Category Archives: Theatre

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES 

 

      It is , if possible, even finer and more heartfelt and gripping, tuneable and serious and moving than last year.   My  former review, https://tinyurl.com/ya6695rs ,  describes the essential glories of Jack Thorne’s adaptation, Warchus’ glorious direction and Christopher Nightingale’s score and  the weaving-in of carols :  old words whose meaning, at each point, shines sharply new-minted.   

 

       So, revisiting it with a new cast – notably Steven Tompkinson as Scrooge – I remembered the glorious handbell-ringing,  the finale with mad potato chutes , parachuting Brussels sprouts, jokes,  its warmth, the perennial quality of its moral and the striking modernity of Thorne’s emphasis on how Scrooge’s awful childhood made him.  I had forgotten, though, the other subtlety he mines from Dickens about  the miser’s lost youth:  the way that parental debts fuelled his frantic financial ambition to become rich before approaching his beloved Belle.  I had forgotten too the poignant coda where the old man meets her again, and her acceptance of his place in her history;   forgotten the moment in Christmas Future when we see the great-hearted forgiveness of Bob Cratchit.  Despite being sacked for poor timekeeping after his son dies  he merely thanks Scrooge for “teaching him discipline”.  

 

 

     All these layers of meaning and benignly sorrowful acceptance of the shapes of life make Thorne’s version something more than a massively entertaining and original rework of Dickens for the 21c. I hope it comes back every year.  But what also needs saying is that Steven Tompkinson – who I remember most from lightish comedy, all the way Drop the Dead Donkey –  is really remarkable here, displaying great range, subtlety and heart .   He takes Scrooge from the familiar nicely ludicrous cantankerousness through unease,  tentative self-understanding,   furious defiance,  shivering fear and a compassion  which torn from him as if by savage violence when  Tiny Tim (very very  gorgeously tiny)  seems lost. 

 

     In the final moments, dark and silent around the solo carol just before redemption’s happy Christmas dawn,  he also evokes the real, unavoidable pain of redemption: how it hurts to throw off the security of  a lifetime’s mental habits and emotional lockdown.   

  

 

    Of course he then capers, as per Dickens, “light as a feather” in the morning,  and masterminds the vast dinner in Warchus’ hilarious coups de theatre (I thought the turkey on the zip-wire would deck him for good).    But there is a sobriety, an aweful seriousness to what has happened to this man,  a wrench which this production recognizes more firmly than most.    The coda makes this real;  and, in a last quiet moment after the charity appeal and bows,  so does the last handbell rendering of Silent Night.   Many Christmas shows end in pure merriment and there is greatness in Warchus’ decision to offer us instead that moment of  quiet reflection,  with Scrooge and the little child kneeling together at the centre of the bellringers,  overcome.  

        Tears.   So there should be.   Even writing it down. 

 

 

box office  0844 871  7628     to 19 Jan

rating Five.  5 Meece Rating

 

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BURKE AND HARE               Jermyn St Theatre SW1

DARK DOINGS AND DISSECTION

 

  Oyez, Oyez.   Let it be known that this suspenseful yet dreary political season has become officially the Year Of Dark Panto.  Down at The Bridge we had Martin McDonagh’s “very very very” dark –  and somewhat silly –   imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s Congolese attic-dwarf-prisoner who never was.   Now,  with fewer pretensions and a lot more laughs ,  give a hand to  Tom Wentworth’s spirited and largely true story of Burke and Hare.  Their trade in 1828 was murdering lodgers in Mrs Hare’s boarding-house and selling their bodies, for seven to ten quid apiece,  to a keen anatomist of the Edinburgh medical school.   Up from the Watermill at Newbury,  directed con brio by Abigail Pickard Price, it is an absolute blast.  It is done in the dramatic-cum-vaudeville-reduced-Shakespeare-National-Theatre-of-Brent  genre :  rapid costume changes, doubling and tripling  and deliberate undermanning.     Its two-hour merriment should keep the tiny Jermyn packed nicely from here to nearly Christmas.

 

    It’s a three-hander, with Alex Parry as Hare,  Hayden Wood as Burke and the hilariously fierce Katy Daghorn (like Wood, she has Play that Goes Wrong experience, always a good sign) .   She is both their womenfolk, and also introduces the piece as Monro,  the indignant rival surgeon who lost out by not being on the Burke and Hare customer list.    But equipped with a splendid variety of pre-Victorian lowlife costumes –  leprous tailcoats, repellent mufflers,  broken hats and disgusting bloodstained aprons –    they all play random others : locals, doctors, visitors, a large extended family : anyone,  depending on who’s needed at that moment on the tiny stage . A stage which is  – courtesy of designer Toots Butcher –  atmospherically decorated with anatomical drawings and  filthy side curtains .   The hurtling exchanges of mop-caps, fancy hats and aprons is rapid, but  you soon work out that whoever’s temporarily got the maroon tailcoat and top-hat is having to represent  Ferguson, a thick medical student and boozy habitué of the lodging-house bar and its passing tarts. 

 

    They are all three rapid, adept and funny, and when strictly necessary co-opt one of the front row as a corpse, on which the anatomists lavish repulsively descriptive insults while it shakes helplessly like the rest of us (“Och, aye…a little gas escaping from the mooth there”).     From time to time Burke and Hare, being Irishmen,   break out into choruses of “Nancy Whisky” and “Whisky in the Jar”.   

  

  There are some fine set-pieces, like the pair’s attempt to shop around Surgeons’ Square for a buyer, with windows opening and shutting to reveal various versions of Daghorn.  The pathetic  bumbling stupidity of the pair  and the brisk exasperation of  Mrs Hare endears the awful trio just enough to take our minds off their  murderousness .  And like all the best nonsenses in this genre, the play has the nerve to offer one moment of proper heart and pathos:   dropping into quieter song and a moment of very brief historical narration when a late victim –  Daft Jamie –  is disposed of .  He was a pathetic but beloved figure in the Edinburgh community and his murder caused, it is reported,  the greatest outrage . So he gets his moment ,  Parry giving him a brief, elusive moment of dignity before the next joke .  Nice. 

 

boxoffice   jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to 21 dec

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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AN HONOURABLE MAN                   White Bear, Kennington SE11

BREAKING THE MOULD….

 

 Our politics is  partisan, quarrelsome, dated in its pattern of two-parties-plus-minnows.   A nest of weary careerists,  pointless betrayals and illogical loyalties,  lined with nervous SPAD-ism and manifesto muddle.     So break the mould!  We often carelessly cry. Bring on a saner spirit of moderate co-operation.    But what happens when you break a mould?  Might you end up with a terrible mess of melting jelly, dripping in all directions?    Or in another image, a brick made ,as the Bible warns they shouldn’t be, utterly without straw?  

        

     Enough with the metaphors. Michael McManus  – writer, formerly of the Press Complaints Commission and IPSOr,  has been a  special adviser in three government departments over decades, and made valiant attempts at getting selected himself.   He knows the mould, and how mouldy it can get.  So this fascinating, timely play is steeped in bitter  experience.

 

  Not that it is embittered: indeed there’s a pleasing streak of idealism in his imagining of what might happen a year or so from now.  Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve had a hard, soft, or non-Brexit because as it makes clear we’ll still be fretting about the NHS,  transport,  crime, the borders, free speech, the EU’s attitude, all that.   Its hero is  Joe Newman, (Timothy Harker) who has been de-selected in the Corbyn age and re-elected as  independent Labour on Teesside. 

 

  Joe is a sweet, slightly shy, faintly camp voice of well-meant moderation, who once was in love with Josh (Thomas Mahy), a cross, hirsute Momentum gorilla who is now his enemy.   On his team is the forceful Anne, (Lisa Bowerman), a young thrusting intern Sam,  the older Maggie, and his sensible, kindly “failed fringe actress”  neighbour Liz:  a lovely blowzy performance by Dee Sadler.   So it begins with banter and excitement, which grows into talk of a new party.  And the new party forms fast because, as the veteran Maggie says “What voters want is to emasculate the political class”  .  Britain,  in a memorable metaphor, is like a cat which doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out, so just sits around licking its balls. 

  

    But a new party – as Shirley Williams warned  before forming one  eight years later – risks having “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”.   And poor Newman, in a series of alarming sessions with hyped-up advisers scribbling on blackboard walls,  finds himself  dragged to and fro, promising to sort out special needs, schools, hospital matrons, Scotland, knife crime, housing, banks – the lot.   Ann, a tough egg, draws lines from all of these challenges to the dread  word –  “Immigration”.  

  

  Only   Maggie quotes Mencken,  warning him against crazy populist promises :  “For every complex problem there is an answer which is simple, clear, and wrong”.    By the second half Newman hears himself sounding alternately like Farage and Blair,  Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.  They worry about his image too much: “It might help if you pretend to like football” “But I do..”  .  We watch the polls on screen (there are plenty of TV bulletins throughout, including one with Ken Clarke in it, sounding just like himself). 

   

  At one point when his  new party’s popularity is sagging poor Joe loses his temper with a heckler and lays into him physically, and to everyone’s slight dismay this raises his ratings no end.  One cannot choose one’s followers any more than one’s enemies in politics , and some will be thugs.  Or terrorists, no spoilers.  Suffice to say I enjoyed it no end, in a terrified sort of way.   All it needs to add to the frisson would be a figure in dark glasses,  an International Rescue Committee baseball-cap and heavy false moustache , ordering his fish and chips at the White Bear in a suspiciously familiar voice.  .  We all have to stare bravely into the centre-party abyss, do we not?

   

Box Office  www. whitebeartheatre.co.uk

0333 012 4963  to 8 dec

rating. four 4 Meece Rating

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SWITZERLAND Ambassadors, WC2

DEATH AND THE DIFFICULT WOMAN

 

Those who call Theresa May a ‘bloody difficult woman’ should pop in to the Ambassadors and realise that in the ranks of  of BDWs she is the merest dabbler, a tyro. Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on A Train and the Talented Mr Ripley series, was  in real life described by one publisher as  “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being”and by another who actually liked her best as “rough, very difficult”.

In Joanna Murray Smith’s  creepy, funny, transgressive, impertinent tour-de-force of a 90 minute twohander about her,  Highsmith lives up to all of this. Especially  in the first half as she comprehensively monsters a visiting young publisher who – after the previous envoy has returned needing trauma counselling – has volunteered as a fan of her Ripleys to plead with her to contact for  a final one. She is probably terminally ill , and in retirement in Switzerland with her cat, pet snails and an extreme chip on the shoulder about the “circus of literary braggadocios”, the alpha males in US literature – Mailer, Vonnegut, Woolf etc. She feels that they and their critical sycophants look down on her for writing mere crime.

 

It is directed with vigour by Lucy Bailey, never one to shrink from the dark side.   Phyllis Logan is superb as Highsmith:tough, hunched, writerly, aggressive and scornful.  Calum Finlay is the young man -perfectly preppy, with his backpack and earnestness. At first, anyway.

 

It is often very funny, and secretly satisfying to this old boot to see a mean, scruffy old female warrior running rings round the apparently naive young man with his irritating young  confidence.  As it goes on the tone changes:a rapport grows up, but a prickly one, and the play becomes a meditation on two things (apart from the sheer fascination with murder ) .

 

    One is the degree to which a public personality becomes  imprisoned by their shtick -in her case antisocial, antisemitic, outrageous racism and general contempt.  The other is the dangerous symbiosis between a beloved character and his creator. The barely spoken fact, which is also important to know if you are not a Ripley reader,  is that after the utter brilliance of the first book about the serial killer, The Talented Mr Ripley, the series became less and less good.   One tires  of him. One point of this play is to suggest that she didn’t:that the amoral, existential character skewed her perspective and undermined her talent.

 

   We move into a zone of illusion and fiction, no spoilers but that isn’t what transpired, ever. The young visitor undergoes a gradual change- which Finlay handles perfectly.  Highsmith doesn’t, but remains her sharp sad ultimately vulnerable self below the carapace . Until…well…

 

 

It was a suddenly wet London evening, the kind when you end up in desperation shoving an Evening Standard under your soaked top for sheer insulation. And somehow, in this creepy play, that clamminess sort of helped. Rather brilliant.

Ambassadorstheatre.co.uk.  To 6 Dec

Rating four. 4 Meece Rating

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MACBETH Wanamaker, SE1

THE EMPTY DARKNESS OF THE HEART

 

  Third time  lucky:  after two glumly disappointing 2018 productions steeped in directorial gimmicks   – RSC and NT –  the candlelit cramp of the Wanamaker gives us back Macbeth.  Here in Robert Hastie’s careful production  is all the  horrror, psychological acuity and profound , terrified morality of Shakespeare’s darkest play.   Darker it is than the wickedly playful Richard III or the ludicrously bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus, because of its very intimacy and humanity.   This is the trapped struggle  of the ordinary, unpsychopathic heart afraid of its own deeds –  sleepless, hallucinating, crazed.  It plays out in claustrophobic darkness, sometimes total when the sconces and candelabra are doused.  Sometimes it is just stricken, anguished faces you see, so close in this small space,  illuminated alone by flickering individual  candle lanterns black-shielded towards us.

 

 Proper Jacobean witches?  Oh yes:   not  period, not comic, cartoonish , or having   their lines too apologetically  trimmed by squeamishly unsuperstitious directors.  Just  quietly horrible: eerie in whispering the incantation, matter-of-fact in their workaday discussion about raising tempests on a seafarer to avenged on his wife who arointed them.    Later,  when the guilty Macbeth’s recalls them they are disembodied, a scuffling of ratlike footprints, a voice from the gallery, a door opening under unseen hands, a face glimmering for a moment.

 

  Good productions bring each viewer private  fresh perceptions and textual flashes of authorial genius. Here for me in Paul Ready’s  performance  it was Macbeth’s naïveté: the smile of sudden ambition in the lamplight, the self-consciously masterful decision  to tell his wife it is all off,  the caving in to her, the hysteria, the dismayed realisation of each new necessary murder.   This is exactly the kind of man who WOULD  do something stupid like bringing the bloody daggers out of the Kings chamber, so that his wife had to take them back and bloody the grooms.  As the desperate tale goes on, we see him ever more alone and ever less able to tolerate it.  

  

  As for her, Michelle Terry is enigmatic, troubled:   part brisk housewifely organiser, part deeply damaged woman : her speech about giving suck and dashing a baby’s brains out is tremblingly intense.  The relationship is interesting,  she weakening visibly each time the hysterical Macbeth rejects her hand after the deed.   Her final sleepwalking screams into the gloom are shocking,  but her return to housewifely briskness  ‘“a soldier and afeard? To bed, to bed” even more so.  She fascinates. And so, in his growing resignation, does Ready,   slowly understanding the futility of his track to dusty death, the aridity of what he has won.

 

See? Keep away from bleeding polystyrene heads and gimmicks and the play itself comes back, timeless and terrifying.     Hastie eschews both full modernity and period dress  for universal black and grey with detail of 18-20c shapes;   the bloodied messenger is in an Aran sweater.  The Globe’s policy of inclusiveness gives us among other 21c castings a female Macduff – Anna-Maria Nabirye in a performance strong enough to be the last thing you’d notice about him/her .   Laura Moody’s score -mostly vocal  from herself and two other women above – expresses both the discordant wickedness of the play and, sometimes,  its powerful religious sense:    Duncan kneels to pray by the candlelit footlights; so do the rebel thanes .   When Macbeth cannot say “Amen” makes his stricken face, in the flickering light,  says it all.

 

box office shakespearesglobe.com   0207 401 9919

to 2 feb

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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DON QUIXOTE Garrick. WC2

THE KNIGHT WINS HIS SPURS AGAIN:  A NOBLE DELUSION

  

  Need a Christmas outing? Quailing at panto, feel you and the kids need some Euro-culture to counteract Brexidepression? Trust the RSC, and a return of James Fenton’s version of the deluded knight-errantry of Cervantes’ 17c satire.  Our hero traverses Spain on a cobbled-up Rosinante, aglow with well-meaning chivalry and succeeding only in annoying tavern-keepers, shepherds, clergy and his dismayed volunteer squire Sancho Panza. As a parable of the apparent inadequacy of  legend in a real world it is timeless and matchless. 

 

  Angus Jackson’s production makes everything of it: countless visual jokes, horseplay , bread rolls hurled between ensemble and audience, cast members collapsing on the laps of the front rows.  Sancho Panza is Rufus Hound ,to whom I am at last reconciled, and able to forgive his awful excursion into Coward as Gary Essendine at Chichester.  He does his amiable joshing standup to get us going , well in his natural element and a massive fat-suit, but by the strange end is emotionally engaged, credible, even touching. 

 

     There are Pythonesque, Blackadderish nonsenses to enjoy and some nice windmills and dodgy flying.  But the real and central delight is David Threlfall as the self-styled Don Quixote de La Mancha.    From the first moment, an old old man so deep in his books that the ensemble gathers around him singing the legend of Lancelot in his poor head,  I was in love with every straggling white lock.  When repeatedly his visor falls over one eye and his enthusiasm overcomes  sense he radiates a dignity-in-absurdity that has heart as well as  humour. He inhabits the character totally as good comic actors must:  unaware, sincere, genuine, mad.

       

 

The second half  darkens into real old-Spain torments and mockeries, though  enlivened by an excellent two-man lion, a hawk, a joust, innumerable puppet cats and some more horsing around by the horses (this is very RSC in its allowing ensemble individuals to shine).    The near-Lear  death scene is particularly harrowing to those of us by this time helplessly in love with every clank of Mr Threlfall’s cuirasses:  perhaps have a couple of drinks in the interval, and tell the kids it  really is all right in the end, in the best of all peculiar Spanish worlds.

 

box office  0330 333 4811   To 2 feb

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HADESTOWN Olivier, SE1

A SWING AND SWIRL THROUGH HELL

 

  It’s certainly not family-panto time along the glittering Thames riverbank:  what with Martin McDonagh’ grossout-silly Dark Matter downstream at the Bridge, and the NT’s buffet of Labour politics, infertility, Edgar Allen Poe and World War I  now joined by  this portrait of a modern Hades.  A dark smoking hell of labouring slaves under a tyrant King swallows young love and foils a melodious rescuer.   With the Orpheus myth it can’t end well.  “It’s a sad song”  says the gorgeously dapper Hermes, shooting his cuffs and flashing his lurex waistcoat, “But we sing it all the same”.  

 

          So they should, and not just as he consolingly suggests because one day a bad world might come good instead.   Bluesy, folky, beautifully paced and musically satisfying, it is a treat:  touching without sentimentality and with enough topical bite to startle without hammering the point.   My jaw actually dropped when the basso-profundo King Hades (oooh, Patrick Page, what a showstealer)   closed the first half with his minions in a chanting, thundering  hymn “Build the Wall! To keep us free! The enemy is Poverty! Because they want what we have got…”.    Anais Mitchell’s concept album, developed and directed as a stage musical with Rachel Chavkin,  wowed New York two years ago  and should make a legion of whooping new fans for her here.  Like me. 

  

    From the start it grips and intrigues: Rachel Hauck’s set is moody, shadowy, a bar-room with a balcony above and seven musicians disposed around – though others, notably Orpheus himself and the three elegantly scornful Fates in floaty grey chiffon  – pick up instruments and play at times.   Amber Gray as a marvellously slutty, drunk, high party-girl Persephone tear it up gleefully on her six months holiday from being Hades’ dutiful wife below,  capering amid the street-dance ensemble,  keeping up the energy.  

 

  Reeve Carney’s youthful Orpheus and Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice are scruffy, ordinary, ineffably sweet as they fall in love. And hungry.  It’s a time of grinding poverty, a New Orleans 1930 world.  Which is how Eurydice is suckered into signing up with King Hades, tyrant of the underworld slave kingdom, where gloomy labourers in dungarees and goggles work “..there aint no rest for the weary soul, Hades keeps you toiling”.    Orpheus finds his way down by playing a song so beautiful the stones of the very wall weep,  and through despair and hope gets inexorable Hades to melt briefly:   “What has become of the heart of that King, Now he has everything?”    

         

Staging all through it is wonderful:    fluid, startling, great use of  smoke and shadows and a brilliant triple revolve with a circular pit into which characters sink or rise to dominate.    Orpheus’ terrifying walk , trying not to look back ,  is tense and nightmarish,  the three rings turning like the circles of hell itself.   I hadn’t expected to enjoy it this much.  But I did .  

 

box office  020 7452 3000  to 26 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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