Category Archives: Theatre

GET UP, STAND UP! Lyric Theatre, WC1

  THE  HEART STILL FEELS THE BEAT

     

  Everything Bob Marley sings lifts the heart,  instructing it to rise and triumph and unite in joy:  lively-up yourself!   Let’s get together and feel all right!  Emancipate yourself from mental slavery!   No need to be Jamaican, or black, or Rastafarian: just human.  Buying a ticket on the first day for this musical of his short life, I hoped for that feeling from this musical (Lee Hall wrote the book, always a good sign). I pretty much, got it. 

    The stage is a castle of crates and amps and speakers; up front I was next to a DJ booth where a cheeky Jacade Simpson  – even before the start  – charms the nearest blonde (“You come wit’ somebody?”).   Then in the rackety world of 1950’s Jamaica , little Robert  Nesta Marley loses his often-absent father and goes to live with grandmother, meets Neville (who was to become Bunny Wailer),  moves to Trenchtown, and jams with his mates,  all  rude-boy pop and ska.  But slows it down, edges into reggae, spouts joyful words, gets  jammin’ with the Wailers in every dance hall and  fighting to get paid. 

       Arinzé Kene is all Bob, wonderfully in the spirit and musically perfect;   when he meets Rita , a defiantly independent lady whose vigour and musicality is given everything we need by a magnificent Gabrielle Brooks,   before she succumbs to that single bed in a glorious “Is it love?” duet.  Even so,  she tells Bob with his Syrian-Jewish streak of heritage,   he isn’t black enough.   Jacade Simpson’s Bunny, third of the central trio, is a joy too,  as is the leapingly energetic ensemble.  

       So to England on tour – great headline projections on the ever-changing wooden crates of the set,  and a splendid moment of disgust at the weather (in Leicester) and decision to go home.  The Wailers split up, leave him.  On goes Bob. tragically briefly,   trying to evade political attempts to enrol him,  surviving a shooting,  triumphant musically  and less so domestically in his multiple babyfather-life .

       This tendency alienates both Miss Jamaica Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes)  and Rita.  Who,  in a stunning musical coup de theatre,  is the one who sings No Woman No Cry,  with those tender memories of early, broke, happy days in the ‘government yard” (I met her once, proud moment, she cherishes that line).  It is very beautiful.   Finally Kene sings Redemption Song,  alone on the jutting front arm of the stage,  and there is proper awe in the room,  feeling that once again it is happening. This is followed, naturally, by a lot of leaping up and down .   Every little thing’s gonna be all right so get up, stand up, give it an ovation. 

       If the show has a fault, it is that the first half skates too fast over events and conversations,   in favour of one too many big numbers: a bit too jukebox. But the second is magnificent. In his diagnosis and rising sense of doom, and in that extraordinary duet with Rita,  Arinzé Kene is marvellously physically expressive, and  in the lasts great song,  heroic.    It is a huge affirmation of heart and humanity, and it’ll be hard to stop me buying another ticket.

box office   www.nimaxtheatres.com   to 3 April

rating four

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GRENFELL – VALUE ENGINEERING Tabernacle Theatre, W11

THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL: scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry 

  There was a spate of criticism when Richard Norton Taylor’s dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry was announced, despite it being a not-for- profit enterprise, set in and for the neighbourhood which grieves the disaster.  It’s directed by the legendary master of verbatim and inquiry drama Nicolas Kent (remember him at the Tricycle.? Guantanamo, MacPherson, the Afghanistan sequence?).   Some critics were angry that it might be making money for white theatremakers on the back of victims of colour;  others suspicious that it was not using their testimonies of victims, but those of  the engineers, builders, contractors and local politicians who were middle class and mainly white.   The response was obvious: yes, the victims matter intensely,  yes, it was a national  scandal and betrayal of council tenants in the richest borough in rich London.  Their griefs and memories dominated the first year of inquiry, but we also  need to know why?  who? how?   Who signed off what deal, when?  How come such highly flammable material was used for cosmetic improvement of the ropy old tower in rich West London,  rather than more expensive and safer materials?  Were corners were cut, or unpardonable economies calculated because the inhabitants were disadvantaged? Were whistleblowers and reasonable tenant complaints ignored?  (pretty much, yes).

     The point of appointing Sir Martin Moore Bick (which again was subject to misguided complaints because he is white and posh, being an elderly judge) was that he’s the right man:  his experience is precisely in knotty technical matters like shipping and logistics. Of course compassion was needed.  But for the future, and for any blame that will fall,  urgently needed was  that forensic, wordy, detailed digging of emails and questions about training, expertise, and the role of aesthetics and economies.  That is what the inquiry did. And what this play boils down, shows us in miniature.

            But what can a theatre production do? Ram it home, that’s what. In editing important remarks, clarify the central message: that Kensington and Chelsea council were more worried about aesthetics than tenants’ safety and decent facilities, that an architectural practice was not expert of interested in fire safety, that a cladding supplied who found it ever harder selling a flammable product in Europe was keen to unload it on the UK, that our regulations on this were either inadequate or ignored.   

    Don’t expect high drama or Rumpolean orations: it is carefully set in a bland room, with Ron Cook as the main QC and Thomas Wheatley as  Sir Martin Moore-Bick in the chair:  a calm, listening judge with a long career in technical shipping matters.  Actors speak the exact lines of  lawyers and witnesses.  Once, a horrified building control officer  (played by Howard Ward) admits he was the “final link” who might have defied what was being done.  Once there is a woman (Polly Kemp) admitting she “binned” her notebooks about crucial meetings even after the fire.  The actors have studied footage of the people they play, and do it understatedly, realistic.    Sometimes a screen shows emails between the Council, the contractors, the salesman in the cladding firm. 

       The civility, the calm, and the painful, painful questioning grip you:  I sat among some school parties from the neighbourhood, concentrating intensely.   The statements from suppliers of the Celotex material which replaced  a safer more expensive option offer real moments of underemphasised shock.  There are strong brief speeches from two barristers representing survivors,  but the devil is in the detail: in failures of careful  public duty.  Tells too much about a Britain, and a local authority,   that could do better.

www.GrenfellValueEngineering.com    to 13  nov. Then to Birmingham Rep.

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WHITE NOISE Bridge Theatre, SE1

 THE RACE WHERE NOBODY WINS

      This feels like a howl of baffled frustration, from a millennial generation ( writer and director, and all four characters) unable to deal with the emotional legacy of  a long-ago slave trade : none of them yet ,  often to their credit,  finding it possible in today’s America  to follow Marley’s instruction and “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.  A long stage thrusts defiantly into the audience:  eventually becomes a shooting-range, with a nice mechanical coup-de-theatre taking us by surprise first time (good old Bridge!).But  first it has to roll us into the bedroom and kitchen of two interracial  American couples as their old college foursome-friendship disintegrates. 

    Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer winner) in 2016 called it her “angry play” ;  reworked for this European premiere directed by Polly Findlay  it is angrier still after the George Floyd murder and the confused angers of identity politics and easy offence.  The young people’s hidden attitudes glide  like monsters under a smooth veneer of well-meaning wokery. Sometimes it is entertaining in a despairing sort of way; sometimes alarming. 

     Leo is a nervy, insomniac black artist not doing well, living with Dawn, a right-on white lawyer; Ralph is a well-off liberal lecturer whose girlfriend Misha runs a whoopingly cheerful online show called “Ask a black!!”   Showily supportive to Misha, really Ralph is  seething at losing a promotion he wanted to a Sri Lankan. There’s a sly suggestion that not being of African heritage, the brown man doesn’t really count anyway.  Meanwhile Leo has been stopped and thrown on the pavement  by police.  Dawn wants him to sue,  but he doesn’t trust the system to be on his side,  and instead demands that  Ralph buys him as a slave.   What?  Well,  “Back in the day”  , Leo reckons, a powerful man’s slave would have protection as a chattel. It is mad and tasteless, even for the forty days Ralph unwillingly agrees to. But the strength of the play is that we can both see his mad ideological reasoning and see that he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway.  One of the group immediately assumes it’s performance-art, being videoed, which again tells us something about the times.

     It plays on, sometimes for laughs but increasingly frightening as white Ralph, naturally,  gets a taste for being Master.  Even joins an absurd White Club which endorses him.  One  scene has the whole audience gasping, no spoiler here.  The second half in particular is peppered with monologues,   sometimes too long but rich in ideas about racial  misunderstanding and the sort of  hostility that gets a friendly well meant gesture condemned as  “white saviour!”.   It tangles  with other human discomforts:  unequal relationships, money and class. Ken Nwosu is amazing as Leo, Helena Wilson every inch the liberal lawyer in a permanent bind of guilt,  and Faith Omole beautifully evokes the irritation of a sophisticated black woman who, to get attention for her show has to “perform blackness” by playing the cartoonish bouncy diva her audience expect.  

     It is, frankly,  a stretch to believe how rapidly the slavemaster experience turns Ralph into a complete fascist, but that’s the only cavil. There’s a sex scene, a betrayal, which I suppose is pretty much compulsory, but adds nothing but more pessimism.   If  the message is that none of us can easily escape our slaver-or-saviour mentality,   it’s a grim one.  On the other hand,  irrespective of race you might notice that it’s the two men who go nuts,  and the women who don’t. Make of that what you will…

Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk.  To 13 november

Rating. Four.  

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THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH Almeida, N1

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.        Almeida, N1

THE SCOTTISH PLAY WE NEEDED

  Say what you like about star-casting and auteur-ish directors messing with Shakespeare, but sometimes a multiple Academy Award nominee has a trumpeted on a British stage  –  opposite one of our own nominees – and you think yep, worth it!    Saioirse Ronan is a Lady Macbeth to remember for years:  a steely fragile pillar of ambition who crumbles before our eyes and haunts the whole play.    Yael Farber, the director who shook the Old Vic with The Crucible, has created a  timeless arraignment of human violence which takes its own path but serves the text immaculately in every second of its three smoky, tense hours.  If you can’t get in, see below for limited streaming dates. This is special.

    And frankly a relief, after the last two major Macbeths in  2018 (I exempt the tiny Wanamaker one) because both RSC and NT versions suffered grievously from directorial vanity and a glut of plastic baby dolls (though only one had a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper cluttering up the stage).  I did wonder for a moment ,when Farber’s opened with a bare stage , a wheelchair, a tap on a standpipe, a wheelbarrowful of old boots and a wheelchair  (it’s King Duncan’s, he’s very doddery here) . never fear. The fact that it is timeless and nationless – costumes range from kilts to battle dress to the witches in business suits –  serves the magnificent cast in their passionate, often flawless delivery of the great familiar lines,made musical by Scottish and Irish voices. 

     It is rich too in subtle, well-thought out psychological shadings.  Like the moment when James McArdle’s nervy  Macbeth dismisses his previously dominant, scrappy and  organised wife rather brusquely because he wants to order the killing of  Banquo and his son (Fleance played here as very young) . She glances back, puzzled but obedient, like any woman thinking ‘this is new..not like him..what’s going on..?’.   In the truly shaking moments when he falls into terrified hysteria at the coronation banquet, Ronan returns to a brittle celebrity hostess mode, excusing his extreme rantings at the (frighteningly sudden) ghost. It is with  a  self-possessed little giggle that she urges the company to ignore them.  Her journey downhill is beginning, her conscience awakening under the veneer.

       In many productions she almost vanishes until the sleepwalking scene, but here, because it dwells within a long dream of horror for them all,  she is rarely invisible on the deep always murky stage. She wanders  as a guilty ghost through the killing of the Macduff children and her sleepwalking and deathbed are part of the battle scene, just  as  Banquo and the witches are always with Macbeth, joining in his horned, surreally bestial nightmares.   The tap  standpipe on the stage, constantly used by characters to try and wash away the latest blood, finally overruns so that the lady’s body lies horribly still in a pool of water.  And there in the final moments Macduff and Macbeth grapple, soaked with wet, blood and guilt. Emun Elliott’s Macduff is tremendous, both in grief and rage, rising up to the churning, thrashing McArdle in equal power:  the macho energy pulsing off that small stage from all the men is overwhelming, speeding up your heart and terror.  Yet there is subtler meaning in every longdrawn bow of the ‘cello in Tom Lane’s score: it too is always there, played by Aoife Burke as a gentlewoman attendant, onlooker of this violent maleness.  

      Every tweak of the text and settings Farber makes is an addition,not an auteur-vanity: there is sense giving some lines to the witches and mercifully omitting the always tedious Porter with his clownish gags about brewer’s droop.  Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff sings gently to her children at the banquet, and later her voice again rises in high wild voiceless exotic grief for the wicked world .   As for the bleak staging,  with cast gathered at beginning the end around a lantern,  the chief witch (Diane Fletcher, bleakly authoritative) asks for a second time. “When shall we three meet again?”  And with awful certainty replies  “Anon..”    ///Farber leaves us with a sad unresigned certainty that human murderousness will always be there, somewhere on the edge of understanding, half-glimpsed in the mist. 

Rating.  5

Box office Almeida.co.uk    To 30 October

NB NB. From Wed27 – Sat 30 Oct. the play will be 

Broadcast live for five performances.   Tickets, almeida.co.uk

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INTO BATTLE Greenwich Theatre

AN OLD STORY OF YOUNG MEN

    Balliol College Oxford, 1910. Confident young Etonians are hurling crockery downstairs, yelling “I’m a bastard, I’m a bastard, rather be a bastard than a Trinity man” and making war on Keith, the  socially-conscious Northern scholar who runs a  boys’ club for hungry kids with striker fathers. The Junior Dean, anxious Rev.Neville, daren’t send the ringleader Billy Grenfell down because his rich parents dine with Asquith, his elder brother Julian is a college hero currently off with depression and a dangerous bout of social liberalism, and their father Lord Desborough is a national hero of sport, climbing, Channel-swimming, etc.   

   Billy, blithely throwing Keith’s possessions and desk out of a third floor window, explains “I can do what I like because lane I can pay”. His famously rich and beautiful mother  is vampily cougaring red-haired student Patrick , but takes a moment off to bribe Keith not to press charges for assault against Billy by giving the Boys’Club a building.

     It’s a mischievously brilliant moment for a history-play about horrible entitled Etonian louts in an Oxford dining club, who torment  animals for fun in the quad and bait Northern plebs . Not to mention a good time for the young Churchill in voiceover to say, as he did :

‘The greatest danger to the British people is not among the enormous fleets and armies of Europe. No. It is here in our midst, close at home, close at hand, in the unnatural gap between rich and poor’.

     But this isn’t the Royal Court, or hysterical Buller-beating exaggeration like Posh. It’s a debut play by Hugh Salmon, a former ad executive who researched it in convalescence because his grandfather played rugby  with one of the dining club set, the great international Ronald Poulton-Palmer, who is one of the Etonians though the least toxic.  And the century-old story of these real young men is worth telling,  because within a few years all of them were in the trenches,  side by side,  alongside teenage Tommies from boys’ clubs.  They died together, and it is not beyond imagination that before that they understood the absurdity of earlier attitudes.

    The story is imaginatively told  against a set of ragged gothic arches and scattered books, both the larking and the final wartime moments vivid and brilliantly staged by director Ellie Jones and Steve Kirkham. Only Neville, the longsuffering college Dean and decorated wartime padre (beautifully played by Iain Fletcher, the eternal anguished peacemaker) survived the war.  Julian died of his wounds, old enemies Keith Rae and Billy Grenfell fell the same day in 1915, as did Ronnie Poulton who had tried hard to curb the Etonian vandals at college. Patrick Shaw Stewart died in the Dardanelles, his last letter to friends full of self-deprecating fun.  Alexander Knox is a delight in the part, as is Nikolas Salmon as the burly, initially awful but finally gallant Billy; Molly Gaisford gives Lady Desborough a nice acid upperclass edge, though burdened with far too long a death scene over Julian.  Joe Gill is a solid decent Rae who conveys both his social indignation and the fact that like all of them, at college he is still a kid. And Anna Bradley, on a professional debut fresh out of drama school,  niftily doubles with glee as an urchin turned Tommy and a housemaid entangled with Billy. 

    It’s a play that could do with a bit of finessing still, but it has a proper, thoughtful historical sense (the sources in the programme are plentiful and fascinating). and  I hope it lives on , a reminder that the most toxic youthful masculinity might turn to self-forgetful heroism. Makes you remember some of the have-a-go heroes in recent terrorist attacks.   Julian’s Grenfell war poem with the, romantic heroics of his generation, gives the play its title and it’s ending: 

   “The thundering line of battle stands,

  And in the air Death moans and sings;

  But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,

  And Night shall fold him in soft wings”

Box office.  Greenwichtheatre.org.uk.  To. 31 October

Rating. 3

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OUR WHITE SKODA OCTAVIA Sir John Mills Ipswich & touring

EAST IS EAST, IN EAST ANGLIA 

     Shamser Sinha – who is on the National Theatre Connections project – relished the idea of writing a play about a South-Asian working-class family in England today which didn’t involve forced marriage, honour killings or  the temptations of teenage terrorism.  Nor does it major on racism, though like a troublesome ache that always runs under such lives:  the sensitive  son Faisal, who dreams of stars and the universe and reads St-Exupery’s The Little Prince, gets punched at school.  But then the problem is actually aggravated by his amiable but slightly muttonheaded Dad Amjad the cab driver,  who nags at him not to be girly but punch back.   And that is interracially relatable if anything is.  Indeed mostly we could be in any working-class drama of the last seventy years, in a good way.  Though as Amjad ruefully says, whenever a passenger gets into his cab,   he is “for them the only Pakistani in town”,  so he must always be professional, a credit to his race. And that’s a burden.

       Rachana Jadhav’s set, artfully tour-able for the play’s 15 next venues all the way to Guildford, has a car door, a section of cab office and some nicely sketched domesticity.  In the first half Tiran Aakel as Amjad and Freny Nina Pavri as Rabla are talking about the cab business (here in the East we have, it seems, the lowest fares in England)  . They hope to buy their own car.   Yasmin, still a child,  and teenage Faisal wander in and out.  Underlying it all is a quiet grief, and the parents’ decision whether to have another baby after losing their infant Ruksana.  

     They are an engrossing, finely drawn pair: Amjad is earthier, practical, stubborn, beautifully drawn; hypnotically interesting though is his far more educated wife, with a Masters’ in Eonomics but no chance of a graduate job:“Your name is not Brown but your face is!” observes her husband. 

Pavri is an Indian classical musician,  with a dancer’s grace and soulful eye; she opens the show with a mesmeric solo raga and in the second half plays tabla, mirroring the heartbeat of emotion and tragedy.  Her practicality is, however,  in actually greater than her husband’s.  The frustration of his accounting, and his stubbornness in wasting time chasing one bilked fare rather than earning four more , does not help the nailbiting quest to buy the car.  She is also more deeply religious, believing utterly that “to Allah we belong” and that ill-deeds to anyone are a sin against the universe.   At the end of the first act, though, she gives up and wants a separation.  Amjad is poleaxed – “Nobody gets divorced! Who does these things? I don’t beat you…”.   

       The second act sees the family some time later;  she having moved  away into a hippyish life and social work with prisoners,  he left alone with Guriot Dhaliwal’s patient Yasmin trying  to make him eat better.  Faisal is desperate to leave the cabbing treadmill and take up an unpaid internship in his beloved astrophysics. The play is woven through with moments when, framed in the car window, we see and hear infuriating clients: the girl without enough money saying no, she can’t ask her Dad for another tenner when she gets home, and being let off by Amjad.  Others ask endless samey questions  (“How long is your shift, when do you get off?”) and the equally endless “Where are you from?  No, really from?” which brown faces in polite customer-facing jobs get used to.  The author’s researches among cab drivers certainly pay off. 

          But at the same time there is  friction between the siblings:  Amjad promised the price of the Skoda between them:  if Faisal gets it all he can follow his dream,  if Yasmin does she might afford to stand for the Council and remedy some (rather obscurely and too glancingly explained)   injustices in the local licensing trade.

          I stayed engrossed, though frustrated at times by those small un-clarities,  and by Faisal being given a really difficult breakdown to negotiate:  the young performer badly needs to give it more changes of tone, a slower pace and better articulation,  in order to take us all the way with him. But that’s an unfair quibble because I saw it right at the start of the run;  director Sameena Hussain will have sorted that out by now.  

         And I’m glad I saw it:  all four characters stay with me a day later,  Aakel and Pavri as the parents  in particular.  In one of the deft doublings Aakel becomes a grumpy,  dim, slightly threatening white passenger and  then  – in the eyes of his overstressed son at the wheel –   suddenly mutates into his dead father.  That is a properly alarming coup de theatre. 

easternangles.co.uk for tour details to 5 November

box office 01473 211498 (Monday – Friday: 10am – 2pm) 

 rating  3 and a gallant-tour mouse because few others cover as much ground:

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THOUGHTS ON CUSH JUMBO’S HAMLET Young Vic SE1

AN EVER-MORPHING PROTEAN TEXT…RENEWS AGAIN BEFORE OUR EYES

     Every Hamlet should give us something new.  The play is a philosophical and psychological labyrinth,  its jewels and seams of gold hidden in unexpected crevices: there has never been a definitive performance or setting.  Last time it was at the Young Vic it was framed in a mental hospital, with  Hamlet genuinely disturbed,  Ophelia pushing the meds trolley offering rosemary for remembrance , like Prozac.  (you actually had to walk in through forbidding corridors with frightening doors and keypads.  On press night someone pushed a keypad at random and blew the entire lighting plot for half an hour or more so we had to be sent back to the bar).  

     That starred Michael Sheen, who was wonderful, a magnetic-hysteric:   and because we were assuming him to be as demented as the worried doctor Claudius thought, he found lines and expressions about mental disorders which immensely moved me, at a time I was hypersensitive to such.    I wrote this:

  “Sheen’s pallid elfin hypersensitivity and wide animated eyes bring us a Prince unhinged, lost in inner space.  The opening court scene is a circle of plastic chairs, therapy-group style; Claudius (James Clyde)  is a smooth, suited doctor,  addressing them with patronizing patience. Hamlet has his poor suitcase packed for the escape he will not be allowed, and  Polonius’ lecture to Laertes has the ring of advice to a discharged patient.   It could all be a tiresome directorial conceit, but the brilliant and horrible thing, which suggests that Shakespeare himself patrolled the edges of sanity long before Lear,  is that it fits.  The text, even away from Hamlet’s  tortured soliloquies and “feigned” madness and Ophelia’s dissolution, speaks the language of real mental disturbance:  times out of joint, weariness of life,   unbeing,  delusion, paranoia,  remorse”.  

     This time there is no such extreme interpretation:  Greg Hersov ‘s production is sober, modern-dress, set amid great semitransparent blocks which, with clever lighting, suggest depths of disturbance even outside the ghost scenes.  But it has its own revelations to offer.  At their core is the subtle, androgynous troubling performance by Cush Jumbo:  shaven-headed, lean and rangy and expressively physical, neither girl nor boy but the essence of youth itself.

       Hamlet, after all, has always spoken as powerfully to young women as to boys:  grieving, indecisive, hesitant, deploying feline feminine tactics in setting up the play to catch the King’s conscience.  He/She is fixed on a heroic but flawed father, resenting a mother,  feeling helpless, self-hating and despising;  bored by lecturing Polonius, pleased to see schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but rapidly outraged if they line up with the grownups.  And on top of all this,  awakened to the awfulness of the elder world,  and struggling – to be or not to be ?- with a very topical dilemma in the age of XR and the rest,  asking whether it is best to endure or to be an activist, take arms against it all and end it.

   See? Doesn’t need to be a young man:  just a teenager of either sex.  And this is what Jumbo’s performance gives us, most beautifully:  dancing with Ophelia (it is rare to be offered such a glimpse of how easy and happy the relationship was before the Ghost moved in on him)   then breaking up with her in despair at the state of the world.    From Jumbo’s first peerlessly sarky, shrugging line  at the family gathering (“A little more than kin and less than kind”) to the growl which demands the too too solid flesh to melt,  her Hamlet is us, when young, when angry.  The bravura swagger into Gertrude’s room to confront her,  and the crushed guilty grief at having stabbed the wrong man through the arras rings true;   her immaculate rendering of the too-familiar lines is both respectful and defiant.  This is a very, very fresh and classy Hamlet. 

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THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT Gielgud, WC2

 FOUR WIVES LATER,  MANTEL AND MILES COMPLETE THE JOURNEY

It was rising eight years ago  that the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s majestic Wolf Hall  trilogy came to the stage, adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin.  https://theatrecat.com/tag/wolf-hall/  And https://theatrecat.com/tag/bring-up-the-bodies/

I well remember the wild exhilaration of seeing them on the same day in the little Swan, most intimate of  theatres, and well remember feeling – as did others there – that if Mantel had finished the set, Poulton and Herrin made a play of it, and someone wound Ben Miles up for another show – well,  we would happily have stayed all night to see the story out.  Mantel, sometimes difficult to read, has a passionate understanding, or so it feels, of  the working-class Thomas Cromwell: the man who shaped Henry VIII’s reign and the English Reformation, manoeuvred through the court politics of the day and then came to grief at last . Like so many others. 

   This time it is not the  Swan , with an audience wrapped (and rapt) on three sides of the drama, but the conventional Gielgud and a proscenium.  Moreover, Poulton is not the re-shaper of the tale. Mantel, having loved the rehearsal process, wanted stronger input in the script, and her only collaborator aside from the director is Ben Miles, who for the third time is Cromwell. If there is any difference in approach, I would venture to say that the focus is more uniquely sharp on her hero this time: one of the joys of the first two was the confidence with which every courtier, and every woman trapped by her biology or its failings,  stood out as an individual.  

        But the untangling clarity (at which Poulton was a master). Is still there;  and Ben Miles remains a powerful and sensitive anchor.   And some other individuals do stand out satisfactorily.  Nicholas Woodeson as the Duke of Norfolk is a fierce, cross spiky little hedgehog of a man in a red bonnet, always putting the Howard women forward and detesting the promoted chav Cromwell;  Leo Wan as the sycophantic Riche is convincing and often funny; the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton) one of the few entirely likeable courtiers.   Melissa Allan’s primly Catholic Mary Tudor is a sharp little needle of defiance, and poor Anne of Cleves – the “Flanders Mare” rejected by Henry – is given immense dignity by Rosanna Adams,  high-chinned, immaculately evoking the position of a woman who understands the misogynist politics of the age all too well.  Promised a handsome prince and sold to an “angry old bear” for reasons of European political boundaries  and trade in alum for the English wool dyers,  she speaks with contemptuous Germanic dignity of the King’s inability to consummate. “I lie down for him and pray to Mary to give him strength”.   The courtiers’ cry of “What about the alum?” when he demands a divorce got a proper rocking tide of audience laughter. 

    And of course there’s Henry.  Nathaniel Parker at first gives the performance a little too much of the James-Robertson-Justice-playing-Sir Lancelot-Spratt,  but in the second half his grief for Jane Seymour and awareness of his own weakness become touching, as he cries “Make me happy, Crom!”. It is as much a play about physical decline as about politics. 

    But we get quite comfortably across the politics: or mainly so. The interval, inevitably, was a matter of people in the aisles who never read the books or much history, scrolling through Wikipedia to straighten out the bits and characters they didn’t quite get . The northern “Pilgrimage of Grace” against Henry’s (and Cromwell’s) depredation of the monasteries is dealt with in mere minutes with a big banner, some shouting,  and a royal roar about not being scared of “rural pisswits!”. But it had baffled my neighbours a bit more than was comfortable.  Probably because they hadn’t been to a Catholic school and firmly told about it by nuns.   The appearance of several ghosts to Cromwell caused one or two more questions in the run to the bar:  there’s his father (Liam Smith, who reappears as Holbein) and the long dead Wolsey (Tony Turner) with a nice line in self-important clerical hauteur even regarding God. 

But even if you came to it cold, like the others this play would grip you by the throat.  And if ,one day soon – let it be soon – the first two are revived by the RSC with this one to follow, I will happily pay to devote a couple of days to it.  Especially if it is back in the Swan.

Box office http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.   To 23 jan

Rating five

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THE WOMAN IN BLACK (yes, honestly)

NOT QUITE A REVIEW, MORE A TRIP DOWN A SIDE ALLEY

I was on the early train up when news came that poor old Southwark had ,for the second time, been forced by illness to cancel two performances of Tokyo Rose.   Having a matinee- shaped space to fill, and a light drizzle starting,  what does a theatrecat do?   Obvious.  Its  feline mission is  to sniff around the corners of the reviving theatrical world in search of forgotten or even stale morsels. Its what cats do.  And the only other matinee on a Tuesday – apart from the clever Jermyn, already reviewed below – is  that hoar old chestnut The Woman in Black.  

    It has been resident in the humble Fortune theatre opposite the stage door of Lloyd Webber’s palatial Theatre Royal Drury Lane since 1989.  An almost Mousetrappy achievement.  And I had not seen the film, read the book, or been told whodunnit or whether it’s a real ghost, or anything.  Perfect.  The cheapest  matinee ticket is £ 27,  and the one I chose was what you might call immersive, being knee-cramped right up against the edge of the stage next to a raggedly draped section of pit which I assumed to be a sinister grave.  Quite liked it, once I went numb:  the sense an actor might tread on you is always exciting.  Behind me, two school parties (it’s often a set book, Susan Hill’s descriptive lyrical passages of writing being worth it).   Also a scattering of tourists, lured by the promise of a slick two-hours-with interval with some moments of utter terror and – a German lady observed to her friend as they left – “proper good-speaking English for learning”.  

      So what’s it like?  Better than the Mousetrap, for one thing.  It’s a two-hander:  Terence Wilton and Max Hutchinson both in turn being the solicitor who meets terror on the wild eastern marshes, in a desolate house where the enigmatic Mrs Drablow has died.  It’s nicely framed (good for school drama classes) as at first the young man tries to get the story told more dramatically by the old, traumatized lawyer who is haunted by memory, and then takes over, playing the part of him long ago, as the real man plays all the other parts in a variety of Mummerzet accents which don’t sound nearly as east-coast as this North Sea purist would have liked.   But then, he’s an elderly London solicitor playing people he met fifty years ago, so fair enough.   And there is, of course, a woman. Who does not speak ,but terrifies the bejasus out of the school party, who squeak delightedly.  And let there be no spoilers (Mousetrap rules apply),  so let me just say that Robin Herford directs with tense aplomb, that our hero can scream for England,  that Mr Kevin Sleep’s lighting-plot is very important indeed, that it may be set (by Michael Holt). in grey drapes but there are Certain Things behind them.  Oh, and there’s an invisible dog.

    So I greatly enjoyed my two hours and don’t grudge it a penny.  Because it is wonderful to have theatre back at every level, actors and lighting crews working, audiences gasping,  and school parties remembering that it can be fun to gather and be told a creepy story without an agenda or the slightest intention to be ‘relevant and relatable’ to their lives.   And which isn’t a musical.

    I would not be so impertinent as to rate it.  It’s lasted 32 years and survived a pandemic, and it’s more fun than the bloody Mousetrap. I wandered on, contented, to the evening’s grander task of last-preview at the Gielgud of The Mirror And The Light. WHere, interestingly, my ticket was also a comparative bargain-basement one , knees against the stage front. Review later tonight after the embargo…

But here for the W in B cast and crew are some mice rejoicing at the end of the long, long Covid drought of theatre

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BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS touring UK

WHO NEEDS PANTO? A CLASSY FLIGHT OF FANCY ON THE ROAD

    

This show, which I had the joy of seeing in a packed Theatre Royal Norwich alongside many small  thrilled children,  knows exactly how to get their attention first thing.   A homely bedroom in a neat central window blows apart with a deafening bomb-blast , into a big frame of ragged bricky ruins.  It leaves  three children orphaned, rattled around on evacuation trains and dumped in a sinister civic museum awaiting their temporary home.  Candice Edmunds’ direction offers a bravura start, well-served by Jamie Harrison’s artfully tour-able design and the additional thrill of a real band  tuning up in the orchestra pit  beforehand (some of the kids leaning over excitedly before the start, realizing this was real not a movie).   

        Its pedigree is interesting:  in the 1940s, before she wrote the more famous Borrowers series, Mary Norton wrote two novels about three children and the prim witch next door. Eglantine Price enchants a bedknob, so that the brass bed could fly them either anywhere they want – if it is twisted one way – or to any period they chose if twisted the other way.  Wild adventures follow, including a journey to rescue  Emelius, a medieval necromancer accused of witchcraft.   I grew up on the book and can recommend it.  The 1971 Disney musical film which took it over  (with music by the Shermans) removed the time-travel entirely,  made the children world war 2 evacuees and gave the witch Miss Price  a mission to defeat a German invasion. 

     Fair enough, and it wouldn’t be a Disney production without big wild dances (“Portobello Road” especially good),  an undersea ballet of luminous fish,  and a rom-com relationship developing between the witch and Emelius (this time a failing magician with a joke shop).   But how, given the magic, will it work onstage?   

       The answer is, “brilliantly!”.  Adults looking for something that isn’t pure panto this winter,  and don’t fancy the high costs and weird plot of Frozen,  are in luck.  Dianne Pilkington is a spirited witch, posh and intimidating at first to the children (here reimagined as Cockney sparrers) but she has real emotional subtlety and deftly delightful physicality as she struggles with her first recalcitrant broomstick.   And yes it takes off, magnificently,  even able to transport her apparently through a window-frame.  The bed flies too, again unaccountably against an artfully dark background.  There is some classy close-up magic in the tropical island scene, from both Pilkington and Charles Brunton’s Emelius,  and the museum exhibits of armour and weaponry are impressively magicked into defeating the helmeted Huns.   

         But one of the great things about good children’s theatre is showing just enough of the workings, the sleight of hand and potentially home-made kit,  to send them home determined to make their own play.   We need that more than ever, as school drama erodes away or turns into therapeutic wokery.  So here there is puppetry (two characters turned into nice rabbits, and some wonderful animal characters on the island led by a speechifying pompous lion who made me suddenly remember the party conference season was on).  While swords fly magically through the air and shoes move on their own in the battle scene there are still moments of actorly deftness half-fooling us at the same time,  and a substantial, nimble ensemble make everything happen fast.   

         And there is real emotion too.  I thought Disneyfication would remove Mary Norton’s edge of postwar melancholy, but the last scenes become,  for a while,  properly tear-jerking as the kids accept that none of it happened outside their imagination,  the parents are still dead,  and they are three orphans alone in a strange and baffling place. The little girls in the row in front of me stiffened, fretful.   But reality came good: broomsticks and magical bedknobs are fine in their way, but adult kindness beats all.  The kids recognized that too.  

rating   four

box office   bednobsonstage.com

Touring to 1 May 2022. Next up Nottingham, Eastbourne

( in Christmas season Leeds , Southampton and Edinburgh get it!)

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THE NORMAL HEART Olivier, SE1

THE LAST GREAT PLAGUE

       If you lived as an adult alongside the onset of AIDS forty years ago you don’t forget it: the lost friends and workmates , the rumours of ignorance which had the macabre horror of undertakers refusing corpses and (on our rural patch) the frightened small absurdities of people boycotting a local deli because the manager looked a bit camp and they might catch it off the salami.   We remember how remarkable it was when Diana and Liz Taylor strode in and held the hands of sufferers, and the particular terror of the way a diagnosis was understood to be terminal before antiretroviral drugs: one dark skin sarcoma spelling a death warrant.  We remember not only the vast shock and sorrow of  so many young men struck down, but  the homophobia:  the voices saying that homosexual acts were being punished by God or fate because its initial spread was in that free-living, newly self-conscious and celebratedly open gay culture.    

       Lately we have had it remembered in Angels in America , in the rather overpraised epic The Inheritance,  in revivals of My Night With Reg and the TV  portrait of London’s dismay and tragedy in It’s A Sin.  But this – Larry Kramer’s semi -autobiographical account of the foundation in his living room in New York of the Gay Men’s Health Centre – GMHC –  was the first of the AIDS plays. And it remains the most intelligent, moving and sometimes even humanely funniest of them all . The Olivier, sparsely set in the round and packed to the rafters, gives it everything it deserves:  nearly three hours fly by, considerably more gripping than the Bond movie with which I had  whiled away the afternoon. It raises echoes today: about the necessity and limitation of identity politics, about different approaches to activism, and simply about love.

     Ironically delayed by our newer pandemic , Dominic Cooke’s production expresses the strange and terrifying time through the eyes of Ned, the Kramer figure.  He is played with furious skinny vigour and explosive passion by Ben Daniels: every line of his body eloquent either in defiance (often of his own confreres),  or in the brief happy discovery of domestic love with Felix,  or in despair and grief. But around him every other figure has its private and distinct energy, flaring in turn, perfectly in tune and each illustrating the others.   Liz Carr as Dr Emma Brookner, herself a polio survivor,  is a tiny dynamo,  practically kindly and frustratedly enraged both by the horror of the degradings and dyings and by the speed of the spread being aggravated by the bathhouse culture.  “Tell gay men to stop having sex!” she pleads baldly from the start.  Ned protests that for them casual sex was a means of  connection, which becomes addiction, which becomes peer-pressure.   Though he himself, never yet in love as the play starts, comes to   deplore  the idea that “promiscuity is our political agenda” .  As a writer and reader, in passionate late outbursts he pleads for gay men to claim a proud cultural tradition from Plato to E.M.Forster and Alan Turing, and not constantly want to “be defined by our cocks”.    The complexity and torment of his nature is marvellously evoked in a great date scene, funny and touching and recognizable to anyone of any orientation whatsoever.  Felix (another wonderful performance by Dino Fetscher) speaks for relationships, and says Ned’s “making love” phrase is wrong because “we treat each other like whores”. Ned bridles nervously, rants politically, hears himself doing it, recovers…

         That clash about promiscuity is one of the many political and ideological questions deftly handled by Kramer through character.  The men’s meetings, either together in flat or phone-crazy office or in attempts to get Mayoral attention,  as Tommy Boatwright drily puts it,  suffer badly from “bereavement overload and a lot of styles which don’t quite mesh”.  Kramer himself, like Ned in the play, was edged out of his own movement because of his intemperate style.   Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy (“I’m a Southern bitch!”) is  both wonderfully funny,  the campest of them all but also the most grounded,   deeply touching in his dogged loyalty to the project , and tenderness towards the vulnerable, exhausted Mickey (Daniel Monks) who  spends his days working at the health department writing advice about breastfeeding and herpes .  and his evenings doing newsletters about this far greater mortal danger which the public authorities  refuse to acknowledge or provide for.  Meanwhile, still in the closet yet chairman of the infant charity, Luke Norris is Bruce:   beautifully  balancing his bankerly, besuited dignity against the scruffy furiosity of Ned,  but relating his own lover’s undignified last moments in one of the play’s most wrenching speeches.     Ned’s straight elder brother Ben is Robert Bowman: and there’s another of the key, understated relationships of love and conflict which make the pattern of the play so deftly,  timelessly perfect.  And in this production, brilliantly displayed. 

Box office. Nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 6. Nov

Rating. FIVE.    

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RELATIVELY SPEAKING Jermyn St Theatre WC2

A POCKET JEWEL

     We always knew that among the first sproutings of recovery would be a few Alan Ayckbourns, popping up as welcome as snowdrops.  I am always fond of this early one,  with its deadly-accurate eye on the British qualities of embarrassed,  pained civility and insane reluctance to ask the straight and obvious question.   The old Noel Coward congratulated the (astonished) young Ayckbourn on it, and I can see why.   The old hand saw that someone had come along who enjoyed wordplay and cross-purposes  but, unlike him, had focused a pitiless eye on a rising generation,  looser in convention and more middling in class than his characters.  It was, by the way, the first time that an ordinary unmarried couple were depicted on the West End Stage as fresh out of bed (and not remotely guilty about it).

         The play last surfaced in the West End in a lush production starring Felicity Kendal, with if I remember correctly some real growing flowers on the older couple’s patio. So it was irresistible to see how it feels up close in this tiny underground theatre.  Good, is the answer. And one can trust Jermynite stage management not to be afraid of turning a 1960s studentish bedroom  full of posters into a genteel Buckinghamshire terrace (one bed equals two benches and whoomp! Down comes a new backcloth, very neat.

     You may know the set up?  A  young couple – here a naively puppyish Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey, suitably minxier and more experienced – plan to marry. In a fit of  gentlemanliness (retro even for 1965) he is calling on her parents, where she said she was heading,  to “ask for her hand” .Ginny being less retro in her ways,  the  country house actually belongs to Philip, the lover she is trying to dump, and his innocent wife.

And so the dance progresses, a step-perfect quadrile between the two innocents and the two deceivers,  its mood rising to confused anger and subsiding to misguided understanding. With sherry and luncheon and gardening.  

            James Simmons as Philip is bliss:  a middle-aged alpha male with all the roguery and misplaced self-confidence of the species,  all the conviction that he deserves both cosy wife and young girlfriend, yet beneath that, in body language and wonderful moments of panic, the necessary Ayckbournian  undercurrent of potential real pain,  caused and (rather less) felt by him.  Rachel Fielding is a perfect foil, every inch the hostess,  without the skittishness Kendal gave it but getting calmer and kinder as every twist of misunderstanding tightens around the conversations.  Unlike Coward Ayckbourn doesn’t do epigrams: instead he gives her sweetly hilarious worries about sunstroke and the need to wear a hat in the garden.  And unlike almost any other playwright, he can make the plot turn suddenly and sourly on the lining colour of a bedroom-slipper..

   . The duologue of the two men in particular is immaculate, Bonwell dreadfully indignant at this supposed future father-in-law,  Simmons affrontedly pompous.   The edge of pain in Harvey’s Ginny – who after all is possibly about to lose her fiancé any imnute –   is shown in every line.    In fact the intimacy of the Jermyn is a plus: as clearly as on TV you see every twitch of an eyebrow, every pained smile of mis understanding,  the fact that the young man is actually sweating. Gorgeous. 

     Director Robin Herford is a veteran of Ayckbourn’s  own  SJT at Scarborough, and his task is to ensure that every beat of comic bewilderment hits home. It does. And you’re right up close to it all, a neighbour in that Buckinghamshire garden.  

Box office  jermynstreettheatre.co.uk     To 9 Oct

rating  five happy mice

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BLITHE SPIRIT Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

AN ARCATI MORE THAN MEDIUM

I once took a student nephew to this Coward masterpiece, and the thrill for me was that he didn’t know there was a g—–. Until there was. Therefore for a rising generation, with aunts who wisely buy them tickets, I shall unfashionably eschew spoilers, even if the publicity lets one out.  

    .  In any case, for me this time the thrill was different, and unexpected.  It was the TV-star casting of Jennifer Saunders as the dotty village psychic Madame Arcati. I admit I had not been expecting much: there have been generations of Arcatis since 1941, since from Margaret Rutherford onward ageing comediennes of distinction have been queuing up for the role, longing to drape themselves in mad scarves and beads,  pedal up the hill to the suave Charles Condomine’s dinner party seance on a trusty bike (“down with your head and up with your heart and you’re over the top in a flash!”), and then in a series of show- stopping tirades lecture the company on the afterlife and enact  a dramatic trance.  I have seen about six over the years, and didn’t expect to enjoy Saunders: loved ab-fab, but expected exaggerated fan-friendly mugging and too much recognizability. 

   I was wrong.  In Richard Eyre’s briskly directed production she stands out, even alongside Geoffrey Streatfeild’s expertly Coward-y Charles, Lisa Dillon’s brisk (and at times, later, even touching) Ruth, and Madeleine Mantock as a rather wonderfully nimble, dancing, writhing, coolly-smoking sex bomb Elvira.  Saunders’ Arcati is draggled but not cartoonish:  donnishly dishevelled, earnestly scholarly rather than exaggeratedly nuts. Legs akimbo, whether bossing the company into awkward table turning formation, wiping her crystal ball on her capacious bosom or dancing about speaking in tongues, she utterly inhabits and believes in the part.   No Edina Monsoon surfaces even for a moment.  No scarves either, just a paisley robe and hat I rather fancy myself.

      So, pleasure: it’s not new to most of us, this “Improbable Farce” Coward knocked together in six days by the seaside: we oldies know all too well its dryly regretful observation of  the farce that is passion, the dangers of memory  and the inevitability of matrimonial irritability.  We enjoy the   magnificent galleried library – one of those stage sets the audience longs to move into, almost  property-porn. We enjoy the elegant sparring, whether Private-Lives style with Charles and Elvira or all too recognisable in his spats with Ruth. There are dim lights and eerie blue-white on platinum effects, and one total blackout. And  – let me say this without an iota of a spoiler – director Eyre gives full rein to the final scenes of Rose Wardlaw as the housemaid. Full rein. Hurrah. Take your nieces and nephews. 

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com   To 9 November

Rating four

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THE LODGER Coronet, W11

A SHAGGY-DOG TALE IN CRUMBLING SPLENDOUR

    

  Sometimes the building upstages the play. I had not explored the late-Victorian, half-restored  glory of the Coronet before,  and my first thought was that it may be impossible for any show to lure people out of its magnificent subterranean bar.   But duty to the Art must be done,  Robert Holman is a veteran writer, it’s his newest play,  and a great cast: would go a long way to see Sylvestra Le Touzel and indeed young Matthew Tennyson.

      But it’s a rum one, this.   As at the Hampstead last week we are dealing with sisters whose mother has just died, leaving a residue of old female resentments. Esther (Penny Downie) lives in Little Venice with Tennyson’s  Jude , a half-companionable half-taciturn youth, who is probably a drug dealer . She rescued him like a stray cat when he was twelve. Down from Harrogate in her old car comes sister Dolly, Le Touzel .   Nicely costumed in no- nonsense Northern mumswear, she takes this moment to announce she has left Derek for good, the philandering beast.  She is suspicious of Jude,  yet jealous of Esther for this surrogate son (“I would have loved to wash boys’  clothes” she said, in a standout line of childless sadness).   

         But the pace is slowish, uneasy,  some of the dialogue only just ‘off” , so it feels like a cheese-dream after reading too much Alan Bennett.   Geraldine Alexander’s rather static direction in that long first scene had Dolly’s back to me for longer than is comfortable.  Things improve as we discover  this pair to be more entertainingly dysfunctional than they seem, since Esther admits to sex under a cherry tree with the groom on the eve of her sister’s wedding (Dolly’s response is that she plans to cut the tree down). Esther is slapped, forcing Jude to throw a glass of water over them, catfight-style. 

          After hasty stage rearrangement and some pebbles they all go together to Dungeness, though where more sisterly discord occurs with an even sharper revelation.  Then Jude (on whom it is impossible to get a handle)  reveals from behind a swimming towel that he too has a dark secret, viz. that he has had a play put on at the Royal Court.  It’s  about a boy who goes to Norway to track down his rock star grandfather…

           Well, no more spoilering,  let’s just say that I had an awful suspicion that Act 2 would be in Norway, so passed the interval in a confused wander round the foyer, enjoying how Coronet’s ramps up its artful attitude of disconnected Victorian strangeness with a creepy candlelit maiden-auntly decor of old chair backs,  obsolete typewriter and hatstand with a mirror into which one might look and suddenly see someone quite different , betraying a dark secret about something bad that happened in Harrogate in 1955.   See?  this theatre is becoming part of the story, simply because the story is less like a gripping play than like a rather baggy novel. 

         Norway was indeed there after the interval, complete with the lovely Iniki Mariano in a sari, with more astonishing revelations. And just as you are wondering what the hell happened to the two senior ladies,  they are back,  reconciled, and the three principals end up by planting an oak tree  onstage with admirably thorough trowelling , a full new sack of compost and many reflections in life, confidence, hope , love, and the point if any of the Christian religion. 

          It’s deftly performed,  not unperceptive,  but hard to accept as drama.  Stretching in too many temporal, geographical and thematic directions at once,  its elastic simply lacks twang.    

box office thecoronettheatre.com   to 9 oct

rating three  

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INDECENT Menier, SE1

AN EPIC OF PASSION AND PERFORMANCE

        Here is life, history,  theatrical passion, great migrations and  lyrical romance in the rain.  Here’s anger and humour and love and despair , jokes and vigour and a slap in the eye to prudery and prejudice , and many  messages from the 20th century to the 21st.  Rather than return cautiously with a safe old feelgood favourite the Menier’s artistic director David Babani  has taken  –  deep breath –  a new American-Jewish Broadway play about a 1923 scandal about a lesbian play in Yiddish from 1907, and its  1940’s aftermath in a doomed attic in the Lodz ghetto.   Could have been a tough sell, though the playwright Paula Vogel was a 1998 Pulitzer winner  and with  director-collaborator Rebecca Taichman it won a Tony just before the pandemic.   

        You can see why, and why it will hit the Oliviers lists. It’s a delight, seething  with life and feeling. A  silent line of eight unsmiling, muffled, mittel-European figures sits still as statues as we enter then rises, stretches, ash  around them dispersing as the fiddler strikes up and modest old Lemmi (Finbar Lynch) apologetically explains that he is just a stage manager, but has a story to tell, which the actors will help him to do. .  They are dancing by now,  accordion and clarinet amplifying the plaintive klezmer fiddle, and the tale begins.  It tells how  a play in Yiddish, God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) ran from St Petersburg to Berlin to Constantinople to New York, and back to Poland in the Holocaust when its author, Sholem Asch, forbade its performance forever. .  Or until Paula Vogel, a student tentatively finding her gay identity in 1974,  found it in a university library and was enthralled.  Across the decades it spoke to her understanding of love: a lyrical, passionate, transgressive tale from the shtetl,  of a brothel-keeper’s virginal daughter falling in love with one of his whores and driving the father to blasphemous rage which makes him hurl at her the precious velvet scroll of the Torah which his employee girls earned for him  “on their backs and their knees”.   

        Fast-moving, time and place  signalled by captions on the back of the gilded proscenium,  the cast show us young Asch’s anxious presentation of his first play to sceptical elders  (middle-aged bearded chaps reading as lovesick girls are wickedly funny).  The visionaries  understand that “We need plays in Yiddish to represent our people, speak of our sins.  Why must Jews always be heroes?”   Others fear – presciently – that its frankness will fuel antisemitism. But as Asch says, “Ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of antisemitism” is pretty normal.   And it is 1907:  Berlin will surely love its brave sexual fluidity?   “All Germans can talk about is Dr Freud!”  The cast briefly become a Berlin cabaret, complete with Peter Polycarpou and his beard in exhilarating feather-capped drag. 

          It runs all across Europe, the dramatic final scene gloriously reproduced from every angle as a scuttling cast represent the tour of European capitals,  the young women (Alexandra Silber and Molly Osborne) flinging themselves into the sometimes comic, sometimes beautiful love scenes.  Then it’s 1920  and Staten Island,  as dear Lemmi    (by this time we are in love with the humble faithful tailor-turned stagehand and his humane wisdom)  follows Asch  through the gateway to freedom.  In Provincetown and Greenwich Village the play, in Yiddish, finds so much approval in the community that a translation is made for a Broadway opening.  One original actress cannot master good enough English, and producers see they can’t have her sounding like “a girl off the boat”.  It’s the jazz age.   Immigrants must Americanize…

         New York, though, is more shockable than old Europe.  The American replacement actress is thrilled at shocking her parents with  the lesbianism, while  Lemmi murmurs in the wings  that all love is love – “When Messiah comes, I think, no hate..”.   Trouble brews: “Jews, Polacks, take your filth back to your own country..”.  In a famous raid the vice squad swoops on the first night, Officer Baillie hopelessly getting in the way in the wings.  The arrested cast suffer a famous judgement demanding Americans are served only “upright and wholesome” plays.  In one of the many ironies of the story deftly, skimmingly thrown out in this fabulous telling,    it is a sermon by Rabbi Silverman that fuels the protest.   

       Lemmi goes back to Europe, and at last finds himself in the ghetto in Lodz, sharing the last fragments of bread as a group defiantly put on a scene of the play,  their heritage.   We know what a sharp chord from the instruments means: another raid, another terrible line echoing the Staten Island queue of twenty years earlier.   The two girls, though only in a dream,  dance and embrace, white and insubstantial and free as real rain falls.      

box office   menierchocolatefactory.com  to 27 November

rating five 

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THE MEMORY OF WATER Hampstead Theatre NW3

A HISTORIC HIT BACK, BETTER THAN EVER 

    This portrait of three bickering sisters, trading memories and revelations  in the days before a mother’s funeral in a snowy Yorkshire winter, was a Hampstead discovery 25 years ago:  a debut by Shelagh Stephenson, herself one of five sisters.  Seized by the theatre and finessed to perfection by Terry Johnson  it won an Olivier, went to the West End and the US.   It hasn’t faded. 

            As we all creak back into live-audience mode there’s a particular joy in plays you can take any way, depending on your mood.  In this case you may furrow your brow on the nature of memory,  the fact that as HMQ observes “recollections may vary”,  and the depredations of Alzheimer’s.   Alternatively, especially if female,  you can wince pleasurably at its harshly salutary portrait of a particular  20th century generation gap: the failure of understanding and the edges of envy between ‘traditional’ housewife mothers and their freedom-seeking, taboo-breaking  career daughters.  The ghost or memory of old Vi  in the play speaks for many of my generation’s mothers with her sad line  “I can’t seem to get the hang of any of you”.  Or, as a third option, you can simply enjoy the play as an excellent dark-and-light comedy.   

            The cast is faultless:  Lucy Black is nervy, organizing Teresa , married to stolid Yorkshire Frank;   Laura Rogers is Mary, the sardonic clever nerve specialist having  a long affair with a married TV doctor;   Carolina Main is the youngest, Catherine, ricocheting helplessly, hysterically  and hypochondriacally between faithless boyfriends.  Early on, when it is just the three of them in the satin-quilted maternal bedchamber  the rat-a-tat-tat of fast exchanges is jaggedly funny,  laced with the absurd non sequiturs of girl-talk: arguments about who got forgotten on a beach outing swerving into lines like “The funeral director’s got a plastic hand..” .  Their physical language is perfect.  Catherine sprawls upside down, moaning that she was never the favourite or really wanted (“She thought I was the menopause!”).  Mary is studiedly languid and defensively sexless;  Teresa a tense bustle of resentment.

        When Mike-the-married-boyfriend arrives,  frozen and grumpy from a long unheated train,  the chemistry changes.   Adam James is perfect in his doctorly detachment and already visible unreliability about commitment to Mary.    When Kulvinder Ghir’s Frank appears,  to find the women gone hysterical trying on their dead mother’s awful cocktail gowns,  he gets one of the finest comedy entrance-speeches of any year,  fresh from a loathed sales conference, fourteen diverted hours from Dusseldorf sitting next to a crazy puppetteer-for-the-deaf woman who talked.  His is a hard lot, in the family health-supplement racket:  ”You try living on goose-fat and pickled cucumbers in some emerging democracy” while trying to sell them royal jelly.  

     The great lines keep on coming,  and every character has at least one bravura moment, one aria of  life’s frustrations.  Teresa, as Frank sadly predicts,  does get “demented” when swigging whisky from the bottle and spilling the play’s saddest central secret, a moment Ortonesque in its shocking vigour.  Catherine finally gets a dumping phone call from her latest Spanish restaurateur and loses herself to lonely miserable rage while the others in their body language make it clear that this is not the first such meltdown,and the men cringe.   Mary, her saddest secret always burning under the surface,   finally turns to challenge her slippery medical lover.  The argument about a possibly drunken vasectomy-event is, again, on the edges of Orton and all the better for it.  

          It’s all splendid,  including the wickedly specific place-and-period designs by Anna Reid (oh, posh Yorkshire! O, the bedspread and the mirrored wardrobes!).  It all serves Stephenson’s beautiful writing with laser precision.  It’s on until the 16th of October, and after the 27th of this month  will no longer be ‘distanced’.  Actually,  I am tempted to go again,  just to feel a more solidly packed audience laughing and gasping around me. That’s how much fun it was.

Www.hampsteadtheatre.com.     To Oct 16. 

Rating five.  

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BIG BIG SKY Hampstead Theatre

LOVE, GRIEF, AND A BRAD PITT ALBATROSS

  With loving detail, right down a glimpse of coat-racks beyond the far door,  the downstairs studio serving Tom Wells’ new play has become  a remote Formica-and-pastie caff on its last legs; a remnant of the pre-cappuccino age but still serving the birdwatchers on the sands of the East Yorkshire coast. 

        Jennifer Daley’s Angie is in charge, with Jessica Jolleys’ young Lauren to wipe tables and her rather hopeless Dad Dennis (Matt Sutton looking suitably moth-eaten)  nipping in for a free leftover pastie-and-beans just as they’re trying to close.  And, it turns out, suddenly announcing that after 45 years ignoring those things flying around in the vast skies overhead he has  become a birdwatcher.  And   thinks he can win a photography competition.  

       Enter Ed, a pawky, skinny, gabblingly shy lad from Wolverhampton burdened with a vast khaki rucksack and anxious vegan environmentalism.  He is Airbnb-ing in Lauren’s old bedroom in the hopes of landing a job as a wildlife warden looking after Little Terns in the sandbanks.  In no time,  to his slight bafflement,  he is being instructed in line-dancing steps by Angie because Lauren plays guitar for the community in this newfound pursuit. 

    We are in  Tom Wells country, out by Spurn Point and Kilnsea,   the kind of smalltown he immortally defined in The Kitchen Sink a few years ago as “A good place to come from because it’s knackered and it’s funny and it’s falling in the sea”.   I am a late catcher of this play  (it closes this weekend) but wanted to mark it, and barrack perhaps for someone else to pick it up and tour it.   I have loved his earlier work (you can still hear Great North Run on BBC Sounds by the way) and this did not disappoint.

         The beauty of what this playwright does lies in capturing and appreciating the glory of unappreciated, underpaid and fameless lives without making them into socio-political victims. Though God knows in the North-East a lot of them are.  He writes of simple pleasures, dry jokes (“Dad, we understand the concept of migration.  You’re birdsplaining!”). Or “An Albatross?  That’s the Brad Pitt of seabirds!”.  He has a keen eye for absurdity,  and is beautifully served in this by Tessa Walker’s cast.  Not least by Sam Newton’s wide-eyed Ed and his growing relationship (it spans a year or so) with the affectionately exasperated Lauren.  He happily throws away wonderful lines like the local news that  “there’s a lot of excitement about a Tundra Bean Goose”,  trusting in smiles rather than guffaws. .      

      But his themes are as immense as any:  unexpressed long griefs, loneliness, endurance,  the consolations of nature with its fragile innocence and the human capacity to spoil it by accident  (a quality in which Dennis proves champion in one awful revelation).   This writer can be lyrical without pretension, funny without emphasis.  He is not afraid to unfold a story slowly or to deliver a gasping shock;  he economically sketches for us not only the characters’ past losses but such invisible irritants as Neil, a gay retired accountant from Leeds with a £ 3k camera who pleases the women and annoyed Dennis by starting up the line-dancing nights. 

       They’re all good,  Daley as Angie giving an understated, modest, slow-burn performance which rises to moving intensity in the final moments  which resolve exactly as they should.   In 90 minutes we lived a lot of their lives, with love, and saw what they saw in the big, big skies of remote England.  Can’t ask more. 

Rating   Four.            

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FROZEN the musical         Theatre Royal Drury Lane. WC2

ICE WORK IF YOU GET IT…

       Phew. The Broadway-rooted, Disneylicious,  long-awaited red-carpet premiere night featured (of course) an ice -blue carpet.  And  the throng bursting out to meet the paps afterwards was met by actual snow-blowers,   so that  our soggy heatwave outfits blended nicely into the evening’s actual rain as we skittered out of range. As if we weren’t confused enough by this Lopez-and-Lee adaptation-cum-homage to the animated Disney film,  itself very freely based on The Snow Queen by that treasured oddball Hans Christian Anderson.   

            The film itself has, against all sense,  over its eight year life firmly gripped the global female imagination from age five to millennial.  It has caused tots to build countless Olafs in this spring’s snowfall, and their new-feminist single aunties to go karaoke mad every hen night with the anthem Let it Go,  resolving  “don’t be the good girl you always have to be..test the limits, break through, no rules for me”. 

      Which is only problematic if you pause to notice that Elsa’s personal liberation from trying to control her powers and regulate her emotions involves nearly killing her sister twice, plunging a country into perpetual winter and starvation, and gliding off to stay alone in an ice palace, seeing nobody.  More late-Ceaucescu than Cinderella.   Her sister Anna has to work for the happy ending without even having one decent anthem. 

    Cards on the table, I only watched the film a few days ago for research, and while mildly fond of Olaf the snowman found it odd going. And wondered why (apart from the obvious)    Michael Grandage, subtle and thoughtful director, would involve himself.  Unless for the sheer glee of big-show big-machinery, with Christopher Oram and video designer Finn Ross let loose to draw elegantly on Norwegian art,  and create immense shining northern lands and instant icicles while deploying astonishing lighting and snappy costume and set  transformations.  So OK, yes,  you can see why he would. 

       And being a savvy director Grandage does keep it speedy:  indeed the production’s greatest saving grace is in the choreographer Rob Ashford’s ability to pop in fast, short dance jokes and effects (ensemble  required to be sea waves, trolls, snowstorms, and at one point impressively frozen into a solid block).   Beyond that, I really don’t  buy the director’s valiant attempt to talk up the parallel with our frozen Covid year.  Or the feminism.

      One problem the adaptors met is in having to use quite a lot of the film’s dialogue, which is – in gallant Anna’s case – painfully half-baked high-school romcom banter (“Can I say something crazy?” “I like crazy!”).  Olaf the snowman, beautifully handled by Craig Gallivan, has better lines, and  manages to get his head separated from his chubby arse at one point,  a pleasing nod to the animated film.  Among the new songs the Hygge one is the most successful,   especially when supplemented by a faux-nude conga out of the sauna in some very remarkable hats.  Of the original songs (apart from Let it Go) the best transplanted one is “Fixer-Upper”.    

         But the jerking between Disney infantilism and moments of artistic grandeur is sometimes plain odd.  When the romcom high jinks of Ana and Hans precede the solemn coronation moment with a properly spine-tingling choir, it feels like two clashing shows.    On the other hand there’s good dramatic distinction between the sisters’  moves and voices: Samantha Barks gliding around as a pure fine classically-toned Elsa and Stephanie McKeon galumphing lovably with more of a  mid-Atlantic popster sound.  That works. 

       So it’s a decent enough Christmas show.   And whoever spends the time inside Sven the Reindeer, a proper panto-beast with excellent legs,  deserves a bow too. As they all do, and frankly, get the fourth mouse for it.  These big musicals have had to rehearse and solidify at warp speed after the worst year ever for the business.Honour to them.    But for all the design and directorial and choreographic brilliance,  I cannot lie:  Frozen the Musical is not a pig’s ear, but neither is it quite the silk purse it should be.  

Box office   Www.booking.lwtheatres.co.uk      To JUNE 2022

Rating four, one being bigmusicals-mouse 

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SYD touring

ARTHUR SMITH CONJURES UP HIS DAD

    These days our Arfur comes complete with an overture!  It takes the form of Kirsty Newton at the piano (artfully disguised as an upright 1940’s pub-battered joanna, in front of some equally retro wallpaper and a modest screen for the pics).   She appears in a fine and equally retro print frock,  to storm through My Old Man’s a Dustman,  Follow the Van, Tipperary etc while we settle down (in my case in the smart new Mercury in Colchester,  but it’s a tour of one-nighters so heaven know where you’ll be, see below).

       Then on comes Arthur Smith,  and we see that undimmed by lockdown-year is his tendency to merriment and causing merriment, whether in  Barry-Cryer-type gags, geezerish challenges to the audience,  or unmatchable stories.  So we’re soon into this tale:   a memorial ramble around the life and times of his late father Syd Smith.  He was a WW2 veteran of El Alamein, a Colditz prisoner  and  a South London copper.   Syd wrote a journal of much of his life in straightforward, dryly humorous police-report prose:   a handwritten volume which Arthur at the lectern cherishes,  and from which he reads the odd excerpt. 

         The timeline of the story moves zig-zag style, illustrated from time to time with photos and at one point with some wartime footage.  First come the postwar police experiences, with Arthur donning a helmet and jacket to conjure up  both the boredom of the beat and the duties of a good cop towards  Sarf London drunkards.  It’s very funny.  We love Syd already.

         Then it rolls back to the war and El Alamein and hardship and fear, slave labour in copper mines,  then lighter duties at Colditz  where he reckons he was sent to assist the posher officer-class.  He found it pretty cushy.   This experience is  interspersed with Arthur’s own time as a student layabout in 1968 in Paris, demonstrating about things he hadn’t really thought much about, but the shouting was fun.  In one way this double-vision narrative of 1944 and 1968 is distracting, but in another (something which our host could well point up a bit more sharply)  it provides an ironic contrast between the two teenage experiences, and reminds us how our postwar boomer generation lucked out compared to its Dads.     Kirsty Newton pops out from behind the piano to play some of the women they each encounter. 

        And they both sing a few songs, she expertly,  he with characteristic fearlessness (some of us wish he would do his Leonard Cohen show more often).   Many of the songs chosen work in context,   like the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset,  or a mournful “That’s no way to say goodbye”  when Syd gets a dear-John letter in Colditz from the girl he would have married.   Others are less so, and slow things up a bit.   

           But even then, you mainly think two things.  One is  “This is like a long session in a pub.  Bloody hell, I wish Arthur would come and liven up our local” .  The other is that we really love Syd  almost as much as we’ve always loved Arfur.  That’ll do. 

box office     https://www.arthursmith.co.uk/gigs/   for tour detail. 

   Wallingford and Guildford next weekend 10/11 and so onward across the land for weeks..

rating four

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CINDERELLA Gillian Lynne Theatre, WC2

THEATRE’S FAIRY GODFATHER DOES IT AGAIN

We needed this. The return of the big classic shows to packed houses  in the Barbican, Chichester and Sadlers Wells has been invigorating, but Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is brand new, a lockdown baby strugglingly finished,created and finessed  with once -unimaginable difficulties (dance auditions online…). It’s opened, closed, suffered pings, and cost Lord LW huge sums to back even while the old trouper campaigned and researched Covid-Safety. I wanted to like the actual show. Luckily, I really did.

  Who could not? Emerald Fennel’s exuberant version of the old tale is a sparky modern rom-com, led by a fabulous Carrie Hope Fletcher as the grungy, rebellious Bad Cinderella,  not only slaving for a stepmother but amusing herself in prim Belleville with a bit of vandalism, and a boy-girl friendship with weedy Prince Sebastian, while the foxy Queen and her court of leaping, leather-fetish hunks mourn the manly elder brother, Charming. The opening town scenes are a wicked inversion of old Brigadoonery, as a jolly chorus turns to a pitchfork mob against our sturdy heroine, the “unpleasant peasant, unwelcome present”.   Rebecca Trehearn’s nymphomaniacal queen (that first crinoline is positively explicit) turns out to have an old frenemy in Victoria Hamilton Barritt’s huskily bitchy Stepmother. The motive for the hasty royal marriage ball is the  tourist trade.  Sebastian is a pawn, mocked by the leathery hunks with their choreographed circuit-training push-ups and burpees. 

    The brilliant trick is the show’s have-cake-and-eat-it ability to debunk all the traditional glamour and romance while actually indulging it:  the central couple may address each other with lines like “Shut up you knob!” and question their inner motives in a very modern angsty way, and the transformation scene is actually a powerful and sinister attack on the love-island cult of cosmetic surgery.  But  we still have the spectacular costumes and oh-wow scenery, and the famous revolve of the entire front stalls for the ball scene, bringing the cast breathtakingly closer to every seat, and of course the music.  

    It’s ALW all the way: there’s the overture that tantalises you by  nearly turning into every tune you ever hummed from Loch Lomond to Lady Gaga, the pastiche nostalgia of a French accordion sequence,  a few gorgeous power ballads (Ivano Turco throws it out there as Sebastian, Hope Fletcher moves with fabulous ease between pathos and raucous)  and plenty of big orchestral emotion (are there really only nine musicians up there?)
   So yes, he’s done it, the old fox.  Got the right author, right lyricist, right director, designer and team, and with them pulled the perfect rabbit from his big, glittery-witty, musical revolving top hat. Respect.

BOOKING@LWTHEATRES.CO.UK running well into 2022 I bet

rating five

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THIS BEAUTIFUL FUTURE    Jermyn St Theatre, WC2

      Occupied France, 1944.  Two teenagers newly in love meet in an empty house.   Elodie is French,  Otto a German soldier.  They are both endearing and annoying, as befits their age:  she has pinched an unhatched egg from a neighbour’s bombed chicken-coop but has blood on her hands because (symbolism alert!) a fox had got in.  They lay it = in a bed of feathers together.  Something moves outside, a plane flies over,  he crouches in terror, gun out.  She stays jokey.  He speaks of the dullness of Dusseldorf and how he is looking forward to his upcoming trip to England: word is that the invasion is imminent.   

     Twenty minutes pass.  A bomb falls on the local church, and sweary, anticlerical Elodie is pleased because there’s some haunting rumour about an abusive priest there.   ~She  worries about keeping the room nice as “Mrs Levy”, her former boyfriend’s Mum,  always does.

   Otto tells her Mrs Levy won’t be coming back.   “I know what she is. We’ve taken care of her”.   He expatiates on how important it is, this great work for a beautiful future – “One people and they’re all born good”.  He is in love with Mr Hitler, as much almost as with this girl.  He tells her about his previous day’s work on a firing squad, shooting her old teacher and, it appears, quite likely having shot Mrs Levy’s son.    He is not pleased when she tells him the radio has revealed that the Americans are in Normandy, Paris has fallen, and there’s no way he’s going to England.  “You’ve lost”.  A Lancaster roars overhead (it’s a very classy soundscape, by Katy Hustwick,  and a thoughtful design by Niall McKeever)

      As scenes continue we flip forward to the liberation , his death, and the humiliating head-shaving awaiting her as a “Nazi’s whore”, then backward to their first meeting, and forward to the hatching of the chick, a stolen moment of innocence. 

        Rita Kalnejais’ play holds attention for its 70 minutes all right,  and Katie Eldred and a heroically bleached-blond Freddie Wise are compelling, very much any pair of modern teenagers (though perhaps without the social conscience).   Otto’s feeling that he gets ‘respect’ through his uniform is convincing, though Elodie’s ability to screen out the fact that her neighbours and family have been persecuted and shot by the same uniforms as her lovers is a bit startling. Maybe some teenagers did.   When Chirolles Khalil’s production  works it is by laying out before us the hopelessness of innocence in a savage wartime world,  and underlining the banality of evil.  Indeed the opening scene stays banal for so long one almost loses patience, until revelations of Otto’s attitude and his actions under orders jerk you back. 

    So I was halfway there with it, assisted by the fact that this little theatre has shown some of the best (often contemporaneous) plays about the second world war and the years leading up to it.  But much of the potential strength of this small sad, typical story is sapped by the author’s modern pretentiousness,  framing it in unconnected good-resolution voiceovers in the general tone of teenage “If I could do it again”  coffeemug mottoes: about wearing your hair down and believing in love. Maybe if I was younger and less jaded I would be moved by this rather than irritated…

    I wanted to like it more than I did.  If I had teenage kids I would take them, because they would learn much about war, and France, and the limitations of romance.    And it’s an interesting, accomplished attempt, with two fine performances. 

Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk   To. 11 September

Rating three.

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT Southwark Playhouse SE1

NOT A REVIEW BUT MIGHT SEND YOU THERE…

Take this as a report not a review, because actual work commitments made me skip at the interval.  But I was persuaded to the long 70 minute first half by a friend, who said “kill for a ticket” . And also by doubt. by having heard about the Spitlip  ensemble as clever, musical, inventively eccentric and – unusually –  60%female comedy troupe. Also I knew for years about the 1943 war office Deception Plan of the title, devised in part by Ian Fleming and recorded in the book The Man Who Never Was , later in Ben MacIntyres book Operation Mincemeat, and in a stiff upper lipped 1956  film lately on TalkingPicturesTV. There’s a new one out in 2022 I see. 

       Anyway, the scheme  was grisly: to persuade the Germans we were invading Sardinia not Sicily, by dressing the corpse of a tramp as  a pilot  with a briefcase of fake plans, and taking it refrigerated by submarine to wash ashore in Spain.  The body came complete with fake personal papers, receipts, theatre tickets and a love letter. Bill never existed in reality, but the paper trail was meticulous, spyproof.

        It worked. But was this something for a band of young singing, dancing, mocking 21c comics to turn into a cabaret show?

I  did wonder, which is why even knowing I’d miss the denouement, I bought a ticket. Southwark after all rarely disappoints. 

      So I cant star rate it, but can faithfully tell you that yes, it works and you’ll not regret it.  It starts full-on jokey, with the three women enjoying being absurd male MI5 stiffs, carolling about being born to lead, with the browbeaten nerd scientist Charles and, deliciously, Jak Malone as a prim Moneypenny. Character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle aged government clerklady of the 1940s.  

     Until he morphs effortlessly into an  disgracefully guyed Bernard Spilsbury, coroner who locates a body.  Despite the squeamishness of the officials   All good fun. 

      But just as I started to wonder again about the treatment of war and death this way, like all good comedy troupes they turn it round to empathetic humanity. The love letter has to be written,  from the fictitious Bill’s fictitious girlfriend. And after a sentimental aria about birds from two others, Malone’s  Moneypenny primly reminds us that some of them have been through one war already..and she sings the most heartbreakingly , deliberately banal and restrained of wartime love letters.  We guess she had lost a boy, and says…”anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”…

    . And suddenly we are on the docks and the five are submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike,  plainer and more serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone, just men the mysterious container. Then there is  a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax, intercut with the moment when the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, send the body to its destiny.  

       I may go again. Meanwhile, do give it a go yourself.. /Friend who was able to stay says it goes on being wonderful…

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BASKERVILLE Mercury, Colchester

          This  is the Mercury rising, rebuilt over two years with a cool café and dance studio, modern eco-glazing and, to respect the town’s history,  a solemn archaeological display of Roman bricks and copper alloy nose-hair tweezers they found underneath.  It’s good sense to reopen with a family-friendly lark: Ken Ludwig’s take on Sherlock Holmes’ adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles.   It helps that many, like me, remember from childhood the atmospheric terror of the Great Grimpen Mire and the dog with shining jaws,  while actually forgetting who the killer was. 

           It’s a jokey five-actor show in the tradition of the  Reduced-Shakespeare-Company or National Theatre of Brent with a great many hats and wigs,  but has some impressively detailed sudden costume changes.  There are classily brilliant sets and projections  by Amy Jane Cook and Louise Rhoades-Brown,  plenty of theatrical smoke and unexpected trapdoor-work.   Richard Ede remains Holmes throughout and Eric Stroud a mournfully nerdish Watson,  while the other three whip through 38 others from Baker Street to Dartmoor  and an opera house finale.   Phil Yarrow  and  Marc Pickering  are elegant shape-shifters, Naomi Petersen is all the women and two urchins. Seasoned Vaudeville jokes abound: fake wind,  running-on-the spot, an upright bed, talking portraits and at one point the traditional profile gag: an actor in half a suit and half a beard, changing character by whipping round to face the other way.  Never fails, that one.

    Fast small-troupe comedies like this always work best with a degree of knowing self-mockery between the players.   Yarrow and Petersen are both improv veterans  but  this element was a bit tentative at first, maybe rusty after the long performance famine which actors, as well as us audiences, have glumly endured.  But it grows in the second act,  and their glee will ripen as the run goes on.  The new surround-sound system, by the way, does very well indeed by the Dartmoor gales and the virtual Hound. Brrr, Grrr. 

mercurytheatre.co.uk   to 22 August 

rating 4

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THE WINDSORS ENDGAME Prince of Wales Theatre, WC1

WONDERFUL OLD COBBLERS ON  ABDICATION STREET 

(longer version of review done for Mail)

      You know you’re in safe hands when a stagestruck Prince Edward, diffident and excitable,   bumbles through the curtains to explain that in this family show he does all the “utility parts” in lots of costumes.   Indeed his first role is as a banquet waiter at a Coronation feast as the tabs open.  Suddenly to gales of laughter a leering Andrew is manhandled out of the front row by a cross usherette, for not having  a ticket.  I saw this on the day he was formally sued by Ms Giuffre.  Imagine the audience reaction…

       The idea of the deliciously rambling plot is that the Queen has abdicated :   Charles in Coronation robes sings  triumphantly how he was as a youth always told  “Be a man!  Be a man! Be tough, be male, be brutish, like your sister Princess Anne!”.   Anxious William and Kate look on.  . Cut to Meghan and Harry in yoga poses, podcasting about compassion while their wheatgrass smoothies are served by the galumphing maid, Fergie (Sophie Louise Dan is glorious).  Back home in the UK Beatrice and Eugenie,  in drawling Sloane voices and insane fascinators, gallantly start a campaign to prove their father’s innocence…

           I loved the Channel 4 spoof by Bert Tyler Moore and George Jeffrie, with Harry Enfield as a deluded megalomaniac Charles, a scheming Camilla and a family of well-meaning dolts with peculiar (and not very royal) pronunciations – “MeGUN” etc.  It is oddly innocent, as only wild exaggeration can be:  less savage than the old Spitting Image and  far less damaging  than the sly inventions of The Crown and  the “insider” gossip reports on which they often seem to be based.   I did wonder whether Enfield’s muggingly preposterous Charles act could fill a West  End stage,  but blessedly,  it doesn’t have to.   Though only three of the TV cast join him – Matthew Cottle’s priceless Edward, Tom Durant-Prichard’s vacant well-meaning Harry and Tim Wallers’ Andrew – this is a joyful ensemble.  We know it has been put together pretty fast, as the Prince of Wales theatre (ha ha)  loses the ghastly racist Book of Mormon,  but they seem to have had fun with it. 

    Anyway,  Camilla’s scheming has made Charles absolute monarch, enabling him to return Britain to his peasant-rich ideal of “chaps with lutes going round maypoles” . Politicians and civil servants were all “ easily bought off with knighthoods”, and they send kindly Wills and Kate on a long world tour.

     Which of course involves LA where the Sussex and Cambridge duchesses have a magnificent physical catfight over who made who cry.   But when they find Britain a  feudal state dominated by Camilla as  Elizabeth I ,  the fab four are reconciled , and resolve to lead a democratic  revolution. There’s  a wickedly funny snog-off in  a yurt in their encampment (amazing what you can suggest with shadow-play)   and some ripe latrine jokes (this show is sweary and rude throughout).  

      No spoilers, because the fun lies in the pile-up of nonsense, all the way to a Stonehenge crisis when we are asked to revive a  royal Tinkerbell  by shouting “We believe in constitutional monarchy!”. Everyone did.  A few huffy blokes behind me but in the end they had to join in. 

       It sails near the wind-  Tracy Ann Oberman as Camilla sings “Diana – Goddam her!” to gasps as well as cheers – but the big numbers are  more village-panto than Broadway. That’s good, because it feeds a sense of  family ridicule rather than satire. The ensemble at last sings:  “We always do our duty, and never-ever fuss – we are the Windsors! – God Save US!”.  Then Enfield explains that it would be inappropriate for them to bow at the curtain call,  so we all have to stand up and bow to them, while they wave..

   Given our national relish for both monarchy and  rude jokes, my instinct is that this one will reign and reign. 

Rating.  Four 

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SINGING IN THE RAIN Sadlers Wells Theatre

FLOODS OF RELIEF

Ten years have passed since, in a Times Chief Theatre Critic hat, I last saw a former principal  of the Royal Ballet  leaping in puddles , singing his great heart out, and propelling skeins of water into the front rows with the debonair precision of a British Baryshnikov and the joyful grin of a teenager.  Unforgettable.  Everyone fell for Adam Cooper.   I remember running into the director Jonathan Church in the interval,  and pleadingly saying “O please tell me that he’s a good guy as well as..all that?” To which he replied “the nicest human being on the planet!”. Sometimes one needs to know such things to complete the joy.  I can appreciate horrible human beings who are actually great actors,  but it’s nice to know when they’re not. 

       That watery moment, has been something to dream about in this terrible long drought of live performance. And last night there was the complete miracle again:   spray and song and laughter and pizazz, high-kicks in camisoles and a custard pie,  spoofy jokes on the black and white film clips playing st 1920 absurdity,  and Cooper using his dancer’s body not only to tap and twirl and soak the front rows but to recreate the absurdities of early cinema mime-show.   It had come home to us, to a packed London house:  a glory of nonsensical, nostalgia in which theatre pays homage to a movie about  the days when the movies paid homage to vaudeville and to hoofing Broadway legend. A self-referential multilayered trifle to comfort us after the long fast. 

      Jonathan Church’s glorious revival, with Andrew Wright’s fabulously witty (and fabulously demanding)  choreography, transferred from Chichester to the West End and toured; should have been touring internationally  these last eighteen months, with varying casts but always that central marvel of Cooper, who it turned out is as much a likeable actor and pleasing singer as great dancer.   Instead of that world tour, the principal has admitted that as theatre and its people were left to dwindle by a neglectful government, he tried for delivery driver jobs and universal credit.

      So it’s fair to be emotional. We all were. Waves of applause met every big number even before the deluge. Nor was it only for the star: Charlotte Gooch as Kathy and Kevin Clifton are both Strictly veterans,  and more than able to handle the character-comedy elements of the big numbers. The erotic-balletic displays in the second act are spectacular, but the ability the three principals have to seem to stumble and pratfall in the midst of a fast tap or vaudeville number is real class. As they tumble backwards together over a park bench you fear for their insurers and their skulls. 

      And, suddenly sober, fear for their show and their art and the huge daft beauty of their lately abused trade. Let them not be pinged off. Please.  

box office sadlerswells.com   to 5 sept

rating five music n dance mice

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OLEANNA Arts theatre, WC1

A VOICE FROM THE 90’s PREFIGURES THE FUTURE…

    This is a grand intellectual teaser of a show, and under Lucy Bailey’s almost mischievous direction does a good job of shaking up fashionable preconceptions about David Mament’s 1992 play. It’s often cited as his prediction of the MeToo, cancel-culture age which didn’t kick off properly for another decade. Though of course American academia is always ahead of the curve on troublesome developments,  and this one is set in the book-lined study of a liberal arts academic,  meeting – in three separate interludes – with a student ,  female and from a less privileged cohort. She is not doing well on his course and starting to question what he means by  his rather airily patronizing ideas about how higher-education is just ‘hazing’ and delaying adolescence.   

        It’s a play which tends to split opinions . Some think the lecturer is a horrid patriarch who is both patronizing and “grooming” the young woman who accuses him of these things and who regards as sexual rapacity his paternal touching of her shoulder and offer of solo tuition.  Others think the young woman is  an arrogant pain, one of the prim and pitiless young who have in the decades since pretty much taken over the world of judgement and cancellation. When the lecturer, preoccupied by calls from his wife over a tricky house purchase,  finally cracks in fury at his ruined career the thing which sends him over the top (spoiler alert, but its a 20yr old play) is her censorious aside as she listens to his phone call  “don’t call your wife Baby”.   

       But the joy of Bailey’s production, with Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy, is that she gives just enough to each side – until the final rage at least – and lets Slinger make the lecturer more of a confused, warmhearted human than a Mamettian patriach.   Buy Sheehy,  lounging arrogantly in her jeans or finally done up in a print frock and heels, sldo gets all her say, and her vulnerability is acknowledged while,  to be brutal, her sanctimonious judgmentalism rouses in the viewer an unbecoming stifled desire to chuck a bucket of water over her.. 

       The pace is cunning:  the first section just slow enough to make you think “actually, this man is a boring berk” ,  the second rising to a sense of real danger and hid unwisdom,  combined with a householderly sympathy for the fact that his job and new house are in danger while all the young woman is risking is, frankly, her self-esteem and dignity in the “support group” of the student body she is clearly driving.  For a while you think yes , the man’s a berk, but a well meaning and innocent one.  Then comes the final showdown when there is a sudden reversal of abusiveness, as  after her victimly “I speak for those who suffer what I suffer” becomes more sinister as she puts forward her group’s bonkers demands to have books banned and he fires up with liberal fury  – God, Mamet was ahead of the game there!.  And the disaster happens. And you see that both sides are pretty much hell,  but unfortunately blokes tend to be stronger.   

     I am not a Mamet-fan as a rule, his last one bored me rigid.  But  both performances were superb, subtly nuanced and horribly believable,  so finally this confection of elitism, sexual , psychological and academic politics was an awful sort of treat.   I am glad I bought a late-impulse ticket for a supposedly restricted view which was, in fact, fine.  WIth a slight inclination of the head.  

Artstheatrewestend.co.uk.  To. 23 October.   

Rating four 

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ANYTHING GOES Barbican, EC2

VICARIOUS TRAVEL, JUST WHAT WE NEED

   The big musicals are back: two dark-edged, South Pacific at Chichester and Carousel imminent at Regent’s Park, while  halfway between them flowers this delicious, de-lovely, entirely happy lark.    Cole Porter at his sharpest sails his three-funnelled liner on the way to Yurrup:  SS America,  shipping American dreams and fantasies of 1934.  There are  celebrity gangsters and torch-singers, big stock-exchange money and big energy, jazzy lapdancers and a touching belief that  poor old England is best represented by a silly-ass in tweeds who doesn’t understand words like smooch. 

       Add a book co-written by PG Wodehouse, master-designer of silly-asses and sporting gals who invent mad plots to help their chums,   and you’re there.  So are we,  rejoicing in a packed and unmasked house – my first since Covid – where the first glimpse of the conductor bobbing up in  a captain’s hat brought a roar of happy glee.  Already an achievement,  given that the Barbican Theatre is the most dispiriting auditorium in the country:    cavernous yet claustrophobic.  It says much that for once,   that didn’t matter.  The roars of joy kept coming,  starting  at the line “there’s no cure like travel..’.  

         Kathleen Marshall’s direction is straight-up classic Broadway (none of the mischievous camp-edges of Daniel Evans’ gorgeous 2015 touring production) and at its heart is a straight-up Broadway royalty in Sutton Foster’s Reno.  In a series of memorable evening dresses and one sailor-suit she is a smiling, wisecracking well-seasoned stormer, the sort of legend who can lead a massive, all-singing, mass tap routine at the end of the first half and still whirl round with enough breath to hit the money-note.   She dominates – as she should – Samuel Edwards’ rather bland Billy, but finds her true match onstage as well as in-book when Haydn Oakley is at last released from the Jacob-Rees-Moggy tweedy-twit character in the final scenes to growl and swing from the prom deck with the Gypsy in his soul.    There’s a pretty fine match for her too in Robert Lindsay ,  deploying his favourite cuff-shooting, shrugging, hat-tipping gangster mode as Moonface,  never missing a beat or a gag. 

     What more can I say?  All the set-pieces are rocking treats,  the choreography of the charismatic revival-meeting positively alarming (Marshall also choreographs).  The set is elegant, and  the seagull-on-wire only crashed into the funnels once. It got applause of its own, that bird,  because hell, we were all just so damn happy to be back and crowded, and making a noise.  

        And so, by the look of it, were the cast.    

barbican.org.uk  to 17 October

rating five, with musicals-mouse

 

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GIN CRAZE Royal and Derngate, Northampton

THE DARK SIDE OF THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT. DON’T TELL JACOB REES-MOGG

          Hats off to James Dacre’s Royal & Derngate for bravely slapping on a brand new musical in the very week Lloyd-Webber and four other London shows got abruptly pinged-off by test ‘ n trace (more like trick-or-treat, frankly: isolation blackmail).   Even better, April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers happen to hit some nicely topical nerves in the time of Bum Flare Man and rabble-riotous, boozy footie-fans and clubbers barely controlled by the police.    The result, directed con brio by Michael Oakley,  is picaresque fun in the tradition of beggar’s operas (echoes of John Gay, and musical nods to Kurt Weill’s  Threepenny Opera songs) .   It’s hits the spirit of the 18c before the Victorians clamped down on behaviour: it’s  joyful and dark , scholarly and fantastical , finally rather serious but often very funny and breathtakingly rude (parental advisory: there are some cheerful genital references, sung and otherwise, with words starting with C and an earthiness regarding trouser-contents).   

            It deals with the mid-1700s,  when Hogarth drew the exuberant horrors of “Gin Lane”.  A trade deal with the Dutch made the spirt “Ginever” suddenly cheap and plentiful. A populace used to ale and mead  – wine and French brandy being for the gentry – started downing the stuff by the pint.  It assuaged the grim social conditions of the London mob and panicked the ruling classes into severe and ineffective licensing laws.    When our heroine Mary (Aruhan Galieva)  is starving, milkless, cradling her new baby after being raped by a genteel cleric and sacked by her employer,  ragged Suki from the gin community offers comfort.   Mary accepts:   “I am a mother, that’s what I am – I can give comfort, comfort’s a dram”.

         She allows Suki (a  Rosalind Ford as a farouche ginger firecracker)  to take the baby off to supposed safety.  Unless you know that there was a profitable market in baby-clothes and plenty of drains to dispose of the young owners, you might believe her.  

     Grim?  Well, there’s bleak-grim, of which theatre offers more than enough, and there’s energy-grim.  This goes for the latter.  Wild music-hall-cum-folk-rock numbers (“it’s the Law, it’s the Law! It’s the law to keep us poor!”) explode as the actor-musicians, instruments in hand,  dance or brawl.  Mary is rescued from brothel rape by Lydia, who gives up her role as a callous madam to strip the victim, reinvent herself as a man called Jack,  and develop  a touchingly domestic loving relationship with Mary.  But a prison beating and unspoken yearning for her lost child makes her leave him, accepting a job from Sarah, the eccentric writer sister of the  Tom-Jones novelist Henry Fielding.   In a flash-forward at the start we have seen Mary as Henry’s new wife. 

        Meanwhile, on the scaffolding above, with  an occasional full royal palace backdrop,  periwigged toffs attempt social control.   De Angelis has artfully ransacked history:  Queen Caroline was indeed affronted by the state of the mob ,  there was a Mary and a Suki,  Fielding did indeed marry his maidservant and become a magistrate,  and his brother did set up the first formal police, the Bow Street Runners. Into which, naturally,  the fake Jack gets recruited…

      See?  Picaresque. And finally tragic for some, even the survivors.  But there are tremendous laughs even before the comedy coffin and the (absolutely historically true) invention of a mechanical wooden cat, the Puss-and-Mew machine which dispensed gin through a paw if you put a coin in its mouth.  It defied the licensing laws because the server was behind a wall, unidentifiable.  The best  laughs are for  the magnificent Debbie Chazen as Moll, a bundle of colourful, ragged amiably drunken  disgracefulness.  Over the matter of Mary’s baby,  the veteran streetwalker is asked if she’s ever had a child. “Dunno” she says cheerfully.  “When you’re rat-arsed you don’t notice…must have…but you put things down and…?”   She also has a dreamy, heart-stoppingly plaintive pissed  line early on about the joy of gin.  “Ever see a pig’s brain?  All coils and coils…ginever runs through the coils, makes it all pure..”.  She is of course a theatre veteran  (“Used to blow the understudies”).

         Chazen doubles as the almost equally tipsy Queen Caroline of Ansbach , with a disgraceful faux-German accent with some startling phrases.  She is a joy. And for all the criminality, even the darkly guilty Suki’s, you’re on their side  against the  pomposity of the men (Alex Mugnaioni and Peter Pearson are six between them in fetching wigs and breeches). 

      As for the music, nimbly arranged by Tamara Saringer, there are rumbustious ensembles and one or two lovely solos, especially from Paksie Vernon as “Jack”.   Others don’t quite hit the musical-theatre showstop button as they need to, but why should they?   They impel the story, , and we’re alongside these girls.  On their side against the double oppression of poverty and sex.  

box office royalandderngate.co.uk    to 31 July.   There’s even an audio-described show on the 28th.    It’s designed to tour, so…long may it…

rating four    

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SOUTH PACIFIC. Chichester

ROARING BACK TO LIFE

 

    Almost the most magnificent part of Daniel Evans’ production is that it’s happening at all:  despite the distanced glimmer of blue paper masks, Chichester affirms that big musical theatre is back with almost insane defiance: cast of 32, 16 part orchestra,  singers who had to be rehearsed in visors, Ann Yee’s big wild ensemble choreography practiced at first in masks.   Cheering and clapping started with the dimming of the lights, and at the end we were on our many feet.  Audiences are glad to be back,performers gleeful, directors and producers nervous (four West End shows are currently suspended by Test ‘n Trace, with only hours of notice).

      So the night was in itself a celebration, but by no means a dumbly flippant one.  Rodgers’  crashing romantic music and the big songs  are better known now than the storyline – Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Hai, , Gonna Wash that man right outa my hair,  Younger than Springtime.  Some quail at putting it on, remembering the racial caricatures  of earlier productions.   US troops are occupying a Polynesian island in the WW2 conflict with Japan:   Hammerstein and Logan’s book has nurse Nellie Forbush, blissfully in love with Emile the French planter, rejecting him in visceral disgust for having two children by a (now dead) “native” woman. “A shock to think of you with a -….it is born in me!”.   And Lt Cable in turn decides that he can’t marry his lover Liat, daughter of the farouche camp-follower Bloody Mary, because he’s a Philadelphia boy.   “Lesser breeds”, see..

   But Evans and Ann Yee recognized – it’s archive fact – that in 1949 in American segregation, Rodgers and Hammerstein were making a powerful statement.   Nellie and the Lt are wrong. Cable, heading on a suicidal mission in his despair, strikes up with the bitterest, least-remembered number “You’ve got to be  Carefully Taught” about the ingraining of fear and hatred towards “people whose eyes are differently made.. skin of another shade”.  Liat, almost silent in the text, is the ballerina Sera Maehara, Japanese-trained and a mesmerizing presence,  dancing and moving with peerless, ancient grace like a daughter of the sun from a culture older than the whoopee knees-up romping of the Americans.    Bloody Mary pleads for her with real maternal agony and none of the familiar twee or light tone about “Happy Talk”.  As for male attitudes to women and the MeToo are, I have never seen a more threateningly macho take than Yee’s choreography of “Nothing like a Dame”.  You’d want chaperones round that lot. The words are full of wittily pathetic longing, but these lads are dangerous.

   O God, now you think it’s all terribly ‘woke’ and preachy (like the ’49 critic, a US NAvy officer,  who wanted rid of Cable’s bitter song about taught racism because it was like ‘a VD lecture’ and not fun).   But it isn’t a sermon, I assure you;  as a night out it is a happy riot. Gina Beck’s Nellie, at first a striding, robustly pretty naive Navy nurse, grows in character, romps and larks gorgeously, and belts out some of the most thrillingly fine low notes anywhere; Julian Ovenden is not only a fine actor but proves to have an immense, exciting operatic voice.  Seabees and Ensigns are a roaring, storming ensemble, set-pieces like Honey Bun stopping the show with our glee; and the colours are set against sobering late reminders of the seriousness of the war and – with Emile’s peaceably doubtful remarks before his heroism – its limitations.

  We know what you’re against, he says, “What are you FOR?” A question for all times.

Box office http://www.cft.org.uk.    

Rating five

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RED SKIES Touring, East Anglia

t

IF RANSOME MET ORWELL

 

  It’s 1939 in Southwold harbour (nicely resonant  for me to see this in Southwold  itself, on its second night).     Arthur Ransome, famed already for his children’s books, is sailing up the coast from Pin Mill to lay up his boat for the war years.  HIs wife Evgenia finds a visitor fallen asleep in the cabin:  it’s Eric Blair, who under his pen-name George Orwell has published four novels (mixed reception) and non-fiction accounts of being down and out, fighting in Spain and observing the poor of Northern England.  He’s been burying his father in the town, and found out who was in the harbour.    Soon he will write Animal Farm and become more famous himself.  

          Orwell wants to meet Ransome, not because of wanting to write ‘as if for children’  nor about fishing (on which they find common ground , with a very English social wariness). It is almost certainly because the older man lived through the Russian revolution in 1917 as a reporter (and maybe a spy, that runs through the whole play) .  Better still,  his wife Evgenia was Trotsky’s trusted secretary.   Orwell, with the pigs of animal farm not yet formed in his mind, is  thinking of the Russian revolution and of the new ally Stalin, and is already full of doubt at the outcome of the state socialism which seemed so natural and necessary to his generation.  In a nice moment Ransome teaches him fly-tying with bits of bread as bait:   our author is canny enough not to quote, but to leave it to us to remember Orwell’s great line – “Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait”. Nice idea that he got the metaphor off old Arthur Ransome…

       The meeting is entirely fictional,  an invention of the author, Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles ; so are two further meetings in the play,  one in the Lake District and one in Orwell’s last illness.  All might have taken place, none did:  fair enough.   Laurie Coldwell, dark and intense, is a perfect Orwell not only in looks but in catching a very credible manner: a nervy intense troubled intelligence, his physical restlessness in contrast to Philip Gill’s relaxed, worldly Ransome .  Orwell sees the cataclysm of war and totalitarianism coming (his Coming up for Air is the book he has with him) but Ransome growls “Keep Adolf quiet and stay out of his way”.   

     What Evgenia thinks we only discover slowly:  at first I was doubtful about Sally Ann Burnett’s portrayal, as she seemed plain silly,  but as the play goes on her layers of experience and understanding of the Bolshevism she lived through, and the question marks hanging over how she and Ransome got out so smoothly. 

     There are moments of real credible connection, though as the years go on – we are long post-war by the second half  –  there are far too many words and not enough real clashes or understandings.  Evgenia becomes ever more central, Burnett gradually evoking the long, half-buried emotional reality and political half-belief of her years working for Leon Trotsky (“It was where I was sent”).    The most dramatic moment comes when Orwell, having once again crashed in on their peaceful elderly lives,  is the one  to tell her of Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico.

     It’s a great idea, much  of it well performed and imagined,  but if ever a play needed cutting, especially in the second half (unwisely, as long as the first or longer)   this is it.   Nor do we really need the appearance of various dream-women (all Bronte Tadman) representing Orwell’s agonized love life in contrast to the uxorious Ransome’s.  Though Tadman’s last incarnation, as Sonia Orwell, is beautifully done: crisply ruthless, socially assured.  

        Other imagined meetings – Frayn’s Copenhagen, Bennett’s spy plays – benefit from brevity: at a tight 90-minutes this would have had twice the power.   It may yet have. It was worth seeing,  though.

box office 01473 211498 (Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm)  

www.easternangles.co.uk    

Touring across the East of England to 31 JULY, final week at Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich

rating 3

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RAYA Hampstead Theatre, NW3

MIDLIFE, MIDNIGHT, MEMORY

  

  Fittingly, Deborah Bruce’s  play is set over the night the clocks change back.  It’s   about Time, its reverses and attritions;  and being about loss and dislocation and domesticity,  it is set in an empty rental house about to be sold.    Some say that this tight, 80-minute three-hander tackles too many things at once – middle aged reawakening of old liaisons, the menopause, grief, haunting, student sexual accusations, therapy, parenthood and the unwisdom of defining yourself round sex. But hey, that is adult life .   Hassles do not arrive neatly separated and convenient for the dramatic unities.  

      For Alex, who has pitched up at a university reunion thrilled to meet her once- casual boyfriend Jason and has brought a bottle back to his old university house, the wearing “assault” of a hard menopause is being aggravated.   By a stale marriage, a husband reportedly too bored with it all even to have an affair, a son accused and  sent home “under investigation”  from university who doesn’t speak much, and a general sense of horror at being in her fifties and suddenly realising the world of “young bodies and lots of sex” is gone forever   Claire Price beautifully deploys a staccato,  nervy, overbright manner just this side of mania.  Jason (Bo Poraj) who appears more sorted, having ridden the 90s wave of software, marketing and branding and acquired  a therapist wife and two daughters.  He’s selling the old uni house now, it’s his wife who handles the letting.  He mentions (top high-achiever clue) also an “Airbnb in Suffolk”. 

         Alex knows unnervingly much about his life from stalking him on Facebook, something he doesn’t bother with;  she is too wound-up to take any heed of his present reality and guarded manner,  even when he mutters that the social media pictures are out of date.    I must admit that I spent the first twenty minutes admiring the chutzpah of a woman playwright willing to demonstrate , mercilessly,  how unnervingly bonkers a menopausal woman can be.   I wanted Jason to run for the hills.  I would.    For she reminisces embarrassingly, flirts, and drags out a narrative in which she alone rescued and shaped his sexual confidence so he ” owes” her.  She hisses the words ” your WIFE” to sound like KNIFE, and demands a night of adulterous passion, having only pretended she has a hotel. Poor Jason shies like a nervous horse. We’ll know a bit more about why at the end, but meanwhile it is Alex who mesmerises us with her sheer needy awfulness.  I mean that in as praise.

     Then a teenage dea-ex-machina invades – an ex tenant having broken into the empty house because, as she gabbles (brilliantly, torrentially) she has fouled up her key arrangements and needed to crash.  Alannah (Shannon Hayes) gets that bang on; when  Jason flees upstairs to leave Alex on a floor bed,  she crashes in again as excitable young adults do,  and decides Alex must be his wife Raya –  who has as landlady-therapist counselled her  kindly on email after her father died.   So here’s another unmanageable female (this is a brave playwright, God bless her) spilling out her feelings to the dumbfounded  Alex under a misapprehension.  She is not disabused, what with it being the middle of the night and Alex being half-loco herself. But she does get warned, with furious inaccuracy, that she should enjoy youth because “once the oestrogen runs out, it’s game-over”. 

     There’s a tremendous conclusion, a proper twist, a fourth character and delicate moment of real compassion.  Roxana Silbert’s direction and some sensitive sound by Nick Powell are faultless.  So by the end two women, one young one older, have made fools of themselves spilling every extreme feeling while a man has done himself harm  by failing to share even a drop of it.  They’ve all been intensely and messily human and all too recognisable. What more can we ask of  theatre? 

 hampsteadtheatre.com    020 7722 9301   to 24  July

rating four

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AFTER LIFE Dorfman, SE1

FORMAL. INTERVIEWS DON’T END JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD

    The afterlife is out of fashion, at least in traditional religious forms – harps and angels, heaven and hell, reincarnation or squads of waiting virgins, all start to seem as embarrassingly dated as Valhalla.  But most unfashionable of all are the ancient Christian notions of Purgatory – where suffering purges you of sin – and the other waiting-room option, Limbo (virtuous pagans and unbaptised babies).

 All the same, the idea is always gripping, and  attempts get made on it: this one by Jack Thorne, based on a Japanese film by  Hirokazu Kore-Eda, begins with a crashing boom of doom and puts the newly dead in a bleak office block lined with filing cabinets (Bunny Guinness’ designs throw a lot of good tricks at us).  They are greeted by a senior manager and questioned in turn by his staffers about their most meaningful and precious memory. 

        One could reflect (I did for a few intrigued minutes) that it is indeed Purgatory to be not only dead but processed by a pinstriped chap with a gleaming tie-pin and his rabble of weary, sometimes bickering aides whose attempts at authority reminded me at times of a group of disaffected McKinsey or Deloitte interns.  Luckily, their first clients tend to feel this too,  June Watson’s magnificent nonagenarian Mrs Killick worried about her cat, Olatunji Ayofe as a stroppy black lad who doesn’t get it at all, and Togo Igawa – a distinguished, senior after a stellar career – unable think of any precious memories at all . But you have to come out with one, and allow the staff to ‘recreate’ that memory with various props   because otherwise you can’t  happily ‘pass on”  to wherever you go next.  And might have to join the staff here, processing the next few lots,  until you work things out.  

       I feared sentimentality at “May your memories make you fly”. But Thorne, who gave us that glorious Christmas Carol at the Young Vic and added depth onstage to JK Rowling’s more plodding fantasy,  is no fool.  The  stresses , inhibitions and character-flaws of the dead candidates – and their griefs, Mrs Killick’s especially – draw you in. And around in the little Dorfman I could actually feel people wondering what their own memory would be (there’s an opportunity to record them, they run before the start).  It’s not a bad exercise. 

        Sometimes the ‘guides’ seem to be a cross between social workers and a frazzled am-dram group with prop problems,  but they too become distinct and interesting.   Philosophically ideas drift through as it progresses, – `’memory can free you or imprison you” .  A good plot line develops (a bit late, after the bit halfway through where you risk drifting away) . And with that, it  becomes clear that sometimes we can redeem each other.   

 Where Jeremy Herrin directs and Bunny Christie designs, you expect something pretty damn theatrical before it ends, and this we get.  No spoilers, but it’s surprisingly beautiful.  And after a year of  shared griefs and doubts and fears and hopes, it’s an honourable human document. If there are more tickets after the distancing rule ends (none now), worth grabbing one.  Anywhere, like I did up in the gods.    All the sightlines are fine..

Box office Nationaltheatre.org.uk.     To 7 August

Rating four  .  

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UNDER MILK WOOD Olivier, SE1

SHEEN SHINES AS THE WELSH WORD-WIZARD

      It might be helpful if critics admitted sometimes arriving bad-tempered, hot, out of tune, dreading the long masked late night train journey home. Even, perhaps,  churlishly admitting that they really hate the laboriously, Covidly, reconfigured Olivier in the round and the prissy – compulsory – rules like the poor usher having to push the lift button for you, even though fomite surface-infection has been discredited for months. 

           So there’s the confession:  sitting in the Circle  for half an hour of  1950s cheesy-listening music before the start,  I was a dreadfully bad subject,  wondering why I’d spent £ 20  (press tix are like hens’ teeth for us marginals in  these socialdistanced days, quite rightly).   But I  worship Michael Sheen , who gets Rylance-ier by the day in his eccentricities, adored  his Hamlet-in-a-psychiatric ward at the Young Vic,  and even, forgave him those cringey Zoomathons with Tennant.  And  I hadn’t read or heard Under Milk Wood , Dylan Thomas’ play-for-voices, for decades.  Actually, not since those  cheesy-listening tracks were the grownups’ hip-hop.   I remember being thrilled aged eight to find out, against parental intention,  that the village of Llareggub whose day the poet relates is a palindrome of “bugger all”.  

          Given that filthy mood,  an extra mouse is awarded because within 15 of its unbroken 105 minutes the show became an unmissable joy. It is framed by Sian Owen’s extra scripts,  set at first in a care home.   Young Owain (Michael Sheen)  has come to visit his old Dad, unresponsive on the edge of dementia.    Frustration, edging on irritation,  arises as it must do so grimly often in such homes,   until the son launches into “To begin at the beginning..” and that torrent of Dylan-magic words evoke the the crow-black, sloe-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea –  and we’re off!

  If you don’t know Under Milk Wood and  its cast of townsfolk,   they are gloriously enhanced-commonplaces:   you and me and the neighbours,  in the days one knew one’s neighbours.  Every auntie and uncle and local disgrace is there,   woven into the headlong half-punning lyricism of Dylan Thomas. So each of the care-home residents and staff flowers from stasis into vigour, personality, wickedness, pathos, goodness, doubling and shifting  characters  and picking up their words as Sheen tells the tale.   It’s elegantly choreographed by director Lyndsey Turner, atmospherically lit by Tim Lutkin.  Old blind Captain Cat (Anthony O”Donnell) breaks your heart,  listening to every footstep in the street outside, dreaming old love and bygone seas.  Poor Mr Pugh reads Lives of the Great Poisoners at table with his menacing wife,  Susan Brown is the even more menacing Mrs Ogmore Prichard and Polly Garter is up to no good in the wood.. 

      It may be “A play for voices”  but there’s joy in seeing them at it. And Sheen ,sounds as if he was making it up as he goes along, which is just as it should be  (if the NT doesn’t bring him back to do A Child’s Christmas in Wales this winter, they’re not concentrating).   The pace is perfect.  And it’s a perfect piece to contemplate after a year when the shrinking worlds of lockdown made every neighbourhood a village and every one of us was connected in fate and behaviour whether we liked it or not.  

         Llaregub’s long day faded and the raring pub became once more a care home, final words were spoken and bows taken, and around the drear-arena came pattering-paws applause, distinct-distanced,  Dylan-dreaming of the Sheen-shade…..see?  a couple of hours of it and you’re talking like Dylan Thomas yourself. 

     I leave you with the words of the Rev. Jenkins  and ask forgiveness for the initial bad temper: it fits our times  and moods:
    “Every evening at sun-down

    I ask a blessing on the town,

     For whether we last the night or no 

     I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

     We are not wholly bad or good

     Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

     And Thou, I know, wilt be the first

     To see our best side, not our worst”

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk    to 24 July

rating five

.

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BACH AND SONS           Bridge Theatre, SE1

FATHERS AND SONS, PASSION AND PIETY

 

  Last night saw one famous victory as England kicked through to the semis. Indeed the Bridge theatre press-night audience was a bit banjaxed by emerging to the shouts of crowds at the UEFA fanzone by the river.  Not often do you emerge  tearfully from Johann Sebastian Bach’s deathbed and Simon Russell Beale’s beaming curtain call to such inharmonious howling. So well done England, but even more well done – brilliantly done,  gloriously done, back of the net! –  to the writer Nina Raine and all the cast under Nicholas Hytner’s sure direction at the Bridge. 

.   Last time I was there was to see Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge, just before the government panicked again and closed everything.  This time the great SRB reappears as Johann Sebastian Bach, whose immense irascible genius he contains, channells and gives us back to us two centuries on.    We were safely alongside him all the way from the opening moments,  as he irritably plinked out the first notes of Sheep May Safely Graze while poor pregnant Maria, worried about their ailing three-year-old and big untidy sons,  tried to urge him back to bed. 

        This Bach is all quarrelsome warmth and freelance insecurity, family neglectfulness and devotion and perfectionism.  The canon and counterpoint and conversation  he expresses in music reflects in his life: he’s bawdy and holy, sensual and perfectionist, loving and grumpy.  No fault gets past him except his own, and which of us can claim otherwise?    “He’s multi-talentless” he snarls of an oboist who  plays the flute badly.  And “You – bass – you’re too fat to sing!  I know. I’m fat. I don’t have to sing”. 

           He writes every note to the glory of God,  with a sincerity rarely acknowledged by modern playwrights;  he wants to express “Hope filled with pain, laughter with irritation”.    But he also loves women,  and  jigs.  Indeed he briefly dances one during a rumbustious,  domineering family music-lesson. At which moment we love him totally,  but then – joining in this resentment with his infuriated sons – sigh at him,  for refusing to dance with his poor wife and being way too keen on rehearsing with Anna the soprano.  He is any of us, only more so. Our luck is that Russell Beale is  both a musician , an ex-chorister  steeped in Bach from childhood,  and at the same time one of the small cadre of actors who can encapsulate such exhilarating subtleties of character and behaviour.  

     The staging is simple:   bare but domestic, sliding platforms creating sometimes his solitary work, sometimes children’s bunk-beds, sometimes  (with chandeliers) the glittering threat of Frederick the Great’s nasty court.   The play is is cleverly built, set over many years which echo the returning, changing, intermingling qualities of the canons and counterpoint he demonstrates to his children in the early scenes.  These lessons are as funny and  banteringly combative as any domestic sitcom, despite our  underlying awareness of  the many, many infant and newborn deaths,  and the gruelling pregnancies of his two successive wives (twenty between them).  

          As the children grow up and Bach grows old it darkens;  by then we are deeply engaged with them all and noticing the returning deepening themes of life’s counterpoint and discords.   Big laughing Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin) who stole the brandy and was hailed by his father as the greater talent, ends up a broke dependent drunk.   Carl Philipp, a weasel-neat Samuel Blenkin,  is the hard worker who the father doesn’t rate as highly,  but who becomes a bewigged, nervy musician in the court of the dreadful Frederick the Great (Pravessh Rana, who now must be everybody’s go-to for emotionally damaged bullies).  They’re all tremendous, not a note wrong, complete, the relationships confused but clear. The love between the two very different elder brothers is unexpectedly deeply moving.

     As for the women, Pandora Colin as Maria and Ruth Lass as her sister who stays devoted to the family and its patriarch,  they are far more than nurses and handmaids and background-females:  each  is elegantly drawn and distinct in personality,  visibly knowing old Bach better than he knows himself.   Rachel Ofori as the soprano Anna, Bach’s second wife and  thirteen times pregnant,  expresses the terrible pathos of losing infant children one after another,  and the redemptive role of a woman finally  trying to balance the blind old genius and the two sons in his shadow .               

           It is a lovely play:  domestic and intellectual, dryly wise and recklessly passionate.  It harmonizes the bawdy and the holy , the loving and the lyrical.  It lays out before us both a long-vanished world and the timeless conundrum of human relationships.  There is sometimes music, mostly recorded, from  Voces8 and the SDG Ensemble, and it crashes around us in the theatre’s fine acoustic.  But it is the music of its humanity which echoes long afterwards. 

box office bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 11 September

rating  five   

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STAIRCASE Southwark Playhouse SE1

 YESTERDAY’S MEN LOVING MEN

   The mission of Two’s Company is producing  “new plays from the past”, and their talent is for treasure-hunting . Plays written now about past decades are fine, but there is something grittily satisfying about contemporaneous writing:  especially forgotten ones,  outside the famous names worn smooth by repetition . This company’s  WW1 plays taught me more about how it really felt than any documentary; London Wall vividly evoked the emergence of women out of chaperonage into the office jungle, The Cutting of the Cloth and A Day By The Sea – these are all recorded here – had separate and particular value in each setting. . 

This one,  in its day, was important;  historically and emotionally it still is.  1969 saw gay consenting-adult same-sex love legal, but gay men still heavily persecuted legally and socially . Charles Dyer’s  two-hander set in a barber’s shop was picked out by Codron, done at the RSC with  Paul Scofield and on Broadway with a very camped up Burton.  It was subject of an entertaining argument with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors, too,well worth reading in the programme. 

      So here it is again, with Paul Rider as the resigned, more benevolently resentful Harry, and John Sackville as the volatile Charlie, a failed actor to whom Harry gave a trade and a home.  For two hours the pair circle round one another, bantering and bickering and dealing with a triply awkward situation. They are roundedly idiosyncratic and human, not queeny caricatures but ordinary men hobbled by the thousand shames and aggressions of their condition (when Harry, who longs for children of his own, ran a scout troop he kept being asked pointed whether he was married). Charlie actually was once briefly married, and his daughter Cassie is to visit. But he doesn’t want her to work out what Harry is to him.  There’s guilt about his mother in a home,too,  while Harry’s Ma is up in the attic.  It’s a scratchy day:  Harry is turbaned, miserable with his alopecia and wig-dread, and to cap it all Charlie awaits his summons for a mild offence. (“A gag” sitting on a man’s knee in a pub). It turns out not to be a first offence, nor is his theatrical history quite authentic.

       It takes excellent writing to hold together a two-hander on one intimate set (perhaps even more when as director Tricia Thorns says, Covid rules mean distancing, thus even less hugging than the censor cut out, and separate props not to be shared). The writing is indeed fine : I specially like Harry’s rueful musing on how “all sex should be better organized, nicer, cleaner, prettier..not so folding-up and underneath” .    Better, he reflects with middle-aged wisdom, if it just involved a graceful waving of antennae. Ping-pong fast exchanges work well most of the time, and Rider is constantly engaging and irresistibly watchable in his chunky cockney solidity. But the longer first half drags at times, and Sackville’s lively Charlie never quite gives the lines time to land.

       So when Harry does explode – the full Pinter at one point –  it startles and grips, whereas Charlie’s rise into melodrama in the second half is not quite the shock it should be.Too much fuel burnt too early.  

     But goodness,  they’re believable and identifiable, and evocation of those ancient shames and crushing minority lonelinesses reminds us why Pride marches were needed and still are. And when it gets close to a deep-blue-sea ending but swerves elegantly away from it, there’s proper satisfaction. Southwark is always, always worth the trip.

Box office http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.   To 17 July.

Streaming both performances on July 3

Rating three.  

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AMELIE. Criterion, W1

AMELIORATING PARISIAN LIVES ONE PUPPET AT A TIME

      It could hardly be calculated more finely to fulfil every post-lockdown need:   a cast of sixteen nimble actor-musician-singers visibly high on the joy of performing again (Audrey Brisson concludes the evening by thanking our scattered selves for coming, and the front of house and management for “keeping the faith”.)   Add a fabulously romantic Paris metro-and-cafe set to comfort us for lack of travel, and an almost too-sweetly engaging heroine in an optimistic, yet totally barmy, story of eccentric good deeds with a vaguely naughty hinterland. 

        I have to admit I hated the film – apparently France’s most successful ever – because its fearful winsomeness ; Amelie’s desire to emulate Diana after her sad sudden death and be like her a universal “godmother to the unloved” left me callously cold, much in the manner of the current Sussex claim to be saving the world by being performatively, weaponisedly  “compassionate”.  

     Yet the music,  the big choruses and the goodnatured showbiz of elegant ensemble scene-changes in Michael Fentiman’s production somehow make the tale of the sweetnatured waitress (who interferes in everyone’s life while blind to her own needs) genuinely work.   In the deep cool of the Criterion, with unwontedly good legroom and your ice cream (for now) brought to your seat in the interval,  it is possible to relax into this unbelievable nonsense and the world of Madeleine Girling’s nostalgically cunning design. 

       Much is owed to Audrey Brisson too: big-eyed and tiny-framed,  charming despite  the character’s unfashionable frumpy skirt and boots and flick-up bobbed hair,  I fell for her pretty fast, especially when she clambered over the pianos like a child and then elegantly flew ten feet up to her tiny bedsit behind the station clock, with a one-hand grip on the fringed lampshade.  A sort of fairy, which I suppose is the point.  But credit also to the ensemble, and to Chris Jared as the weird photobooth-collector she admires, whose stolid bearded presence is a pleasant counterweight to Amelie’s feyness.  They make us wait about two minutes for the final kiss even when he’s joined her behind the clock, and the young around me were sighing into their masks:  it is, after all, the story of a young working woman living alone and feeling isolated (yet benevolent) and it will touch many frayed Covid-era nerves.   

         And yes, the lollipop moments are a joy.  The first puppet, toddler Amelie being lectured on Zeno’s paradox (this,remember, is based on a French arty-pop film) is good,  but the giant horror-movie walking figs and the hedonistic globetrotting enormous garden gnome are even better.  So is the fantasy,  epically unhealthy but somehow irresistible,  in which Amelie dreams that she is being memorialized like Diana.  The Elton John pastiche alone is worth the night out.  So yes, I succumbed.  Still never watching the film again though.   

Box office :  Criterion-theatre.co.Uk.     to 25 sept

rating. 4.

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Shakespeare’s Globe SE 1

PINK SATIN AND A  FAIRY PINATA FOR A PIMMS-Y NIGHT OUT

        Face it, this play’s a rom-com,  a lark,  a happy pretty way to blame the fickleness of young love on petulant fairies.  It can be treated more solemnly, playing up the harshness of the Athenian court;  or  Helena, thinking herself mocked,  can rise to something near tragedy;   Oberon can be made maliciously, controllingly and humiliatingly  sexist or – in the glorious Bridge production – cheekily flipped to become the victim of the trick himself.  

     But no need for any of that:  perfectly valid to capitalize on the Globe’s natural festival jollity,  festoon the forest with hippie-morris-clown trees of rags in every colour plus neon,  and accompany it with a riotous brass ensemble,  taking care to get them rousing up the audience beforehand with cries of “We’re back!”  and enforced synchro-clapping rhythm exercises.  Joyful it was, indeed,  so that by the time the beginners are wheeled on in a big delivery box (very topical) we’re all up for a couple of hours of hard-sitting fun (no cushions owing to Covid, take your own).

       The costumes from this 2019 production return exuberant (though the young lovers are in monochrome, with weird lopsided semi-ruffs, Demetrius looking as if recently assaulted by a swan).  Mostly it’s all delightfully over the top and down the other side, sartorially speaking:  a pink-satin Duke, Peter Quince in sparkly high boots,  Bottom in shiny leopardprint leggings even before she is transformed into a giant pinata donkey  (Sophie Russell is terrific,  fearlessly authoritative).    The rude-mechanicals are great fun altogether, not least in casting an audience member into their number and forcing him onto a gold exercise-bike.  Puck is multiple, clearly being a team of intern-pucks dashing around in T-shirts.   Titania, her flowery bed a giant wheelie-bin,  is crinolined and feathered;   Oberon in his greenish hair and gold aureole surprisingly stately.  Those two costumes made me realize that what I really want in life is this play done – as a musical – with Dolly Parton and Elton John as the fairy monarchs. 

         But for now,  Sean Holmes’  cheerful romp will do to kick off a season which, if theatres know what they’re doing,  will major on merriment not ‘issues’.   Peter Bourke’s Oberon is the one who sticks in my mind: he catches some real Shakespearian nobility  in his reproof of Puck’s mistake and in his final reconciliation.    I’m all for exuberant youth,  but sometimes an old-stager beautifully spoken and poised, is a treat.  Looking him up , I learn that fifty years ago Bourke was Puck himself at drama school.  He has a memoir about to be published. Which I am searching out now.      

box office  www.shakespearesglobe.com  to  30 October   

    in rep with As You Like it – same company

 There are also some midnight matinees starting at 1159pm… for you party people…

rating four  midsummery mice    

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WALDEN         Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

SPACE IS THE LIMIT AS THE WEST END RETURNS

There was real excitement in a first west end moment since the November lockdown crushed the few brave shoots of returning theatre.  The Sonia Friedman “re emerge”  season kicks off with  not only  a new play- Amy Berryman’s 2020 debut – but  one which is about  the frontiers of science coming up against  the messiness of human desires; the thirst for knowledge and the pull of biology,  and siblinghood,  envy,  hope.   It was ninety minutes of proper stimulus, at times intensely moving, still haunting.

  It is futuristic sci fi, set  fifty to a hundred years hence.  Lydia Wilson’s Cassie  has returned from pushing forward the boundaries of plant biology in a whole year stationed on the moon. There is talk of a plan to colonize other planets because so much of the earth is wrecked by global warming, but  passionate division between such interplanetary hopes and the broadening “Earth Advocates”  rebels who want to fight for the home planet in a Thoreauesque return to nature.  One such is woodsman Bryan,who now lives with Cassie’s sister Stella in a cabin In the  forest (the sisters are children of a famous astronaut, hence the names – Cassie is Cassiopeia!). 

          But Stella, a brilliant NASA scientist, never got up to space herself ,  and now has turned away from it and wants a child and the warmth of Fehenti Balogun’s  likeable, baffled Bryan. Gemma Arterton conveys, with delicate precision moment to moment,  the conflicted richness of her double longings:  Wilson in contrast shows the almost frightening austerity of the sister home from the cold moon and willing to spend the rest of her life on Mars.   A mission  which, it turns out, owes much to Stella and might draw her back.   

          It’s beautifully set  by Rae Smith,  the cosily credible cabin finally vanishing in the bleak trickery of lighting as the final coda reaffirms the strangeness of an unimaginable future,  and the enduring warmth of  human ties and vulnerabilities. I loved it. It made me think.  

http://www.atgtickets.com  to 12 June 

five revived mice

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS      Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS      Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

INSTEAD OF TRAVEL…

    So what do we need, to reopen a tiny Georgian playhouse in a time of continuing uncertainty, masking, distancing, and wondering whether we’ll ever travel freely again?  A bit of Strindberg or some challenging new-writing about  vitriolic divorce as a metaphor for global warming?   Not in the view of CEO Owen Calvert-Lyons, who also directs.  He kicks off the recovery season with a sprightly bit of reimagined Victoriana,  a family show  (ideal for half-term,  parents: there are actual facts in it about time zones).  

      So here are three guys playing thirty parts – reduced-Shakespeare-company or NT-Brent style –   in an impressive variety of hats (toppers, bowler, Sherlock-style deerstalker, cap, fez and a very seductive veil). Their mission: to whizz through Jules Verne’s “adventure farce” in 90-minutes-including interval.   As virtual travel therapy (London-Suez-India-Hongkong-Yokohama-San-Francisco-NewYork)  it whimsically reopens the world.  As Imperial nostalgia it is full of unashamedly unfashionable paeans to Victorian technological pride and national arrogance: though artfully, all across the world they mainly find inappropriate accents from Scottish to Pennsylvania-Welsh.  Oliver Stoney is mainly Phileas Fogg,  Roddy Peters mainly Passepartout,  and the  misguided pursuing detective Naveed Kahn resplendent in a tweed Norfolk jacket in all tropics, as befits a decent Englishman of 1872.

       I mentioned the Reduced-Shakespeare style – everyone playing too many parts and pretending dismay when it’s a problem and they should be meeting themselves –  but  Toby Hulse’s version , seen first in 2010,  is less wild, gentler,  paced for a broad variety of ages,  and decently close to the Verne story.  Any Yardley’s set is terrific:  evocative, flexible,  witty,  permitting everything from the Albany and a suttee to an elephant ride and  train-roof chase (I think that bit needs strobe, but probably wiser not to do that when everyone’s feeling weird anyway). 

    They do not shy away from the culturally dodgy bit where Phileas Fogg decides to rescue an Indian princess from suttee.  Would have been a shame if they had, because the glamorous Aouda is played first by a worryingly floppy dummy and subsequently to great effect  by Kahn, flirting his layers of drapery with a will,  albeit presumably on top of that sturdy jacket.   He is the natural funnyman of the troop:  it is hard to get enough atmosphere going as these distanced shows launch out into the post-pandemic world,  but in that regard he did the heavy-lifting with aplomb.

        I suspect that as it goes on some of it will speed up and audiences get used to laughing aloud again without fear of Shedding The Virus.   But there was enough, ripples from below as I looked down from my lonely box.   And once the kids start being brought along,  released from a hideous year of teacher-on-screen and video games,  they’ll laugh it to life.  It deserves it, because even after the steamboat-trousers-off scene and the romantic denouement Yardley’s set has a big surprise, just to send you off happy.

box office  www.theatreroyal.org   to 5 June

Performed also at Southwold Arts Centre  8-12 June   tel. 01502 722572   

rating 4 family-show mice!

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PANTOLAND Palladium, W1

     O YES IT IS

      I had booked us in the very day Lloyd Webber and QDOS announced that with antiviral door handles, fogging, separating of bubbles and teeth-gritted determination,  Oh  Yes There Would  be a  panto – or as near as dammit – at the Palladium in 2020.  On the far side of Lockdown 2 with the capital teetering on the brink of tier 3 closing  anywhere suspected of entertaining, we reported  to row J, temperatures  taken, paws disinfected.  

         And up went the curtain, and up struck the orchestra, and Beverley Knight in crazy pink feathers belted out a newborn song saying basically hey, here we all are, guys, welcome to Pantoland and the  Palladium after a trying year.  So  everyone roared through masks,  understanding that having bought tickets and turned out we the audience  were a vital part of a little miracle of defiance and star-studded frivolity.  Let cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the blue gags flying here! .

    Impressively blue, indeed, not only host Julian Clary’s enormous fluffy cerulean cape and headgear but his abundant, ever trouser-based ,camp innuendos.   One hopes that for the Royal children’s visit the day before he toned some of them down. A bit, anyway. Though who knows, they may be filthy minded already? Their social stratum is famously robust after a day’s shootin’…

       Clary as always owns the stage, the flamboyant, scornful standup wit at the centre of the key quartet of clowns.  Gary Wilmot in a yellow Dame crinoline sings his London Underground song, Paul Zerdin achieves the classiest of ventriloquist acts, culminating when his puppet duets contemptuously with an admirably game Beverley Knight: she singing I will Always Love You – straight – the monster jeering. And Nigel Havers returns to his beloved role of serial  insultee, in a series of outfits from Dandini to plum pudding. Charlie Stemp dances featly, and Jac Yarrow from Joseph is back on the stage where he broke through.  When  the key four, led by a remarkably spry Clary ,do their beloved split- second twelve days of Christmas routine the house brings the roof  off. Hard to believe it’s only 60 per cent full.

    It’s a pure variety trick. Indeed that is the form of the show, wisely eschewing any one plot (risky these days, Cameron Mac with Les Mis had to have two understudies per part). Rather they bring on star acts, themed loosely: the  breakdance group Diversity are vaguely Robin Hood, and Elaine Paige turns up in the second half as Queen Rat with a curious Webberish mishmash of her old themes, to be insulted in turn. 

     The Covid jokes are all good, Clary observing that a sea of blue paper masks looks like “Invasion of the J Cloths”, and Zerdin’s vent puppet flirting with a front row woman with  “get yer nose out for the lads!”.  The whole thing is artfully designed to seem as if the stars just got together with minimal rehearsal for a lark. While in fact it is – like the Palladium’s own organisation – split-second sharp, in and out to the minute and with all gaffes planned. Not for the very youngest probably, but for the rest of us over-7s and our inner child  a proper, silly, defiant  showbiz shot in the arm. 

   Box office http://www.lwtheatres.co.Uk.   to 3 Jan

Rating is inappropriate for these resurrections. Trust the description only, and here’s a Christmouse!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL – OUTDOORS. Angel Hill Bury st Edmunds

  ANOTHER ….GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE

    Scrooge is testy, cold and solitary as an oyster, shocking as ever in his indifference to the poor who ought to die off and “decrease the surplus population”. 

   His first visiting spirit is arch, cockney, bossy and modern in her language; the second a lad even more cockney, lantern in hand, leading him to the Cratchits. The third is not cockney at all, but stalks through us, some 15ft tall in a grim reaper hood, his voice booming eerie in our headphones.     Around us in the dark little red lights twinkle in  fellow audience”s headphones. Beyond them, the odd late car passes the Cathedral, slowing, puzzled by the still-attentive dozens in fenced groups round the stages. 

    It’s odd, but Christmas Covid-style is odd everywhere, and this is selling well.  For what can you do for your loyal community if you’re a tiny precious Georgian theatre,  too small for social distancing  , and it’s the middle of bleak cold foggy winter in Bury St Edmunds, with pub life closed down and a ban on  carol singing ? 

Why, if you’ve any Dickensian jollity in your spirit you think of something else. 

    You set up an 11 night run of A Christmas Carol, cast of six plus one intrepid stiltwalker, and do two shows a night at an hour each.  You decide to hold it on twin stages in front of the Angel hotel, with an audience standing obediently in bubbles by legally distanced cones, wearing headphones with their woolly hats or hoods pulled over them against  against whatever the weather sends (bring a stretchy hat, they’re big headphones).  

    That’s what Bury St Edmunds. Theatre Royal is doing, so naturally we rushed to the first show at 7 on Friday.  Hanging  around beforehand  with a coffee from the only enterprising seller, we observed a low-key bustle of random Dickensian costumes scuttling by , and hi- vis-jacketed ushers being briefed.  )You can by the way book  a parking slot ten minutes away behind the brewery. They think of everything) .  And so it began, and drew us in to the eloquent warmth of the story , the elegant soundscape in our ears and the demotic adjustments of the adaptor, and the cast were vigorous and the pace smart…and an hour later we took off our headphones, and the applause was loud and real. Well done Bury.

Www.theatre royal.org. To Christmas Eve 

wins a Christmouse!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Bridge, SE1

A SCROOGE TO REMEMBER

      Beneath festoons of horrid chains, nimble amid strongboxes and trunks and safes, three actors bring the old text to violently emotional life.  Assisted only by pillars of smoke, simple scenic  projections and the inspired, roaring, dry energy of Dickens’ prose, they and the elegance of Nicholas Hytner’s direction create a miniature theatrical  perfection.

       This version is text-heavy, narrated and performed in seamless vigour by the trio. It brings back some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street. It does not shrink from solemnity:  the great Simon Russell Beale after all is our miserly, redeemed hero, and when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and  despised,  his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear.  Patsy Ferran – when being Cratchit – grieves Tiny Tim with real choking dignity, and Eben Figueiredo has as much authority  being magisterially serious as he is rapid in caricature. 

       But it is a playful show too, at ease with new-variety tricks of small group storytelling : when Ferran moves between skinny clerk to be “a portly gentleman” collecting donations, she pauses as the line is spoken by Figueiredo, hastily  stuffing Cratchit’s scarf up her front. When an elderly aunt or cackling crone is required Russell Beale is, as ever, happy to oblige with a cosily  camp tweak of a shawl. They all sing, too, briefly and unaccompanied,  simply; it can jerk an embarrassing tear . And I will not spoil the happy sweater-based finale for you.  

          The stages are amply Scrooged this year.  Fitly enough,  since we’re all so sorry for ourselves that we risk forgetting the really desperate, the hungry, the Cratchits whose jobs are vanishing. And  beyond them, in a striking moment here, come Dickens’ most terrifying creations: the  boy and girl called Want and Ignorance   “Meagre, ragged, scowling..horrible and dread…Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom, unless the writing be erased”. 

    In the heart of a city where killings among young men have peaked this year, it chimed.  The doomed children are puppets here, brief and deftly handled, as is Tiny Tim himself but far, far more frightening. So there you are: a 90 minute  familiar Victoriana for today, catching and passing on both Dickens’ fury and his unquenchable jollity.  Happy Christmas, Bridge!

Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk.   To 16 Jan,  with luck. Rating five.

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FLIGHT Bridge, SE1

Great journeys told in tiny windows

      The daily epics of the refugee crisis haunt us on every bulletin:: small boat crossings, lethal lorry journeys, arrests and detentions. It. Is right for storytellers to  draw us back into the small individual. realities of these lives.The novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers imagined,  from much that we know, two Afghan brothers – children – over two years making their way from Kabul via Turkey, Iran, Italy and CalaIs. There are treks, trains, a Medterranen crossing. They are conned, enslaved on farms, one is raped:: they meet odd kindnesses,an uncle, brutalities. They dream.  

       Here it is told in strange privacy to each of us, led through darkened corrridors below the theatre to tiny booths and headphones ,so that before each of us unrolls a carousel of dollshouse dioramas , with the boys as simple models and the scenes vivid. The sounds and narrator immmerse us. After months of video,  film or animation and. the odd unsatisfactory punt at interaction, this curiosity is movingly real. When the boys see police with their harsh foreign languages and guns  they see them as angry giant seagulls, squawking.When they sleep they and we see birds in glorious flight. Bird metaphors flood through it.

   It grips, provokes both sorrow and rage at the people traffickers driving the desperate.  Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, who worked on Harry Potter, achieve a humbler sort of magic here. Proper theatre it feels like , alone in our tiny lonely booths, looking out at a harsh world, transported with pity and terror.

Box office http://www.bridgetheatre.com   To 16 Jan, with luck.

Rating. Four. 

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POTTED PANTO Garrick, WC2

MINIATURE REVELS

They’re at it again. And in this dour year, crowned with the financially reckless renaissance of West End theatre, Dan and Jeff – Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner – are welcome home to the daytime West End. .  Their  “Potted Potter” assault on the Rowling canon in 80 minutes got thumbs up from the actual New  York Times , their two-handed Potter absurdism pleased the Rowlingites no end, and long years ago a Christmas-jaded Times critic (me) called an earlier incarnation of this 70 minute lark  “Cheap, cheerful, deafening if you’re surrounded by ten-year-olds, but not dumb. “

    It’s actually polished up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing.  Nor is there any truth in the  rumour that panto  whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like for our welfare.   There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying –  given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away.  The shtick is the same – bossy Jeff, irresponsible Dan, lightning change of  costume bits, cracker- jokes and the clever  debunking of same, plus a couple of startling extras, puppets and bits of unexpected set to keep it going.  

     Attempting six panto stories in the time is the idea, while Dan demands A Christmas Carol be included and forces Ebenezer Scrooge onto Abanazar of Aladdin; they bring in ghost-gags, roarings of oh yes it is, a brief but wicked front row involvement , and some very funny new ways of waking Sleeping Beauty. There’s snow, and a songsheet, and just enough Boris-COVID-distancing gags (the pair are a bubble, thank goodness).  

     And I was charmed to see how hilarious even quite small children find the repeated appearance of Dan’s Hooray-Henry interpretation of Prince Charming,  thrilled with himself and bored of princesses. 

To 11 Jan, God willing.

Box Office on 0330 333 4815 or access@nimaxtheatres.com

Rating. Four

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HOWERD’S END Golden Goose Theatre, Camberwell

TITTER YE NOT: IT WAS TOUGH

        An element of pilgrimage here: new-fledged theatre, new play, worth the long masked train to London and then a bus’s wild wanderings south of the river  until I gave up and got a cab (having said that, if you live in Camberwell or thereabouts, the GG  is both convenient and civilised: a grand big pub with a skylight and a mural of the Grand Canal). 

         But I wanted to see Simon Cartwright channelling another dead comic of the mid-20th century,because in Edinburgh a while back he was mesmerisingly convincing and slightly horrible as Bob Monkhouse (https://theatrecat.com/2015/08/16/the-man-called-monkhouse-assembly-hall-edinburgh/).      Here he is  in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander about another legend, Frankie Howerd.   Who fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way.   It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit:  tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.

      But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay  in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp  but abhorred the reality of same-sex love.  And, as in Howerd’s case,  drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims.  He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner,  shrugging him off publicly as “oh, no-one” or at best a factotum.     Their  tale has been told before with David Walliams on screen, and in the tabloids when the extraordinary tale emerged of the aged Heymer, long after the comic’s death and the legalization of gay marriage,  “marrying” their adopted son to regularize inheritance.  

        But in Farrelly’s play,  more interestingly,  the focus is on Dennis himself, played by the author,  at first seen aged and bitter then through his lover’s ghost appearance re-living the stages of their partnership from the moment when as a young sommellier at the Dorchester he was fascinated by the clumsy, odd-looking, uneasy star (then waiting for Gielgud to discuss a Charley’s Aunt role!), and effectively propositioned him.   

          And so their story goes on, from the comic’s glory days to the slump when he entertained troops in sweaty Borneo “They told me Bournemouth!” and the revival when Peter Cook picked him up for the satirical Establishment Club. He was a surprising hit there, apolitical but subversive,  bringing the earthiness of old Variety to the world of clever-angry young men of the Footlights generation.

           The 80-minute show breaks  the fourth wall constantly to appeal to us:   from Dennis first asking us , as a tour party of the couple’s house, to witness his life and how he was treated;   then  from Frankie himself, appearing nicely through a portrait on the wall to create the happy, uneasy rapport of an old-stage stalwart with a lot of Ooh-missus, titter-ye-not,  and cheeky taunts.  Cartwright has the eyebrow-work, the pout,  the hand-flap and the ungainly charm, all  bang to rights.  It makes all the more dramatic the scenes where he is shy,  unpleasant, cold,  screaming at his therapist (Dennis taking the part) or collapsing into drug-fuelled hysteria.  

       The lighting design is particularly fine by the way – Mike Robertson – and credit to Tom Lishman for the spot-on sound cues for invisible lighters and drinks.  It feels classy.  I could have done with a little more illustration of just why being gay before 1967 meant  – as the men say “hiding in plain fright”   – because a young audience may not quite grasp this otherwise.  But as a tribute to the many invisible lovers of famous men,  it is painfully moving.  Farrelly’s exposition of that pain, as Dennis,  wins it the fourth mouse. 

box office  goldengoosetheatre.co.uk   to 31st.

rating  four

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LONE FLYER – Watermill, nr Newbury

THE ROARING TWENTIES:  AMY FLIES AGAIN

   

      There’s gallantry in small theatres managing ‘distancing’ and keeping the arduous rules, and the Watermill scores high: outdoor productions in summer, now Ade Morris’ intriguing history-play as its second indoor show.  Seats are elegantly blocked off with red ribbon as if, somehow, even Covid Year has to be celebrated.

The story of Amy Johnson bears much retelling.   In that heady 1920’s period,  when after the WW1 formation of the Royal Flying Corps government and public opinion went mad for “air-mindedness” .Ramshackle Flying Circuses toured the little aerodromes with wing-walkers and loop-the-loop rides,    and several daring aristocratic ladies took to clouds in fragile little planes. They would nip  down to Biarritz or Cannes for parties in couture flying-suits:    actually some later became more than useful, delivering WW2 Spitfires around the country. 

     But Amy Johnson was not of that class,  but just the second daughter of a fairly prosperous fish merchant in Hull. First of her family to study at University ,  she eschewed the conventional female roles of housewife or teacher,  and worked as a secretary to a solicitor with the aim of taking to law.  When the flying bug bit her and her father sighed and paid for lessons,  she got her hands dirty , qualifying qualified as the first woman to get her aero engineering ticket.   Then at short notice,  chasing a record and urged on by the men who admired her nerve and talent (though she was “never much good at landings”),  she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia,  in 19 gruelling days, and subsequently set other records.   In 1941 she was killed doing a wartime air delivery, parachuting to her death in Herne Bay. 

       Here,  in a simple ingenious set of suitcases, trunks,  and a trolley, she is Hannah Edwards: spry and determined, smilingly bounding about, nicely a bit irritating at first, gradaully drawing our respect. She remembers childhood rebellions ,  her long early affair with the Swiss potato-biz traveller Franz  ( eight year her senior and worryingly uncommitted)  and her tempestuous later marriage to her fellow flyer Jim Mollison.   Benedict Salter plays everyone else:  father, lovers, engineers, politicians and – in a fetching boater – the  best friend Winifred who encouraged her  rackety, roaring-twenties feminist determination.   Salter also picks up a ‘cello to create the little plane’s engine sounds,  smooth or faltering and carrying remarkable, nervy humming tension;  sometimes he plays a few haunting melodic bars.  

     The pair work beautifully together under director Lucy Betts,  Edwards conveying the charm , the uncertain early naivetés and the gritty, sometimes frightened determination of Amy both aloft and below.  What is striking, in these odd times, is how much is added by the very fact that like us in the stalls they are two-meter distancing.  When he flicks his lighter as she draws on the cigarette on the other side of the stage,  eyes locked,  or when the lovers dance it is oddly more erotic than the routine onstage mauling and pouncing of which we are now deprived.  When in her celebrity years he becomes an important personage reaching to shake her hand,  she is in her mechanic’s overalls, wiping hers with an oily rag,  so obviously he backs off.    It is wittily effective. 

         If I have a quibble it is with the play’s structure:  moving around in the timescale is fine, usually well indicated by costume tweaks.  Her childhood moments and relationship with her father are certainly neatly reflected in her later life and loves,  and tensely interspersed with moments in the air on that epic journey to Darwin.  But  there are other voyages told of, and moments about her two great loves and the struggle of global celebrity (“Fame is like battery acid, use it but don’t drink it”, good line).  There are picaresque details like her crash into a British parade ground in India , or a desperate shenanigan with Turkish bureaucracy.  And though it is framed both by that first Australia record and her whole life – including the final wartime crash – sometimes it is not easy to know where you are,  or what resulted from what.   Those who know her history well will be happy with it as a grippingly  impressionistic portrait of a remarkable woman.  Those who don’t might need a fuller programme note.  My first lines above would do.

        But these are quibbles.  It was a great evening, atmospheric and gripping and done with panache.  Another happy Watermill memory.    

box office watermill.org.uk   to 21 November

rating four  

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THE LAST FIVE YEARS Southwark Playhouse SE1

And so to a real press night, an event now as rare as a mystical apparition , a shining sword rising from a dark lake. . The gallant Southwark Playhouse offers a miniature musical, Jason Robert Brown’s 90 minute wonder The Last Five Years.

   A quick note on how southwark now works: to get sufficient bodies in – 50% –   they have spaced the rows and divided seats with tall plastic transparent screens according to bookings: so that if you are a  broad-shouldered loner both arms are a bit pinioned and your masked neighbours safely but disconcertingly seen as if  tropical fish. unnervingly close and muffled .

It is weird. But it is theatre .  The rows look fabulously full despite the immaculate screening (god, they must be wiping perspex for hours).  Sound effects  of New York sirens set the tone and  excitement  for this two-hander relating young love and its ending. It’s ingeniously beautiful: the tale first told forward by he exuberant Jewish Jamie “I’m breaking my mother’s heart…my shiksa goddess!” but backwards by Kathy, starting with a starkly beautiful, angry opening lament “Jamie has come to the end of the line.James says the problem is mine”.  These are two souls ambitious both for love and for success: he a burgeoning writer , she a musical theatre hopeful . They ae careering rockily towards the moment when the pressures of ambition on the workaday compromises of new marriage blow it all apart. 

   It’s a blast, a rollercoaster of jazz and blues and ballad and rock and vaudeville and at one point klezmer;   the most joyously exuberant, emotionally rackety return imaginable for the valiant London fringe. I loved it. Molly Lynch is honey-voiced, expressive, touching and enraging both: Oli Higginson, devastatingly handsome , gives us all the boyish bounce and painful longings of being 23 years old, clever, and greedy for life . THere’s a wonderful Sondheimish reflection once on how women suddenly come on to newly married men; moments of naïveté and sparks of sad self- knowledge as the pair – who only coincide in time at their wedding mid show – weave round one another and in and off  the revolving grand piano, playing it in turn with the musicians overhead enriching the sound. They are vividly real and young in the lively, mobile direction by Jonathan O’Boyle.

The lyrics are sharp, often funny – Kathy’s audition scene elegantly skewers the cattle-market horrors of the biz, and there is poignant humour in Jamie’s vain attempt to get his sulky, professionally disappointed wife to come to his triumphant book launch. “No-one can give you courage, no-one can thicken your skin”… Why should he fail in order to make her comfortable? Ouch!

    It’s a good tale, a young story, a vortex of youthful energy. In our weird Perspex alcoves, forgetting the sweatiness of our masks, we roared and stamped. Happy to be back.  Very.

http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

rating 5

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TALKING HEADS – PLAYING SANDWICHES/ LADY OF LETTERS Bridge, SE1

TWO MORE FROM ALAN BENNETT

             One of the darkest and one of the merriest.   PlAYING SANDWICHES  is an even more than usually sombre one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.    I well remember the shock of it on TV first time round. Then it was David Haig as the amiable park- keeper who gradually let us know why his work papers were not in order, why he had moved around and was not a family godparent – and at last how succumbing to his weakness for small girls put his final scene in a prison cell.

         It was a brave piece (years later I talked with Haig about doing it at a time of knife-edge horror about paedophilia).   And the interest of it centres on the way that in early scenes the man with the broom expresses his disgust at the sluttish, condom-chucking sexual libertarianism , whose detritus he daily helps to clear. Not enough is ever said about the way that our newly enfranchised, judgement-free attitude to sex and its variants leaves “perverts” even lonelier in their dangerous taboo desires than even half a century ago. 

    Performed live,  it should have even more shocking punch , and Lucien Msamati is one of our finest actors (will never forget his Master Harold and the Boys at the NT last autumn – https://theatrecat.com/2019/10/01/master-harold-and-the-boys-lyttelton-se1/).    But somehow it doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe he is too amiable, lacking the edge of prim ness which in the original raised the thoughts above about the the paradox of sexual liberty. He is too likeable, too light in his condemnations. Only in the prison scenes does Msamati remind us he is a great actor, evoking  evoke that Bennettian quiet despair which is in its way as noble as any heroism. 

LADY OF LETTERS  is a wisely placed contrast in this pair, and rapidly produces those marvellous ripples of laughter which remind us why we’re watching g these TV-created shows in a real theatre.  Which buzzes,  despite the distancing,  with the  comradely magic sharing we have so hungered for under Covid.  Imelda Staunton has Irene to a T:   the thwarted, lonely, disapproving busybody writing of letters of complaint to public bodies and shading before our eyes into a poison-pen. 

        Staunton absolutely knows how to work the top Bennett jokes, like the description of a vicar’s unwanted visit and the splendid tale of interaction with Westminster Council cleansing department.  We forget that letter-writing is a bit pre-Internet dated, as is the responsiveness of the Council.    But this treasurable actor  also knows how, with nothing but a rigid face and long long pause, to handle the central shock: the first comeuppance, the one I won’t spoil for newcomers. 

    So it’s bliss. But also particularly blissful because this is the very nearest our Alan ever gets to giving us a happy fairytale ending: a full-on unapologetic redemption.   I’m a sucker for those.  I left very happy.  

     It’s my third Bridge visit in  this strange etiolated season – getting a bit expensive,  so I may not make the other six Bennetts.  My admiration for what Hytner and Starr have done is  boundless. Seats placed in distanced clutches , drinks brought to you (my husband loves it, says it’s like Club Class, and won’t listen when I shout “but it’s financially ruinous! Got to get bums on seats or there’ll be no theatre! “).  Elegant use is made of projection, top performers hired, direction artfully theatrical  not telly, and the atmosphere laid back and safe.

      With the West End dark and real fear for theatre’s survival, trips to the – unsubsidised, gallant –  Bridge are sustaining.

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk    Running in rep.    

rating    Sandwiches 3       Lady of Letters 5    average 4

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TALKING HEADS The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils Bridge SE1

 So what would it be like, to be back?  How does it feel to be in a 900 seat theatre but distanced, over half the chairs vanisshed? And how would it feel to watch a couple of Alan Bennett “Talking Heads”, monologues made specifically for television? Could these narrative shows, minimal in movement and free from dramatic event,  be interestingly transposed to the live stage? How would director Nicholas Hytner work it, after he and the other directors and designers achieved the bravura TV feat of using the EastEnders set and getting the cast to do their own hair ’n make-up, all  in near-lockdown conditions? Was it just an act of hope and defiance? Its first monologue show, after all (see below) was all about Covid-19: Fiennes delivering David Hare’s mixture of memoir and agit-prop. Would this Talking Head series be just a desperate, unsatisfying rehashed potboiler?   

        Look, I am a Hytner loyalist,  but I did wonder.  And I was wrong.  The hour-and-a-quarter flew by, absorbing and thrilling and touching and – here was the surprise – amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic,  as pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter at the two women’s  dry, regretful observations. Often about men. While not actually milking the good lines in any disgraceful way,  both performers definitely made the most of them,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there.

        Monica Dolan opened with one of the two new ones, The Shrine:  an ordinary widow grieving a husband who she gradually realises had a parallel life amid the biker community. With simple, dreamy projections throwing the occasional hint behind her,  she expressed the pathos and the pragmatism of grief: the absurdities and tactlessnesses of officialdom and  the way being looked at by a sheep or flown over by a kite at the fatal roadside can be a kind of consolation.   

          Then, after the briefest of scene-changes, we had the posher and more irritable heroine of Bed Among the Lentils. Lesley Manville was the wife of the most offensively vicar-y Anglican vicar ever.  He, as she wandered about fag in hand,  glass never far from her, shopping bag clinking, rose to become an invisible but horribly comic personality in his own right as she related her way through the boredom, alcoholism, and remarkably erotic depictions of a fling with Ramesh the grocer in Leeds.  When she observed in passing that “if you think squash is a competitive occupation, try flower arranging” we actually howled.  And, mentally, raised a Tio Pepe to her and all her kind.   

     It was wonderful to be back. This one runs to the 22nd,  and then there are more Bennetts, plus other monologues.  Feel the love.  I’ll get to any I can. 

www.bridgetheatre.com     for full programme.       

rating   five

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BEAT THE DEVIL Bridge, SE1

BACK IN THE STALLS!   AND A VERY FIENNES START

   

    After nine months’ exile – my chemotherapy ended slap bang at the start of lockdown –  I felt like the Ancient Mariner, good to be back:

        “O dream of joy! Is this indeed a lighting box I see?  

         Is this a stage, is this a show?   Is this mine own countree?” 

         Across Steve Tompkin’s elegant theatre seats have been weeded out and an audience  scattered into pairs or family groups, with the occasional Billy-no-mates like me in solitary splendour in a single comfortable seat in the emptiness.  Leg-room enough for a giraffe.  Onstage three pale screens cast a ghostly bluish light on our masked half-human faces .  Gallant, risk-taking commercial theatre at least is back, as the sad old NT  and South Bank upriver still lie quiet in a blanket of subsidy. 

          The distancing is not the only limit, of course:   for the Bridge a season of one-person shows, minimally set,  lies ahead. There are Talking Heads revivals plus  Yolanda Mercy, Inua Ellams, Zodwa Nyoni.  And Covid-19 must have its say to start with, so off goes the season with Ralph Fiennes directed by Nicholas Hytner and delivering a monologue by David Hare.  It’s about Hare catching the disease (early on), suffering sixteen days and watching the government’s management with rising fury.   Unkind voices have summed it up as “Old bloke gets bad ‘flu, blames Tories”.  Which is of course unfair: it’s worse than ‘flu.  And, importantly, it was  baffling to everybody,  because it’s new.

      Actually, the most interesting parts of Hare’s beautifully written tale are about that newness, though when he first got it – in mid-March – there had not been as much medical information filtering through as there has been later.  We now know the curiosity that many patients can have dangerously low blood-oxygen levels and seem almost OK ,  not as breathless as you’d expect,    though bad damage is being done to their organs in a “cytokine storm”.     It’s a reason to have an oximeter as well as a thermometer at home, and spot early when the oxygen drops towards and below 90.    ((For an easy digest of the science, here’s mine in the Times: weeks later: 

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/longer-self-isolation-may-do-patients-no-favours-vflmsrhnt

        Hare tells how after catching this “piece of bad news wrapped in protein”  in the noisome stuffiness of an editing suite – West End cupboards these are, heated by the machinery – he went through a fairly common experience of being hit hard in the second week.      At first he was ‘air-hungry” but expecting a restful ‘flu, with old war films on telly (“Noel Coward in white shorts pretending to be a captain”)  and thinking, five days in, that he was fit to cook the family supper.   His fever soared,  his fear and anger grew. At one point he refused to go into hospital because people there caught Covid, though  as his GP pointed out, he already had it.  His tribute to his wife Nicole is touching:  as his temperature fell dangerously from a bad spike she laid on him to warm him. Not, as he dryly observes, a woman prone to observing social-distancing in his supposed isolation.  

       It is funnier, more likeable than some reports have suggested and well worth the fifty masked minutes.  Hare’s politics are no surprise,  and there is real perception in his description of Boris Johnson “struggling with his instincts” as a libertarian locking down the nation he had longed to lead,  as the virus is “clearly retro-fitted to find out his weaknesses”.     He rants about the unpreparedness, the PPE shortages, the failure of early testing, the absurd permission for those Cheltenham Festival days.   It seems to him sometimes that the government is deeper in delirium than he is himself.  Across the Atlantic there is Trump, enraging him still more.   

        It’s all true, and refreshing, and  beautifully made, and one has to be glad that on day 16 Hare  revived .Though he still realized he was unfit for ordinary work quite yet – like running the country, as Boris Johnson did, amid a Cabinet for whom, he observes,  the word mediocrity was too flattering.   He sorrows for the victims who died.  He is uncritically adoring of Merkel and Ardern but does not mention Sweden.  Sometimes he fudges the timescale:  when talking of his tenth day –  March 26th –  he rages against the unrepentance of the government over the high death rate in the second week of May.  As a point that is reasonable, as storytelling it’s a bit of a cheat.

     But it was a barnstorming hour, and Fiennes delivers it perfectly.  Power to the Bridge. 

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 30 Oct

rating    four        

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