Category Archives: Theatre




      There is, by chance a bit of a Thing going on in theatre right now:  women playing a particularly alpha type of men, with glee and an unnerving soprano or contralto ability suddenly to sink to a near-baritone growl.    It’s there in Operation Mincemeat’s  MI5 officers, and here in Georgie Rankcom’s playful production of Loesser’s musical take on a 1950s corporate world.  So we have not only a sparky Gabrielle Friedman from Seattle  as the artfully ambitious J.Pierrepont Finch  but the peerless Tracie Bennett – so memorable as a declining Judy Garland ten years back – bringing all her panache and elegant handling of classic lyrics to the role of J.B. Biggley the President of Worldwide Wickets .   She is indeed a treat, her swagger carrying this lightweight, too-silly-for-sincerity entertainment. 

    It was a jokey book by Shepherd Mead in 1952, then a film and finally this show, with Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert ’s book and – most importantly – songs by the great Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls (just up the road at the Bridge, go!) .   It’s  dated but has plenty of recognizably  sharp jokes about nepotism, insincerity and – after a corporate disaster – the chorus of shoddily self-made men singing how “being mediocre is not a mortal sin”. Ouch.

          The lyrics are splendid,  not least the first big number by Allie DAniel’s Rosemary the secretary about her ‘50s surrendered-wife dream of marrying an executive, keeping his dinner warm of an evening and “basking in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect”. Likewise the various office-life ensembles : maybe we’re nostalgic – I sneakily conned the matinee audience for all these notorious mid-life WFH addicts .     For instance  “if I dont take my coffee break,  something inside me dies” ,Mead’s mantra that you should always choose g a company so big that nobody really knows what everyone else is doing.  It gets the manipulation, passive aggressive bitchery and need to woo the big man’s gatekeeping secretary.   Friedman bonding blokily with Bennett over college memories in Grand old Ivy is very Bullingdon, and all the studio- size choreographed ensembles are fun to be close to.  

  My only real cavil about the production’s tone is that it is half dated and half contemporary, in mostly pretty casual costumes (though Tracie Bennett s brown suit does at least fit beautifully)  and thus it’s not entirely sure where to sit.   A few weeks ago this enterprising little theatre offered, in the smaller space, Joseph Charlton’s mischievous tech- bro piece Brilliant Jerks, which was 100% about now and therefore drew you sharply in without apology – just as Guys and Dolls does by being unashamedly 1920s. This period piece  – a bit overlong at nearly two and three quarter hours – has a bit more trouble.  But the songs are great,  and so is Bennett.   Fun. to 17 June



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THE CIRCLE Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond SW


    It’s 1921.    Thirty years ago Lady Kitty ran out on her MP husband Clive and small son with his friend and colleague Hughie,  exploding a public scandal of contested divorce , denied access, two wrecked political careers and  – for the guilty couple – exile in the marbled splendours of a palazzo in Florence (with inadequate plumbing, we learn, and the company of ruined women and rogues). 

         Now the pair are back and briefly  staying  in the old family home  – alongside another of the younger generation,  the  planter Teddy on leave from the Colonies and lounging in anyone-for-tennis whites.   The old house is now curated with prissy effeminacy by Clive’s  son Arnold, himself an MP, and his wife Elizabeth.   It was her idea , gripped by dangerous ideas of reuniting her husband  with the  mother he hardly knew, and of bonding  with a romantic silver-haired wise woman  who gave all for love.    Which may be connected with her own yearning for Teddy.   So enter – bickering –  Nicholas le Prevost as Hughie,   grumbling about his false teeth, and Jane Asher as Kitty,   no wise greyhair but a thoroughly rouged coquette well past her prime,  with hair of hellish metallic ginger brilliance (Elizabeth’s, of course, is natural auburn).   Rascally old Clive, of course, pops up from his cottage in the grounds to cause all possible trouble in his son’s menage. Why not?  Clive Francis is sneakily wonderful in the role, fancying himself as a slyly wicked old roué,   dismayed only at the risk that his wife might come back.  

       It is fly of Tom Littler, fresh from his last leadership at the Jermyn, to launch his time here with this neglected Somerset Maugham play: domestic  comedy with typical Maugham undertow of real, almost sadistic, pain.  It’s a well constructed emotional drawing-room thriller with sharp epigrams ” “even when men are in love, they’re not in love all day long”  and  the kind of passionate rants modern actors rarely get to loose off.  Its world of tempted wives, trapped responsibility,  unthinkable divorce ,  enjoyable cynicism  and troubling passion  is poised somewhere between Wilde and Coward:   between Lady Windermere and Elyot-and-Amanda.

      With, as this is Maugham, an added spice of imperialism: when Teddy , a low-voiced and intense Chirag Benedict Lobo, tells Elizabeth about his house on a Malaysian hillside beneath  hot palm trees she is fascinated, a home counties rabbit before a cobra’s eye, rooks and cuckoos calling in the garden. Casting a glamorous Indian rather than a gungho public schoolboy really works.   And the fading imperial era is nicely guyed when the two old politicians argue about where if in power they would have sent Kitty as vicereine , she explodes with disgust at Western Australia or Barbados, and cries “I want India!”

         Jane Asher has great fun with all this as Kitty, but alongside the triumphant vanity catches beautifully the sense of trapped affluent femininity in a world where a safe man – one properly tied to you by marriage – was the only guarantee of comfort/. When she tells Olivia Vinall’s tempted, lovesick Elizabeth  – another subtle performance – how much she would lose,  the dilemma is dated but feels real: once you’ve known the comfort of an affluent marriage, leave it and risk being deserted,  the only option is nurse or typist.  Pete Ashmore as the  dull husband catches effectively the sense of a damaged soul, so you are not quite sure whether the ruse he attempts to keep his wife and career is entirely fake – or sadly, pathetically real. Clever.  to 17 June

Rating four.

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT         Fortune Theatre, WC2


      This  is a joy,  quirky and full-hearted, musically adroit and fast-moving and witty.   Moreover, I suspect its self-mocking variety-show humour would be more to the taste of the protagonists in the events it retells than any pious heroics.   It is the true story   of how ,in 1943 ,M15 spoofed the Germans into defending Sardinia rather than the real invasion target, Sicily. A submarine planted  the corpse of an unknown tramp, dressed as a crashed pilot  with a carefully curated fictional identity, to wash up on the Spanish coast with a briefcase of fake plans.   As one planner says in this show “Disgusting, bizarre, borderline psychopathic”,  but it worked, and saved thousands of lives.  

      Forget the terrible recent film with Colin Firth, taming a great wartime story into rom-com cheesiness.  Perhaps remember the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was, based on the book by Lt.Cmdr Ewen Montagu of British naval intelligence. He  was part of it, and is played here with wicked bravado by Natasha Hodgson,  defying the caution of Zoe Roberts as the Colonel,  encouraging the nervous geeky scientist Charlie (David Cumming).   Hogson, Cumming, and Roberts are – with the musician Felix Hagan – the company SplitLip, creators of the entire show.  Those who join them or alternate are fully in the fast-moving idiom they have created.  It is a breath of fresh air to find this spirit in a world where more expensive, anxiously spectacular musicals too often turn out far, far duller. 

        So its arrival in the West End is something to celebrate for many reasons.  Because like the finest comedy down the years it was born of four friends and still has the empathetic, ironic mutual understanding which that entails. Because it emerged from the fringe, was believed in by the adventurous New Diorama and Southwark Playhouse;. Because her up West,  with snazzier production values and a coup-de-theatre finale set,  it has not been tamed and smoothed and bullied out of its joyful student-revue atmosphere.  

     It is  funny,  but with the confidence to be moving and humane as well.  It joyfully guys the stiff-lipped officer-class men (three of the five onstage are women) with the big opening number “Born to Lead”, and faux-Etonian mottos “Never Trust the Servants, and Horses Can’t Inherit”.   The song “Making a Man”, while they design the fictional pilot Bill reminds us how WW2 films and plays curated ideas of  that kind of hero.     It catches in comedy both the  nervousness of Charles Cholmondely in the face of the medalled  officers,   and the difficulty Ewen and Ian Fleming and the rest had in persuading their bosses – “it’s not half-arsed! It’s whole-arsed! If not over-arsed!”.  The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury , advising on the corpse, is a top-hatted magician who keeps appearing unnervingly from the cleverly simple backdrop;   Jak Malone is constantly funny, but also never more when playing a prim Moneypenny leading the female workforce (there’s a fine  number, “Useful” in the second half in which the women of 1943 know it isn’t them who’ll get the medals). 

          But his secretarial role is one of the deepest joys: character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle aged government lady-clerk  of the 1940s.  Nor does the humanity and respect show more movingly than in his unforgettable moment towards the end of the first half. A fake  love letter has to be written from the fictitious pilot’s fictitious girlfriend, to nestle in his wallet,   and it isn’t the youngsters who can write it . It’s her,  the frumpy survivor of the last war’s losses, and the song is the most heartbreakingly , deliberately workaday and restrained of wartime love letters. Because as she says,    “anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”…Then suddenly we are on the docks – sharp fast work with props and set all the way through, scenes flash by –  and the cast have become submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike,  plain and serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone for a moment.    Then a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax is intercut with the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, taking off their hats to send the body to its destiny.  

     It is those switches to seriousness alongside the gaiety which, both two years ago in the barer Southwark production and in this one, marked for me the quality of the piece. Of course there is triumph, and a rousing finale with sudden unexpected tech,  but it  fades to acknowledge , beautifully,  the fact that fifty years later  the anonymous dead tramp was given his name. Only last month in Huelva in Spain the headstone erected to him was marked with a memorial fully acknowledging his strange, posthumous fictional service: “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”.   to 19 August

Rating five 

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THE VORTEX Chichester Festival Theatre


When Noel Coward shocked and enthralled the 1920s with this most bitter and intense of his plays, he was meanwhile hastily finishing the farcical Hay Fever and working up to Private Lives, Design for Living,   Blithe Spirit and a name synonymous with laughingly cynical , frothy drawing-room comedy.  This first success, though ,is their dark and angry older cousin:  fascinating in its denunciation of all the glamorous fast-and-loosery Coward was to treat with lighter mockery.  

     Last time I saw The Vortex performed, to my chagrin I found it mainly irritating:  was lost before its explosive ending by sheer dislike of too many characters in its world.  You can overdose on datedly witty social banter.   This is a cleverer take: in his rapid staging – assisted by a whirling revolve  and at one point some smoke – director Daniel Raggett shows no fear of us losing some of the words in the opening boho-beau-monde chatter or the party scene.   The important thing is that we feel the frenzy of those lives and get the gist, the brittle vanity of Florence Lancaster ,  her dependence on the adoration of the loutish Tom, the unease of her returning son Nicky and the unlikelihood of that airy nervy creature’s “engagement” to the stumpingly down-to-earth Bunty.  

     So the opening is taken fas and sketchy, briskly introducing properly pointless people like Clara (lovely singing) and Pauncefoot (award for Best Camp smoking). It lets some lines get lost under muttering and overtalking, and gives proper weight to the adoring but clear-sighted Helen, who wishes Florence would admit her age and the fact that her absurdly young lover Tom is not as smitten as she is.    She also indicates what becomes darker later,  Nicky’s increasing dependence on drugs;  and we get the saddest of glimpses of Florence’s  husband David, who the diva coos  “grew old while I stayed young”,  and who is the only parent truly pleased to see a 24 year old son home from Paris.

     That directorial determination carries through into the second act, the party scene into  which we are mercilessly whirled by Joanna Scotcher’s revolving set and some striking movement , smoke and racket. Not least from Nicky at the piano (when the erotic debacle occurs Giles’ Thomas music and sound is overwhelming, and the smoke makes you for a moment think “drawing-room-comedy-meets-horror-movie”).   Finally all the trappings, modish furnishings and shrieking guests give way to bare-stage moments between Helen, Florence, and eventually and cataclysmically,  Nicky .  Who is in a Hamlet rage against his mother’s sexual licence and self-delusion. 

       That treatment works,  paring down the play to its intended angry core.   Priyanga Burford’s Helen, and Hugh Ross as husband David,  supply a civilized, prudent gravitas as the other principals swirl towards disaster.    And at its centre Lia Williams,  gamine in jodphurs then gowned and glamorous and finally shuddering in nightwear,  is  tremendous.  She moves from brittle gaiety to howling humiliation, back to defiance “It can’t be such a crime being loved, it’can’t be a crime being happy!”and finally surrenders to the reality of the less romantic kind of love, shocked by her son’s closeness to the edge.   Nicky is Joshua James, Williams’ real-life son but more importantly a seasoned and subtle actor.  He proves well able to inhabit the pretty, fragile, desperate undermothered boy. They are sensational together on that final bare stage.  You gasp. 

Box office  To. 20 May

Rating four.

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CYMBELINE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


  Deep breath, concentrate at the back:  there’s this Ancient Briton King, who once banished a chap who vengefully stole his baby sons, leaving just a daughter Imogen who is currently disgraced by marrying a commoner and refusing her loutish stepbrother. Her true love is banished to Rome, tricked into suspecting her virtue, plans murder but – we’re in Wales now, by the way , with bows and arrows and dead animals slung over chaps’ shoulders – Imogen  dresses as a boy.  And thus, unknowingly, meets her lost brothers and apparently dies. But has she? Oh, and there’s a war about tax, and some Roman legionaries…

     Don’t worry.  Honestly, don’t.  You’ll love it.  The great director Greg Doran, lately heading the RSC,  has a particular gift for storytelling and clarity.  The traditional  Eng-Lit division of Shakespeare plays into  tragedies, histories, comedies, and the final  redemptive “romances’ has often caused scholarly arguments about which variety Cymbeline is,  but forget all that:   it’s a rattling good yarn,  unafraid to jump the shark a few times, and Doran knows what to do with it. Just  tell the story, hold us rapt.   To quote another play,  “it is required you do awake your faith”

     George Bernard Shaw and Dr Johnson both  hated this one,  and one notable critic decided that the author was tired and had started deliberately caricaturing his own earlier characters.  Certainly King Cymbeline has Lear-like moments , Imogen like Juliet wakes thinking she is by her lover’s corpse,  a banished patriarch raises children in the wild like Prospero, Iachimo is a pound-shop Iago with a dash of Richard III. There’s a mistrustful lover,  a scheming Queen, cross-dressing, siblings reunited,  a potion,  a surprise descent from the sky and one of the  RSC prop-team’s best-ever decapitated heads, scowl and all.

      But it is not caricature: the language is tremendous,  so is the emotional depth and subtlety brought out with loving care in this production.  The stagecraft and costumes are 

RSC-magnificent. Stephen Brimson Lewis gives us a simple bare arc  beneath a great moon which moves between silver, gold and scarlet,  every scene as vividly grouped and full of meaning as an Old Master.  The music, specially composed by Paul Englishby,  drives the feeling of the story with uillean pipes, cello, flutes and trumpets.  There are moments of sharp comedy from Conor Glean’s loutish Cloten.  and sometimes from Alexandra Gilbreath gloriously relishing the Queen’s wickedness. There are even gales of laughter between heartstopping moments as many ragged, bloodstained, confused characters reach  the final deliberately overcomplex resolution.   Amber James is a stalwart, spirited Imogen and the great  lament  “Fear no more the heat o’the sun”  is sung with unforgettable simple gentleness  by the two lost brothers in their ragged hunting clothes. 

            So from the moment the characters step out towards us, formal from the upstage shadows,  there is a sense of being led:  sitting safe by a fireside, being told a tumultuous story. Absurdities of plot fade in the certainty of each character: Jamie Wilkes’ cozening Iachimo listing the furnishings of Imogen’s bedroom like a creepy estate agent, and later blaming his villainy on “mine Italian brain” (foreigners! clearly can’t help it).  There’s Mark Hadfield’s loyal little servant Pisanio,  trapped between affection and instructions,  the nervous court doctor and anxious maidservants, the good-hearted rumbustious teenagers in the Welsh wilderness and of course the short-tempered  King himself   (Peter de Jersey)  manipulated by his Queen into worriedly confronting Theo Ogundipe’s towering, metalled Roman general.  

        Characters large and small, each rightly weighed, hold it together round  Imogen’s journey.  No wonderful word is wasted, whether a solemn final forgiveness – “live, and deal with others better”,  or one of Shakespeare’s glorious verbal nimblenesses.  Like Pisanio’s excellently trans advice to Imogen as she dresses as a boy:  drop womanly ways and be “saucy and as quarrelous as the weasel”.    Many confrontations stand out in memory and haunt dreams overnight.  There’s power in poor Pisanio’s  defiance of Imogen’s suicidal despair ( Hadfield is wonderful)  and in the brief audience laugh when Cymbeline is baldly told that the dead Queen   “never loved you…married your royalty, abhorred your person”  . Then the laugh is silenced by the King’s real  shock.

       Oh yes, we were under the storyteller’s control all the way through:   led with a sure hand down a wild, crooked stony path.  That is an exhilarating thing

Box office      To 27 May. (Not long enough in my view, how am I going to get back there??)

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   A theatrical tease opens both halves: the voice of Noel Coward singing “There’s a right way and a wrong way, an old way and a new way” for the opening,   and after the interval  “Why must the show go on?”  .  

     Neat: for by that time we are wondering how it ever can.  Jack Thorne’s new play, directed with devoted love by Sam Mendes, is an imaginative (and  partly archival) reconstruction of the fraught rehearsals of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed in 1964 by Sir John Gielgud. 

      The younger man was not yet 40, just married to Liz Taylor, superstars after Cleopatra; the veteran director was sixty, in a slight doldrum, but  this unlikely pairing was “the best offer I’d had for quite some time’.   Here’s classical  versus modern, lyrical diffidence versus violent impulsiveness,  opposites  collaborating over this most personally revealing of plays.  Hamlet is any actor’s Everest, the calling card, not only a play about revenge but about acting itself: seeming, dissembling, asking immense questions.  Soliloquies give a chance to make your own self real in the part.   On his Old Vic pinnacle forty years earlier, it was Gielgud’s: how could he help this volcanic, frequently drunk star towards it?  How  relate to an impatient firebrand who at first  sees Hamlet as a man who just can’t make his bloody mind up, rather than a Gielgudesque philosopher battling poetically with his conscience?    In one wonderful observation – there are some very good laughs, not least in the Polonius stabbing rehearsal – Gielgud  mourns that a real. Burton Hamlet, once instructed by a ghost to kill his stepfather, would do so immediately . Not worry about it for three marvellous hours.  

    “You must”he says  “let the play distort you!”   And   “You shout wonderfully, you and Larry both..but there’s a music in this speech which us?”  There are some sly actorish jokes, not least Burton’s typical performer hatred of  “line readings” when Gielgud can’t help offering intonations. Burton, a splenetically rude Johnny Flynn,   calls Gielgud’s lyrical style “singsong”.    Mark Gatiss is a revelation as Gielgud: after one row there’s a profoundly moving moment before a black curtain when he simply speaks the Ghost’s words.  He is saying it for all past generations pleading  to help guide the young: “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night..”.   

       Scenes of cast horseplay or drunken larking in the star’s lush hotel room underline their difference, and the  first act ends with an unspeakably brutal, humiliating rant by Burton,  exaggeratedly mocking both text and director while the rest of the cast cringe in embarrassment  (they’re impressive, especially Janie Dee as Eileen who delivers real beauty in Gertrude’s Ophelia speech). Left alone, wondering if the whole ghastly project is  over, Gielgud quietly delivers the advice-to-the-actors speech with cool sorrowful beauty. 

           Indeed both Thorne and Mendes know absolutely what to do with the pieces of Shakespearean magic granted them by telling this story.  Flynn does not quite have Burton’s thrilling timbre, but flashes of wonder sometimes surface.  Notably, in the second half a intriguing and intelligent conversation between  Gielgud and Liz Taylor (Tuppence Middleton, nicely sarky and seductive)  provides a clue as to how her wayward man express through Hamlet something real and deep and damaged from his own life.  Gielgud uses what he learns . And suddenly,  as he and Burton sit  alone close together, it happens: Flynn speaks “to be or not to be” with a  helpless immensity,   feeling and digging deep to old despairs,  at last not acting up but owning it. Hairs stand up on your neck.

        With another kind of beauty there is  an unexpected moment when the near-despairing Gielgud – still bruised  by his scandalous homosexual arrest years before – calls in a sex worker in lonely defiance. The roughneck, dismissed unused,  divines his hurt and refuses to leave without “a cuddle”.  Gielgud is shocked by the rough-trade using this word,  and is met with the dry observation  “Hey ,we all got mothers”.  In his arms the weary veteran weeps, jokes about it,  and weeps again.  

         It could have been an intrusion but no.  For while sometimes you think you are seeing a witty insider masterclass on Hamlet and the evolution of acting styles,  what Thorne really offers is a story about humanity, vulnerability,  reconciliation.   The first-night ending   is blazingly triumphant, and  with a bit of directorial cheek in this historic week, even a burst of Zadok the Priest.   Hurrying to Waterloo, under a big moon I came upon another rehearsal:  hundreds of Royal Marines and Scots Guards, just beginning to drum.  

Box office to July 15th

Rating.  Five.

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TONY! the rock opera Leicester Square theatre & Touring


  I couldn’t be more delighted that it’s touring, this splendidly rude show.  We need this kind of merrily offensive burlesque,  in the burlesqueable times we live in.  Even though actually it is set in the comparatively sober era of Tony Blair.  So I repeat my review,  adjusted for how it feels on a proscenium rather than the intimate wraparound of Park Theatre. 

     Its spirit is of cheerful contempt and joyful pastiche.  It’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show:  “`Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premi-er! Now a Millionaire!”.   A deathbed scene book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and  musically it slides away from this brief  Sondheimery into – a wild gallimaufry of music: rap and tap,  ballad, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory (rather nostalgic, the sheer good sense of it)   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. 

     It is an absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (Charlie BAker, grinning for England).  This is always topical, for he is still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.   There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants  (GB doesn’t care about trouserlessness “politics isnt about image”.     There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes.   

      Here is 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  (Howard Samuels enjoying the job of both  narrating and managing, and offering a wicked  death-of-Diana moment by manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill to show how New Labour can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”.) 

     Its conclusion daringly veers 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!”) .  It concludes with the triumphant chorus “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes”,  with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Hitler,   now reversing to a massive shot of Putin, the kind of them all.   

     Altogether a pleasure,  a schandenfreude toybox.  The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic and the global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney ’s “What would jesus do – bomb every last motherfucking one of them!” 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 – “I didn’t do anything wrong” .  Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest – the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”. 

Leicester Square Theatre till 25 May

BUT TOUR DATES till 14 Oct nationwide:

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  If we think we suffer from  a paranoid cancel-culture ,  we should  note this reminder of  mid-1950s America – notably Hollywood – in the McCarthyite witch-hunt against suspected communists.   It’s a three-hander by Ryan Calais Cameron (who gave us “For Black Boys…” scroll down for review) .  It lays out in 90 minutes real time – though sometimes too slowly – a meeting in a movie office.   Bobby (Ian Bonar, nervy and anxious)  is telling the NBC lawyer Parks (Daniel Lapaine)  that for his new, adventurous script the best casting is his friend Sidney Poitier, who’s about to arrive.   Fresh from a breakthrough in The Blackboard Jungle,  a sensation who will become the first major black movie star,   Poitier is ideal.  The writer is excited. 

           But – as Bobby warns Parks  – his friend isn’t “Belafonte black” but “Black-black”.   He is not,   as Poitier himself puts it more frankly later, willing to “play the good-little-negro”.    Parks at first brushes this away – he has been rapidly established as a bully,  putting down the humble writer –  with “You skinny little Beatniks, always looking for new ways to defy the rules”.     When Sidney himself enters, a self-possessed and dignified Ivanno Jeremiah,  Parks meets him with flippant  patronizing parody of street-speak.   “What’s your tale, nightingale? What’s buzzin cousin?”.  He pours a lot of drinks , which Poitier doesn’t want,   and carries on making both the others uncomfortable. 

       For rather too long, to be honest:  there’s a risk that the company of these men, one weak and one arrogant,  becomes in itself too grating.  Though when Sidney is with them the charisma of Ivanno Jeremiah holds the stage beautifully.  

      He has to defend himself against Parks’ irritation that he turned down another role because he didn’t want to play a passive black janitor who doesn’t speak out for his murdered daughter.   Parks jeers at this, and starts implying the actor took money from someone for his stand  – “You live in the ghetto..expect me to believe you didn’t have someone slipping dollars into your back pocket?” “I do not live in the ghetto”  says Poitier flatly.   

     It is bracingly uncomfortable by now,  and speeds up when it becomes clear that the black man is expected to sign a ‘denunciation’ of his hero, the campaigner  and “known communist” Paul Robeson.    We’re pretty sure he won’t, despite some politesses;  but when Parks goes out for a while leaving poor Bobby “ten minutes to save youer career “  by persuading his friend to knuckle under,  the extra dimension of what is now called “allyship” becomes interesting. Bobby’s not rich,  says he comes from immigrant stock himself,   that values are one thing and  making a living is another, and “what’s the point of principles if you don’t have a platform?”  . His filmscript is about a strong black man in leadership, after all.  And maybe “the best thing you can do for poor blacks is not be one of them”.  

        But of course we all clap and cheer when Poitier makes his decision clear, after a grand poetic riff about what Robeson has meant to him.  It’s not a perfect play,  claustrophobic and sometimes overwritten (Parks is almost too vile and rude to believe) .  But you leave it thinking hard, and hoping to see even more of Ivanno Jeremiah.  to May 27 

rating four

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      It’s not all musicals and movie-spinoffs that put bill-paying bums on seats.  The best producers trust their nerve and instinct ,rake through the fringe and make niche productions into the new New.   Nica Burns did this and should be thanked. 

          Ryan Calais Cameron’s play is for six black men – playfully named by precious shades: Jade , Onyx, Obsidian, etc,  to explore with deft, playful, acrobatic and eloquent wit the feelings and confusions of a particular group .  Black young men and boys , a minority here,  spark both admiration in their musical influence and mistrust laced with downright fear;  they are regarded as underachieving in education,  easily sucked into drug and gang warfare.    Many die by violence.   That being part of this  is  tiring, frightening and disheartening for the boys themselves is not sufficiently noted by the rest of us.  That it is an entertaining, serious, rather beautiful West End show on Shaftesbury Avenue which makes the point is something for theatre to be proud of.  I have come to it late, foiled twice by train and tube strikes, but am grateful to have done so. 

       It was first at the pioneering New Diorama, picked up by the Royal Court, but to see it here is therefore a particular treat.  The movement direction by the dancer Theophilus O Bailey is superb all through, right  from the opening moment when a blue-lit tangle of limbs moves through shapes and moments,  including a  Biblical moment of all holding up one limp central body.  It resolves into individual voices and faces when suddenly the stage becomes a primary-coloured room with plastic chairs – evoking primary school or therapy group – and we begin to hear the men’s memories and feelings.  

    Jet remembers hero-worshipping a blond white boy who got pursued in kiss-chase but the girls didn’t want him;   Emmanuel Akwafo (particularly endearing as Pitch) voices the bewilderment of any Ghanaian or Nigerian lad  who associates his  personal blackness with family, churchgoing, a stern pastor and good behaviour while around him the Caribbean culture is cooler. So you have to speak its patois in order to be “black enough” .  This fear of whitewashing,   being a “coconut “or an Oreo, white inside ,  runs through a lot of their joshing,  arguing conversations.  As one scholarly spirit plaintively says “Just because a brother is grammatically correct doesn’t mean he wants to be white!”.   

           Themes of strong manhood are powerful, even more so than in boys born into a whiter modern-European identity  who,   especially if cosily middle-class , are happier to be a bit soft.  Absent, brutal or neglectful fathers are talked of, and in one heartbreaking case a father who didn’t ask treatment for his prostate cancer because ‘I had to choose between my health and being a Man!”.   Difficult family makes some turn lovingly to their peers,  the bros, as more reliable. Again the intensely choreographed movement makes this embracingly clear,  a sense of  the safety of “mandem” as a warm huddle.  In the most violent scene near the end – where a kid lashing out to be one of the BigMen at last realises the reality of a knifing –  that sense of brotherly consolation is overwhelming, with the expressed agony of finding that the Bigman’s victim “mattered to somebody..”.   

       The second half begins with the perennial boy problem of girls,  and the need to win them without being won or  marked as a sissy.   On the problem of chat up lines it’s very funny, and horribly recognisable to boys of all colours.    But there is a wonderful reflection , and song,  from Darragh Hand’s character about how he needed his “body count” to feel like a proper man but had found himself actually listening and talking to a girl and hardly knew how to handle such a situation.   Again,  words and moves alike are  handled with nimble grace, never a word or gesture amiss.  Later, one mournfully explains how hard it is to be gay and black : it’s “a while man’s perversion”,  putting you once again outside, lost, in the dark.

      I had expected more emphasis on racism. There is a wonderfully mocking “stop and search” dance routine, and one weary observation about how walking down the street as a big black boy you see people locking their car doors and hiding their phones from you.  But the wisdom and power of the piece is not in resentment but in understanding.  In love.  And in the power of the cast:  each different, each remarkable, each one man playing many parts:  Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh ,Kaine Lawrence.  It’s beautiful. to   7 May

Rating five 


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JULES AND JIM Jermyn St Theatre



“We are three people trying to redefine feeling” they say.  They do this between Paris, Munich, Salzburg and Greek islands, and either side of World War I.  Both the French bohemian artist Jim ( Alex Mugnaioni, saturnine, tall and informal in braces) and his Germany literary friend Jules (Samuel Collings, always in a collar and tie) are sent to the front, and each dreams fearfully that he might have to kill  the other.   But the war is only a four-year interference in their quest for feeling,  brought to a head by a statue on a Hellenic island with an “archaic smile”  and a mouth “hungry for kisses . Or perhaps blood”.    Shortly afterwards a German girl Kath – Patricia Allison, gamine and sharp and striking – turns out to have just that smile, and they both need her. And get her.  Or she gets them.  

          After its triumphantly sad-funny Madame Bovary ( the Jermyn now tackles a less bourgeois French classic novel, minor but made famous by film. Say “Jules et Jim” to a whole generation,   and a wistful sigh goes up.    I suppose every period of moody students finds a sympathetic dead movement to glamourise its depression and romantic confusions. Once it wasThe Sorrows Of Young Werther, then Byron, and when I grew up in the 60s there was a fascination for Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Anouilh: all that enraged nihilistic creative individualism and determined sexual freedom of the 20’s and 30’s. Ideally conducted in French. With a suicide.  

     So when in 1962 François Truffaut  found an autobiographical novel by the Dadaist Henri Pierre Roche, and made the film with Deneuve as the woman shared between the two male intellectuals, one French one German,  it was catnip.  Chaps insisted one saw it and appreciated both their taste and the presumption that only by going to bed with them could put a girl prove herself an  existential rebel woman with an archaic smile who jumps impulsively in the Seine, switches lovers, demands babies and ricochets across Europe on a whim.

      This is a new treatment by Timberlake Wertembaker who felt that in the film there was not enough of Kath, the woman (face it, this is primarily a story of a devoted male friendship,  stirred and focused by her).   I usually love this playwright, but here,  as the three protagonists narrate the long story directly to us most of the time , the men’s monologues in particular get painfully overlong.    And of course, inevitably a bit  repetitive when basically the story is that Kath draws them both, marries one, has two  offstage children of whom she seems to take little emotional notice except when demanding  one “I am a mother first of all!” , then falls for the other man.  And sets up a menage a trois , reverts, reverse-ferrets again, and for a while runs off with yet another chap.  

         Jim gets actually ill from all this “there is only so much strain a heart can take”  while stolid German Jules shakes his head and  decides to write “A German Buddhist Novel”.    They all repeatedly speak of how they had to reinvent the rules, but the only happy moments seem to be when the lads are together, theorising about feelings over a cafe table like any old codgers in a leather-bound club,   before the next time Krazy Kath sticks her oar in. 

        It’s preposterous, should be funny in a dry French tragic way,  and is well performed (though Allison could give Kath more attraction than angry discontent.) But though the audience did laugh once,  it felt a bit guilty. I am quite grateful to be reminded of the sort of contemporaries who thought all this was holy writ, but ninety minutes was enough. to 27 May 

Rating three.  

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      After 1930’s Donegal at the NT the day before,  Dancing at Lughnasa portraying a group of women meeting  stress and poverty with dancing vitality ,  here we were a few postcodes away,  in 1964 South Carolina – watching another group of women equally driven to manic dancing .  With men important, but incidental to their energy.    In this case the dancing was in a more revivalist style, chanting and imploring round a black Madonna statue at another turning point in history.   It was America’s desegregating, hard-fought-for Civil Rights Act that year, and we heard  President LBJ challenging America’s  “negroes”  all to register and vote. 

        Not made easy, that, not in Southern states with resentful whites.   Director Whitney White makes sure its opening is arresting: poor bullied Lily  – who’s white – is encouraged by the strong tough black maid Rosaleen,   and accompanies her to try and vote.    Abiona Omonua’s immense, wild voice vowing to “Sign my name!” and using the word VOTE is tremendous:  indeed the music throughout is operatic in its frequency and power.   But there’s  a moment of shocking slo-mo racial violence against the black woman on the way,  and her arrest makes the pair run away together from the brutality . They find a fairytale-half-real refuge in a, cultish black women’s  group which makes and sells honey under its leader August and her companions June and May and the “daughters of Mary”.    Here the runaways learn beekeeping and solidarity.

       Its always an exhilarating thing when a show gets you going early with its musical energy and defiant storytelling, but then loses you for a while (what IS this unsettling hysterical ritual round the statue of the black Virgin Mary?) but then strikingly , memorably ,redeems itself until you want to cheer it.   The playwright Lynn Nottage – double Pulitzer winner –  has plunged here into a full musical version of Sue Monk Kidd’s rather odd novel. The  lyrics (excellent ones) are by Susan Birkenhead and the music by  Duncan Sheik.  It’s  bluesy, a bit gospelly, sometimes rock,  all wonderfully sung.   As the characters develop the songs offer every nuance from romantic gentleness to the immense defiant  “Hold this House Together!”  anthem near the end.

           That development is particularly fine in Eleanor Worthington-Cox as  Lily. She is cowering to her terrible father at first,  wet and hopeless compared to her fiery maid and friend,  damaged by the belief she killed her mother (an unsatisfying melodrama,  finally unveiled rather late) .  But she grows before your eyes as she learns about the bees, handles the sweet honeycomb racks with ever more confidence as she overcomes her fear of them and of life,   and falls for Noah Thomas as Zack,  the black helper. 

         An attraction which , this being 1964 in the American South,  gives us an importantly ugly moment. Police stop them in the car and assume he is “bothering”her. Zach  survives the arrest, jus, but Emmett Till’s fate is on all our minds.  The impossibility of such relationships is slyly underlined in a big wild number “Jack Palance”,  about the famous occasion in Tuscaloosa when riots were caused by the actor being rumoured – only rumoured – to have a black girlfriend.  

      As I say, the show absolutely got me back after a brief few minutes wondering, and  drew me right in to the strong humanity of the female group.  There are men: Mark Meadows as Lily’s truly horrible father is genuinely frightening (and genuinely, in the end frightened as they surround him).   That men are not all beasts is beautifully shown by decent Zach and by Tarinn Callender as the  (white)  suppliant Neil who keeps proposing to one of the honey-women, June.  Great street-dances from both chaps, by the way.  

box office to 27 May.  

rating four

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There is particular genius in creating a play which doesn’t build to a showy debacle but grips you with the possibility of an unnamed crisis,  and  so finally leaves you  with the deeper satisfaction of accepting that most lives and declines are not dramatic.  Sadness and failure have their own  grandeur,  like the bleak back-hills projected behind Robert Jones’ sweeping vista of a set. In Josie Rourke’s deeply atmospheric production,   rural Donegal desolation looms behind small domesticity ,  just as the pagan wildness of human nature threatens the threadbare sedateness of Catholicism.  

            Indeed atmosphere, says our narrator late on, is more real than incident. Brian Friel’s wonderful memory play is based on his childhood memories. (do not be out off by the iffy film version). The narrator Michael, a loose version of the author, is remembering a harvest season in 1936 in a household of five sisters, his aunts and his mother whose unmarried  local “shame” is counterbalanced by occasional visits from his father Gerry: a charming, exhibitionist, vaunting mountebank who promises and never delivers,  but even more by the old-fashioned Irish sense of privileged glory brought by his priest  uncle, Father Jack. THe old man  has been a local legend for decades, Ballybeg’s missionary envoy to lepers in Uganda . He is now invalided home and finding it hard to remember words after years of Swahili. 

       It isn’t all he’s forgotten or replaced: piously faithful Kate endures a couple of magnificent speeches from Ardal O”Hanlon’s Jack (yes, ’tis he from Father Ted) about the sensible superiority of African village spirituality and its jolly ceremonies, taught him by  his houseboy and “mentor” Okawa .  The boring District Commissioner vainly tried to get him to dinner to stop him going native, and the bishops and Pope were far away,  so Jack did so with glee and clearly is never going to say the Mass again whatever Kate and the village want.

   But Fr Jack, while magnificent,  only appears late on in the long first half, because the story belongs to the sisters, and brilliantly. Siobhan McSweeney’s homely, cheerful, chain-smoking Maggie and Justine Mitchell’s schoolmarm Kate watch over flighty Rose and Agnes and the boy’s mother Christine – Alison Oliver.  A thrumming anxiety attaches to every visit from Gerry.   Christine is swept back into his charm every time, whether with a promise of a bicycle for her boy or his absurd late decision to go and fight with the International Brigade in Spain. “There’s bound to be something right about the cause, and it’s somewhere to go” must be one of the most brilliantly absurd coxcomb lines of any decade.  Kate, of course, is distressed about them opposing the Catholic fascist side. 

      The nuance between the sisters is laid out with particular excellence in the famous moments when all of them,  their untapped vitality breaking out, dance to their erratic radio. Four go full crazy, leaping even on the table, Irish maenads,  while Kate resists until drawn in to caper, a touch more sedately, in the garden  (Mitchell plays the part far more sympathetically than in many productions, no martinet schoolmarm but a woman clinging to structure in a crumbling world).    It’s a tremendous moment. So is her weary strictness when, looking after the dippy old priest as he extols Ugandan village polyamory,  she remarks that Pope Pius XI would not approve.  

        THE thoughtful richness of the play is fully realised here: its  picture of decent people stuck in one of history’s troublesome corners. The 1930s were difficult times for all the non-privileged, and notably for women who were, after WW1,  in “surplus” all across Europe.  And we are only 15 years after from the partition of Ireland, marooning the six counties in decaying Britishness away from independent Eire.    The weirdness of all this adult world is seen from a child’s perspective as Tom Vaughan-Lawlor leads us with gentle sadness through the memories which frame the play,.  It’s all there, the sad absurdity of history.. Father Jack actually spent part of WW1 as chaplain to the British forces in East Africa:   the child watches while, in the closing moments, the old priest’s Colonial cocked hat with feathers is ceremoniously swapped with wastrel Gerry’s straw hat .  

\ to 27 June

Rating five 

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  ​​      If there is a formula for a cheerful touring play in our frazzled and disputatious times, it would go like this:  warm but a bit rude, affirmative but  absurd, with sudden big laughs, a dash of nostalgic feeling and portraits of some relationships we’ve all survived and feel it’s time to laugh at. ​ 

      Which is not to say that Ian Hallard’s play is formulaic:  just to signal that you’re a curmudgeon if you don’t warm to it. Especially if one of your dreams of comradeship involves starting an iffy pub tribute band.​ 

    For here is Peter (played by Hallard himself), alone in his lateish thirties, preening nervously for a Grindr date as his Nan rings up about Sunday lunch. The date proves to be Eddie, a slightly less well preserved but even more camp schoolfriend.  It’s his first time on the app because he has a solid, but rather older, civil partner and in his uncertain way wants an adventure. Momentary embarrassment (“this is not going to happen”)   becomes reminiscence: when Eddie  (James Bradshaw) came out long ago so did Peter –  not yet as gay but as an Abba superfan.  They fall in with Sally (Donna Berlin), a lesbian whose wife is a show-promoter lacking a tribute band, and together recruit yowling wannabe Jodie (Rose Shalloo).  She is a bravely aspiring but fairly awful actress,  (“at drama school I corrected a director who thought an Olivier was an actor!”).  

Add, picked up faute de mieux because she can play the piano and be Benny, Mrs Hermione Campbell. She’s a real creation (given full rein by Sara Crowe) who is at a loose end right now because she thought her sister was staying “but that was five years ago” . Because she never buys a new kitchen calendar.   You can see why Mark Gatiss, king of darkish harmless absurdity, was the right director for this. ​    

  All in all, it could hardly hit a better cultural spot, with even the edgiest raving about the holograms in Abba Voyage : but alongside that, it is a moment to remember the healing power of honest drag, before pronoun-mania and  the fashionability of full-on serious offence-taking trans identities. Eddie and Peter don’t want to be women or to mock them, any more than Grayson Perry does.  They just  need to free themselves into the decorative flamboyance too long denied to men. They get the joke the audience gets the joke. It’s happy rather than bullying identity politics or nasty RuPaul competitiveness . Eddie’s dressing-up camp is of the old defensive kind: Peter just wants his Nan to enjoy the show and not be shocked.   There are many Abbaoid moments to love, not least Eddie’s first appearance in an orange leotard and the one, mesmerizing, final moment where the two old friends reconcile. ​        

 And many, many treasurable lines poking skewers into our culture in general.  A favourite being from Mrs Campbell, about finding Michael Palin a touch creepy.  “A bit unsettling. All that travelling, what’s he running FROM?”​    Pleasure all the way.   Have a happy tour! ​​

seen at end of Park Theatre run,  but now tour: 

 Guildford, Exeter & onward to 10 June.  ​​

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There ’s always a slight frisson when Noel Coward’s rueful, dark-streaked romantic comedy  is revived in our censorious age.  We are nine decades on from the night it first  set about shocking the bourgeoisie with a portrait of the idlest rich:  Elyot and Amanda meeting on adjoining Deauville balconies five years after divorce,  and running away from respective honeymoon spouses.    One can trust modern directors with the crystal-sharp  bickering, deftly wicked character drawing of the awful new partners,  and with the irresistible romance – “strange how potent cheap music is” .    But some of us wait anxiously for how the squeamish 2020s will deal with the  explosion of violence between Elyot and Amanda in the second act.  

         Especially his violence: cushion- throwing, trashing a chic Paris flat and an affronted lady smashing a vinyl record on a chap’s head all have a reassuring slapstick Tom-and-Jerry quality.    But a really hard slap, a brief throttle,  a throwdown, a headlock – not so much.  I have seen productions dial it down a lot, and certainly avoid down the other couple’s need for a physical fight-arranger in Act 3.   

      No qualms here. Michael Longhurst lets his perfect quartet loose with all the feral fury Coward envisaged,  which for Elyot and Amanda is the flip side of a white-hot erotic charge. They both need and enrage one  another:  as Elyot admits early on the eroticism of their love always did bring out their worst  behaviour: jealousy, irritable frustration,  self-pitying rages.   Male energy, if you like,  but absolutely shared by one of the women:  the contrast between Laura Carmichael’s sweetly-manipulative wet Sibyl and Rachael Stirling’s commanding Amanda is beautifully brought out,  right from the start in the initial sly costuming:  Stirling towers in a tight flesh-gold dress on one balcony with Carmichael opposite in awful lettuce-green frills.   

            I had never thought of  Stephen Mangan as a particularly Coward hero,  but actually he is perfect as Elyot:    saturnine, dark-browed, grownup, a bit faded , a devil with the neatly  timed quips  but carrying a real sense of a man who wishes he behaved better.   Sargon Yelda  as Victor, amusingly quite a bit shorter than his runaway wife Amanda (Stirling looks as if she could throw him over the balcony) is also interesting. He is allowed a bit more dignity than usual by this director,   until the extraordinary encounter with Elyot near the end   and his own collapse into fury at Sibyl.  

     This balance all the way through  makes it not only very funny but,  as Coward I suspect intended, edifying too.  He, remember, had been working since he was 11 years old in the tiring, concentrated world of theatre:   in this production more than usual I found myself reflecting that it is the wealthy idleness of these globetrotting social butterflies that dooms them. . It  hollows them out until all that can be said is “Laugh at everything, even us.  Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers”

       So a perfect rendering of a perfect play, violence and all, shying away from none of its darker streaks.  The setting sings, too: Hildegarde Bechtler has them at first on a high balcony above some blue-green dustsheet billows and peaks like a rough Channel sea.  Then a great wind – of passion, we must presume – suddenly whisks the cloth away and we are down in the Paris flat.  Setting the furniture to make the cover’s peaks so oceanic is an art in itself.   So is the music, especially when in the interval the violinist Faoileann Cunningham and the  ‘cellist Harry Napier play together, in a musical joke of riposte and disharmony which elegantly reflects the male-female rows in the story. It  culminates in Napier having to be driven resentfully off the set, kicking over his music stand.   Nice.  

Box office to 27 May

Rating. Five.

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HAMNET Swan, Stratford upon Avon


      It’s  a joy to have the intimate Swan auditorium open again, refurbished after going dark in the first sudden Covid closure, and to see once again a strong, nimble  RSC ensemble conjuring up the past. It is a 16c domestic world in this very town, as Will Shakespeare the glovemaker’s son marries the Hathaway farm-girl,  raises three children and loses one, all while seeking and finding his fortune in  the playhouses of London.  

        In Maggie O’Farrell’s prizewinning novel the imagined tale is of that domesticity, centred on Agnes (usually called Anne) .  In one line  (not, alas, in the play) her hero Will observes that a theatre production  is “like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat”.  

        I thought a lot about that line,  for much labour and skill has gone into this particular embroidery.   O’Farrell did meticulous research on daily life, notably on herbal medicines, deciding to create Agnes (about whom we know almost nothing) as a falconer and  a spiritual,  magically inclined herbal healer with ancient womanly skills. She is a so cold-comfort-farm  that when in labour, she flees her in-laws’ town house and willing womenfolk to give birth alone in the forest with only her dead mother’s spirit in attendance.   The book also stitches arresting details to the rest of the family,  making Agnes’ stepmother a virago and the hero’s father John an overbearing brute (Peter Wight an impressive presence, rather Hobson’s-Choice in his roaring authority, an alpha matched only by the splendid Obioma Ugoala as Agnes’ benign brother Bartholomew).  This father only  lets his educated Latin-tutor son marry the country girl in some profitable deal about sheepskins. A nifty female revenge on the unknown glover, since male authors  have spent centuries announcing –  just as fancifully –  that Anne/Agnes must have been an awful bitch to drive  Shakespeare to spend his working life mainly in London.   The programme has an entertaining pageful of 200 years of this contumely.  

        The book nips to and fro between the short life of the eleven-year-old Hamnet and Agnes’ earlier life and wooing.   She is no termagant, but is the loving, innately wise if rather fey mother-heroine,  who is devastated by the child’s loss and becomes profoundly depressed, spiritless, resentful of Will’s absences and finally – redemptively – shocked by his use of the name in Hamlet.   

    Lolita Chakrabarti, adapting it, has straightened out the chronology,  and invented new moments from the London life: Burbage as Romeo moaning “Why do I always die?”and being teased by Will Kempe (Wight again) while all of them  plan the Globe.  Those bits feel a bit revue-sketchy, but a good  contrast with the slower domesticity: a beautifully designed, sparse and credible set with the great  kitchen-table where apples are laid out and lavender-soap made by the women as the children lark around or help, all beneath the A-shape of the cramped family house.  That works wonderfully, making it ever clearer why even without a bullying father young Will needed some freer air to flourish.  

       Madeleine Mantock’s Agnes, an RSC debut, has a fresh, dignified loveliness which works well in the slow, romantic first half as the children are born,  and throws everything at the scenes of passionate grief later.  Buy her listless neutrality thereafter, as if resolved never to smile again (which does shadow many pages of the book) makes her fade, causing rbrn a sort of exasperation as her daughters (Harmony Rose-Bremner and Alex Jarrett, both terrific) run the house and get no joy og her.   Almost my favourite scene, thrown in by Chakrabarti,  has an exasperated Susanna in a private moment parodying her mother’s visionary feyness .   

      William himself is another RSC debit, Tom Varey, a curly-headed, sometimes hangdog bullied teen  who develops credibly into a mischievous wooer, proud new father, and  then  the preoccupied professional in London once he escapes the trap.  Hard, though, in the limitations of the text,  to get far into the psychology of his divided loyalty: doesn’t quite chime, and his grief is given only one or two lines and little to still the heart.    The couple’s  chemistry in the first half is good,  more charming than electric but suitable enough to the story.  Judith and Hamnet are nicely twinned – Ajani Cabey’s Hamnet not given much to do beyond lovable capering until he gets his moment , and rises well to it in self-abnegating devotion to his apparently dying sister. 

          So it’s all there – the RSC “cross-hatching of labour and skill and sweat” as in the glove metaphor,  and readers of the book will  not be disappointed: it’s lovely to look at and  director Erica Whyman moves at least the second half  briskly, with a lovely ensemble evocation of what a shock the London crowds must have been to Agnes when she finally ventures up there with the loyal Bartholomew .  But altogether there’s more charm than excitement,  more sweetness than inspiration, the grief observed rather than shared with the stalls. And the culminating Hamlet moment, dismayingly,  feels like an unexpected vacuum.  

Box office to 17 june 

Then GARRICK THEATRE, London, from 30 Sept to 6 Jan

Rating three

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      I’ll give it one thing: over an hour into this infuriating two- hour play there’s a brief but wonderful part for the veteran June Watson. She stumps in with octogenarian determination from the moody seascape window at the back (the lighting is one of the heroic achievements of the show, dusking and dawning at short unpredictable intervals).  Roaming round the middleclass holiday-cottage kitchen island,  she  delivers in aggravated tones an  account of how she is a seal – the mysterious silkie-woman of northern legend. She came ashore years ago wooed by a man, but when she shed her seal skin for lovemaking the bastard hid it, thus  keeping her doomed to be his slave and forever tolerate exile ashore “cooking cleaning washing fucking carrying bearing…” and never getting back to the sea.  

    Its a fine speech, lyrical and vigorous, a bit Dylan Thomas,  and beautifully rendered. If we hadn’t all been numbed by the preceding 70 minutes, we might have given Watson an exit round and a rousing cheer. 

         Her listener, the young man Mark, is no help looking for the skin, though throughout the preceding impressionistic and irritatingly magical-realist script he has been the most grounded of the personae, doing the cooking.  He even, at one point, observes  that Sarah, partner of the elusive  matriarch Shirley, ought not to encourage the pregnant young Georgia to chain-smoke and drink so much.  The younger sister Toni – supposedly 22 – lives full time in pyjamas and is given any number of gnomic remarks and unlikely reactions. Honour to Grace Saif for making the wretched kid almost convincing . They all do a bit of this witchy-fey uttering, the coy femaleness of it at times enraging. “When the menopause came she could only paint lobsters”. Or  “sometimes I burn countries”.

   All of them keep coming back to an absent character, Robin. Maybe drowned and gnawed by lobsters; maybe she’s  a mental patient. Maybe her soul was stolen one day by a scream and borne away on a paper boat. Maybe she’s likely to come back any minute; though turned into dust. OK, OK, maybe it is all a meditation on grief. Possibly the useless Toni really has learning disabilities, and old Shirley  has dementia – which would explain the invisible seals she sees which were actually years ago in Ireland.

Though hang on, she is reading Mark’s PhD for him. So maybe not all that demented.   Oh, and there’s a fisherman, saying stuff like “there’s a storm coming”. As fisherman do. In plays.

    . We are not meant to be sure of anything, but the author is no Florin Zeller. What we do know is that this infuriating, selfconsciously poetic piece was written by Cordelia Lynn during a four week  writers’ “residency” in America.  And that it is immaculately acted and presented, with all the skill of this downstairs space which has seen so much really good stuff in the past year. It feels a waste of it, and of Hampstead’s brave mission to find new writing.

Box office  To 29 april

Rating two.

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FARM HALL      Jermyn st Theatre WC1 (then Bath)


      Unexpectedly enthralled, I spent an hour and a half eavesdropping on six nuclear physicists, and couldn’t be more glad to have caught up on this play,  now  in its last London sellout days. But it moves to Bath and, I suspect, will endure.

        To eavesdrop on such scientists obviously  brings a frisson of awe and dread: we know that from Frayn’s play Copenhagen, about a 1941 visit by  Heisenberg, working on the theory of the atomic bomb,  to his friend Mohr in Denmark.  Heisenberg is here too in this remarkable debut play by  Katherine Moar. It is based on the real transcripts of conversations between him and five others when they were captured – Hitler defeated and dead – and kept guarded in a farmhouse near Cambridge for seven months, while the Pacific war continued.  The whole building was bugged: the Allies wanted to know, apart from anything else,  how close Germany had got to building the Bomb. 

         In reality there were ten of them,  but in Moar’s deft, skilful shaping we meet only six.  It is paced and directed by Stephen Unwin:  remember his own play, All Our Children, (  and note that he has a particularly good eye for the confusions of humans who, on the edges of evil institutions,  have to make moral decisions.   This is based on real eavesdropping: after seeing it I read sections of the transcripts released decades later , and much is real, including the men’s wondering whether they were bugged and deciding the British were not quite up to Gestapo standard.  And they did indeed attempt some am-dram with Coward’s Blithe Spirit, then wowing London, as well as talking technicalities and personalities.  

           The characters  – some previous colleagues, some rivals, with all the small snobberies of high academia  – are cast and distinguished meticulously:  from the senatorial , decent old Von Laue who had openly objected to Nazism to the youngest, Bagge, from a working-class family who studied under Heisenberg., and was a party member like the  pompous,  chippy convinced Nazi Diebner. There’s Heisenberg, the  eminent scientifically-impassioned Wezsacker, and cheerful Hahn the Nobel laureate who discovered nuclear fission.   In short scenes with fragments of Schubert between we  get to know their foibles, relationships, homesickness and attempts to live both with boredom and the uncertainty as to whether they’d be killed. One passes the time working out the physics of champagne in zero-gravity; Hahn (Forbes Masson) enthusiastically tinkers with a broken piano and makes Von Laue help.  There’s a desultory conversation about a John Wayne film, and a determination to rubbish “American science”.    

     Hahn,  as the original discoverer of nuclear fission and Nobel prizewinner is the most emotionally stricken when, halfway through this remarkable piece, a BBC  news bulletin tells them that the Allies have not only built the Bomb but dropped it on Hiroshima.  It is a stunning moment, not least because the bulletin blithely speaks of the “Tremendous achievement” of the Allies and Truman’s secret factories, and moves on happily to the weather.   The scientists can hardly believe that others triumphed when they did not; the reality dawns only after those incredulous minutes, as Weizsacker starts to imagine  the effect: thousands vaporised, the”dirty poison” of radiation spreading miles.    

        As imagination hardens Hahn cannot bear it, takes the guilt on his own invention. Von Laue tries consolation: they were, were they not, all working towards harnessing this immensity?  Or were they? They talk of whether, and where, Hitler would have dropped it: London, Washington, St Petersburg?   They wonder what questions will be asked of them, and whether now they will be killed.

         Patriotism, competitiveness, shame,  immense clouded moral judgements ebb and flow.   The shaming of the beauty of science hits them, as do hard truths about the regime they served.  Confronted, says Heinsenberg, by “a violent and unpredictable government..” but also an inefficient one, they could not have done it.    Weizsacker adds that the best of them were lost abroad anyway – “Who knows what might have happened if our Jewish colleagues had been allowed to stay?”.  Bagge, clinging to Nazi faith ever more weakly, protested that Von Braun succeeded without the Jews,,  but others say the Fuhrer had a penchant for rockets,   and so little understanding that he once asked would an atom bomb be powerful enough to throw a man from his horse?. “It’s a miracle we got as far as we did” says Heisenberg. Weiszacker convinces himself that nuclear power, a wonderful new fuel, was the aim. Not the bomb. 

          But he knows, and we know, that the cloud of what happened in Japan is upon them, and will never entirely lift. 

      It is a most remarkable play, troubling .fascinating and memorable .  A real coup for the little Jermyn. I am glad it moves on with this remarkably distinctive cast: Archie Backhouse, Daniel Boyd, Alan Cox, Julius d’Silva, Forbes Masson and David Yelland.  They are perfect.   Get to Bath if you can.  Find a way to see it. to 8 April

Then Theatre Royal Bath  

Rating 5.

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HAY FEVER The Mill at Sonning


I don’t always make it through the Oxfordshire lanes to the gorgeous, eccentric, water-wheeled Mill, but the thought of Issy van Randwyck as Judith Bliss lured me . Caught the last preview en route to the airport, so I started writing this on a Croatian long-distance bus.

     Fitting maybe, as Noel Coward wrote it on the road and in a rush, inspired by  amusement  after visiting the hyper-theatrical  family of Laurette Taylor on a shoestring trip to New York . He hadn’t yet made his name, had a revue brewing and was about to shock-the-bourgeoisie with  The Vortex, a far darker picture of family and maternal excess.   Hay Fever shows us the sunnier side, at least it’s sunny for the Bliss family themselves:   parents, son and daughter each having separately and without consultation  invited a guest for the weekend with literary or romantic intentions.   It isn’t so sunny for the poor guests, of course, but the gleeful awfulness of the host family creates an irresistible joke on the self-absorbed  theatrical community in which Coward had lived and worked since he was eleven.  

       I wasn’t wrong to want to see  Van Randwyck’s performance as Judith Bliss,  the  mother and unwillingly retired actress;  it wholly suits  her mobile, mischievous face, lovely musicality and personal understanding of diva-dom.  Indeed her  solo show, Dazzling Divas, is reviewed here –  –

     And she is bringing that  to the Mill on July 19th.   

        She wanders in from the garden, of which she knows nothing, speaking vaguely of caleolarias,  and makes it clear from the first moments that she is desperately missing a career of plays like “Love’s Whirlwind”.   Her vampish welcome of wet Sandy Tyrrell, she discovers,  is going to be impeded by the guests of her impatient children Simon and Sorel , both fancying older and unsuitable guests:  they’re William Pennington lounging like any teen and Emily Panes trying out her seductive powers.   Judith – you can see her running through potential reactions of irritability –  decides simply to coo beautifully “we must all be very very kind”.  To which her waspish young snap “You’re being beautiful and sad”, in a way which makes it clear that they mean “…again!” .  Coward’s is the neatest bit of character-setting in theatre, and as the  play develops van Randwyck veers with nicely timed accuracy between Judith’s  aspiration to control things and her enjoyment of a misty-eyed victimhood.   All the twosomes work elegantly as the wrong pairs meet, clash and succumb to the wrong people;  the first act ends gorgeously with Judith leading “Making Whoopee”,  alongside family members on piano, sax and maraccas (Panes doubles as musical director, to excellent effect).  

      The charades scene and the entangled ‘engagements’  have all the spite which runs like a dark thread through all Coward’s best plays:  his ability simultaneously to satirize and glamourize the frenzied 1920’s smart set is a great part of his fascination. Joanna Brookes as Clara the housekeeper seemed at first to be overdoing it a bit, stumping in and out with trays,  but the joke mellows beautifully and her own music-hall song ,while clearing the breakfast , got a well deserved storm of applause.   Actually, the physical and musical comedy all the way through is spot-on in Tam Williams’ production, as are the gorgeously stealable costumes.   

     Just a note:  Laurette Taylor, by the way, wasn’t entirely happy about being a known model family for Hay Fever. She protested that none of them had been that rude.  Glad Coward’s lot were, though.  Irresistible, awful, immortal.

Box office     To 13th May.      A treat. Ticket includes nice meal.

Rating four 

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     Artificial intelligence and robotics have long been a boon to us ethical-scifi buffs,  films like AI and I, Robot mercifully saving us from rocket ships and aliens called Xzxvyvrgg.  In Jordan Harrison’s play it is inner space  – and a recognizable world –   which gets invaded by  parasitic cyberthink .  It takes us forward from our seedling moment with  ChatGPT cobbling up its banal cut-n-paste essays. Harrison decides to imagine uses which poke at the very stuff of human identity, memory and communication. 

      The setting moves on half a century from our present moment in which lonely people chat to Alexa or Siri and geeks dream of downloading their their consciousness into robots and metaverses.    In this coming world  the “Senior Serenity” organization will set you up a convincing humanoid called a Prime,  which can be briefed to chat reminiscently to an old lady with dementia  in the persona of  a dead husband who can retell her all the prettiest memories of their time together.   After all,  there is already talk of robotic carers for dementia sufferers.  

      Director Dominic Dromgoole wisely casts the splendid Anne Reid as Marjorie,  a woman who still has an edge of matriarchal cussedness and a not-quite-extinct satirical intent until suddenly her mind closes off,   like the closing blind behind her in the sparse kitchen set, quite a metaphor.  Her daughter Tess (an equally stunning and movingly truthful performance from Nancy Carroll) has an uneasy, unsatisfied relationship with Mum and a sense of unfulfilment nicely caught in her husband’s terrifying line “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your Mom any more?”     But in any case Tess doesn’t really approve of the creepy, stiffish Prime (Richard Fleeshman).    He – or rather it  – seems humanly normal,  if a bit shop-dummyish, until suddenly he says  things like  “I don’t have that information”.  

   Meanwhile her husband Jon – Tony Jayawardena – is all for the tech, and  likes to keep feeding helpful memories to the thing.  Including  one tragedy – a son’s suicide – which Marjorie has been trying to forget for half a century.   

        The ghastly but just-credible folly and absurdity of the culture which came up with this invention is nicely underlined by Tess’ sudden hysterical anti-religious anger at a neighbour having brought Marjorie a Bible.    Here is a civilisation which has rejected faith in the soul’s endurance  while clinging to  a childish refusal to accept that everyone’s gotta die.  We all, without dementia,  don’t want the past and its beloved people to disappear and never speak again , and it takes balance – or religious reassurance – to accept that it’s damn well going to.  

        Anyway, nightmare evolutions – gentle and seemingly mild – develop halfway through .  With a nasty shock we realize that time has passed and  Tess’s neediness is in turn being tended by android computer and  what sounds like prompting of a dementia sufferer is actually the priming of a prime.  Again Anne Reid does an uncanny turn.  There is a horrid circularity about the idea of telling a computer what it needs to tell you .

        It’s a clever play,  done with typical Menier panache (this little theatre is the home of unsubsidized intelligent originality at only £ 42 quid a seat)   and it’s creepily dark beneath the  surface.  But some of its appeal is in enjoying your own dislike of a future society, soothing its terrors of death and disintegration with AI lies.    You leave remembering that all flesh is grass and  all memory fallible, and both are much the better for it.   Well, I did anyway.  

box office  to 6 May

rating 4 

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    Daniel Mays has played a lot of tough-guy roles but has by nature a rather innocent and worried-looking face.  It is this quality that Nick Hytner spotted as perfect for his Nathan Detroit: lowlife but hapless, indecisive about the faff and cost of marrying his tolerant  fiancee of 14 years standing, Miss Adelaide (an irresistible Marisha Wallace).    Perfect too is the exasperated but unbreakable chemistry between them: the Benedick and Beatrice of the  Damon Runyon ‘20s-30’s world that Frank Loesser, Swerling and Burrows created.  Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson)  is a more suave leading-man part, though he’s deft at acrobatic comic chaos when Sarah the Salvationist falls for his charms and a Bacardi-laced milkshake in a Havana nightclub punch-up  (look, she had every reason to call time on his homoerotic dance with the chap in orange shorts).   . Both pairs are a treat, anyway,   Dutch Celinde Schoemaker as Sarah also deploys, for a glorious soprano,  a fine acrobatic recklessness. 

        Anyway,  tip your hat and get down there, spend your winnings.   It’s  comic perfection,  sly wit and timing ,gently endearing performances, rumbustious knock ‘em dead choreography in both raunchy and hilarious modes. And of course flawless musical numbers (I had forgotten that alongside great barnstormers like Siddown and wicked comedy like Adelaide’s lament over the psychology manual, there are  exquisite lyrical numbers:   not least  “More I cannot wish you”, gorgeously sung by Anthony o’Donnell’s  Arvide.   

       But there’s something else: from the immersed surge of prommers on the floor to the crowded galleries above,  the comments as we all raced for the last tubes before the strike were also about the staging:   Hytner directing another bravura circus-mood splash from the  matchlessly flexible Bridge. As in Julius Caesar and A Midaummer Night’s Dream, promenaders can opt for the floor and be immersive – some went the full Damon Runyon 1920s cosplay, girls in cocktail kit and men made hat-brim  debonair  by the theatre’s artful sale of pork- pie hats in the melee before the start.  

      So to add to the basic pleasure of a perfectly executed musical,  you get Bunny Christie creating the dream New York of old movies, with rising blocks creating multiple stages and a cast flawlessly choreographed to be in the right place at thirty seconds’ notice,   running from the cops, marching behind the Salvationist drum , appearing in a suddenly illuminated dive or emerging,  hat by trilby hat , from the manhole after the sewer scene. Almost invisible stage crew move the audience crowds safely around , streets and sidewalks rise and fall and divide: abruptly there could be a boxing ring, a cabaret, a bar, a roadworks…everything everywhere all at once.  Sudden landmarks appear (where did those Cuban lampposts come from,  never saw them arrive? and hang on, that chimney, smoking..if wobbling…and how the helldid the mission hall which wasn’t there a few seconds ago grow six rows of wooden chairs?  And hell, the Havana moment, sparkles and feathers and flesh everywhere, what happened to New York? 

    It would be a lovingly told tale and beautifully sung without any of this bravura, but we need dazzle too: life isn’t all Ibsen and Hare.     And I am happy to report that the stage crew got their own curtain call on another rising block.  We all cheered. They get the rare stagecrew-mouse as an extra. To 2 September

rating. 5.

And here’s the stage management mouse.

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   In  a week when tech firms shuddered at the shock demise of their favourite bank, how better to spend 90  minutes  withJoseph Charlton’s exhilarating, fast moving 3-hander about a guy who has a sharp idea for a ride-hailing app, its rocket-powered  ascension, and the effect on him and thousands across 653 world cities before hubris and bro-culture clips his wings.  Let it be said that when it first showed pre-Covid, Uber had the humour to send a works outing to it…

    Katie-Ann McDonough’s  direction is swift, the three players switching between a dozen roles: Shubham Saraf, a striking presence in a narrow suit and boxfresh trainers, plays Tyler the initial entrepreneur and   Craig, the Brentoid manager who is fraternal yet creepy with the men,  and dismissively awful to the women coders (“its awesome how confident you are not to wear make-up”, etc).  Sean Delaney plays among others a pleasanter, but lost-soul Irish coder drawn half unwillingly into the macho culture and its ridiculous work trip to Vegas. Charlton’s ear for  excitable startup  language gets immense laughs – the “champion mindset”, “super-pumped, hashtag wrangling microservices out of a monolith”, all that. The titular jerks by the way are the wheeler-dealing frat boys, clever toddler-heads with money to juggle and a taste for lowlife highlife in Korean cathouses

  Hazel Lowe’s design is a  table in the shape of the company logo, which nicely indicates by a curved funfair slope the likelihood of downturns and pratfalls. It is equally useful to represent the Glasgow taxi in which Mia – a recovering alcoholic who gave up her baby, reflects on the energies and moods of diverse customers, often hungover sesh-heds requiring “bargain bucket therapy” in the dawn. She is a reminder of what Tyler, creator and CEO, furiously reminds the board finally removing him after  “reputational” issues arise : I had, he says, “the responsibility of giving work to people who thought they’d never work again” – migrants, mothers, people on working life’s precarious edges.  And so he did. Though near the end we see Mia and the other uber drivers taking their case to court to be treated like the useful faithful workhorses they are.

    It’s entertaining and thought provoking, and all three players take on diverse roles with neatly elegant distinctiveness. But a particular hurrah to absolutely top work from Kiran Sonia Sawar – who is in turn Mia the Glasgow cabbie, a neurodivergent coding genius in the office, a torch-singer who falls for Tyler and then turns round to condemn his behaviour to the board, and a stern Indian businesswoman taking him on.  She shines, warm and moving and harsh and weird and tough by turns. 

But there is youthful exhilaration in the defeated Tyler’s final shout – “let builders build, let progress happen”. And you think yes, thats how it goes. The wild gamblers  build with glee and sometimes recklessly,  then prudent duller   people thwart and tame them. Both  must happen to make the world roll on. Love it.

To 25 March.

Mon-sat. Nb matinees tues & sat

Rating 4 

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THE CHILDREN Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds


         Since I watched Sizewell A going up as a child,  live close to Sizewell B and dwell amid a forest of local posters furiously condemning Sizewell C,   there is a particular frisson in seeing this play – which I missed a few years back at the Royal Court –  turning up just 45 miles inland from us.  It’s a future  Suffolk seaside world,  where a couple live  in a wooden holiday-cabin shack just outside the “exclusion zone” created by a disastrous meltdown of such a site a few years earlier.  

  Gillian Bevan evokes Hazel,   health-consciously fit,   mumsy and yogafied but visibly uncomfortable with something in her life.    Michael Higgs is a jokey, rather edgy Robin who near the end movingly reveals a deeply suffering heart.  Both are retired nuclear scientists who worked on the station, had to leave  their house and smallholding as it was too close,  and now exist in a world of annoying power blackouts and macerating toilets.    It’s not a post-apocalyptic drama:  there’s a local Co-op handy and the annoying bit is having to bribe the taxi driver to go anywhere near the edge of the Zone.  Their four adult children are elsewhere, one needily angry,  phoning with her troubles.  

            Into their dullish household from America erupts an uninvited former colleague,  Rose:  Imogen Stubbs gives a complex, fascinating performance: lively and  sexy, reminiscent,  sometimes irritating and sometimes touching, finally unmasking a more serious reality. She asks how it has been during and since the disaster, and  Hazel gives us terrifying glimpses of this:  the boiling sea, the “filthy glitter” of fallout ,  the flooded house full of dirty silt, the sudden relief of deciding they didn’t have to clear that up but could just decamp for the borrowed cottage.  This turns out to be a nice metaphor for the final decisions all have to make.

           Their relationship is exposed slowly when Robin, flippant and keen to uncork the parsnip wine,  betrays that he and Rose have torrid history .Some have felt, in its earlier productions, that the  trio’s build-up is too slow,  but this cast held the small theatre visibly gripped  by rising tension and moments of sudden warmth, left over from their old collegiate staffroom days.   But when it becomes clear why Rose came, it’s riveting.  No spoilers, but it’s inspired by Mr Yamada’s Skilled Veteran Corps,  after Fukushima in 2011.  Because radiation cancers are gradual,  the 72-year-old engineer said it was the job of the old  – not the young who deserve their lives – to do a full cold shutdown and clearing up on-site.   He had 250 retired volunteers over sixty, but was thwarted.    There is a proper and topically startling power in this idea of the old needing to clear up the mess their generation made: Lucy Kirkwood deploys it like a whip. 

      Her  famous Chimerica was a big complex  play about international relations , stunning in its grip of modern moral confusions.   Her shorter NSFW was a tight, viciously amusing generation clash.  This combines something of both qualities, with a particularly female grip on uneasy relationships and professional responsibilities.   It also contains a striking line for today “We don’t have a RIGHT to electricity, you know”.     I liked Owen Calvert-Lyons’  production a lot,  and hope it moves on from Bury.  

box office   to 25 March

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 I can never resist scribbling down rhymes in new musicals, whether in a spirit appalled or admiring.    Take a bow Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary – writers of this extreme carbohydrate tribute to Bake Off’s eleven years on two networks, for my biro sped across the page in the darkness.     I seem to have scrawled the words “Dont be so despondent, put more water in your fondant’  and I think it was admiration that time. 

        It certainly was in the signature number from Grace Mouat’s Izzy,  the posh-mean-girl character who is only doing it to get on telly – “I’ll get on Loose Women, and design my own linen, and Beyoncé will be my best friend”,  a superb summing-up of Generation Z dim-bition.    I also seem to have scrawled “dip your little finger in my raclette”,  which falls to Haydn Gwynne as the masterful she-judge.

              The idea, a nice one, is to consider the musical as a season that was never broadcast.  There’s  a cookie-cutter predictable cast of characters who we are under orders to consider lovable.    The presenters (Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige)  do a good job of being every bit as naff with their annoying questions as the real ones,   while the lofty judges (who are NOT called Pru Leith and Paul Hollywood,  though what with the motorbike, her  hairdo and the I’m-a-top-businesswoman number snarl you might suspect it. 

     Among the contenders there’s posh bad  Izzy (don’t worry,  she recants, after doing a terrible thing with a creme-brulée gun to the  humble heroine Gemma, a carer from Blackpool who needs to find confidence) . There’s an aircraft engineer with a taste for precision,  a  widowed Dad with a lovable kid,  and Hassan the Syrian refugee,  who discusses how British they both are with Francesca the Italian immigrant.  There’s earthy Babs – very important, Claire Moore turning the heat up to the edge of intolerable –  and hippie vegan Dezza,  who gets thrown out and in one of the few crisper edges of the plot keeps crashing back in.   All the contestants have a brief back-story – neatly handled – and it is no spoiler to reveal that the conclusion to everything is that it’s not really a competition (or a TV moneyspinner).  It’s a JOURNEY, and it’s all about being people together, er in a space, like a theatre.   

         So that’s got  the soggy bottom of it over with, and nobody is going to turn up thinking it’s going to be Joe Gorton,  after all.     There’s a lot of good to balance it out: some of the songs,  notably “I’ll never be me without you” ,  will become the sort of standards which in future decades Elaine Paige  will play on Sunday afternoon R2, and I mean that as praise.   “Babs’ Lament”  over the toothsome but unattainable he-judge may also survive, and  Haydn Gwynne as judge Pam actually does a full cartwheel at one point, one of those breathtaking proofs that actors are not like the rest of us in our mid-sixties.  

        But it’s the big showstopper in the first half  which is almost worth the ticket price alone:  “Slap it like that” led by John Owen-Jones in the Paul-Hollywood role involves mass percussive strudel-dough choreography.   Georgina Lamb – who keeps this big cast moving fast and neatly all the time – has had to liaise with Alice Power the “Set, Costume and Cake designer” to create a dough which could withstand the extreme slapping.   I must honour them for that.   Especially if they  er – knead –  to make a new lot twice on matinée days. 

    Yes, it was jolly.    Charlotte Wakefield has a particularly beautiful voice, too,  and if the storylines are beaten thinner than the airiest Filo pastry,  who cares?   I consulted theatrecat’s mice and the fourth one sidled in, burping, sugary frosting round its whiskers.   to  13 May

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THE TIME MACHINE          touring 


   H.G.Wells is the inspiration,  with a larkily extrovert Dave Hearn from Mischief Theatre pretending to be his great-grandson, heir, and owner of the tech-spec for what he ‘reveals’ as the real Time-travel device.  But don’t expect more than half a dozen lines about Wells’  Victorian-socialist foreboding about the future of the human race, divided a hundred years on into drippy gentle Eloi,   beneath whom the angry Morlocks do all the work and prey on them.   The script by Steven Canny and John Nicholson takes the 19c novella as a springboard for a three-person meta-theatrical romp in show-goes-wrong style,  the fourth wall abolished and the audience primed for involvement.

        It uses favourite Mischief-style  jokes like out-of-sync lines  (nicely appropriate to time travel)  and arguments between the cast  (completed by Michael Dylan and Amy Revelle)  ,  some of them pleasingly feminist as Revelle,  makes suggestions immediately credited to the men.   

     The structure is that the three were originally doing The Importance of Being Earnest for a low-grade live tour,  but got enthused by the idea of doing this instead, so they inevitably mess it up.   There are some cracking ideas,  and real wit in the hurried early attempt to illustrate the three famous impossibilities of time travel:   the Grandfather, Killing Hitler and Unchangeable Tiimeline theories. They do this in sketches involving among Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy,  and an attempt by Meghan Sussex to assassinate Queen  Victoria for begetting a dysfunctional royal family. Later they attempt to redeem their worst mistake by borrowing a phone and demanding a time capsule be buried by a university so future science can fix it in 100,000 years’ time:  the “Anyone here involved with a university?” saw some very cautious hands go up.  

         Sometimes the knowing larkiness palls a bit if you’re old and jaded, but the show doesn’t flag, and it’s a handsome enough production:   neat for touring with a smart giant clock in green marbling, a roaming door and a collection of labels.  The  ingenuity will amuse and surprise adults unfamiliar with this cheerful genre.  Most importantly (I caught the last matinee in Ipswich, after a week in which word-of-mouth filled the New Wolsey theatre more every night)  I can tell you that it absolutely thrills children and young teenagers, and may even get some arguing about the philosophy of time travel. 

       Orla O’Loughlin’s production for Original Theatre saw laughs large and real.  Hearn is particularly good at random wind-ups of the willing audience volunteers near the end (“How comfortable are you with improvised combat?” he asked one stately grey-haired figure)  .  And I am pleased to seen the trio’s final return to Oscar Wilde with a remarkably well-rehearsed  Importance of Being Earnest HipHop Dance Mix.  Handbag! Hand-bag! 

       Let critics sniff, and some will.  Audiences will leave feeling cheerful.   It is what it is: and that is  a lot of fun.  

tour dates:,  to 29 April

Derby now, then York, Eastbourne, Malvern, Bolton, Bath

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GRENFELL: SYSTEM FAILURE. Tabernacle & Marylebone


         An Afghan army officer flees the Taleban and finds safety on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower.  His local nickhame is  “Sabar”, meaning “patient”, in tribute to his calm kind nature.  When the fire erupts below them they obey the standard  instruction to “stay put”. When  no help arrives and his terrified choking wife has to be restrained from jumping,   he tells her and his son to go down but stays, soldierly,  to help four women, using wet towels against the terrible smoke. In his last moments Mohammed Abed Neda sends a calm farewell phone message:  “I am leaving this world. Goodbye”.   His wife and son escaped, stepping over the dying on the endless smoke-filled stairs.   

        There is a trigger warning before Imram Khan QC (played by Tanveer Ghani) calmly relates all this, but nobody leaves.  Nor should we.   

      After the  first part of this serious, devastating reconstruction of the Inquiry into Grenfell Tower. (( I titled the review “Devil in the details”.  Meet new devils of detail in this new selection of scenes from the careful, civil questionings by Richard Millett QC (played by Ron Cook). under Sir Martin Moore-Bick (Thomas Wheatley). As  before they remain as soberly unemphatic and untheatrical as the originals.  This second part reinforces the same messages and morals but provokes  new reflections beyond them.   It isn’t just telling us about one tower, one fire, one multiple tragedy, but bristles with salutary warnings for politics, administration and simple  professionalism across a range of duties and disciplines.  

       I had wondered how valuable would be the book-ending of this one  by two individual cases – that of Sabar, above, and some opening evidence from Hisam Choucair (Shahzad Ali) about the chaos of official reaction on the ground as he searched through eleven hospitals in the hope, never fulfilled, of finding six of his family alive.  My fear was of intrusive mawkishness, and besides my instinct was to leave the bereaved to mourn in private,  while hungering as a citizen for practical detail: the nuts and bolts, the idlenesses and cynicisms and sloppy messagings and back-coverings and cheeseparing dismissiveness which enabled the disaster to be so extreme.  I was wrong: both the quiet judgement of Choucair and the decency of patient Sabar contribute,  without emotionalism, to the power of the inquiry itself.

        It does return to the practical engineering – the disastrous choice of highly flammable cladding and designed ‘chimney’ gaps in the walling.  There is a particularly shocking sequence of internal WhatsApp messages at Kingspan “shit product…LOL..”  , a cultural cynicism which, unamazingly, their head of marketing claims not to recognize, perish the thought. And there’s a copybook example,  from a Building Research Establishment expert, of what happens when as a mid-range functionary you know something is dodgy but don’t blow the whistle loudly enough because that would  annoy a blustering, bumf-shuffling senior civil servant in a  government department.  “We spoke when we were invited to” says the BRE lady primly. Knowing, now, that she should have shouted. Or been encouraged to.     This leads – via a remarkable performance by Nigel Betts as Brian Martin of the DCLG – to an unveiling of how David Cameron’s war on ‘red tape” encouraged carelessness in building regulations with its blithe chat about bureaucratic “enemies of enterprise” and the “unnecessary burden’ of things like –  I dunno, checking that you’re not letting councils wrap skyscrapers in fast-flaming chemicals. 

         The overarching theme is in the title:  it was systems that failed all along, both in national administration and regulation and in simple ground-level resilience and care (the community did a lot better than the Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose abiding shame this all is).  The systems were ill-drawn and idly regulated, by people with insufficient respect for the masses beneath their attention.  

      But there is a sense of fairness, of seriousness in Nick Kent’s and Richard Norton-Taylor’s production.   Even the dodgiest witnesses do not  indulge in weasel faces and  Iagoesque stagecraft. They just say the words as they were spoken, including the real, hindsighted shock and sorrow the disaster brought them.   Chair and lawyers maintain the dispassionate tone, with only the tiniest flick of irritation as Moore-Bick introduces a new question: one finds oneself astonished at the lawyerly ability to concentrate on every word, every issue, every numbered piece of evidence: honour to them.  

      The only moment of comedy comes, and we are glad of it, in the evidence of LordPickles (Howard Crossley,  resisting caricature even as he speaks the verbatim arrogant bluster of that personage).   He is positively shocked that he should be expected “At My Level” to have known a damn thing about building regulations, and positively rebukes the QC for being “not familiar with how government works”.  

    Well, after a week of  Hancock & co WhatsAppery we all have more of an idea than we maybe did before. Boris Johnson gets a discredit too, by the way:  it wasn’t just Osborne’s carefree ‘austerity’ and the Kensington and Chelsea council mean minded maintenance of the block:   for who was it as London Mayor who reduced fire stations and manpower?    We see how it took a good few years to fashion the loopholes  through which the lethal cladding was commissioned, bought and slapped on to prettify a towerful of poorer, less influential tenants.   

      We must wait for the full and final report of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry.  But meanwhile,  take the time to watch these excerpts and reflect.  Every public servant should see it.  Every voter, too.

Boxoffice.        Tabernacle, W11 till 12 March.

 Then Marylebone Theatre 14-26 March

Rating  five.

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     It’s an architectural moment. Within the stark brutalist NT is a set in homage to a brutalist landmark:  the early 1960’s Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, the largest listed building in the world.  Three generations of tenants interweave in the clean-lined kitchen and living room,   ghosts in one another’s lives,  telling in their very existence a universal story of postwar British cities.  First the Stanhopes, thrilled by the modern kitchen,  glad to be clear of the leaking, rat-ridden slums below,  hoping for a baby,  Harry thrilled to be made the youngest foreman ever in the steelworks.   Then, 29 years later here’s the building ageing, crime-ridden and poorly tended,  housing refugees from Liberia who are warned always to lock the front door.  Roll on 25 years more,   and, after sale to private developers (it was too listed to demolish!)  Park Hill has been renovated and smartened up,  and Poppy,  quintessential yuppie digital exec, flees a broken heart in London (“its toxic”) and moves into the same flat  – “It’s a split-level duplex!”    She snaps defensively as her parents (very funny) settle her in with a middle-England political worry about politics  “They do tend to get a bit red this far north”.   

      There are some excellent, very local jokes (I went with my Sheffield-born husband),  notably about Henderson’s Relish (“the h is silent’),  which of course the first couple know all about,  the African refugees find  a surprising relief from the awful blandness of English food,  and Poppy of 2015 is given as a flatwarming present by her amiable colleague Marcus.   The show won “best new musical” when it launched at the Crucible,  and winding  through it like gobbets of Henderson’s Relish  are the soulful Britpop songs of Sheffield’s legendary  Richard Hawley , who co-created  it with Chris Bush.

       There are some spectacular musical moments, solo and ensemble with this big, heartfelt cast:  the first half ends with “Storm a-coming” as history rolls on to threaten industrial decline, and some of the quieter ones in the second act are beautiful. There’s a  problem for me though (it won’t be one for hardline Hawley fans, for the singing is terrific). This   is simply  that there are far too many big and quite long numbers,   and often they break the golden rule of musicals by simply not moving the story on, but interrupting it. 

        And the story is terrific, Britain’s  tale:  from the roof descend lit signs telling you of the year, as critical elections loom. The  personal anger and decline of poor Harry the  steelworker (Robert Lonsdale) is superbly done,  and so are the resentments, confusions and yearnings of the youngest refugee Joy (Faith Omole) .Sometimes a song actually infuriates. For instance, just as we are getting a historic frisson of reality in being shown  how passionately some hoped for a Kinnock government and a bright new Jerusalem,  we are thrown into a long torch-song.  It’s by Poppy’s modern lesbian lover who wants to come back to her.   

    That is the other problem,  perhaps an unavoidable one:  each group has some big crisis and trouble , but there’s an embarrassing and perhaps intentional imbalance..  The 1960 steelworks couple face the hideous waste of skills and people in the ’80’s industrial strikes, job losses and humiliations of the unions.   It’s real.  The Liberian family  are refugees, working hard to make a life despite homesickness and fear (Joy’s parents are still out there).  It’s real.   But Poppy, despite Alex Young’s likeability and humour,  has property and a job even when she has to go freelance, and only romantic and modern issues about love and identity to confront. Hashtag, Firstworldproblems.    Yes, theyre real to her, but a bit less to us.

        The one moment when this awkward imbalance is addressed is rather brilliant though: in the second half a new year party sees Connie the estate agent and overall narrator attending a party for Poppy’s friends,  and when the ex-lover Nicky crashes it suffering from resentment because she hasn’t got money or a flat like Poppy,    there’s a shouting match about how Connie the estate agent was one of the original tenants but now real working class people like her  had been forced  to make way for the renovation and rich private owners of today.   Connie (Bobbie Little) sharply skewers this romantic-socialism.   She’f fine.    “We moved on. That’s what people do. I’ve got a garden and a dog and sash windows!”.   

      Could have done with more of that, and more development of the characters’ stories rather than the weight of big numbers.  But it’s an achievement,  a proper story,  and one born well away from London, so honour to it.  But by the way, Ms Rush,  you don’t get a free pass for having a character say “You and your Richard Curtis bullshit!”. Not while at that moment they are  right in the middle of a classic Richard-Curtis dash to reconciliation. Even if it takes place on a balcony not at an airport.   

Box office. To 25 March

Rating four

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PHAEDRA. Lyttelton, SE1


    The Greeks just go on giving.  Writer-director Simon Stone’s play,  set today amid the upper-middle classes of Holland Park and second-home Suffolk,  credits itself modestly as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”.  Ah, here it comes again; two thousand years of blokes worrying about the ladies running amok when not kept under proper male control:  murderous Medea, uncooperative Antigone, and in this case Phaedra falling in love with her stepson.  Mr Stone has also explained that he has a great interest in menopause and its emotional trials,  and it is pretty clear from the start that our heroine  is ripe for this intriguingly fashionable trouble.  

      Janet McTeer plays Helen,  a shadow cabinet minister, with expensive blonde hair  and a symmetrical family.   The opening scene –  it’s  in yet another revolving glass fishtank, by the way – sketches them. There’s   Declan, an entitled teen from hell who jumps on the posh white sofa in his trainers and tells everyone to fuck off;  there’s grownup Isolde who’s been failing to conceive with her wet partner Eric, but fundraises for an NGO and is too socially conscious to do IVF. Paul Chahidi is the Iranian-born, tolerantly domestic paterfamilias.  Chahidi, thank God, is very funny and credible.  When Birmingham is mentioned he patronizingly gushes “nice town!”but asked has he actually been there says yes, er, no, it must have been Bristol…  Perfect. 

      The family talk at once, naturalistically so little sense arises for a while except a hint  that they’re all very preoccupied with sex. Into their midst comes Sofiane,  the son of Helen’s first love in her wild Morocco phase with rich Oxford mates: he was a dissident artist and of course Sofiane looks just like him so  Helen  (ooh, we menopausal menaces!) immediately wriggles and flirts like a teenager.  Well, Assaaad Bouab from Paris is beyond irresistible.   His father Achraf long ago died in what Helen romantically likes to relate as a crash caused by the secret police cutting his brakes,  but which – in the first properly dramatic moment – Sofiane reveals was more to do with the drugging and drinking into which she, a carefree affluent Western hippie, led a decent man.  He was just nine when she took him off his real family, once Sofiane saw them in congress while his mother wept.   Obviously his arrival rapidly leads to a steamy embrace with Madam Minister  in a number of sets the glass box magically contains ,  notably a floor mattress in an unoccupied ?Birmingham office block where one of his friends does security.   It also contains (top marks to the stage crew)  some breast-high reeds in Suffolk where the family bicker a bit more,  Isolde and Eric break up, and Helen confides to a weary MP friend that this new passion makes her  body feel alive and it’s forever.  

       Sadly Sofiane’s  is less determined,  and when Isolde confronts him about the affair – guess what, in no time there’s more work for the Intimacy Co-Ordinator!. This all happens in short chopped scenes between deep blackouts and bursts of dramatic exotic-tribal-sacred score by Stefan Gregory.   

    I was a bit jaded by the interval, frankly:  too many people shouting “It’s complicated” when actually it isn’t:  feels more like every confessional-cougar feature about How My Younger Lover Gave Me Back Myself,  crossed with BBC4 Hotter Than My Daughter.  They’re all just too shallow to be Greek, or tragic, or anything but mildly satirically interesting and well-acted (Mackenzie Davis as Isolde, a professional debut, deserves credit for making her as real as the script allows. I even believed the bit about being body-shamed by a German boy on the beach when she was twelve). 

         But never fear.  The second half brightens up no end,  with Helen’s restaurant birthday party two months on.  It starts with her friend  telling  her she’s a  self centred bitch, and as Sufian and Isolde arrive together  and Hugo turns out both more drunk and less tolerant than usual (I do love Paul Chahidi!) ,  it  descends into a comedy of unwelcome revelations. Good fun,  rather as if Alan Ayckbourn had popped in to give the author a hand.  A grand  moment from John MacMillan’s hitherto wet Erik, by the way,  and stalwart work by supernumaries  as other restaurant customers politely trying to ignore the screaming.   

          I did wonder how the  heroically self-absorbed heroine would get round to her  compulsory Euripidean suicide – as sketched so far,  her character seemed more likely to write an exculpatory piece in the Guardian and do Strictly – but when the tabloids get her,  the Cabinet career falters since “it doesn’t look good for the party’s stance on immigration” if ministers keep shagging illegal immigrants.  So in a  rather awkwardly tacked- on coda,  the great glass fishtank turns out to contain a snowy Moroccan mountainside where fearful truths about her delusionary romance come clear, albeit in hissed French with surtitles  delivered by a whole new character.  So at last  McTeer is allowed a full mad melodramatic  range.  Remembered how good she really is. Deserves a better, far less uneven,  play. , to 8 april

Rating three.

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THE LEHMAN TRILOGY. Gillian Lynne Theatre WC2


       Three hour-long plays, two intervals, three men in black frock-coats explain some financial history in a revolving glass box in front of a projected , mainly monochrome, cyclorama.  When it triumphed at the National Theatre in 2018 I wrote “this show has no right to be so much fun”.(   Recast and home again, it still is a treat after waltzing Broadway and LA and  a Tony for Best Play.

          First time round it was during Trump’s visit:  now it’s post- Trussonomics.   Clearly there’s  never a wrong time to tell this moral, intriguing, endlessly fascinating tale about the collapse of the immense American finance house Lehman Brothers, whose legal but lethal subprime activities triggered a global financial crisis. 

         The play earned every one of its plaudits,  for its Italian author Stefano Massini, adaptor Ben Power,  director Mendes and, not least, the designer Es Devlin, who created the  glass box evoking a NY office-block hell,  whose  interior shapes are constantly rebuilt by the players to create a past:  their building blocks are the cardboard file-boxes in which ruined employees carry home their belongings. If they survive at all.   

       As it opens, the three brothers are ghosts in that modern office,  drifting back to how it all began.   Chaim, first out of Bavaria in 1844, agrees with the 1844 immigration officer that OK, he’s called Henry.  In the Alabama cotton–fields he starts a small fabric and garment store serving owners and overseers (and slaves, who come in on Sunday when it’s the only shop open, Lehman having marked Shabbat).  Three years later Emanuel arrives, then the youngest brother Meyer , nicknamed “potato” and regarded by the family as a useful buffer between his strong-willed elders.  They move into selling seeds, tools and carts – “it’s all business”.    A fire devastates the crops, and with vigorous Jewish pragmatism Henry sees that when “everything is lost, everything must be re-bought and re-planted”. So they lend against future repayment in a share of the crop; cut a deal with the state governor , become a bank and  are soon selling on the cotton,  making deals with more plantations and big industry.  Denim was born so.  They think bigger,  dodge round problems and disasters and a Civil War with quarrelsome, inventive energy and ever-modifying dreams, scrawl calculations on the glass with marker pens.

         They have to find acceptance too:  be trusted, talk doubters round, marry.  When Emanuel goes to New York he is delighted to find Jewish names on offices  – Goldman, Sachs, Sondheim.   In their newly invented role as “middlemen”,  they confound doubters and soon millionsworth of business is “all passing through a small room in the South where the doorhandle still sticks”.  But New York is the magnet, and growth the imperative.   They survive,  marry, raise new generations, grow, change ….

        It is an acting challenge, a masterclass.  Nigel Lindsay is Henry, Michael Malogun Emanuel,  Hadley Fraser young Meyer.  Each drops deftly in and out of becoming other characters: locals, clients, politicians, their own wives and children with varying characters and ages.     Fraser and Lindsay in particular are excellent shape-shifters, clowns when needed;  but all three hold every diverse part, sometimes only for seconds, with clarity and wit.   Sometimes you laugh at their nerve and cheek and  family bickering (one leaves altogether, for politics).  Sometimes there is a still personal moment acknowledging the strangeness of the immigrant experience.  When  Meyer keeps his outdated striped-spats in his thoughtful old age it is because when you arrived from Ellis Island in the 1840s,   everyone looked at your shoes.  Often – the glass set is one of the stars –  one of them grabs a marker pen and scrawls something on the  walls: a new company name,  a calculation, an idea.

         The trilogy shape is elegant, a reproachful history lesson in how the West’s exuberant expansion blunted sense and virtue.  The first act is about firm but honest business, trading solid goods,  with the moral background of Jewish observant tradition : they sit shiva for a week for Henry.  The middle act is  expansion, industry, coffee, tobacco, railroads, the vaudeville whirl of ’20s New York ,  gambling  risk against responsibility:  the vaudeville tightrope-walker Solomon Paprinski crosses Wall Street for years without falling, until, a living metaphor,  he falls.   Yet as Lehmans came through the Civil war, middlemen between North and South, so they have to survive the ’30s.  The third act is grim with suicides on trading floors and poverty on the streets,  but a young Lehman  generation is rising.,   both in the boardroom and in hardscrabble families. Which will, finally, produce the whirling ruthless chaos of a business where there is no real coal or tobacco or railroads but money. And “money is a ghost, it is air, it is words…what if everyone stops believing?”.  And now shiva for the last family death is held not for a week, but for three minutes.   The last Lehman , power lost,  dances the Twist amid  tieless, ambitious tech-crazy colleagues in a frenzy of  20c speed and greed,  the cyclorama of New York windows whirling  behind them until you have to hold onto your chair, half laughing and half afraid.  As we should be.  Magnificent. 

Box office To 20 May

Rating 5.

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    Here’s a love story, an idyll of 18c Prussia:  Corporal Anastasius Linck, a Hanoverian musketeer in dashing white breeches and shiny buttons is espied  from a window by the lovely, undowered but extremely bored and rebellious Catharina Mulhahn.  Our hero is forced to desert the regiment and flee under the assumed name of Rosenstengel to work as a cloth-monger and dyer, since a medical examination for the clap would have revealed that he is born a woman. But love must have its way, and finds its idyll in a garret until an outraged mother of the bride  and the clumping simplicities of a bygone penal code catch up with them, comically but lethally.

     There is nothing new about people stepping outside the tiresome social conventions laid down for the body they were born with.  Across cultures  and down history there have been many  characters forceful enough either to live as the opposite sex, or to declare themselves as the current fashionable line has it “nonbinary”:  something beyond and different.    

       We hear much of the males, especially their persecution in cultures which lately included our own, but perhaps not enough of the women: amazons and military maids, girls who ran off to be pirates, sailors , soldiers. Some tales are of following a lover –  like Sweet Polly Oliver or Leonora in Fidelio –  some just wanted adventure and were – as many of us have been – resentful of female limitation. Others  were lesbian and fell in love with girls. Of those female lovers, some  knew perfectly well what was going on below their dashing partners’ breeches, others seemingly not.  And certainly stiffly conventional societies like 18c Prussia  preferred to believe such wives were dupes. So this is the backbone of a fascinating story which inspires a playful tragicomedy from Ruby Thomas,  who has already dazzled us twice downstairs in this  theatre which discovers new writers and tends them well. 

      She found the story of Linck and Mulhahn in a 1722 account of the court case which condemned both – “him” to death, her to prison needlework and exile.  With director Owen Horsley and some enlivening bursts of modern disco she goes at it playfully, in a clean stark abstract set which becomes barracks, bar, home, garret and finally courtroom. It is at times gloriously funny, often deeply touching in the portrait of their brief domestic fulfilment. Maggie Bain is glorious, crop-haired and swashbucklingly boyish as a soldier, grave and troubled in moments of unease at the dangerous social unacceptability of their love.Helena Wilson as Catharina is a likeable hoyden, clashing with a fabulously drawn Lucy Black as her mother,  a mistress of pass-ag petit-point who is eventually roused to terrified hysteria at the danger of the situation.

       The long first act is a delight, sharp and credible and funny,  with a bit too much young-intellectual chat about Locke and Liebnitz, but real heart.   After the interval they are in court, and Thomas’ gift for uproarious comedy this time is lavished on Kammy Darweish’s  bored old judge and the pious prosecutor and doddering defence. Mother’s panicked evidence is good, and the decent fellow-soldier Johann – who always knew, but respected a fellow-warrior female or not – adds to the sense of how absurd it was, and still is, for law to interfere in private love of any kind.  

      At which point I hoped that this sense of absurdity and celebration of diverse ways of being would lead our author on to some timeless, and still playful,  ending.  Alas, it was not to be: it goes literal ,and heavyset preachy. A touching but overdone last prison parting is followed by a scaffold speech too far, and the hammering of a message that “even if I am done away with , those like me will remain” . Then a modern couple in dungarees and t shirt meet in a theatre now to “weave their own story” of passion and suffering.  Until those last ten minutes I was cheering.  It faded a bit, killed a mouse below, but Ruby Thomas is absolutely one to watch , its a good evening, and I will follow every play in her future. 

     My only quibble is the hard insistence in the playscript that Linck must never be played by a “cis heterosexual male or female”. If another playwright ruled to exclude gay actors, imagine the row. If individual privacy in sexual love  is sacred, let it remain so. 

box office    to 4 march


Linck & Mülhahn has been kindly supported by the Godwin family.

The  T.S. Eliot Foundation commissioned Linck & Mülhahn.

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JUMPING THE SHARK Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds & touring


    It’s a very good idea, bang on the money:  David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (TV sitcom writers with a pedigree) set their play in a bland provincial hotel where five hopefuls are attending a weekend course on sitcom-writing.  Two are former or resting actors – Robin Sebastian as Gavin sending up his trade from poseur-to-pitiable,  and Sarah Moyle as Pam,  who may well be on the edge of divorcing an invisible Jeremy.  Jack Trueman is Dale, a manspreading braggart kitchen-fitter, Harry Visinoni is Morgan, a painfully cool would-be sci-fi-rap-fantasist,  and Jasmine Armfield  probably the youngest:   a slightly mysterious, self-contained Amy.

        Their magisterial tutor, supposedly half of a legendary writing duo,  is David Schaal as Frank:  full of handbook truisms about flawed protagonists,  jeopardy, comic misreading and  the need to avoid “jumping the shark” into improbability. 

There are a lot of good lines here, interesting in themselves,   and I love Frank’s passionate view that all of our culture has been shaped by the reassuring, happy gleam of the TV sitcoms,  we all quote and which console us that in the end we will laugh at life’s real embarrassments, disasters and humiliations.  

      All the potential private flaws of the five are clearly set out, as each tells a short ‘story about themselves’ for Frank to dissect and suggest improvements to;  but unfortunately the first half feels as if you are actually at the seminar.   There were good laughs in the Bury audience,  but even at just over an hour, the first act could do with a trim.

       A slow first half is forgivable, but the graver problem is that the only hint of a real crisis coming at the denouement is in the hands of Amy:  as the scene ends and they all scuttle off to write their sample sitcom scenes,  she reminds Frank that she has been at one of his courses before.  But Armfield, successful formerly as Bex in EastEnders onscreen,  gives  a downbeat TV performance on a real stage  . Too many lines are,  frankly, semi-audible even in this small theatre.  I am sure that as the tour progresses `(this is its very beginning) she will settle, slow down and project.  .  

       But it’s a problem because her back-story and Frank’s  is critical to the whole plot.  In the brighter second half,   properly funnily and with much glee from the audience,  all the characters attempt a different sitcom and unintentionally reveal their own hangups (Jack Trueman’s kitchen-fitter is genuinely touching,  Moyle’s Pam is of a Victoria-Wood standard).     And finally we get the scene where Amy does hers and outs Frank, and that should be electric.  It would be, if it were  only done with more conviction and pace and projection, and  I hope it will be. 

       Because, as I say, it’s a great idea and not unenjoyable:  but its denouement desperately needs theatricality,  something live and important and  painful and right in your face.   I wish it well.   And enjoyed the downbeat, gentle coda, especially for the kitchen-fitter’s sake.    to Saturday

touring  to 1 April, Westcliffe on SEa next.

Tour  details

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         It must be challenging to play a psychiatrist at work , maybe especially in Finsbury Park   where there are bound to be a few in the audience.  You have to convince :   catch the silences, the questioning ,  and  in responding to your client  the  professional detachment from their powerful ability to generate  mental storms.    Jon Osbaldeston does a very convincing job as Dr Greenberg, so respect for that;  equally adept in Nicolas Billon’s odd, intimate  75-minute play is Gwithian Evans as the patient, Michael.   He’s adolescent, impertinent, dead-eyed and pale and as the Nurse  says,  he is likely to play mind -games with staff.     The portrayal is of a young man both intensely dislikeable and palpably damaged;   as a performance it is admirable  but not enjoyable.  For Michael’s desire to  cause unease and irritation succeeds too well. 

         Therefore a slight problem  for the actual audience is that by the point, an hour in, when we are designed to  get some understanding of all his talk about a dead elephant shot by his Dad  and an opera singing neglectful mother,  the risk is that we don’t care enough about him.  Not Mr Evans’ fault:  even if Mark Rylance or Hugh Grant was playing him he couldn’t be likeable with this text.

  Anyway, Michael  is an inpatient and  Dr Greenberg the Director of the hospital. The psychiatrist is  trying to find out why a colleague has vanished and is uncontactable ever since his last session with the lad.    We sort of get an answer,  after a great deal of quite tedious lying and hints about  sex scandals in mental institutions.  We  certainly get a lethal final moment.    But alas,  by then both sympathy and credibility are gone. It’s  a shame, given the quality of acting and atmospheric use of the set, especially the metronome.   Billon has had this odd piece filmed and won plaudits, and the writing is sharp at times.   But it neither teaches nor entertains. Which is really unusual for this terrific little theatre.   to 11 Feb

rating two 

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Just a few new notes on this , as its completes its triumphant national tour with (amazingly) no stopping-injuries despite the heroically vigorous slapstick direction by Lindsay Posner (movement and fights, Ruth Cooper-Brown). Especially in the first section of Act 2.

Well, you know the play by now – below is my review from the opening in Bath with this production – but I just want to add a note or too , equally five-mouseable.

I had forgotten how good Joseph Millsom is as Garry, both in the physical work (OMG that stair descent with laces tied together) but also in his characterisation of a type of actor generally and mercifully rare, the pretentious yet inarticulate. A special shout-out too to Pepter Lunkuse as the exhausted, insulted ASM~: often in the background of more exuberant scenes but worth watching in horrified reaction. Soit was a joy to see this cast still so beautifully together , and one hopes on speaking terms, after a real tour as challenging as any of the old rep trudges which Michael Frayn so gleefully was sending up. His essay on farce, and spoof blogs, in the programme remain a joy every time too.

The only difference for me was seeing the production first in Bath with contemporaries of mine, who vaguely remember rep and awful bedroom door-slamming comedies, and seeing it with a much younger friend who was, frankly, gobsmacked that theatre ever got away with the sexism of “Nothing On” farces . I equally noted, in such modern company, that there were times not all the long ago when you could bung a sheet on your head and say you were “an Arab sheikh” without getting cancelled and told off in the Guardian. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about its marvels earlier…long may it live, right into the sternly correct future when rubbish rep farce is ancient history and even poor Freddie’s disability (fainting triggered at the mention of blood) is considered wrong to laugh at….

BOOKING is now to 11 March so ignore the old details in the review below..

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     Theatre can offer few more topical messages for a nation which might hesitate over Ukraine’s needs than this neglected one-set domestic play by Lilian Hellman. It is an artfully jolting picture of a comfortable, secure and affluent society abruptly reminded of an angry wolfish world in conflict,  and why turning a blind eye to it is both shameful and imprudent.   By coincidence it seems to be 1941 week on. Theatrecat:  two nights ago I saw (scroll down) Allegiance,  set in  an America which had hesitated  over joining WW2 but then was shocked by Pearl Harbour, and abruptly interned its citizens of Japanese heritage.   Then came this play, set in that limbo just before the US joined.  It ran on Broadway in 1941,  and with American mobilization was a hit film in 1943 with Bette Davis, the ending expanded to suggest an ongoing duty of conflict.

         Ellen McDougall’s  Donmar direction  plays on the idea of a ’40s film, a screen flickering, widening to frame the live action.  I thought at first this might be mere retro-chic and distance it from today,   but somehow it did the opposite as the flesh-and-blood players emerged and made one aware that no war is properly distant.  

        The Farrelly household in Washington DC – widowed Miz Fanny,  her bachelor son, the black butler Joseph and old retainer Annise  – are to learn this sharply.   Staying with them is an old friend’s daughter, Martha,  who married Teck, a Romanian Count now on his uppers as a refugee.  Fanny’s daughter is coming home with her German husband Kurt and their three children after twenty years away,  in which (as Fanny gradually discovers) Kurt has been daringly active since the early ’30s in anti-fascism across Europe, wounded in Spain.  

          Artfully, Hellman gives us a lot of breezy domestic comedy:  Patricia Hodge is superb as Fanny,  prickly and grand and rich but clever and observant,  and the three children are wonderful, meeting their Grandmother for the first time and proving very un-American,  German  in their polite earnestness. The youngest is a treat.    The gulf between their European lives and Miz Fanny’s is neatly indicated when they are offered breakfast on arrival. “Anything that can be spared” they say politely “Eggs, are not too expensive?”   Another layer of family life is that Martha’s marriage is crumbling,  the son of the house besotted with her.   

        The household  gradually feels the tension between the Europeans:  Count Teck clearly has a tendresse for Herr Hitler’s National Socialist Party and its values, and mistrusts Kurt to the point, we will discover, of unleashing a horror.   The contrast of the European men is impeccably done, right down to the costume clues : Mark Waschke’s engaging, warm, slightly shabby Kurt and the three-piece pinstripe and hair-oil of Teck.  The second half darkens as news comes of anti-Fascist arrests, the task Kurt has before him in going back, and the cost to his family.  Caitlin Fitzgerald as Sara is marvellous, restrained, palely steadfast in her readiness for the coming loneliness as her husband resists Fanny’s hope he will stay in family safety with the breathtaking Hellman line  “My children are not the only children in the world. Even to me”.   As we have been enjoying and laughing with those children for two hours, that hits home hard.   

     So, weirdly, does Teck’s smugly strange line about his treachery “I do not do it without some shame”. Both sides are trapped in the wickedness of the war – “thousands of years and we cannot yet make a world where old men can die in bed”.  A shocking violence breaks the drawing-room atmosphere, and Fanny has a decision to make.  

       Getting here was a third attempt – covid, the show’s own delay, rail strikes.  I could not be more pleased to have made it to a last seat in the gallery.  Power to the Donmar,  and a last salute to Hellman, a writer who knew that you must both entertain and awaken. 

Box office.  To 4 Feb

Rating five.  

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IN THE NET Jermyn Street Theatre


       Most dystopian visions set themselves quite far in the future. Misha  Levkov, however, keeps us in 2025, specifying that productions should always be set a couple of years ahead of real time, and the setting is London – Kentish Town. This does keep it  recognizable and clear of sci-fi fantasy, but it also demands that  Britain has gone downhill dramatically fast.  Laura and Anna, half-sisters, and their  father Harry are living in “The Emergency”,  with borders closed and immigration surging. A global drought and sudden  temporary local powers are  severely rationing water (while keeping plenty for officials, we gather ) and cracking down on asylum seekers with a battery of biometric tracking and brutal authoritarianism. 

      Tony Bell,  tripling as an Immigration officer, councillor and predatory estate agent taking their flat off them,  does an excellent job but is offered pretty cartoonish  lines,  representing every Nazified jobsworth the north-London liberal might detest. “No place to run, nowhere to hide. Vigilance. Total eyes and ears and global positioning” he says. And. “…I like the duty chart, the office caff and the khaki. The spiff. The tech. Also – why not say it? – I like the chase…it gets very primal very quickly”.   

        Against him are pitted three women. Carlie Diamond is admirable in a headlong professional debut as Laura,  afire with idealism about the ancient Jewish idea of making an “Eruv”.It is an ancient Judaic custom, originally declaring a neighbourhood as exempt from the strict Sabbath interdict on working or travelling.   Laura sees it as a way to create, by winding threads of yarn between homes and gardens, a sort of sanctuary.  Not just for Jews but for everyone.  Her sister Anna Is a bit of a Buddhist, fresh from a stint at a monastery but disillusioned about the exploitation of pilgrims there.   Finally Laura persuades her that their eruv will not be a ghetto but inclusive, loving,  supportive to all  -“It can be lovely inside a web”.  There is a lot of overwritten gush about this, and though it is all handled by Diamond with great skill and likeability it becomes  increasingly irritating.  Especially as she seems to have, or want, no actual work beyond winding thread round the neighbourhood.    Dad is not impressed either – “daydreams are as bad as nightmares” 

        This fey defiant impracticality is,  it is admitted, basically  part of the girl’s grief for her mother.  Who was the rescuer of the third, more interesting and better-written woman, Hala the Syrian asylum seeker (Suzanne Ahmed, impressive). I could have done with a lot more from her,  not least because she is unconvinced for most of the play by the threading protest.  She also raises the most interesting ideas in the play, questions about expected gratitude, the difference between hosts and friends, and what happens “when asylum seekers want more than we will give”.  

        My sense of frustration eased a bit in the second half, largely because – with a small-space elegance often found in the Jermyn – director Vicky Moran and Ingrid Hu the designer get them climbing, threading, creating the web in reality – with clever projection to exaggerate it into a big mad web in which the wicked Immigration Officer can be trapped and defeated. That at least is properly theatrical,  though the overwrought lines continue to come at you “Is that a yellow moon beyond the clouds or the white sun…Looking down on merry Eruv jugglers who keep the stars in their sky..”.

         Its heart is in the right place, though the fact is signposted so glaringly that it risks a perverse reaction (like being rather sorry for the officialdom  represented by Tony Bell).  I wish I was moved and inspired by it, but wasn’t.  To 4 Feb

Rating two.

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ALLEGIANCE Charing Cross Theatre WC1


      An old man steps onstage alone:  upright, soldierly in khaki as a former US war hero who is,  he says resignedly,  “brought out every year on the Pearl Harbour anniversary” .      George Takei, 85 years old, is the most beguiling of figures these days (even if you aren’t a Trekkie who misses Mr Sulu at the dashboard or a follower of his liberal campaigns and  frank remarks how nobody liked William Shatner) .  And this, fresh off Broadway,  is a serious, personal Takei telling the story of a great injustice done to fellow countrymen of his race.  

      At five years old, after a sunny and prosperous Californian infancy, he found himself sleeping on horse-scented straw alongside his bewildered family at a racecourse stable in Arkansas,  hastily adapted into an rough camp.    Japanese-Americans lost businesses, land and homes in  political hysteria after Pearl Harbour:   abruptly classified as enemy aliens they were cleared off the west coast and interned,  in squalid conditions and under armed guard between 1941 and 1945.  It took until the 80s for the Civil Liberties Act to offer proper reparations, apology and admission of its racist absurdity. After all, as one character says,  “we’re at war with Italy and nobody’s putting Joe di Maggio in a camp”. 

        Takei has long spoken about this period,  and is at the heart of this musical by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.  As the old soldier, Sam,  he book-ends a memory play in which Sam’s young self – played with fierce endearing energy by Telly Leung – is passionately patriotic and  wants to enlist, save American values from Germany and the distant Empire of Japan.  In the family Takei plays the grandfather,  insisting on building a garden in the grim dustbowl to which they are condemned .  Briefly we see them first as a contented group in California, full of immigrant ambition and energy. Sam’s Dad (Masahi Fujimoto) is urging him towards law school,  his big sister Kei (Aynrand Ferrer, a beautiful singer) ever anxiously maternal. She becomes  the one most urgently trying after the arrest to make everything all right for the extended family in their undeserved humiliation.   Overhead looms the figure of Mike Masaoka in Washington,  pleading the loyalty of his fellow Japanese-heritage Americans:  he is both an advocate and, as time goes bitterly on,  seen as a traitor who hang them out to dry.  

       We sit in ranks either side of the central camp (neat, evocative design by Mayou Trikerioti) and watch them  being hectored by guards,  their dignity ignored, issued with the notorious “loyalty questionnaires” demanding extreme patriotic affirmations.  Papers which some, rather magnificently, make into origami flowers.   But young Sam still loves America,  enlists even as his father  rips up his insulting questionnaire. He becomes a reckless war hero,  America’s token “good Jap”,  and the rift in the group widens as his friend and eventual brother-in-law Frankie in the camp leads a rebellion burning draft cards.   

       The book is, as Broadway requires, a rom-com at times:  Sam falls for the camp nurse (a lovely, endearing performance by Megan Gardiner) and Frankie the rebel loves  Kei.   But the real engine of the plot and its best moments, is the ideology and division of loyalties which drag the family apart, through hardship and a tragic loss, all the way to the embittered figure played by Takei at the start.  

           The numbers are mainly generic Broadway, though rise wonderfully when  with high flute sounds they draw  most closely on Japanese music.  And indeed words:  like the urgent “Gaman” meaning “carry on, keep going” and the mournful Ishi Kara Ishi about moving a mountain stone by stone .   There are understated but  very Japanese moments:  the old man hanging a wind-chime,  Grandfather Takei’s meditative gardening, and his  respectful bow to his middle-aged rebellious son who is being led away in handcuffs.   

      It drew me in ever more, especially in the harsher second act as the war takes its toll with two real coups-de-theatre: the huddle of helmets and shots as Sam’s Japanese regiment faces a sacrificial raid,  and the news of Hiroshima:  the ensemble stilled with horror and the “light of a thousand suns” blinds us in turn before suddenly a mic-waving DJ leads a Victory Swing.  Nothing is said about the Japanese-Americans’ feeling about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it does not need to be.  The shock is real.   And as the fog of war clears, Sam is back and finds out how much he has lost , and how bitter is one seeming betrayal.  

     Good musicals can face tough bleak stories and irredeemable losses, however necessary the upbeat final moment and triumphant curtain-call. And this is a good one.  Not perfect,  not perhaps among the musical greats,  but a piece of storytelling and performance which holds you fast.  And there is shivering power in watching how much it means to old Takei to tell it. 

Box office    To 8 April

Rating 4.

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  The story of Nelson Mandela has become almost a folktale: imprisoned for 27 years for campaigning against the hideous “apartheid” regime which kept  the black majority poor and brutalized, he spoke only about “black and white working together” and emerged as a leader working for reconciliation.  It’s a heroic legend, not  a story that lends itself to political subtlety: this world premiere,  by Laiona Michelle and composers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, acknowledges “proud partnership” with his family,  tells the story with impassioned  and rightly partisan simplicity.  Michael Luwoye is a towering Mandela:  idealistic, sorrowful at violence,  deploying his familiar humour and unresentful humanity. 

           There could be a more nuanced side-story about the way his wife Winnie, in that long lonely ordeal, became a more savage and irrationally violent figure in the struggle: that tragedy is  hinted at only in an electric, furious confrontation as Danielle Fiamanya tells him  that for decades he has been safe in prison, gently befriending his warders, while she was out struggling and raising their children.   But for now this is a story of great-heartedness, a powerful one in our age of fashionable race theories which foster mistrust, resentment and dislike. 

 It pulls no punches about the awfulness of the regime:  we see the Sharpeville Massacre brutally mowing down peaceful demonstrators,  and the flat  paranoia of the white Afrikaner leadership convinced that making the slightest concession to democracy would been whites  “chased into the sea”. They stand rigid the balcony above the dancing, hopeful cast and the Mandela children dreaming of their father (it’s joyful at times); later other figures make it clear why America and Britain were slow to impose sanctions to protect their trade.  When President de Klerk and MAndela shake hands in prison there’s a shiver, and more in an astonishingly moving song when his last warder (who became a friend) feels rueful astonishment about how he thought before. 

          I admit approaching this with particular emotion.  My father’s posting meant that the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned I was twelve, in a South African school under regrettably racist nuns.  The illogical brutality of apartheid was obvious;  my mother, appalled, would take me to help distribute food to children in the impoverished  townships.  When after a year I was sent home to England I was afraid my father wouldn’t get out before a bloody  revolution. It felt inevitable.  That thirty years passed  before  the peaceful, reconciliatory open elections always seemed to me a miracle.  


rating four

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MOTHER GOOSE Duke of York’s Theatre WC! & touring


      I last saw Sir Ian McKellen onstage  as Lear,   missed him as the oldest Hamlet ever,   but far longer ago saw him in a frock at the Old Vic,  in Spacey’s day,. On that occasion it is reported that he and others had some trouble explaining to the American AD what a panto actually was.   I remember that one as a bit sub-prime, trying too hard to be grownup and a bit heavy on the innuendo.  This one on the other hand,  in which the great theatrical knight is actually going to tour, in his 80s,   is absolutely perfect. 

       The pleasure of it is in the feeling that despite the topflight cast and the direction of Cal McCrystal,  peerless physical comedy guru,  it has the feeling of a local panto, even a community one.  No big technical showpieces,  but plenty of old-fashioned gags: puppets popping out of pans,  a ‘self-raising flower’ swannee-whistling up from a table,  a custard pie scene and rapid costume changes.   For the Dame himself,  one happens rather brilliantly behind ostrich feather fans, another when his oppo John Bishop as Vic Goose is transformed from a Grenadier Guard to a leather-babe (“that went down better in Brighton..”)

        The jokes are well-worn too, with only a few nods to 2022 like the brief appearance without explanation of a blond slavering Boris-pig in the kitchen scene.  Though there is , for the London run, a humdingher of a Prince Andrew joke in the singalong. 

      McKellen’s Mother Goose and Bishop’s likeable Vic are accompanied by a gang of animals, monkey and penguin and tortoise and bear etc,  and a nerdy Bat who kept reminding me of Michael Gove.  The songs are jolly and familiar and never too long,  and McKellen himself is a dream. Because he’s loving it;  because he’s doing it for theatre nationwide, in hope; above all because his great range of expressions and reactions are as spot-on as you would expect .  He also gives us the Quality of Mercy speech straight,  to the cruel if rather camp King of the Geese, with the proper shiver down the spine;  but better,  watches visibly impressed as John Bishop,  a mere standup,  decides to do Sonnet 18 (Shall i compare thee..) rather beautifully. 

       And he puts up with the “Serena” gag. Of course. He’s a great old fabulous treasure, and traditional panto is a treasure too. For them to be touring together in this hard season for theatre is a kind of triumph. 

box office  to 31 Jan at Duke of York’s

Then touring to 1 April

rating  5

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THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich


     In Mole End on Christmas Eve,in a burrow cosy with domestic detail  they’re breaking out the beer and sardines and reminiscing about the adventures that brought them together.  They will take us, enthralled as we sit around the  big studio, from Mole’s first rebellion against housework on a fine spring morning  to the enlisting of Badger, Toad’s shenanigans and the showdown with the weasels.  

      As they tell it they re-enact Grahame’s Edwardian classic: three actors most suitably clad. Rei Mordue’s Mole is a little city gent in a dark blazer and bowler;  Darren Latham’s exuberant Ratty a Henley chap in straw boater and flannel bags, Badger’s huge black and white fur coat and hat is more animal but aha!beneath  it, in some very nifty offstage changes, Matt Penson wear’s Toad’s gentleman-rascal breeches and yellow weskit. For he plays both the dour working class scholar hero Badger,  and the preening narcissistic Toad.

     Joanna Carrick’s skilful stage adaptation is faithful too: while the show is fun enough for its school matinees – the physical comedy of Latham and Penson inparticular is lively and sharp- witted – she does not shy away, as many adaptors do,  from Grahame’s orotund dialogue exaggerations. When Mole scorns the doorscraper and doormat he gives Ratty the full querulous, almost Kenneth Grahame,  Edwardian chap-banter.  And the five year old in my eyeline was as agog for that as he was for instructions to shout or to patter his feet like a sinister wild wood weasel.  

     I liked that. And almost more, loved the instant, elegant prop and set work (design by Carrick, Newborn, Katy Frost and, apparently, everyone in this gallant, community-based but professionally smart outfit).  Mole’s homely kitchen furnishings artfully become – with prior artful arrangment and paintjobs –  a boat, a person, a canary coloured car, a car, a barge and everyone else’s home.  Nor are  chimney smoke and bathroom bubbles grudged, for  Red Rose Chain is ever theatrical. This fast makeshifting is vital in family shows: when you’re young it helps to know that you can put a show on with wooden spoons,  upturned tables, numerous hats and cheek.

        The songs are good too: short, jolly, once accompanies by Mole on the accordion and once, briefly but unforgettably, by an imprisoned Toad giving it the full Folsom Prison Blues mouth-organ lament.  

     I am an adult and I loved its wit and pace. Children have roared approval (I suspect especially for Toad). The company’s outreach means that many who otherwise  aren’t likely to get to another show this Christmas –  or indeed ever – have seen it. Including two busloads of refugees. For once, a bit of Arts Council money bore fruit and went the right way, sowing seeds for the nation’s creative future. Never roll your eyes at the word Ipswich: the town gave us Trevor  Nunn, Ralph Fiennes, Jane Lapotaire… and now Red Rose Chain.  

Boxoffice     To 31 dec

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SONS OF THE PROPHET Hampstead Theatre NW3


   Hard to express how much I loved Stephen Karam’s play. Maybe it just hit the right moment:  yomped through freezing night, strikes and ‘severe delays” reading about affronted sibling princes and the general sense of glumly compromised Christmases .  And then in the first moments  found I loved humanity again, having fallen heavily for Irfan Shamji’s Joseph. Here is a man whose lot is to repress irritation at a series of difficult but necessary people.  There’s his fearful employer, the independent book-packager Gloria (who he later describes as “a wealthy deranged woman”,  who he dare not quit because he desperately needs medical insurance for his crumbling knees, his athletic prowess suddenly lost. 

     She is needy and intrusive, wanting to exploit him for a book because she has read in the papers more than he wants about his Lebanese Maronite-Christian family, his mother’s death from cancer,  their distant descent from the cherished sage Khalil Gibran  and the fact that his father has just died after being in a car accident caused by a lethal prank by a lad who is nonetheless being allowed to continue the high school football season to save his scholarship.  Juliet Cowan’s Gloria is a superb nightmare, played straight.  Though we laugh. Painfully, and in sympathy with him.

      Then there’s Joe’s younger brother Charles,  damaged, dependent, stroppy, clinging on to the dead father’s faith,  superstitiously obsessed with a saint’s icon sending him messages.  And there’s equally enraging Uncle Billy, with whom the lad sits praying through the Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries (“I said I’d join him after the Scourging at the Pillar”.)   The setting is Pennsylvania, where towns called Nazareth and Bethlehem reflect the tender old immigrant religion.   Both brothers, by the way, are gay and Billy resents the fact that their family stops here.  Young Charles in his sorrow wants to ‘reach out” to Vin, the prankster who caused their father’s crash.  Poor Joe meanwhile, awaiting his full diagnosis on a series of even more irritating robotic phone lines,  gets into conversation with a reporter, Timothy, whose preppy entitlement  and gap-yah prattling about fashionable tragedies is to us as onlookers downright hilarious even while we feel Joe’s irritated helplessness. And, touchingly later,  his helpless attraction to the affluent prat. Lovely exchange where Timothy boasts that his mother came from poverty and Joe snarls that he lives there –  “it’s middle-income housing!”  

      Bijan Sheibani directs fast, fluently, in short almost filmic segments and minimal staging. and explodes it in the last ten minutes or so to draw the whole theatre into a televised debate at the school board about Vin’s sentence. Everyone risks boiling over, Uncle Billy howling furiously behind me on the steps and poor Joe, as so often, cringing up at the far side while Gloria declares her emotional pain over losing a HarperCollins deal and her very unwelcome desire to be part of their family.  

   All the players are flawless,  Shamji a gem and Eric Sirakian’s Charles subtle and touching in his bonding with the boy Vin and his one real cry of pain at orphanhood and Billy’s decline.  But its joy is in combining Chekhovian tragicomedy with light-touch commentary on many things:  religion, media, brotherhood, forgiveness, neediness, emotional colonisation of other people’s griefs, and the cruel absurdities of American healthcare.  

   There’s even a dryly happy ending,  publisher-fuelled,  because as Joe observes “To make it in this country you either need to be an extraordinary human being or make a series of extraordinarily bad life decisions. All of us in the middle, we’re not worth so much”.  

        Oh yes you are.  Sometimes the only people worth making plays about.  Five mice, hurrah.  Hijack a train to get there.  

Box office to 14 Jan. rating FIVE

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NEWSIES Troubadour, Wembley Park


    I love it when the theatre perfectly fits the show.  Artists can overcome a wrong space, but there’s gleeful concord when it suits this well. The vast new hangar-like Troubadour uses all its height and industrial chic to convey New York 1899:  fire-escapes, iron balconies, vast billboard for the Santa Fe railroad, walls all newsprint and windows and washing lines .   Morgan Large’s set is moody, monochrome, enlivened with pops of colour : a red apple, a woman’s bright hair, the apricot squares of twilight windows.  It’s immersively Disney in a good way, and director-choreographer Matt Cole makes his acrobatic cast use every bit of the theatre: thundering up and down the stairs, appearing behind us,  one swinging four feet from my head on a crane.  Which, by the way, pleasingly means that whether you pay around £ 30 or around £ 90 for a seat you’ll get a splendid view .  

           It’s a show, indeed, where the ensemble are the star: quite right, since it’s about the strike by ragamuffin street kids who sold newspapers on the New York streets in the glory days of press barons like Pulitzer and Hearst.  The Newsies, often living on the streets, sleeping in hammocks nicely slung under  fire escapes,  eked out a living collecting papers and selling them (there’s a lovely balletic evocation at the start of high-pressure selling to top-hatted or crinolined toffs, kids literally throwing themselves at the job).  The deal was buy 100 papers for 50c, no refunds for unsold copies.   They wait anxiously for the morning’s headline to be a good one that will make people buy:  one says that police sirens are like lullabies to him, because the more the sirens the bigger the story and the better he’ll eat next day. 

       But Joseph Pulitzer,  Cameron Blakely doing  a nicely cold-headed villain turn as his walnut desk and chandelier roll onto the bleak street scene,  decided to trim for profit and raised the price to 60c.  And in real life,  the newsies rebelled. 

          It’s warm-hearted Disney, with Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Jack Kelly the leader, supportive of his lame pal “Crutchie” (`Matthew Duckett),  supported himself by the friendship of Medda (Moya Angela) and her showgirls.  He’s initially a bit wary of the newcomer who has an actual home, and his own emotional yearnings are about going West, young man, to Santa Fe for a better life.    Like all of them he dreads being captured for the profit-making, rat-ridden “Refuge”  which rounds up street kids.  He falls for Katherine – Bronté Barbé – who is a young reporter who defies Pulitzer ’s ban on reporting the strike and turns out to be actually his daughter, rebelling in her own way.  She it is who persuades Jack – by this time flagging in his resolve, thinking of compromise and at odds with the strikers – that the way to win is to broaden the cause to “all the kids working in sweatshops, factories and slaughterhouses” . 

      Expect a pretty happy ending , complete with Governor Roosevelt shaming the baddies,  but Harvey Fierstein’s book (he wrote La Cage aux Folles, remember) is honest enough about the processes of a strike:   of hope and mistrust and despair and the difficulty of sticking together – “When you got a hundred voices singing, who can hear a whistle blow?”.    But the pleasure’s in the energy, the wild dancing and swinging from lights, the moment the tap shoes come out,  the ensemble glee of youth.   The music by Alan Menkin is not quite hummable – except the Seize the Day anthem – but dramatically urgent;  the lyrics by Jack Feldman are splendid,  never flat or laboured,  a reminder of why the HEX lyrics the other night didn’t quite work.  All the singing is terrific. 

         And there are some great old NY-biz lines: from the kids’ glee at getting publicity – “Folks we finally got a headline! Above the fold!”  to  “The only thing worse than a hard heart is a soft head”as Pulitzer realizes that his interest is to settle. 

I’d choose this over a panto this year for any kid with a rebel heart.     

Rating four 

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HEX Olivier, SE1


     Everyone’s got mental health  issues in HEX:  which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath.   The tousled Fairy has no wings and low status,  while snobbish ones float gorgeously overhead in light-rippling 20ft robes.    It is panic over  Princess Rose’s cradle, where the sleep-deprived mother is yelling neurotically, which makes Fairy  hex the child into sleeping for decades after a thorn-prick at  16.     She then loses her magic  (delivered in spells sounding a bit Arabic)  and has to fake it with  cries of ‘sho lo lo” as she struggles to repair the damage.    As for Rose  she is a bratty teen and ,after the waking, a discontented wife. She feels neglected by  Prince Bert and worries – it turns out not unreasonably –  that her ogress mother in-law will eat the children.  Very Freudian, that.   Bert himself is a mother’s boy and knows it.  Only a chorus of yobbish thorns, a spiteful old retainer and a capering rat seem happy. Though the poor rat does get eaten.  I liked him. 

         At least all the characters’  deep psychological problems fuel big numbers, solo arias  with proper Nina Simone soul.  Lisa Lambe as the Fairy stands out, her voice soaring from sweetness to wildness: a proper star.  Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the ogress belts out her confusion and hunger with equal vigour and skill and some good sound-effects of cannibalistic gobbling:    Jim Fortune’s  music is not particularly memorable but it is atmospheric, and both women give it every chance.  

      Actually everything  is poured in to give the show a chance:  the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris directs and co-devised it (the book is by his wife Tanya Ronder) and he  throws the Olivier’s big resources at it, There’s   Katrina Lindsay’s lovely design, a 12-strong orchestra, big ensemble, aerial fairies, trapdoors and talent and terrific sound and lighting.    Norris also wrote the lyrics : but alas, he is not a natural lyricist and the rhymes plod along without much wit, sometimes almost with a sense of desperation. Just because “trampoline” rhymes with “sixteen’ does not mean that the metaphor in question works.  

      So it remains more noisy than enchanting, and the children near me, well-mannered, were  more interested than transported.  The first half is a bit slow but then livens up  with a decent dance routine and better jokes when Prince Bert appears,  and the chorus of disappointed princes in the second half are properly funny, especially Kody Mortimer . Anyway, after the plot has creaked neatly round a lot of  awkward corners, everyone gets over their issues,   and decides that the moral is that they should honour their natural inward self.  Nobody, in the end, is a real villain.   to 14 Jan

rating  three 

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ORLANDO Garrick Theatre WC2



One bespectacled, anxious-looking Virginia Woolf in a sensible brown skirt and dreary cardigan is never enough,  so Michael Grandage’s production generously opens with a whole pack of Woolfs – nine of them – in Neil Bartlett’s new version of the author’s classic whimsical-feminist fantasy.  They/She are there to tell, and assist with,  the story of a young court favourite of Elizabeth I  who miraculously lives on as an innocent everyperson, barely growing older while finding love, loss and adventure and changing into a woman sometime between the Georgian and Victorian eras. And, crucially,  particularly resenting being female in the latter. 

      Which is fair enough, since that was when Woolf was born, and out of which she and her heroines and her lover Vita Sackville West had to struggle until her suicide in 1944.   

    The crowd of Woolfs is effective, expressing the human need to be a lot of different people, not trapped in one role. There’s a nice irony in that,  since our age’s gender-neurosis and clenched identity politics  often feel more like a trap than the freedom Orlando demands to “honour happiness, and obey desire in whatever form it comes”.  The book is perennially interesting, and indeed a recent far lower-budget version at the Jermyn ( sent me to it,  charmed by that production’s  particular comic edge and unselfconscious jollity.  

         But Neil Bartlett’s version somehow felt a bit disappointing: insubstatial though witty and mischievous,  sometimes cheekily mashing up some awful cod-Shakespeare (I like the ‘lustful porpentine’) and pinching allusions from both Some Like It Hot and Cabaret.    The staging is lovely:  mist in the 1603 Frost Fair in London, constant movement and  Peter McKintosh’s absolutely glorious costumes – not just on the divine Orlando but whipped on and off as the Woolfs  become all the other characters he/she meets.  There are some good jokes, too, and Deborah Findlay as “Mrs Grimsditch” the dresser-minder who escorts Orlando through the centuries is a treat every time.  It ought in theory to be a bang-on treat for the genderfluid generation, but the one I took with me was a bit unimpressed: felt it old-fashioned in the distinction. He also observed that if it had been at the |Edinburgh Fringe it would have fitted. Whereas here, up West…not so much. 

  We also agreed in wishing `Neil Bartlett had courageously added a coda in which Orlando powers through women’s liberation and arrives in the present day to mix it with our own preconceptions.  But once the author dies in the 1940’s, it stops, there’s only a bit of be-happy philosophy and a walk into the light.  Also, maybe some of the encounters with great poets in the original had been allowed in, it would feel a richer stew. 

          Never mind. One thing’s for sure:  Emma Corrin is going to get lovelorn proposals from most of the alleged 74 genders. They don’t come any cuter, more androgyne gamin/gamine, from the first cheeky flash of ‘his’ tackle under an Elizabethan shift to the frills of “her”  18c underdrawers and the 1940s tennis-dress.  There is gallant likeability  there too, and if you were paying one of MGC’a  promised 10,000 tickets at £10,  you’d be well satisfied. Recreationally if not, perhaps, intellectually.  Still , to be fair there are also a lot of ordinary tickets under £60 as well, which for an 11-cast production in the West End is impressive these days.  So don’t be put off.  Fall in love with Corrin, maybe.  But don’t expect a thunderclap. 

Box office. to 24 feb

Rating 3.

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OTHELLO. Lyttelton, SE1


       It’s a cold unadorned monochrome scene: courts, brawls and bedchamber all framed on three sides by vast looming tiered steps and a high flat parapet. Sometimes a a soliloquy or confrontation is watched by the dark-clad cast who sit immobile on those steps   or suddenly mime a movement together. The programme calls them “System”.  Sometimes there are flaring handheld torches.  As it opens, the scandal of the Moor having run off with fair Desdemona is explicitly racial:  Othello’s noble speech about his wooing – “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them” is interrupted with  racist shouts. Rodrigo waves a noose.   

          There’s a powerful sense of class, too. Most British productions carefully make it clear that Othello is a gentleman, a general:  remember Adrian Lester in the role, ten years ago here but familiar from NT Live.  In shows like this his eloquent speeches help this sense of nobility and only villains see him as a savage. Yet Clint  Dyer,  the first black director to do the play at the National, actually hints in his setting that the black man has  some quality of dangerousness which is alien even to the brawling yobbish fellow-soldiers of the System. Giles Terrera (lately so gloriously likeable in this theatre as gay Dr Sam,  in Blues for an Alabama Sky).  opens with a spear-carrying dance, and  moves with a slinky athleticism different to the men around .  And  in an arresting moment at the end of the first half when Iago has just sown the seeds of jealousy,  above Terera’s lonely agony the dark figures on the steps suddenly appear  in crude horror-movie blackamoor masks – white eyes, red lips, the full  minstrel caricature.  I still don’t know what to think: is it an evocation of his paranoiac torment being especially a black thing?.   If so, it certainly felt  uneasy.

            That uneasiness, though, is perhaps the triumph of the production.  Paul Hilton’s Iago is masterly, terrifyingly efficient in his gaslighting of Othello and  visually an elegant opposite of him:   a cold dapper officer-class figure,  sometimes lit alone in front of the dark figures on the steps so that a ghastly light falls on his narrow pale face with its clipped moustache (my companion was reminded of Oswald Mosley).    But as the story moves to its fearful end it feels more like a play about another aspect of the System:  toxic misogyny, all there in the text.  Not only Iago but the other men, even good Cassio,  speak scornfully of women as things to be owned and conquered but never believed.  And they shine:     Rosy McEwen is a less gentle, more defiant Desdemona than some,  a little Sloaney, a bit stiff,   meeting her husband’s accusations as much with scorn at their absurdity as with hurt.    Emilia, a wife harshly treated by Iago,  seems gigglingly commonplace at first but rises to heroic defiance. In the final, properly painful bedroom scene their two heads, one golden and one flaming red,  are the only pops of colour in that dark world.  Maybe we do sometimes need, a cold angry production like this.  Which is the reason for the fourth star. 

Box office  to 21 Jan


A live performance will be filmed and then streamed from 23-27 feb in cinemas

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BEST OF ENEMIES. Noel Coward Theatre WC1


Leaving the former Young Vic production a lad far too young to remember 1968 said sadly to me “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”  He is right. James Graham’s play, now spectacularly in the West End,  is about the TV confrontations between the arch-conservative William F. Buckley and the maverick gay liberal Gore Vidal during an American election. But it also neatly prefigures today’s divisions, demonstrations and intolerances.  Thrillingly staged with projected news footage and sharply evoked riots in almost filmic fragments, it recreates the world of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell,  Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon,  while above it hang screen-shaped  boxes where TV executives compete and plan.  But it speaks loudly to us now, because this was the moment when television companies first sought ratings with attention-grabbing rows,  and only fusty old-schoolers protested “Opinions? No, the news does Facts!”. 

At  its centre Zachary Quinto,  feline and vain and teasing, is Gore Vidal this time his opponent Buckley is,  brilliantly, once again the black actor David Harewood.  There is a sharp joke when in a flashback he approvingly interviews Enoch  “rivers of blood” Powell, and there is real cleverness in  that casting by director Jeremy Herrin. Right wing speeches about how left-liberals just don’t understand working people need not emerge only from white faces. Harewood catches all the poetic-romantic pomposity of the man who was  too easily provoked by Vidal’s drawling coolness: the cool cosmopolitan’s tactic is  “I may not convert him, but I can annoy him”.  But the  ailing ABC network gets more than it bargained for when Vidal goes too far and resorts to the “Nazi” word , whereon Buckley is needled enough to retaliate with ‘Queer!”.  Overhead the staid TV execs gasp in horror (“Never mind viewers, my MOTHER just rang!”) but are comforted by a ratings jump.

It is marked, like all James Graham’s work, by real humanity: a sense that people tearing lumps off one another in public or grasping for ratings are just humans, however imperfect.  As a play it never flags and there are memorable cameos:  brawny John Hodgkinson doubles as the senatorial anchorman Howard K.Smith and an unforgettable roaring, ranting Mayor Daley of Chicago. Syrus Howe is a thoughtful James Baldwin, and as Aretha Franklin Deborah Alli belts out the Star-Spangled Banner like a torch song,  to the horror of the old-school conservatives. Even if you have no special interest in or memory of 1968, and resist British obsession with American politics, go and see it. Well worth it. And horribly enjoyable.

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THE WIND IN THE WILTONS.        Wiltons Music Hall, E1


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…  To 31 dec

Rating four.

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A SHERLOCK CAROL Marylebone Theatre NW1


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!    to 7 Jan

rating three

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   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   To 17 december 

Rating four.

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MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION. Theatre Royal Bath & touring


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

Rating 4.

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      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


    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  To 10 December

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