Category Archives: Theatre

THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

     Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany,  are the Harry Potter team.  They know how not to bore.   But they’ve been here before too in a  Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood,   and they can make that just as gripping.  HOPE was a wonderful,  unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man ““It’s possible I will have a better life than you.  The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”.    And this play picks up that theme  of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better. 

 

A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents:  children of the spirit of ‘68, protest marchers, idealists.  He is immersed,  over his newspaper,  in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education.  She is lively, dryly funny,  a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran,    disappointed in  Tony Blair.  The children were all named after socialist icons.

 

As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s  Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash.  The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family,   and Carl needs his pro-choice  liberal parents to fund her abortion.   Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave.    Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife  in  the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter,  irritable warmth and familiar  allusions of the host family.

 

Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.

 

An important achievement  is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family,  as firmly as in EM Forster’s  Schlegels (to whom they may well  owe a debt: certainly  Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So  we follow them,  engrossed by the way that  the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as  the 21c world  of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit.    Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ;  Carl disappointed, thwarted,  drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out.  But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson  gives up,   in every glance and gesture,  a vulnerability that stops your heart.

 

      However,  caringly and  without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!”  used to be in melodrama.  I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom .  Beat, beat,  pause  – family look at one another aghast –  someone runs off    there’s a shot or a horrified scream.     It’s too easy.  Mike Leigh has done it,  the  normally subtler  Florian Zeller has just done it.  Now Thorne.  Enough already!  it’s becoming  emotionally cheap.   And some of us can see it coming minutes early.    Capeesh?

 

Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 boxoffice@royalcourttheatre.com

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

FARCE AS LIFE, LIFE AS FARCE, FRAYN AGAIN TRIUMPHANS

  

    It felt like a pilgrimage,  homage to pay.   37 years ago Michael Frayn’s greatest of comedies, a wicked love-song to the great age of touring rep,   premiered in this very theatre.  Since then it has taken London and Broadway crowns and swept the world in  – as the author muses –  often some pretty ramshackle versions.  “In Prague they performed the play for some ten years without Act 3 and no one noticed until I arrived…One Christmas Eve in Sicily two different touring productions turned up in Catania at the same time”.   

 

         I am glad that before various grander outings I saw it first,  in the late 80’s,  in one of those potentially ramshackle versions.  It was Jill Freud’s Southwold rep, and rather good,  but to this day I cannot understand how they managed to rig up the full front-view set and then, after the interval,   its backstage reverse.  Because St Edmunds Hall is a venue so small that sometimes the only way for an actor  to re-enter stage right is to dart out through the churchyard in the rain. But they did it. 

 

I mention this – though I’ve seen it twice since on grander stages – to emphasise the sheer love this play sparks.  Frayn shows us a theatre company in chaotic dress rehearsal of a banal farce, with doors and sardine-plate props and panicking couples,  deftly  sketching the cast’s cross-currents of personality, relationships and practical difficulties.   After an interval he reverses the scenery  so we see them a month into the tour, from backstage.  As the show is half-heard behind the curtain the players,  tired and mutely furious,   flare into personal conflict.    Then for the brief last act we are out front again watching their total dissolution at the end of the tour.      In doing this Frayn  lays open human life’s compromises, inadequacies and instabilities , and reminds us that much of our existence tends to be a desperate attempt to put on a show and keep our end up in public.   In relieved joy, we recognize it and  laugh. 

 

    We laugh very hard.   Around me in the second act last night several people seeing it for the first time were actually rendered helpless.     It was press night  and therefore,  because the gods of farce are very thorough in their ways,   on that very night Jeremy Herrin’s  faultless production  suffered  a brief  – and real    unscheduled blackout near the end of the backstage act.   The  audience could hardly contain its glee.   It’s rarely that an electrical cock-up actually enhances a show, but it did.     Either it could be called tautology – a theatre-breakdown  in the depiction of a theatre-breakdown –  but I prefer to think of it as an oxymoron:  because here was the most tightly disciplined and controlled of productions being cruelly deprived of control. …

 

  All the cast are bang on the nail, though I must single out Meera Syal as Dotty, playing the old housekeeper, for her physical deftness in moving.   In character she does the shuffling stage-crone thing,   but when pausing over a sardine plate confusion and shouting to the director in the house  (who, blissfully, was striding around right next to my seat) she  uncoils like a serpent to become the magisterial old diva she is.    As the show goes on,  more and more conflicted,   her Dotty sometimes  forgets to shuffle and then suddenly remembers and we choke laughing.

 

    Jonathan Cullen too is is very fine too as poor Freddie,  struggling with his personal life and nosebleeds,  and Debra Gillett catches the cooing, caring, reconciling infuriatingness of Belinda to a T.    And good old Jeremy Herrin makes sure to milk the final moments before and after the third act with some wicked curtain-jokes.   

   And even when it’s over,  you can – as always in this show – take away and cherish the insert in the programme with a spoof- intellectual analysis of the nature of farce (bit to be be reproduced in any Almeida or NT programme without exciting comment) and the company biographies.    I cherish in particular Belinda’s stage CV beginning aged 4 in “Miss Toni Tanner’s Ten Tapping Tots”  and  the claim that Garry Lejeune while stil at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman medal for violence”.   Joy.   

 

box office  lyric.co.uk   to 27 July

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE GED 13 3/4 THE MUSICAL Ambassadors, WC2

GROWING PAINS IN THATCHER-TIME…

 

It is almost eerie to plunge back into the 1980s for early teens of our hero,  especially if you have been listening to the latest R4 reading of his adult life,  long post- Thatcher, deep in Brexit with Pandora in Parliament and his love life still a  slo-mo disaster..  But this little musical, developed in Leicester (where else!) is the result of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary  badgering the late sue Townsend to be allowed to do it,  and with poppy tunes and a high-spirited cast under Luke Sheppard,  it works surprisingly well.

    

    Its charm is partly retro – boy-nature is perennial, and all of us, of both sexes,   who were once teenage poets and dreamers of intellectual grandeur can relate to poor Adrian’s travails.   Even if our parents were less ghastly than his.    But young Mole predates our age of social media, smartphones and the problems of wiredly connected anxious FOMO-victims. Today one could wistfully hope that teenage intellectual ambition would find a tribe.   And, with luck, his mother Pauline’s feminism would have lost its recklessly selfish 1980’s élan and taken his emotional welfare too seriously to dump him with a boozy Dad and run off with Mr Lucas. 

 

    Shouldn’t be nursing these reflections during what is a stompingly funny, pleasantly daft and relentlessly energetic musical,  but the sadness of Adrian Mole always did rather get to me. And the poignant performance of the boy himself (on press night Michael Hawkins) serves that very honestly.    His timing, and sense of bathos, is magnificent:  underlining the perennial problem of any child looking up at the terrible absurdities and unpredictable behaviours of the adult world (not just his parents  – Andrew Langtree and a willowy Amy Ellen Richardson –   but Ian Talbot’s old Baxter with his views on women (“whip ‘em, slap ‘em, ride ‘em”) and the fierce grandmother (Rosemary Ashe).    The adults double as schoolchildren, which is simple but frankly hilarious;  though in the ensemble of real children the palm must go to the diminutive Charlie Stripp as Barry the Bully,  whose macho posing, gritted jaw and squared shoulders elicited barks of delight.   He works the delightfully patched, ragged family dog puppet beautifully as well. 

 

  So it’s good fun, irresistible really, and should cheer up the school holidays no end while reminding parents of their own awful 80’s childhood.   The Nativity play is well over the top and down the other side.   But at its core is the sadness that Adrian will never quite, even in his own inflated opinion, fulfil his chant of “I’ll be great, I’ll be strong, I’ll be friends with Elton John!”.  

 

Box Office: 0843 904 0061  to 12 October

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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PRESENT LAUGHTER Old Vic SE1

COMEDY SHADING TO MELANCHOLY: WHAT’S TO COME IS STILL UNSURE…

   

First of all  let’s say that  Andrew Scott is a marvel, a 21st century Ur-Coward hero,  who manages to do it without either the matey crassness lately inflicted on the part by Rufus Hound,  or that retro, clipped Cowardspeak which echoes the Master too much.  When a chap can say “there’s something awfully sad about happiness” without reminding you of all those Round the Horne parodies,  he’s winning. And Scott certainly does:    windmilling or striking poses,  he acts the compulsive theatricality of the spoilt matinee idol Garry Essendine while – with uncanny delicacy –  revealing how much or how little of it is, at any given moment, fake and how much a genuine revelation of loneliness and panic. He’s superb. Every critic has said so.

 

       So, late to the party after a holiday, I have a chance to add to rather than initiate  notes on Matthew Warchus’ superb production of  Coward’s self-revealing comedy.  It is  set in a gloriously deco studio living room which nicely echoes the curve of the Old Vic’s ceiling rose.  It emphasises the close circle of  Essendine,  invaded by the “latch key loser” Daphne and the infuriating arty fan Maule.  He can only exist, until he disrupts it himself, in a safe entourage of  dryly resigned  secretary (a broad, bonkers depiction by Sophie Thompson, who also manages at the end to give it a poignant edge),  plus a brisk ex wife, raffish employees,  manager Morris and, vitally, his producer Henry.   The latter,  in Warchus’ gender-flipped production,  becomes Helen:   thus the actor’s disruptive seduction by the producer’s partner  is by a man,  Joe.  

 

Fair enough:  it reminds us of how Coward’s own sexuality was encoded in his plays as straight,  and a modern audience can watch a same-sex seduction with a shrug.   The script is the same,  from Joe’s challenge to Essendine’s always wavering sense of control right down to the final moments where they try to keep discussing the Queen’s Hall versus Hiawatha at the RAH.    Yet  this male duel gives the scene an even greater edge.   Enzo Cilenti, though rather more low-rent gigolo than credible seducer,  deploys masculine dominance not female allure, and his height and threatening moustache set off Essendine’s emotional fragility very nicely.  Scott’s plaintive theatrical drawl wavers between temptation and panic.   

    So it works.  And as the pace hots up, the farce is tremendous (Luke Thallon is a nicely horrifying Maule, and Liza Sadovy suitably bizarre as the spiritualist Swedish housekeeper before gamelly becoming a hypergeriatric Lady Saltburn wheeled in on a drip).   Warchus also tweaks the end a little,  but fair enough:  within the production, with its edge of melancholy,  it suits better.  

 

box office oldvictheatre.com   to 10 August  

RATING four 4 Meece Rating

 

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AFTER DARK – A DRAMA OF LONDON LIFE Finborough, SW10

A SHILLING SHOCKER IS A JOY FOREVER

 

  To come clean:  one reason I dashed to catch this fresh back from holiday is  not only that the Finborough is always interesting,   but that  family tradition tells us that Dion Boucicault’s 1868 play,  a confection of dastardly deeds and heroic redemption,   is one in which my great-grandfather (an actor of no great fame) appeared on tour. Possibly even with my great-grandmother as a harridan or heroine.    It may be that a taste for melodramatic romance runs in the family.    That was certainly satisfied in a roisteringly absurd two-hour tale of London life,  directed with furious vigour by Phil Willmott .  

 

A cast of twelve, including three musicians,  featly trundles around a set of two ragged brick arches on castors  ,  and shows a joyful relish in correctly overdoing the significant glances and gestures of despair,  not to mention lines like “You fiend in human shape!”   “I am your Father!”   and “Stand aside, Chumley, I’ll interrogate the baggage!”.     There is a particular pleasure in having such grand shouty melodrama right in your face in this teeny auditorium.    It roars along,  from the opening moment when a strapping Queen Victoria  and a statue of Britannia (it talks, later…) welcome the first steam-train to run in the new London Underground District Line  (piquantly, the last one just has last week, marking the 150th anniversary).     Amid cries of alarm and stage-fog a figure they descry a figure on the rails silhouetted against the lights – aaaghhh….  and we’re only 30 seconds in.  

 

Then the plot begins,  involving, just as one would wish,  a raddled scheming nightclub hostess whose criminality is matched only by her gift for Malapropisms, a decadent aristocratic heir,  a tricky will, star-crossed love, betrayal,  pregnancies, a drowning achieved with shiny mirrors,  a mysterious tramp, a  Salvation Army lady called Aviona Crumpet, a dastardly lawyer  and mistaken identity under a veil.   Oh, and apart from the traditional music-hall scene (sing along, do!),  later we get a three-lady chorus of Russian tarts in ginger wigs and fur hats singing “Kalinka!”  and chasing a policeman, while still playing fiddle and accordion.  

   

   The plot is pleasingly ridiculous,  tying everything up in a proper happy ending for even the worst, and  the performances vigorous .  Victoria Jeffrey is a splendid Dicey Morris (I am proud to have had her crinoline sweep over my feet in the front row) and   Jonathan le Billon as the hapless aristocratic hero deploys a deadpan helpless stare I particularly enjoyed.    Jemima Watling as the one poignant character Eliza wisely keeps a lid on it and is actually rather touching,   and Toby Wynn-Davies, frankly, was born to play an evil, conniving lawyer and should now be first call for all Dickens adaptations.   Talking of Dickens, there’s even a cheeky  Magwitchian rip-off in  the plot – it was seven years after Great Expectations.    

  

    What the hell more do you want of a night out over a pub?  Only eight more performances.  Hurry.  Get round there. It’ll take your mind off Boris…

box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk    to 6 July

rating four 4 Meece Rating

 

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EUROPE Donmar, WC1

GUEST CRITIC  LUKE JONES REMAINS UNIMPRESSED

 

“A dirty nothing place” is what the Donmar is dressed up as this summer. It’s a chilly, lightly filthy train station in a forgotten part of Europe. “A place people pass to get somewhere.” Even the interval drinks are wheeled round in carriage trolleys.

 

This 25th anniversary revival of David Greig’s play is, for the most part, a long chin scratch about home, belonging and division. What in this wide continent unites us and what forces are agitating against it? That kind of thing. Apt during the years of the Yugoslav war. Apt now during our never ending Brexit debate. But nonetheless a sinfully tedious drama on a Thursday evening in June.   The station is closing, refugees have arrived, racism is bubbling and many want out. The town is literally being cut off from the rest of the continent. WHOOSH, there goes clunking metaphor No.1.

 

Ron Cook as the put-out station master is entertainingly straight; a man of broom, tannoy and timetable. His daughter Adele (the forever charming and and charismatic Faye Marsay) is a far more romantic breed of train fancier. She wants to break free from the small town so is naturally obsessed with the trains that leave the station. CLANG, metaphor Nr.2.

Onto this concourse arrive two weary refugees, Adele’s husband and his increasingly racist friends. Wolves from the forest, we’re told, newly emboldened, often decent into the town. CLUNK –   keeping up?

 

Onto this it  heaps wooden dialogue ,  and a preference for the kind of strained, ethereal conversations people only have in (small p) political plays. Shane Zaza (returning to the town after making it big abroad) has a maddening melodic delivery and Natalia Tena (as the refugee Katia) barely shifts an eyebrow or tone. It’s packed with these strange dehumanising decisions: but thankfully a gently thrilling love story and a couple of genuinely shocking violent moments perk you up.

 

But the only genuinely impressive aspect of the evening was Tom Visser’s juicy lighting. The rumble and rattle of passing trains is beautifully expressed. We get a flock of rattling ceiling tubes, flashing streaks across the floor, slutty neon, warm sunrise. If only the text had such dramatic grammar:  if this is what we can expect from new Artistic Director Michael Longhurst, I’ll be changing at the next station.

 

Box Office: 020 3282 3808  to 10 August

rating   two 2 meece rating

LUKE JONES

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THE HUNT Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL SHIVERS – ADMIRINGLY – AT A TROUBLED TALE

 

In this hypersensitive age of MeToo accusations, anxieties about online pornography and even deeper-seated disquiet about questions of childhood innocence, it’s a brave move to tell a story where a child is an unreliable accuser claiming to be a victim of sexual abuse.

 

Adapted by David Farr from the screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (and made into an acclaimed  2013 movie starring the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen), our focus is Danish primary school teacher called Lucas (played with quiet authority by Tobias Menzies), a loner who lives in the middle of nowhere in his already isolated community. He  has found himself teaching much younger children after the secondary school closed down.

 

The opening moments feel eerily innocuous – two six-year olds, Peter and Clara, are forced to stay late because their parents have failed to get their act together; and as Lucas looks forward to a lonely Friday night in his remote cottage, he gets them to help with clearing up the classroom before the folks arrive. Only young Clara has other things on her mind when she is alone with Lucas – she wants to give him a lollipop and she touches him in a way which makes him uneasy.

 

Of course Lucas tells Clara gently that this is the way Mummys and Daddys can touch children, but not teachers. But quite why young Clara wants to be close to him is apparent when the parents arrive – frazzled mother Mikala and alcoholic father Theo, both of whom happen to be old friends of Lucas’.

 

Seemingly hurt by Lucas’ rebuff Clara accuses him of doing something devastatingly inappropriate which sets off a train of nightmarish accusations, suspensions, police involvement  and the kind of vigilantism that is a particular preserve of this kind of small community.

 

It’s a deeply involving story told with power and clarity in Rupert Goold’s production. Menzies’ Lucas is a rock of inscrutability and stubbornness who fails to flatly deny the accusation. He also inhabits a world of manly ruggedness where he and his friends, most of whom seem to have children in the school, frequent a lodge where they go hunting (there is more than one type of pursuit here), take saunas and dip in icy water while shouting a lot. Thanks to typically effective work by designer Es Devlin, a simple house design serves as the lodge, Lucas’ home and the children’s Wendy house, the place where the crimes supposedly took place. In a final reckoning, it becomes the town’s church. All places of safety and bonding (and, weirdly, love), all in their way, assaulted.

 

Farr’s taut and powerful script manages to convey the ambiguity of ruptures – both on a societal level and within the mind of a little girl and the surrounding adults. Is the problem the online porn which Clara seems to have seen on the phone of her friend Peter (who has stolen it form his father)? Or is the demolition of childhood innocence down to the fecklessness of her parents who have driven Clara to seek love and comfort form an inappropriate source, a quiet, kind and well-meaning teacher? The lack of answers speaks of the play’s intelligent sense of the enormity of the questions it is asking.

 

Lucas’s  innocence is never in doubt, however, and his strange reluctance to  proclaim his innocence means he is at the mercy of events around him, which can feel frustrating.

 

But Goold gives his production enough thriller-like pacing and intensity to keep us hooked. And what resonates at the close is a portrait of mind and a wider world in torment and an idyllic society, very sure of its values, and seemingly incapable of having its complacent perfection questioned. A troubled play for our troubled times.

 

box office almeida.co.uk  to 3 Aug

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

  All the little Jermyn needs to complete this reimagination of Wildean epigrammatic decadence is to scent the auditorium overwhelmingly with lilies and light joss sticks round the tiny stage.  Oscar Wilde’s aim after all is to overpower us until we faint with forbidden aesthetic passion.    The  deathless tale of Dorian Gray, who stayed beautiful while his portrait in the attic betrayed his hideous moral corruption,   is one of Wilde’s most flutingly swoonsome hymns to art and beauty,  and warning against their innate decadence.  

 

Its a loose impressionistic take by Lucy Shaw, and Tom Littler’s handsomely staged production is a joint enterprise with the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, where it knocked them out (Ayckbourn it ain’t).   There are two vast frames,  mirrored or translucent:  we never see the portrait, wisely, but there’s a Narcissus-pool in which Dorian can gaze in admiration and later in horror.  Four actors switch round in versions day by day:  mine was Picture B, with Stanton Wright as Dorian,  Helen Reuben as Basil the painter and Augustina Seymour as Henry Wotton, while Richard Keightley does others or hangs about the edge of the stage speaking Wildean epigrammatica to fit the moment.

 

  It’s intriguing, and offers chances to see the parts played differently,  but there are inevitable losses.  The heaving gay subtext in Wilde’s book cannot simmer quite perilously enough if Sybil Vane is explicitly and verbally a bloke  (as in versions B and D).     A female Wootton and Basil work fine though,  Seymour is splendidly smart-louche as the tempting friend,  and Reuben as worried Basil. As to Dorian, the trouble is that it always helps if you look as if Aubrey Beardsley had drawn you in a fug of opium.    Stanton Wright’s handsomeness is a bit more in modern stubbly style than is ideal  . But on nights  C and D  I imagine Reuben is ideal:   ever so ethereal and soulfully androgynous.  Must make it all the more shocking to hear him/her being accused of “creeping at dawn from dreadful houses”.

  

  The style is broken,  witticisms and profundities about art and beauty dropped in whenever it fits;  the story is familiar, with the betrayal of Sibyl,  the brother’s vengeance and the horror and fate of the artist.   Sadly, Shaw leaves out what in my brooding teens I thought was the real kicker:   the irony when the final murderous degradation of Dorian shows in the picture and appals him.   He decides to be good and spare a flowerlike  maiden but it doesn’t work.  In the book he just looks into the portrait and finds it just as hideous  but with a taint of hypocrisy…  Put that back, I say!

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

  This is a dream of a Dream.  One expected fun from the  combination of Nicholas Hytner,  a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit  and a Bunny Christie design which  makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks.  Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals:   beds fly and travel,  pits open, platforms appear,  gymnastic fairies  somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!”  exit move.   

 

     But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things.  He   pursues, as most modern interpreters do,   the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream” , releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court.  That psychological captivity includes Duke  Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.  This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally,  sweetly, awake confused , four in a bed which was once a grassy bank,  looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear,  wakened from his Oberon dream.   

    

    But it’s the other thing that had us whooping,  even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time:  I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes,  went twice,  but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee).    The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines,  so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child.  It is Oberon.  This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince,  everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).    

      

     Making Oberon the patsy,  enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing).     Oliver Chris, on the other hand,  gives the comic performance of a lifetime.  He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun  in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight.    The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile.   Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does:  the immortal Weaver is, in any situation,   a miracle of happy self-flattery.   

    

    The flying fairies are gorgeously  sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of  the young lovers.  I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches.  But not a single thing went wrong.   

 

 And  there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy  king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after ,  decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta.   I always wondered why:  here we know.    It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind.    There’s a quizzical look from his bride,  who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won.   Theseus is humanized.     Thus, bingo!  the reversal serves  both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.  

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse.  It was right to include them in the curtain call… 

Stage Management Mouse resized

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – a note Southwark, SE1

A NOTE ON A TREAT,  MOUSELESS BUT MELLOW 

 

The film based on Scott Fitzgerald’s story of a life lived backwards, born old and ending in babyhood,  was pretty awful.  So I did not leap at the news that Jethro Compton  and composer Darren Clarke had made a musical of it – transporting the action to Cornwall 1918, the war years and after.  But curiosity gripped,  Southwark doesn’t often programme anything dull,  and I bought an impulse matinee ticket.  Even though I knew guiltily  that owing to the annoying late slot (matinee ending at 6+) I might have to skip at the interval and miss the last 45-minute act.  

 

Which  I did.   So I can’t mouse-rate it.   But after 75 enchanted minutes I fervently hope this lovely quirky show goes on and upward, and especially on tour.  Take it to the  seaside, and to places beyond the London bubble.  It had me from the first Cornish  gull-cry, buoy bell, storm sounds, and folktale -vigourous storytelling.   It kept me all the way,  the modern-Celtic songs and dances driven by five actor-musicians reeling and stamping and ever in motion on the tiny stage below the fishing-nets.

 

The sincerity of the piece makes a whimsically impossible tale into something that drills rapidly into real feeling, real wondering compassion for all of us who whirl through our brief lifespans in the normal direction. The birth of the old, old man in a bathchair wanting his pipe is met by the parents with all the dismay of any grotesque abnormality:   his confinement in an attic with only a tiny window to see the moon is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current exposure of how some deeply autistic children are kept.  In those first scenes Ben is a life size puppet, gloriously devised by In The Bellows  from driftwood and wicker creel.  It – he!-is handled with intense  sensitivity. We see him breathing asleep, and his song of longing  “All I want is to live a little life, feel a little freedom, see a little sea”  seems to come from the ragged wooden mouth.

 

The  mother’s song before her clifftop suicide is equally  wrenching and real.  When released from the room as his age becomes more fiftyish,  he is played by the real James Marlowe:   meek and diffident and sweetly childlike .  As he sets eyes on his life’s love, he is any older man struck hopeless  by a young girl.  When, now young enough for the WW2 Navy he meets her again more equal it is any love story.  Love, loss, war, disappointment, hope are so real, so musically deft and honestly rendered that the whimsy is irrelevant. Button has his unique and difficult life  problem, but so do we all..

 

The tight  cast –  Marlowe and Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – tell the story in turn, sing harmony, and play fiddle, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and occasionally drums. The move wonderfully well and radiate sincerity and a sense of an urgent tale to tell . I suspect that if I had been able to stay I would have shed a tear at his infant ending. Hope to go back    

 

box office   0207 407 0234    southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

To 8 June

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THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

  Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim.  This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching.   I loved that.  I wish more was made of it in  Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse,  deliberately low-powered play.  Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set.  Such ideas matter to them.  

 

It is about a mid-life crisis.  In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky.   These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best.  Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed.   His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated” , pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.  

 

  But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!).   She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar.  A sort of affair ensues.   The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid:  but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.    Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton)  and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews).    And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feele entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.  

   

    Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are.  There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.  

  

      But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace,   it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark.   There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him,  a wistful unfulfilment.    Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play.    But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and  the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..   

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying.     At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin:  “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade . . . never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy”.  Actually it is more like Ibsen:   a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society.  Not just the submission of women but the class structure:   all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus  marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them. 

 

    Sowerby knew the turf:  old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks:  she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace  and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers ).

 

But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment,  almost rueful sometimes in its even=handedness.  Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable:  his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman,   and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.  The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off.  The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness.   Richard , the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a  fool”.    And as for the workingman Martin, his  piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet.   Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he  is depicted with both contempt and compassion.

   

I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production  is subtler still.  Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety.  He rises to the roaring bullying tone  at the few times it is necessary,   and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”.    But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because  folk will  do what he wants,  end of.  So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant”  Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter. 

 

  Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit  period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world.  Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary .    Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class,  but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”.   Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution.   Psychology,  social rage,  human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it. 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

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WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

  WHY BE WHITER?

 

  It is useful, if dismaying ,  to be reminded that skin-based racism is not exclusive to Western European bigots.   In Small Island  (scroll below) Andrea Levy pinpointed the depressing belief among traditional West Indians that a lighter skin in ‘better’.  Now in this mischievous satirical 85-minute blast by Anchuli Felicia King –   she’s Australian-Thai, as is the director Nana Dakin  – we see a corporate  crisis in a Singaporean cosmetics firm marketing a skin-whitening cream.  We also plunge into tensions between different Asian communities and attitudes. 

     

  Someone, we discover after a panicky exchange between the assertive MD Priya and the press officer Sunny,  has OK’d a new commercial for the cream.  It is snortingly racist . A girl is jilted for a whiter-skinned one,  uses the cream and gets him back ;  her rival becomes suddenly black,with an Afro and hip-hop soundtrack. Slogan –  “Only works on  inner beauty”.  

       Someone – we find out who, and very funny it is too – has leaked the video online,   and the hits and criticisms are mounting tens of thousands at a time on screens upstage.   Two other staffers are seen overhead in the Ladies’ lavatory:   Chinese Xiao, youngest and most vulnerable, is sobbing in fear of the sack.  “This is not a joke for me. In China people disappear”.  

 

    The  row uncovers not only more corporate dodginess but, blisteringly,   the unspoken differences between the six women  (the only man is a troublemaking boyfriend,  Arty Froushan hilarious as French Marcel).   Boss Priya is of Indian heritage but thoroughly Anglicized;  Sunny is Americanized Chinese, her dude-bro language when excited shading back to Singlish/Hokkien.   Also Americanized is Built,  Thai-Californian.   The company’s chemist is Soo-Jin, who is South Korean;  the other less-westernized “homelanders” are  Chinese Xiao and  Japanese Ruki.    In a brief flashback we see them discussing how all women want to be whiter : “South Asians got the whole caste thing..Thai women wanna look like Korean women..Korean women wanna look like dolls..”.

    

    But Ruki brilliantly point out that while women want whiteness they are a bit ashamed of wanting it,    so instead they should claim “Makes your skin clear and bright”.   As a universal, hilarious swipe at female insecurity and pretences,  it is superb.  Hoots from the audience.   More shocked ones when they discuss the Western outrage at the ad , and Soo-Jin blithely points out that “negroes” are not their customers .    “We do not want to be seen as saying yes to American PC culture..where we sell, Thailand, China, Philippines…ordinary Asians, they still think that blacks are dirty, smell bad, are criminals… so we do not want to be siding with the blacks..In America you have Beyonce, Oprah, Obama. In Asia the blacks are poor, immigrant, they are homeless, they commit many crimes – ”

          Priya and Sunny wince – we all do –  but the Korean blithely continues that “Indians and Middle Easterns” smell bad too,  which freaks out Priya,   until the  Korean chemist reassures her that it’s OK,  “You wear a lot of deodorant and do not eat spices” .   It is shocking, it is funny, it is the best exchange of  insulting mutual incomprehension and tactlessness since Clybourne Park.

   

    It is also useful.  We need reminding that our sensitivities about race are new, and made of historic guilt as much as any real decency.  When Korean Soo-Jin  is comforting the weeping Chinese Xiao in the privacy of the  lav,  they covertly agree that the ad is OK with them.  “Why they take it so serious? It is like they cannot understand when joke is joke. It is not some big politics whatever. It is just fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy…”  ”Asia will not go crazy. We’ll be fine” . 

 

       The relationships are as beautifully worked out as the business manoeuvrings,  embracing  both hostility and affections. The finale is glorious, and taught me Asian insults in several languages.   The author warns us that it is a hellish difficult play to cast,  but the Court triumphs:  here’s to Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe,  Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung.   Five mice,   because it’s different and clever and useful, and horribly good fun. 

box office  020 7565 5000            to 15 June 

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

    Savagely observed  absurdity, blinding flashes of insight,  profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel  swamp of humanity.  This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges .  Though  wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling;   and intelligently,   rather than clutter the set realistically, she  uses the striking , noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions .  The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening. 

      

  The play  starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes:  religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice,   and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere:   a superb Jemima Rooper ,  voguing around in shabby leopardprint.  She  is doubly disreputable  for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”.  She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken.  In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus  she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night –  and what they say is “Live!  live!”.  Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.  

        

  This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things:  that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation,  that his wife Lady has run and improved the business , and  that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals.  BUt who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to blacks,  was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames.  This left Lady destitute  so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – ‘Jabe Torrance bought that woman,  and he bought her cheap”. 

          Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis,    Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”.  Lady is efficient but not fond,  brisk and chilly and cleverer  than the rest, standing apart.   Into this little world descends the Orphean Val,    with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith,  wanting to  to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life.   After some sparring,  and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches,  he gets a job in Lady’s store.  

     

  From that moment   Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage,  control the tension,  drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,.    The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval .  Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later).   She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” .   Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter  – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”,  and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven.  When the moment comes that they finally kiss,   movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.  

      

      Too deep involved,  too sorrowful for the trapped lives,  you  long for this pair to make a break for it,  assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully).     You are rapt until  the last terrible moments.  Uncle Pleasant looks on,  steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world,   and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way.   Stunning, strange, unforgettable.  

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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    SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING  EMPIRE 

 

Hard to overstate what an absolute treat this is , and on how many levels. It is a terrific yarn,  both romantic and tough, about history and Empire and sex and frustration, escape and hope and love and racism:  about promises turned to dross and the great seas of misunderstanding that roll between people.  It reminds us how  distant Commonwealth citizens dreamed of a magical Westminster castle of welcome and prosperity, and how a mean tired grey nation did not know yet how to treasure them.

 

   Andrea Levy’s novel of four families – here concentrated on  three in Helen Edmundson’s admirably clear adaptation – is staged by director Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay in surges, silhouettes, still-life freezes and fluent eloquent interactions on both sides of the Atlantic.  The fast-moving, elegant ensemble-work keeps it arresting,  and Lindsay and the movement and projection teams fill the Olivier as few productions manage :  without clutter , agoraphobia or overstatement. Entertaining pop-ups are doors and windows and furniture,  but also neat tiny cameos of  the sweet shop , the cinema,  and a pig-slaughtering shed complete with carcass  exuberantly  eviscerated as poor Queenie, daughter of the Lincolnshire soil,  flinches in bored disgust and plans escape.  The odd pop-down too:Aunt Dot’s  demise is splendid.

         In Jamaica, equally bored Hortense too dreams of escape, evoking her childhood as a blessedly “golden”-coloured child  (O that terrible hierarchy of skin shade, still troubling)  and remembering her calf-love for her cousin: the war brings the two communities into contact,  interweaving then recoiling.    Sometimes there is a diorama breadth of  projected sea , hurricane or shimmering postwar  Piccadilly glamour, sometimes narrower clips of film. Dramatically,  wartime newsreel is a  counterpoint to  a  squalid cinema  brawl between the famously racist American GIs and RAF sergeant  Gilbert from Jamaica who stands his ground with  “No Jim Crow here!”.  Most beautifully, the vast  Empire Windrush itself ends act 1 not projected on solidity like the rest,  but onto a vast white sheet, which billows and shimmers  like the mirage it proved, for many, to be.

 

You may know the Andrea Levy novel, and the dramatic events which bring together Leah Harvey’s splendidly prim, correct Jamaican Hortense and Aisling Loftus’  freer but frustrated white Queenie in Earl’s Court who woos,  tolerates then grieves -mistakenly – her stick of a husband (Andrew Rothney) who returns from policing the Partition of India with a horror of dark skins.  If you don’t know the book it doesn’t matter, indeed  it might be even better to come to the story fresh.  Because it is such a fine one, and one which we need to be re-told as the Windrush generation grow old and lately are so misused.  Gerschwyn Eustache Jnr as a cheerful Gilbert, making the most of his squalid bedsit, is a particular delight,  But so are they all.  Pure and thoughtful pleasure.  

 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 13 August

and will be almost as damn good on screen – NT LIVE –  27 June. 

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON                Park Theatre N4

CRIKEY!  IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN!

 

    Jonathan Maitland wrote two stunning political plays for the Park: tightly researched, thoughtful,  shimmering with moral understanding.   His DEAD SHEEP,  about Geoffrey Howe’s fallout with Margaret Thatcher, starred Steve Nallon as the Lady herself:   not as caricature but, so one of her former close colleagues observed, rather fairly.    His largely verbatim play about Jimmy Savile – which of course touched on politics in the widest sense,   as he deceived an establishment –  was equally excellent. 

      

       So hopes for this new one couldn’t be higher:   it is again built  around truth -a 2016 dinner party where Boris and Marina Johnson entertained the Goves and Yevgeny Lebedev,   starstruck owner of the London Standard.    That event,  with Gove a passionate Leaver and Boris tormenting himself about which way to jump  – is the first half,   and culminates in the Govian treachery.  Act 2 takes us to 2029,   and a future Boris tempted once more by power in a nation reeling after the “Corbyn-Sinn-Fein Coalition” and a Tory party led by Mr“Two A’s and a B” Raab.    

 

           It should be a blast, given that the last two years have made us all tend to perceive our politicians as a bunch of incompetently self-serving sock puppets. Our hero  too is  eminently performable (Will Barton  is a pitch-perfect Boris, from the deliberate hair-mussing for the TV cameras to the oratorical high jinks and the studied helpless harrumphing designed to make us mother him).    Sometimes it works.   The dinner party is nicely vicious, with a plummily pompous Gove, (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who I last admired being David Cameron in Three Lions) , a ludicrous namedropping Lebedev   and a sharp contrast in wives.  The cool clever lawyer Marina Johnson (Davina Moon)   flinches a little as Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine delivers shallow, smart-alecky insensitivities and marvels at  her own wit.    Boris,  meanwhile, is inside his own head, hearing voices: Steve Nallon sails through as Mrs T,  Weir less convincingly as a grumpy Churchill,  and Tim Wallers  (who is also  Lebedev and Huw Edwards )   as Tony Blair:   waving matily  at the gallery and urging Boris to Remain.  The others can’t see the hallucinations, so there is some crosstalk, Blithe-Spirit style, which sometimes  but not always works comically. The best moment is when Boris performs,  for his three nagging voices,  a version of his Telegraph Leave rant.  Infuriatingly, we don’t get the Remain version which he also famously wrote.   

The second act, despite one good final coup de theatre (Lotte Wakeham directs, Louie Whitemore designs)   is lamer.   Ragged and hasty,   it tries to become a meditation on the business of wanting power for its own sake and the desirability or otherwise of U-turns.   But it feels half-baked,  and it is almost unforgivable to trot out that old Soames-related joke about the wardrobe and the key, as if it was new,  and even to reiterate it. 

 

        The highest spots – as in the first half  – are supplied by Mr Nallon’s stumping Thatcher:  ‘her’ facial expression when learning of the “Tony Blair Institute for Global Change” is alone worth the ticket price.   I don’t think Mr Maitland was intending to make us long to have the Iron Lady back, but… in an age of vain sock puppets…there was something decisive there that….   aaaghhh.

        Anyway, everyone proves true to form in the ten-years-on section, and I will not spoil the very fine joke of what becomes of the Govester.   Politics moves on, albeit bloody slowly right now, and with a bit of luck the very gifted Mr Maitland will write a better version in the updates… 

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to  8 june

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

 

 

 

      There’s something special about fin-de-siecle anger in any century: this is from 1697,  years later than Wycherley and the mellower Sheridan,  and  best described as a furious sex-comedy wrapped around real tragedy. 

        A vicious, drunken rich husband, Brute, eloquently hates his wife and resents the whole entrapment of matrimony  – “If I were married to a hogshead of claret I would hate it!”.   Poor Lady Brute  once “thought I had charms enough to govern him..” but didn’t.  Their bickering (sharp, funny, this is the author John Vanburgh at the top of his game) is so poisonous that with her niece Belinda she plots to cuckold him with a handy gallant,   just for vengeance.   In a playfully daring argument, very much of the period ,  she explains that the scriptural ban on infidelity”might be a mistake in the translation”. 

        There are  two available men –  John Hodgkinson’s aquiline, grey-suited cynic Heartfree, who against his will eventually falls for Belinda,  and the more naive and gilded Constant (Rufus Hound) who fancies Lady Brute.  Meanwhile Caroline Quentin,  in crazy rouged-clown makeup,  foot-high ginger wig and patisserie-frilled crinoline,  is Lady Fancifull.  She is teased by Heartfree , sets her cap at him and adds to the chaos..  

           It is the usual Restoration affair of masks, ruses, meetings,  and razor-sharp mutual insults between the sexes. Cheeky assaults are made on the fourth wall,  and the laughs keep coming.   Jonathan Slinger’s dissipated Brute ends up, for no very good reason, being arrested drunk in a woman’s dress:  he puts on a bravura display of shrill camp violence as he wipes out the  watch and insults the Justice.  Quentin’s Fancifull  too is all one could ask  this side of an actual pantomime dame, as she pirouettes surrounded by looking-glasses on sticks.  

   

    The comedy is excellent,  the Restoration wordiness enlivened by some terrific movement  direction by Ayse Tashkiran – Fancifull’s obedient household rarely move at less than a fast scuttle .  There are a couple of rather lovely songs ,  and Sarah Twomey as a bravura bilingual French maid.    Incidentally,  this and next week’s Venice Preserved mark the RSC debut of Les Dennis:  possibly the first time someone gets both a Stratford debut and an award for Best Ugly Sister in the same month.  He’s not too busy in this – just a bit of fine drunken collapsing, and a spry participation in the scuttling entourage. But very welcome.   

         The tragedy, though, is real and angry:   it is the living death  of Lady Brute,  and the horribly well-evoked depressive nastiness and cowardly despair of her husband.   Alexandra Gilbreath is stunning:  she moves from an initial playfulness, coyly carnal as she plots her  affair,   into later moments of intense and queenly stillness as Brute grows filthier and more violent.   We are told Vanbrugh wrote the part , darker than in his first play,   for Elizabeth Barry,   an experienced  tragedienne.  It shows.  When the sodden and bloodstained Brute  violently kisses then tries to rape her –   smearing her , glorying in making her  filthy as him –  it is one of the nastiest scenes of the year,  for all the frills and furbelows.   Her face, and dutiful shuddering curtsey  afterwards , tell all.   The central tragedy is  simply that she is stuck with him.  And his power. 

       Vanbrugh  was a phenomenon: shipping agent commented for bravery under fire, four years a prisoner in France,  he came home and wrote two comedies – this being the second – before turning into an architect and designing Castle Howard.  Historically, he is credited by director Philip Breen with influences on both Tennessee Williams (is Blanche Dubois just Lady Fancifull, with added pathos?) and Pinter; his trio of men – lover, husband, sceptic – he links to the three in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.     But few other writers simultaneously evoke  quite the savage cynicism,  torrential verbal wit  and real anger  of this slightly alarming and ceaselessly entertaining piece about men, women, and social hypocrisies.   When Heartfree – who has fallen genuinely in love –  and the yearning Constant have a rare moment of insight together,  they define with sudden odd beauty what is lost in libertinism:  “To be capable of loving one is better than to possess a thousand”.  

box office rsc.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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FEAST FROM THE EAST              Tristan Bates Theatre WC2

SMALL IS  BEAUTIFUL, SHORT CAN BE SHARP

 

     There is something stimulating about ultra-short plays:  five to twenty minutes  but directed and performed with all the care and concentration of any full-length drama.   They can aim to be hardly more than sketches,  but that too is a useful craft to hone –  in an age when TV companies have forgotten the golden days of Victoria Wood, Armstrong and Miller etc,  and given up on the expensive business of sketch-comedy because it’s just cheaper to do personality- panel shows and sitcoms.  Saves on the set and costume budgets…

  

      But beyond the enjoyable sketch-jokes,  some of the collection assembled annually by the remarkable little INK festival in Suffolk are real, serious, heartfelt miniature dramas.  Some could grow – and will – to full-length plays.  Others are just right as they are.  And when a set of them are assembled, as in this collection visiting London,  they certainly make for an entertaining evening.

       WIth pure sketch-mischief we have Richard Curtis’ contribution, first seen in Suffolk last year as the savvy artistic director Julia Sowerbutts and her team call in a few “names” for the sake of the buzz.   Amber Muldoon, one of Ink’s favourite stars,  plays a singer trying to get through “Another Suitcase” under a barrage of directorial vanities and interruptions. It’s very funny.    His daughter Scarlett’s sketch of three generations of women watching a Royal Wedding is endearing too.  

     

    But the real meat of the evening comes in darker, emotionally subtle pieces.   Shaun Kitchener’s THAT’S GREAT has two friends in a flat , a supportive Will Howard discussing Ed Jones’  shy crush, until a betrayal  is revealed: all three are young gay men  but the story is universal, hovering betwen bedroom-farce and potential tragedy.     Ed Jones as Rory is particularly fine.  His own PIng Pong Club is on the programme too, as author.

 

           Also not-ok romantically is Shappi Khorsandi’s character Nina –  again Amber Muldoon –  remembering a bad night out and a treacherous boyfriend with all the shame and defiance of the Fleabag generation.   Will Howard, in Mixed Up by James McDermott,   is also fascinating,  in a play approaching the age of Trans with thoughtful subtlety.   Martha Loader’s curious After Prospero baffled me a bit, but hit home  at times on the subject of sisterliness and the wearing-out of old ways.   And, back in sketchland,  Ann Bryson  in Invisible Irene delivers with defiant brio the battlecry of female middle-age.  

      

       There are others on the London programme: I   can’t star-rate it because I have not seen a couple of them, or not yet,  but as a display of what can be done in small spaces of time,  sometimes by as yet unperformed writers,  if you put the work in the hands of good directors and intelligent actors.  It will at the very least make you want to submit a playlet of your own for next year’s INK.  It’s the seed-corn of theatrical creativity.  

 

box office  0203 8416611   tristanbatestheatre.co.uk

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SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

LOVE  AND LOSS AND ‘THAT’S THE DEAL’

 

 

   Jack is a middle-aged Oxford English don of the ’50’s , a bachelor and apologist for Christianity.  Graceful, witty books and lectures justify such theological puzzles as “the problem of pain”.   Within him, carefully protected by theology and cautious habit,  is still a desolate 8-year-old grieving his mother:  retreats into  childlike imagination have fuelled the children’s books which have made him famous round the world, and (naturally)  regarded with a slight envious suspicion in the senior Common Room.   He corresponds across the Atlantic, with a mouthy , witty American woman with a bad marriage who admires his religious writing and children’s books alike.    She visits. His friends in the Common-room are pretty appalled, but the friendship deepens enough for them to go through  a civil marriage so she can legally live here.   Her cancer diagnosis makes him  see that they are in love;   real marriage  and remission give Jack and Joy three years of great happiness before he meets the  great unanswerable pain.

 

 

  Jack of course is C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books;   William Nicholson’s  play a modern classic.  I had seen it several times, most recently Alistair Whatley’s marvellous touring production with Stephen Boxer ( https://theatrecat.com/2016/03/28/shadowlands-touring/   ) .   Frankly,    I had qualms about Hugh Bonneville in the role:  too handsome, too familiar in his evocations of dullish  decent steadiness in  both Downton  and his hapless W1A role.  

 

        But before many minutes in the chaffing common-room scenes which open the play,  I could see the point.  It’s a different Lewis, but a valid one.   Bonneville points up Lewis’ essential goodwill, contrasted with the nicely viperish Christopher Riley (Timothy Watson).   It also brings out the touching tolerant sweetness of his relationship with his bufferish alcoholic brother Warnie:   no intellectual and initially more than wary of  Liz White’s noisy, assertive Joy,  but possessed of more emotional commonsense than his brother.    Andrew Havill is a joy, both in his alarmed early evasions and the grandfatherish warmth he shows in the crisiS, towards the interloper’s young son (the night I saw it,  a fine Ruari Finnegan).  

 

          All the jokes and little British uneasinesses are there ,  pointed and sharp and elegant under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction.  I wondered at first if the vast stage would drown the play’s intimacy,  but filmically fast-changing scenes on the revolve work brilliantly while in street scenes characters  walk past a lamp-post (nice touch, we readers remember both its origins in The Magician’s Nephew and its appearance beyond the Wardrobe).    Joy’s hospital bed stands in the second half as  a small,  pathetic focus in the centre while  the irrelevances of the outside world  circling distant around it:   there’s emotional truth in that .  The yawning black gap between two vast library shelves has its symbolism too, in Lewis’ heart, but  also enables the child’s glimpses of Narnian divinity.    The moment in the hotel when the boy rings the bell and a woman rises is magic. 

 

      One companion worried that Bonneville’s natural, possibly incurable,  suavity would damage belief in his newfound ardour and the  immense wrecking shock of his bereavement, as he has to accept that giving your whole heart means having it broken: ‘that’s the deal’.    I didn’t find any problem with the Bonneville version:  he  did it his way.     There is one gloriously telling moment when he and Joy are not just intellectual friends but physically married,  and he lauds the ordinary, domestic happiness of it.  For the only time in the play we see Lewis not at a desk or lecturing or poised in company, but lounging:  feet up on a stool,  relaxed,  contented.  A man made new.  Strangely, that was the moment a tear pricked.

 

box office  cft.org.uk  to  25 may

rating four  

4 Meece Rating

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JUDE Hampstead, NW1

ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY ,  FRESHNESS OF YOUTH

    

    It’s a storming performance. Young  Isabella Nefar  as Judith erupts upon us:   adolescent, exuberant,  afire with defiance and poetry,  language and sexual vigour and contempt and high ancient longings.  She is a Syrian-Christian  refugee, without settled status,  a teenage cleaner ,an autodidact drawn like a moth to the great Greek classics.   Her nightmares are about border crossings, Turkish back-streets,a father horribly dead.  Her dream is to read Classics at Oxford.   Found reading a volume of Euripides  – “stealing makes it better!” – by her academic employer  she speaks the great lines and translates with eloquent beauty,  ordering the sacred rivers to run backwards and start the world anew. 

 

      Howard Brenton’s new play is a deliberate echo of Thomas Hardy’s darkest work, Jude the Obscure:  an updated riff on his angry theme of how passionate genius in humble people is stifled and thwarted by society.   Hardy’s is a famously grim book  (especially the bit I slightly despise him for when the stonemason’s three children die in a murder-suicide  with a note saying “done because we are too meny”.)     Brenton does not go so far,  though at one point one feels the temptation rising;  the important thing is that he picks up and flies with the idea of how underprivileged genius  today can “fall through the rotten floorboards”  of Britain,  what with tightening asylum rules callously applied, MI5 witch-hunts,  snobbery, and middle-England’s distaste for  stroppy, ungrateful foreigners however brilliant they are.  There’s even, in a final lavish twist, a reference to a trade deal about American pork post-Brexit.. 

   

If this sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, fear not.  Nefar is a marvellously engaging Judith: infuriating,  elevated, never passive but hopeful and joyful and furious: she burns before us on the fuel of poetry, wild intelligence and terrifying ancient sensibility.  Euripides himself turns up – Paul Brennen in a brilliant, blank mask by Vicki Hallam,    haunting her dreams and visions,  sometimes awe-inspiring, deeply other, yet finally with an unsettling edge of Geordie -accented camp.

   

    Jude is bent on A levels, cleaning by night and living with rough Jack (Luke MacGregor) a rustic pig thief.  This enables some very Greek throat- cutting as,  drunk with words , memories and vodka,  the wild girl bathes herself sonorously in blood on the soaking sand.  The Oxford scenes are both funny and satirically sharp, as  Caroline Loncq’s  matchless Professor Deirdre – a sort of drunker Mary Beard –  is captivated by her passion, fixes her a scholarship and cannily lists the advantages: “Arab – single mother – female – from a persecuted religious minority –  I can see those boxes ticking themselves!”.   But she is then intimidated out of it, not wholly credibly to be honest,   by a security service warning and the risk to the University’s reputation.    

        It grips constantly and sometimes, especially with the great shiver of Homeric or Euripidean words,  shakes you. The last scenes move in a satisfying way between surrealism, sharp practicality from Jude’s rather fine aunt (Anna Savva)  and exasperated drunken ranting from the pig man. There are streaks of  over-Hampsteady paranoia about the present government,  logical holes which don’t matter  and one psychological one which does pull you up a bit :  Judith piously proclaims  that Syrians respect family more than our lot ,  while having apparently forgotten that she walked out on Jack and her infant son to lay siege to Oxford and seduce her reluctant, religiously intense cousin.  

         But “ poets are only echoes” says Euripides, and so are playwrights.  Distortions, crumples and ragged edges make them all the more beguiling, and Howard Brenton never lets you down in the end.   All in all, it’s a rather fabulous swansong for Ed Hall’s Hampstead years.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 1 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ROSMERSHOLM                     Duke of York’s, WC2

GUILT, GRIEF,   POLITICAL ANGUISH     

 

    Handy timing ,  to open on what is  local Election Day for us ruralists and at a time when everything has a Brexity echo too.     Ibsen’s  Rosmersholme is preparing for polling-day:  the troubled squire and scion of the upperclass family Rosmer is being egged on to liberal revolution by Rebecca,  his late wife’s companion,   Kroll, a  blusteringly conservative local governing schoolmaster explains that the ordinary townsfolk are too uneducated to vote right  because a shameless newspaper duped them.  So he has funded a rival newspaper to set them right.

 

         Satisfying topical chuckles from the audience at all this, and a sense of muted approval as Hayley Atwell’s  Rebecca,   slim and white as a candle in her modest frock, throws open the shutters in a  dust-sheeted room under the glowering ancestral Rosmer portraits, and speaks of a new age of noble purity in politics , and equal respect for all.

     

           But this is Norway 1886, and the author is Henrik Ibsen with his incurable sense of human corruption and fallibility.  So the coming of a golden age of social equality and “nobility” in public life will become tangled in angsty moral and sexual guilt , hypocrisy, blackmail over past sins,  and the ghostly haunting of what the housekeeper Mrs Helseth (a small but significant presence very well done by Lucy Briers)   sees as a white horse presaging death.  Which,  the rest of us gradually understand ,  is plain guilty grief about  the dead wife Beth,  who threw herself in the mill-race and, gruesomely, jammed up the wheel and flooded the house.  Will this tragedy be repeated?  Oh yes.

 

The  widower Rosmer and Rebecca speak  fierily of the new social leaf that must turn : he at one point shoving flowers, vases and ornaments into the arms of startled grey-clad retainers with a cry of “take everything , go home, be with your families,  celebrate each other”.     But he is not only under the thumb of Giles Terera’s masterful Kroll, one of Ibsen’s best toxic prigs,  but  weighed down by guilt at Beth’s suicide (which Mrs Helseth  savvily  reckons is not unconnected to her lack of marital oats). This is coupled with his growing,   if still not especially carnal, love for Rebecca. She is guilty too, it turns out, having hungered for him and influenced poor Beth.  

 

It’s a strong and serious play  ,  some say Ibsen’s  masterpiece though not as winning as Ghosts of A Dolls House.  Duncan Macmillan’s rendering (directed by Ian Rickson) is excellent.  Atwell is superb with Rebecca’s odd, conflicted politico-romantic dilemmas , giving us  a teasingly odd portrayal for all its intensity,    Terera is menacingly entertaining,  and Peter Wight suitably bizarre as Rosmer’s slightly pointless ragged old drunken revolutionary tutor.  The problem is   Rosmer.  Tom Burke takes it seriously,  but  is not given much help  by the author to make him  anything g but downright tiresome in his political vacillation.    He lacks, on stage at least,   the extreme charisma and magnetism which alone could save the character and make us care. Only in his rare eruptions is there life, and his chemistry with Atwell is not – or not yet – powerful.    I wanted to be more engaged with this fierce fin-de siecle political play,  but Rosmer got in the way.

 

box office   http://www.atgtickets. com     to 20 July

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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CREDITORS              Jermyn Street Theatre

DEADLY DEBTS 

 

   The artistic  love affair between  August Strindberg’s ghost,  playwright Howard Brenton and  director Tom Littler continues to bear strange fruit,  surprisingly exhilarating.  There was Brenton’s brilliant  portrait of the playwright’s breakdown in THE BLINDING LIGHT (https://tinyurl.com/y4wzaya6 ) , some Dances of Death, and now the return of their Miss Julie  (revived in rep with this one, original review https://tinyurl.com/y3qf49rt )    And as a penultimate rendering – for they still plan another –  we get this furious three-hander . 

 

       It is set on the usual  godforsaken Nordic island with a ferry expected,  on which has arrived Gustaf  (a suave David Sturzaker) who the ex-husband of the lovely and worryingly independent Tekla.   She’s away, so he’s playing mind-games with her new, younger artist husband Adolf (James Sheldon).  In their long,  horribly funny opening colloquy,  the most evil of male-bonding demonstrations,  he persuades the poor sap of the following fallacies:  

  1.   that he is there to support and save him 
  2. that he must stop painting because the new era requires the more realistic medium of sculpture (evidence onstage suggests the poor sap is not much good at it:   there’s one rather porny female shape there and a lot of spoiled clay)   
  3. that the only hope of avoiding death from a painful “epilepsy” is to abstain from sexual congress, because “skirts” are a terrible trap and woman is “a man who’s incomplete, a child who stops growing, an anaemic who haemhorrages thirteen times a year..what can you expect from such a creature?”

       

        This,  highly entertaining in Brenton’s vivid language, is the first part of the 90 minute play.  Next, Gustaf sneaks off,  Tekla arrives  – a confident and rather cheerful figure  played with brio by Dorothea Myer-Bennett,  who will become the rather sourer  Miss Julie in the other play .    She and Adolf have an equally stressed-out, ambiguous, sexually confused conversation. At one glorious moment, Adolf emotes at great length about how he supported her career as a novelist and wore his own artistic soul  out doing it,    whereon she snaps: 

  “Are you saying you wrote my books?”

  and he moans:  

     “For five minutes I’ve tried to lay out the nuances, the halftones of our relationship…” . 

    Goodness, it could be any Hampstead media power-couple falling out today.   As Adolf limps off for some fresh air,  Gustaf returns and tries to get Tekla on his side, but she’s not falling for it.  Or is she? 

 

      Forgive my levity.  But an undertow of deliberate comedy  is certainly there in Brenton and Littler’s fascination with poor crazy furious brilliant August Strindberg.   They relish lines like “You vindictive bastard!    “You dissolute tart!”     And arter all, themes of sexual intensity, and furious confusion about who in a marriage owes what to whom, are actually timeless.   And the mutual rants are rather refreshing, in an age when none of us is allowed to be  that rude and unreasonable for fear or triggering some wuss. 

          Fair enough.   Angst  is a reasonable mindset when the original  author is broke, furious, hanging out in a derelict castle in the middle of Nordic nowhere in 1888 with three young children,  a wife,   a psychopathic fake gipsy and a dodgy Countess.  Moreover Strindberg, like his hated rival  Ibsen,  was struggling violently and not unreasonably to escape the 19th century and its dead-end sexual and marital mores. Not to mention trying to come to terms with his own stormy head.   

      But for heavens sake buy,  and keep ,  the programme-playscript:   the essay on the rival Nordic furies  by Brenton is both informative and hilarious.  

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

playing in rep with Miss Julie  to  1 June

rating  three 3 Meece Rating, as it’s mainly worth it as a well-delivered curiosity  . 

Here’s a troubled Strindberg  bonus mouse though, writing rapidly in a furyPlaywright Mouse resized 

  

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THIS IS MY FAMILY Minerva, Chichester

ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE SONG 

     

 

    This is gorgeous.  Funny,  truthful, wise,  and bravely original in form.   Anyone with a a family – past, present, remembered, or merely observed in cautious auntly incredulity    should see  Tim Firth’s musical.  Or, more accurately, musical play:  it has no traditional blockbusting numbers and no choruses – though sometimes the characters sing across each other in their own preoccupations.   The junctions between singing and speech in fact are so natural that you hardly notice them and its lovely insouciance makes you feel as if breaking into song is the obvious extension of emphasis:   a heightening of what needs to be said or thought in the frenetic pace of ordinary life.  

   

  It is operatic  yet as natural as birdsong;   barkingly funny at times, but never oversignalling its jokes,  poignant but never mawkish.    Emotions or absurdities just bubble up in exasperations all families feel.  It’s a gem.   Daniel Evans opened it at the Crucible in  June 2013, and I cooed with delight then (“enchanting, sweet as a nut, glorying in grumpy family love”.)    Now leading Chichester, he brings it back r  con amore,   revised and musically tweaked.  But the enchantment lives on:  just go!

  

        The story is slight:  Nicky –  Kirsty MacLaren convincingly and marvellously playing a bright, observant  13 –  has won a competition for an essay on “My Family”.  There’s  her sullen 17-year-old brother Matt, Grandma May who sings hymns but listens to the cricket during the sermon, her parents Steve and Yvonne ,  whose tale of their first romantic meeting on a campsite she cherishes.  Oh, and auntie Sian whose romantic career is rather wilder.  Firth’s script,  sitcom-funny but raised to emotional truth by the music,  beautifully evokes the parents’ midlife mutual exasperation .

  

    James Nesbitt’s Steve with a  mid-life bloke crisis is beyond priceless:  rollerskates, free-running,  learning Arabic to impress the Abu Dhabi owners of his company,  and a running series of equally ill-executed and unnecessary DIY projects.  A home-made hot tub in the rockery electrocutes a frog.   Yvonne (Clare Burt, subtle and funny and sad)  is losing her grip on who she is, as the children spread their wings.    Matt – at 17 “on life’s mezzanine”, responds to parental questions with a furious sea-lion bark and flap; he   has gone Goth and done a pagan handfasting marriage ceremony with his girlfriend, who inevitably dumps him.   Auntie Sian careers on down the love-track,  and her song “Sex is a safari park” ought to be top of the charts for years.   Grandma May  (Sheila Hancock, a marvel) is gradually fading mentally:  losing the words of old hymns,  feeling the mist of confusion rise, swirl,  form into old memories,   then clear.    Throughout the play all the family relationships are spot-on, heartshakingly credible.

    

         And the plot?  Nicky’s prize is a holiday of her choice:  as her understated worry about her parents’ separate fractiousness grows, she opts to return to the lakeside camp where they first met.  So they all do.  Richard Kent’s lovely cluttered dollshouse set does some revolving magic,  the rain pelts down, the tent – well, we’ve all been there.  

 

    Everything resolves, but let’s not spoil it.   The tune which Firth’s characters sing is all our songs;  their tale evokes splendours and sorrows of every family on every street.     The jokes work wonders.  “Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and find that what you’re left with is the nut”.  But so do the truths:   “It isn’t the fault of the star that we’ve stopped seeing it”.    

 

box office   www.cft.org.uk   to 15 June

rating  5    5 Meece Rating

    

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GHOSTS Royal, Northampton

A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s

 

 

    Wipes you out every time,  Ibsen’s furious, shocking,  violent assault on the cruel decayed conventions  of his century’s end.   Its indecency –  a plot driven by syphilis, prostitution,  illegitimacy,  female victimhood and religious hypocrisy    capsized his first.  “A loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum….an open drain”.      The century since has at least understood that in art such drains are vital and contemplation of appalling things sometimes necessary.  But this was no self-indulgent modern Sarah-Kanery or Edward-Bondism:   it rises to its real greatness in  the bitter, clear-eyed author’s truthfulness about human bonds: not only  between mother and son but in  the dead, thwarted affection between Mrs Alving and the absurd Pastor Manders.

    

      In other words I revere the play, and feared a little that after Richard Eyre’s devastating , taut 100-minute version which last sent me reeling out into the street,  I would have misgivings about returning to two acts with  Lucy Bailey’s production and a Mike Poulton script.  However,  Bailey is always good at finding and expressing the violent shocks of any play.  And this she does here, from the first moments when  in the elegant sea-green set of the decorous Alving home   Declan Conlon’s crude dangerous Engstrand hurls his supposed daughter Regina to the floor.  She shrinks from his touch. And Poulton’s careful wording, here and later in an aside by Mrs Alving,  suggests more strongly than usual yet another “putrid indecorum”;  he’s a sexual abuser as well as a bully.  

   

        All through, indeed,  the physicality of  Bailey’s direction serves the play well,  right through the taut explanatory scenes between Helen and Pator Manders, to the final moments when Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald grapples and begs for a merciful death (“I gave you life!” “Take it back!”).   The lighting is expressive,  the pretty green darkening to an underwater tone suggesting the monstrosities below the bourgeois surface, then at last lightening  with the thin Norwgian sunlight.   Light is at the play’s symbolic core,  in   Helen’s furious “possessed by the decaying spirits of the dead…we are pathetically afraid of the light!”.  

         

    James Wilby as Pastor Manders has a famously difficult task.   He is both a caricatured absurdity    on discovering Regina’s origin he has the nerve only to worry that it “made a mockery of the sacrament of marriage”, which reminded me oddly of ex-Pope Benedict’s recent essay worrying mostly about the status of the Eucharist when speaking of a raped altar-server.   Manders is a booby, a blinkered believer proud of having “crushed the rebellious spirit” in Helen Alving;   and yet we have to believe also that he was the friend to whom she once ran for help, and that they shared a thwarted love.   Wilby just about achieves this, because despite Manders’ terrible statements he physically exudes a kind of clerically suppressed amiability.  

 

 Niel-Mee’s Osvald is strong, too, rising from stiff sullen boyishness  to raging terror and helpless pleading.  But towering above them all, as she always should,   is Mrs Alving.  Penny Downie ,   aquiline and elegant,  is the conscience and heart and victim of the play:  she needs to convey a passionate heart, questioning moral intelligence,  gentleness,  terror, anger, quiet observation,  and an edge of fond mocking humour,  in that extraordinary moment when she sees through Manders yet again,  affectionately and without rancour.   Penny Downie achieves all this.  I would watch it right through again simply to see that performance.   If this were a London production and thus eligible,  I’d glue myself to Albert Hall to demand that the woman gets an Olivier.

 

www.royalandderngate.co.uk    to  11 May

rating four   4 Meece Rating

        

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ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

  It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood.  Banter,  mild irritation,  passing jokes and  irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward.  It makes it real.  No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed:    as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.   It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus:  the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up,  finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.

  

 

        Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time :  there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set,  as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward  out of a video of wartime footage at the opening,  and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone.    Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered. 

   

  Bill Pullman is perfect  casting as Joe:   the “man’s man” and patriarch,  whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war.  He cherishes the surviving son,  Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and  amiably tolerates having his less-educated language  corrected by his heir.   You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes  and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives.   But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease.  One bad thing happened,   one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…

 

        Equally subtle  is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who  suddenly, electrifyingly,  moves  in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night:  her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines.    Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster:   a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread.   But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:.  Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear.   “Certain things can never happen”.

   

      But they did. The remorseless  tide runs on:   below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability  – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously –   as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting  manliness.     

 

      It is an intimate, unshowy production:  its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors:   sitting actors on the floor, downstage,  for  important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them.    But aside from that quibble it has real greatness.    Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos.   The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”.     Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide:  the key recognition is  that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes.  They are all his sons.  Kate’s final departure,  hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality,   breaks your heart. 

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

(Published in Daily Mail on Friday, one must moonlight to support this website’s unfunded free existence –   but here it is  for theatrecat regulars..)

 

       The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive.   Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg:   an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props ,walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960’s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols. 

        

  But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over,  and  every number is irresistible.  Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics,  tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to  Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  A  young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end,  overlook her sexual history.  Even if she was powerless,  seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes ,“Stuck on the flypaper of life”.  The old story still works today, as the MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.   

   

      The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity,  the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’  whose only friends are the other girls.  She is one of our finest serious actresses,   with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe.   She is not known or trained for musicals , so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced  energy and sweet physical wit.   By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down,  every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.  

           In the small space the dances are spectacular, and  Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive.  On one hand we have the aggressive,  sprawlingly sexy  moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music”.   But when Charity is herself,  naively dazzled by meeting  the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life  or parading triumphantly with “I’m a Brass band!”, it’s quite different.   She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl,  graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her  seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds.   She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.     

    

  There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”,  by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting .   On press night Daddy B,  terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin.    Here’s  another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance.  That showed,  hilariously, but he was having such an  indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around,  hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE SISTERS Almeida, N1

DOWNBEAT, DOWNCAST  

 

    Some years ago, leaving a particularly slow and uninspiring Chekhov performance in Yorkshire (never mind which play, spare the blushes)   I heard a weary man saying to his partner “Eh!  they were well overdue for that revolution!”.   Which is not how you should feel after one of the master’s plays.   This one – like several others – is about  household claustrophobia,  unfulfilled passion, mutual irritation,  disappointment and the fact that in some lives only stoicism and resignation will do.  Yet Anton Chekhov’s humour,  sense of character and artful observation of human ridiculousness can carry you beyond depression and leave you – even in the case of an Uncle Vanya ! –  oddly uplifted.

   

      But it can misfire. This – adapted into nicely rendered modern demotic speech by Cordelia Lynn – is directed again by Rebecca Frecknall,  whose plangent, rather beautiful Summer and Smoke won two Oliviers –  one for best-actress for Patsy Ferran (here again, as the eldest sister Olga).  Only one piano this time rather than a crescent of nine,  but the director chooses the same spare, open staging,  beginning with 18 mismatched chairs and the cast in a mimetic-balletic sequence as if at a strange funereal ritual. 

 

    Appropriate enough, since the three sisters and their brother are marking, on young Irina’s birthday, the anniversary of their father’s death.  But this is a play about households,  the grating ennui of trapped women and the hostility that grows between the clever, intellectually and emotionally frustrated sisters holding on to old ways and values and  their brother’s encroaching  , ruthlessly nouveau wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba, splendidly merciless).  And in the very long first half  (it’s a three-hour evening) to be honest the ennui is passed on to us, with interest.  The play sags, feels dangerously static, and delivers almost none of the dry humour available in the text.   

 

The performances are fine:  Ferran’s weary schoolmistress Olga,  Pearl Chanda’s sardonic, bored Masha with her growing obsessive love for the stumblebum husband (Elliott Levey, beautiful comic timing) and a sweet Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz)  who later moves from romping enthusiasm to despair and final determination with delicate strength.  

 

      After the interval , mercifully,  in mood and pace it could be a different play:  the action of course increases with the fire, the cracking of marriages, Natasha’s increasing horribleness,  the duel and the epic drunkenness and disillusion of the old doctor ( Alan Williams, a great treat ),    The lighting is still deliberately dim .  mainly Anglepoises and the odd candle throughout, until the last outdoor scene  ,  but the play finally starts to  crackle with energy and tension, as it should.   Natasha’s odd perch overhead , finely lit and still on the stairs,  creates a real edge of necessary menace.  The last great speeches from the Baron and from Andrey hit home;   and there is real shock of pathos in  Masha’s desperate clinging to her lover, the unresponsively callous Vershinin,  as her husband heroically consoles her.    I left happy enough. But goodness, the first scenes badly need more vigour.  And a trim.

 

box office 0207 359 4404 

rating  three     3 Meece Rating

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INK FESTIVAL – Halesworth Cut – envoi 2019

REFLECTIONS ON A RICH SEA OF INK…

    

  I saw 22 plays in two days,  but it was hardly half a bite of what was on offer.   In three days there were  40 , each performed several times.  Everyone made jigsaws, scuttled between them, as if at a miniature – and better-natured- Edinburgh fringe.

         There were  145 credits :  writers, directors,  actors,  designers, crew.    Overseeing it was a  host of even-tempered volunteers , a management team of superhuman equanimity,  and the artistic director Julia Sowerbutts occupying a minimum of three places at once.  But almost the most astounding aspect of the 2019 INK festival of short plays was the footfall:  from opening time on Friday until the last performance on Sunday night,   the Cut  – its cheeky satellite “Kings Theatre” in the car showroom next door, and the tiny Museum up the hill  – were buzzing. Queues formed,  timetables were scribbled on, recommendations eagerly swopped.  

      And, for here is no elitist separation of pros and ‘civilians’, for three days you could see  actors ,  directors and specialists  of all ages and types being buttonholed (sometimes in actors’ case while rushing to their next show)  to be congratulated or asked advice.  That’s one of the rich pleasures of this unique festival:  it feels democratic, discussive,  open:   in a way that  the making of theatre should be,  and too rarely is.  Some of the plays came from seasoned old hands, or known names (though often writers or performers shyly trying out something new to them).  A smattering of  celebrity names helps, but most every year are just submissions, filtered over months before,  from people who have never seen their work brought alive  in front of an attentive audience.   Certainly not by directors and actors of the high solid calibre that INK now commands.  Each of us learns from that, in fascinated humility at the alchemy of collaboration.

         The shortest plays are five minutes,  the longest rarely over 25.   Some you could  classify as good-quality sketches –  one excellent joke delivered with brio, one apparent cliché debunked with a wicked twist.  Others you sense are the germ of a full-sized play;    embryos,  waiting for more work now that the author has seen, live,  what aspects come most vividly to the fore.  Others again are complete  evocations in miniature of a world or a character you don’t quickly forget. 

       There is immense value in this gateway, too little acknowledged and not, I think,  reproduced with such grandeur in any other region.     One writer for this year’s festival is 18, another 14:   there will be in the future, playwrights of international repute who can say that their first modest effort was a fifteen-minute squib in Halesworth.  Possibly in the car showroom.   There are actors of every generation, teen to nonagenarian,  working together;  faces you have seen on screen or stage elsewhere,   others you probably will.  

      The plays were about love in all its varieties,  ageing, jazz, misunderstandings, enraging relatives,  revolution, politics, sex trafficking,  pig-farming, Tinder, being a dog, and theatre itself.  Those were just the ones I saw:  only half the total.  Some were for radio.  Some were wickedly funny,  others shockingly moving, one involved nudity and had to be restricted by the conscientious ushers to  over-16s only.  

     But because they are all short  – here’s another INK-miracle –   nobody in the teeming, fascinated crowds of audience shied away from anything.   Those who like their theatre solid and meaty can brave a brief few minutes of utter frivolity;  those who normally have a dread of earnest “issue drama” find,   using up a twenty-minute gap in their schedule, that they are  to their surprise easily drawn in to a tale of refugees or the pain of infertility.  

        It works.  It is the seed-corn of theatre and of new writing.  My only beef is about the ones I missed:  luckily some of them are on the Feast from the East Tour.   See below.  Two at least of them I loved.  Two I haven’t seen yet. See you there. 

        Small can be very beautiful.  Suffolk can be proud.     

THE FEAST FROM THE EAST TOUR

HE FEAST FROM THE EAST: BEST NEW SHORT PLAYS FROM INK FESTIVAL 2019

Please contact the theatres directly through their websites or box offices for tickets

Thursday 18th April – Sir John Mills Theatre –  Ipswich – 01473 211498

Friday 19th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Saturday 20th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Tuesday 23rd April – Sheringham Little Theatre – Sheringham – 01263 822347

Wednesday 24th April – The Garage – Norwich – 01603 283382

Thursday 25th April – Westacre Theatre– 01760 755800

Friday 26th April – Fisher Theatre – Bungay – 01986 897130

Saturday 27th April – Bradfield Community Centre– 01986 872555

Sunday 28th April –  Brandeston  Village Hall – 01728 685655

 

THE PLAYS

 

AFTER PROSPERO by Martha Loader

Comic parable for our times set some 400 years after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A storm is about to break over Prospero’s flooded island home. Squabbling sisters, Ariel and Miranda, are reunited for their father’s wake.

 

NINA’S NOT OKAY by Shappi Khorsandi

A night out on the tiles with 17-year-old Nina is fuelled by something far more potent than drink.

 

WELLINGTON by Scarlett Curtis

Three quirky women — granny, mum, and daughter — cram on the sofa and the watch the royal wedding on television.

 

MIXED UP by James Mcdermott

A comedy drama about music, mix tapes and feeling mixed up.

 

BUS STOP by Dan Allum

A clean-cut American is taunted and teased by a precocious lass as they wait for the last bus to the unlovely Green Hill Estate in Huddersfield.

 

THAT’S GREAT! by Shaun Kitchener

Rory is desperate to go out with Jake. His flatmate Harry is desperate to help him. So why does the plan go so desperately wrong?

 

THE SOUND GUY by Corin Child

A clumsy sound technician is having a serious problem with his plugs at a rally organised by right-wing patriots.

 

  

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HOTEL PARADISO          On tour pre Edinburgh Fringe

ANOTHER KIND OF HOUR

  

  Staggering back from holiday, I sentimentally booked this at the New Wolsey in Ipswich because 2019 is the 50th anniversary of my unremarkable student performance in the Oxford Playhouse in the Feydeau farce of that name.   I was Unnamed Little Girl 2.   I thought it might be nostalgic.  

      As jet-lag abated I realized that it is nothing to do with Feydeau,  but a gorgeous,  good-natured hour-long confection of acrobatics, aerialism and balance-work  by Lost In Translation Circus.   Probably better entertainment than ours for OUDS 1969, frankly…

      It is  loosely worked around a threat to the hotel’s ownership,  with a demanding couple with a briefcase (some fine briefcase-and-bucket juggling) ,  causing anxiety to Serge the Concierge,   Madame the owner,  the bellboy and the very sprightly maid.  After some larks with the settling audience, the six  embrace the challenges by standing on one another’s shoulders, using fellow cast-members as human skipping ropes,  juggling bottles and making teetering towers out of chairs   (“I realize this is not the way property law works, but go with it”  says Serge, in one of the few actual lines).

      The pace hots up;  the maid is dutifully dusting the chandelier and finds herself stranded up there, so passes the time with some gasp-creating swinging on various limbs and ankle joints,  and when her love affair with the bellhop seems fraught,  the obvious answer is for both to do numerous handstands and the splits.   A bankruptcy notice is met by Madame with first a wild swinging routine nearly knocking out the lighting rig of the Wolsey, then one of the best comedy hula-hoop acts I have seen, as she attempts to get at a bottle and glass and pour out her drink , which involves moving the hoops up and down from ankle to upheld wrist;   for the finale they all suddenly display, as the backstage curtain falls on the supposed swimming-pool,   that they can also actually bounce, to great heights.

       In this fraught time of Brexit negotiation,  this all seemed perfectly reasonable to me.   Here’s to indicative handstands, meaningful cartwheels and benign defiance of common prudence.    It’s touring, see below, then going to Edinburgh.   

Performing tomorrow Friday 12  

Bristol  7:30pm    Circomedia St Paul’s Church

0117 947 7288 www.circomedia.com

Then   Lincoln
Friday 19 April 2pm

Lincoln Drill Hall pay what you can

01522 873894 www.lincolndrillhall.com

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WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

   The Haymarket these spring mornings is dense with toddlers and their attendants (I’d say  by the look of it  20% parents, 50%  grandparents, and the rest nannies and millennial siblings /aunts).    They are  all emerging dead pleased from the Theatre Royal,  and what more glamorous for your first theatre than those gilded splendours?  One near me was gazing spellbound at the ceiling before the action started, and actually paid less attention to the show throughout than admiring the decor.   But most were rapt, and indeed  my one grudge against the Old Laundry’s loving Beatrix Potter production – first aired three years ago -is that they waited till my youngest toddler was 31.

 

      With Stephen Edis music and some Ayckbourn lyrics,   it is a thousand sweet miles from the ghastly film (Potter was right, in her lifetime , to turn down Disney).   Te set is perfect . There are make-it-at-home flats and simple props ( under fives need  it simple enough to put on their own show baack home) but also with an arch with changing Potter scenes projected like a living book. Joanna Brown as the author introduces  a series of tales for a simple hour, assisted by the dim but benevolent Mrs Puddleduck; we hardly need the celebrity recorded voices of Griff and Miriam.

 

      The main joy is in the puppetry, led by Caroline Dalton  and performed by puppetter-actors,  with notable characterization by Samuel Knight as Jeremy Fisher and Tommy Brock.   The pleasure is in their meticulously witty detail as they invigoarate the the very faithfully-Potter creatures. Great synchro beakwork from both ducks and top hopping from Jeremy Fisher (a gasp all round when the big trout  threatens).  The production takes the trouble to create a menacing offstage squeak from mr MacGregor’s wheelbarrow (another gasp)   and to make sure Mrs Tiggywinkle’s nose does indeed go sniffle-sniffle-snuffle .  But a particular bouquet ,please,  for the way disgusting old Tommy Brock searches his bum.   That’s  my second classy-badger encomium in two days (see below for In The Willows!).   

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE WILLOWS            Oxford Playhouse & touring

A FRESH WIND BLOWING THROUGH AN OLD TALE 

    

  Down on the Riverbank Club,  teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck,  telling the shy diffident Mole   “There is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”.  

  

    Er…blink: OK,  we’re not in 1908 any more.  This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by   Alan Bennett or Disney.  In Metta Theatre’s cheeky,  exuberant hip-hop musical version , Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school,  next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.   The show  raves, cartwheels,  windmills,  head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance,  only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime,  and our fear for the violence alongside it.   The sober grownup  among them is Clive Rowe as Badger ,the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he  exudes his marvellous solid ,tuneful benignity in the middle of therave.  

            Mole  (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically:  after losing a brother to violence at ten,  she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma.    Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on,  and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter:  Chris Fonseca from Def Motion. The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft.   Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping  bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter :  he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison.  Two frivolous rabbits whirl around,  grave Owl is in a hijab,   and the Chief Weasel  – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.      

 

  Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting .  This is  Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so –   pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood.   So it’s part gig.  But characteristically,  Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original.   These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit  he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…

   

    At first  it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable  rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me:  I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?).   But more importantly the musicl  grows emotionally.    In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother,   and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel .  In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs,  it feels oddly urgent.    

  

    Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all –   finds they’ve killed his only pet,  Alan.  This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants  attempting CPR on a goldfish.    There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young:  in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview.  Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism  alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it.  In the second,  he  pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed.  Tears to the eyes.

    

    Of course there is  a secret passage into Toad Hall,   and a battle to oust the weasels.   Naturally,  it’s a dance-off:   Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance  versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter.  But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” –  penal reform .    Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break.  But having seen this I like to think  he got Community Service.   

 

box office   https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows

touring to 8 June:    still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

   

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Kunene and the King. Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE OLDEST HAVE BORNE MOST…

 

Jack is an ageing, terminally ill, scruffy, alcoholic remnant of an actor, with a grubby cardigan and Falstaff gut. He is muttering lines from King Lear in his chaotic flat. Lunga Kunene – played by the play’s author John Kani – is his nurse, another ageing man but as dignified and calm as Antony Sher’s Jack is chaotic.

HavinG sprung himself and his cancer from hospital on condition he hired a nurse, Jack expected a woman, ideally a white one. Graceless and grumpy, he reluctantly has to accept that “Sister” Kunene will live in – and not in the old servants’ quarters.

 

This is the new South Africa 2019: 25 years after the end of apartheid and Mandela’s freedom and rise to leadership. Even apart from Jack’s shuddering horror of death (“As an actor, you think you know about fear…”) both men have adjustments to make. Both, apart from anything else, need to shake the habit of treating the other as a specimen: one of “you people”, white or black. This is not always easy. Jack’s disavowal “I’m not political” meets contempt from Kunene who observes quite rightly that people who say that are usually profiting from something very political indeed. It’s a scratchy subject in any country, especially here: but in Kani’s hands often funny, sometimes explosive, sometimes poignant, always, arresting and important. Specific though the SA setting is, it opens great vistas of heart-stopping universal wisdom about death, guilt, reconciliation and human need. Its 95 minutes will be with me for months, and if there is any justice it will be seen more widely. I shall go again

 

 

. I should admit that it is close to home for me: for two years at the height of 1960’s apartheid my father was posted to Johannesburg . In termtime I was at school (a racist and brutally odd convent) in Krugersdorp. In the holidays, with parents anxious we should not think apartheid in any way normal or excusable, I helped my mother with food distribution in the townships and got shunned by white neighbours for teaching the maid’s teenage children to swim. Decades later at the elctions I marvelled at the comparative benignity of Mandela and of his people: even in 1963 when nightmares had haunted me that my father, following us home later, would die in a well-justified uprising. Twenty years on, I grieve that justice and equality are so far from complete.

 

 

But it needs no private connection to be swept into this honest, humane and thoughtful play. White-man Jack is determined to play Lear before he dies; Kunene, taught only Julius Caesar at school because it is about conspiracy failing and “one Shakespeare was considered enough for the native child”, doesn’t know Lear. But he becomes engaged with it, though horrified by the unwise King’s lamentable failure to consult “ancestors” like a good African. He remarks that Mandela was a Lear when he stood down to “crawl unburdened towards death” and that Zuma was both Goneril and Regan. Sher is wonderful, attuned in every move, playing against Kani to perfection: part enthusiastic sharer, part furious codger, sometimes horrifyingly a white Massa once more, but sometimes opening fissures of stark feeling. Kunene is patient, gentle, infuriated, repressed, embodying every thwarted human emotion of a downtrodden people and its gentle heart. It takes more than nursely authority to track down all the gin half-bottles in Jack’s stash, and more than professionalism to tolerate his eruptions. It is beyond a nurse’s duty to drape a dying delusional actor in a table-runner to take pictures for the Lear he will never live to play. We laugh aloud often, we gasp in shock, we are confronted by the pity and shame of incontinence , but listen with fascination to Jack’s explanation of how a great actor interrogates every line, learns to mean it. A terrible mutual rage flares, becomes a fiery dance of laughter, subsides to glowing embers in the beauty of still, wry reconciliation.

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 23 April

 

rating five5 Meece Rating

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THE TIDE JETTY              Eastern Angles, touring

SECRETS AND MEMORIES IN A WASTE OF WATERS

     

  You can’t fault the atmosphere:   Jasmine Swan’s set takes you straight to the wide skies and muddy, reedy mystery of  Breydon Water, where the Norfolk and Suffolk Broadland rivers meet and strange old structures rot quietly into history .  Structures like the titular tide-jetty  – designed to guide faster water round a bend and help scour depth in the channel.    Rushes sway before a vague watery horizon,  baulks and planks of wood become jetty , houseboat and bank as the cast nimbly move them, often silhouetted, lost spirits of the past.     Chris Warner’s songs become harsh primitive harmonies  and when Tucky the marshman,  balancing on his punt, points his fowling-gun out over us,  his targeted bird is heard plashing right behind us in the artful soundscape.   Mesmerizing too is  a mimetic opening and repeated sequence choreographed by Simon Carroll-Jone:  a remembered drowning.   Benjamin Teare moves in imaginary water with the terrible balletic grace of a corpse, gently through with struggling,  returning to nature. 

 

    This is the world, finely realized,  of Tony Ramsay’s new play,  which follows his excellent John Clare one some years back.  For all that,  I salute it.  It was also pleasing, on a particularly disastrous Brexit-news day,  to join the sigh of relief at Tucky’s repeated motto “When you can’t fix everythin’, you fix what you can”.   Westminster, please copy.   However,   it has sacrificed too much storytelling to atmospherics,  and dangerously lost some clarity too, which director Scott Hurran could easily remedy.     In the interval there was a touch too much anxious mutual questioning going on over the ice creams,  as to who was dead and who was related and why everyone seemed so tense.     The back-story – of three friends long ago, two men in love with the same woman – does become clear, but the reveals are late.    So the prevailing unease gives us a touch of Cold Comfort Farm.  Or, more positively, of Wuthering Heights here . Wuthering Broads. 

           

           Abe Buckoke was much to my taste as Tucky,  long-haired, knowing more than he speaks, very Norfolk;  he is a cause of fascination to young Anna (Megan Valentine) and of unease to her mother Eliza, one of the original three friends (Laura Costello, the best singer of them all, beautiful).  Her stepfather is the stern river-engineer Morton (who Benjamin Teare doubles) , a decent if socially dull man  stuck in a sexless marriage with Eliza.  He is full of pronouncements about the importance of imposing precision, measurement and planning on the unruly water-world,  as he cannot on the still more unruly emotions of his women.  There is a subplot about corruption in the timber business which, to be honest, only dilutes the dreamlike feeling of the music, the sound and the drownings. 

    

         A particularly tricky problem for Teare as Morton is that the slightly stilted, formal  speech of a Victorian paterfamilias is devilish hard to imbue with emotional energy (note how Trollope and even Austen lines get fiddled with, sneakily, on TV).   The women do better,  sounding both in period and actually credible,   but the stiffness imposed  on  Teare strikes a distracting note ,  Still, it’s early in the tour and there are ways to make that settle.  And the atmosphere is worth it. 

easternangles.co.uk     touring to 1 June

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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ADMISSIONS                  Trafalgar Studios , SW1

CRACKS IN THE LIBERAL VENEER

   

  I adored the energy, cleverness and cheek of BAD JEWS so much I went twice, as the pitiless author  set his characters kicking, twisting, protesting and fighting about principles which are as much emotional as moral,.  If  not more so.   ADMISSIONS is by the same Broadway writer – Joshua Harmon   – and even better.   And nicely topical too, both sides of the Atlantic, since it’s about the middle-class obsession with shoehorning their 17 and 18 year old kids into the ‘right’ colleges ,  by hook, crook, donation or ‘legacy’ status, all the while protesting how liberal and inclusive they are.     So I rushed keenly along. And was not disappointed.

    

   Mr Harmon must put in a lot of stage directions saying “Shouting!’  “Furious”  “Ranting”  and  “He/She explodes”.    For as in Bad Jews,  the temperature takes little time to rise past boiling and into superheated-steam.   The setting is a US private school, Hillcrest,  where the extremely correct-thinking dean of admissions Sherri Rosen-Mason  (Alex Kingston )  is the wife of the head and mother of a promising lad Charlie.  Her best friend Ginnie (Sarah Hadland) is married to a black teacher and has an equally promising son,  Perry.   The boys are best friends.   

  

  That Sherri is sincere in her quest to get the  visible “diversity” of the school up to 20% , and has done so with some success,  is sketched in a very funny opening scene where she upbraids poor Roberta from Admin (Margot Leicester, nicely dishevelled)   for not getting enough Students Of Colour in the brochure.   Nice Roberta is baffled “I don’t see colour, I’m not a race person”,  and protests that Ginnie’s son Perry is in it.  But to Sherri,  Perry doesn’t photograph quite black enough, being bi-racial.  There have been complaints from her too about “ethnocentric meal plans”  to which poor Roberta cries “Kids like pizza!”.   They also like Moby Dick, but it’s banned now for being by a dead white male.    You get the picture.

    The glorious central conflict comes when Perry gets into Yale.  His friend white Charlie doesn’t.  And blows his top, saying how hard it is having “no special boxes to tick”, and – tellingly – remembering that on all their college visits the Deans were visibly more interested in Perry than in him,  more conscious eye-contact and laughing at his jokes.  Especially if Perry’s fully black Dad was next to him….

        Ben Edelman as Charlie, over from the US production, is a treat:  six feet of coiled adolescent rage at the world’s unfairness,  his long rant has a Just-William ability to argue :  as when he roars  that a Hispanic student might well be descended from colonialist conquistadors, and that one is the son of the Chilean ambassador,   whereas his grandparents’ cousins were at Auschwitz so where’s the white-privilege in that?  This outrages his father, who is also rabidly PC and fears he has  “raised a Republican”.   But in a savage turnaround wholly credible in a 17 year old boy,    Charlie piously decides he was wrong, so wrong that he must recuse himself from all the high-status universities and privilege in a way that guarantees that his parents shed all their principles in an even more violent emotional conniption. 

      Gales of appalled laughter run through the audience.     Glorious, a sharp and timely treat.

   

box offfice www.atgtickets.com    to 11 may

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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MARY’S BABIES            Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

A COSY NIGHTMARE LEGACY OF THE 1930’S

 

  From the late 1930’s for nearly forty years,  Mary Barton and her husband Berthold Wiesner ran a pioneering fertility clinic: they were among the first to offer, with full anonymity,  artificial insemination by donor for couples they thought were “good stock”  ( it was a eugenic time in many quarters ).  The hitch is that although they destroyed all records in 1967,  it became apparent that Wiesner himself supplied the great majority of the sperm, and therefore fathered between 600 and 1000 children over the years.  

  

    To be fair,  the modern emphasis on the uniqueness of DNA was not regarded with the mystique that surrounds it today . Actually, in my own lifetime it was only when women began donating eggs that I ever heard people talking about “genetic material” and the need o know “who you are”.   Most families, on Barton’s insistence,  never told the child at all.  It was only in 2005 that the law gave AID children the right, at 18, to know about their biological progenitor.   However, the scale of what they did – maybe a thousand babies, all in the middle class cadre of a country not immense    was appallingly,  shockingly,  wickedly irresponsible.  It sowed seeds of accidental sibling incest and diseases of inbreeding. 

  

      This odd, rather creepy play by Maud Dromgoole is not about the couple,  but imagines meetings and gatherings (a few of which did happen) of the “Barton brood” years later.  Tatty Hennessy’s production uses two actors – Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens – and a series of changing lit frames on the wall to indicate who they are being. It isn’t perfect:  the changes are not well signalled, and the characters they all seem too similar in generation, accent and body-language.    Each is respectively 18 and 23 characters,   Stephens often recurring a key figure as “Kieran”,  a lonely man obsessed with finding as many siblings as possible.    To the point that when one poor girl is having a baby,  he throws a baby-shower which overwhelms her, full of strangers instinctively buying the same nappy-cake gift and gleefully comparing noses, jawlines,  gluten-intolerances, gag reflexes, tastes in marmite etc.  It’s like a cosy version of the Midwich Cuckoos.    Another is “Bret”  who discovers to his horror that he has married a sib, and wants their baby aborted.  No spoilers, but I shuddered at the actual outcome.

     There are a dozen tiny plots:  a lesbian couple who discover their link and realize it doesn’t matter, a bereavement,  family back-stories,  hospital scenes, a quite funny moment with a chirpy registrar and a great deal of musing (especially from the really creepily obsessed Kieran)  on the importance of family. 

    

   But it isn’t family.  It’s a genetic disaster,  a sad heritage of medical arrogance,  and I found it hard to believe how many of the characters seem pleased to find their weird, unfamiliar sibs.  I’d run a mile.   There are also a couple of bafflingly unnecessary whimsical scenes, one about a ventriloquist and one about chickens, which add less than nothing.   For all the ingenuity,  it just didn’t click.  Yet I would love to see a play imagining the monstrous Barton -Wiesner marriage and the eugenic satisfaction they drew from their vainglorious biological cheating.   Hope someone writes that. 

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

rating  three  3 Meece Rating

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DOWNSTATE Dorfman, SE1

BRILLIANT, NECESSARY,   QUESTIONING

  

   If we accept that people are widely diverse,  we have to accept that paedophiles are too.   Not all the same identi-monster.    Moreover,  if their horrifying actions pose us questions we need to think very clearly about answers.    If Bruce Norris’ disruptive, thoughtful play for Steppenwolf of Chicago does nothing else it hammers that home.  

 

 It is set in a group-home for released (but tagged and restricted) sex offenders, somewhere in Illinois.  Here is Fred,  Francis Guinan as a gentle Chopin-loving old chap in a wheelchair who used to teach piano.  He is  confronted  after 30 years, in a painful, funny, startling opening scene, by a former victim Andy.  Who has come with a rather pushy wife and  wants a “reconciliation contract” and to inform him to his face, awkwardly from a written script,   “You are a fundamentally evil person”. 

       

          Fred, disarmingly, just says it’s real nice to see him again, and protests mildly that he admitted his crimes years ago in court.    Meanwhile distractingly for poor Andy, the housemates wander through,  in from shopping or arguing about the lavatory.   One by one, we will learn their backgrounds too.  Gio (Glenn Davis) is mouthy, bible-spouting, and slightly delusional about his business future after doing a course in jail.  He’s furious at being in with these ‘grade 3 pederast motherfuckers’ because all he did was sleep with a girl who, he says, lied about her age.   Felix is Latino,  dimly angry, and doesn’t see why he can’t contact the daughter he abused at 13.    Dee, perfectly rendered by K Todd Freeman,  is slightly camp and selfconsciously well-educated (“Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”), and we find that his crime was, in his view,  mutual love with a teenage Lost Boy in a touring Peter Pan where he was dance-captain.   Unlike Gio And Felix he isn’t working because hell, “the job market is limited for the elderly black homosexual ex-convict”.   His care of old Fred – wheelchair-bound after a savage prison assault – is sweetly exemplary. 

   

      Four different men, meticulously acted and wholly credible but in no way excused.  For at the heart of the piece, wonderfully realized,  is Cecilia Noble as the big tough black probation officer,  gun tucked under her shapeless cardigan.  She comes in to inform them of more restrictions on their tag-limits,  meeting great and very non-PC protests about  getting cut off from the better food shops and the “retarded school” being beyond six lanes of elevated highway.   It is she – chiefly in a long confrontation with Felix, but with the others as they flit through the second act – who makes clear their various denials and conflicts.     Felix just expresses dim rage;  others make you stop and gasp at apparent reasonablenss,  as with Dee’s barrack-room-lawyerly argument that while some US states tried to bring in a death penalty for child sex offences,  they didn’t do so  for GBH,  so why (forgive my quoting this one) is it not death for chopping off a child’s penis  but death for sucking it?  

     

    The probation officer, with a caseload of 47 such men,  attempts patience and a little tolerance (really, Gio should not be bringing in his defiant, gum-chewing  trailer-trash workmate  – a very funny cameo from Aimee Lou Wood).   But as she says exasperatedly,   in her line of work “everyone’s a victim, the system’s broken,  the system’s not fair…hey,  if y’all are so victimized,  maybe you can see how you made other people feel?” 

 Andy’s return and more eloquently painful  rage at old Fred – ending in chaos – underlines that too.  But Norris is fly enough to give us a moment to wonder about how necessary, for how many decades, Andy’s pain is, and how reliable his detailed memory.   The audience shivers at that. 

     

    Norris’ wonderful Clybourne Park ten years ago crossed boundaries of the unsayable in matters of race, class and sexuality,    and gave us a famous snowstorm of mutual offence in the second act.  Now he takes it further across the boundaries, and he is right because the resultis both brilliant and necessary.  We do not have the American system of an open register of ex-offenders and their addresses,  and I doubt many of our probation officers are quite like Ivy (she sees through every lie, a fierce Momma to the lying Felix).  But very distancing that this setting brings, as we sit in the civilized Dorfman,    is oddly useful in helping us to think more widely.  What do we do with these guys?   When,  if ever,   can we trust them in the open?  Can they ever convince us that, short of a broken back and a wheelchair like old Fred, they are safe?  

box office  020 7452 3000       nationaltheatre.org.uk  To 27 April

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY              Theatre Royal , Bury & touring

WHAT THE BUTLER CAME TO KNOW…

 

From its premiere at the Royal & Derngate and on the first leg of its tour,  here is the stage version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-winning novel.  It is a melancholy reflection on mistakes made and a life wasted,  through the eyes (and at last the heart)  of a traditionally stiff-principled butler:   Stevens, son and successor of an equally buttoned-up and undemonstrative father.     He has devoted his life to the perfection of running a grand house (nicely suggested in sliding, grand framed panels by Lily Arnold and some moody lighting).     He genuinely believes, or at the start still tries to,  that he has had “the privilege of seeing the best of England from within these walls”. 

    But he didn’t.  His lordly employer was, in the 30s,  an appeaser of Hitler to the point of making Stevens sack chambermaids for being Jewish.  This  outrages Stevens’ closest friend  the housekeeper Mrs Kenton, and widens the rift in their relationship – the only emotional tie he really has – until she leaves for an unsatisfactory marriage,  and he must soldier on through the war years, his employer’s disgrace and death,  and the postwar sale of the house to a cheerful American.   Who, unlike past toffs,  tells him to take the car and have a holiday going down west to visit his old friend Kenton, now separated.   

 

  Barney Norris, himself a master of melancholy and regret,  has adapted Ishiguro’s book,  and uncompromising direction by Christopher Haydon mingles the two periods,  pre-and post-war, within same scenes, with little cueing except when the post-war excursion is largely set in a pub. That is fine, but it takes concentration. And as the butler,  Stephen Boxer is given very little to express in the long first half, except in a blessed scene where with Kenton he unbends and admits to enjoying her company, albeit in the most proper way. 

 

 

      Boxer is, as always, brilliant  (I drove to Bury for his sake absolutely, has never disappointed).   He is  subtle, deep-feeling,  pinpoint-accurate in the moment.  But  it must be hard going:  he does best in the scenes where the bombastic appeasers plot around him in the house and he stands aloofly loyal.   Niamh Cusack, also the safest of hands,  is livelier as the housekeeper and often very moving in her gentle friendly matronliness.   But sometimes it feels as if she is in a different play from the grimly repressed butler, and indeed the terrible grandees.

     

    So it is a relief when in the second half,   the emotion explodes – as far as it ever can in such a man –  and on his excursion to Dorset he meets  again the woman who should have been his life’s love.  The  power of his struggle with emotion,  his admission of wasted loyalties and loss,  is rightly heartbreaking.  It is a play about things not being said,  directions not followed, love not expressed.  Whether redemption is found in his admission of this,  audiences have to decide.  No trite happy ending is offered .     So what we have here  is a masterclass in acting, deft in direction and  a rightful meditation on an England that so nearly went into the dark.   But still, for all that, more of a novel than a play.    

 box office   01284 769 505   to 30 March, 

   then touring to 25 May: Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge, Bristol

rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE PHLEBOTOMIST                 Hampstead Theatre, NW1

WRITTEN IN THE BLOOD

 

What great timing!  Just as the worried-well Health Secretary gets rubbished for taking a commercial DNA test,  announcing that it has “saved his life” because it posits an increased prostate risk,  and getting firmly told by the profession that he is ‘astonishingly ignorant’, and is wasting NHS resources by “booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist.”   The haplessminister, though, is only a few decades ahead of the curve according to Ella Road’s dark dystopian play. 

 

    In this future world gene sequencing is instant – none of this sending-off to the lab for a fortnight’s wait, but in the phlebotomist’s laptop within minutes.  And everyone is given a “rating”,  according to their physical and mental disease risk.    Hence employers and immigration authorities demand tests and disclosures,   there’s a rising culture of “rateism”  and a Pandora’s box of  consequent evils ranging from “post-natal abortion” for low-scoring babies,  low-raters urged into sterilization,  panicky   blood-cheating and thieves with syringes puncturing high-raters for the red gold.   Not to mention moments of rage and dread in surgeries when the laptop reveals you, as our heroine puts it, as “a cocktail of crap!”.  

  

      The tale is  set in a futuristic but recognizable bleakness, and adorned with mischievous projections which begin with the real Dame Sally Davies looming at us with her view that full gene-sequencing is everybody’s right. They  progress through a dating video,  fragments of political interviews , snake-oil promotions like Crispr gene-editing therapy to improve school performance, and news bulletins.   Our heroine is the gamine Bea (Jade Anouka), a  phlebotomist scoring about 7, who meets and marries the 9+ Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne)   from a smoother, posher family.   In an electric scene Bea has to tell her old friend Char (Kiza Deen, in a cracking mainstream stage debut)  that her score is low, due to Huntingdons likely to flare within years.  

    

        For her friend’s job application she cheats out of kindness,   then over a couple of years and marriage we witness her corruption :   first into cheating for money,  then at last (or almost at last)  internalizing the vicious rateism of society.  In a great reveal  there is rage and dismay and a bit of violent domestic phlebotomy which must be a stage first.  

    

      By contrast, though,  Char with the doom of disease hanging over her abandons the mainstream job she won,  sets off on the hippie trail, embraces risk and fate like a real human, and works  as she declines for a charity for the low-rate ostracized.   It’s a stunning performance,  as is Anouka’s, the counterbalance of the two girls’ trajectories perfect.   

 

  All this is splendid.  There is an oddity in the play, though:  the excellent Mark Lambert plays David, a hospital porter whose attitude to life is the opposite to the poisonous culture.  He speaks of his wife -a  low-scorer due for Alzheimers – and his abandonment of grander careers.  But he is also given a long monologue about a chap he knew who became such a perfectionist gardener that there was no room for his children to play, and choked on a cherry tomato because it was perfectly formed.  Which might be intended as a metaphor, but slows the moment and misses the target by miles ,  not least because (equally inexplicably) this dystopian Britain is also malnutritionally short of fresh vegetables and fruit.   With so much more interesting stuff going on, that chimes oddly.  Not sure either that Aaron’s gambling addiction is wholly necessary.   

      But never mind.  Under Sam Yates’ direction it’s a spirited page-turner of a tale, with some marvellous leads.  Drop a couple of unnecessary scenes and it would be an electrically thrilling 100-minutes- no-interval, giving us no  respite from a satisfyingly likely dystopia. Brrr.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to  20 April

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’         Mercury, Colchester then Southwark

I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A REVIEW…

 

So dress up sassy, shake your chassis, get some mesh on your flesh like the ladies who sing with the band. Sell your vocals to the yokels, get cash for your trash!   

        Tamasha’s romp through the great Fats Waller’s songbook is a two-hour treat,  with a reeling, rocking cast of five and a joyful five-piece combo.  Huggin’, jitterbuggin’, they get the joint jumping with the defiant appeal of the downtrodden:   the 1920s and 30s explosion of black jazz defiance clothed as irresistible entertainment for all.  It’s the music which helped make the Afro-American black experience resonate so strongly for generations,  and to this day inspires the African diaspora across the world.   

        “The music is the star”  in Richard Maltby’s creation, says Tamasha’s debutant-director Tyrone Huntley (more familiar onstage himself in Superstar, Memphis etc).  There is sparse dialogue and no ongoing plot, more a  stream of consciousness.  It is  played out in a Harlem club of extreme glitter, gold staircase and shiny floor,  but sometimes suggesting the hard pavements outside, where a man alone dreams of a reefer five foot long,  “king of everything before I swing”.  Once there’s  an uptown foray to the Waldorf – “Don’t rock, they love jazz but in small doses,  don’t shock, don’t sing loud, muffle the drums , you’ll do swell with the swells..”.    The bass throbs, the piano sparkles, trumpet, sax and clarinet soar in triumph or mourn in melancholy.   The songs yearn, woo, bicker, rejoice, and sell.   Once, the staid Colchester audience is defied to join in with the shout “Fat and greasy, a fat and greasy fool!” and does, mesmerized. 

    

  The choreography, new, is by Oti Mabuse;   Adrien Hansel and Wayne Robinson are the men, smart and cool and agile.   The women are all stunning in different idiosyncratic ways:  Renee Lamb  (SIX’s original Catherine of Aragon)  big and powerfully gorgeous,  Carly Mercedes Dyer the athletic jitterbug-queen, spiky and cheeky,  Landi Oshinowo provocative and wild.  

  

  The energy of them all is  exhausting,  gold heels flashing, tireless.   In the second half particularly the songs become more pointed, poignant:  the quieter moment when all five ask “What did I do to be so black and blue?” pierces the heart.  More of a gig than a play but, who needs an actual story when the whole defiant, struggling story of the black journey to freedom swirls around us still?     

   rating  four   4 Meece Rating    

Box Office: 01206 573948 / www.mercurytheatre.co.uk  to 30 March

THEN

 FRIDAY 19 APRIL – SATURDAY 1 JUNE 2019      SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE

020 7407 0234 / www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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PRIVATE LIVES Avenue, Ipswich

NOT AT ALL FLAT, SUFFOLK…

 

      Exuberantly funny,  elegant as a Deauville  hotel balcony and  sharp as the crack of a 78rpm record over a lover’s head,  Joanna Carrick’s witty miniaturized production  does Noel Coward’s sparkiest comedy full justice.  I say miniature – it’s full length –  only because of the venue:   the tiny but vigorous  home of Red Rose Chain.     An outfit which on the face of it should be far too ‘woke’ for Coward,  being a non-profit but professional theatre company, deep in community projects with young people and care homes (the group working with dementia sufferers put on their five-minute workshop piece after the show on gala night, which is definitely a first for Private Lives).  

 

       But the intimacy, and the cheeky sense of inclusivity which always marks  RRC shows, actually serve dear Noel very well indeed.    I suspect he would rather like the moments when Fiz Waller’s nonchalantly irresponsible Amanda – trying to make light conversation with her fellow-runaway or the other furious couple –  decides to direct  her remarks on the scenery intimately to the front row. Or when Ryan Penny’s furiously virtuous Victor makes them hold his coat while he executes a fist-jabbing haka at the languid Elyot, who stole his wife from their honeymoon balcony.  Setting it in the round, with the balconies separated by a diagonal parterre of flowers, brings us dangerously into the action.

 

       The young cast make the well-worn famous roles their own.   Waller’s Amanda, elegant though she is in pale satin, negligée or daring beach-suit,  is not the slinky cooing seductress some have made her .  Rather she is very Gertrude Lawrence:   a comedienne who one should remember  crossed the Channel on a landing-craft with ENSA after D-Day to perform in shell-wrecked cinemas.    Her insouciant toughness rises to just the right heights in the combative second-act,   with a memorable close-up fight as the couple’s banter turns to fury.     Harriet Leitch as the aggrieved bride gives Sybil the precise,  prim, pleated-skirt virtue covering tyrannical wifely viciousness  which the world’s Cowards so dread.     Ricky Oakley is young, thus a more schoolboyish Elyot in appearance than usual,  but actually Elyot’s  best jokes (“Its a very old sofa”  and “strange noises”)  suit that interpretation well.     So it all holds together beautifully with this young cast;   the grace-notes and scene-shifts are typical of Carrick’s directorial wit,  not least  the deployment of Victor’s golf club in the first half , and Amanda’s final dive for a brioche at the end.  

        And from the volunteer cadre and the youth theatre, Rei Mordue’s cameo as Louise the maid doesn’t miss a trick:  proper French contempt in every move she makes.  I’d go again.  Some days, you can have a prosecco tea before the matinee. 

 

box office  redrosechain.com   01473 603388.   to 7 APril

   

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BETRAYAL Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

POISONED LOVE

  I sometimes wish Harold Pinter had written more plays  like this:  decadent, agonized, helplessly sensitive to the nuances of friendship and treachery.  More praise has always met the political paranoia and over-relished bullying aggression of his other plays, long and short:     Jame Lloyd’s Pinter season has been a triumph.  But for me this was always going to be the treasure. 

 

      Ironically in 1978 it was not well reviewed -critical triumph – my friend and idol Benedict Nightingale was about the only one to spot how good it is.  It is the tale of a seven-year affair,  told backwards in a series of scenes from the guilty couple’s reunion over a drink two years after it ends, right back to its beginnings at a party nine years earlier.   It  had its moment of gossipy fame when we all learned how painfully close its story ran to his own affair – while married – with the equally married Joan Bakewell, whose husband (his close friend) then upset the playwright by revealing that he’d known for ages.  

 

      So here we have Charlie Cox as Jerry the interloper,   chirpy at first about how secret they were (“we were brilliant!”),  Zawe Ashton as his lover,  and Tom Hiddleston as her husband Robert.    Jamie Lloyd directs, in the best and subtlest bit of work of his I have yet seen:  slow-motion,  he gives such weight to the pauses  that you sometimes want to shout out the unspoken words which  each of these helpless, hopeless people should be uttering, if they were not trapped by their selves.   It is  starkly set in a whitish box with three chairs and, briefly, a table;  the protagonists mainly all on stage at once, though one watching,  left out, watchful;   brilliant use is made of the revolve, particularly when Hiddleston, enigmatic and restrained, circles around the lovers.  Once  as he moves past them unseen he is holding closely to his small daughter: the emotion, the sense of a family damaged,  is intense.  

 

    In the scene where he lunches with his rival he is briefly given a chance of volcanic anger,  all misdirected,  snapping at the waiter.  Here’s a man trapped inside masculinity, friendship, shame, bewilderment.  In fact Hiddleston, again in his best performance yet,  is the emotional core of the production.   Charlie Cox as Jerry is chirpy, unrepentant, proud of his own rhetoric (especially in that extraordinary last-but-first  scene where he declares his love in pretentious eloquence)  and striking in a different way.  If you take the parallels,   the play is painfully hard on Pinter himself .  Zawe Ashton’s Emma,  tall and rangy, loose-limbed and unconventionally sexy,  comes increasingly to seem like a pawn between them,  as the real energy is   emitted from the male friendship.  I have never seen a production of this play which made Pinter’s misogyny clearer.    But there is much else in it, worth picking up,  spiky with detail, reekingly honest about dishonesty.   

Box office 0844 871 7622, until June 1.

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE RUBENSTEIN KISS              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

 MARTYRS OF THE MCCARTHY YEARS

    

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

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

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

to   13 april

RATING  THREE

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ALYS ALWAYS Bridge, SE1

A GOAD FOR THE GLITTER-ARTY 

  

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

     

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

 

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

 

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

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.  to 30 March

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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THEATRECAT TAKES A BREAK

NOT YET DEAD CAT BUT…

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

  

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

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

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THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD THE SECOND Almeida, N1

A HOLLOW CROWN IN MUD AND BLOOD

 

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

   

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

  

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

    

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

box office almeida.co.uk     to  2 Feb

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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NINE NIGHT Trafalgar Studios, SW1

JAMAICA BREEZES UP WEST, WITH GRIEF AND GUSTO

    

 

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

    

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

  

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

  

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

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

box office www.atgtickets.com    to 6 Feb

rating:   still five    5 Meece Rating

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THE CANE                Royal Court, SW1

PSYCHOPATHIC LIBERAL MEETS DINOSAUR PARENTS

   

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

  

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

 

 

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

    

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

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

  

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

 

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

box office  royalcourttheatre.com  to 26 Jan

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Arts theatre WC 1

 

ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

artstheatrewestnd.co.uk.  

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

Rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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