiculous Toadbot – an Alexa-type device that interrupts a lot –  then a lit drone he flies on a rod over the front rows, an exercise bike and, of course, a lethal e-scooter.  His song of Toadish triumph – nicely picking up most of the original words and rhymes – brings the house down.  

      Honestly, it’s  one for our times and for ages, this. There’s even a puppet otter cub.   Two happy hours…

Wiltons.org.uk.  To 31 dec

Rating four.

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A SHERLOCK CAROL Marylebone Theatre NW1

CELEBRATORY, MY DEAR WATSON 

I had come from the magnificent Old Vic Christmas Carol, where once again with mince pies,  bells and lanterns and Dickensian cheer and a message about how poor Scrooge was maltreated by his father long ago.   Still worth it, a cracking family show.  So it felt like fun to travel three miles north north across Dickens’ city,  beyond 221b Baker St to the new  Marylebone Theatre for  Mark Shanahan’s A Sherlock Carol,  which did rather well in New York and cheekily opens  with the Dickens echo –  “Moriarty was dead..”.

          It’s a mash-up, a tribute, potentially a great deal of fun.  And historically a good jokes: for now it is 40 years on from the time of A Christmas Carol,   and Holmes is terribly depressed and purposeless after defeating Moriarty the master-criminal at the Reichenbach Falls.   He is visited by the middle-aged Dr Cratchit:  Tiny Tim!  He has grown up and is earnestly curing other children in a hospital once funded by Scrooge’s benefactions but now a bit short of money.

         Moreover, Scrooge has been murdered.  And there’s a  shenanigan about  a lost will and the precious Blue Carbuncle, which could save the hospital but is gone.  It may or may not have been stolen by a descendant of Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwig. Who, in a completely pointless sub-plot, is in love with a descendant, of I think, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Fan.   It’s a brilliant and cheeky idea,  and Shanahan echoes lines from both books.   For instance, when Holmes who famously doesn’t believe in spirits is visited on  Christmas Eve by Scrooge’s ghost, the ghost mockingly quotes him  –   “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains ,however improbable,  must be the truth”.  

      I wanted to adore it.  I really did.  And it’s only two hours,  but the first half is fussy with sub-plots and awful comedy accents your kids may love but I didn’t.   You could trim down the longer first half very smartly and run it as 90-minutes-no interval, though that would cut down on the mulled wine which was rather good in the bar.     Kammy Darweish is a gorgeous Scrooge,   and the crinolined ensemble telling the story are fun,  but there’s a problem with Ben Caplan’s Sherlock.   I know it’s hard to act as if you’re disillusioned and depressed – you need Hamlet-style poetry for that –  but the whole of the first half saw him irritatingly mopey and low-key,  not a Sherlock we can love.   Maybe he will dial it up as the Christmas spirit rises. I hope so, because it’s a hell of a good idea.  God bless us, every one!

marylebonetheatre.co    to 7 Jan

rating three

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THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY. Jermyn Street Theatre WC1

CLEVER, CLOWNING, CLASSIC 

   What could be more seasonal than Flaubert’s tale of wifely frustration, romantic illusions, disastrous adulteries and ruinous shopaholic debt?  This adaptation is a clown-skilled four-hander by John Nicholson – founder of the gleefully clever  Peepolyukus.  So there’s a lot of sudden hat-swopping and artful prop-work and chalk scribbles made real by pinpoint-skilful sound effects. There’s a scene of fine erotic prestigiditation (magic, to you) and a jokey meta-theatrical “framing” of the story by two travelling ratcatchers who encounter poor Emma Bovary at the point of her proposed suicide.   

     So it starts with an author-narrator explaining that since it’s Christmas there’s going to be a happy ending for once,  and begins at the end of the book , promising that  – after Emma has told her whole tale of frustration  – one of the ratcatchers will thwart her suicide and bear her off to the bright lights of Paris to fulfil her hopeless lifelong provincial dreams.    But will he?   Remain on edge of seat, though you might fall off laughing. 

       Any classic tragedy has a potential to be darkly funny:  this is. The amiably boyish Sam Alexander is Charles Bovary,  unsuspicious and devoted, while an irresistible Denis Herdman plays  her two lovers,  and Alistair Cope wears many hats as  – well, basically the rest of provincial 19c France (very convincing when he milks a table as a  cow, properly evil as a bailiff).  In the midst of the three men is Jennifer Kirby as Emma Bovary: the  axle around which they whirl.  And what is so brilliant about Marieke Audsley’s direction  – and Kirby’s assured, RSC-honed performance  – is that poor Emma is played pretty well straight. 

       That works wonderfully: the book, which profoundly shocked France in 1856, is after all a dark satire on the helplessness of energetic women trapped in an unreasonable male society,  stuck with dull unchanging domesticity while being fed romantic ideas in novels and tempted by aspirational consumerism.   It is also a study in depression.  When Kirby speaks lines like “life is a dark corridor with a locked door at the end” there’s a proper shudder;  when she flings herself recklessly at bored lovers,  there is good physical comedy because all four are accomplished clowns,  but she retains the grim dignity of her plight.  The show is laughing at the men, not the woman.

   Which is appropriate, given the theme.  But one of my favourite things  is that it pulls off the classic trick of suddenly, briefly, demonstrating that these are not just comics but actors who could have done it straight, had they chosen to. The old ReducedShakespeare Company used to do that:  in the middle of  riotous hat-and-prop jokes suddenly deliver  “O what a piece of work is Man..” or “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, to silence the waves of  laughter before rapidly stirring it up again.   Here the cast finally quarrel among themselves because Emma loses patience and wants the proper tragedy.  So movingly – and straight – she and Charles enact her last moments.   

       But well, can’t keep jokey blokes down, can you?   Cue a fine denouement.  Go and see for yourself.    But book.  This early matinee was packed solid.  

      Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.   To 17 december 

Rating four.

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MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION. Theatre Royal Bath & touring

A DAUGHTER OF DISREPUTE  

1893, and here’s George Bernard Shaw passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours by centring the action on two women at odds , with surrounding men remarkably disrespected.  Mind you, to get this play onstage it took  32 years, a war and women’s suffrage:  and even then the Lord Chamberlain only just choked it down.  It belongs to that angry Ibsen,Chekhov, serious-Wilde era as Victoria was dwindling,  the press noticing child-prostitution , and intelligent playwrights thinking, appalled, about how the roots of polite society sucked the life out of women.

        It’s still a barnstorming play, especially in a final mother-daughter confrontation,  and with all the twisty argumentative vigour of GBS.   Like all his plays it is a challenge to modern actors, with no argument knowingly understated and the need to be natural even while preaching.    But Anthony Banks’ cast handle it bracingly: Caroline Quentin is excellent as the mature lady calling herself Mrs Warren,  and her own real daughter Rose Quentin rises to match her as the daughter Vivie who long ago she bore to – well, who knows who? . Vivie’s upbringing was lavishly  funded all the way to mathematical-wrangler level at the newly founded Newnham College, Cambridge.  It took money.  Not respectable money .

    Quentin senior is abundant, vigorous, bossy, overdressed , affluent but delightfully prone to betray in sudden vowel sounds her unladylike beginnings;  Vivie is a casual no-nonsense bluestocking in culottes , who enjoys a whisky and a whodunnit and enjoys working out actuarial calculations in a liberated friend’s legal practice up Chancery Lane.   They haven’t met that often over the years,  but we encounter them reuniting in a country garden (with a cottage so undersized in scale that I fear it may be a metaphor for trapped womanhood).  Mrs W is introducing her friends – a geeky architect Praed, who seems to have wandered in from an EM Forster novel,  and Sir George, a galumphing baronet with a silvertopped cane.   Shortly along comes Vivie’s half-boyfriend Frank and his father the Rector. Who ,to general delight, is played by Matthew Cottle, a man whose drop-dead comedy timing  has never yet missed its chance.

         Both the Rector and the baronet may, we quite soon realize, turn out to be Vivie’s father, though Mrs W would never tell.  You can see why 1893 panicked over this play once the baronet  (Simon Shepherd, beautifully high-Tory) has made a play for Vivie,  while Frank flirts toyboy-style with her mother.    But the core of the plot lies in the revelation – made surprisingly early by the mother to her daughter – that her wealth and position came from prostitution.   It was,  Shaw makes abundantly and angrily clear,  society’s guilt:  the pretty daughter of an unmarried east end fried-fish seller had a choice between marrying into enslavement by some drunken labourer,  dying of lead poisoning in a factory or  selling herself at a price.  All women do, or did:  “How does a marriage ceremony make a difference to the right and wrong of these things?”

      The topical fascination of the play is the way that Vivie at first buys into her mother’s story with compassionate affection for a victim of the system.  But in the second act, after a brief glorious appearance of a hungover clerical Cottle alongside another undersized building, his church,  there are some audience gasps. The baronet reveals to scornful Vivie  that the business –  houses of ill repute in Vienna, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin and other sinful un-English places – is still well up and running.   Mrs Warren is thus no longer a repentant victim of circumstance but a bit of a white-slaver .     It is made clear to Vivie that the whole society, from Dukes and Archbishops down,  is  rotten ,so one might as well join in and profit from it. 

    Appalled, she storms off,  pausing only to face another unwelcome revelation, and in Act 3  – the Chancery Lane set now full human size, which again may be a metaphor –  two showdowns result. Mrs Warren makes one last throw for the status of treasured old Mum: Caroline Quentin truly  magnificent, ropes of pearls swinging,  accent cruder,  frank about her needs.  She won’t give up the management of her houses – must have “work and excitement, or I’ll go melancholy mad!” .   Vivie, a chip off the old block, also wants work, but the excitement of actuarial calculations and legal papers is her shtick.    Frank,  in an authorial gesture of utter contempt for the supposedly likeable character,  makes a despicable decision too.   

             Here the scandal was about sex;  but 129 ever more sexually liberated years later,  generations are still at odds over hypocrisies , and a sweatshop global society selegantly veils  its abuse of the weakest.   Those who live on the profits need the same discomfort, and  shouting, and have decisions to make about who to shout at loudest.  The final moments were refreshing.

To Saturday in Bath then Richmond, Chichester 

https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/mrs-warrens-profession

Rating 4.

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PHANTOM REVISITED

PURE PLEASURE AT HER MAJESTY’S 

      It seemed worth the money – these were not press tickets – to check out how good old Fanty is getting on after 36 years at Her Majesty’s Theatre down the Haymarket.  It’s survived the Covid interruption,  worked its way through a phantasmagorical procession of Phantoms and Christines since Crawford and Brightman,   and has had to  pare its orchestra down from 27 to 14.    How would it feel?    I remember seeing Lloyd-Webber’s CATS onstage in its last London days,  and a terrible disappointing sense of its weariness. Hard to pin down why – with good talent, decent audience and the classic Gillian Lynne choreography – but it felt stale, hopeless.  I feared the same.  A decline into exhausted tourist-fodder.

    But no: Phantom is fresh as a daisy, its gorgeously over-the-top staging as hilarious and glorious as ever:   a gilt proscenium-within-the-proscenium complete with boxes,  a nostalgic opening at the auction with the great chandelier draped in sacking,  then a flashing reveal of a grand cod-opera rehearsal complete with stern ballet mistress and roll-on elephant onto which the heroic tenor struggles to climb.  Honour to the new resident and associate directors: the cast give the impression of  having a ball,  and possibly even enjoying the extreme costumes (I gasp at the thought of the wardrobe team).   And our latest Phantom is Killian Donnelly, back for a second go, or  third,  given that he has been Raoul as well.  

      He’s splendid: wide gorgeous vocal range, swashbuckling authority,   just the chap you need to punt you through a subterranean lake studded with giant candelabras, and pop up dramatically, whether from a giant winged horse’s head on the opera roof or looming on a tomb.   Lucy St Louis is a properly charming Christine, too  (last saw her as Diana Ross).  The ensemble are as tight and delighted and delightful as on any first night, and as a sober ROH regular I had forgotten the pleasure of the three bursts of grand-opera pastiche.  This time that enjoyment was  inflated further afterwards by the amusement of getting online to read reading anguished real-opera-buff commentaries on what their bete- noir Lloyd-Webber got, in their opinion, wrong.   

       I also realized, in the first song “think of me”,  exactly where Victoria Wood must have got the inspiration for the rehearsal scene in her Bessie Bunter The Musical sketch…the one with the line about Anthony Eden..

       It was a family outing, the show chosen because some 25 years ago, over 5 years into Phantom’s epic run, I took a posse of  11-year-old girls to it for (we think) my daughter’s birthday.  I had encountered the show first when it opened and Cameron Mackintosh came on MIDWEEK (radio 4).  I  remember saying to him, as a humble non-affluent punter,   “Gosh I wish I was a theatre-angel, an investor”. Not just because it was obviously going to run, but because it would be fun to be involved in something so gloriously preposterous, so drenched in the romance of bygone theatre and opera and staged with éclat,  sentiment, and jokes about the business.  And a collapsing chandelier… O, how many times has that thing been up and down, skimming the heads of row F?  Honour to three and a half decades of technical crews

      Anyway, the affection years ago was increased because when my rabble of little girls shot out chattering at the end via the merchandise stall, the cry that went up was not for T shirts or badges but an amazed, delighted “Look, Mum, you can buy the SCORE!”   Suddenly all those music lesson fees felt worth it.  Which is yet another reason I won’t hear a word against dear Fanty, not now, not ever.  The faint tooting of “Angel of Music” on many recorders afterwards is alone a justification. God bless ALW, I say.

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BLACKOUT SONGS Hampstead Theatre

DRUNKENNESS AND THE DARK

    The  studio at Hampstead has been on a roll recently, with  intelligent and emotionally honest plays : FOLK, RAVENSCOURT, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM et al.  It nurtures new playwrights, gives actors scope and challenge, invites NHS and emergency workers in for a tenner.  It  did not deserve to be  stripped of its public funding just because someone  thought Hampstead sounded, politically, a good place to kick.   

         This is another sharp, pared-down studio production:  in 95 minutes Joe White delivers a necessarily painful two-hander about youthful  alcoholism and the disaster of  colliding addictions.  We watch two  lovers, over an uncertain wavering timeline,  who can neither control nor remember their lives and real selves: we get flashes, snapshots of their meeting, coupling, celebrating, fighting, betraying.    

         It is cleverly constructed in its time-shifting,  rather like Nick Payne’s  CONSTELLATIONS (though don’t listen to me about that:  I was one of the few who didn’t like its showy cleverness).   But here the blackouts and timeshifts  and crossed-confused memories of reality are put in the service of stark illustration of  what addiction to getting off your face does to people.     There are two brilliant, fiercely identified performances : Alex Austin is the more vulnerable geeky one, an art student;  Rebecca Humphries, posher, entitled, swishing around in a strappy dress and afghan coat falling off one shoulder,  is sexy and selfish and horribly lethal.  This is apparent from the first moment when she drags him away for a drink  as an AA meeting is about to start,  because he’s only just thrown up his last load in a passing bin so – “It’s medicine, one in twenty people die, going cold turkey” .   She also plans to have sex with him, because that is what she does when she is, as she says several times,  her true self. She is the classic drunk who believes she was born three drinks under par and will only be real when she’s had them. 

     Their relationship  is an object-lesson in  AA’s advice that you shouldn’t strike up relationships in recovery,  and for most of the first hour Humphries’ gives a fabulously dislikeable evocation of the poisonous self-absorption and cruelty of the career drunk.   Which I have to say I found a bit of a problem: there’s a fine line between brilliantly loathsome and unwatchable.  Though some critics (male) found a rom-com meet-cute sweetness in it at times,  and White creates a sketchy back-story excuse about a famous father who wasn’t there for her ,and  being sent to boarding school at six.  He also gives her some beguiling verbal flights of fancy . That helped a bit. 

            Austin as the man is less toxic,  eagerer,  scruffily hopeless and beguiled by her,  but ironically he is the one who does at some point in the switchback timeline  get sober.   Unless that is another fantasy.   He too is the one with some understanding of love as a gift of appreciation rather than a shag-happy snatching of fun:  his line about how you “carry” with you people you have loved is at the core of the play,  and underlines its sorrowful message  that carrying a fellow-addict is hard, perhaps impossible.

         “I might love you, or maybe I’m just drunk” she observes once; and another startling moment in their courtship comes when,  as they raid a church for communion-wine the man says  “you know we’re just drinking buddies? I’m going to forget you”.   But later he accuses her of having said that to him.   Brains are damaged. 

      Hard, clever, truthful.  And sometimes funny: there was laughing around me at times (Austin is physically good in clowning, dancing moments, and Humphries deft in the fantasy speeches).  But  it was the younger audience who were laughing, recognizing.   Not the parent generation .

Box office Hampsteadtheatre.com.  To 10 December

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Rose theatre, Kingston

THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT BEING TOO TRADITIONAL ABOUT IT

This cheerfully exuberant rendering of Oscar Wilde’s witty rom-com  is also a sort of political act. In the foyer a gorgeous selection of photographs from the Black Chronicles exhibition shows elegantly posed black and Asian Britons of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Onstage,  director Denzel Westley-Sanderson (whose last credit was for Steven Kazuma’s “Another Fucking play about Race”) has assembled a cast appropriately Black,  and promises a vibrant retelling of a tale about ” dysfunctional families, class, gender and sexuality” .  

       Fear not.  He’s having us on, a bit, and is as wild about Wilde as any director.  The cast are resplendent in all the right  bustles and tailcoats – plus  in Algernons case  a silky lounging gown and in Jack’s the most ridiculous Victorian mourning-hat ever. On the wall of Algernon’s rooms the gilt frames sing with bright African art: he’s just finishing one as it begins. Later ,down in Cecily’s drawing room the family portraits echo the exhibition outside.   Hell, people of colour were here too,  in the culture, so  why not the literature?  They were: remember how in  Vanity Fair there is not only the loyal black servingman but the heiress Miss Swartz: friend of Emmy at finishing-school and the nicest soul in the book.  So it is fun set today’s generation, so much more breezily visible,   to rollick through The Importance, and do it loud and proud and broad and devoid of traditional period primness.

           First thing to say is that Mr Westley-Sanderson’s direction pretty much worked: got roars and shrieks of proper laughter in Kingston, indicating that a lot of people hadn’t known the play’s jokes or had forgotten them. Old stagers might slightly regret the way the fine-clipped Wildean epigrams move past too quickly,  and are often shouted,  and yes, I did wish  Lady Bracknell – Daniel Jacob from Ru Paul etc – was less of a noisy Panto Dame.   Some Bracknell jokes work  better when she has an underlying  dignity based more on confident status than glaring drag-club bullying.  Others might find Cecily and Gwendolen a bit wildly shouty too –  Cecily is played as a full-on hoyden and Gwendolen a caricature of gloriously orgasmic bossiness.  Yes, I do mean orgasmic.  Her talk of “vibrations” at the name Ernest is well used.    But they’re funny. Just not quite in the delicate sarcastic way we’re used to.  

        And the chaps are perfect in anyone’s terms, and Wilde would have loved them.  Abiola Owokonira is one to watch, lithe and sharply funny and judging the lines perfectly on his first professional job as the elegant Algernon,  while Justice Ritchie is a good foil (and wrestling partner at times) as the more earnest Jack.  Oh, and it’s cucumber martinis, not sandwiches, and there’s  real bread and butter for Jack to abuse. 

           The programme’s appropriately earnest line about “class, gender and sexuality” made me half-expect a blokey Cecily in a Corbyn hat ,and possibly  an inserted lecture on the human right  to self-identify as Ernest, but no. In the event the only adaptation is that Canon Chasuble is a padded-out Anita Reynolds,  to provide a sapphic  frisson with Joanne Henry’s Miss Prism.  Unless you count an earlier frisson between Algernon and Lane the butler (Valentine Hanson, even foxier).  Both pairs  fun with that.    And the denouement is fantastic,  Jack ransacking an attic overhead with deafening crashes and making the lights flicker as they all stand frozen in panic,  finally to produce a very nicely sourced leather handbag and a deafening cry of “Mother!”. 

       Altogether, it’s a hoot. A lark.  Especially the gag with Cecily and the spade.  

Box office rosetheatre.org.  To 12 November.   

Rating four 

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MARY. Hampstead theatre NW3

ABDUCTION, ASSAULT, ABDICATION

For four hundred years the reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been battled over:  she has been called victim and whore,  murderess and heroine,  flighty and heroic. Romance flowers in drama and opera: she was a young mother, beautiful,  imprisoned, finally executed by her cousin Elizabeth I.  Dramatists usually gather around that last period and imaginary meetings between the two women.  But Rona Munro here  is focusing on another point in Mary’s  life,  with a modern and feminine eye.  Her historical passion  lit up Scotland and then the National Theatre stage a few years back with the three “James Plays”, about the first three kings of that name in the 15c (there’s a fourth play, not yet come south).

But in this static but powerful 90-minutes, in which the Queen herself is offstage except for two glimpses, Munro concentrates on the period before her forced abdication in 1567.  Her husband Darnley  has been murdered by the thuggish Earl of Bothwell.  But within weeks Mary – a Catholic, which was a source of unease in newly Protestant Scotland – marries him under Protestant rites. Briefly this won him power before he was overthrown. The play opens with a court servant, Thompson,  having just been beaten up by Bothwell while the Queen”s paternal old adviser Melville  (Douglas Henshall). tells the young man to clean up and not frighten her, as she is already scared.  The third in the room is Agnes,  a devout Protestant enthusiast with little time for Mary.

We meet them again months later after the fall of Bothwell, in Holyrood Palace for a long, sometimes exhausting, courtroom-style argumentative assault on Melville  by Thompson and Agnes (imagined figures, but representing the political and religious passions of the time) .  They need his signature for her abdication and disgrace,  implying the Bothwell marriage to be labelled as whorish treachery and guilt for her husband’s death. 

Melville,  who was close to her court through the time of her abduction,  is convinced she was raped,  never consenting, assaulted and forced and silenced. Rona Morison’s Agnes, a pillar of unbending judgment and rectitude,  pours womanly scorn on the absent Mary,  reckoning that even if she was raped, she came to like it and was willing. Brian Vernel’s Thompson is all politics,  staccato, pushing away at the increasingly disturbed and defensive Melville, demanding  details like a prosecuting barrister.  The older man, hating to retell it of the girl he knew from childhood, is pushed to describe the assault – public, in front of roaring nobles, heard by him in the next room.  And, damningly, to admit to her calm afterwards:  not calling for help,  not visibly outraged. This, in the increasing temperature of the argument, is of course held against her.

Munro is making a very modern point about the self-blaming trauma of such assaults.  Melville knows what he knows, but slowly fades in his determination: Munro has said she wants to depict the men who let these things go unpunished,  and the last few minutes of this scene certainly do that. Henshall’s subtly shamed demeanour is sharply shown. But he’s a politician and a patriot: the future of Scotland, potential peace under a Regency, is at stake.  Conversely, the more Agnes hears of what almost certainly happened to another woman,  the more her mind changes in the other direction.  And she adds with shame a horrifying memory of her own willingness to stand by when Mary was taken prisoner and cried , dishevelled, from a window amid her male captors. Morison here is shiveringly powerful.

It is a good theme,  and the writing is taut. But it is a long slow burn, static, undramatic until the last third. The audience was tautly silent though,  shocked. That I suppose was the point. The denouement is sudden and dramatic : suddenly a chorus – credited in the programme – reminds us that beyond tight arguments in small rooms there is confused angry popular feeling and a country to save. 

To 26 nov. Hampsteadtheatre.com

Rating. Three.

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TAMMY FAYE. Almeida, N1

WHEN THEY PUT THE FUN – AND THE FUNDS  – INTO FUNDAMENTALISM..

       Rarely in the history of Islington playgoing have so many first-nighters whooped so enthusiastically at  Gospel rock.  When cheers for Elton John’s anthems briefly abate it is often for quite different whoops , laughter at James Graham’s dry sharp script or moments of enchanted shock at an unexpected popup. This is a new musical telling the story of the accelerating frenzy of the 1970s televangelism boom, and the rise and fall of Ted Turner’s PTL (“Praise the Lord!”) Network  with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye. The couple  “reached out”to tens of millions of Americans and hauled in millions in donations before a string of scandals brought them down and Bakker into prison for fraud. 

            So here’s a 20c  history-play delivered as a camp Christian-rock spectacular, with the irresistible glory of Elton John numbers  with nifty lyrics by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.  A huge television studio becomes electric-church America with screens and galleries for sudden irruptions by characters from Reagan to Archbishop Runcie, Ted Turner to John Paul 2.   Rupert  Goold’s rollicking direction flashes  – between numerous passionate songs  – through scenes of marital collaboration and betrayal,  TV-biz negotiation and the preposterous commercialization of the faithful.  These holy-joes  sold everything from unbuilt hotel rooms to recipes to underwear, not to mention penile vacuum devices (demonstrated with balloons by Tammy).  Meanwhile infighting pastors talk moral-majority politics with Presidential candidates , and the Bakker’s hokey theatrical evocations of the crucifixion (with very camp flagellation) whiz past before you have time to wonder if they should.  Many scenes culminate in dancing of diabolical merriment by the ensemble: the vigour never flags.   

       In shape it is nicely book-ended:  opening  with Tammy receiving her final cancer diagnosis (comedy proctology) it later closes with her in heaven:  the first-act jerking frenzy of a Billy Graham rally  is mirrored in the second half by a riot of furious cheated punters. Revival, after all, is only a whisker away from riot. 

        At the show’s heart are some storming performances: Katie Brayben as Tammy catches both her immense likeability and her showgirl charisma  in the huge belting numbers (“A big-haired trainer-trash hoochy mama..” raves a furious rival, and Brayben gives it all that, alongside proper charm).   Andrew Rannells as Bakker maintains a deadpan geekiness alongside his cleverer wife until folie de grandeur gets a grip on him;, but  becomes genuinely moving in his downfall number “Look how far we’ve fallen” with  other disgraced TV pastors.  And Zubin Varla as their nemeis is fabulously basso, delivering a thrilling hymn to the TV satellites as the strait-laced Jerry Falwell , “last man standing” in the electro-church debacle and scourge of everything feminist as a road to death, hell and lesbianism. 

        It is detectably James-Graham, which is great: in all his political plays his humane strength is in being willing to accept that even the worst operators were, at least some of the time,  genuinely in earnest.   When Tammy, breaking with the strait-laced homophobia of most of the movement,  does her famous sympathetic interview with the gay Steve Pieters it is largely rendered verbatim, and is quietly moving.  When the Pope, chief Mormon and Archbishop Runcie worry about whether to let the American televangelism into the World Council of Churches as a possible “Awakening” , but then realize it is more like a reckoning,  we laugh but are not invited to contempt.  There is even proper sympathy in the penitent renderings of of “We thought that it was God’s voice calling but someone else was on the line”.  

       The show is also, finally, remarkably Christian in its vision of the chastened and impoverished Tammy and her AIDS- stricken friends being the real heart of what a decent faith means. . Meeting in heaven to compare deaths,  when Falwell says his fate was heart failure Tammy remarks , kindly,  that he didn’t die of it,  he lived with it.  

    It’s a piece of bravura and massively entertaining: should transfer up West – Elton John and James Graham in harness, for heaven’s sake – but the New York journalist next to me doubted that Broadway will open its arms to it.  We’ll see.   Some of the songs will live anyway, though, and be much covered.  I’d put money on Tammy’s last defiant number  “If you  came to see me cry..” ( you might as well grow wings and fly).   It could become a new “My Way” for women. 

Box office Almeida.co.uk.  To 3 Dec.    All showing sold-out,  but there are always chances and returns.

Rating. 4  I did wonder about 5, but a voice from heaven said..hmmm…

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MARVELLOUS @sohoplace

DODD-LEVEL HAPPINESS IN SOHO

      Hard, on its first night ever, not to review the theatre itself.  Nica Burns and Nimax open the first new West End theatre in fifty years: agleam with brass and glass. neon and shine and bars and chutzpah, perching in perfect acoustic comfort above rumbling old Tubes noe intersecting at Tottenham Court Road with the elegant new Elizabeth Line after the years of Crossrail chaos and disruption.  Sweeping balconies show it off in the round for its first three shows, it has rehearsal spaces and the same fastidious theatre-architects (Haworth Tompkins) as the lovely Bridge.   

        It’s swanky, developer-modern,  triumphant: and fond though one may be of gilded Victorian playhouses and scruffy pub spaces,  I review-the-playhouse (terrible thing to do usually) because  it was a day the whole world shook its head at our financial disgrace and revolving-door of useless prime ministers.  So a bit of flash and nerve made it feel that bit better to be British. And before you harrumph about fatcat prices, they go down to £ 25,  and it looks perfectly nice in that top balcony. 

     Now to the show.  With characteristic foxiness, for all the glass ‘n gleam and firstnightery Nica Burns eschews all temptations to do something chatterati-chic.  This very metropolitan theatre explodes into life instead with a festive, eccentric, warmly inclusive celebration of family, community, clowning, neurodiverse glee and Stoke City Football Club.  It  ends with both a funeral hymn that makes you weep and  a custard-pie fight, and arrived in Soho from the Potteries, the New Vic at Newcastle under Lyme, and its remarkable director Therese Heskins.

       The story of Neil Baldwin,  born in 1949 with a learning disability and a startlingly vivid gift for happiness,  became a notable film with Toby Young.   It tells how he wandered into Keele University – not employed or studying – in a clerical collar and took it on himself to welcome students , and carried on doing it for decades.  Likewise, having decided he should be Stoke City manager he turned up, charmed Lou Macari and became  its kit man and mascot in loopy chicken and turtle outfits.  He worked years as a circus clown across Britain,  got the British Empire Medal from the Queen for service to the community,  and charmed innumerable famous figures from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Duke of Edinburgh.  His trademark became part of his ‘disability’, a dry, hilarious straight-talking friendliness, a sunflower spirit turning to the light.  

      The play is ‘meta’ – six diverse actors (some themselves neurodiverse or with experience of it) play Neil at different ages and the people around him, as “real Neil” – an extraordinary evocation by Michael Hugo – emerges from the front row with a shopping bag full of random props,  and supervises the telling.  But it’s a real narrative,  and at its care is his mother, first patiently coaxing the infant to talk, with a speech therapist; caring,  worrying, cooking, anxiously letting him go on his various crazy, potentially humiliating excursions while knowing – as she says at one heartrending  point – “Not everyone’s kind”.   

          Neil himself has knockbacks and snubs and is sacked from one circus, his caravan towed off-site and dumped in a layby,  but he hitches home and explains that he’s upset, but “In life you have to be upset sometimes”.   The wisdom of that knocks you out.  He loves making people laugh. His time with Stoke players raises the one moment when it is acknowledged that there is a wrong kind of laugh, mockery of his condition and speech.  But he rides that,  and plays his own pranks back (like wearing the entire team’s underpants, cue a panto washing-line gag).  

       Late on,  our anxiety for him is allowed to rise a little despite all his friends and backers:  his mother, movingly, starts teaching him to cook, for when she will be gone.  It’s done in full-on slapstick, rather brilliantly (eggs and flour everywhere)  and there are wonderful lines.  Wielding a pinny she asks “Now, what’s the first thing you do when you go into the kitchen, Neil?”  “Have a biscuit!|”.   But it touches on the fear of every parent of a learning-limited child, and you shiver.  His grief too feels real when she dies.  Actually, it all feels real.  

        The players are physical-comedy masters,  hefted and joyful in their interaction,  Gareth Cassidy particularly fine.   Beverley Norris-Edmunds deserves a shout-out for the  movement direction, and I hope they all survive the run intact.  But Michael Hugo is truly extraordinary: perfect in every move and in speech, catching the cheerful bossiness and reckless aggressive friendliness of the man;  indeed his impersonation is acknowledged by the real Neil himself as spot-on.  

Nimaxtheatres.com.  To 26 november

Rating four

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SOMETHING IN THE AIR Jermyn St Theatre SW1

OLD MEN DO NOT FORGET

       Peter Gill’s  new play has a melancholy beauty about  it;  it’s a sort of poem as the veteran playwright and director engages with  age, regret and memory. The one-act, hour-long piece, performed with understated delicacy, recreates a world in memory drawn by two old men in cardigans sitting side by side in care-home chairs.   

         Christopher Godwin’s  Alex , the shakier of the two ,is in the foothills of dementia (we will only discover that as it goes on).  He is remembering a day by the river in Hammersmith in the early 1960’s and  the young man he loved then.  In Gill’s lovely, sparely  evocative language he pulls up before us  scenes of the historic river as part of his own history.  We see  the leaking sandbags at high water , the houses and pubs and alleys, feel the urgency of lovemaking that day and the low red sun over the Surrey shore.  

       Ian Gelder’s Colin,  next to him as he addresses  that long-ago lover, seems to doze as Alex reminisces,  then rouses and brings out eloquent memories of his own: of Dean Street and Chez Victor and Soho square, and a scrubby vivid world of postwar intellectual Aldermaston-march bohemianism and its people: a woman novelist, BBC intellectuals, the detail of houses. To and fro they go, remembering.  Two pretty young men,  younger selves or younger lovers, join in from the side of the stage as if conjured by memory:     blithe and vivid, they create in single lines  fragments of past scenes as they break into the rolling mist of reminiscence.

  .  .   Slowly we start to see that these two  old men are not of the same couple, though they lived in that same past world.   Ideas, arguments from their heyday emerge;  social justice versus individual freedom,  cheap clothes for all versus anxiety about sweatshops,   infidelity, the Cuban missile crisis…deaths, memorial services,  being gay when it was difficult,  meeting lovers again after years,  days and years fading onwards,  decades passing.   

      But now in life’s last waiting-room they are one another’s comfort, lightly touching or holding hands, Colin solicitous of Alex’s confusions.     Modern reality arrives to visit the old men; Alex’s son Andrew (Andrew Woodall)  is  an unhappy irritable middle-aged man , constantly mistaken  by the old man for his dead brother.   Colin’s niece  is Claire (Claire Price), brightly female and practical.  They are people of today,  still out in the 21c world, and   talk a little between themselves as the old men doze. Yet they are irrelevant to the central emotional drive of memory and love and long lives.  Andrew suddenly objects when the two old men hold hands – how dare his father act gay! – and is shocked that they asked for a shared room in the institution.  Claire says tolerantly, kindly ’they are friends’.   

     Their day moves towards dinner time.  “How useless regret is’ says one.   The young men, phantoms, speak of one another’s beautiful eyes.  Alex gently kisses Colin’s cheek.  

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.  to 12 November

Rating four  

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GOOD Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

THE PROFESSORIAL ROAD TO HELL

    David Tennant is a fastidious actor.  That sounds negative, prim perhaps, but in fact expresses why his performance in C.P.Taylor’s extraordinary play is so riveting, honest and creatively discomforting.  It is a portrait of a man – a rather nerdy, self-consciously neurotic academic and author you could find in  any University,  but whose destiny is to be in a German one in the 1930’s.   This is not the  thoughtful brave dissident rebel beloved of such period dramas,  but a gradual Nazi convert.  Though he would find long-winded intellectual ways to deny that word even while putting on his SS uniform in the second act.  

       This is a gentle , ordinary downhill slope towards the very pit of hell.  Dominic Cooke sets it in almost featureless grey walls where Halder and two others interact, scenes rapidly changing  to evoke his life’s progress from Hitler’s advent in 1933.  The other two are skilful shape-shifters:    Elliott Levey sometimes his Jewish best friend Maurice,  and sometimes a Nazi functionary;  Sharon Small brilliantly turns , often within a sentence, between being his blind demanding mother with dementia,  his nervous wife, the lovesick student for whom he leaves her and a SS major.  It could be confusing but never is. 

        At first Halder shrugs off his friend’s unease – Maurice is fondly German, loves his home city and his forest cottage,   but has noted Hitler’s rhetoric on Jews from the start, and resents it with increasing nervousness and sense of unfairness  (“I don’t even like Jews, except my family”).   The academic  however shrugs off the “racialist aberration” as a populist fad,  something that can’t last since Germany needs its scientists and businessmen for its strength.     He is as nerdishly preoccupied with his own feelings as any modern therapy-junkie,   though Maurice scoffs that people don’t go into analysis to “streamline their lives” but only to alleviate real agony.     Halder is also – and this is brilliantly evoked by Tennant – a fatally impressionable man.  He talks a lot of music,  bands that haunt him; now a drinking song, now jazz or a crooner, now Wagner or Bach. Once (as he breaks into dance) the romance of a peasant Bavarian oompah when he dreams of taking his young lover to a simple life. There’s martial music too:  when he says how thrilling it was to do army service,  roaming around with his mates ‘looking for officers to salute”,  |I was chillingly reminded of something:   the 40-somethings of my teenage years in Hamburg,  who would after a drink start telling me,  remorsefully and unprompted, that yes ,  they were in the Hitler-Jugend as kids but they were poor, and it was only because you got a uniform with pockets and your very own penknife.  

    The way that this weakish, rather self-involved man is drawn into party membership and full collaboration is elegantly, fastidiously shown. He wrote a novel during his mother’s decline which seemed to make a c= case for euthanasia,  and Goebbels liked it and saw he’d be a useful-idiot to recruit, this Professor:  so he is persuaded to write a learned ‘paper’ about ending the lives of incurables and the ‘unfit’, and to collaborate.  He is ordered also to organise a mass book-burning (the bland set suddenly proves able to evoke this very startlingly) . So he confects a ridiculous academic excuse that it has a positive, vigorous side for academia  “as long as I keep my own copies”.   The deeper he gets in, the more official flattery and perks he gets, the more learnedly preposterous his excuses. 

          Levey’s Maurice is finally very moving indeed in the immense personal betrayal.  There is at the end a coup de theatre which must not be spoiled, and a curtain call that matters.   It’s an experience.    

www. haroldpintertheatre.co.uk.    to 24 December

Rating four.  

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BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY Lyttelton, SE1

A HARLEM TRAVIATA

Three in the morning and Angel the showgirl is raring , glitterimg drunk “if you caint be drunk in Harlem..” she slurs furiously.  Her friend Guy brought her home, and explains to the staid neighbour Delia that she was sacked  for breaking outa line mid- show and cussing her gangster boyfriend “he’s not a gangster he’s  a BUSINESSMAN”  roars Angel before collapsing, to be roused only briefly by the happy sound of a cork popping.

    Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play creates a world, the world of  dreamers in the fading Harlem renaissance, the Depression starting to bite.  It’s domestic: Frankie Bradshaw’ s fabulous set  has two fire escapes,  a hallway, steps, rooms high and low , balcony (where we glimpse other neighbours, sometimes with quiet harmonies sung). Outside the street is barred with lamplight.  1930’s Harlem is around us:  hot jazz, cool kids, high spirits in a poor black population feeling its emancipated fragility alongside its power to perform and delight and build community:  – virtuous Delia next door is working on a maternity and womens health clinic with devoted  Dr Sam. Guy,  a gloriously likeable Giles Terera, is gay in both senses and labours at his sewing machine between parties and rescues of Angel. He’s  costumes which he dreams will take him to Paris to work for Josephine Baker. Sam , too busy to have been in love before at 40, adores Delia , who is preoccupied with her pastor and her good work.

        Dreams are hard to hold onto in this beleaguered time, but the little hefted community on the landings has to – their comradeship makes the lighter moments (the banter is excellent) feel like a version of Friends dry 70 years earlier and with real problems.  Into their world steps Leland from Alabama, Osy Ikhile playing it nicely flat at first as a  “southern gentleman” in a tipped hat and smart suit,  beguiled by Angel, able to take her out of all this if she’ll only give up her dreams of stardom “What do you see in him?” asks Guy, baffled. “A rent check that doesn’t bounce” she replies.  That never ends well. . 

           They’re all glorious: Samira Wiley’s Angel a Harlem Traviata,  a wayward and lively survivor , Guy’s wit and kindness and flouncing talent irresistible , Delia’s sweet frumpy frustration given heart and finally wit by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo.    Sam (Sule Rimi, debonair and kindly) is in his way the most  fascinating  character, one of the first black doctors in the city,  overworking, dedicated, falling asleep in seconds because by night, after many emergency childbirths, he still won’t exchange “two hours of Fats Waller for two hours sleep”.  

. There are some wonderful jokes and touching moments: and telling ones too: when Leland brings a gift of a puritan black frock with a peter pan collar to Angel Guy doubletakes in horror:   when Angel fixes it up with red bows Leland prefers it the old way.  It gives every clue to the way the  second half will intensify towards melodrama.  The darkness these bright-hearted people have held off  does not come from inimical white domination or even mere poverty. 

       Guy, returning bloodied one evening in his lilac satin proclaims with timeless fearlessness that he is determined to get out of Harlem but until he does, he will walk these streets and wear what he wants.  Leland’s piety, as he looks between the city buildings for the stars he knew in Alabama, is not the pragmatic humane goodwill of Delia and Dr Sam. It’s a piety more coldly Southern, not tempered yet by the sophistication of the New York negro diaspora.    So once he works out what it is about Guy, he invokes the hellfire and  Abomination school of Southern homophobia.

        He doesn’t really get what Angel is, either, for good or for ill:  her  line of escape  opens and then closes,  a timeless predicament triggering  a tragedy.   Not the tragedy I’d expected: which makes Lynette Linton’s arresting  production even better value.  It’s a loving, haunting play, done very beautifully

Nationaltheatre.org.uk. To 5 november

Rating four.

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THE DOCTOR. Duke of York’s WC1

RETURN OF A WILD AND QUESTIONING PLAY

     This is the return of Robert Icke’s modern version of Schnitzler’s 1912 play – details below, as laid out in part of my original Almeida review. And no question, it is an opportunity to see one of the finest stage actors of the age – Juliet Stevenson – firing on all cylinders at the centre of a painfully topical play.  It is a satirical-philosophical meditation on the evils of group identity overshadowing real layered human personality, a questioning of medial ethics and the role of religion and  (in what now feels like an oddly bolted-on final section) a reflection on death and suicide.   The issue of a priest being barred from the bedside of a dying girl post-abortion because  is agonizingly topical after Roe v Wade.  There are some notably fine supporting performances,  especially Matilda Tucker as Sami, the doctor’s neighbour’s child.  The overhead drum ensemble is a brilliant device for raising the emotional enervation of the heroine’s situation. 

     So yes,  it’s worth the ticket,  and in a very good gesture the producers offer £ 25 tickets to health workers, though few may feel up to three hours of this gloomy intensity at the end of a long day.   It is challengingly staged and cast (the half-dozen newcomers to the production represent some tricksy cross-gender-cross-racial casting, even more than as described below. The weird shrillness given to the child’s father,  ranting that the child will be is condemned to hell fire  for lack of the last sacrament, is still frankly crazy, and if such extreme beliefs were ascribed to anyone but Catholids they would not pass theatre’s offensiveness-police by a mile.  As a cradle-RC  – albeit now lapsed –  I was taught fully 60 years ago, by nuns, that the deathbed principle of ‘between the stirrup and the ground’ and that there is nothing magical about sacramental absolution. 

       Yet although  it is mesmeric, probably one to see if you want three hours of serious theatre, there is something about the play’s translation to a big traditional theatre that doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe there are detailed tweaks; maybe it’s the casting. It feels ironic that the best scene is almost knockabout funny, satirically so,  as a panel questions Ruth on TV from every pious- victimcore point of view available, including “postcolonial”.  

       Here, though, to express the quality of the play, is part of what I wrote,  more beguiled, at the original Almeida showing..Here we go: 

“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.  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 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. He hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.  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.    

     It is  essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson, but 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. ” 

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com.  To 11 December

Rating. Still 4

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THE CRUCIBLE Olivier, SE1

A WARNING FOR ALL TIMES

    This is the big one.  It’s the National Theatre at its strongest:   unapologetic, classic,  unsparing, gripping, impassioned.    Here’s  the heavy artillery, intellectual and dramatic,  a big ensemble on a bare stage conjuring  – in Es Devlin’s moody set – an illimitable blackness beyond.    Hell and hysteria rage and choke and howl out across the centuries with all the power of irrationality.     It was in response to the McCarthy witch-hunt for Communists that Arthur Miller recreated the  still deeper savagery of 17c Puritan settlements in Massachussetts where hundreds were denounced and hanged (there’s an extra fascination if you have been reading  Robert Harris’  new novel Act of Oblivion, set in just those towns: a tight anxious theocracy on the edge of a new-world wilderness ). 

       But because Miller dug so deep into the human question of how-and-why  such murderous groupthink emerges,  and how heroic are its defiers, the play strikes to the heart of  every cultural era.  Certainly ours. When Matthew Marsh’s preposterously pompous judge says it is a time for “precision”  – for black and white without nuance,  when death sentences are passed on  the slightest evidence  or jesting word, it is impossible not to think of our  “terf” wars. When a hardscrabble little town, at odds over bits of land or sales of pigs,  suddenly blows its social grievances into willing violence we think of the Capitol riot. When religious authority falls with lascivious horror on innocents, we are alongside the morality-police of Iran or Saudi.   

          The hysteria here is of course the girl-children’s,  led by Erin Doherty’s hard-edged passionate jilted Abigail .  For this play to reach its full power onstage  we need to believe how infectious and how frightening, is girls’ mass hysteria.   The big ensemble in print frocks achieve this: demure rows sitting quietly, sometimes half-seen or heard chanting in the dimness upstage,  suddenly explode in terrifying seizures and screams.  Arditti’s sound throughout is astonishingly effective.  But more subtly,   we see the power of a more apparently dignified group-think from the men,  eager to spot Satan however much reason and law must be twisted to do so,  and aware of pleasing their superiors by doing so.    Fisayo Akinade is marvellous as the Rev.Hale,  at first a prim-little-trim-little bureaucrat, totally onboard with the program,   then doubtful; then pleading,  then ashamed,  finally growing as he signs death sentences into a horrified disowning of the whole hideous court.   

      But all Lyndsey Turner’s cast rise to the immensity of the play and it’s hard to pick names.  Though  Brendan Cowell as flawed, brave  Proctor and  Eileen Walsh as his sober, pinafored Elizabeth enact to heartbreak one of the greatest grimmest love stories of the stage;    Karl Johnson as poor decent old farmer Giles is unforgettable, and so  is Rachelle Diedericks’  Mary,  a proud little bundle of naivete and self-importance,   growing into loyalty and confrontational courage and increasing terror,  finally crushed by the hysteric power of Abigail’s girl-gang’.    Magnificent. 

boxoffice    http://www.nationaltheatre org uk   to   5 nov

rating five

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RAVENSCOURT Hampstead Theatre

THERAPISTS AS HUMANS

 Georgina Burns  is a trained and experienced NHS therapist,  now with Hampstead support a playwright.  So, unlike most other writers tempted by the theatricality of talking-therapies and the emotional territory of the fifty-minute hour, she  knows the turf. It shows. 

      It isn’t a rant about government provision or social dysfunction, just a humane exposition of understanding:  she portrays with unflinching humour and sympathy the bravely patient people who are tasked with mopping up and taming  the mess of mental unwellness , and keeping the desperate alive  and reasonably functional. Even, eventually, happy.   

    Her protagonists have to do it, generally, in a series of six sessions rationed not by the patients’ idiosyncratic needs but by NHS necessity.   They’re  often deployers of black humour in private, ad are all crisis workers.  But as Robyn Skinner once observed of his colleagues in the psychological professions, quite a few who ply this trade or art are also carrying lead themselves, and seeking help through, as he put it, “the staff entrance round the back”.

   Such is Lydia: Lizzy Watts as a  clever, omnicompetent, organized newcomer, running miles and eschewing tea and coffee offered by the older, more battered and cheerful colleagues Denise and Arthur on the  Ravenscourt team. Her tense  “I don’t eat cake” tells you a fair bit from the start.

        Debbie Duru’s  set is wonderfully evocative of a daily NHS workplace: watercooler, clean plain walls in the counselling room,  a neutrally soothing abstract . Old Arthur’s cluttered desk is alongside with a bottle (? brandy) in the locked drawer, ready  for a quick staff stiffener when the next catastrophe hits.    Which it will. And it won’t be Lydia’s fault, not really, even if she does break one golden rule (which the set delivers in a good surprise). Not the managers’ fault either, though there was some question about giving her Daniel, a familiar heartsink client who has been round the block with various therapists often, and occupies – as Jon Foster’s wonderfully bluff Arthur puts it – the borderline between depression and “Obnoxious Personality Disorder”.  

      Josef Davies’ Daniel is enraging. Truculent, scornful, ungrateful, filled with class hatred of the posh people he blames.  Especially authors on radio4 writing books about their “journey” out of being depressed. He is not working because his managers “don’t understand” his mental health issues, was thrown off a deign course for not turning in his portfolio. He is still living at home with a mother to whom he is emotionally welded but despises.  He grudges her taste in boyfriends, possibly with reason. He’s furious and rude,  and Lydia patiently struggles to unlock him with real kindness. Though, as Denise the real pro observes, it is hard to know if she has too much ego or too little. One of the key skills of therapists after all is accepting  that you will sometimes fail. 

    The asides between the older therapists, glimpses of the clients they deal with, are revealing and funny and humane.  There are moments, I must say,   when listening in to the sessions with Daniel and Lydia is irritating – neither is at this point likeable enough to care – but the two older staffers are wonderful, Andrea Hall’s Denise  pragmatically wise, Foster absolutely endearing in his apparent slight cynicism and the way he becomes heroically kind and courageous when the crisis comes.   Daniel’s  peak meltdown is violently alarming; Lydia’s unwise involvement tensely frightening. It wont end well.

       Except that in a way, it does. Talking at last , admitting her own history of having bouts of frozen self- harming depression Lydia remembers how  it has usually ended. With a whatsApp chat that becomes a real one, with an invitation  for once she doesn’t refuse, with a sudden nice meal….

  We all mess up. Very often we recover, and learn. It’s a lovely play. I hope there will be longer fuller ones. Respect for Hamps, and some donors,  for growing it.

Boxoffice hampsteadtheatre.com. To 29 oct

Rating four.

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JEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS. Royal Court SW1

A MODEST AND REMORSEFUL SELF-REBUKE

       There’s  a curious outbreak of reparations going on. The Old Vic, which binned Into the Woods in outrage at Terry Gilliam’s reportedly incorrect tastes in mocking comedians , has suddenly staged a fabulous “burn” of just such ultra-wokery,   in Eureka Day.   And now the Royal Court, excoriated for instinctive antisemitism after calling a rapacious cartoonish financier Herschel Fink, nimbly mounts this Jonathan Freedland piece. It consists of  mainly verbatim interviews with British Jews and – nice touch – starts it with a bolt-from-heaven visual joke about how the cultured,  educated be-kind  Left (including the Court itself) finds it curiously difficult to shake off antisemitism.  Or even to see it as real racism.

     So they set off to explain its roots,  actors using the words of professionals and MPs (Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger), of a decorator and a social worker,  a doctor,  and the actress Tracy Ann Oberman who (scroll below) I had seen the previous night in Noises Off.   The idea that all Jews are rich, or related to wealth and influential, is tackled with amused contempt.   I love the geezerish decorator who says his mates at work wonder why he isn’t a lawyer. And adds – Jewish mother joke alert! – that his mother wonders the same.

        There is a bit of upstage medieval dressing-up as they run is through the 12c massacres at York, Norwich and Lincoln and reveal the theory, new to me, that it was actually England which first spread into Europe the “blood libel”, about Jews murdering children.  The automatic human desire to blame “others” provokes an entertaining mass singalong of “It was the Jews who did it, the Jews who did it – whatever it was” . And when it comes to conspiracies  we see some of the wilder US tweets about poisoned coca cola and secret Jewish levers causing wildfires. There are laughs. There should always be laughs about this dark paranoia, for only mockery will dispel it.  There are also useful observations about the difficulty too many British people seem to have in distinguishing between distaste for actions by the state of Israel and antisemitism in general.

      The mood darkens deeply in the last half hour, first with the MPs’ truly horrifying experiences of online hatred,  and an intense focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour years and the damage done there.  Finally some thoughtful, extended family memories.  Individuals quote their family experience of shtetls and pogroms,  the Holocaust itself, and less known horrors like the 1960’s rounding up of Iraqi Jews.   It’s powerful, though often oddly , ruefully gentle in the telling.  The cumulative historical effect gave me more understanding than I have felt before about Jewish friends who say that somewhere in them still there is a feeling that there should always be a suitcase ready by the door and a passport for flight.  Here! now!  In mild modern England, which has not only heavy discrimination laws but had a Jewish PM over a century ago,  and innumerable leaders and national treasures down the years.   But fair enough: the feeling is real in many. And if it is paranoia, it is a reflection of the opposing paranoia that for centuries alienated them.   

   It’s a useful show. At least I hope it is.  On the way out I met, amazedly, my most obviously Jew-mistrusting friend, a man who I have several times berated or teased about it, regarding his conspiracy theories as ridiculous.    “Did the show work, then?” I asked, astonished to see him there.

      He looked darkly at me, with the unmistakeable air of a  man who at some point lost out professionally to a cleverer-and-Jewish rival.  “I could tell you things” he said.  

    So no, it won’t work on everyone. Shame.  

BOX OFFICE. Royalcourttheatre.com.  To 22 Oct

Rating three as theatre,  five for usefulness.  

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THE RAVEN. Touring East

A GOTHIC SORROW IN OLD BOSTON

When you say you’re off to a Suffolk village hall to see a tiny company –  best known for its mini-pantos – doing a dramatised tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, you meet some baffled , even pitying glances.  They’d have missed a treat:  writer-director Pat Whymark of Common Ground has created something lovely, between gilt pillars and a filmy curtain and screen:  a funny, mournful, humane tribute to the Victorian-gothic horror  ornamentalist whose imagination created the Pit and the Pendulum.

      An  empathetic portrait,  with beautiful songs performed by Emily Bennett and brilliantly devised projections, draws us into the morbid world of the troubled soul who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart.  And it has indeed, for all the irresistible temptations to laugh, a lot of heart.  

      It’s framed as if Poe (Richard Galloway). is onstage in Boston in evening dress and, having mislaid the poem he was booked to read,  decides to tell his story. He is also batting off protests from a literary magazine grandee (Julian Harries, who doubles as his stern adoptive father who considered he was ‘bad blood’).   At issue are Poe’s scorching criticisms of the Victorian-American establishment of affluently bred writers like Longfellow. He claims to be “the first American author ever to subsist entirely on the proceeds of his writing”  It may turn out that Poe is hallucinating the whole thing,  after the desperate brain crisis at the end of his life when he was found confused, screaming, in the wrong clothes. 

     But he tells his life,  from birth in 1809, the loss of his mother when he was two, an uneasy childhood and the rediscovery – and then death  – of his brother Henry.  He diverts into telling and enacting three of his terrifying tales, rather brilliantly with the aid of Matthew Rutherford and  Harries and spooky, mournfully elegant movement and song from Bennett.  Interestingly he expresses awareness of his own absurdities, claiming that the massively overblown “Ligeia” is actually a satire on himself.  

     Indeed its heroine, “radiant as an opium-dream..preyed on by the tumultuous vultures of stern and extreme passion” for the narrator is marvellously preposterous, as is his response to her death by “purchasing an abandoned abbey and becoming a slave in the trammels of opium”.  When the possessed corpse of his next wife, “The Lady Rowena” revives in her shroud (a remarkable core-strength Pilates situp from Emily Bennett) you know you are in the hands of a grand-guignol master.  The Pit and the Pendulum is done with equal brio (I had forgotten that when one is tied down with a single long strap all one needs to do is smear meat-gristled hands on it for the rats to eat it through).  Then there’s the fiery pit..but it’s OK, the  Spanish Inquisition is foiled by French soldiers, with due exoticism. 

         But all through this fun run the travails of a real man, a real talent:  frustrated by the “aristocracy of wealth” and bien-pensant criticism in late-19c America,  desperately campaigning for copyright law as his own tales and plays got stolen.  Clearly  his grief for mother and brother is aggravated by his wife’s death; and as Dickens, an admiring visitor, says to him “Grief will out”.  Maybe that is what in the end killed him.  Certainly after a final battle with the literati , telling the Fall of the House of Usher,  poor Poe cries “I didn’t want to be IN the story”.  And his final recitation of The Raven, with its shadow on his lonely study floor,  is heartbreaking. Will these old griefs leave him?  

…..”tell me truly, I implore—Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

  Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”.

Breaks your heart.  

Box office www.commongroundtc.co.uk.     

Touring east anglia, village halls and theatres to 30 Oct.  COlchester next. RATING. FOUR

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JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN. Bridge Theatre, SE1

AMBITION , DISGRACE, RUIN, WOMEN

Heavy footfalls pace overhead, enervating, raising anxiety. Anna Fleischle’s  galleried grey set is half Scandi-minimo-chic, half penitentiary. Downstairs two sisters meet after thirteen years’ estrangement,  including five while Gunnhild’s husband served a sentence for fraud. Aunt Ella raised their child Erhart to kee him far from the scandal.  Now the sisters are beginning to fight for the amiable young man,  who wisely shows no wish to be owned by either.  

Clare Higgins’ Gunnhild is a stumping discontented blonde who expects Erhard to bring her back to fortune and status, and resents her disgraced husband John Gabriel who is living upstairs like a hermit.   Lia Williams is Ella: skinny, ailing, drowned in a brown frock and extinguished by a rain-hat.  Yet this defeated Auntie-Vera figure will, within one tense winter evening and a 100-minute show, explode into the most dramatic passion we’ve seen on stage all year.  Williams will astonish us.

        On a balcony above this unhappy family scene Freda, a modest young friend of the house, plays Liszt’s dark thundering Totentanz – dance of the dead. (Daisy Ou is a professional concert pianist).  Its gloom causes young Erhart to nip off to a party with a foxy older woman (Ony Uhiara) for bright lights and jollier music.  John Gabriel loves the Liszt though, pacing or rocking on his makeshift bed ,  remembering  the heady clang of hammers on iron ore in the mines of his youth, metal wrenched from rock to build an industrial empire.  His  only remaining  friend is  Wilhelm, Frida’s Dad, who dreams of being a novelist and is almost as depressed as JG himself.  The two old men grumble together: Michael Simkins as Wilhelm gloriously funny in deadpan Eeyore style,  JG ranting  about how “exceptional people” like him are different,  all the clients he cheated would have been repaid if things had gone well, and how the world will exonerate him any minute and beg him to return and lead them.   (Eerie echoes of Boris must be hastily dismissed).  

    He then discards Wilhelm, supposedly for good, for being a lousy writer.   “We deceived each other and ourselves” says JG coldly.   But, cries Wilhelm, “Isn’t that the essence of friendship?” Never a false note.  Lucinda Coxon’s reworking of the literal-translation makes it all ours. Every actor hits every note, sharp as JG’s remembered hammers.

      In great plays a scene, character or domestic confrontation can be both appalling and comic: pity, terror and barks of shocked laughter are not incompatible even within a sentence. Ibsen knew that, but in the  Norwegian rebel’s grim late works  it  takes a relaxed director and some weapons-grade actors to keep that balance.   Cue Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams: rescuing, for me and for good,  a play I hated  last time I saw it.

       Then, the antihero drew no sympathy – a self-aggrandizing deluded fraud.   Whereas Russell Beale, under a big scruffy beige cardigan,  draws almost too much.  He drags you into the  magic in his vision of industrial growth:  iron and steel and machinery and light and power across the empire he gambled too high for.   When he says he’s a “great wounded eagle” or a young Napoleon cut down at the point of victory,  you momentarily believe the old rogue.  Until you shudder at some sudden cruel remark, or a reminder that he ruined everyone he knew except Ella.  The man’s collapsed grandeur,  his tense staccato complaint broken by occasional devastating one-liners,  all hold you riveted.  Russell Beale makes you see why Ella ,  his first and only human love, adored him before he settled for the more pliable Gunnhild. The  backwash of that love continues: she wants her darling nephew Erhart to replace him and take her family name. But when JG returns for the first time in eight years to his wife’s sitting-room, a ludicrous  and again shockingly funny three-way battle is fought over the young man’s fealty.  It concludes,  as all such battles should,  with Erhart (debutant Sebastian de Souza)  wisely sloping off to warmer lands with his foxy cougar Fanny and the musician Frida.  

    And this is Norway and winter and Ibsen, so out into the storm goes our seductive, terrible, deluded miner of dreams and wrecker of women. But with that fine dramatic balance, before the inevitable tragedy we see Simkins’ adorable Wilhelm again in his bike helmet,  happy as Larry about his gifted daughter Frida having found a mentor for her presumed musical studies.  It is as if Ibsen wanted, just briefly, to reassure us that flawed visionary heroes aren’t the only kind of man available.

Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 27 Nov

Rating five.

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NOISES OFF. Theatre Royal Bath, and touring

GLORIOUS AS EVER

        Millions know it by now, but in case like my enthralled companions last night you aren’t among them,   grant me a moment or skip the the penultimate paragraph.   Noises Off  has been a national treasure since 1982,  written by Michael Frayn after  realizing that the hurtling backstage business of doors, props  and actors under stress is funnier than most actual farces.  He wrote a squib called EXITS, the great producer Michael Codron encouraged something fuller.  You see an irritable dress rehearsal of a touring farce, the imaginary “Nothing On”. Lloyd the producer yells from the stalls beside you.  After an interval with the set reversed,  you watch  from backstage one month into a gruelling provincial run, with cast  relationships fracturing: once the scene begins they are, of course, wordless backstage and able only to air their murderous feelings in brilliantly spiteful mime and sabotage while the familiar lines echo beyond the flats. A brief breakneck change, then from the front you see the play’s  dissolution on the final night at Stockton-on-Tees.    

      .  The characters are an affectionate portrait of thespian types, gloriously described in the programme:  I am especially fond of “Garry Lejeune”, proudly credited as having at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman Prize for Violence”.  There is a fading but still glamorous and gossipy trouper Belinda, an even more faded veteran, Dottie, funding the tour from her savings and playing the charlady, a dim ingenue, an exasperating leading man, an older equivalent who has lost both his nerve and his wife, and dear old Selsden: sixty years on the boards and the bottle, kept from his habit of hiding whisky in every corner only by the vigilance of the rest of the cast and the heroic, exhausted stage crew Poppy and Tim.

    The whole thing is a love song to the stage and the high days of touring rep, and indeed to actors. For it is notable that for all the excellent jokes about actorishness in the rehearsal scene,  none of the issues within the fictional company are the usual sneers about prestige or stardom and all-about-Eve-ery. Just ordinary love affairs. They are us, they are troupers, struggling with the props and stuck doors and slippery dropped sardines of life,  needing panicky ad-libs, rescuing one another  more often than sabotaging.  You have to love them all, flawed beings earning a living while trapped in an unforgiving structure, under judgement.  And, let me murmur, earning it at a time  before actors and theatre-managers were so worried about “safe spaces”,  disapproving of liaisons between older directors and ingenues,  and taught to treat vicious directorial sarcasm as “emotinal abuse”.  Alexander Hanson’s suavely irritable Lloyd wouldn’t get away with it now. Not without an editorial condemnation in The Stage. 

         Of all plays it depends on pin-sharp timing and directorial precision, and Lindsay Posner, who previously directed the Old Vic production, fulfils that absolutely. It also needs actors adept at physical comedy, willing to fall down the odd staircase or behind a sofa, and able to do all this middling-badly as the fictional actors, and brilliantly as themselves.  Class acts, in other words.  Some are relishing their seniority by doddering for England:   Felicity Kendal is old Dotty,  Matthew Kelly a pleasingly boozy old Selsden. All are terrific, though I had a particular tendresse for Tracy-Ann Oberman as the authoritatively blousy Belinda,  fount of all gossip and – in curiously touching moments nicely maternal – both backstage in the jealous chaos and  inventing lines  desperately in the last scene.  Her dazzling desperate smile in the final moments is alone worth the ticket. 

       Too many pleasures to list. But seeing it for the fourth or fifth time in my life I was still noticing nuggets:  like the way Frayn can write awful traditional farce jokes, tired  double-entendres and trouser-drops which make much of the audience laugh, a bit guiltily,  while seconds later giving us a real human-insight joke which makes everyone laugh with proper joy because that  trouser-drop was, face it,  a small part of the larger human sadness.  Equally, I had never quite taken in before the monstrousness of Dottie, or the heroic comradeship with which the whole cast and crew repeatedly rally round at speed to keep Selsden and the whisky bottle apart and prevent the wholesale emotional dissolution of poor Freddie. It’s just all very beautiful. 

Theatreroyal.org.uk. To 1 oct.   Then Cambridge,  then Brighton

Rating. Five.

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WOMAN IN MIND.        Chichester Festival Theatre

WISHFUL DELUSIONS IN A MIDDLE AGED DOLDRUM

Susan finds herself in mid-life with a dull clerical husband (Nigel Lindsay  really enjoying it) , obsessed with his dreary parish history pamphlet.  His gloomy beige sister lives with them; Muriel (Stephanie Jacob equally relishing every stumping step and grudge) . She believes she can conjure up the spirit of her dead husband,  and cooks the worst possible food (for an Alan Ayckbourn play this one is short on big laughs, but the good ones are about her omelettes and coffee).    Their son has run off to join a cult in Hemel Hempstead.

     But after she steps on a rake, Susan’s concussion takes the form of hallucinating another family life:  a grand estate with tennis courts, pool, sunset lake and money.  The alternative husband is adoring, light-hearted, cooks fabulous lunches with homemade mayonnaise; there’s a posh laughing brother and a confiding, happy lively daughter Lucy, and in this life Susan is an acclaimed writer of historical fiction. It all feels like a Sunday supplement portrait, and most likely is born of such.  Not least in its sense of English class division:  the media-aggravated belief that somewhere out of reach lie lives not only more glamorous but happier. 

   The hallucinated figures are as real to us as to her,  wandering in and out, and conversations weave with her real life with puzzling oddity. Only the  local GP (a wonderfully bumbling Matthew Cottle) is half-aware of them.  In the livelier second half Susan’s mania intensifies and the situation escalates into some spectacular misdeeds (in real life) and a fabulous nightmare wedding-cum-race meeting  delusion (in her head). The dream’s disjointed structure, I have to say, felt eerily familiar if you are like me prone to long confused narrative dreams.  

      It is easy to see why director Anna Mackmin and Chichester thought it a good wheeze to revive this 1984 play: mental health  is trending, as is the anxiety that the menopause might drive some women off their heads.  And you can’t fault the acting, especially from Jenna Russel’s Susan  at its core, and where there is comedy the cast find it. The confrontation between the judgmental, alienated son and Susan is very strong indeed,  set against the marshmallow-sweetness of the imaginary daughter.  Ahhh, imaginary children…

     But for all its Chichester polish  the play feels oddly dated.  We don’t relish retrospectives a mere 30+ years ago.  Partly I suppose the disconnection (it was a cool un-Ayckbournish house on last-preview)  is because a woman this desperately bored with her life would now be able to blog, Instagram and communicate more freely with outside friends on email.  Maybe, indeed,   that is the 21c version of hallucinating a better parallel life. 

Box office cft.org.uk to 15 October

Rating three

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EUREKA DAY. Old Vic, SE1

LORD, WHAT FOOLS WE LIBERALS BE…

     In a beanbagged, bright-coloured primary school in Berkeley, California,  its executive committee of five seek consensus over reclassifying the drop-down menu for applicants.  Is “transracial adoptee” as important a definition as “Native American”?  Should “Jewish” be an option separate from “White?” The newcomer – Carina – makes a faux pas by referring to her child as ‘he’ not  ‘they”, which is school policy, though  members kindly reassure her “we’re not saying you don’t know your child’s personal pronouns”. 

    We learn that Eureka Day is a school where kids cheer for the other team, where the school-play Peter Pan had to be cleansed of colonial issues by setting it in outer space, and lavatories are being expensively de-gendered by a contractor who sources local materials responsibly.  Yet already we are reminded how defensive-parenthood is red in tooth and claw:  the problem with Carina’s last school was that her child is superbright and  “couldn’t get special needs support unless he was failing”.  Whereon  she is insulted by a soothing “there’s a lot of neurodiversity here”. Still,  as old hippie Don meaninglessly says, before reading another truism from the Persian mystic Rumi about how lamps don’t give light until they’re lit “We are a school of choice in a community of intention”.  And at the meetings they always have organic donuts made by a mentally disabled but famous physicist.      

     So we know where we are: joyfully satirizing middle-class liberal-cum-hippie angst, parental protectiveness and the age of offence-taking,  as in  beloved recent comedies like God of Carnage and Clybourne Park.  But as it heats , the focus shifts to the even more topical theme : digital misinformation, rumour and fake news getting  indiscriminately sucked in and solidified into identity politics.  There’s a mumps outbreak, and the authorities want quarantine. A lot of parents – two on the committee – are antivaxxers, determined that Big Pharma isn’t going to con them into “poisoning” their children.  But the vaccinators are equally outraged by the risk to a herd-immunity which keeps their own safer.   Jonathan Spector’s play predates Covid, but couldn’t  be more topical.

         The last ten minutes of the first hour become something really special, as the committee do a Zoom meeting with invisible parents who join in – projected on the back wall and ceiling  – with classic, glorious, horribly recognizable WhatsAppery.  It begins with a lot of non-sequitur “Hi everyone” and chat about soup and someone who  moved to Vancouver, or was it Montreal? But as Don and the committee talk of closure and quarantine the heat rises, at first with people piously “not being comfortable” with various words,  moving on to personal remarks about whether chiropractors count as real doctors, and working up – in beautifully choreographed acrimony  – to  the inevitable words “Fascist” and “Nazi”.    The glory of it is the technically precise  use of this projected online onslaught as the cast centre-stage round the laptop gallantly keep up with the elegantly written script while being almost totally inaudible : simply because of the gales of helpless, choking, non-stop laughter from the audience reading the posts.  

        Actually, it’s that quarter-hour or so which wins it the fifth mouse: not because the whole play is stellar but because for two years we have all very, very much needed that experience of sitting laughing, helplessly, with a thousand strangers.   Don’s final line “I am feeling like this format is not bringing our best selves to the conversation” made me actually choke. 

     The second act sees the committee picking up the pieces,  afflicted by the darker fact of proper pain:  Eli’s child is seriously ill, having probably got it off the antivaxxer May, with whom he has been sleeping, to his invisible wife’s disgust. Though as a colleague concernedly chirps   “I thought you guys had passed through monogamy?” .  We learn that the co-founder Suzanne,  a finely nuanced performance by Helen Hunt,  had a past tragedy which solidified, probably unreasonably,  her attitude to medical science.  We see Ben Schnetzer’s Eli grow from the borderline-idiot hypersensitive wokey of the start to adult understanding. From Kirsten Foster’s May we get the most beautiful display of grit-teethed furiously aggressive silent knitting, then a crazy outburst of hatred for every modern thing from antibiotics to plastic. We relish too the sight of hapless old Don in his khaki bush shorts trying to write down their shared beliefs “respectfully” on a flip-chart, while being eviscerated by Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson). Oh, and Suzanne becoming even more hapless when Carina cracks up enough to snarl at the white woman’s assumption that  she is on “financial support” just because she’s black.  She isn’t.  Oh, the pain, the exquisite pain of it all. 

       So I loved it. And it comes to a sort of conclusion, but never again is it as satisfyingly over-the-top as during that Zoom meeting ending the first half.  Well, how could it be.  But it’s a lovely evening, excruciatingly topical, a neat two -hour counterweight to all our first-world-problems.  

Www.oldvictheatre.com.  To. 31 Oct

Rating five.

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DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10

REFINED AND FEATHER-DUSTED: CRUELTY IN THE SUBURBS

We are in a suburban drawing-room in 1926,  which some characters will still call  the “parlour”.  Near the front, close enough to touch the aspidistra, you feel very intimately involved, especially with the gaunt, melancholy figure of Matthew Ashforde as the man of the house,  Natty,  as he listens to a wind-up  gramophone  playing a sentimental ballad.  His tidy, aproned wife Mabel disapproves, due to a line in the second verse she regards as improper, especially on a Sunday. That word  “night”: suggestive!   

        Take that as a good sly comedy-of-manners joke, and at first that is the tone :  we watch Mabel deny poor romantic Natty a mere peck of a kiss,  disapprove of his giving the lady-librarian lodger a frivolous nickname, and refuse the shocking idea of going to the cinema due to her cherished delicate health and nerves (“Dr Board wouldn’t hear of me sitting in such an atmosphere”).   She also explains how well she has raised her flightier younger sister Gwen,  and her theory of male misbehaviour as “always the woman’s fault. They have no hold on their husbands, of that I’m sure”.      

        There is  absurdity, but this is a dark and angry play, as cross as Osborne in its way,  and after this comedy-of-manners first act with everyone’s emotions politely damped down,  it ripens into real emotional chaos and tragedy.   For Mia Austen’s Mabel is a dangerous monster:  her refinement truly vicious, her hypochondria and frigidity weaponized in control of Natty.  Austen somehow disciplines her naturally cheerful features into a perfect , unchanging resting-bitch-face, mouth down, permitting only rare little smiles of malice.  No wonder Kate O”Brien’s first play, before she became a noted novelist,  was received both as a “masterpiece” and as “squalid and horrid”.  Perhaps too recognizable to too many.  But at least her subtle treatment of sex,  of frigidity and longing and danger,   meant only a few ‘improper’ lines were cut by the censor.

         Small theatres rediscovering long-forgotten plays from the early 20th century are a treasure:  to see our own time levelly we need to understand the evolution of attitudes and taboos. These  people are our grand- or great-grandparents, closer than Shakespeare’s nobles ,Sheridan’s fops, Austen’s spinsters or even Shaw’s Edwardians. They walked our streets, staffed companies still flourishing, typed on Querty keyboards.  Women between the wars were in transition, more dramatically  than in the much-hyped 1960s.  A few days back we saw Dorothy Sayers’ steely, defiant abandoned 1930s wife and daring mistress at the Jermyn, women  rounding  together  on a pompous man who prizes housewifeliness and shrinking-violet humility.  Here by contrast it is a wife who exploits  just those supposed qualities, with the man as the victim.

          Natty, like Forster’s Leonard Bast,  longs for music and life and feeling,  something beyond the daily grind and frigid wife.  But he  hangs on as long as he can until the final explosion of trapped grief.   Fascinatingly, it is the more swashbuckling John,  fiancé of flighty Gwen,  who sees beyond the surface:  “Proud and remote as an eagle, that funny little beggar”.   Ashforde gives us all that, in a memorable performance and his disintegrating interaction with the cool, kindly lodger Frances (Holly Sumption) in the second act is stunning.  A lesser playwright would have made him declare love to her, but O’Brien knows that he needs more than cheap romance.

          The character of Frances herself I found a bit problematic: she is filling the authorial role of the observant, benign outsider to a trapped society, as in “The passing of the third floor back” or “An Inspector Calls”,  but steps out of that cool role into a less convincing affair of her own.  The two men who desire her – villainous, callous Alec and bluff hiking John – are a bit of a caricature,  Brian Martin’s John indeed is forced into real 1926 likes like “I must kiss you!”. But in a way those two are necessary to point up the extraordinary, desperate, heroic depth of poor Natty.   O’Brien is not saying that all men are trapped by virago wives, any more than Sayers was saying all women are men’s pawns: she is just dissecting one of the many ways in which social  absurdities can spiral down into deep human tragedy.  You may find the end melodramatic.  I found it credible, heartbreaking, and in Mabel’s final speech, as diabolic as anything in drama.  

Finboroughtheatre.co.uk.  To 1 oct

Rating four.

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ROSE Park Theatre, N4

A CENTURY SURVIVED

   It is no bad week to be contemplating the Jewish custom of sitting shiva:  spending seven days on a hard wooden bench when “you laugh, you cry, you argue” in tribute to the lost.  Rose is an 80-year old veteran, remembering as the millennium dawns. She says that the arguing is vital.  Sipping water to catch her breath, dipping into memories terrible or absurd, she is tartly,  acerbically insistent on that – her cousin’s  husband lived in the next street to Albert Einstein, after all. Jews , she says, are “a restless people, restless minds’  put into the world to ask questions that can’t be argued,  and to give us the vital  phrase “on the other hand..”.  She has – and is – a moral  message, but not a prescription.

    Martin Sherman’s 1999 masterpiece is an immense monologue – two halves, each over an hour – and Maureen Lipman tackles it with pin-sharp timing, humour, and controlled feeling, sitting on her bench remembering.  Her extraordinary performance was streamed during the Covid years but to see it live in front of you in this intimate theatre is different, startling and personal, heroic.  With the best will in the world any screen showing fades into being just more TV, more Holocaust history. This does not.

     Her story is a refugee tale, from childhood to atrocity into rescue, outrage, disconnection, trauma, and a kind of resolution. The strength of it, captured perfectly by Lipman’s nuanced changes from fondness to contempt, horror to amusement,  lies in the detailed individuality of all the characters she depicts.  Rose drily says that like all who live through history she sometimes finds it hard to disentangle real recall from Fiddler on the Roof and newsreels.  But she gives us idiosyncratic reality, a child’s clear baffled vision of her early life. The strong resolute pious mother, trading fruit by the roadside in the Ukrainian shtetl in the 1930s, is not quite as she seems but has a wild alarming gipsy side. iThe father is no Tevye but a hypochondriac idler, unmourned. The village is riven with dissent about superstitions; it takes little time for child Rose to ditch the idea of God.  Teenage Rose after “my first period and my first pogrom within a month”, cant wait to get to Warsaw and fall in love with an artist. “He wasn’t actually Chagall, but who is?”she shrugs affectionately.   But a mere month after happily eating chocolate cake in a cafe they are twelve to a room in the ghetto.  Which she  sees burning, smoke visible from her enforced factory-bench job.

     After the loss of her child and her man,  the hideous hiding in sewers and a rickety unofficial ship towards Palestine arrested by the British, Rose arrives in Atlantic City as an American wife   haunted by longing for her dead husband. An old-lady coolness relates it all, including  a crazy period of traumatic magical thinking and the prudent need not to seem at all “Russian” , hence presumed Commie, in the McCarthy years.    

    Cruelly, the generation of Jews who got out of old Europe earlier doesn’t want to hear too much from Holocaust survivors,  “not that I wanted to tell”.   Nor, eventually, does her shiksa daughter in law, one of those too-burning converts who knows better. As Rose stays running hotels in Florida, too weary now to obey the pull of the promised land, the daughter in law over there  berates her for not being a proper Jew,  and has to be reminded with a snap that Rose’s whole family died “while you were being christened in Kansas”.   

    At last we find who is the  nine-year  old girl ,shot in the head, for whom the old woman has been sitting shiva before us. Not her own long dead daughter Esther, for whom she kept shiva in the sewers (“no wooden benches there, but God makes allowances”). This time it is for an Arab child, killed in the occupied territories, “by my own blood”.

       It is an unforgettable evening: profound darkness of evil streaked with unconquerable human light, even humour.   What could be grimly unbearable,  is made bearable:  simply because people bore it, and we need to remember.  Speaking for many voices, Lipman holds that memory with faith.

Box office parktheatre.co.uk. To 15 October

Rating 5.

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THE SNAIL HOUSE. Hampstead Theatre, NW1

EVEN A SNAIL WILL REACH ITS HOME

         That’s a Nigerian saying, apparently.   But shiny though the shell is,   Richard Eyre’s play becomes a frustrating stew of ideas, attitudes and family tensions which doesn’t quite hit the finishing line. Directed by the author himself it is rarely less than entertaining,  always emotionally recognizable and interestingly topical: but it’s too humble, too restrained. It doesn’t presume to explode at you and shock your socks off with redemption as Chekhov or Ibsen does (especially when under this most sensitive of directors).   I wanted to like it more.  

      Its set is designed to oppress and make its own point:    a dark-green painted grand hall  lined with glum portraits in heavy frames and chairs to be deployed for a grim banquet in upper-middle Britain.  A public-school is pimping out its premises as a banqueting venue in holidays,  hired tonight by the eminent paediatric consultant and government health adviser Neil (Vincent Franklin).  He rose from the Lancashire working classes and proudly sent his son there, and now is marking the double occasion of his birthday and his knighthood. Lear-like,  he  wants a speech in his praise from his daughter Sarah.   

      However this Cordelia (played with terrifying conviction by Grace Hogg Robinson) is  all too ready to heave her heart into her mouth: scowling in military jacket, cotton frock and big black boots she has  rejected the parental home for a squat (sorry, “property guardianship scheme” ). She resents her parents for bailing her out after a night in the cells on an XR demonstration,  and seethes with  anger about everything from climate change and fracking to multinationals, xenophobia, Tories,  water companies, her Dad, the capitalist conspiracy and Brexit. Obviously as a school dropout aged 18 she is right about all the above.  “I can have principles, even if I don’t pay rent or tax or vote for your fucking government”.    This hatred of wealth does not prevent her from having an extremely expensive brand new bicycle.   Her brother Hugo, who is gay,  swings to the other abominable pole with a flash gas-guzzling car  and a job as a SPAD to the Conservative Education Secretary. He considers Coronavirus as a useful cull of the weakest, and is devoted to winding up his baby sister.  

        So that’s the host family in this dinner-of-the-damned.  In black tie and balldress Dr Neil and his wife skip through early,  but it is from the zero-hours catering staff we learn the details: eighteen to dinner on the heavy oak table (some brisk expert place-laying) and sixty for the dancing and speeches.  These workers enliven the opening scenes:  teenagers Habeeb and  Wynona  crash and sing and joke irreverently around: Megan McDonnell as a lass from Monaghan with a dream of stardom steals every scene she’s in, manically sweary, capering and caterwauling country songs and later pouring scorn on Sarah’s activism  – “so far up your own arse that on a clear day you could see through your bellybutton”.  Supervising these worker-kids with regal Nigerian dignity is Amanda Bright’s Florence.   Their scenes are wonderfully directed , the pragmatic vitality of their work a wicked contrast to the wordy  agonized debates of the employers.  That I loved.   But as the evening wears on – we never see the offstage guests, just  disco lights and sounds of Abba – conflict between Sarah and her father intensifies.  He finds her activism “self absorbed and selfrighteous”  but yearns for her approval; she feels she was never understood by him and cannot accept any merit in his  scientific work and saving of lives, even months in Romanian orphanages.   “My anger lights my world” she says, and suddenly there’s a flash of revelation of real unhappiness.  That works.

     But with  awkward suddenness we get to a meatier issue than these timeworn family dynamics: Florence the caterer suddenly tells Sarah that her father was the expert-witness for the prosecution who got her 19 months in prison for shaking her baby.  We know that recent research has suggested that such convictions may be unsafe, if symptoms are caused by a rare infant disorder.  Florence has learned this, knows herself innocent and wants Neil – who, embarrassingly, is in the process of paying her and the other staff – to apologize.  He blusters,  speaks of medical evidence, the balance of probabilities and his expertise. She tells him he was influenced by her race;  he speaks of statistics of abuse in precisely that racial group, and protests that the legal procedure didn’t let him speak to her to make a personal judgement .    Sarah wants him to be in the wrong and admit it, though showing weirdly little real empathy with Florence.  Will this be Neil’s Lear-in-the-storm moment, suddenly understanding the poor naked wretches of the world? Not quite.   And Florence’s complaint is curiously parallel to Sarah’s.  “Take notice of me! Not as a statistic but as me”.   There’s a dying fall rather than a redemption. It is frustrating.   And then the damn teenager starts on again.  “What have we done. Climate emergency. Brexit. This mess we’re in. And you making me feel like I belong somewhere else”.  It’s all about her again. 

        I suppose it proves dramatic realism, perceptive characterization and fine acting when an audience wants to jump up and slap a main character. But there is something better there, a useful only-connect theme:  the frustration is that it doesn’t quite gell.  

Box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 15 October

Rating three

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LOVE ALL. Jermyn St Theatre

SAYERS, SAYING IT FOR WORKING WOMEN

  Here’s a treat:  first half in Venice (with a glorious Canaletto backdrop) and the second, after some elegant Jermyn set-changing, in a London playwright’s chic flat,  complete with trumpet-mouthpiece bakelite phone and cigarette-box.   It’s 1940:  there’s a   touch of Noel-Coward wit at the expense of writers and the theatre, some arguments that are  more like a combative George Bernard Shaw,  and even – in a jokey throwaway – a passing homage to Ibsen.  But at its centre is something different:  a blazingly witty feminist assault not only on patriarchal assumptions but on  the cult of feelings-first.  “Romance is overrated, but I suppose you can’t have a third act without it”.

        Dorothy L Sayers’ only light stage comedy has been pretty much forgotten since its wartime launch in the first year of WW2.  We know her of course from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and – less prominently now – from her religious works.  Here, though,  find all the witty teasing structure of the detective novels , but released from the need to have a hero.  The result is a feast of deadly observation of sexual mores and a laughing, sisterly female revolt against a battened-down morality and traditional presumptions about wifehood .  Above all here is a hymn to the importance, in any life, of work and achievement.  Feelings, even the tenderest loves,  are not enough.  

        “Everybody hates work but it’s awful to be without it’ affirms even the shallowest and most hedonistic character, Lydia (Emily Barber),  pining  to get back to the stage after running away with our antihero ,the writer Godfrey, after “three flops and a fight with management”.  As the story goes on will encounter an even sterner work ethic  in the apparently dutiful wife he left for her.  

      In Venice the guilty couple are restive, she lounging bored in an elegant pyjama suit  while Godfrey (Alan Cox)  struggles with his latest romantic novel and the creeping advance of middle age. The loyal secretary, a nicely enigmatic Bethan Cullinane, smooths  both their paths. Both are differently frustrated because his wife Edith has not having filed the divorce papers, claiming to be “too busy”. This, Coward-style, leads to dangerously mellow reminiscence from Godfrey about Edith’s good qualities:  cue a shouting-match, the hurling out of the window  of his treasured “presentation inkwell” , and an irate gondolier whose inkstained passenger turns out to be an old friend from Lydia’s West End   world.  Karen Ascoe’s Mrs Mintlaw by the way is hilariously observed:  Sayers knew that world well. 

      We meet more  theatre people in the London flat after the interval, when both the couple have secretly fled back to London and are inevitably going to meet there.   The hostess, not that she wants either of them,  is a successful comedy playwright, found elegantly flatter-coaxing her leading man  (Daniel Burke, playing gigolo-smooth and vain). He wants to cut a few lines. Brilliantly, she agrees and says that yes,  its a difficult moment to express – whereon he wants it back.  There’s an ebullient producer (Jim Findley) ) getting the news that an elderly star is happy to play the vicar in the new play  but asks that the name of his church be changed from St Athanasius – ‘It’s his teeth, you see’.   Into all this merry thespianism plods Godfrey,  baffled to hear that his dull old wife Edith is staying at this address. Which she is, because – kaboom! – she herself  is the acclaimed playwright.   Under a pseudonym, having  the whale of a time with one hit running and another pending, the very play in which his runaway mistress wants a part.  So of course foxy Lydia turns up too…

     It could be farce, but for Dorothy Sayers’ point, sharpened with comic teeth, about the kind of man rampant in the 1930s and for a fair while afterwards who is horrified by any sign of female independent success. “Do you mean you wrote that play WHILE  we were married?”  “Well, you were always away”.   When he has to decide whether he will return to his wife or stay with Lydia,  he is confronted by the fact that one wont give up writing , and the other wont abandon acting, and he can’t bear eithr idea.  What makes him even more furious is Edith’s refusal to be upset by his desertion.   “Need you maintain this pretence of not giving a damn?”.   But she honestly doesn’t.  Her identity, her centre, is in her newfound work.  “I can’t believe a woman could feel like that!..I hate to see you making a wreck of your life”.  Her pals meanwhile float in and out, excited by the buzz of the new play.  She’s just fine: a walking, working revenge against all his kind.

      Godfrey, of course, is a caricature, designed to be entertainingly humiliated, and Alan Cox  makes the most of it:  a lovely moustached harrumpher, flatfooted and wrongfooted not only by the  sharper women  but the blithe theatre-folk who “don’t have much time for reading” his bestsellers.    There is a part of the third act when you sense a little flattening – the two women, working out their mutual feelings and what should become of him.  But as this absurd almost maternal discussion continues it heats up, and Sayers’ passion for females as workers, identities beyond romance and wifehood, continues to be strikingly refreshing. 

         When Godfrey – and his secretary, and the producer – have returned to join the two women, the play returns to the glorious pattern-making of farce,  and rollicks to a Wildean conclusion. I cite the more famous playwrights not out of disrespect to Sayers’ utterly female vision and wit,  but because this shows how efficiently, deliberately, she slotted into the dramatic idioms of her time (the opening scene sets character and situation with a real Rattigan elegance).  And because it makes me wish  she had given us more like this, not just a version of a Wimsey story. But thanks to Tom Littler, the director who is just leaving his triumphant spell at the Jermyn,  for finding it and giving it back to us.  The Godfreys may be scarcer now, or have gone sulkily underground.  But we need to remember them,  and salute a grandmothers’ generation who had them to deal with. 

Box office. Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 21 Sept

Rating 4   

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INTO THE WOODS Theatre Royal, Bath

A SPIKY AND SPECTACULAR DELIGHT 

            Humanity in every century has needed to plunge into the dark forests, questing or fleeing,  finding wonders or wolves:    it’s in Dante, Malory and Shakespeare, and a thousand folk-tales and fairytales.  It is these  childhood tales which are entangled and questioned and enlarged in Sondheim’s extraordinary collaboration with James Lapine (who wrote the ‘book’ of this classic, jokily wise,  intelligently absurd musical fantasy).     Here a Pollock’s paper `Toy-Theatre frame, intricately Victorian in monochrome, surrounds Bath’s proscenium. Drawn figures blend towards the real galleries, actors emerge solid as nursery-figures from paper  boxes.  Jon Bausor’s design and Anthony McDonald’s costumes joyfully create a living toybox of people and creatures against fairytale houses and immense moving treetrunks.

        It’s a portmanteau tale,  as a humble baker and his wife yearn for a baby and try to escape a witch’s curse while Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, beanstalk Jack and Rapunzel all  mingle to confuse things and compete and argue.   Terry Gilliam is just the man to realize it:  his Python sensibility helps,  and he co-directs with  Leah Hausman who, with dancer-choreographer wit, can make every movement speak  whether in somersaulting pratfall or darkening tragedy. 

     It’s always an arresting show:  spiky Sondheim music and arresting lyrics you take away for ever, wild wit,  looming menace, dry jokes.  He is never without properly troubling depths, Sondheim, and here offers a harshly wise, hilariously serious reflection on the vanity of wishes and the power of childlike imagination in a world of flawed adults. And in hands like this – Gilliam’sand Hausman’s – Into The Woods becomes an event to remember for life.  I don’t want to depress the Old Vic, whose people I  revere, but I have to say  that they got a seriously bum deal when –  late on in preparations – they did worse than Idle Jack by exchanging this absolute five-star marvel for a handful of dubious ideological magic-beans. To lose such a show just because the old rogue Gilliam knocked out a couple of contrarian jokes feels  like… well, complaining that a wood is too full of trees. They could have had its giants in the sky, soaring theatrical realization and peerless satirical wit. Theatrical magic is scarce and precious: no tactless harmless gag by a mischievous ageing contrarian is worth losing such a show.  

        So far , alarmingly, no tour beyond Bath is confirmed, but it is admirable for this smallish theatre to serve us a cast of 22, ten-piece orchestra and spectacular singing, sound and staging (wait till you see the giant arrive in Act 2). So get to Bath if the late Stephen Sondheim means anything to you at all.   Relish the bold and striding Red  Ridinghood of the young Scot Lauren Conroy;  fall for Audrey Brisson’s Cinderella as she too subverts fairytale femaleness; enjoy Nicola Hughes’ witchy ferocity even when, magic broken, she dresses like Liz Truss.   Henry Jenkinson and Nathanael Campbell (who doubles as a worryingly Me-Too era wolf) are wonderfully funny as the two princes who once they have their princesses bemoan  the “intriguing, fatiguing” male yearning for the next one,  who is out of reach in her glass  casket guarded by dwarfs.   Enjoy the theatrical magic of owl and deer and birds  – it’s a very skilled ensemble – and a superb rendering of MilkyWhite the toy cow as Faith Prendergast becomes its innards.   Don’t  miss the bloodstained triumph of Red Riding Hood or the understandably staggering gait suffered by a giant chicken who has just endured the passage of a very large   golden egg. 

          An early criticism of the piece when it was first produced  was a lack of  psychological credibility in the  second act,  when everyone fails to live happy ever after owing to unfinished giant business, disillusion,  mother-daughter  resentment,  envy, boredom, parenting problems and the general human awareness that  “We disappoint, we leave a mess”.  The criticism was that the breakneck pace and absurdity blurred a real sense of pain and  character as the stage becomes as littered with corpses as any Hamlet.  But here,  Rhashan Stone and Alex Young  as the Baker and wife do find real pathos; so do the Witch and her daughter, Maria Conneely’s traumatized, resentful Rapunzel.   

      And so it should be.  Children around a toybox ,or hearing a story,  will live, imagine, enact and play out stories  with passionate intensity.  The genius of this piece is that if we give ourselves up to Sondheim,   so can we.  

Box office : theatreroyal.org.uk.  To 10 September

Rating five.

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – TOUR  (Marlowe,Canterbury & onwards)

IT’S BACK:  A NEW DIRECTION HOME

  

This humbly immense, uniquely created show threw me for a loop five summers ago. It’s back on tour,  via Oliviers and Broadway awards,   with its miraculous marriage of poetic sensibility and hardscabble humanity.  It would be hard to find a better healing for difficult times.      Here is what I said before, at its Old Vic premiere: it gives the story. and the initial impact.

https://theatrecat.com/tag/girl-from-the-north-country/

     But to recap if you don’t: Conor McPherson  (writer and once more director)  has woven into a play-with-songs six decades of Bob Dylan songs,  brilliantly taken out of the ‘60s context and placed in a boarding-house in Duluth, Minnesota in hungry, desperate 1934 where the landlord faces ruin, his wife is struck by early dementia, violent irrationality alternating with stark truths and a drifting population : on the run from poverty and failure and bad pasts,  hoping and deluding,  impotent, angry, despairing, suddenly brotherly, decent.  I stand by my sense of it in 2017/18 as “moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams,  storytelling resonant and drawing deep”.    The melodic, poetic yearning of the songs, divorced from Dylan’s too-familiar voice,  break into the heart.  The new production is faithful to the old: sparse and unpretending,  the cast telling the story in songs, with microphones and onstage busking instruments,  living it before us,  moving, dancing, vivid. 

       And in a context of real disillusion , poverty and gritty life,  individual agonies and hopes,  Dylan’s lyrics are extraordinary: “let’s disconnect these cables, overturn these tables, this place don’t make sense any more”…”True love tends to forget..:…”      The once-self-indulgent  “Is your love in vain..” is given to the blighted couple  with the unmanageable, dangerous lost son and rises into truthfulness.    We expect “Like a rolling stone” to work in this context ,  but wilder, freer comes the apocalyptic vision of Jokerman, and for Idiot Wind  suddenly a tableau of intense beauty, most cast grouped round the piano,  Marianne alone with her fears .   

         And this new cast?  All the singing is superb, which matters most, and again  Simon Hale’s arrangements thrownew colour and depth into familiar and forgotten words alike.  It will grow a stronger sense of ensemble as the tour goes on:   just two things I would urge.  One is a firmer, slower,  more explicit emphasis on storytelling in conversations: my companion, new to the play though loving it,  almost missed understanding an important event at the end of the first half.    The narration early and late by the doctor needs to find again the gentler melancholy of the original production: too harsh, too angry in tone.   But it’s still wonderful.  Justina Kehinde is a stunning Marianne,  Rebecca Thornhill’s voice is a thing of glory, and Colin Connor, fierier and angrier  than I remember the character being, is an impressive Nick. 

         And    “Forever Young” hit me again, sent me out shivering.     Probably will again, since I might follow it elsewhere..

at Marlowe, Canterbury till Saturday;  then touring to 18 March  (NB, Southampton cancelled)

rating  four    will grow back to five as tour goes on. 

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TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS.   Finborough Theatre SW10

VOICES FROM THE GRAVE AND THE CELLAR, UNIGNORABLE

       Timely, enterprising, emotionally shattering, politically shaming.   These two plays were both  both first born at the time of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, the second  particularly in the Donbas where ugly divisions erupted between Russian sympathisers and supporters of the elected and legitimate government in Kyiv.    The first is called TAKE THE RUBBISH OUT, SASHA, by one of the most known Ukrainian playwrights, Natalya Vorozhbit:   it’s an absurdist-realistic fable about a mother and daughter who are grieving for the man of the family, a Colonel in the Ukrainian army who has died of a heart attack.  

    They are making pastries for neighbours in a memorial meeting and talk to his ghost, solid in the room,  the mother in her grief ‘angry’ that he is gone, bewailing the funeral costs, and needing to accept he can never come back.  But Sasha is suddenly adamant that after a further call-up of reservists he has to return to duty: “when we went into the army we made a solemn oath to the people of Ukraine to be loyal and true to them always and support the legal constitution of Ukraine..me and Vova, Sergei, Lyosha..we all swore that we wouldn’t betray the Ukrainian people”…    this from a man speaking from beyond the grave,  a startling, arresting, solid figure in Alan Cox.  His wife, with a moment of real East-European dark humour, complains that if he returns from the afterlife he’ll only be killed, and they’ll have another lot of burial costs.. The direction by Svetlana Dimcovic is brisk and mostly gripping – though it feels like a bit of a slow-burn for a while early on (it’s only 45 minutes overall) but that contributes to the painful contrast between recognizable human behaviour and the  surreality. 

     The second play, Neda Nezhdhana’s PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS is a shattering  hour-long monologue of one woman’s experience, despair and hope, based on a real individual tale from the Donbas conflict.  Polly Creed directs a quite extraordinary, constantly gripping, grim but sometimes blackly humorous performance by  Kristin Milward. 

       She is telling us what happened to her, and what she lost as her family fled and she , supposedly briefly, stayed back to tend her cat giving birth.   She keeps  offering to invisible buyers three kittens which survived the sack of her home.  She speaks for every displaced, beaten-up, betrayed individuals in such wars:  “I would like to say to those who brought this on us, not only those who were drawn in but those who sowed it all and those who did not stop it – you have no idea how small and pathetic all these trivial passions of yours, your desire for power, your business interests – how insignificant they are compared to the horrible black hole you have opened, the appalling abyss into which our land is flying..”.   

         A long monologue can be hard going. This was not:  it is stunningly done.  In both plays the translations are excellent.  

     And in an afterword the writer of the first one tells of her own flight from Kyiv and says for all playwrights and indeed Ukrainians:  “Eight years we’ve been engaged with the subject of war. Eight years we’ve been trying to shout to the world, to alert them to the Russian military threat. And only after 24 February did they finally hear us…we want to win, and return home, and water our plants. And we need your help” 

         Honour to the Finborough – a room over a pub in the middle of boarded-up refurbishment – for crowning its season of readings with these two plays. Bigger theatres have done a lot less.   

Box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk. To 3 sept

Ratings       

And for the second

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CULT FIGURE. Jermyn St Theatre

CARRY ON. OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, KEEP MESSIN’ ABOUT…

    My first concern was, will they dare give us the sadness? Kenneth Williams was a comic marvel self-created, a versatile actor and comedy ham, raconteur , mother’s boy and man in hiding from the terror of love.   I. met and interviewed him several times, and he gave me the best of advice possible on my one appearance in a double recording of Just a Minute.  Clement Freud, always a man to sow discomfort when he felt like it, was making me edgy. Williams sidled up as we walked towards the stage and said with real kindness  “you nervous? Tell you what to do. Just behave really really badly. Like your mother told you not to. Interrupt. Talk rubbish. You’ll be fine”. So I did, and won.  I had always loved the Ken I grew up with on Hancock and Round the Horne, and that cemented it.   

     Later on I learned of his earlier, serious rep career onstage in Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as light comedy, later still read his diaries and his friends’ memories after his lonely death, and sorrowed for the sadness and alienation and closeted despairs;  it is sometimes chilling to read how he despised so many of the comedy  gigs, especially the talk shows after the acting jobs died out.  Celebrity without art is a fate which he rightly described as empty,  corroding.  So I was nervous that  this impersonation might swerve that sadness. 

     Colin Elmer does a good Williams, with the idiosyncratic, carefully created Cockney- camp drawl and shriek and the sudden baritone growl, the “Nyeeesss” and “Aoow” and stop-messing-about existing alongside a skilled perfection of enunciation. He performers some of the actor’s  memoir, about a 1930s childhood:   a hairdresser Dad who hated effeminacy (“irons – iron hoofs – poofs”) and then army life in CSE in Singapore with equally contemptuous attitudes, tempered by soldierly affection for dressing-up and larking. He tells us tales of Edith Evans (great imitation) , of Noel Coward (even better, dear boy).  and Binkie Beaumont.  He romps through the comedy shows – lots of Just a Minute moments and a bit of front-row baiting.  There is a sigh, but more affection , in his account of the twenty years of Carry On films: where there could be no intimacy of partnership there was  comfort and real warmth in the  professionalism and comradeship of such a ramshackle rep.   Some anecdotes never fail: Charles Hawtrey’s old  Mum’s handbag catching fire and being doused with a cup of tea.  

      The jokes are as good as they ever were, the impersonation almost spot on, but it is in the brief seriousnesses that Elmer is best: the prim Williams regret at the growing coarseness of the films as postwar whimsy turned more explicit, the real physical unease behind the incessant colon, haemorrhoid and fart stories, and the respect for theatre itself. In the final moments, almost with a shock, we see him take up the black diary on the desk and read some of the anguished midlife doubts and shatteringly self-aware self-blaming , bitterness. Hard not to reflect that he spoke for many in a pre-LGBT+ generation.  Though ironically,  he probably would have hated LGBT+ as vulgar.  

     So yes, in the end Tim Astley’s production and Elmer’s carefully  worked performance felt like what it should be:  a tribute. And, perhaps,  an apology on behalf of a 20th century culture to those it kept on the margins.  

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 14 August

NOT ONE TO STAR RATE REALLY…BUT HERE IS A BIG MOUSE FOR KEN ,WHO SPOKE FOR THEATRE

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DAZZLING DIVAS. Jermyn St Theatre

GLITTER AND HARD GRAFT

       A basement hung with glitter strings, a small moody band with earthy bass,  a bar: few better places to revel in torch songs, deep-dug anthems and memory of bygone stars who flared and burnt and are not forgotten .  Up in the back row on the high seats, feet on the bar and can in your fist you can even fancy yourself in any smoky bar from 1930 onwards.  Good old Jermyn: just the spot for Issy Van Randwyk’s tribute to women who got out there in warpaint, feathers or wild hippie hair to dig deep  and fling out passion to a dull hard world.  Frankly , it was about time  “cis” women reclaimed the great diva images from drag queens (and no, officer, that’s not a hate- crime, I love drag dearly,  always have, but we need some Issys out there as well to rock their  full-on femalehood).  

     Nobody is fitter for the job than van Randwyck,  after years not only acting but on the cabaret circuit (the only “real” girl at Madame Jojos for a spell, and central to Fascinating Aida).  This time she is not satirical but sincere in tribute,  with a wide vocal range to conjure up women across the decades from Billie Holiday to Dusty Springfield:  blues, jazz, country, rock and pop.  It is not impersonation but loving memory,  despite some uncanny moments of reality:  she breaks off between songs, or even phrases,  with a gentle, idiosyncratic narrative of the lives behind the music.  That young Billie Holiday  had to sell herself for $5 a time to live,  that J Edgar Hoover and the narcotics police persecuted her after “Strange Fruit” and had her handcuffed to her hospital bed: these things we should know as we listen.  That “Ain’t nobody’s business” had lines about “not calling no copper if I’m beaten up by my poppa”  is relevant to the times, and should suffer no airbrushing.   

       Then suddenly, taking a swig from a bottle and dashing on some lipstick,  van RAndwyck  becomes Monroe,  her voice little-girl breathy,  the narrative half-mischievous half-dark, hinting at what surrounded her, at the dangers of generosity and having to sell to predatory men and a predatory business.  I had not known the song from the Western “River of no return”,  but again, falling as it did after a mention of Marilyn’s lost pregnancies and quiet enrolment to UCLA literature courses,  it had weight: a brilliant choice.  .  Then shazam!  On with a cowboy hat and a grainier, deeper voice and it’s the tale and sound of Patsy Kline:  mercifully after those two victim-sacrifices,  a roughneck “with a mouth on her would embarrass a truck driver”, as a Nashville colleague admiringly put it.     And just as you’re wondering if the narrator-singer’s voice can get any wilder,  here’s a flourish of an ostrich stole and it’s Janis Joplin,  boozing and drugging and growling and roaring and digging deep in the music “not floatin’ on top like a chick”…

        And on we go after a brief interval: Mama Cass, big and glorious, pushed about by bandmates, making “her own kinda music” till she died at 32.  And – with great emotional feeling from the singer – Karen Carpenter,  whose honey-smooth intimate melodious sound van Randwyk reproduces almost eerily while reminding us that poor shy Karen always thought of herself first as “a drummer who sang”, and was once reader-polled as better than Led Zeppelin’s drummer, so there.   And at last  Dusty Springfield,  “food-throwing, football-loving” 1960’s icon at 23,  flashing black-lined eyes, breaking into the US before the Beatles did,  declining into mental chaos and a tooth-smashingly violent love affair,  having an 80’s comeback and in her last days rising at dawn to go to Heathrow to watch the ‘planes, and remember past travels.   The last song – in yet another brilliant judgement by the singer and her director Ed Hall – is “Goin’ back’ with its wistful nostalgia for the freshness the world shows only to youth.  

    It’s a simple show,  two hours,  just telling some stories and singing some songs with sisterly admiration and no affectation.   But it stays with you, making you reflect on an emotional history the rest of us share and fed from:   women who blazed into the age of mass entertainment, mostly died absurdly young, were adored and abused,  flawed and fabulous, conduits for the music of the passions.   There are three more performances this week. Get on down there.

Box office.    Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

  

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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Lyttelton, SE1

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.       Lyttelton, SE1

SHAKESPEARE IN THE SWING AGE

     A star danced, and under it was Simon Godwin’s joyful, 1930s Riviera production born.  Quite apart from the fact that it is nice to have the earnest NT enjoying two outbreaks of frenetic jitterbug dancing at once – Jack Absolute upstairs at the Olivier, and here  Much Ado set in  the Mediterranean hotel world of Noel Coward – where it feats with unexpected neatness.    Here’s the Hotel Messina,  at the heart of a society of banter-which-means-its- opposite, of prankish trickery both laughing and  lethal, where ladies in daring beach playsuits spar with lads in khaki who are more than up for bantz.   

    Hotel Proprietor, staff and guests interact perfectly:  right down to Dogberry’s famously ineffectual night-watch being a night- porter cadre told not to disturb rich drunks but 

‘let them be” till they be sober (David Fynn makes the most of it).  Anna Fleischle’s  gorgeous set has balcony, pop-up boudoir and steam bath, and  useful beach tents – who needs a shrubbery for overhearing-scenes?     As the plotters stagily speak of Beatrice’s hidden passion for him John Heffernan’s irresistible Benedick is even more well-served by the props department having thoughtfully created a fully functional icecream cart, capable of housing him on all fours after his Li-lo disguise is removed. This enables the pranksters to deploy syrups and sprinkles, lavishly,  so he can emerge well-coated to declare his conversion to a nicely dismissive Beatrice.   Perfect.  The lovelorn Heffernan’s next appearance is in a blue face-pack in the steam bath.   And OK, yes, it was lovely to see so much solid set building and prop-creation (fab sliding doors and a great bar) so soon after the pixellated magic of last night at IDENTICAL, qv below.

      Beatrice (Katherine Parkinson channelling a young Penelope Keith, poshly witty) climbs down the wall from the balcony with equal effect, until at the interval the French family in front of me rapturously exclaimed that it was  “marrant..tellement leger!”

       Light it is, gloriously so, but for all the clowning and farcical devices Shakespeare is thinking, as ever, about men and women and their positions in society,  about shame and forgiveness and redemption:  the rise of the ‘dead’ Hero even prefiguring The Winter’s Tale.     So the shaming of Ioanna Kimbook’s Hero is properly shocking,  and I have rarely seen the shocked intensity of Beatrice and Benedick’s declaration so shiveringly credible in the aftermath of that shock.  Rarely does her bald  “Kill Claudio” get met with a laugh, which was unnerving: often it is a dark sudden shock rather than an absurdity.  But Parkinson’s subsequent outbreak hauls us back into the proper horror of what shaming meant in Shakespeare’s day.   

    An added frisson is added by the casting of Eben Figuerido as Claudio:  his look of dark,  southern uncompromising nobility is set against the sunnier, drily modern manner and look of the flirtatious laughing Heffernan, who will probably be getting some proposals from the front row after a few well-directed glances. Claudio on the other hand properly looks the kind of man who would be too easily insulted by female looseness.  

        Talking of which,  there’s a wonderful moment when Rufus Wright’s horrified Leonato is getting over his shock at his daughter’s shaming by necking cocktails,  and an infuriated Antonia – Wendy Kweh – takes the latest one off him and pulls him together,  with an angry feminist speech I had quite forgotten about.  Just as good as Beatrice’s challenging snarl about “manhood melted into courtesies”.

    That’s the pleasure of a production like this:  “leger” as the French group said,  and gleefully farcical at times.  For thanks partly to the unconventional setting,  often it reminds you of Shakespeare’s extraordinary moments too easily forgotten.  It’s like the most painless imaginable form of close textual analysis…

   Oh,  and  Dario Rossetti-Bonell’s swing band is pretty good too.   It’s selling well.  It’s worth it,  usual big discount for oldies, under-18s and some for under-25s,  and even from the “restricted view narrower seat” bit of the stalls you can perfectly well see Heffernan peering from under the ice-cream cart.  

Box office nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 10 Sept.

Rating. Four.

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IDENTICAL Nottingham Playhouse

 STARRY SISTERHOOD IN OLD VIENNA

     Identical twin girls, separated at birth in their parents divorce, meet at summer camp and resolve to swop places.   Remember  “The Parent Trap” film, the 1998 remake or  Hayley Mills 1961 romp?  Forget both.  Both were heavily Americanized versions of a novel by Erich Kastner,  written twenty years after his more famous Emil and the Detectives, on the far side of wartime separations and losses. The jolly US versions transformed  the girls into modern teenagers who with artful mischief plot to reunite their parents.  But Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa are only ten: their delight in unsuspected sisterhood and  yearnings for a never-known parent are the same, but they are little children,  powerless beyond the daring substitution. They’re not aiming to fool the parents but in each case to meet them.   And the happy resolution is brought about by illness, not plotting.  

    There’s comedy in the situations – one child baffling her affluent composer father by suddenly being able to play the piano,  the other confusing the hardworking single mother by turning out to like camping and having  forgotten how to cook. But there is a hint of real trauma in the book too, the outrage of separation  acknowledged here in one child’s frightening nightmare of a witch forcing the newborns apart. 

    It is this original postwar Germany and Austria into which Stuart Paterson’s adaptation takes us in a fresh, bouncy Stiles and Drewe musical.  Auditions of hundred pairs of identical twins found three:  on press night Eden and Emme Patrick proved faultless in a complicated, sometimes emotionally intense performance, first disliking one another on sight and then rapturously realizing their sisterhood; they are playfully natural and assured, rarely offstage for long.  And the head spins at the thought that Nunn has had to rehearse not two but six children through the complications.  

   For the execution is state-of-the-art modern: on sliding, morphing flats and drops come some of the most arresting, fabulously detailed projections I have ever seen – set, Robert Jones, design Douglas O’Connell, take a bow, both.  Trevor Nunn’s fast-moving, filmic direction can therefore take us in moments  from a summer lakeside, trees waving, to the streets of Munich ,  the Vienna opera house frontstage and back, a ballroom, a mountain and at one point the nightmare.   Sometimes, as each little girl finds her way into a new household there is a split-screen version. Every  aspect of the production breathes skill, cost, concentration and care.  

     And risk.  It’s a good-hearted, family-friendly show – and moves on to the Lowry and probably elsewhere, I think it will last – but any new musical trembles on the brink. In the first minutes, as a jolly camp leader (Ellie Nunn) leads a big child ensemble boosted by  local recruits,  there is a bit of a retro school-play feeling: bouncy so-what tunes,   I did wonder at the effort. 

     But it grows.  The twins – rapidly working out why they have the same face and birthdate – draw you in to their gleeful private world.  Their singing is flawless too, alone or with the adults, and as the show goes on Stiles & Drew pull out some lovely numbers.  Emily Tierney as the mother has a beautiful reminiscent song about her teenage marriage and estrangement,  with a haunting, constant repetition  “we were young..”.  We don’t get quite enough of the men in voice ,though Michael Smith-Stewart’s Dr Strobl has a couple of welcome baritone moments,  and James Darch’s Johan as the vain composer works brilliantly alongside his daughter “Making it up as we go along” at the piano, and  there’s a fabulously furious quarrelling encounter between the child and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the vampy ballerina who wants to marry Johan.   (she can do the ballet bit, too).

      By the time the four finally meet, there’s a real emotional hit as they discover that a litle tune the musical twin made up fits, exactly, with the words of a simple poem by the other.  Tierney and Darch stand speechless, astonished for a moment in the grand Viennese drawing-room.   A sigh goes through the audience.  

Box office nottinghamplayhouse.org.uk to 14 August. Then Lowry, Salford to 3 Sept

Rating. 4.

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MACBETH Theatre in the forest, Sutton Hoo

THE SCOTTISH PLAY ON ANCIENT TURF

    “This castle hath a pleasant seat..”   Indeed it does:  Red Rose Chain’s traditional outdoor show now lives alongside the mysterious mounds where the Anglo-Saxon warrior king lay with his jewelled sword.  It’s a marvellous site, a tiered arena (much recycled )  and even more recycled set: the castle is built of an old van and doors and floors from previous shows ;   the gas-bottle bell in the tower is supported by the gravedigger’s spade from their Hamlet.     As we settle, the clown-ragged cast are playing beach-cricket with a guitar and a smiley yellow ball which shortly will represent  the Thane of Cawdor’s head on a pike.  As silence falls and Jack Heydon’s Macbeth takes up his accordion they explain in chorus, with washboard and tin-can accompaniment ,   that this is “A tale told by idiots, signifying nothing…..lighting fools to dusty death..strutting and fretting this hour upon the stage’.   

       The larking, and that chant mischievously pre-echoing Macbeth’s Act 5 speech,  make clear Joanna Carrick’s directorial vision.  It’s out of doors, it’s  a summer show with witches in it,  it’s old old story re-enacted  with almost mumming-play irreverence in ragamuffin costumes.   But Carrick respects the text,  and a remarkable professional discipline marks everything.  The cast tearing manically around the set and auditorium are all  professionals but pretty young,  alarmingly fit and vigorous and exuberantly expressive (a lot of  miming moments behind every development in the turbulent murderous court, and some ferocious fights).

         But whether alone or in choral speech they are spot-on: not a mic between them, every word audible and clear in the big auditorium, scenes well signposted as befits a family show.    Even when veering off the text to address the audience in asides it has control.    The witches  –  remarkable 20-foot puppets with terrifying heads of bird, turtle and ogre –  are deftly manoeuvred by three cast members each  as they grope at us with horrid limbs. And they  are for once given all Shakespeare’s lines.  Hubble bubble,  eye-of-newt, all that stuff which  the grand productions always swerve embarrassedly away from.    

           So when a sudden quietening takes us off the battlefield to the castle, Olu Adaeze as Lady Macbeth, reading the letter and resolving to kill,   has the responsibility of conveying  the first murderous chill, and  she does so with a dark queenly dignity, undisturbed by any larking around.   The midnight marital discussion  around the  bloody daggers is chilling too. And much later on  Matt Penson’s sober Macduff is similarly given the silence necessary for his appalled “What…all my pretty ones?   Did you say all?”. 

       We need that.     Alongside the hideous brilliance of the witches (even more so in their second-half in the dusk , conjuring spirits)  the show cheekily, without nervousness, keeps  that balance and blends a rampaging circus narrative with the tragic poetry.  Banquo,  Ailis Duff in half a naval uniform,  stands downstage in front of the castle’s  uproar to deliver the first  suspicion of his friend Macbeth  “I fear,thou play’dst most foully for’t”.  It is serious, even though it is followed by a ridiculous  murder-chase round the stage,  a freshly created song rhyming “I’m toast! I’m Banquo’s ghost!’, a twerk or two,   and  and a head popping up from a barbecue.    It works.    Later, doubling  as an exasperated wife of the absent, soldierly Macduff  she is is perfect: natural and domestic, so that her  (decently offstage) death is heart-catching.   Similarly Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene has a proper quietness:  Olu Adaeze in her nightgown shimmers helpless with guilt  in the gloom, under the great sighing trees.  

        Oh, and the porter.    Looking back at Red Rose Chain’s  rock ’n roll Romeo and Juliet I notice that I gave Darren Latham “my rarely given award for a not-annoying Mercutio”,  and this time he has the even harder task of making the damn porter bearable (OK, I know some people like it, but to me it always seems one of Shakespeare’s grimmer lollipop moments, and many directors cut it to almost nothing).   This time Latham goes the full red-nose comic,  complete with audience taunting and a song with the chorus “They don’t care!”  But  it’s all echoing the Porter’s original lines.  And the audience love it. 

        Love it too when, at the press night curtain-call,  Joanna Carrick summoned onstage for a final chorus  the community-group “Chainers”, some with disabilities,  and the new production manager Ryan .  Who got that challenging set together,  and who first worked with Carrick when he was inside HMP Warren Hill,  writing his own play about redemption which I wrote about in the Times a couple of years ago.   Theatre talks the talk about inclusivity and disadvantage, but few so cheerfully, walk the walk as Red Rose Chain, of Ipswich.    

box office   redrosechain.com  to 20 August.   Selling fast.

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101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1

101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1

BARKING IN THE PARK 

      Wooof!    The OAT’s new show,  bounding and cavorting along  under the direction of that amiable alfesco showman  Timothy Sheader,  rolls over  (with quite a lot of success)  to make you give it a tummy-rub and fondle its ears.  Toby Olié,  master-puppeteer,  puts the dogs, Perdita and Pongo each under the care of  two handlers (the rearward one  bending in spotty trousers, well up for a bum-sniff) and their heads, tails, legs and wags are eerily, skilfully, thoughtfully made expressive. The 99 puppies are represented by adorable little heads, again in agile human hands, popping up everywhere.  And the dramatic escape scenes) four  are represented  in voice by real children of the OAT”s Young Company.  

     Multiple other dogs are represented with economical brio by the quick-changing ensemble and often roam the auditorium,  to the ecstasy of children and the occasional parent who took the trouble to dress in dalmatian-print.  There are Scotties in kilts, Afghans in flowing locks, a tap dancing pink poodle.   Towering over them all is the noble sad old Captain,  Tom Peters singing the two best songs in the show, all the sorrows of life encapsulated in the scent of lost loved ones and the memory of a buried bone. Which, in a real sense, we are all searching for in life, no?

         Dogs we see are trustworthy, stand together,   pass messages of danger and support through the “worldwide woof” and the Twilight Barking.   Humans on the other hand are shamingly fallible. The struggling but loving owners,  Dominic and DAnielle, have not much of a clue beyond warmheartedness.     Cruella  de Vil has, until they rebel,  two hopeless nephews under her thumb (George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon, very funny)  and she herself is, of course absolutely evil.  Apart from wanting to kill puppies for a coat at a social ball which showcases  “who’s in and who’s thin”,  she is an Instagram influencer . Excellent choice for a villainess, allowing lots of choruses of “Share, share ! Like! LIke! Comment!” and the waving of phones in the background.  Kate Fleetwood, slinky and glamorous,  is a perfect Cruella: powerfully melodious, enthusiastically nasty,   handling rock ballads  with glee and jeering with fabulous menace  at “welfare whingers”  and outsiders – “British dogs for British People! Take Back Control!”.  No trouble spotting the liberal values in this show, kids! 

        The show accelerates, after a shakier start,  until by the end you definitely throw it a well-deserved marrowbone:  there’s  a “no-pup-left-behind” drama in the snowstorm escape, a helpful cat who forgives past chases to help out and exhorts the pups: “Young – make your voices heard, claim your territory!”  (another message).  There’s a wonderful  exploding car for Cruella (Liam Steel’s choreography and movement direction is as fine as Olie’s puppetmastery).  And (third big liberal message) at the end the broke young couple  realize we all must  “open your hearts, open your doors” and accept hundreds of puppies taking refuge.   But  just as any far-right border curmudgeons might be rolling their eyes at the Paddingtonesque urging to virtue and wondering what Truss ’n Sunak will say,   our cunning director brings on a REAL DALMATIAN PUPPY. And a great British awwwwhhhhhh! rises over the darkening trees.               

        A brand-new musical is the toughest of risks, because however good the tunes and lyrics they’re unfamiliar: unless every word in every chorus is preternaturally clear,  which is a big ask outdoors,  some of the fun gets lost in the attempt at concentration. That  is why juke-box shows are so popular: we all have a running start and are inwardly humming along .  The show’s creator Douglas Hodge (better known as a fine actor) is also a good musician, folksinger and composer, but the only running-start he has here is that we know about Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians and the Disney film version (here the book is Johnny McKnight’s, the adaptation Zinnie Harris’). 

           But our Doug can turn a lovely tune (especially in the more folk-y mode) and he has some grand lyrics. Captain’s songs are best of all,  but  there are also some lovely doggy choral reflections like the necessity to “turn round three times before you sit down”,  and some inventive staccato panting.   Fleetwood’s Cruella numbers are sometimes  fine too, especially when “triggered” by failure and isolation  she laments that her only friend is enmity.    But kapow!  in a coup de theatre, she had to go.  Children and puppies can head home to sleep safe.

www.openairtheatre.com  to 28th August 

rating four


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CRAZY FOR YOU Chichester Festival Theatre

CHARLIE IS , ONCE AGAIN, OUR DANCING DARLING…

       Foiled by heatwave and trains,  I made it six days later to the summer’s highlight, the glorious absurdity of this wickedly successful mashup: songs by George and Ira Gershwin from various shows, reassembled years after their death by Ken Ludwig into a plot of brilliant cod-nostalgic absurdity,  and roaring into life under Susan Stroman’s choreographic wit.  It is the ultimate song-n-dance show. And, in this year of theatrical resurrection, the timeliest of celebrations of showbiz itself.

      Bobby Child, a nerdy ambitious tap-dancing wannabe,  pleads for work with Zangler the New York impresario but is packed off as a banker in the family business to Dead Rock, Nevada, population 37 after the gold rush expired.   Ordered to repossess a failed theatre surrounded by yawning, bored rednecks, he falls in love with Polly, the only woman in town,  and resolves to revive it.   Posing as Zangler in a disguise so improbably successful that it is positively Shakespearian,  he sets to work.  Everything goes wrong, then right again. Especially when (more comedy-of-errors stuff) the real Zangler arrives, equally lovelorn, and even performs a drunken doppelganger scene with Bobby.   

       Ridiculous, and perfect. Stemp, who threw us all into a pother of admiration here in Half a Sixpence,  is not only an extraordinary dancer but in this subtler story he satisfactorily changes and feels before our eyes, from the dreamer who can conjure up eight fluffily pink chorus girls from a tea-chest and can’t quite avoid standing on people’s feet,  to a lover who gives up hope and then repents it.  

    It’s constantly funny,   set-pieces and immense ensembles coming one after another, and the energy and quirkily characterful dances and bar-room brawls are its glory (as well as being, gentlemen, at times a hell of a leg show).  You can’t take your eyes of it for a second to make notes:  tap-athletic craziness, percussive precision , pratfalls, pastiche,  wild-west wisecracks, it all keeps on coming.  Jokey references, old and new: on  Mickey Rooney, on the looming birth of Vegas “who’d come to Nevada just to gamble?”   Even a deliberate Les Miserables pile of gold chairs surmounted by the red flag.   Ludwig even leaves in a darker lyric in for now: “What if Romania / wants to fight Albania ?/ I don’t fret, I’m not upset..”   It’s a recklessly necessary liberation: just dance.   

         Nor is it just all about Stemp and Carly Anderson’s strapping, tough and tender Polly.   There are top moments from Tom Edden as the real Zangler, Marc Akinfolarin slappin’ that bass and a fabulously filthy, serpentine, threateningly erotic  “Naughty baby” from Merryl Ansah. But too many to list:   a joyful ensemble , each redneck character neatly and perfectly expressed in movement. There’s remarkable  timing from Alan Williams leading an unseen orchestra which melds with the percussive precision onstage using feet, spades, pickaxes, jugs, saws, brooms, plates, hubcaps, corrugated iron…  

      It is immense,  perfected,  worked to a hair,  and so it’s worth mentioning that it has sponsors: Architectural Plants and R.L Austen jewellers. And that  (with Chichester’s famously good sightlines) tickets start at a tenner,  and go no higher than £ 60.   If you don’t put in a quick buck-and-wing step in the car park on the way out,  I despair of you.  

Cft.org.uk. To 4 sept.      

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CHAMBER OPERAS ON TOUR caught at Thorington, Suffolk

     Twice lately, under tall oaks and pines on what is becoming known as Suffolk’s mini-Minack,  I have encountered touring opera companies doing wonderfully, relaxedly, professionally.  Since they ARE both touring, links below,  let me tell you that Wild Arts with its opera evenings are of a breathtakingly high, ROH-level musical standard – a gorgeous quintet of musicians  and a most cunning choices of excerpts,  some of them mischievously well acted on the plank stage below us. I’d follow Orlando Jopling’s lot anywhere.

      And the other one is Opera Anywhere, currently rollicking through a Gilbert and Sullivan touring festival.   As an amuse-bouche they opened with the 45-minute Trial by Jury complete with “locally sourced chorus” rehearsed only once but happily bang on cue,  which among other pleasures introduced me to James Gribble as a diminutive baritone judge with a gift for natural physical comedy.  Then they did Iolanthe, and the standout was Dale Harris as Strephon  and a rather fabulous, grainy, Thatcher-tough Fairy Queen from VAnessa Woodward.   

        Surf their websites., below.   Catch tiny operas on the road!  Take the kids. They’ll see what fun it can be, and that it doesn’t have to be a grand country-house-opera-event.  

https://wildarts.org.uk/2022-opera-evenings

various perfs to september

and next year 

to 17 november 

to 17 november 

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JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN Olivier, SE1

SCRAMBLE!   CHOCKS AWAY!

   Who knew that Caroline Quentin could achieve (almost) the splits, while strumming a ukulele?  Or that that Richard Bean and Chris Oliver – who a decade ago created the NTs world-conquering One Man Two Guvnors – would for their next 18c update attempt a mashup of Sheridan’s classic frothy Restoration romcom The Rivals, and set it  in  a WW2 RAF base?  But there we are, in a romantically perfect Sussex-Downs set complete with wicker chair, teacups, Nissen hut and dismantled nose cone. The romantic entanglements are taking place during  the Battle of Britain, and larded with RAF slang and numerous outrageously rude malapropisms.  There are from the start knowing asides across the fourth wall , eventually an unexpected but  suitably frenetic ensemble lindy-hop jitterbug , mickey-takes of 1940s socialist feminism and inter-service rivalry. And, slightly shaking some audience members on the way out , a clear authorial decision that since the Few were real heroes, old men now – if they were lucky enough to live – there’s a dark side you might as well express too.   

          It’s a nifty idea: although romantic entanglements in frivolous 18c Bath society might seem a long way from a Sussex airbase both were full of young people in full flower, constrained by class and circumstance but longing for love and sex .  RAF women, remember,  held many jobs: in this case Natalie Simpson’s swashbuckling Lydia Languish is a uniformed Air Transport Auxiliary delivery pilot and her friend Julia an army driver.   Cleverly, the 18c original heroine’s delusions about  the romance of poverty, wanting a plebeian lover,  is transmuted into our Lydia’s inverted-snob yearning for a Yorkshire mechanic rather than the heir to Sir Anthony’s Devonshire acres.  

       There’s  room for Quentin’s  Mrs Malaprop too,  since a requisitioned manor house must have a chatelaine, and she remains  just as happily delusional and romantically yearning as any of them. Though I have to tell you that her verbal mis-speaks are almost universally filthy (“..full to the quim” the least of them.  Though my favourite is her  protest at her lexical confusions being laughed at: “”How dare you suggest that I employ a mutilated Mexican?”).    There’s a comically earnest Sikh airman in the part of SHeridan’s comic Irishman,  a Churchill joke just at the moment you think the jokes have stopped, and a wedding-night conversation of the kind that probably absolutely happened in the 1940s but wouldn’t have got onstage. And in a sudden weirdly dark conversation there’s one of the lovers frivolously asking his girl if she would still love him without arms, or legs, or a face, and you remember that this might very likely happen to him, any night, shot down in flames literally rather than romantically. 

   Early on I wondered if the balance could be maintained between the reality of a wartime setting where any morning would see names crossed off the active board and iron beds cleared,  but they get away with it.  Emily Burns’ high-spirited direction keeps gales of laughter meeting good lines, disguises (oh the moustache gag)  and misunderstandings,  and the director’s prudent recruitment of Toby Park of Spymonkey to keep the physical comedy precise and frantic pays off (it was, remember, Cal McCrystal’s merciless phys-com that elevated One Man Two Guvnors).    You knew you were in Park’s safe clown-trained hands early on,  when Peter Forbes’ classically magnificent army buffer Sir Anthony Absolute is blocking a doorway . A terrified Jordan Metcalfe in the apologetic-innocent part has to squeeze, slowly and apologetically, round his embonpoint to get out.  Immaculate.  Later,  an incompetent four-sided boxing match shows the same dark genius, and I hope the NT has plenty of Deep Heat backstage for later. 

         Bean and Chris are accomplished jokesmiths, never failing to add an irrelevant laugh in passing (“We don’t live in Scotland any more. Because of the food”) and giving the great Forbes absolute licence in his vast raging rants whether about youth – including the front row –  or frivolities (“I didn’t die at Ypres so you could talk about biscuits.. Mafeking? Tremendous fun, we ate a lot of horses” etc.   Using Kerry Howard’s lively maid to shrug at the audience about theatrical absurdities in restoration comedy is fun too:  on one of the farcical knock-at-the-door-who’s-that moments she snaps “That’s how these plays work” and another time resignedly explains  “I”m a dramatic device!”.  

       Well, I’ll tell you no more. They get away with it all,  light and dark but mainly light,   until in the end you think to yourself that actually,  people did joke blackly and carry on calmly in those circumstances.  We know it from contemporaneous plays like Flare Path, and books, and memoirs, and old men who don’t talk about it until their last years.   It almost felt like a kind of tribute to a tougher age, whose jokes and banter were probably every bit as good as ours.

Box office http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3  sept.  But I guess it will move on, and on….

And it is being captured on video to be broadcast on Thursday 6 October in cinemas across the world

Rating four.

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ANYTHING GOES Barbican EC1


DECK-LICIOUS, DELOVELY,  SAILING BACK IN STYLE

A year on, and after a partly recast tour, SS America drops anchor back in the Barbican and in style. Actually feels even better than before. Aboard are Cole Porter’s champagne rhymes, Kathleen Marshall’s grand direction and peerlessly witty comic choreography , moments of 1930s romantic elegance for those with a tender nature and PG Wodehouse’s high-absurd plot for the rest of us.   Last year it loomed   out of the grey Covid fog like a sunburst, and had us on our feet.Same again.

   And is fitting in recessional and anxious times to remember that this glorious nonsense – of gangsters and molls and dim  toffs and sassy females putting every curve out there – belongs in the inter war depression years. I feel it is a lesson to us all to sing the Bluebird song and keep on tapping. 

   Much of the joy of it, in this cast which has toured together, is in the way that everyone gets their big moment, and some get several. When I saw Sutton Foster from Broadway as Reno last year I was dazzled by the energy, sweetvoiced likeability and sheer stamina of the woman , a legend already. But Kerry Ellis from Suffolk (o the pride) , is her match, and we are lucky to haul her back from Broadway. Samuel Edwards is back as Billy, and Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn – the latter possibly because  no human actor could resist another go at the unforgettable gypsy tango with Reno.  Carly Mercedes Dyer takes on Erma (and many many sailors) once again, neatly stealing every show in her few sharp lines, for beyond her glamour is a pinsharp timing on the ripostes which got her her own cheers.

    We have a new Moonface in Denis Lawson, less hat-tipping than Lindsay’s but demonstrating in the brig scene that there is  nothing, nothing on earth, as funny as a man in full evening dress and spats addressing an invisible  bluebird.  And Simon Callow is Elisha Whitney!  Spot on every laugh, doddering for England when required but  nimble as a goat in the tap finale, a treat. And the swing, the chorus, the dance captain Gabrielle Cocca and team…never forget them. They are the sea on which our leaping dolphin stars surf , skilled and perfectionist and a living froth of  joy.

I’m always rude about the Barbican theatre but the sightlines are all good and the cheapest seats under thirty quid and if you’ve had a hard day working-from-City-tower it’ll do you good.

barbican.org.uk to 3 sept

rating five mice this time.

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PATRIOTS Almeida, N1

  MOTHER RUSSIA AND ITS MEN

    Here’s a fresh history play: confrontational , shocking, classic in its focus on vast flawed characters and pretty close to documented  – and very recent  – reality.  It has all the elements:  a kingmaker whose creation turns on him, acolytes and shifting alliances, self-serving arrogance , passionate romantic patriotism, politics and big money and tragedy and  defeat.  Fresh from the new RSC Richard III, near the end I almost expected Tom Hollander’s mesmerising Berezovsky to offer his kingdom for a horse.

      It’s wonderful, never a dull moment and jammed with ideas:  political, ethical and, because our hero was a mathematician,  philosophical:  even i a brief discussion with his Professor as to whether the limitation of infinity is its own limitlessness.  

       It’s by Peter Morgan: not in the mode of his rather soap-schlocky, dragged-out Netflix The Crown,  but the sharp old stage Morgan who gave us Frost/Nixon and The Audience.   Indeed it demonstrates immaculately how  – as in Shakespeare’s histories – a huge, complex piece of history can be reduced to diamond-sharp focus on  a group of key players with clashing motives and characters.  

         We are in the 1990s:   Mikhail Gorbachev had reached  towards more Western ways and an open economy,  the rigid old Soviet Union collapsed and free market chaos grew in Russia’s. Yeltsin decade of crazy inflation, gangsterism,  state enterprises carelessly sold off to businessmen amassing huge fortunes:  the oligarchs we are even now feebly sanctioning.   Swathes of national assets fell into the hands of a handful of individuals as a weak premier, like King John, dealt with robber-barons: as the kingpin Boris Berezovsky remarks,  the political deals they made for their own prosperity were their  Magna Carta.  

        As Berezovsky,   Hollander deploys his astonishing capacity to move between smooth amused witty ruthlessness and terrifying explosions of rage.   He paints it as Russia’s new age of choice and opportunity, an awakening of a land too long frozen in sleep:  the play is book-ended with him musing on the Russian soul, warmly romantic and  misunderstood, a thing of snowy vistas and old songs by warm firesides.  The “kid” Roman Abramovich  (Luke Thallon) who this alpha-male takes under his wing has his own venal ambitions;  meanwhile the  hesitant, rather weedy provincial deputy-mayor Putin asks for Berezovsky’s help up the political ladder, gets it, and manoeuvres himself into the supreme power he still holds today.  The  upright security-policeman Litvinenko, a very impressive Jamael Westman, at first resists the Berezovsky approaches then , outraged by being officially ordered to kill him,  joins him and publicly denounces corruption, and gets arrested.   As Putin’s grip tightens,  Berezovsky defies him “across 11 time zones”  on the TV channel he owns.  We know what happened next .  We know what Putin became capable of, all the way to Litvinenko’s murder,  the bitter and rathe dodgy UK court case between the exile and the confident Abramovich, and the murder or suicide – open verdict still –  of Berezovsky.  

           Drama imagines, truncates,  emphasises clashes, and here it is done with elan under Rupert Goold’s tight direction,  set cleanly by Miriam Buether on and around a vast red platform before a brick wall with one huge doorway, sometimes revealing a mirror as Will Keen’s frightening, pallid little Putin gradually grows in cold-hearted confidence. No flashy effects: the script does the work in a series of seductive or confrontational scenes so numerous I stopped noting them . Though the moment when Berezovsky tears into his television studio to demolish the shameful lies about the deaths and negligence of submarine Kursk is unforgettable, and so is the moment when Putin, once a humble petitioner in an ill-fitting suit, turns on Berezovsky in his new autocratic confidence. “It’s a foolish man who ignores the President” he observes coolly, to which the oligarch explodes “Not if he created that President! Plucked him out of a deputy-mayor cupboard..you are my creature!”.

      It’s tremendous , electric drama, but its strength is the way that all four main protagonists travel through emotional growth or into decadence before our eyes.  Hollander’s Berezovsky burns at last with more than his original pragmatic vision, suffering in UK asylum a yearning exile’s heimweh.   Putin’s patriotism is a chillier, harder thing , expressed in a haunting scene on a cold fogbound eastern shore where he had sent  Abramovich as regional governor.  Line after line, especially Will Keen’s,  resonate grimly with the events of this year in Ukraine. The simplicities of commentators who assume that oligarchs or the discontented populace will  soon overthrow the monster are implicitly challenged. There’s power in calls to the Russian soul.   You leave  into the hot night both thrilled with the drama and full of difficult thoughts. Which is how it should be. 

Box office almeida.co.uk. to 20 Aug.     

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EVELYN Southwark Playhouse SE1

MOB JUSTICE, NO JUSTICE

     There are women who, seeing a friend in an almost-good outfit, cannot help reaching out: adjusting a belt , removing  an ill-judged frill, suggesting a hat.  Some new plays make you feel like this, and it probably annoys writer and director as much as  those interfering fashionistas annoy wearers.  But I cant help it in this case: Tom Ratcliffe’s play, directed by Madelaine Moore , could be brilliant, and grow bigger. 

        For I approve the theme, really love the carnival- brutality of the way it’s framed with Punch-and-Judy figures , and adore the live, beautifully-judged score of accordion ,fiddle folksong and the rest, which is by Michael Crean perched up top as a one man band ,  half seen and sinister in an executioners’ mask.    Moreover, Ratcliffe’s conclusion is twistedly fine, just when sentimental watchers expect an easy romantic redemption and are rightly denied it . 

          The problem is with the underworked text itself:  there’s a strong central theme of  the public judgement of people in horrible cases (in this case, a woman who gave her child-killing partner a false alibi, and served time for it).  Forgiveness is difficult in  an age of sensational media reporting, and mob condemnation online just to clickbait-easy. Nicola Harrison’s Evelyn is a newcomer, under a false name,  in a seaside retirement village. She is lodging with the slightly eccentric, affectionate Jeanne ( Rula Lenska, no less) who is on the edge of coming dementia.   But the rumour mill – nicely evoked with echoing scraps and projections of whatsappery and next-doorism – is going to get her. Yvette Boakye as an amiable single mother nurse fears, crazily, for her own child;  her brother (Offue Okegbe, a strong interesting performance) becomes fond of her, at one point  – the best writing in it – offering a tantalizing possibility of individual acceptance.   

        It is framed strikingly at the start  – and occasionally throughout –  by three of the figures in garish Punch and Judy show masks telling the story (the croc is particularly sinister).   Our seaside after all is  most famed for these violent babybashing puppet shows.  So overall, great idea.

         But the longer first half often fails to grip: Lenska is not given enough chance to do what she does best and go over the top:   too mumsy.  Her best line is when she explains why she rents the room so carefully  – “Don’t want some twentysomething doing horse tranquillizers in my bathroom”.  But…it drags. Only in the second half  does the play at last fire up:  Harrison,  understandably pianissimo in the first part, shows real pain,  Okegbe is quietly, heroically humane.   And the score even better than before.  

box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk  to 16 July

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BAREFOOT IN THE PARK Mill at Sonning, Berks

STEP BACK TO THE SIXTIES SIMPLICITIES…

  Once again , off to this most enticing dinner-theatre embedded in a historic treasure,  its big real watermill whirling away in the bar and the  Thames swishing past outside in the sunshine.  I reviewed Jonathan O’Boyle’s  stunning production of Irving Berlin’s  TOP HAT here (https://theatrecat.com/2021/11/11/top-hat-the-mill-at-sonning/)  and am happy to report that the prouction is  coming back for Christmas – 16 Nov to 30 Dec.  Some Cooney and Coward meanwhile,  and the Culture Recovery Fund grant has been (wisely) spent on some air-handling for the age of post-Covid caution.   So it’s well up and running again,  a Berkshire treat. 

    This one – wistfully framed in Paul Simon songs –  is   a gentle two-hour squib about New York newlyweds.   Neil Simon’s play made a famous movie rom-com with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  It is now, of course, quite wonderfully dated,  not to say nostalgic: it’s pure 1960’s, though  not in the louche Rolling-Stones way wistful moderns imagine the period .    Hannah Pauley is  prettily frisky   and naively romantic as Corrie, nicely catching that period when girls felt independent and free in jeans but  didn’t cohabit before marriage , or particularly feel they had to go on working once they’d done it,   as long as they put dinner on the table and faffed about with furniture (it’s all there in early Jilly Cooper novels, honest. And  I remember it from my schoolfriends’ much older sisters).   

        Jonny Labey is splendidly gruff as the young lawyer husband who is anxious to get on, beguiled but baffled by the irrationality of his very young bride, and who, in their explosive first quarrel,  tucks himself up on the sofa for the night clutching his briefcase for comfort.       Another enchantingly dated aspect of the play is Simon’s  introduction of a Funny Foreigner,   James Simmons as  Victor Velasco the upstairs lodger .  Who is possibly Hungarian, or Greek, or Polish,  lovably exotic anyway,  and who drags the couple out to an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island,  complete with Corrie’s conventional widowed mother.  Who, of course,  ends up next day in his dressing-gown.    

         As I say, I actively enjoyed the datedness, and Simon certainly some brisk jokes and great lines. Especially in the second half, as the hungover  party struggle with the after-effects of ouzo (“I can’t make a fist…my teeth feel soft”) .    The denouement of the older couple’s cautious move towards acquaintance is beautifully done, Fielding and Simmons both perfect in pitch (mind you, he has the harder task,  funny-foreigner acting just isn’t  easy to pull off these days).     Between the young,   as  Corrie’s dream of perfect romance fades, there is possibly the best hysterically irrational lovers’ tiff since Private Lives.    And it’s all in a lovely, atmospheric New York loft set by Michael Holt with a perfect skylight and snowfall outside.  

   As I say, it’s a squib, a frivolity, a period piece.  An escape.  Which frankly, on Boris-Meltdown Day was no bad thing. Thank you all.

box office   millatsonning.com   to 27 August

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THE SOUTHBURY CHILD Bridge SE1

The review below is from its Chichester opening a couple of weeks back. So just a note on seeing it again: something that could well become a habit, because it really is rich snd fine. It works a treat in the Bridge’s huge but intimate space, audience wrapped round three sides of the Vicarage kitchen. and none of the funny lines – sharp, unexpected, mood-changing to the edge of shocking – risk getting lost. My link with the Englisnness of Jerusalem endures, but I felt more aware of another tradition: the whisky-priests of Graham Greene, the holy sot Sebastian in Brideshead… neither exact parallels, but part of a consciousness. I also reiterate the excellence of the ensemble as well as the unmatchable Jennings, the pinpoint sharpness of its class cameos, and the small half-heeded moments of human comfort in tragic absurdity

SO. anyway, enjoy. Saints, sinners, atheists, it’s for you.

VIA MEDIA ANGLICANA IN A NEW JERUSALEM

      We’re in  a vicarage kitchen in a small West Country town,  its incumbent dealing with parishioners, a resentful, weary wife and two daughters: Susanna is a dutiful verger and schoolmistress,   adopted African-heritage Naomi a cynical unbeliever who has come home from a struggling acting career and likes to scandalize the town in her  “Lithuanian prostitute” outfits.    It isn’t easy being an Anglican parish  vicar in an age of dwindling respect and attendance  (a sharp essay in the programme is well worth reading).  On one side he faces angry  sentimentality and scorn from council-estate unbelievers,  whose resentment drives the plot; on the other a smugger middle-class yacht-club agnosticism.  The latter is beautifully encapsulated in the doctor’s wife, Hermione Gulliford in gilet and jeans,  shuddering at “that morbid business with the cross at Easter”  and saying that her friends got married in a crop circle  because these days people “aren’t afraid to define their key moments” without clerical assistance.

           It is a fine play, sharply written with some real  strong unexpected laughs and a heartstopping ending.  Its subtleties of character ask a great deal (not in vain) from the cast.   Nicholas Hytner, who takes it onward to his own Bridge in a few days,  once programmed Stephen Beresford’s subtle, mournfully Chekhovian debut  THE LAST OF THE HAUSSMANS at the National: he curates  this new one himself with thoughtful care.   It deserves it:  as a reflection on England (not Britain) Beresford’s  dry  observation and undercurrent of poetic yearning place the play fascinatingly alongside JERUSALEM, albeit with piquant differences of tone.  To me it feels like an equally important one: those who deny that will likely do so because of its gloriously unfashionable setting and hero. 

        That hero is David Highland,  evoked beautifully in every line and gesture by Alex Jennings:  a moth-eaten, visibly flawed Anglican vicar fighting not only the retreating tide of faith but his own drink habit, the shame of an aborted affair (“rules for vicars: don’t fuck the flock”),  and the rebukes of a pompous offstage Archdeacon (“Angry? We are never angry in the Church of England. We are “grieved’”.  Ouch).  His dry humour and humane warmth recognize absurdities but he holds to integrity in matters of ritual,  and the way that centuries of tradition have grown it to assuage and accept the deep terrible realities of death.  His best moment of the year is the “Blessing of the River” when the fishermen who live and work close to those realities do, just once every year,  respect the processional prayer he leads.  

        Liberal audiences may boggle when, as the first act develops, we learn which  particular hill David seems prepared to die on – or lose his living and his home on –  as the diocese sends a brisk young gay curate to sort him out.    The Southbury Child of the title has died from leukaemia, leaving a skinny waif of a single mother, Tina, and her brother the  rough-cut, troubled, vulnerably manipulative uncle Lee.  The family want the church full of balloons and Disneyiana – “a celebration of  her life”.  David refuses:   death is real and funerals are there to serve grief, not neutralize it.   “Death isn’t about Disney”. 

     “So so happy ending?” says Lee.

      “No EASY ending” says the clergyman.

         The row over balloons magnifies, all classes uniting against him: a babble of voices offstage between scenes and the arrival of the (beautifully drawn) pregnant local cop Joy suggest a potentially ugly denouement.  That doesn’t entirely happen, though with the assistance of the Book of Common Prayer  Alex Jennings’ final lines did make me actually cry,  all the way to the car park in the dusk.

           There are fine performances, sketched with lightning skill in short scenes: Racheal Ofori as red-hot Naomi and Jo Herbert as her dutiful sister  each test their difficult identities on Jack Greenlees’  wary curate, and the final appearance of the bereaved mother Tina is explosively moving.  Josh Finan’s Lee in particular is wonderful:  seething with hopeless underclass rage but with a real connection to the vicar in whose untidy kitchen he is seen either yielding to distress, shame or malice or simply dropping unforgettable philosophical theologies like “Why is there anything?”  and “If Henry the 8th had kept his cock in his tights, we’d all be Catholics anyway”. 

      This was Chichester.    I very much want to see this play again, at the Bridge, and feel around me an audience probably more urban, more smugly agnostic.  Will report.

 bridgetheatre.co.uk  to 27 Aug

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RICHARD III Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

THE BOTTLED SPIDER, HEDGEHOG, ABORTIVE ROOTING HOG, IS BACK…MAGNIFICENTLY

          The winter of discontent made glorious summer is ushered in with a wild conga round the stage under helium balloons, one of which the newest RSC  Richard  squeaks and bursts with practised deftness during his opening speech.  That endearing levity of staging, though, is the last and only anachronistic gimmick in this magnificent production:   mostly we see a wide bare stage beneath a brick tower on which great important shadows are cast.   No onstage camera or projection this time until briefly at the very end;  no directorial vanities or nonsenses.  Sometimes a boy treble sings or a trumpet calls from overhead; in the final battle an extraordinary physical coup turns the ghosts of Richard’s victims into the horse that throws him to his doom  and carries the victor over him.  Mostly we see what Shakespeare offered us: human players crossing and recrossing the stage, speaking, striking out, spitting, flinching, defying.

          THIis is director Gregory Doran, retiring RSC leader, doing what he does better than any of his generation:  showing with love, care, scholarship and flair how fine Shakespeare’s play always was  , in both language and construction.  We all know now, as obedient historians, that the Richard lately disinterred from a Leicester car park is grievously slandered in it:  who cares when such a tale is told with such vigour? 

     Breathtaking, with a speed of event that many a dragging TV binge-series should envy, we have the wooing of Anne by her husband’s murderer over his very corpse, the terrifying curses of old Queen Margaret, Minnie Gale hurling around a yard-long sweep of silver hair;   poor Clarence’s nightmare and murder, moving but blackly comic. Suddenly there is the old King’s collapse,  treachery,  a grisly head of Hastings (the RSC is getting too good at this, the prop-store must be a shocker). We have  a populist acclamation involving – no spoilers –  rather magnificent joke when two monastic hoods are dropped.  And through it all runs the susurration of court politics:  unease, hope, ambition, uncertain loyalties and –  served with  genius in this production –  the anger, pain and defiance of the women who are mourning father, husband, sons, confronting the entangled monstrosities of past and present murders.  The scenes between Queens Elizabeth and Margaret and the Duchess of York, mother to Richard, are breathtaking, their direct defiances and curses shake the room;  Kirsty Bushell’s  Elizabeth, the last one to defy Richard’s intentions, is feline and marvellously subtle. 

        But every part shines in its moments,  whether in laughter or shock:  everything contributes,  whether a neat strawberry-related smirk from the Bishop of Ely or a sudden tremor from Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham when tasked with a murder too far. There has been obvious interest in the casting of Arthur Hughes , just turned thirty, who has a congenital  right-arm “difference” and so becomes the first RSC Richard to be actually “cheated of feature by dissembling nature” with a visible difference.    But it is important to say that Hughes brings far more to the role than that slight appropriate disability.  His talent, application and voice are fully of RSC standard but also he has youth, and spring, and fearlessness, and above all an innate cheeky playfulness which entirely suits Shakespeare’s most arresting psychopath.  

         He is splendid in his disgraceful wooing of Anne over her husband’s very bier, gives the moments of rage an unsettling hysterical edge and the smooth joking pretences an even more unsettling charm.  He summons barks of shocked laughter with Richard’s astonishing excuses (he admits to being “unadvised at times” regarding the murders of two children, various other relatives and his wife: the timing is such that we gasp, as intended.     Tiresomely fashionable to draw modern parallels,  but there is a moment when  he is confronted repeatedly by Queen Elizabeth over his murder of her two little boys,  and in sudden boredom he snaps “harp not upon that string ma’am, that is past”.  I admit to hearing a chime of some partygate dismissals. 

       But that sort of reflection – and even the far bigger reflection of the hubris and murderousness of our own age’s Putin  –  is the least of it.  Take this as purest Shakespearian tragedy:  vigorous but classic,  a magnificent magnification of the darkest human and political longing, of affection, terror, defensiveness, hubris and – in the women – a defiant courage. It rings down all mankind’s troubled ages.  Don’t miss this one.  

Rsc.org.uk to 8 october

Rating 5

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CANCELLING SOCRATES Jermyn St Theatre

ALL GREEK TO US, AND TOPICAL WITH IT

Fascinating to see how, despite many light tempting fatuities and sentimentalities onscreen and onstage, and the countercurrents of self conscious experiment and virtuous nagging at the heavier end, you can still pack theatres with conversations about ideas.  Provided, that is, they are  knottily entertaining and streaked with vivid eccentric characters . We have had Straight Line Crazy and now The Southbury Child at the Bridge, rich in both;  and the Jermyn – small as it is – has been rocking Howard Brenton’s latest, set in Ancient Greece and dealing with the last days and condemnation for sacrilege of the philosopher  Socrates.

    Our hero is  played with raggedly cheerful  donnish insouciance by Jonathan Hyde, bright-eyed from the start as he questions and teases his friend Euthypro,a nicely effete Robert Mountford, about the nature of holiness and the absurd legends of warring gods,  on which their fragile democracy is, for the moment, resting.  His legal accuser, delightfully to the grownup audience, is a pompous young man (“It’s great that the young take right-thinking so seriously” murmurs Socrates).  Much has been made of this parallel with todays censorious youth and closed minds. 

    But there is more than that topical twitch to it: Brenton creates a portrait of a particular kind of tiresome necessary questioning, a stubbornness which warms the heart in an age of group think on  half a dozen issues.  It is also a humane play, the role of Socrates’ wife Xanthippe and his mistress Aspasia forming its centre with a sharply argument between personal and  family values and the restless wider ambitions of the soul.  But the whole thing sings, under deft direction from Tom Littler.  It’s his last hurrah as Artistic Director of the Jermyn, and he deserves every plaudit and propulsion to bigger things:  he picked up all that was good in this marvellous little theatre and ran with it. 

     Which is why I am posting this, sold-out as it is, in the hopes that he takes it on elsewhere.  And keeps the marvellous central performance by Hyde and its counterpart by Mountford (who doubles as the jailer in the fascinating, eerie final scenes), not to mention both the women , Sophie Ward and Hannah Morrish  (the latter finally and eerily becoming his inner daemon-goddess near the deathbed, in a brief, brilliantly lit and imagined sequence.  It’s entirely a treat, a thoughtful treat, never dull for a moment,  leaving a dozen new thoughts.  Vive the Jermyn, vive Littler!   

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.  Running to Saturday, sold out, always worth trying..

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TONY!  The Tony Blair rock opera          Park Theatre N4

IT HAS COME TO FRUITION. REJOICE!

   In a spirit of joyful pastiche, it’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show:  “`Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premier! Now a Millionaire!”.   The deathbed scene, with faint attempts at confession, book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and as musically it slides away from this brief  Sondheimery into – well, everything really. Touches of rap and tap,  golden-age ballad soundalikes, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory, a booming hymn with church-organ.  That Harry Hill is the writer explains the rumbustious irreverence of it,  but Steve Brown’s tunes and  lyrics are much of its glory. 

     This little theatre has form in irreverent, thoughtful biographical plays:  Thatcher and Howe in Dead Sheep, de Gaulle and Petain in The Patriotic Traitor,  the terrifying but necessary An Evening With Jimmy Savile.  And outside the very fringe it is hard to think of many theatres which would have plunged into Harry Hill’s absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair:  a figure still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.  I wrote a note on it here in its workshop phase, script-in-hand,  and said:

“There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants.   There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes”.   

      All still true,  but this is sharpened even further:  the walk-on-water smugness, the innocent grin, Ugly Rumours, the conversion to Labour in a masterful Cherie’s arms,  the TB-GB rivalry neatly depicted in a boxing ring,  the oleaginous Mandelson, narrating and managing,  the gleeful Diana moment when (Mandy manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill) New Labour realizes it can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”. 

     Jovial wickedness, and a conclusion veering from the sharp hard solemnity of the 100,000 deaths in our illegal war’s alliance to a challenge to the audience (“you voted me back! Yes, after Iraq!”) . Finally that triumphant chorus, with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Putin to Hitler,  as we bellow with them  “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes!”. A tune so catchy that now I can’t stop singing it.

        Wonderful side jokes, because this after all is a Harry Hill reaction.  In  Blair’s early triumphalism amid the period’s big stars (Savile, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris)  there’s an intervention from the side with a furious “Is anybody else uncomfortable with the wobble-board?”as it is snatched away. Or the magnificently tasteless Diana interludes (the goddess is performed with magnificent eye-and-fringe work by Madison Swan) where we get an up to date touch of Bashir.   The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic.  The global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney in puffs of smoke explaining to Bush how the answer to all problems has always been Bombs Away!,  and  how poor Saddam Hussein moaning on the phone to Bin Laden about the stupidity of “rattling their cages”,  before skipping into a self-exculpating neo- G and S number.  Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest, the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”. 

       I hope some bigger theatre gets the bottle to pick up Steve Brown’s production.  I also hope it picks up most of this cast, a shape-shifting ensemble with  brilliantly ramshackle fast-moving, physically sharp enthusiasm. Salute Charlie Baker’s Blair,   Howard Samuels’ entwining Mandelson, and Gary Trainor’s Brown, who keeps  appearing with trousers down explained by a plaintive “politics isn’t about image” .  

     Of course New Labour achieved useful things, as well as damaging politics and international honesty. Of course history moves on, and we’ve suffered the coalition austerities and Boris since (get to work, Hill and Brown!).  But for anyone over forty at least, this entertaining evening offers above all a real sense of gotta-laugh relief.  All together now “The whole wide world is run by assholes..”

Box office   parktheatre.co.uk   to 9 July    Sellout. Some tix released daily. Good luck.

Rating five

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PARADISE LOST caught at Thorington, touring

OF MAN’S FIRST DISOBEDIENCE….

 Thorington is a new outdoor theatre, a beautiful bomb-crater amid tall sighing pine trees and beneath a great oak in Suffolk.  It runs only one-night,  occasionally two-night shows through the summer so won’t be reviewed often here, but this show by “A Certain Demographic” (founded to give older actors space to work) has got half a dozen more tour dates,  so is worth noticing.   

    It’s a curiosity, one of those delightful sproutings now going around after the loss of two Edinburgh Fringes and a lot of lockdown frustration.    Ian Sharp’s words and Tim Sutton’s music are applied with merriment – but some decent reverence too – to the great rolling iambics of John Milton.  Indeed it is the closest modern thing you’ll see to the old Mummers’ Plays: less repsectful than the Mystery Plays,  more a matter of mixing in broad vernacular, jokes and characters from everyday life. 

        In medieval times that was rural life,  but here it is bang up to date here, when Bonny Ambrose’s striding Lucifer becomes a sleazy striped-jacket lifestyle salesman offering  “everything from mojitos to medium-range missiles”,  and tempts Claire Cheetham’s Eve with an electric hedge-trimmer while Chris Walshaw’s deliberately  tedious Adam,  cast as a sweet septuagenarian with flowing locks  forever naming animals and pruning,  is getting a bit of a bore. 

          There are some early problems in the mix:  after an introduction from an affable Gabriel (Ian Sharp, who outdoors rather needs a mic)  the ensemble , under excellent Eden trees made of umbrellas,  open the show with a song whose words we can’t quite catch and an uninspiring dance. So the heart sinks a bit.  It rises though,  the moment Lucifer strides on, rebelling against God – “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers!!!… and Milton takes over as he falls from heaven to the pit of Hell.    

       Thereafter the balance is perfect, Milton’s words used when most needed,  balancing the nonsense.   Cheetham is a sweet -toned Eve, with a lovely song and real innocence as she gazes on her reflection and  meets her new Adam,  and becomes serious fun when the bite of apple turns her  raunchy.   There is a fine cabaret number from Candy Fern’s Sin, offering us everything original and dirty  (some audience flinched happily at her advances) and a second half double-act with her son, Death:  who Harry Petrie depicts with considerable energy as a slavering, hungry malevolent ragged halfwit . 

          Jesus,  arriving with final rebukes and promises and Milton’s own words,  is Euan Lynch, another fine singer .  In short, from 1667 to 2022,  the old story echoes as it should. 

TOUR DATES I can discover so far :

July 3rd – Baysgarth Park, Barton upon Humber – Shakespeare Festival – afternoon performance

July 9th – Broadbent Theatre, Halton Hall, Wragby – 2 performances, Matinee and evening.

July 10th – Epworth Rectory, Isle of Axholme – afternoon performance

July 16th Harpswell Gardens nr Lincoln – afternoon performance, possibly evening

July 17th – Scunthorpe Town Centre (Library & Art Gallery, under discussion TBC

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THE SOUTHBURY CHILD           Chichester Festival Theatre then Bridge

VIA MEDIA ANGLICANA IN A NEW JERUSALEM

      We’re in  a vicarage kitchen in a small West Country town,  its incumbent dealing with parishioners, a resentful, weary wife and two daughters: Susanna is a dutiful verger and schoolmistress,   adopted African-heritage Naomi a cynical unbeliever who has come home from a struggling acting career and likes to scandalize the town in her  “Lithuanian prostitute” outfits.    It isn’t easy being an Anglican parish  vicar in an age of dwindling respect and attendance  (a sharp essay in the programme is well worth reading).  On one side he faces angry  sentimentality and scorn from council-estate unbelievers,  whose resentment drives the plot; on the other a smugger middle-class yacht-club agnosticism.  The latter is beautifully encapsulated in the doctor’s wife, Hermione Gulliford in gilet and jeans,  shuddering at “that morbid business with the cross at Easter”  and saying that her friends got married in a crop circle  because these days people “aren’t afraid to define their key moments” without clerical assistance.

           It is a fine play, sharply written with some real  strong unexpected laughs and a heartstopping ending.  Its subtleties of character ask a great deal (not in vain) from the cast.   Nicholas Hytner, who takes it onward to his own Bridge in a few days,  once programmed Stephen Beresford’s subtle, mournfully Chekhovian debut  THE LAST OF THE HAUSSMANS at the National: he curates  this new one himself with thoughtful care.   It deserves it:  as a reflection on England (not Britain) Beresford’s  dry  observation and undercurrent of poetic yearning place the play fascinatingly alongside JERUSALEM, albeit with piquant differences of tone.  To me it feels like an equally important one: those who deny that will likely do so because of its gloriously unfashionable setting and hero. 

        That hero is David Highland,  evoked beautifully in every line and gesture by Alex Jennings:  a moth-eaten, visibly flawed Anglican vicar fighting not only the retreating tide of faith but his own drink habit, the shame of an aborted affair (“rules for vicars: don’t fuck the flock”),  and the rebukes of a pompous offstage Archdeacon (“Angry? We are never angry in the Church of England. We are “grieved’”.  Ouch).  His dry humour and humane warmth recognize absurdities but he holds to integrity in matters of ritual,  and the way that centuries of tradition have grown it to assuage and accept the deep terrible realities of death.  His best moment of the year is the “Blessing of the River” when the fishermen who live and work close to those realities do, just once every year,  respect the processional prayer he leads.  

        Liberal audiences may boggle when, as the first act develops, we learn which  particular hill David seems prepared to die on – or lose his living and his home on –  as the diocese sends a brisk young gay curate to sort him out.    The Southbury Child of the title has died from leukaemia, leaving a skinny waif of a single mother, Tina, and her brother the  rough-cut, troubled, vulnerably manipulative uncle Lee.  The family want the church full of balloons and Disneyiana – “a celebration of  her life”.  David refuses:   death is real and funerals are there to serve grief, not neutralize it.   “Death isn’t about Disney”. 

     “So so happy ending?” says Lee.

      “No EASY ending” says the clergyman.

         The row over balloons magnifies, all classes uniting against him: a babble of voices offstage between scenes and the arrival of the (beautifully drawn) pregnant local cop Joy suggest a potentially ugly denouement.  That doesn’t entirely happen, though with the assistance of the Book of Common Prayer  Alex Jennings’ final lines did make me actually cry,  all the way to the car park in the dusk.

           There are fine performances, sketched with lightning skill in short scenes: Racheal Ofori as red-hot Naomi and Jo Herbert as her dutiful sister  each test their difficult identities on Jack Greenlees’  wary curate, and the final appearance of the bereaved mother Tina is explosively moving.  Josh Finan’s Lee in particular is wonderful:  seething with hopeless underclass rage but with a real connection to the vicar in whose untidy kitchen he is seen either yielding to distress, shame or malice or simply dropping unforgettable philosophical theologies like “Why is there anything?”  and “If Henry the 8th had kept his cock in his tights, we’d all be Catholics anyway”. 

      This was Chichester.    I very much want to see this play again, at the Bridge, and feel around me an audience probably more urban, more smugly agnostic.  Will report.

cft.org.uk  to 25 June then in London bridgetheatre.co.uk  1 july-27 Aug

rating five

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ORLANDO Jermyn St theatre WC2

WOOLFING ROUND THE GENDER BEND

A bit of a conversion experience for me, this. Disliked Woolf for years, Lighthouse and Waves and all, and therefore never read Orlando. Thought of it as a bit of neurotic whimsical Bloomsbury myth-making – which is not entirely wrong, but failed to discover that it is really funny and sweetly more simple and less angsty than the rest. “a writer’s holiday”, as Woolf herself said..  

      And this jolly adaptation by Sarah Ruhl, directed con brio by Stella Powell-Jones, is a 90- minute treat and holiday too.  And whoever found Taylor McClaine – fresh outa Dublin, a professional debut – needs an ovation.  This is an  Orlando any Woolf would gobble up. 

.   For thekid – pronouns they/them, which is appropriate and less annoying than it often is – is enchanting: boyish and ladylike in turns, rocking  agelessly from the Elizabethan court through Jacobean, Enlightenment and Victorian cultures and costumes (Emily Stuart’s   costumes for Orlando in both sexes are sumptuous, the chorus parts outfits historically-wittily nuts). 

      The rest too  are a hoot:  Skye Hallam as Sasha nicely glamorous with a ridiculous Russian accent, and –  forever changing hats –  three others: Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright each with a physical comic edge and nimbleless in narrating and reacting that serve the tale beautifully.  It’s a squib, a jollity, but perfect in form. Good old Jermyn St.

Www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 28 May

Rating. Five

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OKLAHOMA Young Vic, SE1

A DARKER HAZE ON AMERICA’S  MEADOW

Traditionally, audiences don’t go to Oklahoma to be unsettled . On the other hand you don’t go to the Young Vic to have your expectations cosily met by a singalong, with the dark bits tastefully brushed over. This Broadway production, stripped down and  serious,  is full of fun but also astringently bracing and darkly sexy.  We are on three sides of a hall, wood from floor to roof:  a great tan background sketches the wide open spaces.  The front rows sit at long tables with crockpots and beer cans, around which chaps in chaps will soon be stamping, and ra-ra  skirts flouncing above your head. The small, club-scale  band plucks and tunes at one end. . All round the gallery walls are racks of rifles, a hundred of them, again on the pale tan wooden walls.  At first it feels like sitting inside a giant IKEA wardrobe. 

         But the cast are freed, wild. They approach the numbers as if they ,and we, had never heard them before, with many opportunities for percussive thigh-banging and stamping .  The story is taken as dangerously as any modem noir.   Marisha Wallace’ s Ado Annie is very funny , getting gales of laughter, but when the girl who cain’t say no confronts the chilly, virginally   uncertain Laurey  close up there is a real frisson of hostile mockery. As for Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, reprising his Broadway role) , his troubling story is often hurried through as a joke in cosier productions,  but this Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein production throws everything at it – a full blackout with the sound of Curly’s nasty baiting contempt,  then an onstage-camera projection of the victim’s huge troubled face on the backdrop. Jud’s  own words about solitude and  needing a woman have pathos, but make him disconcertingly a clear forerunner and exemplar of every lone  sex killer in the news.  It always was a weird, uncomfortable bit of the show and this production majors on it. 

         Still,  most of the long first half is a riot, the small cast vigorous and rackety and real: Anoushka Lucas sings marvellously as Lauren, and Arthur Darvill is a heartbreaker; grounded by Aunt Eller (a magnificently tart Liza Sadovy with beautiful timing), the young lark beautifully. And it is always a pleasure to see the perennially terrifying Greg Hicks scowling with a shotgun on his lap and menacing poor Will. 

    The second half opens with the dream ballet putting an even stronger emphasis on the sexual dilemma as an  alt-Laurey in a shimmering short tunic – Marie Mence- dances with acrobatic, liberated, cartwheeling erotic frenzy in a cloud of smoke, freed in dreams (not least, we are thinking by now, by the menacing lust of the alarming Jud). The hoedown at the box-social is of course rumbustious, but for some reason there is a real deceleration in the show’s pace, some too-long significant plonking dramatic silences.  The bidding scene is tense , and heavy in its suggestion of it being totally a sexual auction. The light relief of the pedlar and will with Ado Annie  is all the fun it should be and fun and the front row  (especially men) get a great deal of attention.  But the last thing I had expected of such a vigorous production is the feeling that grew that it is, to be honest, too long.   Dramatic pauses fail to hold.  When it reaches, after nearly three hours, the big Oklahoma number we still have the even more problematic fate of Jud to face.  Which  is not the self-defence killing of the original but,  with Jud’s new gentleness,   Curley’s shot,  and the community’s  hastily fudged acquittal,  it feels almost like  a statement about America’s pioneer greatness being based  on gun power, dodgy legality, and being no place for durned outsiders who don’t know their place. 

Www.youngvic.org.        To 25 June

Rating four . 

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