Category Archives: Theatre

THE BREACH Hampstead Theatre NW3

TEENS FALLING, UNPROTECTED 

   An empty basement in a working class Kentucky neighbourhood in the mid 70s.  An offstage adult world is preoccupied with unemployment,  the mained young conscripts back from of Vietnam and tricky-Dicky Nixon.  Down here  is a teenage kingdom,  and from the first moments its clear ruler is Jude:   just rising seventeen, going out to work as well as school to pay the electric bill before the lights go out again. She cooks meals her mother cannot cope with,  fiercely protects her younger brother Acton,  both of them grieving a father who fell from 14 storeys of scaffolding.   Shannon Tarbet’s Jude is  a marvel, every line of her thin body defiant as she makes sure to be as swaggeringly bravura and talk as dirty  as the lads her own age.  These are boastful rich-boy Hoke,  whose Dad will pull “strings” for him,   and oafish Frayne . 

       Jude is cutting a deal with them to use the basement as a sort of club, with ten dollars (from Hoke) involved but mainly in order to make them protectors – despite her disapproval – of  the clever 14-year-old Acton.  He’s an A-student who is horribly bullied at school but who helps with the big hunks’  coursework (Stanley Morgan is very touching in the role:, indeed ultimately heartbreaking: it’s a professional stage debut flawed only by the screen-naturalism which at times makes him less than properly audible. But that’s more the director’s fault than his). 

         Within twenty minutes we meet the older three again as adults, seventeen years later at a memorial to Acton. Whose life, we gather, was not good or prosperous despite all those As, and who had somehow lost touch with the sister who was his champion and protector.   There are conversations to be had about the past because  the teenage quartet’s  complicated world of  loyalty, hot neediness,  initial domination by Jude and consoling fantasy had moved inexorably towards something monstrous.    The fifteen minute event at the play’s core  is, in its teenage whisky-fuelled party- night “dare”  almost banal. But nonetheless,  monstrous. As adult Jude says near the end , the young think  they’re in control, can walk away from one bad thing but  “we’ve no idea of the size of the thing barrelling towards us, the incomprehensible momentum of it”. 

    Naomi Wallace’s new play gives that momentum an onward acceleration,  as the longer first half switches between the kids in the 1970s,  each scene revealing more of that summer, and the reunion in the 90s .   Hoke, inevitably, is an executive in a profitable healthcare corporation,  Frayne works for him, and the late Acton was evasively referred to as an “engineer” in the building, meaning handyman.   Despite all his straight-As.  Jude is a weekend  single mother whose daughter “lives with friends of mine”.  

        Something simmers between them.  In the flashbacks we find out how layers of betrayal and weird needy teenage ritual and swearings of friendship have damaged all four . Jude and Acton were damaged already in 1977: a sorrowful secret sibling rite is the “Falling game” where together they fantasise their father’s final moments as almost a triumphal superhero flight (Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction is superb).  Another touching ritual is their devotion to reading the Encyclopaedia,  whose subscription stopped at letter P when the family disaster struck.   

       In the adult scenes, Tom Lewis and  Douggie McMeekin are fine-tuned in emotional ambiguity as the men,  Jasmine Blackborow as adult Jud still, dignified,  her old fire now only smouldering.   The play is so elegantly tense its two hour exposition that I won’t reveal more.   Except to say that it plays a more honest, grim, ambiguous ethical tune than most current variations on its dark theme. 

      There are some good sour jokes, with Wallace’s American-born bitterness about health systems;   Hoke’s father’s health company has joked about calling it YANSAH – you are not sick, asshole! Or THATAB, Thats not a tumour its a bruise. And a wonderfully cynical angry comeback is his when Jude, for the only time, threatens to reveal exactly what happened at her seventeenth.  “It’s quite obvious”  orates Hoke, every inch the corporate man now,  “that you were and still are warped spiteful and of unsound mind – all of which, by the way, can be treated with medication…”

      Yes, quite a few US issues here. But the central one remains perennial, terrifying, universal and sorrowful:  the fragile tipping into disaster of teenage children unnoticed by adults.  

Hampsteadtheatre.com.   To 4 June

rating 4

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CHINESE BOXING Touring

A SCRUTABLE TAKE ON CHINA

    This is a beguiling  70-minute solo show from the actor, writer, wandering maverick entrepreneur  and China pundit Mark Kitto.  He plays three parts in sequence. First he is requiring us to visit the year 1912,  becoming a be-tweeded  Sir Claude Macdonald,  former Minister Plenipotentiary to Peking (as it then was called) with a silver-topped crane and lantern slides.  He is remembering the immense siege of the Legation during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion:   a populist uprising of resentful, anti-Christian bandits in which 2800 foreigners and locals survived 55 days in the diplomatic compound .   They lived, he cheerfully recalls,  on “horsemeat, rice and champagne” , the latter having lately been delivered.  

     Reflecting on the brutality of the Boxers, and demonstrating with an aged pistol how peasants were deceived into thinking their spirituality would make them invulnerable to bullets,  Sir Claude’s serious point is “We have got China wrong”.  He is condemning the Europeans’ harsh tendency of carving it up for profit over decades,  the Opium trade and shortsighted colonialism, and pointing out that foreign improvements – railways, churches, telegraphs – were always a mixed blessing to many.   The portrait of the siege itself is fascinating;  the insurgents creeping closer one barricade-brick at a time, and  at one point a letter from a later massacred child read out in her memory, the old man growing sentimental. 

      But then,  hobbling off,  he returns in the guise of Rong Lu, a sophisticated, weary Chinese commander in the Empress’ court.  He is ordered to send local soldiery alongside the Boxers,  but knows what a bad idea it is to massacre Europeans, and is deliberately taking it easy  – “Have you any idea how difficult it is NOT to win a one-side battle in 55 days?” .  Foul-mouthed, contemptuous, intelligent, this is the fascinating central character.  Irritatingly, some theatres won’t take the show on because a white man – however good his Mandarin and his knowledge = mustn’t impersonate a Chinese one.   Though heaven knows the Chinese commander is the brightest of the three.   

      Finally,  Kitto becomes a bemedalled sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,  remembering the relief of the Legation and the subsequent, wholly disgusting, looting by legation occupants themselves and military of various European nations  (“Russians and Japanese, like a bit of executing don’t they? And the Germans, destroyed whole villages which had somehow escaped the Boxers”. 

     China is complicated and always feels alien,  its individuals often estimable, its potential immense,  but its systems strange and seemingly terrible.  Especially right now, with the crazy zero-Covid lockdowns in Shanghai, the enslavement and abuse of Uighur Muslims and its troubling response to Ukraine.   Kitto  – who lived and founded a business there before  leaving and being “very very banned”,  does a q and a afterwards:  that is equally fascinating,  but he does not have any simple answers,  and nobody will.    Still,  this is a show to see  because these moments of history absolutely matter  as pieces in anyone’s mental jigsaw of our hyperconnected modern world.  

          The show is wandering around, sometimes in one-night stands like the one I found near Beccles in Suffolk.  One of our audience was a chap who, as a boy, knew one of the relief troops.  It’s not that long ago, not really.   Try and catch it. 

www.chineseboxing.co.uk     has tour details

rating four 

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THE CORN IS GREEN Lyttelton, SE1

VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS

      It is a curious feeling to be half charmed and half irritated by a production: one moment absorbed in a confrontation and engaged with a character, the next irritated by a gimmick of style. Dominic Cooke’s directorial decision is to hammer home the autobiographical nature of  Emlyn Williams’ powerful play, about a doughty bluestocking teacher starting a school for the ragged children of a 1920’s mining village.

       So we first see a Brylcreemed author in evening dress – Gareth David-Lloyd –  leaving a dance sweating, haunted by a  group of grimy-faced miners softly singing that most beautiful Welsh song Calon Lan.  He begins agonizing by a typewriter. And, to my increasing dismay, then hangs around narrating and delivering stage directions all through the act  like a film director, even with lights arranged at the side, while the cast bring on furnishings in a black-box space. He is building his past: fair enough, but he doesn’t half get in the way of it.

      The characters when allowed begin to enact the actual tale: the arrival of Miss Moffatt and her interaction with the dim local squire and mineowner, the frustrated flirty young Bessie and the stern Baptist Evans. She recruits  the latter two as teachers.   Enjoyment mounts, especially because Nicola Walker is fabulously posh-bossy and direct as the schoolmarm, and Rufus Wright comic and horribly credible as the Squire. The miners, always around, often hum or sing for a moment in heartbreaking harmony. Some become the pupils  learning. Battles are fought.

         But dammit, all the time the pesky author bustles about the stage with the same anxious hangdog expression, ordering the cast about and describing things .  Yet Williams is not Dylan Thomas, and the clunking memory-play idea  palls rapidly.  It is best when he fades into silent observation and the tale can properly catch fire – a splendid scene where Miss Moffatt bamboozles the squire into backing her pet scholar for an Oxford scholarship, and another when the scholar Morgan rebels against her English upper-middle saviourism.  And the characters who grow do so  well  – Walker explicitly, but more subtly, rather beautifully, there is development in Alice Orr-Ewing’s Miss Ronberry, a “surplus woman” of that post WW1 era suddenly finding usefulness and contentment.

    After the interval suddenly we have a full naturalistic set, blackboard and dresser and grandmother clock and all, and mercifully less direction from the author, still roaming about anxiously. The play’s dated quality shows itself with the inevitable one- night fling resulting in a potentially disastrous baby,  but the negotiations about everyones fate are deftly done, even if it does take the author to butt in.

     Theres a fine eloquent heartfelt moment when the lad  expresses the intellectual power and freedom he felt at his Oxford interview , and there is power in the argument over  the nature of duty. Its a hokum resolution, very JB Priestley,  but  in its 1930s terms it works (might watch the Bette Davis film now).   How the poorest get educated and enabled to rise in the world is, after all, still a hot topic today.  And the miners’ songs and hums are very beautiful.

Nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 11 June 

Rating three

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MARYS SEACOLE. Donmar, WC2


NURSING ACROSS CONTINENTS

     Kayla Meikle, stalwart in Victorian dignity and Caribbean matriarchy, addresses us firmly at the start of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s manic, sometimes  chaotic play about the Jamaican Creole nurse, “doctress”  and hotelier, who in Victorian times tended cholera victims, travelled to America and later to the Crimea. She met Florence Nightingale only once for about five minutes, and spoke admiringly of her, but in recent times it has been – for understandable sociopolitical reasons – modish to set them up as rivals. One was posh and white and educated and revered by uppercrust Britain, the other black (albeit proud of her Scottish blood which she often mentions), and taught her doctoring by a traditional Jamaican mother. She was never officially on the strength as a nurse with the British army, but earned a living as a provisioner and hostess for officers as well as aiding wounded soldiers. 

     But  inevitably, given the contrast, this play joyfully gives us interludes of Nightingale scoffing at Mary, alongside other white  “Karens” down the ages who disrespect her. It’s  a time-travelling series of scenes where black female nurses and carers get devalued or patronised.

     So far, so polemic. But it is good polemic, lively and engaging (though it badly needs a trim, and  director Nadia Latif is far too indulgent to long static conversations). And the point is well made: many a woman of colour tends white invalids, elderly parents  and children while sorrowfully kept far from her own. The  money is still mostly in soft white hands, the blisters on black ones . And Seacole was a hell of an individual in anyone’s terms. 

     So it begins with Meikle delivering a witty, whistlestop account of Seacole’s childhood , unquenchable energy, total self belief and – not least –  passion for travelling to new scenes and being in camp  (the set is a series of curtains with envelopes and zips, half tent half hospital).  Then in a quick change onstage she becomes a modern care home nurse, while a fussy middle aged white daughter and fed up granndaughter try to engage with a seemingly comatose granny. Who, of course, only comes to life when the brisk cheerful nurses – Meikle and Deja J Bowens – arrive to feed and clean her. In a later sketch the two nurses – one a nanny, her own child an ocean away –  are being patronized by a whiney white American woman who just looooves Jamaica on holiday  and had some actual “ethnic food” and heard reggae there. Eyes roll.  

     And so on, until the long, climactic, dramatically screaming bloodbath of the Crimea (lots of bloodied torsos and random heads) .   “I am more of a mother to these men than their mothers in England!” she cries, and all the ghosts and echoes of the earlier encounters reappear, as do Mary’s own mother-issues . The old mother then gives a lecture on the “fiction of a merit based society” in the West where “they need us but don’t want us”.  

        And its a good argument, and true, and anyone who has had a baby in hospital, a parent in a care home or been tended themselves  with  Caribbean humour, gentleness and tolerance  will find their heart go out lovingly to the Mary portrayed by Kayla Meikle.  The supporting cast are a treat too, Llewella Gideon and, as the white women, Esther Smith, Olivia Williams and Susan Wooldridge. All three are expert shape-changers. 

     The content-advisory, by the way, mentions “Strong language,Partial nudity,Blood, guts and gore, Dementia, Defecation, Euthanasia,Strobe lighting, Vomiting, Gunshot and cannon fire, Warzone simulation, Childbirth and Alcohol use” But hey, that’s nursing for you! 

Donmarwarehouse.com to 4 june

Rating.   Four, just!

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MIDDLE Dorfman, SE1

IN THE MIDDLE OF LIFE’S JOURNEY..THROW A PLATE OR TWO

     Ah, middle age! Waists spreading outwards, options  contracting, marriage all too familiar, parents getting older fast and children taking their time about it. Media culture nags you, especially if you’re a woman, to be your best, cultivate peak “wellness” and treat your “mental health” like a Ming vase.  And just as the nation becomes fixated on the idea of menopause as a living nightmare ,and all women of a dignified age  doomed without chemicals , along comes clever David Eldridge with this two-hander.

     It opens at 430 am in a six-bedroom Essex house, with Maggie in her nightie informing poor Gary (who has only got up for a piss) that she doesn’t love him any more. Various clues are in the programme if you can face it: essays on male workaholism and stress, the isolation of new Mums, and marriages going stale.  On cue, , once Barry has got his bearings a bit Magggie explains further: she doesn’t really  get on with their 8 year old daughter, suffered agonies of loneliness in five years as a full time Mum since she was bored by all the other Mums . Going back to work hasn’t helped much because she once dreamed, after “uni”, of a job in telly or film, and her friend got to be a Carlton TV runner and she just went into HR but “I am so much more than that”.  Oh,, and by the way, she didnt enjoy that Valentine weekend they just had, or the two bouts of sex. News which upsets Gary almost as much as the dearth of her love. He thought it was a good weekend.

      Eldridge is an accomplished writer, and both actors are magnificent:  Claire Rushbrook with her broad handsome sorrowful face and Daniel Ryan stocky and steady, a slightly geezerish city-boy feeling his age and adoring his little princess of a daughter. She – it transpires – has always felt herself a cut above him, cuddly though he is, because she grew up in a house with Radio 4, whereas he had a crowded council house and Dad on the bins. Now it seems she has met a soulmate called John, albeit still chastely, with whom she can talk and talk: John listens to Classic FM and has “read all the books on the William Hill sports book of the year shortlist… He’s from Royal Tunbridge Wells!”.   The actual husbandly crockery smashing occurs (it’s only pottery, and he sweeps up afterwards) because she breaks the news that she made John a cup of tea in the house while Gary was out and John touched a golf club – “He had  – a swing with my sand iron???!!” 

      The hilarity that meets this  – and other lines denoting middle-Essex aspiration – sometimes made me seriously uncomfortable, in a way that occurs when an NT Dorfman two-hander audience giggles at people unlikely to go to an NT Dorfman two-hander (I am the lone critic who found London Road  unbearably patronizing).   

      And that feeling is a shame, because Polly Findlay’s direction is deft and swift, and purely as individuals both characters, as played here, are heartbreakingly real.  Her discontents are common ones, her failure to take a grip on them and separate fantasy from commonsense and inventiveness with her life is maddening but sympathetic.  Ryan’s Gary is absolutely magnificent in his depiction of man as seemingly a simpler organism than woman, one who can live for the moment on his small family pleasures and getting the crackling right on the pork dinner he cooks. But a final admission that he is in the doldrums too is a showstopping cry of sincerity. “I’m lonely. I’m bored. I feel shit about myself.  And it takes a lot of bollocks to admit that”. 

         So it’s interesting, and I would have liked to see these same characters, and same actors, in a play with more event and jeopardy. The sort of situation Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams – or indeed a good TV soap – might have put them in. It is a sketch, a watercolour on the landing of middle life:  sensitive, accomplished  but not likely to stop you in your tracks. 

Www.nationaltheatre.org.uk     To 18 june

Rating three

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PRIMA FACIE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

SEXUAL ASSAULT , HARD LAW, AND AN ASTONING WEST END DEBUT

   Forget the cold sadistic clotheshorse Vilanelle from Killing Eve.  Actually, forget all Jodie Comer’s screen awards.  This extraordinary West End stage debut reveals not only strong vocal skill (something not universal in those best known onscreen) but an absolutely dazzling physical expressiveness and  high-voltage emotional power.  It feels as if she has been  pulling houses to their feet for decades –  utterly in charge in a mesmerising solo tour-de-force that never flags in 95 minutes. Vivid and vigorous, judged to a hair, and – for all the profound and shattered emotion of its climax – crackling with her native Liverpudlian wit, she is a phenomenon.   

        Moreover, Suzie Miller’s play is  one of the most important we shall see this decade.  It takes on the most troubling of gulfs:   the abyss in our culture between legal systems and safeguards for the innocent, and the difficulty of successfully prosecuting rape  in an age that licenses and celebrates the impetuous hook-up.   

      The legal term of the title translates as “At first sight”, meaning what seems believable to anyone witnessing it.  Our heroine is a barrister, seven years in practice.  Coming from working-class roots she revels in her sheer skill at the game of law.   As the play opens Comer,  against pale neat walls of case-files stretching to the roof, leaps on and off leatherbound  tables in chambers and expresses , with gestures and imitations and wily wit,  the professional delight of winning a case.  It becomes clear that she is getting a name for defending men accused of sexual assault.  

    There are flashbacks to her beginnings, self-doubting amid the poshos in law school,  visits to her office-cleaner Mum in Liverpool,  but the focus is on her achievement now. Forget the nerdy corporate lawyers, she likes the hard human battles.  “Got two sexual assaults – I”ll get ’em off – one has PTSD from Afghanistan – “.  Her glee draws you to her point of view for a while, arguing that even if the guy was guilty,  it is just her lawyerly job to tell his story well. The law of course pivots, terrifyingly,  on whether a man “believed” there was consent.  

         Then she has a happy hookup in the office with her colleague Julian, and after a successful dinner date takes him home, and they make love. But she is drunk.  So drunk the sake gets to her and she vomits, feeling weak and dreadful. And he carries her back to bed, apparently caringly, but moments later the rape takes place.  Comer’s skill is almost horrifying as without shedding a stitch she shows us how it was: held down, in pain, confused.   In an extraordinary scene she throws on a dress from the spare room, unable to face him again, and runs out into real sluicing rain in a dark stage. The comforting tidy familiar walls of legal filing have vanished (Buether’s set as ever plays a key atmospheric role).   

    We see the police interview, its tone, its uselessness, the horror of the fact that as she tells her pain and confusion the man is still asleep in her flat.  Professional instinct tells her “this is a losing case”.  

       Above, words saying DAY 1 make us expect to spring, as a TV drama would, straight to the court. But then it rolls on to Day 782.  Because in Britain now, that is about what victims have to  expect.  Two years of misery, self-reproach, awkwardness,  reproof on behalf of Julian “who is a good guy, does a lot of pro bono”.  

     Finally in court, the scene of her old triumphs suddenly an unfamiliar lonely place ,  she is in the witness box.   Intellectually she knows she is being “reeled in” by an artful defence counsel just as she once reeled them in. But  “This is me.  A system I devoted my life to is called upon, by me..”.  

     It fails. They often do.  In cases like this we can only marvel at the courage women find to carry on.  Both were drunk, both enthusiastically consensual partners on the same night…nobody else there, no marks of violence.  So two years later that she must argue about every action, every body part’s position…  

      Philosophically, legally, she finds her professional voice again to argue – in a final coda more politically passionate than strictly dramatic – that something must change in such cases.  Is this demand for detailed consistent recall by a harmed victim of two years before “really the litmus test of credibility?”  

       It is a remarkable and useful play. But what brings it to life is that truly  astonishing performance.  TV and film will line up to recruit Comer, but that wooden stage , sharing breath with a riveted silent throng in the dark, is where she belongs. She is astounding.

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com.   To 18 June. You might JUST be lucky to get one

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BARRY HUMPHRIES ; THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK Touring towards London

HALF A CENTURY OF HAPPY MISCHIEF

Full disclosure: I have been following this man around for the best part of 50 years. Went with my brother Mike to his first show, Housewife Superstar, at the Apollo in the 70s, drawn as fans of his Private Eye cartoon strip.  Stalls tickets severely denting a first job wage,  we stood with the gladioli Edna Everage had hurled,  to obey the final command “Tremble your gladdies!”. We went to every London show since, including the Last Night of the Poms at the Albert Hall where we lustily sang her anthem “Why do we love Australia?”.  Trembled in fear  many times as Edna strafed the front stalls with audience-participation moments. Saw  the Palladium “farewell”, all of nine years ago ( https://theatrecat.com/tag/eat-pray-laugh/) ,  and the non-Edna show about Weimar music ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/26/barry-humphries-weimar-cabaret-barbican/.

       Oh, and there was an unforgettable 2011 panto debut in which Edna flew across the auditorium on a giant possum. . 

 So here I am at Humphries’ feet again. He is 88, five shows in to a 27-date tour:  this time he is presented as himself,  the trickiest character of all.  Grandfatherly in a velvet jacket, he is joined only by Ben Dawson at the piano to play some  nostalgic snatches to move the mood on (though the pianist, clearly the New Madge, is seen in a pinny hoovering and dusting the stage as we settle down. Just one of those Barry gags). 

     He is here to tell us his life story, or tantalizing bits of it. Old photographs in a gilt frame above him pepper the first half: childhood in genteel Melbourne,  misdemeanours, first moments on stage , a shy Orsino embarrassed by his tights,  a  Coward hero disastrously drying mid scene.  Glimpses of his mother as “mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”, and the multiple aunts and lady mayoresses on smalltown tours who all, somehow, collectively became Edna. He speaks of misjudged performances, arcane acting tips  picked up and the comedian’s rule:    as with a skidding car, when disastrous embarrassment or offence looms because you misread someone, just “steer straight into it!”.  Making it worse might make it better. Less brave comics might learn from that.  

    Unease at Australian success made him “need obscurity and total neglect”.  Finding it in London he got work, as actor and cartoonist,   but also in the ‘60s hit the bottle and spent time in a secure “hospital for thirsty people”. 

         Waves of affection lap around him, the laughs  skilfully provoked during apparently meandering departures or brief conversations with the front row. And they are good laughs, professional:  because as he remarks in one of the few bitchy  comments, nowadays comedians ” don’t have to be funny. You  just have to identify as funny”. Ouch. 

    The second half explodes into some video of Edna in her pride, leading a singalong in the RAH and in a series of interview and talk-show moments over decades.  These include, with a historical frisson, a young Trump and a midcareer Boris Johnson talking rubbish about reclaiming Aquitaine and Burgundy, and being patronized as someone unable to learn from his own mistakes. Ouch again. 

         A passage of Edna condemning the “sick” habit of “female impersonation” by Barry strikes a refreshingly  gender-critical note.  We see him with Charles and Camilla and  Elton and have  commentary on it all from the man himself. There is a  modest,oddly decent acknowledgement  former alcoholism and the weight of it on others, and of being too grandiose to go to AA at first “because it was free”. 

     That leads to  a moment that shakes you out of comedy and into something greater:  the realization 53 years ago when he finally “put the cork in the bottle”,  that without it he was happy.    Just happy. And still is. 

   And looking back on all the years of fandom, I saw that this is why so many of us stuck with him, and will until the terrible day when he has to go.  Through Edna’s divine appallingness and patronising insults, Les Paterson’s vintage disgustingness and  every moment onstage and screen , this was why we wave our gladioli in fealty.  Like another legendary comic,  it is pure   happiness he stands for and spreads. And we rise to our feet for that.

www.manbehindthemask.co.uk. Touring UK, a dozen more dates, including a new one at   the Gielgud Theatre on Sunday June 12

out of lifelong gratitude

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HENRY VI REBELLION: and THE WARS OF THE ROSES Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

NOW THE TWO PLAYS TOGETHER

  1. HENRY VI: REBELLION.       

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

and now –  

PART 2 – SEPARATE PLAY, BOOKED SEPARATELY BUT FOLLOWS ON: THE WARS OF THE ROSES    

     The two plays (made from the original three part Henry VI set) each stand alone, but if you have seen the first – above – there is pleasure in meeting many of them again,   and in addition the ominous figure of York’s youngest son,   one day to be Richard III.   The casting of Arthur Hughes – who in real life has a shortened and deformed arm – attracted some attention as disability-casting, because he will be Richard III here later in the year . But so far it is no tokenism:  he deploys a playful quality, an impish nastiness which makes me much look forward to Greg Doran’s production later this summer.   

     As to this second play (H VI was originally three plays, remember, and the RSC has neatly split it into these two ,  it is far more battle-heavy: brawling blokes from the start, sons avenging fathers and fathers their sons,  heavy clanging swords,  cut-off heads thrown and abused as well as put on sticks.  There are moments when unless you are an aficionado of stage fighting you may feel a bit sated,   and if the RSC went in for trigger warnings it would have taken up half the programme, what with the truly nasty murder of a terrified child Rutland (York’s son) and almost equally unpleasant stabbings throughout. 

       But whenever that happens we come to some tremendous, character-driven face-off :  gentle Henry knighting his son, saying “learn this lesson, draw thy sword in right” (some hopes, in this play).   Or  Minnie Gale as the Queen even more poisonous than before in a breastplate and skirt,  taunting the captured York with a cloth dipped in his son’s blood, pulling it from her garter to do so;  spurts of mutual hatred between them, making even the Queen momentarily flinch, doubled up at a holy curse.  It is thrilling, as the young Shakespeare feels his poetic power and sense of drama evolving by the line. Or there’s York himself earlier, lounging on the throne forcing Quartley’s even more endearingly nice King Henry to disinherit his son.       Feral metaphors spring up: the monarch a “trembling lamb environed by wolves”,  York as a bear savaged by dogs.  

            It’s high-quality melodrama: there are odd almost farcical interludes among the bloodshed –   Paola Dionisotti’s Exeter amusingly politic in a shrug about the succession;   Henry in his Scottish exile with a couple of disbelieving hooded locals,  flinging off his cloak and departing nude  (Quartley’s performance has by  now made us all very much on his side: not a heroic monarch but a sweet lad). And there’s a  directly funny scene when Warwick goes to France (Richard Cant a rather camp King Louis) to sue for a royal marriage for the new  King Edward, old York’s son –   only to change sides  in a huff when betrayed by the fact that York has already married.  

     More use is made in this half of the roaming camera onstage showing huge monochrome closeups on the screen above :  it works, absolutely, surprisingly to me who is usually a bit irritated by such stuff.  And young York,  our future Richard III,  gets to borrow a speech or two from his own eponymous play, which is neat and gets its own round of applause.  

box office rsc.org.uk to 4 Jun

rating four

BUT  – A JOINT RATING FOR THE TWO- BECAUSE SEEING THEM ONE AFTER ANOTHER IS A GREAT BUZZ –  IS   5 MICE IF YOU MAKE IT THROUGH BOTH:

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HENRY VI: REBELLION.        Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford u-Avon

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

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JERUSALEM REVIVED: REFLECTIONS

DO WE STILL LOVE ROOSTER?

   So it’s back, another St George’s day before a west country village fair.   Twelve years on from Jez Butterworth’s glorious shock-troop assault on metropolitan sensibilities we welcome back Ultz’s woodland glade and knackered caravan,  and surf along with Ian Rickson’s bravura direction.  Here once more are the  council officials slapping an enforcement notice on the rave wreckage and the filthy sofafull of hungover teens .  Here is the court of Johnny Rooster Byron.

       And Mark Rylance is back, twelve years after his first handstand dive into the water-butt I am happy to report that he still executes it with undimmed vigour, deftly another egg into a disgusting hangover-cure, mixes it  in his atrocious trousers’ and necks it before embarking on a dozen crazy yarns  and archaic bucolic-alcoholic spiritualities,  whether about giants walking or Nigerian traffic wardens kidnapping him.     Around him return four veterans of the 2010 run: Mackenzie Crook is once more the aspiring DJ and unemployed plasterer, Ginger,  Alan David the “Professor”, vague but prophetic pet distressed-gent of the rowdying teens,  and Gerard Horan as the pub landlord forced into spoless Morris gear for the brewery’s  publicity .  

           The rants, the vigour, the laughs, the shock are all there, and the undercurrent of anger at modernity’s callous uniformities (Davey’ s speech about his abattoir job, and Lee’s hopeless dream of emigration, both hit as hard as they did even before the Osborne austerity years)

      .  This is no review – no idea if there is even a press night,  I booked the day it was announced and the run is sold out already.  But it is  a reflection. In 2018  I saw the Watermill’s fine revival with Jasper Britton.  I had wanted to see if the play worked without the magic Mr  Rylance, and whether it had a new taste after the Brexit vote. Yes in both  cases. ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/07/jerusalem-watermill-nr-newbury/)  

        Now, on the far side of the pandemic, there’s another  new flavour which proves how well the play will endure as a classic.  One becomes aware of the altered palate of national taste after MeToo (it’s a very macho play, male predation taken for granted. Not all the shag-jokes got a warm response).  But more than that,  we have over two years been cabin’d and confined by regulations and jobsworth enforcers,  banned for months of restless springs from what the rural teens call “Gatherings”.    Would we, I wondered, feel that we are all Rooster Byron now? Angrily festive, heedless of health and law, rebels asserting our damaged individuality by breaking all social rules for liberty? 

         Oddly,  for me the opposite sense  kept rising in the first half. Rooster Byron is a classic Lord of Misrule:  a  charismatic, amusing, hedonistic, dishevelled , insouciant law-breaker with a preference for younger women over the tedious duties of family.     And I kept thinking “hang on!  We’ve GOT  one of those, in Downing Street. And we’re liking it less and less…”

       Hadn’t expected that feeling: interesting. Boris as a genteel Rooster, though more Bullingdon-and-Spectator than pig-killing and pub fracas.   But however you come out of it, it remains  a hell of a show.  Might as well exorcise our national weakness for wild, irresponsible, disorderly charisma in a theatre: better than doing it in than a ballot box.

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THE 47th Old Vic SE1

THE ORANGE MONSTER RIDES AGAIN

  The first thing to say is what everyone has said:  that Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump is magnificent. Eerily so,  capturing not only the ex-President’s showmanship, the gestures and unwholesomely needy yet threatening charm – gosh he is funny at times! –   but moving beyond caricature into something devilishly close to possession. At least if, like me in one of the too-close cheap stalls, you are near enough to field his stray golf-ball in the opening scene.  He also gives it just a tiny edge of camp, which I had not noticed in the real Trump but now,  looking back at old newsreels,  realise was always there. So this is Carvel’s show: the man who was both Murdoch in INK and the original Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.  May he be many other villains, up to and including Lear.   

        The premise of the play is that Biden’s term is ending,  the aged President himself losing it (a remarkable sleepwalking scene, one of the many Shakespearian echoes).  He hands over to Kamala Harris,  played with gripping sincerity by,  who in her confrontations with the Donald, who is attempting re-election,  grows in stature satisfyingly  through the play , as it accelerates from a frankly too slow opening half-hour.  Kamala grows in the later scenes into gritty liberal determination and moral struggle, after  being mansplained into silence in a TV debate – he walks out, having set his ghastly militia to fireworks and mayhem outside and crying  “ Don’t let them tell you what to do, OK?“  

 So Tunie is a treat,  and so is Lydia Wilson as Ivanka,   the Cordelia-substitute in his first Lear-like division of deputy powers.   She turns out, no spoilers,  to be far cannier and far more ruthless than her drippy brothers,   and to hold, rather horribly, the solution to Trump the Father himself.  As for spectacle,  enlivening a play about political ideas and the limits of political morality, the solution as so often is in the hands of director Rupert Goold and designer Miriam Buether.  Indeed the two young Americans next to me were wincing heavily (“I’m scared now”) at the explosion of violence when the first half hots up,  and there is a very nasty ritual dance of threat  around Joss Carter as that man in the facepaint and horns from the Capitol siege,  taunting a “MSM” mainstream media reporter to speak their “truth” on video: “Say it – cheating Hillary, murdering husband, stole election, vaccine!”

I have to admit I was a bit of an outlier , a sceptic. about Mike Bartlett’s first foray into Shakespearian iambic-pentameter and artful echoes in his play Charles III.  I  found the blank verse monotonous and the characters unbelievable – with the exception of one splendid onlooker who defined how strange Britain will feel, how disconnected and lost,  when the Queen dies.  Nor did I much like the veiled ghost of Diana: it all felt a bit too parasitically Tina-Brown-explains-the-royals for my taste.  But it was a great success,  and here,  with deliberate echoes of Shakespeare tragedies of more purport – the two Richards, Macbeth, and certainly Lear – there is more meat, more meaning, more threat and more thoughtfulness.   It goes from a slow start to accelerate nicely. The  the laboured iambics sometimes work well , because the five-foot line is a natural English language emphasis  (“You democratic motherfucking cunts!” Cries Trump).     But they also sometimes make the dialogue,  or speeches,  feel artificial. But it’s a novelty, a brilliant central performance, certainly one to see.

oldvictheatre.com.   to 29 May

Rating four 

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DIARY OF A SOMEBODY Seven Dials Playhouse W1

THE LOST BOYS OF THEATRE…

   The  tiny Actors’ Centre is reborn under its new name, and since this play is set in what was a  traditionally febrile, theatrical, subversively arty quarter in the 50s and 60s  before it got chichi, it’s a good place to remember Joe Orton and his killing by his suicidal, depressedly angry partner Kenneth Halliwell.  John Lahr’s painstaking and sympathetic work on his diaries and interviews with those who knew him is more famously a book and film (“Prick Up Your Ears”). But there is special power in this staging: two men and a versatile set of four actors playing everyone else,  around a basic bedsit and a wall of Halliwell’s collages.  For all the merriment of Orton’s pitiless verbal observation (which gives the ensemble plenty to work with) it is as wrenchingly sad as it ought to be. 

    In the first scenes George Kemp as Orton is eager:  a new Londoner escaped from a dull Leicester home to RADA and a Gower St bedsit, casually mentioning someone called Kenneth – 7 years older, posher, not easy to understand – in the background. Then thirteen years on he is a feted playwright, delighted with himself, and even more delighted with his dick and his crazy-obsessive promiscuous linkups in random streets, Holloway pissoirs and trips to Tangier for “hash and bum”. Meanwhile Halliwell is ever more morose, jealous and frustrated by his beloved’s hedonism “your definition of a man is a life support system for a penis”.  Also,  most corrosive of all, Ken  is convinced that he alone has the credit for all that Orton is and all hewrites.  The misery of  jealousy in a partnership of unequal success and fame is timeless, whatever the sexuality. Many wives and husbands know it well.

    Soon they both make you cringe: Halliwell at his spiralling unhappiness, and Orton at his vanity and, frankly, paedophilia: it used to be a giggly gay pursiit both upmarket and down, arty westerners travelling to a poorer country to pay Muslim boys, often underage, for sex. There is darkness on Orton’s  irritation that in England  he cant just grab a friend’s pretty son and take him home to be raped. But these were the gay dark ages before full  social acceptability (it was only just legal before Orton was murdered) yet well before AIDS.   It spawned  a gay male culture too often unhappy, angry, uncaring and emotionally inhumane. We  do not properly remember Orton the boyish mischief maker s d brilliant, disciplined  comic playwright without remembering that.

    You begin to see Halliwell too as one of that culture’s saddest victims (Toby Osmond is superb, holding the pain visible to the point that his amiable grin at the curtain call is a relief). But the vigour of the staging, and fine performances, leave you exhilarated as well as sad.

sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk to 30 April

rating three

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“DADDY”



QUEER AS FOLK BY THE INFINITY POOL

Jeremy O Harris is a much feted American playwright (a Tony for Slave Play) adept at drilling in to the moment:  BLM, fashionable white guilt, showy theatricality and retro-intellectual themes like this play’s deliberate reference to Hockney’s 1960’s  A Bigger Splash. And, the programme assures us,  the cult of the male body in the post-coldwar years and   “the queer gaze in modern American history”.   He specifies an infinity pool on stage, and  a Palm Beach mansion with glass walls and lots of challenging modern art in view. . 

    So here it is, with a beautiful very young black man – Terique Jarrett  – stepping out of the water in Speedos. And soon, for the benefit of an older white man who worships  his “Naomi-Campbell”  legs, stepping equally gracefully out of the Speedos.   The boy from the wrong side of the tracks,  Franklin,  isn’t just a pickup, of course. They speak of art ,because he is an aspiring artist with a show coming. Claes Bang’s Andre, the swooningly keen and apparently English  homeowner, is a collector.  A brief  moment of dignity for the lad  comes when he is sent to look at another room and, rightly, appalled that there is a whole roomful of Basquiats, crassly all together  (I found myself nostalgic for the Young Vic’s far more engaging and intelligent Basquiat link in The Collaboration-   https://theatrecat.com/2022/02/25/the-collaboration-young-vic-se1/)

      Anyway, Franklin is seduced, it seems for his  first time and not with total delight,  by Andre, who enjoins a bit of spanking, a “yes sir” response, and indeed “Yes Daddy” . It’s  all a bit  Harvey Weinstein , since the problem of young  bodies bought by rich old creeps with  flash houses and artistic influence applies to all sexualities.  Add to that the author’s contempt for black Christian tradition, in the comedic use of a three-woman gospel choir and.. well..it would have to be a good and gripping play to score.

  It isn’t. As it’s  is billed as “a Faustian melodrama of the soul” one hopes for a sticky end  for Andre and a bit of a proper plot, but alas as part 1 ends the  gospel choir is led by him in a crazed chorus in the pool , splashing the front rows as he leads them in “I will be your father figure, I will be your teacher preacher”. The mainly white audience claps and whoops along and I get really uncomfortable, because Jarrett   is a good enough actor to convey a lot of distress, puzzlement and anxious ambition. Though the director’s desire for tv-type naturalism does tend to mean that some of the pair’s conversations are borderline inaudible.

   The second half at least gives more scope to an excellent Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother, who disapproves of the whole thing, and then it hauls in the question of missing black fathers (it seems, she says,  that they give up because they see how dark the future is for their sons). She is a bright spot in an otherwise overlong, ill-conceived and pretentious evening, as are the comic poolside moments of Jenny Rainsford as a ghastly galleriste,  a selfie-crazed Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook).  and Franklin’s best friend Max. I asked a black American friend later about the Broadway fame and applause for Harris’ work and he replied that he hated it ,and that the writer’s main fans were “intellectual wokey whiteys”. A description so layered with eyerolling contempt it took my breath away.

Almeida.co.uk to 30 April

Rating two

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THE FEVER SYNDROME Hampstead Theatre NW3

SCIENCE, SIBLINGS, SOUND AND FURY 

   This is a satisfying play.  To take a painting analogy, it satisfies not in the way that a perfect still-life vase might, but more like a Kandinsky or Miro: wild streaks of colour, apparently random blobs,  intriguing shapes and blurs all resolving into something thrilling to look at.   Some may consider it a bit thematically crowded,  greedily bagging a whole seasons’-worth of anxious playwrights’ themes:   stepfamily and sibling issues, gene-editing and fertility, carers’ fatigue, terminal illness, patriarchy, gay parenthood, the politics of research-funding, Sarah Palin, Christian extremism, academic  plagiarism, money, housing, Japanese knotweed, goats. American regions and their faint contempt for one another,  and  a bit of househusband- resentment. All that plus a streak of crypto-Oedipal desire and  a few lines about cryptocurrency.

     Too much?   Not for me. I found Alexis Zegerman’s new play exhilarating, credible and suddenly deeply moving in its final catharsis (the last few minutes have two catharses and a disastrous revelation).   Lisa Dillon cradles  her sick child as if in a modern Pieta,  with a perfectly grouped family shape bent around her all for once listening to the old man speaking (tranquilly for once) of miracles. Add to that the fact that it is often painfully funny, with sharp American west-coast wit and a blast of Tom Lehrer, and I left very happy.

       Framing the pattern is the family’s head, the  fictional Professor Richard Myers who is a  biomedical genius and (alongside the real,mentioned, Steptoe and Edwards) a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  Last time I saw Robert Lindsay onstage he was tipping his hat rakishly and shuffling a shoe in Anything Goes: now he is struggling to control the disease’s shaking, furiously resisting a wheelchair, and being spoon-fed by his younger third wife Meghan (Alexandra Gilbreath, every move showing anxious exhaustion).  They are still in the family home,   vast New York brownstone on the park which we see as a  three-tier cutout, peeling wallpaper and all,  its many rooms enabling small , economical filmic scenes between the various family members.  In  the last moments  it even reveals it has an attic and a cellar.  

    Lisa Dillon as Dot, the eldest sibling, wants her father and disliked stepmother to do the sensible thing and live somewhere “appropriate”, but she also is rackingly desperate that it  should provide a trust fund for her daughter, who has the dangerous autoimmune disease of the play’s title.  Her twin brothers, triumphs of the father’s IVF technology, are chalk and cheese: Thomas is a gay artist with lines like “I’ve spent a lot of money in analysis to be able to say this”, and has has brought along an exasperated pragmatic MidWest partner, Philip.  Anthony is a swaggering Californian entrepreneur who makes all but one of the party laugh: Alex Waldmann and Sam Marks play beautifully against each other.  The one who doesn’t laugh is Nate, husband of  Dot, who embarrassingly was disgraced for academic plagiarism, and has trouble with his more successful science-journalist wife as well as with her obsessive anxiety about their daughter.  All these people – except Philip the wary newcomer to the crabby family scene – need something from Professor Richard. 

           Robert Lindsay,  the powerful figure of the Professor, is stunningly good, both in his alarming temper and impatience (Thomas recalls his frightening heavy footsteps from childhood) and in moments of vulnerability. Once,  early on when we mainly think him a troublesome stubborn gargoyle of an invalid,  he turns his head suddenly to cradle his wife’s hand on his neck.  He rants politically about the status of embryo research and its opponents – “I certainly did NOT unravel the fabric of American society!”   Without authorly anger or agenda, and under the elegant direction of Roxana Silbert,  in just under three enjoyable hours it lays before us the hundred messinesses of a 21st century family feeling its way to resolution. And for me that itself is a resolution. 

Hampsteadtheatre.com to 30 April

Rating.  Five. 

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PINAFORE Wilton’s Music Hall, E1

CAMPING ON THE PLANKING

At the Coliseum last autumn Gilbert and Sullivan’s seagoing Savoy Opera was immense, with a huge revolving ship, Les Dennis as the first sea lord, a massive chorus and orchestra, a Boris-on-the-zipwire moment and an irresistibly confident hornpiping tot. Here it is stripped down,  performed by one of  Sasha Regan’s  strapping all male casts in gym-kit costumes, larking around on bunks and, in the case of David McKechnie as Sir Joseph Porter, wearing truly cherishable sock- suspenders. 

        I have raved before about these pleasingly ridiculous, artfully underdressed Sacha Regan productions, which indeed were responsible for converting me to G and S at all.  The production  suits Wiltons’ decrepit music-hall grandeur perfectly,  with the thumping unpretentious piano, the silly-clever rhymes, knowing gender-bending costumes and drag-comic behaviour.  It isn’t purist and doesn’t need to be,  because the plots are absurd and the rhymes clever and they belong to all ages and sexes.

        But the important gloss is the slickness, the discipline, the sharp Lizzi Gee choreography(sometimes balletic, always expressive. These things elevate to artistry the sheer high jinks, which by the way are brilliant in the elopement scene.

         Men have a particular way of being funny – not always universally appreciated by women – but when we do ‘get it’ as amused, headshaking big sisters, it is magic.  It has to be said that musically the choruses and  male-character numbers are more thrilling than female solos, because falsetto is difficult to sustain attractively for long unless by the best-trained  of counter-tenors. Regan’s cast are excellent, but sometimes Sam Kipling as Josephine makes you feel a bit sorry for him having to do it,  as well as for her lovelorn state. The temptation to take it down an octave does creep over you.     Scott Armstrong as a beefy LIttle Buttercup has it easier, because you’re meant to be laughing rather than sympathising.  But you can forgive anything for the sheer ebullient vigour of it, for the sock-suspenders and bowler hat on Porter,   and the swing ensemble’s magnificent legs. 

rating  4 

wiltons.org.uk to  9 April

then  Winchester – (theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk) 21-27 April

Then, who knows..

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Gielgud, W1

THE SHADOW OF A BEGINNING, ALABAMA 1936 

    

Forget, for the moment, both the fame and the the arguments over Harper Lee’s classic novel:  Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation is a freestanding triumph,  its poignancy, anger and argument perfectly pitched for our restless age of questioning not only the injustice of racism but  the perils of tolerance and the nature of  ‘allyship’.    Sorkin worked on this play in the age of Trump and of Black Lives Matter, and it shows.  A fusillade of trigger warnings  reminds us that it cannot be handled without numerous  racial slurs and acknowledgement of  violence, sexual and otherwise. for this is smalltown Alabama in the 1930s, held before us with 21c intelligence and sorrow. Sorrow for the way that despite the lawyer Atticus Finch’s sense of “the shadow of a beginning”,  we are not there yet.  

          Here the novel’s form is shaken up,   to put at its centre from the start the courtroom where Finch defends Tom Robinson from the charge of raping Mayella, the paternally abused teenage daughter of  angry, drunken Bob Ewell.  Scout, Jem and their pal Dil tell the story through the fourth wall with childlike directness as well as scampering,  playing and watching the steadfast idealistic Atticus go through the story. They stand mutely aghast, too in the courtroom in that torrid summer.  The brisk narrative breaches of the fourth wall do not for a moment detract from the power of the big dramatic scenes, both in court and most terrifyingly when Robinson is taken to the county jail,  in an obvious attempt facilitate the local Klansmen’s pre-empting any verdict with guns and rope.    Finch grabs a standard lamp (there is a wonderful domesticity of detail in Miriam Buether’s design, you live alongside them indoors and out).   As he meekly holds guard the murderers arrive: we are used to jokey images of the Ku Klux Klan in  pointed hoods but these are as they would have been:  murderers under scruffy flour-sacks.     When Scout innocently recognizes a voice of a classmate’s Dad her  childish  “Mister Callaghan?”  breaks the tension even as it reveals  the horrible truth about  how deeply ‘friends and neighbours’ have gone sour .   Brilliant.

        But much is brilliant, theatrically and morally, in Sorkin’s interpretation: Gwyneth Keyworth is a perfect dungareed Scout,  and the trio of her,  Jem and Dil (Harry Redding, a professional debut,  and David Moorst) have a teenage exuberance that defies the gloom and horror of the community.  And three  points in the adaptation  are important.  Firstly,  Sorkin gives Atticus more of a sharp dry lawyerly wit, half-consciously aware of the difficulty of holding onto his “some good in everyone” idealism.   Ralph Spall is extraordinary, both in evoking that, in his fatherly gentleness,  and in his single outbreak of violent rage.   Secondly, the adaptor puts into the mouth of the terrible Ewell (Patrick O”Kane) more rationalization of his racism than Lee did.  Every confected “fear” justifying the white community’s hatred of freed blacks is taken directly from modern Breitbart and other sites.  You shiver.    And finally, Sorkin gives more voice than Harper Lee to the black characters themselves.  This means not just the decent, too-humble Tom Robinson  but Calpurnia:    a fabulous Pamela Nomvete as the maid and substitute-mother in Atticus’ household.  She is  a sparring partner unconvinced by his saintlike philosophy that even the most vicious deluded racists should be respected as ‘neighbours and friends” with good in them.  When you’re respecting them,  she snaps,  “no matter who you’re disrespectin’ by doin’ it!” .  

            There are wonderful cameos too, enhancing the sense of a real community: Amanda Boxer is the abominable Mrs Henry Dubose, Jim Norton a  peppery Judge Taylor,  and Lloyd Hutchinson has a supreme late moment as the supposed town drunk,  with his harsh grieving intelligent kindness.  At the side of the stage a chapel harmonium and a lone guitarist play snatches of Adam Guettel’s understatedly powerful music. Your throat catches, often. 

       It is perhaps unfair,  but sometimes there’s  a reluctance to let oneself be moved to tears and driven to a standing ovation when a show is big-ticket, born and polished on its Broadway run with not an empty seat, and  when its producers were in 2019 so careful of their ownership of rights that they  would not tolerate even the humblest regional or amateur touring version of this famous tale.    But what the hell:  reluctance crumbled,  it had me by the throat .  Especially when, with Broadway sentimentality,  the last tragedy was met with a quiet congregation singing the words  “Joy cometh in the morning”.  And Calpurnia observed, saltily,  that it was takin’ it’s own sweet time.   So it is.

box office   tokillamockingbird.co.uk   to 13 August

rating five . No question.

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CLYBOURNE PARK Park Theatre, N4

WELCOME BACK, BITING SHARP AS EVER

   In 2010 Bruce Norris’ play wowed the Royal Court: this is a  ten-year anniversary (well, plus two years lost to Covid) so forgive me for quoting what I wrote then:

“I spent the interval racked with worry that the play might decline in Act 2. If that had happened I would have trudged heartbroken into the night, unable to write a word. No danger, though: it roared off again into the stratosphere, glittering and throwing off sparks.”

     It is a treat to return to this clever, honest, mocking piece: a comedy wrapped around a tragedy, a satire on class, race, offence, grief and housing. And by chance I see it  just after the Bridge’s Straight Line Crazy (below), about New York’s  growth and social conflicts 1922-62.   For this, set in the same house in 1959 and then 2009, makes a sort of accidental oblique sequel, conveying the  human tides flowing along those expressways. It is sharp, funny, bookended with delicate grace by  an acknowledgement of  tragedy. In  Oliver Kaderbhai’s  production it is also most beautifully acted. 

     . In 1959 Bev (Imogen Stubbs, housewifely, wittering, cloaking a deep grief)  and her husband Russ (keeping a lid on it, postwar-stoical) are selling up to a non-white family, which fills their  prat neighbour Karl with horror. Gradually we learn how, despite their initially vapid conversations, Russ and Bev are blighted by the shame and suicide of their soldier son after  the  Korean war . Mediated with zero success by the local minister, and witnessed by their decent embarrassed black maid and her husband, a glorious row develops. 

     Andrew Langtree’s Karl – bowtie and strutting gait – is perfect, furious about unmixable  “cultures” and house prices,  not above a bit of blackmail. Richard Lintern as Russ is magnificent both in  restraint and the loss of it: preoccupied, crippled with grief and memory, rising  to a massive justified anger.  Stubbs gives us an innocent, kindly and tormented and clumsily trapped in white-madam patronage:  in a heartbreaking last remark to her gentle cleaner,  she murmurs how good it would be “if we could all sit together at table”

    So we can feel briefly superior to these 1959 people, but fifty years on, after the neighbourhood “went black” and white gentrifiers are moving in, Act2 shows their successors.  The same cast but wholly different (Stubbs now a hellish self satisfied lawyer, Langtree a different kind of prat) are at a homeowners’ meeting about planning objections. At, as it were, the same table,  but not doing too  well. They – we – are just as absurd and even touchier, in Norris’ early and timely prefiguraration of our present Age of Offence. 

     This play indeed just gets more and more topical, with its famously  cathartic storm of mutual offence:  gay, black, white, pregnant, patriotic, all furious….all it needs is for trans politics to be dropped in and we’s be in 2022. Themes from the first act are neatly interwoven: among them the original tragedy itself, a delicate, understated staging stopping your breath. . Seven fine actors dazzle, veteran and newcomers  (Aliyah Odoffin is on a professional stage debut, assured and elegantly in timing).   The play deserves no less. 

Parktheatre.co.uk. To 23 April

Rating.  Four

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STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY. Bridge, SE1

THE ROUGH TOUGH BIRTH OF A CITY

   It is not often I resort to drawing in the notebook, but there it is: half an hour into the first part of David Hare’s play about the city planner Robert Moses,  whose demonic  energy built modern New York between the 20’s and the ’60s.  I seem to have drawn two stick-men.  Danny Webb is Governor Al Smith, a furious little gnome with a cigar leaning back in his chair, defiant with elected authority, and Ralph Fiennes’ Moses faces him:  craggy, arms folded,  an immovable and stroppy Easter Island statue. The men’s previous bantering, Bourbon-fuelled comradeship is exploding in disagreement, alarming and hilarious at once. (Danny Webb one of the few performers I’ve ever seen who can take your eyes off the granitic Fiennes).  

       The governor is furious at the planner’s having insouciantly started  work on his latest expressway before a sign-off or resolution of a legal challenge.  Moses will win this one, as he did over forty years in post: smashing slums and building 670 miles of roads, seven bridges, the Brooklyn tunnel, the airport, the UN, the Shea Stadium,  countless towers, playgrounds, pools and parks, a dam.  In these first-half battles he is creating a proper road system on Long Island, defying  landed plutocrats to open up its beaches for the people.  

       It is clever of Hare  to start us with the visionary populism of the man, a striding, sea-swimming alpha male who confronts a suave Henry Vanderbilt over the right of ordinary New Yorkers to enjoy the open land – “You made your millions out of the kikes and wops in your tenements..”.  Henry Ford has invented workers’ holidays and there was this new thing called “leisure”.   We see too the almost hypnotized loyalty of Moses’ team , represented in the play by Siobhan Cullen as a lively Finnuala and Samuel Barnett as the more cautious, sometimes dismayed Ariel.  There will be hints and revelations as the play goes on that actually the people Moses cares most  about are not the very poorest  but what modern politics calls the squeezed-middle,  ‘hardworking families” with cars.  He hated rapid-transit public services and even built the Long Island bridges too low for the buses needed by the carless masses.  He was, in many ways, the prophet who made America a dependent automobile nation. 

     But in that first half, for all his sharp edges he is a hero to relish, and Fiennes gives it everything. If there are moments (the ones without Danny Webb in them) when you wonder about the measured pace director Nick Hytner has set,  you find out later that subtly establishing the relationships in that office is significant.   For the interval spans thirty years:  and by the 50s we find an older, more formally suited boss, still with these two lieutenants,  still impatient but no longer an unbeatable magician whose ruthless, straight-line ruler can smash  any community in the name of highway logic.  

         Alisha Bailey has joined the team as  Mariah, whose cousins were  bulldozered out of the Bronx community,  and who pleads the cause of the campaigners against a  “sunken highway” bisecting Washington Square Park.   Moses’ first-act impetus, so exhilarating,  has hardened to stubborn contempt.  Cleansing, urban renewal, newness and the car are everything, conservation is “a racket run by women and liberals” and hardly less despicable than Caesar salad (“lettuce coated with slime”.)  Even his voice is deeper.  This time he is fighting not a few Long Island grandees but a growing and equally self-protective middle-class and Eleanor Roosevelt (“Is there a vexatious case in America that does not have HER support?”).  His attitude echoes that of the long-gone Governor Al:  people are not reasonable, so “We must advance their interests without taking any notice of their opinions”.

          The parallels with a dozen current disputes are irresistible: mass tourism, cars, power stations, class hostility.   Fiennes is irresistible, and allowed in the final scenes an edge of vulnerability (for a soft-heart may beat in the toughest political dramatist). I may have to go and watch it all happening again. 

Bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 19th June         Rating. Five

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THE MARRIAGE OF ALICE B.TOKLAS   Jermyn St Theatre, WC1

A PLAY IS A PLAY IS A PLAY IS A WEDDING

   With typical wit,  the doughty little Jermyn has captured an intellectual-farcical oddity from New York  complete with author-director and star.  Tom Littler  signed them up for 2020, with obvious results, but lured them back on the far side of theatre’s  Covidgeddon.   Edward Einhorn’s play is a quirky, comic four-hander celebrating (with gentle mockery) the forty year partnership between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. 

     It depicts a  wedding, complete with nips of champagne distributed in the short break in its 90 minutes,  long before such same sex unions were thinkable.  It is set within their famous Rue de Fleurus salon,  forever a-teem  with Stein’s fellow “geniuses”:  artists and writers and expat aesthetes of that legendary early- 20c Parisian ferment.  Actually,  there’s a lot of emphasis on geniuses as a cadre,of which the smilingly obliging Alice knows she is not a member.  She is just there to love Stein and “entertain the wives” while the geniuses utter at one another in the other room. 

        So Picasso (a hilarious Kelly Burke)  is in and  out all day,   representing himself or a herd of mistresses and models, and plays celebrant at the women’s (rather touching) Jewish wedding.    Ernest Hemingway (Mark Huckett, making the most of a solid furious masculinity) stomps about incomprehending in this female landscape of monogamous devotion.  A host of others – guests, Stein’s  brother, TS Eliot, James Joyce  – flit in and out dextrously courtesy of Burke and Huckett. 

     At the heart of it, sometimes switching roles with firm meta-theatre signalling,  is Natasha Byrne as a formidable, centred Stein with all that philosopher- poet’s assurance, and Alyssa Simon, who played the role in the US, is her sweet Alice.  It is often very funny – you’ll love the wedding night sex scene, ladies – though at times I wondered if the whimsy could hold up, and whether the aesthetes; pretension was given too free a rein.   

      But it does hold, for 90 highly enjoyable minutes .  You get a real sense of that  bohemian creative ferment,  both absurd and enlighteningly necessary as the West recoiled and reconsidered between the wars. You feel the shadows over it too, and the compromises.  Shafts of sudden  epigrammatic truth sparkle suddenly, and it is a hymn to solid love.  Hemingway is reproached for his ignorance of that – “All you know is tortured love and unadulterated lust”. For Stein and Toklas unity is total, and homely.    “I am my beloved and my beloved is me”.

      Indeed at Stein’s abrupt exit – she died first – Alyssa Simon is heartbreaking: a simple devoted non-genius,  bereaved and robbed of inheritance by Stein’s family , and of course never legally a wife.  Its always the streak of sadness that gives comedy its truth.

Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.   To 16 April

Some socially distanced performances.

Rating. Four

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MARIA FRIEDMAN AND FRIENDS – LEGACY

BRACING, BELTING, BENIGN

      At the end of the evening the great diva, director and muse informs us that we too must sing. In a packed house,  on the far side of a pandemic which made us fear one another’s very breath, we join the posse of old-timers and ingenu(e)s  she has brought onstage to this showcase:  a cosy but sharp-worked cabaret of reminiscence and tributes to the musical theatre greats like  Sondheim, Hamlisch and LeGrand.  There’s even, near the end,  a memorable rendering of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, though I have never before heard it done as a wild belting showtune.  Our finale though under orders is Sondheim:  the great anthem to youthful optimism from Merrily We Roll Along:

 – 

“Edges are blurring all around, yesterday is done…

      It’s our time, breathe it in: worlds to change and worlds to win!”

\

Yes. Gulp. With so many young onstage around the old lioness, that hits you. No room here for the coolly emotionless; you either leave this show vowing to devote your life to musical theatre and its people,  or equally resolved never to go near one again. It’s that intense.  I took a young companion,  not part of that world or its fans, and worried a bit, giving her permission to duck out at the interval if she wanted.  I am happy to say that it got her, like everyone, by the scruff of the neck from the first belting ensemble and kept her breathless  through Friedman’s scattergun memories, song after song and rolling fragments of shows (including a spectacular Sweeney Todd sequence and the young ensemble’s  moving fragment from A Chorus Line). 

        That last one was moving, because even without pandemic interregna,  they really do have difficult worlds to win.  Desmonda Cathabel from Indonesia will win some: she packed in her job in Covid and sent a tape to the Royal College of Music and won a scholarship;  Alfie, Maria Friedman’s own son, was remarkable too, and throughout the changing casts there are reports of other flames burning into the art’s future.  

         The ensemble Windmills of Your Mind shook the roof. Oldster and youngster side by side, we reeled.    Hell, what can I say?  Not for us civilians to award prissy star-ratings to odd, cosy, enormous indulgences like this.  It’s running till 17 April, with some rolling casts.   We both skipped happily out, feeling filled.  Though I had to calm myself down with the considerably quieter and more restrained  Joni Mitchell version of Both Sides Now,  before bed was possible.

Menierchocolatefactory.com   To 17 April

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THE ANIMAL KINGDOM Hampstead theatre, NW3

 LEARNING TO LIVE

       Sometimes judging others harshly is a relishable guilty pleasure.  In Ruby Thomas’ wonderful 80-minute sequence of snapshots of  family therapy,  the writer is mischievously aware of this. A dark theme needs light touches, and she  wisely offers us a judgeable comic opening with  the artful performance of Martina Laird as the mother.  Rita is a doula,  airily spiritual and self-involved. Settling into the first session she delivers a treasurable question about the clinic’s water-jug – “Is it tap? I can’t drink tap, it’s a hormone thing”.  She then gushes about how her son is “my most precious thing”  , sharing her own fine capacity for  “feeling things” , and more brilliant than his sister Sofia. Who is sitting right there, glumly silent. That Rita’s  taciturn ex-husband Tim fled a decade ago seems not surprising.  

       Actually, one of the merits of this play is that giving us this brief early moment to roll our eyes at Rita, the writer reassures us that despite the topic – the aftermath of a student suicide attempt – she is not out to harrow us pointlessly.  Nor, indeed, to make the mother a joke:  not long afterwards we learn about her own father’s depressive illness, her own episodes and her terror that genetically  Sam’s self-harm and death wish are her fault. And as the boy tartly informs them all, neither can it be simplistically put down to the divorce. 

         Jonathan McGuinness’ beautifully underplayed Tim is clearly the last man who should have married Rita  ( airheaded emotional incontinents rarely do well alongside self-made venture-capitalists who don’t talk much).   But Tim gets his moment too, in a session without his wife in the room: in a heart-wrenching two-hander with Ragevan Vasan’s Sam the pair confront like old and young stags, until  under the therapist’s careful prompting the older man reveals the postwar-chilly, restrainedly British family background which never taught him to be a warm  Dad.  Wrenched out of him at last is the line “I don’t care what he does or who he is, as long as I don’t have to bury him”.  The lad’s response to an unaccustomed fatherly hug which made some of us cry into our masks was a bracing “Well, that was fucking weird!”.  Whereon we snivelled even more.

         Each family member has their moment, either questioning or drawing out the mystery  of Sam’s desperate discomfort with the human condition. For suicidality always is, to survivors, necessarily a mystery. And   there is electrifying power in the sudden admission of  Ashna Rabheru’s Sofia   “I’m tired of trying to keep you alive” .  Indeed: in these stories we do not often hear the sibling’s accusatory  pain.

        But the beauty of the play is that with or without acquaintance with such darkness almost any family will find fragments of itself in it.  Absurdity, delusion, failures in tact and understanding, wrong words at bad moments,  competition,  expectation, disillusion, and ultimately love. Nor does it promise cosy redemption: Sam is still, as we leave him standing more upright and outward-facing,  the same young man. He still has the mess of life to confront. 

       It’s well-paced (director Lucy Morrison)  with  peaks and valleys of intensity,  its language perfectly pitched, its emotion honest, the five cast flawless.   Yet another in Hampstead-Downstairs’ remarkable spring run of hits.          

 Hampsteadtheatre.com. Extended to 2 April.   

Rating four

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THE WOODS Southwark Playhouse, SE1

NOT A FINE ROMANCE

    Mamet plays are Marmite plays. You can applaud Speed the Plow, adore Wag the Dog on screen, and have a pleasurable argument with the opposite sex after a particularly vicious Oleanna (Lucy Bailey directed David Mamet’s campus shocker with brio at the Arts in August, and a fearsome treat it was).   But Mamet can also irritate the hell out of you with his characters’ inspissated conversations about themselves.   So with marmitic caution and curiosity I approached this half-forgotten one from 1977, long before he got his Pulitzer. The Southwark Playhouse is often a good digger-up of forgotten gems of any century. Always worth a try.

     Certainly the quality is here, applied with rigour though to what turns out to be a pretty ho-hum 100-minute duologue.  Two barely likeable young people have  a weekend in a forest cabin and discuss their relationship, Nature, and his random childhood memories about a bloke who said he was kidnapped by Martians.  This, and a convincing – if repetitive  – mutual sexual pawing    transforms them before our eyes from happy-camper friends  to brawling, disintegrating hysterics.   Both are excellent:  note-perfect in the depressing characters they are given.   Sam Franchum has far less to do verbally but gives a masterclass in grumpy male body language, but Francesca Carpanini as Ruth utters from the start a torrent  of free-form, rambling remarks about moods, nature, fish,  grandparents, and how she has always dreamed of being with a lover in the country in the night and has brought him a mystery present .  In moments of irritation at his inattention, she mentions how he once said  he loves her but  “doesnt know who she is”.    

              You fight in your audience corner an urge to tell her to cool it, and advise both these kids that the next weekend a deux they would do well to take a good book each and give the chat a rest .    But Carpanini  holds it brilliantly,  swinging her arms around, gangling like an adolescent one minute,  clearly irritating the hell out of Frenchum’s moody Nick.  When she shrieks “A raccoon!” – hardly an amazing thing in American woods, frankly, they’re like squirrels here –  he does at least rouse himself with a worry that it might get at the garbage , before slumping back into his moody silence.

       Sometimes their mutual lust creates a change of mood – though late on, a briefly nasty one on his part – and there is interest for a while in the possibility that he might actually murder her for the sake of a bit of quiet.    He does take a swing at Ruth, which we are supposed to be deeply shocked by though in fairness she was attacking him unprovokedly with an oar at the time.  But in the first movingly truthful bit of the whole play  he reveals his terrified fear of being left alone.  And as women often resignedly do she becomes motherly. 

           It’s quite an unnerving end, which I suppose is what Mamet wanted.  But it’s hard to care enough or laugh enough or feel enough, despite the great skill of both young actors, who deserve better, and the Southwark’s remarkably good pricing considering the talent involved.    Russell Bolam directs and Anthony Lamble’s woodland cabin design is pleasing.  But I’m not sure it was worth digging this one up just for the Mamet name.    

Southwarkplayhouse.co.Uk To 26 March. 

rating three

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COCK Ambassadors Theatre, WC2

LOVE AS AN UNCOURTLY CONTEST 

 

  In 2009 – and again in Chichester 2018 – I missed Mike Bartlett’s mischievous, half-earnest play about a gay man wrestling with his identity (and his furious partner) after falling for a woman.  Who he loves both as a person and – to his confusion – as an anatomy.  Clever to revive it in this even more gender-anxious time:  Marianne Elliott directs with her familiar paciness (it’s 95 minutes), thre’s an artful moves-choreographer in Annie-Lunnette Deaken-Foster, and a double-revolving,mirror-lined space-age crescent of a set, with weird neon torpedoes overhead, created by Merle Hensel.  An avant-garde spectacle for a play about basic biology, if you like.

       The protagonist’s problem is obviously a good one to chew over in our age of self-involved identity angst, though it is fascinating to note that even 13 years ago the characters’ ideas were binary:  you were gay, straight or at a pinch bi. No LGBTQIZ+ then.  The cast are superb  (there are actually  4 of them, but no spoilers for the new generation: the final entrant is a snortingly funny shock).  Jonathan Bailey is the wavering lover,  a bearded man-child of unformed, anxious personality.   Taron Egerton, rare in the theatre but utterly at home,  gives the lover a lovely dry, sarky, controlled vulnerability with deadly timing always,  and the splendid Jade Anouka is the woman.

        Notably, only the central cock-owning protagonist gets a name – John – while his boyfriend is listed as M and the woman  W.  They are not ciphers by any means but the device  underlines – like the naively crass line“her vagina is amazing” – a sense the little scrote’s personality and tastes reside predominantly below the belt.   He is in fact choosing people,  but thinks he is choosing a sexuality.   The exercise of which with W is, by the way, marvellously evoked by a very distanced but definitely erotic – and funny – sequence making full use of the double revolve.  If you’ve ever felt your love affair is going round in circles… 

    The story evolves in flashback and forward through the progress of John’s dilemma, culminating in a ferocious, foodless  but horribly convincing fight over him.  In which the  pleasure and real pain is sharpened by the increasing evidence that John  is not worth the battle.  As his male lover accurately says early on:   “You’re a stream. I need a river”.  John barely grows at all, while  Egerton’s M evolves in stature and dignity as you watch. He is queenily bitchy, sweetly sad, older and more centred and real than John.  Anouka is too:  cleverly, her appeal is way beyond sexual to John as she talks of children, a long future, family Christmases: a chimera but an acknowledgement of old and basic longings  (note that gay marriage was still five years ahead in England, civil partnerships only four years old and rare.  Gay families for most were still a dream).

       It also becomes clear, to the amusement of women in the audience , that John’s problem is partly that M is, though loving,  sarky and critical by nature, while W is ” gentle” and makes John feel good about himself. Thunder and lightning, is that what women are for?   Buttering up unworthy and childish men?   Perhaps some naturally sarcastic gay men watched this in 2009 and preserved their relationships by thinking  “hmmm, yes, maybe he does need more ego-boosting, better do the adoring wife thing, the full Nancy Reagan gaze of admiration..”. 

     It’s a bracing evening, and will start much talk about gender fluidity, inner identity and moden free-floating sexualities. But face it, it is basically a play about the necessity of monogamy. If John had a spine, and an old fashioned manly morality,  he would have left M’s comfy flat and thought things  through alone for a bit longer, weighing where his love really lies.  It is the vacillating and torturing of both that is the deadly sin against love. Vaginas are the least of it, they really are…

box office  atgtickets.com   to 4 June

rating four 

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THE COLLABORATION Young Vic SE1

A VIGOROUS, HEARTSHAKING BRUSH OF OPPOSITES

  

  Two artists in a studio:   the older one pale and floppily blond,  languidly self-protective, drawling,  preaching a cool  gospel of using assistants,  silkscreening,  keeping it bland: “commenting in a neutral way –  art that wants you to ignore it”.   The younger is spike- haired,  loose-limbed, vivid.  For him painting is messy,  challenging and accussing, a noisy plunge of  terrors and colours.   They have been  put there to collaborate:   Bruno the gallery-owner who will profit from this wheeze turns up with doughnuts, which neither of them want:  a Swiss Mephistopheles they both need and resent. 

         By chance this is the second play running at the Young Vic to feature the blond mop of Andy Warhol.  In James Graham’s Best of Enemies he only makes a fleeting appearance in 1968, bleating that he wants everything to be lovely.  Now in 1984 he is older, and  his declining fame  (and Alex Newman’s amusingly smooth Bruno)  tempt him to collaborate for an exhibition with the wild-child newcomer  Jean Michel Basquiat.  Black, street-art political like an infinitely better Banksy,  Basquiat is the 23-year-old darling of New York galleristes.  Many say their victim, for the art and fashion world  in its showy, flattering hunger for smart street-wise art probably accelerated his heroin abuse: he was to die at 27.

       Its an  uneasy 80’s tale in its exploitation of youth and race: Harold Finley’s A Thousand Years of HIstory covered some of the same ground at Peckham a decade ago and I was agog to see what Anthony McCarten would make of it under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction.   Mc Carten after all gave us the Two Popes, another fine example of opposites.  

       Paul Bettany makes a return to the stage as a skinny, posed Warhol; Anthony Pope is the wunderkind Basquiat.  Each is perfect and complete in every move:  from Warhol’s tight folded-arms and physical unease to Basquiat’s exuberant street-dance youth.  The voices too – affected drawl versus mocking interrogation – serve a great many gorgeous lines in the lighter-toned first half.   Their artistic differences jar, as both scorn Bruno’s first persuasions:  the young man reckons that you’re no artist if you won’t paint,  the older one finds Basquiat’s chaotic symbolism noisy and muddled.   But it is when the pair are together that things heat up, comically and dramatically.   When Warhol goes into an account of his social whirl with Jerry Hall and Steve Jobs and Salvador  and Princess von Thurn und Taxis,    Basquiat’s night-before consisted of finding a dead man on his East Village doorstep.  “DId you film it?” asks the ghoulish old cynic.  No, says the decent boy from the wrong side of the tracks : he called the cops. It was an old guy with a heart attack.   On the canvases Warhol finds calm in  symmetries and quotidian packets and logos, Basquiat says “Messy is good, messy is real life!”.   But corruption by money and fame is creeping on him.   There are a few longeurs as part 1 ends, and I felt the familiar new-play fear that the epigrammatic fun of the first half would be all we got, and wondered whether it should have been a straight 80-minutes…

      Wrong.  After a rackety interval of overhead disco music,   the classic play format proves its virtue.. Three years of collaboration past, Warhol’s hair is messier and longer, Basquiat’s wilder, the studio messier  (Warhol tries to Hoover it)  and Swiss Bruno is worried about the syringe on the sofa.  It’s coming to a climax.   The younger man’s girlfriend Maya rocks in wanting money for rent and an abortion,  and the studio fridge proves full of $50 bills; offstage their friend Michael is dying, brutalized by NYPD police for doing graffiti.  Grief, affection, rage,  desperate Haitian spirituality and manic brushwork possess Basquiat.    Warhol obsessively, homoerotically just wants to film him painting shirtless (the shots jaggedly projected on the studio walls).  The men’s distinct and opposite moments of emotional disintegration shake the room.  It’s electrifying, if you let it be: maybe some won’t,  but there’s a compassionate truth in it .  The final gentleness between them , under blazing projections of their shared chaotic colours ,  should pierce even the most rebarbative heart.   Even as we hear behind them the distant sussuration of an auctioneer’s rocketing million-dollar sales ,  we are told that art is about hearts not dollars,  a sacred human magic. 

box office www.youngvic.org  to 2 April 

rating four 

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THE FOREST Hampstead Theatre NW3

AN ORDINARY TRIANGLE TWISTS INTO NIGHTMARE

  

    The French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller hit the British theatre scene a few years ago with two comedies: The Lie  and The Truth,  which at the time I described as “a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate,  whip-smart ninety-minute treat”.   He played with questions about lies, belief, suspicion and pretended-belief which is itself a lie,  set in bourgeois comfortable homes where someone is cheating.    Later, again with a brilliant Christopher Hampton translation,  we saw his wrenchingly more earnest  The Mother dealing with distress and delusion,   and The Father which became a film,  terrifyingly evoking dementia.  He uses theatre brilliantly to decive:   imaginary conversations and events might be real,  real ones reimagined, sometimes repeatedly.  Still more tragic was the third of the mother-father trilogy,  The Son, but it had the very uncharacteristic weakness of being too obvious too early.  

        But always you can rely on Monsieur Zeller to mess with your head, fry your brain,  use the immediacy of theatre to its best.  I recount all this (reviews are far below on this site) because this is  a world premiere in Britain,  because he loves our theatre world and it loves him back. And  because while it  is not his strongest work  – watchable, estimable but not the best – it is extra fascinatingly interesting if you know the rest.   

      . For it picks up once again the question of  adulterous lies,  but combines it with his other more troubling theme of mental danger and confusion.  Once again it’s a bourgeois family – the handsome surgeon, distressed for his daughter who has found her partner cheating but comfortably insisting that these things are forgivable, and everything will go “back to normal” (that yearning phrase recurs throughout the elegantly designed nightmare that lies ahead for him) .  The point is that he – played by Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, who we reckon are the same person – is also cheating. 

       Anna Fleischle’s design splits the stage sideways and vertically so we see him with his mistress, an increasingly demanding and angrily distressed Angel Coulby,   and sometimes in a side room where he is either anxiously confiding in male friends, rebuking his daughter’s partner,  or ever more alarmingly encountering a superb Finbar Lynch in sinister lighting.  The latter is a black-clad, gleamingly whitely bald interrogator-therapist who is quite likely,   who knows, yet another manifestation of the hero himself, since we all have an invisible therapist to beat ourselves up with at times .  

        In short sharp scenes things get worse and worse.  The title comes from the fairytale of the knight who charges into a forest after a white stag and finds himself hopelessly lost and unable to get – that phrase again – back to normal.   Meanwhile Gina McKee, who was so brilliant in The Mother, has a rather less interesting role as his wronged wife, but nonetheless gives it a real, weird punch:  she creates an air of actually knowing his secret all the time without acknowledgement.   I think many wives of cheaters will recognize her: it’s very subtle. 

      Everything gets stranger,  there’s a Banquo moment, the flat fills with flowers for no reason, a portrait on the wall changes and there is a terrible death which may be real or may be imagined.  A final scene in the top room means that  I should assure you that no white stags were harmed in the making of this play.  It’s 85 minutes: director Jonathan Kent skilfully keeps it on the move and the cast achieve just the necessary dislocation – sometimes conversing from different rooms and time-scales.  I’d go again.  But then, as I admitted, I am a Zellerite.   He’s like a more humane early Stoppard. 

BOX OFFICE  hampsteadtheatre.com to 12 March 

rating four 

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SPIKE Watermill Theatre, Nr Newbury

HOMAGE TO A HEALING CHAOS

      If  – like Prince Charles – you grew up with the Goons in the background (“Ying Tong! Bluebottle! He’s fallen in da water!” etc) this will ring bells.  So will passing references to more staid shows which it eclipsed, like “Variety Bandbox” , “Ray’s a Laugh”, and the radio-ventriloquism of Educating Archie.    If ,like me, you actually started work in radio twenty years after all that,  you will still melt with nostalgia at Katie Lias’ artful set of old tape spools and microphones,  and at Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s proudly deadpan demonstration of how to do radio sound effects with a tableful of junk.   But no need for any of this:  all you need is an appreciation of the vital forces of comedy and its eternal war with respectable statis.

     For Spike Milligan, our hero, was a force of disruptive fun, joy and disrespect compared to whom our calculatedly Insta-friendly “edgy” moderns are toddlers. He had been on the WW2 front line: the explosions at the end of every sketch (often connected with the stomach of Harry Secombe as  Major Seagoon) are dramatically reflected, in Paul Hart’s deft direction, by sudden trench flashbacks. And, later, by eruptions of Spike’s PTSD.   As a brief funny  “The Critics” scene puts it at one point with arch intellectualism, the show is  “shellshock on radio”.  We also glancingly learn that the first producer Dennis Main Wilson had been among the first on the Normandy Beaches, and his successor Peter Eton was at Dunkirk.

        So in a pleasing way, it is a kind of sequel the the last play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. The Wipers Times , about the unofficial rude newspaper by soldiers in the trenches  (review, https://theatrecat.com/?s=wipers+times+r).  Spike Milligan, who not only performed but wrote these Goons Shows for about half what his more famous co-stars Sellers and Secombe were paid,  drew much of his comedy not ,as the parody critics croon,  from Ionesco and the Modernists  but  from the more solid and more awful absurdism of war itself. There are parodies of the officer-class,  evocations of senseless chaos,  lavatory humour,  and hilarity at pomposity whether of BBC executives ( corporately portrayed with fine stiffness by Robert Mountford)   or of public coverage- “Richard Dinglebury on the Gold Microphone of State”.   

        Comedy  was for Spike, bipolar and difficult and clever,  both an outlet and a terrifying chore: here are sequences of desperate, tap-dance rhythm typing as his home life and marriage got ever more strained,  his sense of inferiority and victimhood rose,  and his mind wandered, to the extent of once in his dressing-gown deciding to kill Peter Sellers for making it all so difficult.   “Do not disturbed. Disturbed enough already” said the sign on Spike’s door,  and once, sadly, he says  that in the army at least you could be funny for fun – no pressure. 

        John Dagliesh,  looking very like a mid-period Jonathan Miller,  is superb as Spike, inhabiting both the miseries and the fun with sly, audience-aware glances and drop-dead gags;  George Kemp is fine as the chilly oddball Sellers;  but the relationship which warms the play is between Dagliesh’s Spike and Jeremy Lloyd’s Harry Secombe, the Welsh crooner-comic with the infuriating giggle ever who is shown as the closest friend, properly caring about Spike both in the pub (the backdrops are Spike-style doodles) and in the nervous crisis of the second act which put him in hospital.   

    I can’t say it’s a perfect play in form,  though undoubtedly is a perfect post-pandemic pickup lark with which to spend two hours.  But what raised it for me is those moments of warmth,  a sense of tribute and of the rarely acknowledged fact that even great clowns and great stars need a bit of loving friendship.    As it happens, I was at the same table, as Midweek host,  on the now-famed occasion when a much younger Hislop had to interview the older Spike, and spilt his water so that his notes and questions dissolved. 

         And I remember not only Ian’s brief horror but the slow, spreading smile of mischief on the great comedian’s face at this disaster.  Some comics would have taken the chance to rot up their young interviewer, but he didn’t.  The warmth of the man was as real as his eccentricity and depressions, and he behaved like a proper and kindly gent.   So I liked this tribute to him, very much.  

box office  watermill.org.uk  to 5 march

rating four

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FORCE MAJEURE Donmar, WC2

MIDDLECLASS MOUNTAIN MISERIES

      Inspired programming here.   You’d find a decent overlap in any January Venn diagram of regular Donmar audiences and people who wish they were ski-ing;  and on the very day M.Macron let Brits back into France,  I was admiring the little theatre’s Alpine backdrop and a white sloping stage occasionally traversed by elegant skiers in competitive-cool outfits.  Better still, Tim Price’s adaptation of Ruben Ostlund’s film features every recognizable family ski-trip trope:  knows-best Dad not yet separable from his work-phone,  dragging them all on the slopes before getting some food in them, stressed Mum,  teenage girl who would rather have gone to St Tropez,  and a tantrum-prone kid brother whining about lost goggles and wanting to FaceTime the family dog.  Meanwhile friends,  a childfree and only semi-committed couple, are ready to be drawn into emotional eddies of family life they do not yet understand.   Perfect: one’s hopes rise for a middle-class meltdown in the style of Yasmina Reza or vintage Ayckbourn.   

       It doesn’t quite happen, the script workable but not special: yet in Michael Longhurst’s elegant production, led by Rory Kinnear,   offers a lot to enjoy along the way.  The inciting incident is darkly clever, and presaged by the eerie boom of avalanche-gun explosions.    As the family finally settle in a mountaintop restaurant for lunch, one of these is followed by a wonderful deafening roar and snow-mist half obscuring the stage,  as it is clear the avalanche is heading disastrously towards them.   

         It misses, but after the chaos it becomes clear that Daddy Tomas didn’t  – gulp! –  reach for his wife and children,  but took his phone, and ran screaming.   Silence on the subject at first (wives know how to wait their time, calm the kids). But  in conversation with the friends that evening she relates it, and he does the full Boris-cum-Andrew angry male denial:  didn’t happen, can’t run in ski-boots anyway,  she must be remembering wrong…

     Consternation grips the friends,  unable to deal with it if it happened and still less able to deal with the accusation if it didn’t.  A neurotic night follows for all.   Such trips are never quite smooth anyway (“It’s a family holiday, I’m not SUPPOSED to enjoy it” barks Kinnear).   Wife wants to go straight home and “talk about all this there”, having lost faith in life, and  especially in  him.  Tomas responds with more defiance, followed by a full admission and a crazed collapse into sobbing , wailing  neurotic self-loathing  “I hate what i have become!”.  

          Which, naturally, causes his the rest of the family to embrace and care for him, so he wins anyway.   Kinnear is quite wonderful, both in his confidence and his collapse,  deftly combining  comic absurdity and precarious maleness.   Lyndsey Marshal is good as the wife,  though even in this small theatre sometimes barely audible (TV-mumble acting creeping in),  and when the emotion rises is properly impressive, a barely-restrained female frustratee we all recognize .   The other couple, Siena Kelly and Sule Rimi (a natural comic) have a glorious nocturnal sequence as he starts to panic about his own male trustworthiness.   The children are horribly credible,  and Raffello Degruttola deserves a mention as one of his almost wordless parts is Man With Vacuum Cleaner.   It gets a good laugh every time. 

       I daresay some may have left the theatre musing seriously on the toxic potential of masculine identity,  but most of us, I suspect, were just laughing and wondering if or when we shall get to see real ski-slopes again.  As I say, genius programming for winter 2022.  

box office donmarwarehouse.com   to 5 feb

rating three

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LIFE OF PI Wyndhams WC2

Puppets move the heart

      It was a third attempt ( like so many, it has had cancellations and suspensions), and I missed it in Sheffield 2019 through illness. So  I bought any ticket I could get on a free day.  Row A, bang up against the stage,  thrillingly gazing up (technically a restricted-view) at enormous orang-utans and galloping zebras inches from my nose. The  famous oversized Bengal tiger snarled personally in my face.  I had wanted to see the puppetry, of course: Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s exquisite work, with operators uncannily sensitive to animal movement and moods, does bring such joyful suspension of disbelief that on noticing that the huge tiger has three people operating it,  I found myself thinking “Well, it needs that many, to keep it under control”.  As if it was working them,  not vice versa.

Yann Martel’s odd fable is now famous from the novel, a Booker winner, and a CGI-rich film:  its hero is an Indian teenager from Pondicherry, a sensitive dreamer who embraces all religions but maintains Hindu vegetarianism and respect for life.  He is shipwrecked as his family zoo flees political trouble to safety in Canada.  Orphaned and alone  he survives months of a Pacific ordeal in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger called – due to a clerical error – Richard Parker .  His story is told in vivid flashbacks in a hospital , to a flatfooted insurance-assessor (David KS Tse, beautifully fussy and finally human) and to a Canadian consul. 

      Hiran Abeysekera is a delight as the puckish Pi: childlike,  deep still in trauma in the hospital  to which we keep returning, but  at sea with the creatures able to draw on every memory of adult advice. He hallucinates his mother, teacher, sternly realistic father and one (very funny) British naval officer explaining the manual of sea- survival.  Which, not funnily at all, means the dedicated Hindu must kill a struggling turtle and feed on it alongside the tiger he has learned to dominate. It is no show for the fragile youngest.

     Directed by Lolita Chakrabati  and designed by Tim Hatley it is of course spectacular in staging,  fast-moving and engrossing and takes  every advantage of exotica  : from the zoo and the colourful Indian marketplace to the wide starry Pacific night.   But I had not expected to be so moved.  It wasn’t so much the boy’s suffering, fiercely evoked as that is, especially in the final revelation of what really happened beyond his hallucinatory story.  It was a wider shaking of the soul: an awareness of the savagery and nobility of the universe, of  creatures struggling to survive with joy and purpose against all odds under the dead cosmic shine of the stars.   And, in that curious parallel sensitivity more commonly felt in energetic musical-theatre,  it was hard not to be aware also of the skill, thought, and design, dedication and sweat of  theatremakers, players and puppeteers.  Because they too are struggling for survival now.  

       And of course  beyond that lay the very story of Pi battling alone and homesick and half dead, grieving mutilated animals and lost family, bargaining with the remorseless tiger.  Hard not to think of the young in even smaller boats today in Mediterranean and Channel, survivors often of tigerish humanity. So yes, emotional. 

        Yann Martel would probably approve.  The novelist, whose book was so eccentric and unfashionable that many publishers turned it down ,  said once that the story was  summarized in three statements: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; and “A story with God is the better story”

Box office delfontmackintosh.co.uk       To. 29 may

Rating four

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FOLK Hampstead Theatre, NW3

SONGS FROM THE LAND

      There’s a lovely serendipity here.  The main theatre is running PEGGY FOR YOU  (till 29th)  while the little downstairs space has Nell Leyshon’s rather lovely new play imagining Cecil Sharp collecting folk-songs in Somerset.   Both are about mentor-midwives to artists,  and artists who in return may be both appreciative and resentful.   Upstairs there’s Peggy Ramsay, not herself a creative but a devoted playwrights’ agent;   downstairs there’s an Edwardian musicologist,  wishing he was a better composer himself  as he collects and rearranges “the true song of England” from rustics. 

       Sharp felt that England had since Purcell’s day fallen behind the Germans, who insultingly called us “das land ohne musik” (land without music).   Explaining himself to the cottager-maidservant Louisa Hooper he fulminates “Scotland has her songs. Ireland has nothing but song. Wales even has songs!  But England…” . 

        “They’re wrong”  says Louie boldly. “We got songs”.   And that’s the answer Sharp has come for:  something he sees as pure and English “before the machines take over and before it all goes”.   She sings to him,  one of the hundreds of songs she got from her newly dead mother.  And yes, the hairs stand up on your neck,   especially if you recognize “Lord Randal”. Because it’s  best known as an Anglo-Scottish border ballad,  and then as a borrowing by Bob Dylan.  That’s a clever choice, since it reminds us early on that for all Sharp’s anxieties about Englishness the magical thing is  the glorious, wandering, gipsy freedom of all these songs. They cross borders and oceans.   He was right to collect them in versions passed by voice and ear, to cherish and write them down as black-dots on staves.  But he was  wrong, some say, to take lordly ownership of the old songs, to fossilize and rearrange them for trained metropolitan concert artists. That argument still goes on in your local folk club.  It needs to. 

          Joyfully,  Nell Leyshon’s artful script takes in these divisive perspectives on the legacy Cecil Sharp as Louie Hooper, the poor cottage outworker with hands sore from glove-making,  repeatedly pulls him up short.  First when – though astonished  and thrilled by  her first hearing of the vicar’s “pianoforte” –  she asks incredulously   “Can you have a JOB doing music?”.    Later she spurns his arrangement of one of the songs she has sung him  with   “I can’t hear my mother. It’s rigid, it’s tidy, there’s nothing of the wild”.   And again “You pin it down so tight!”.  “I tidied it”  he protests, a bit hurt at her lack of admiration.  Scornful looks.   This is no malleable figure for a Pygmalion:  Louie knows who she is, what her home is, and the value of the deep untidy belly-feelings her mother’s songs evoke. 

      Sharp admits that her illiteracy has been his gain, because  “if you could write you wouldn’t remember so many songs”.    Subversively,  though, this daughter of the years  before free elementary education teaches him how to sing a whole scene properly, the old way,  moving your heart from field to field and flower to flower:  he stands abashed.   But he knows and we know, that a new century is breaking,  and life  must and will change.  Louie knows it too,  rejecting sentimental fossilization of songs and ideas.   “Nothing stands still” she says flatly.  The changing countryside, the very drainage scheme of the Somerset Levels, has taught her that. 

         The songs Leyshon uses – heartbreaking, familiar now,  with their trees that grow high and grass that grows green, sad graves and loves lost and maidens chased into the bushes – were collected from various people  including the real and well-documented Louisa Hooper.  But there’s a truthful dramatic core to the whole venture in the play’s narrow focus:  an imaginative light shone on this warily friendly relationship between a slightly arrogant musical academic and a cottage girl who sings from heart and memory and love. 

     Mariam Haque is a wonderfully moving Louie,  bringing the part shyness and defiance,  a noble straightforwardness both in song and argument.    Simon Robson catches the way Sharp’s academic arrogance is softened by a real hunger for human understanding which enabled him to listen properly to the peasant or gipsy voices his class often ignored.    Louie’s half-sister Lucy, sometimes singing alongside her and  suffering her own loss of love is Sasha Frost,  vigorously down-to-earth in contrast.   Ben Allen’s restless rustic John,  keen to escape the stinking leatherworks for a life in Canada, completes the foursome.

      The set is simple, cottage to vicarage marked  by lights rising gently on tapestries and piano as the women’s workstations are spirited away.  Roxana Silbert’s direction is gentle, unhurried, respectful.  As indeed it was in RAYA,  another recent jewel in Hampstead’s downstairs.  Come to think of it, it’s the third in a row under this Artistic Director which has made it sing to the heart ;   there was also Tom Wells’ BIG BIG SKY.  Tiny no-tech space , three new plays mid-pandemic, new shakings of the heart and thoughts for the head.   Respect.  Get this play on the road this spring, someone.

box office www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 5 Feb.   

rating four 

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THE SECOND PLAGUE YEAR: 2021 REMEMBERED

PLAGUE YEAR Part 2  –   2021

 Below, if you care to scroll ,  I chronicled the shows that met my return from chemo-then-lockdown in 2020.   An enfeebled theatrical year.   Today a longer list and reflection pays tribute to 2021,  and tributes are deserved.   In  the months from May to December it was, once again, possible to see live shows and review them in London and across the country :  for me Birmingham, Sonning,  Lowestoft, Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester, Northampton and elsewhere.

      Audiences came back, often surprising wary producers with their enthusiasm.  Some were, and still are, nervous of  the illness itself, and certainly of the danger of a pinged issolation.  The Omicron variant, easy to catch and often slight, has closed a lot of shows and suspended others, which is economically a disaster.  But theatre has rolled on, brave and risky and loyal to itself and its people.   And  despite  repeatedly joining  masked, unmasked and half-masked audiences  and travelling by train and tube and bus,  I have to say I didn’t catch it.  Ventilation and care kept us safe.  What felled me in the end was just a social yacht-club dinner in Essex, with its accompanying stand-and-shout cocktail bit in a lousy acoustic. 

    On the whole, I was safest in theatres…

    So here are the figures.  Saw 60 shows during the year, two of them twice.   Paid own ticket for 26 of them rather than accept press seats, given the financial peril they face.  19 were revivals  in fresh productions;  nine were ongoing “returners”  from before the pandemic like Come from Away and SIx.  But a stonking 30 – half the total – were brand new!    To them goes  a particular congratulation.  

   REVIVALS in new production:

  A glorious Peggy For You at Hampstead is the most recent,  welcome back after years with Tamsin Greig note-perfect.  Shakespeare was served well, terrifyingly well,  in the Almeida’s Macbeth;  and  on a tinier scale the Jermyn’s Tempest was fascinating, sparking new thoughts about the play despite its apparent classicism.   Also there, it was a revelation to see Ayckbourn’s familiar Relatively Speaking at cosy close-quarters, as if you were in their front garden. 

        Oleanna at the Arts was as startling as ever in a year of cancellations and MeToo scandals;  Straight White Men was an  intriguing oddity at the Southwark,  new to the UK;  also new imports were Indecent, a remarkable evening at the Menier,  and the very peculiar, but gripping, White Noise at the Bridge.  

         To see Private Lives on tour, performed cheekily by two septuagenarians gave the bickering a surprisingly new feeling. As the NT, finally creaked back to life,  the Normal Heart was a period-piece of interest, and  Under Milk Wood was movingly  – and topically – set in a care home. 

         Other revival memories cluster around the big musicals:  Anything Goes, now streaming on BBCiPlayer, with the unbelievable Sutton Foster tapping like a fiend and singing like an angel.   Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning was my introduction to that unusual and glorious building.  And the return of Singing in the Rain had a particular poignancy, unintended, when we heard that that remarkable Adam Cooper had, during lockdowns, actually been reduced to Universal Credit and trying to get van driving jobs.  

and so to the new ones….new shows, born in adversity

  NEW-FLEDGED HEROES

  What can I say, beyond expressing awe?  That new work flourished and was put out there,  always at risk of sudden closure in pingdemic or government diktat,  is a tribute to the art and the people who practise it, onstage and off and crossing their fingers and praying in the back office.   

    We have rounded the year with James Graham’s Best of Enemies (about to start streaming from the 22nd, well worth it if you didn’t get in).  There was the pubby, riotous Wife of Willesden reaching out to Kilburn through Chaucer;  among the big shows  there was Lloyd-Webber’s long awaited and impressively rotating Cinderella,   and Frozen for the kids,  howing “Let it go!” in extraordinary icescapes.  There was a lovely, touching, funny  Bach and Sons at the Bridge, out of which we drifted dreamily on opening night to find ourselves in the middle of a raucous festival of football in the park outside.  I immediately bought tickets to go back again, with my husband; whereon it closed;  so I went later still with a friend.

       The third part of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell epic, The Mirror and the Light,  opened for less time than it should have;  nor was it quite as good as the  first two Mike Poulton adaptations, which shows you can’t always trust a novelist to make theatre come to life.    Manor, at the NT,  got monstered good and proper by all the critics except me because to be honest I rather enjoyed the quite broad acting, the scenery, and the sense of a gallant attempt to squash together a number of fashionable issues and not quite getting there.   It was genuinely not as bad as a lot of critics joyfully said….

      Whereas Rockets and Blue Lights, in the Dorfman, was really awful, and pretentious with it.  But I bought a ticket and gave it a chance.  And refrained from writing about it because I don’t drown kittens.   

      I never got to Yorkshire this year,  but some new plays demand urgently to  be seen if you can get there at all, and Northampton has weighed in brilliantly with Gin Craze:  depicting an 18c rather different to the  Jacob Rees-Mogg ideal.  The brand new musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks flew round the country, and was unpretentious, ingenious fun.  Down at Greenwich  Into Battle was a debut play, a labour of love throwing fascinating light on the WW1 generation of posh wasters who finally gave their all in the trenches.  At the Bridge,  the doughty atheist Pullman had his Book of Dust and the Herodish pursuit of a sacred baby  brought to life by Nicholas Hytner and the best ever projections creating rivers at our feet.   Ralph Fiennes pinned us to our seats with philosophical, spiritual intensity in his rendering of the Four Quartets.  

       Tiny houses sprouted demotic, quirky small plays:  Ipswich taxi-drivers were depicted in Our White Skoda Octavia,   Bobby and Amy recreated an earlier terrible epidemic in Lowestoft community theatre;   a ridiculous but gripping OPeration Mincemeat hit the dear Southwark (which later opened, and had to close,  Rhythmics, a mini musical which will definitely be back.)    The Park Theatre offered a first rough showing of the rock musical Tony Blair,  courtesy of Harry Hill.  And downstairs at Hampstead  there was Raya,  a remarkable tight little play, and Tom Wells back with Big Big Sky, as moving and real an evocation of his (and my) east coast than  ever.  

       Pride and Prejudice sort-of   was more than a sort-of delight,  and kept its tickets reasonable, unlike many West End houses.   The absence of the horrible crass racist Book of Mormon left space open for the gloriously cheeky  Windsors,  with Harry Enfield and the wittiest curtain-call ever (we had to stand and bow to the cast instead, while they just waved).  Arthur Smith roamed the land remembering his Dad  in Syd, and we found him in Colchester;  the Grenfell Inquiry and the  shocking shortcomings of “Value engineering” came to the  stage under the aegis of Nicholas Kent, master of important verbatim.   

         So there was old and new, reinterpreting and inventing,  playing and creating and believing and hoping and watching and moving hearts.  Theatre rose again. As I write, it is in danger still.  Support it, celebrate it,  let it shine. 


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REVIEW OF TWO PLAGUE YEARS,    2020-2021 Part 1

PART 1: THE ONSET

    I set out,  in this eerie Twixtmas gap,  to chronicle and celebrate the return of live theatre since May 2021.  And this will follow.  But when I totted up the 2021 score – sixty theatre nights,  30 being completely new  plays and 19 brand-new productions – it seemed to me only decent to pause, look back at the year before, and remember first how sad, how scrimpingly poor was live theatre after I returned to it in March 2020 after six months’ sequestration on chemotherapy.  The last treatment coincided with Day 1 of lockdown.   The frustration was proportionally greater…

           Theatrecat, for reasons of private principle, did not review ‘streamed’ shows,  bar one particularly valiant local effort, because it felt wrong to approach them in the same way one does after a journey to a theatre, sharing the same air as the players.    So there are gaps in this site:    t was September  before things flared into brief brave life.

          Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS at the Bridge, recreated the TV versions under Hytner and it turned out true that  one found new things and fresh nuances in seeing them live.  

  “..Amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic:   pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter…performers definitely made the most of that,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there”.

    There too in the weirdly social-distanced clumps of chairs I saw Ralph Fiennes do  David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL,  all about how Hare got Covid and it was basically all Boris Johnson’s fault.   And then – just before the iron fist of restriction closed it – there was A CHRISTMAS CAROL with the peerless Simon Russell Beale and sparky Patsy Ferran.   The joy of that – with a cast of three and careful budget – was that it took advantage to be text-heavy, DIckensian. By doing that it brought back 

  ‘“ some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street”.    

    I notice that I also wrote about SRB as Scrooge that:

    “…when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and  despised,  his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear”

     OK,  but spare my blushes. It was a bit emotional, getting back to theatre after even longer than everyone else.  A bit much, though.  

          Meanwhile other brave theatres struggled through, determined. Even with new work:  HOWERD’S END at the Golden Goose in Camberwell paid tribute to Frankie Howerd in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander.

“…[Howerd] fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way.   It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit:  tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.

      But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay  in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp  but abhorred the reality of same-sex love.  And, as in Howerd’s case,  drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims.  He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner”.   

      That was moving, interesting, good pub-theatre.  More purely entertaining was LONE FLYER at the Watermill, a tribute to Amy Johnson by Ade Morris.  And a fresh new musical,  THE LAST FIVE YEARS,  surfaced at the gallant Southwark Playhouse .   I liked it a lot and am glad it has returned in 2021 up West. 

         But the shades of night were creeping on us, the curtains falling.   Another Christmas Carol at Bury St Edmunds was outdoors, freezing cold,  with a cast of six plus a stilt-walking ghost  Hi-vis jacketed ushers,  distancing by traffic cones, all in headphones, in front of the Angel hotel in the square.  Back in London, .  POTTED PANTO opened in the daytime West End  and I noted that Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner had 

“ actually polished it up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing.  Nor is there any truth in the  rumour that panto  whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like.   There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying –  given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away”.   

 The final outing was to the Palladium and PANTOLAND,  much the same core of Wilmont, Zerdin, Havers and Clary as returned this year, with some of the same jokes.  Not complaining. Cheered us up no end in that dangerous December,  when lockdown loomed again.    I called it “a proper, silly, defiant  showbiz shot in the arm. “  And did wonder whether the royal children a few days earlier had been spared some of the broader trouser-related Clary jokes.  

         Probably not.  Anyway, it closed the day after we saw it, and the desert loomed again, for many months…. 

      Tomorrow I shall post up Part 2:  a celebration of theatre’s return to life in 

2021.   Meanwhile, as ever, all reviews are scrollable-searchable on this site for the record.

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PEGGY FOR YOU Hampstead Theatre NW3

A SHARP , SERPENTINE, SUPERB PERFORMANCE

     

    Lounging in the small hours on her office couch, under a wall of posters for her many clients’ shows – both famous and forgotten –  Peggy is fresh back from bailing out a client. Police stations, she finds, are interesting: everyone should go.  A script falls from her hands as she seizes another.  “Wonderfully written.  That’s really the problem”.  On her (bare) feet again she is soon batting off those who want her beloved clients to “whore” for Hollywood for not enough money.   “You have reached new levels of impertinence even for an American..discuss it with your fellow-pimps”. Assistant Tessa arrives,  to take down a sharp note to  “that ghastly bishop … sent me his play, retyped the title, pretends he has rewritten it’ .  There’s been a bit of confusion with the wrong cheques sent to her two Yorkshire Alans, Ayckbourn  and Plater.  She assumes they live close, Hull and Scarborough, surely virtually next door…?

     It is Hull-Alan (Plater !) who wrote this 1999 play about tPeggy Ramsay, midwife and defender of  the 20th century’s best playwrights .  Scarborough-Alan,  on first reading it,  said it gave so much about the nuts and bolts it was like inviting the critics in your bedroom.    Well, if you love plays,   this is an invitation not to miss: pile in!     Tamsin Greig, elegant as an anaconda and just as ruthless, is in herself a serious treat;   and Plater ensures both comedy and important hard-kernel ideas in her interactions with the longsuffering secretary (Danusia Samal) and three playwright clients – imaginary, but based on himself and memory of others.   The first is Simon,  Josh Finan as a gauche 21-year-old with a winning mixture of shyness and the headlong artistic self-confidence that not only sends her his play “Shades of Nothingness” but demands she come and see a scratch pub performance that very night.  She agrees, shrugging off the National Theatre’s new Uncle Vanya, on the grounds she knows the play so well she could virtually sing along.  And,  with a lovely barb, that such events tend to “put fifty thousand poundsworth of scenery between the audience and the play”, and that young directors should be kept away from “concepts”.  Glorious. 

          Any play about a real person must be, she once said, a pack of lies; but these lies are memories, appreciations, gamey flavours for which her shade should be grateful to Plater.  Not only for the reminiscences which must be real; Orson Welles eating all the biscuits, Ionesco making passionate love and taking passionate offence, Sam Beckett in Paris “two streets away from my abortionist”. 

         The second playwright is Philip, a smooth Jos Vantyler as a client at the golden-boy stage:  on Broadway and the West End, taking her to lunch, announcing his engagement.  She treats him no better or worse than young Simon.   Since the latter has asked the rare and tricky question “What IS a play?” she faces him with it, and gets some artsy clichés – “A celebration of our humanity. A message to the future..” etc.  But the best answer came earlier , as she mused about the Humber bridge:  you set out in the fog not knowing where it leads, then the mists clear and you have arrived somewhere.  That stops the heart; so does an extraordinary moment when she quotes Henry IV part 2  and the rejection of Falstaff “I know thee not, old man”. 

          That’s artful.  It prefigures the hard core of the play. For the first half,  I worried it might be just an entertaining tribute-band to Peggy and her era, darlings all the way.   But the third client is Trevor Fox hard-bitten, Geordie, fed up with her, giving his notice, refusing to be dazzled by her  whimsical distractions.   He is the only one to silence her, with a devastating “I wasn’t mad about the real Lucille Ball”  so why a “cheap imitation”?  He is angry at her assumption (clear in her dealings with the engaged Philip) that life has to be lived chaotically if there is to be art.  

           The mist is clearing, we are nearing the revelation at the end of the bridge.  For all the darlings and wit,  we need to see (and love, and forgive for art’s sake) the vital splinter of ice in her heart.   Calls from newspapers tell of another client’s drunken suicide,  and Tessa, genuinely upset,  is told to negotiate fees for obituaries by fellow clients.   Peggy  just says the man had stopped writing. She doesn’t care. “I don’t respect writers, I respect their work”.   Asks Henry about the obit and when he rasps “I don’t dance on graves for money” she replies “No point doing it for fun”. 

      But an apologia saves her for our exasperated, impressed love.   Roaming the cluttered shelves of plays she points out that her mind is full, constantly full, of every kind of drama –  new takes on Romeo and Juliet, rites of passage,  “two psychiatrists going mad in adjacent rooms, Casanova Meets The Government Inspector, set in Woking..”.

     Oh yes. Think I’ve seen most of them.   All honour to those who write plays and fund them, but to those who find, encourage, defend and sell them a special tribute is also owed.  This, I think, is it.   Loved every minute. 

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 29 Jan

rating four 

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PANTOLAND mk2 Palladium, W1

A PRIMA DONNY JOINS THE FEARLESS FOUR

 

  Last year as a family we came to see the doughty quartet doing this variety show, an adult-joking  non-panto to fill the fearful gap.  It was the day after the royal children had been there.    Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot, Julian Clary and NIgel Havers, alongside Jac Yarrow and – that year- Elaine Paige and Beverley Knight.  Foolery, top ventriloquism from Zerdin, the Underground-stations song from Wilmot, big musical numbers filling in time, routine persecution of Havers as “underpaid minion”, and innumerable trouser-related jokes from Clary. 

          The next day, they closed for lockdown 2, haemhorraging money and hope.  So it became a golden memory of a gallant attempt,  light-theatre’s answer to the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

        So,  when my Life of Pi matinee was taken off for Covid,  I found the cheapest seat in the house – £25,  a marooned single in the stalls, not bad, always worth looking for singles – and joined a riotously determined queue down Argyll Street to get in to the 2.30 and report.

      Well, some of the jokes are recycled, as well they should be:  the Covid ones to a masked audience  still relevant (“looks like the invasion of the J-cloths”) though I didn’t hear my favourite one from last year, when Zerdin’s puppet leered to a woman in the front row ‘get your nose out for the lads!”.   One excellent new one (sorry, trouser-gay related again, that’s Clary for you) was the frou-frou MC saying he called Andrew Lloyd Webber and was told he was busy, “I’ve got Chris Whitty on my back…So I said Andrew, if that’s what it takes..”.

        The big turns are similar, though the Tiller Girls were a surprise. And, of course the outsider headliner was Donny Osmond.  I hadn’t noticed that on the poster,  so at last the shrieks of middle-aged ladies in that street queue made sense.  From inside an enormous mad blue kaftan and cloak he  howls out a specially written and truly atrocious opening number about how Pantoland “makes you who you are” or something,  and later does a rather fine mashup of Crazy Horses and a well-taken-up singalong of Love Me For A Reason. 

       Oh, and a duet with Clary,  whose shtick, as with Zerdin’s puppet duet last year with Knight, is sending up the song line by line.  I could have done with a touch less Donny,  but he was game, and it was fun, and all the acts – especially Zerdin – are top class. And the costumes, especially Clary’s, are quite wonderfully silly.   Oh, and of course there’s the pleasure of Nigel Havers,  who gets wild cheering whenever he comes on ever since his Coronation Street cad-with-a-finally-golden-heart affair with Audrey Roberts the septuagenarian hairdresser.   All respect to him at 71, leaping round the stage in a Buttons uniform or giant pudding;  in this break he’s actually halfway through a national tour of Private Lives (scroll down for theatrecat verdict).  

        And Nigel it is who gets to make the joke about a cheese and wine party with Boris. I hope by tonight they’re doing the new-baby jokes, and the fancy-wallpaper jokes.  The government owes us that.

      Inappropriate to rate it. But it’s a laugh, and it’s back, and the Palladium should always be packed in the Christmas season, for that is its nature.   Hope it stays that way.   

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BEST OF ENEMIES Young Vic SE1

1968 AND ALL THAT 

James Graham’s mission might seem unfashionable: trawling 20c history and public culture, looking not for villains and heroes but for the nuances of human behaviour,  the nature of argument and the futility of hating or “cancelling” an opponent rather than listening, and valuing the fact that they are fallible human beings shaped by idiosyncratic forces and habits of thought, just like  you. He did it with MPs, with Labour loyalists, with tabloid hacks and the very Murdoch himself; he did it with  possibly-cheating quiz contestants and their TV exploiters.  He bends his eye on them, recreates, wonders, tries to understand,  and without unsubtly banging the drum delivers lessons for today.  

      This time he is in the US, and  the famous debates between the extreme right-wing, patriotism-and-family, traditionalist William F Buckley Jr and the maverick cosmopolitan controversialist Gore Vidal, friend of Kennedys. They were recruited by the failing TV network ABC, whose ratings panic is very funnily evoked as they disguise it with flapdoodle about “elevating public discourse”.The idea is that the men should comment, from their different sides, on a series of election-year conventions.  In other words, entertain the nation by tearing lumps off each other in a style now common but then considered odd.  “Opinions?” Cries an old-school presenter “The News does facts!”  Ah, the old days.  (Another interesting prefiguration of the future, by the way, is when Justina Kehinde as Aretha Franklin torch-songs her way through the Star-spangled banner and some are appalled: today in the US  that showbizzation of the national anthem is a norm, but makes me grateful to think how rarely we do it. The only big example was Brian May twanging it on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Golden Jubilee..)

       Anyway:  Charles Edwards is a superb Gore Vidal,  his elegant lightness evoking the still-young controversialist who knew that you should “never refuse sex or a chance to be on TV”,  who got teasing fun out of calling Buckley “Billy”, but who after the brutally suppressed Chicago demonstrations is  genuinely shaken and afraid for what is happening to America.  Buckley, in a brilliant stroke of casting, is played by David Harewood.   The real right-wing bruiser was no respecter of people of colour, of course, so that might seem odd, excellent though the actor is:  but in the event there’s an interesting bite when in this very diverse South London theatre you have Harewood – who is black – eloquently condemning the liberal elite for self-indulgence and a lack of contact with ordinary working people.  

     Around the debates and tactical plotting scenes, up pop figures from Mayor Daley to James Baldwin, Enoch Powell to Tariq Ali;  between scenes, surges of demonstrators rush through the central arena with smoke and placards and racket (Director Jeremy Herrin is a master of keeping clarity and pace through quick-move, filmic fragments).  A flash-forward at the start keeps you aware we are building up to the explosive moment when Vidal calls Buckley (who had served, albeit Stateside, in WW2),  a “crypto-Nazi” whereon Buckley calls him a queer and threatens to sock him in the face.  At the start we had seen the TV executives horrified (“Sponsors? never mind that, my MOTHER  rang!”) . But in the reprise at the end they realize with delight how it has pushed up the ratings. Thus beautifully making Graham’s point that media behaviour has now driven us farther and deeper into this kind of ad-hominem poverty of constructive argument. 

    It’s an entertaining, instructive, questioning, honest play, with a downbeat and  moving end as the two men might speak after their death.  If like me you came of age in 1968,  shaken at the assassinations of Luther King and Robert Kennedy, arguing with your Dad about Vietnam and horrified at  Powell, then seeing it recreated is obviously catnip: student demos both sides of the Atlantic, hippies, an absurd flop-haired wimpy Andy Warhol.  But to newer generations would all this, I wondered, seem like just a history play?.  I think not.   In the interval I got talking to a young neighbour (the Young Vic atmosphere is always like that) and he was as engrossed as I was, and observed with sad wisdom,   “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”.   

Box office youngvic.org to 22 Jan

Rating four

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THE BOOK OF DUST Bridge, SE1

PULLING OUT THE STOPS FOR PULLMAN

    First things first: this is the most wonderfully evocative, romantic and dramatic bit of set-projection you will see all year. Bob Crowley, video maestros Luke Halls and Zak Hein, Jon Clark on lighting, take a collective bow.  They write with light. So on a rippling river sweet-flowing  or tempestuous, through a branchy,  steepled and Prioried Oxfordshire, two children pilot a birchbark canoe on a desperate mission to save a baby.  And we believe.      Ashore, cobbles or grassland, a college quadrangle and the Trout pub at Godstow effortlessly rise around them.  

     It is, ironically, more of a staging coup than all the rather annoying lit-up chatty “daemons” which express each  characters’  essential Id in the hands of scampering puppeteers. Though I do very much like the worst villain’s hyaena , with its papery head and nervous laugh. 

      For this is Philip Pullman’s fantasy parallel world again:  after the triumphant Dark Materials trilogy a few years back at the NT, Nicholas Hytner (and ace adaptor Bryony Lavery) have got their hands on the first bit of the  “prequel” story of the heroine Lyra’s birth. The  dread Magisterium – a sort of 15c Catholic police state, familiar from Pullman’s  rather dated paranoia about organized religion in the later episodes – wants to destroy her. 

       You might, in a woefully uncharitable spirit, wonder why a writer so repeatedly and  Dawkinsly passionate against Christianity’s stories would write a fable about – er – a sacred baby who according to a “prophecy” is born to save the world from cruelty , and who is pursued by Herodish authority and spies. And wonder also why a writer who inveighs against CS Lewis’ Narnia would populate his river with similar old gods and witches , and give everyone a talking animal as a daemon. Even if he does add woo-woo scientific stuff about matter having  consciousness and a scholarly divining device called an alethiometer (Lewis had mere old fashioned wands etc, clearly not hanging out with as many physicists and cell biologists as his humanist Oxford heir). 

    But never mind all that. It’s a kids’ book, a love song to Oxfordshire and  a grand bit of storytelling in this skilful ,fast-moving and visually beautiful production     Its hero is a young find too: Samuel Creasey, on his first professional show, leads with charming, stolidly nerdy brio as Malcolm, the pub landlady’s 12 year old son and potboy, full of heart and adolescent decency, drawn into a dangerous world as the icy grip of totalitarian prelates intensifies. Ella Dacres’ Alice  is great too: shoutily fifteen, angry and contemptuous of Malcolm  until in the timeworn tradition of older children’s books they become friends in adversity.  

      It’s lovely casting, and as chief enemy and sanctimonious preacher Ayesha Darker also does a fine spike-heeled ,smart-suited nightmare CEO-lady; Pip Carter is a villainous villain, with all the unsettling sadistic sexual menace Mr Pullman likes to add.  Dearbhla Molloy as a kindly nun, and later an equally Irish Doris in a rebel camp, effortlessly steals every scene she is in. 

      So did  the first-night baby, who while sometimes prudently replaced by a dummy and sound effect is often on,  smiley and self- possessed and drawing aaahhhs and sighs from the audience which palpably hopes for another look. Even when supposed to be paying attention to mad stuff about the consciousness of matter, dons upset about research funding,  or who’s got the  missing alethiometer.  

     So Hytner and the brave Bridge have thrown genius at it, a big show in an edgy time, and as there are two more episodes to come Mr Pullman would do well to confide them to this crack team of interpreters. Because (how did you guess?) I found  the books far leas then gripping, never could finish one for mere irrritation at not buying into the fantasy, but I rather enjoyed the show. Result.

Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 12 feb

rating four but the fourth is a design mouse


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THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE Birmingham Rep

A REVIVING REVIVAL

     Do you need to be of a generation to remember Morecambe and Wise, to which this play is a loving tribute-cum-amiable-ripoff?  Probably not. They are stamped on the national memory, probably genetically.  And anyway, there is universality  in the  idea of pretension overreaching itself in “the serious thea-tah”,  and even more in a comedy duo in which the straight man yearns to go legit with a  serious play and is conned by his larkier collaborator into thinking he has a contract.  

     The central pair do not attempt to be lookalikes,  but to channel the essence of our heroes.  Dennis Herdman is  taller, gangling, physically hilarious;  Thom Tuck smaller, neat, fussy, with a bit of a strut and a nice  edge of uncertainty.  At one point they actually quarrel over who will be the funny one with the black-rimmed glasses, but we know really, and so do they…. and there’s a real edge of pathos in that. Brilliant. Mitesh Soni is the butt of both, a theatre electrician persuaded into various undignified roles (notably a ginger Scarlett Johannson with knickers showing) when what he really  wants is to play a harmonica solo in memory of his mother.  That gives it an element not in the original shows, and helps it move away from tribute-band territory.  

     This production has a tour coming, but for me was worth a pilgrimage both to a notable revival and to the shrines of various comedy gods: not only Sean Foley who co-wrote it twenty years ago and now directs it for the first time in his new job as AD of Birmingham Rep;  and also (since nobody ever mentions them much) the producer and lover of all thing funny David Pugh, who is actually an character in it.  The hapless Arthur has to impersonate  him:  Soni plaintively Brummie, small and camp in a white suit and baker-boy cap.

     The great thing about  Foley is that as director , writer and sometimes performer he has happily spanned the breadth of comedy from drily intellectual all the way to the end of the pier, and off it with a resounding splash.   No awful pun, no repeated fall off a wall,  no ridiculous prop or set detail is too broad: designer Alice Power, take a bow and join the comedy gods.   We sort of expected the talking skeleton, but not the entire row of dancing ones, the dungeon rack and jenga moment, the inflatable towering  palms, giant breadstick or enormous curtain- dog. Thank you.  

     The Morecambe and Wise echoes, even apart from deathless Braben jokes like the ice cream van, are done with love and delight: Arsenal, “Rubbish!”, the odd cheek-slap,  the curtain gags and of course the breezy contempt for the guest-star dragged in to the eventual play.  Who was, on this opening night, Tom Hiddleston.   Not being a follower of the Marvel franchise in which he is Loki the horned god of mischief, I still thought of him mainly as either the Night Manager of the Olivier-winning Coriolanus (and yes, there’s a joke on those last syllables, as there should be. Never waste a rudery, it’s panto time).   Longtime fans of the play reckon it is always best if the guest star (they’ve ranged from Jeff Goldblum to Geldof)  isn’t a comic, and that if a classical actor they should mercilessly send up the fact.   Hiddleston is perfect,  pompously announcing that he ‘does his own stunts’ and demonstrating a school-gym forward roll before struggling, with classically-trained pain, to make  Thom’s subliterate lines work.  His “I am Loki” is met by Dennis with a sigh of ‘Mm.You’re pretty high maintenance tonight, love”.  He isn’t. Hiddleston must do more straight-man comedy. 

    There are plenty of surprise jokes which, amid the general merriment, stick out as memorable.    Birmingham should be especially grateful for one new word.    Thom Tuck’s lone plaint when he tries to leave the act is dubbed a “Solihulloquy”.  Now that’s  a word which just has to stick.  

Box office birmingham-rep.co.uk. To 1 Jan

Touring on until March.  –    Bath, Salford, Chichester, Malvern, Sheffield

Rating. Four 

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THE TEMPEST           Jermyn St Theatre SW1

ISLAND OF WONDER AND UNEASE

     

  One of the interesting, rewarding quirks in Tom Littler’s small-but-perfectly-formed Tempest is that Tam Williams doubles as Ferdinand, the ultra-virtuous shipwrecked Prince,  and  as a particularly farouche barebreasted Caliban — unrecognisable in a ragged white whole-head mask. Which is great for Williams, since Ferdinand is quite a dull part and Littler has, interestingly, directed Caliban as not only savage  and resentfully dangerous but a creature existing in real and constant pain, fear and confusion. When Stephano the sottish butler gives him a drink, one is rather pleased for the poor monster.  Given that Caliban is nowadays a problematic part  – an indigenous islander taught and harshly disciplined by Prospero – this is extraordinarily effective, and Williams’ writhing rage  gives it disconcerting reality. When Rachel Pickup’s splendidly vigorous Miranda confronts him over his rape attempt, the brief scene flies.

     The other doublings are neat, and the “clown” parts in particular work well: Peter Bramhill a Yorkshire Trinculo, Richard Derrington a bowler hatted and I think Welsh butler.  Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel is a Gauguin beauty, melodic, engaging, and again interestingly not (like some Ariels) cocky, but so cowed and eager to please that there is a nice edge of colonial unease there. “”Do you love me, master? No?”.  

       And as for Prospero himself, in this production which was a triumph of casting and hope before the pandemic hit it after six shows, he is no less than Michael Pennington. And classy as ever, despite the oddity that he is “on the book”, reading from it throughout. Which obviously reduces his eye contact with usand his physical moves. I was disconcerted by this aat first, but closing my eyes for a moment or two when he was alone onstage realized it didn’t matter:  I was beguiled by his impeccable, deep-felt RSC delivery and thought it rather increased the dreamlike oddity of the whole play (the shipwrecked party are all in pajamas or dressing gowns).  After all,  Prospero speaks constantly of depending on his books, of learning, of his library (nicely evoked by sea-wave curved shelves in his cell). Maybe he is reading us the story, and we are children, captives of a fantasy.

       It’s odd, and I’d like one day to see him an upright and authoritative Prospero, more dominant, thundering. But it’s a play I have loved all my life, and this bijou, quirky production has made me see new things in it. Result. 

BOX OFFICE  jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to  22 Dec

rating four

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FOUR QUARTETS Harold Pinter Theatre

GLIMPSES OF ETERNITY 

(Review first published on D.Mail, in shorter form)

       This is wonderful. Sometimes a simple short  performance can shake, rouse, even change you.  So step away, I beg you, from the mundane rush of earning and spending, leave the gaudy Christmas streets and the scrolling, nagging screens. Sit quiet for 75 minutes while a tall, high-browed, slightly haggard man reflects on time, eternity,  mortality. Feel with him the “still centre of the turning world”, the piercing wonder  of those moments when suddenly something immense  fills you,  then slips away, uncatchable. 

   TS Eliot write these four long poems in the 30s and 40s: they are not easy, but their music and images have great power. Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before, but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision. It feels, in this performance, that he did: reaching out (though no human ever quite grasps it) for the meaning of those moments of eternity.   They might come in a silent rose-garden, beside a crashing sea, in distant voices of children , or  fire-watching by night in the Blitz (as Eliot himaself did).  

     Fiennes learned the poems in two sessions – pausing between lockdowns to perform David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL , which is about how Hare caught Covid and it was all somehow Boris Johnson’s fault). As he did, it came to him while the lockdowns made time seem to squeeze or stretch for everyone, and mortality brushed closer,    that the four might be performed physically. That somehow it might serve us all. He toured it first, exhaustively, without the high high prices of the West End. The idea of personal performance, directed by himself though without vanity I think, was genius: because we are carried along by his physical presence and his moves – sometimes dramatic, sometimes almost playful. It is set on a simple stage with great revolving grey walls: dark spaces open and close as he wanders between them,  sometimes pushing one to create a different space and perspective. The meditation moves from exaltation to despair, even amusement. Eliot is sometimes  lyrically beautiful, often learned, but also suddenly stops to consider his own baffled inability to express what he glimpses. Fiennes makes good use of this, sometimes seeming to appeal to us, sometimes alone deep in meditation. That long tour of this extraordinary show for months may have given it still more depth. It is worth drowning in. 

RATING 5.

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COME FROM AWAY   Phoenix WC1    REPRISE 

worth going again I say.. 

Just thought I should mention to theatrecat readers how wonderful this show it.  Saw it twice before the pandemic, nipped back to a matinee a week or so back.  To see if the human magic of it still holds.  It does

   It tells, with so gas and fiddles and stamping Celtic-Canadian vigour, the heartfelt and heartening true story of how the population of Gander in Newfoundland foibles in size over a few hours in 2001. It welcomed 33 shocked, frightened plane loads of travellers made to land at its normally quiet airport and stranded for days when US airspace was closed after the 9/11 attack.  If you didn’t catch it in London in those months before Covid hit, one’s the time.

    It stands tall, without pretension, above all the other familiar theatrical shoots sprouting up – and drawing crowds again, and ovations, and the odd tear. It remains a joy. It affirms, in its very particularity and eccentric local colour, the most immense and important generalities about humanity. The very fact that planes criss cross the globe bearing every class  and race  and temperament and religion all together and trustful in fragile metal tubes makes it universal.

      It is about fear and suspicion and suspense and bickering, kindness and bigotry demolishes, about  logistic inventiveness,  globalism and hometown. All at once. If you don’t shiver with a tear at the church scene, I pity you. Even more if the  wild fiddle tunes at the end and the exhausted triumphant grins of the big cast don’t get you on your feet. 

     If you can go, go. 

atgtickets.com      to 12 feb 2022

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MANOR Lyttelton, SE1

2021 BRITAIN IN A STATELY STORMY NUTSHELL

   Just what we needed, I thought!  A good old state-of-the-nation black comedy with a semi-derelict Manor in a howling storm,  the sea wall about to breach and motley strangers staggering in for shelter.  Very British. Even more so since their reluctant hostess is a titled chatelaine bewailing the uninsured ruin of the “wedding barn” which was going to pay off the debts, while  her more level-headed daughter points out that it wouldn’t have done anyway. Oh, and soon there’s a corpse on the kitchen table.  

     So sit back, eat a sneaky  Malteser, enjoy. Relish the theatricality, from ten vigorous performances to a glorious set by Lez Brotherston who has exploded the key elements of stately-homeliness into crooked slabs under a wild sky:  stained-glass windows, a vast staircase, a grand stone fireplace and a neatly sketched kitchen complete with Aga and corpse.  

       It’s no Ayckbourn though: Moira Buffini is attempting something more toughly topical: environmental disaster, a far-right upsurge, interracial unease, feminism.  This does mean that it’s a bit of a muddle, perhaps partly due to her characteristic glee in the absurdity of the ten characters. On the other hand, that lack of an earnest one-note direction makes it engrossing, often very funny, sympathetic.  Nancy Carroll is Diana, once a ’60s model who fell for a rising rock star, Pete (Owen McDonnell).  Now only their daughter Isis  likes him and he is off his head on magic mushrooms, brandishing a WW2 Lee Enfield  and lurching into druggy mysticism about creating art in the storm. Until he falls downstairs.  

     Cue sudden wet visitors:  a neat 57-Varieties of Brits. A stranded vicar  (David Hargreaves, master of innocent deadpan sweetness).has brought along the Ripleys:  Michele Austin as a black single mother, an A & E  nurse-practitioner attempting a quiet weekend in the country with a furious teenage daughter (Shaniqua Okwok, bare-tummied and wailing for WiFi).  Next come moody Ted and his sidekick Anton, reporting that their blind companion is still stuck in the flooded car;   to complete the fun, big hopeless Perry (Edward Judge, a master of hapless lovable comedy)  demands his meds from his waterlogged caravan.  “I’ve got blood pressure. And issues. And diabetes. And joints”.  He is pleased to meet Ted (Shaun Evans) because, like £5 millionsworth of crowdfunding fans,  Perry reads Ted’s “Albion” campaign website.  It’s all about restoring Britain to a land of strong men, warlike knights, empire, submissive women who are nonetheless noble “shieldmaidens” and lesser races kept in their place under strong authority.  

    It rapidly transpires that this fascist ideology stems from his lover, the blind academic, Ruth, who is brought in from the car with an unaccountable wound.  The comedy as she is tended with teeth-gritted professionalism by Nurse Ripley is beautifully handled, as is Ripley’s attempt to persuade her that as well as being a mad fascist she is an abused woman.  Indeed all the social nuances, rows and mutual dislikes are deftly done, with some great laughs. There are some overblown conversations about Buffini’s big basketful of issues, but great moments too:  as when Diana insouciantly goes to bed like any bored posh hostess, while in blankets round the fire  everyone else responds to an uncomfortable night  with degrees of resignation, self pity, selfishness, phlegm, or in Ted’s case a sudden ambition to make the manor  Albion  HQ .   

      He tempts the more vulnerable to his cause with the usual Mosleyish flapdoodle about strength and orderly joy, and gets some distance for a while with Diana as a “man of action”.  But he’s not quite convincing: Shaun Evans does his best but the character only comes together  very late on, when he moves from pound-shop Mephistopheles to panicking weasel. Never mind:  events keep coming,  up to a quite intense moment of temptation and decision and a proper apocalypse.   Which, frankly, is a bit  annoying because if ever a play needed a  third act (“The following day”), it is this.  

      But the very fact that I wanted more is evidence that I was enjoying it.  Carroll’s Diana is perfect,  Edward Judge blissfully funny in his moment of shoulders-back pride as one of the new “knights of Albion’,  Shaniqua Okwok as the nurse’s daughter a  powerhouse of youthful fury to watch.  They are all cast to a hair, though Evans not quite as fascinating as he should be,   and  Buffini is honourably evoking our age of cracking social bonds and baffled extremism.  That the gift of  truth might  reside in a drugged-up waster having a vision of time-and-space warps is one possible conclusion. Another is that wannabe fascist overlords become helpless cowering weasels in the face of love, solidarity, and a damn decent A&E nurse.

    It is in slight defiance that I give it the fourth mouse, because I had a great time.

Box office national theatre.org.Uk to 1 Jan 

Rating. 4.

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THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN Kiln, NW6

SIX CENTURIES ON,  IT’S GEOFFREY CHAUCER’S ROUND  

     Zadie Smith humbly refers to her first play as more like “homework” than the novelist’s usual dread of a blank page. Chaucer, after all, laid down its tale,  framework and attitudes 600 years ago with the Wife of Bath. She entertains fellow-pilgrims on the Canterbury road with a long personal prologue about her five husbands,  cheerful attitude to sex and clear-eyed view of male delusions.  And for those who have read Chaucer, probably long ago,  it is remarkable how close Smith stays both to the spirit and the stories in this deft and jolly modernization.   

      The rumbustious Clare Perkins in her tight red dress and Cockney-Jamaican patois may refer to wifi, buses , Jordan Peterson  and other pillars and plagues of modern life but she’s gloriously Chaucerian all the same.   Attitudes to clerics, St Paul, all male theoreticians and female prudes,  annoying husbands and – emphatically – a woman’s right to sexual pleasure are all there.  Especially the latter: if I was a man her line “Your body is my playground!”would set me trembling with nervous apprehension.  She’s a bit Donald McGill that way.   But it’s the intelligence, the witheringly female perception and realism, that are at the heart of the character.

          The setting is glorious.  She dominates a lovely, bottle-lined, patched-carpet London pub set by Robert Jones, conjuring up each husband, best-friend and pious auntie from the locals as she lays out her life story and robust views in the first hour,  and finally  in the last half hour turns the lot of them – carnival-costumed-  into the characters of the actual tale she tells.   It is the old one about the knight forced to wed a “loathly woman” who then becomes lovely,  transposed from King Arthur’s Court in Chaucer to 18c Jamaica with magnificently poetic patois. 

          This is, deliberately,  the Kiln’s joyful invitation to its local multicultural community to come back and come round to rejoice,  and I hope very much that a lot of it turns up, beyond this opening night’s theatre regulars.  It’s selling like mad, I hope to some big local groups with discounts,  but seats are always reasonable here and go down to £ 15 full-price:  and frankly, I’d go for the gallery or the back stalls anyway for a better view, and avoid the sides if you can’t get one of the pub tables.  It would be a pity to miss any of the pantomimic larking or have to keep standing up and craning as I did. 

       But wherever you are, it’s fun, and refreshingly faithful to the ancient larkiness of working-class England.  Among the ensemble with the wonderful Perkins I specially liked Ellen Thomas as Aunty P and the Old Wife, and Marcus Adolphy as, among other things, a black Jesus. Andrew Frame, as the lone straight-white-middle-class-male among her wives, is also shamelessly funny in his various humiliations. But they’re all great, and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction ( movement and fight directors have been painstakingly at work) is creative, fast and funny.  You get the sense that the fun they’re all having absolutely includes and invites you.  That means a lot.

Box office.  Kilntheatre.com. To 15 jan

Rating four

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VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE     Charing X Theatre, WC2

A CHEKHQUERED RESPONSE 

        Vanya and Sonia are siblings – though she is adopted – and have led dull dutiful lives in a remote country house surrounded by cherry trees and an orchard,  funded by a more successful city sibling,  Masha,  who is now coming to disrupt their weekend and tell them she plans to sell the house. Vanya meanwhile is writing an experimental play which will get nowhere.  Sonia reckons they have never really lived.  If you think you recognize a Chekhov set-up, you’re right and it’s deliberate: stiflingly so.   Openly, too, as the rural pair reminisce about their parents’ community-theatre obsession with the Russian playwright.

      It all feels very upmarket-sitcom, very laboured,  though brightens up a bit with the arrival of Masha,  who is the peerless Janie Dee at her most comically assured as a fearful and tactless diva five marriages down (“I”m beautiful, talented, charming, successful, why do they leave me?”). She is trailing a dumb boyfriend Spike (Charlie Maher) parodying every preening pop hunk ever, keen to get his shirt off and run round the auditorium in his pants to a supposed pond.   Masha is off to a costume party, where she will be Disney’s Snow White and the others are cast as the seven dwarfs in unbecoming costumes provided by her. 

     Only Sonia decides to be the Wicked Queen (‘as played by Maggie Smith”, instead) scrubs up, and opts to spend the party  (which occurs in the interval) talking in a nasally drawling Maggie Smith voice.  So far, so sitcom.Though Rebecca Lacey is very good in both the Maggie imitation and  – as the play finally develops – in expressing the real pain of a sense of empty forgotten life.

      Sometimes you go to a play which won an award, in this case a Tony, spend the first hour mystified by how this could have happened,  and find  the puzzle at last almost solved by a barnstorming second half.  Here, in particular, by a culminating rant delivered con amore and tempestuoso by Michael Maloney as Vanya.  Note to playwrights: leave us with a good memory and we forgive a dreary start. 

      Maloney, who had hitherto spent far too much of the play sitting on a wicker chair, often dressed as dwarf Grumpy, is provoked into a magnificent tirade against the callow dimbo Spike, who is texting rather than listening to his play.  “I worry about the future and I miss the past” he cries, yearning for the dutiful worthy dullness of a smalltown 1950s Main-Street-America when people licked stamps and posted letters,  and all wept together when Old Yeller the dog was shot.  He sets it against today’s vapid online frenzy, gnatlike attention span and toddler-accessible porn . It is rather  magnificent. It speaks for a generation,  even if they suspect (what with the racism and limitations of 1955) that it’s nonsense.      

      If Christopher Durang can write like this – and brilliantly conjure up the preceding emotional scene between two women, and the awful comedy of Vanya’s play voiced by a molecule in space –  If he can do all this, why waste so very much of our time in the first half,  strafing us with winkingly knowing Chekhov and Greek tragedy  references and random theatrebuff insiderism?  When a character mentions Pirandello some of us reach for an angry biro. And why, on top of that – introduce a semi-comic cleaning lady called Cassandra who – though doughtily played by Sara Powell – repeatedly delivers pointless and pretentious prophecies of doom just to justify her name? In the second half this maid proves to have supernatural powers for a few minutes, and so wearied by theatrical-literary references was I that I immediately thought “ah, Blithe Spirit”.  That’s how damaged you can be by extreme self-referentialism in theatre.

     But I wasn’t sorry I went, and this theatre is often the best value in the West End (alongside the dear Jermyn),  and it’s never a waste of time watching Dee, Maloney, and Lacey.     

Box office. Charingcrosstheatre.co.uk. To 8 Jan

Rating 3 

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LA CLIQUE Leicester Square Spiegeltent

      

ROLL UP! IT’S BACK!

Ah, Christmastime!   There’s nothing like a buff chap in spike-heeled patent thigh-boots somersaulting in the air to make you feel festive. Unless it’s a fire-eater in a glittery orange bikini, or a bloke dressed as a hotel bellboy who has painstakingly developed the rareified skill of chaning his entire outfit to formalwear while balancing on one arm on a pile of suitcases.

 La Clique, international circus-cabaret from newly liberated Australia, is on its fifth year in a  Leicester Square Spiegeltent after many an incarnation across the world, and the setting in the Christmas market absolutely suits it. We were  merrily inclined from the start, what with the fairylights and gingerbread,  and this year’s acts (visibly and glowingly delighted to be on the road again) are as beguiling as ever.    MC  is Bernie Deiter, a Weimaresque German-Australian  jazz chanteuse in a series of gloriously mad glittersome costumes (what is it with cabaret people and tartan?). She movingly tells us at the end how she was locked down in Melbourne for fourteen months, no work ot tours, and that they’re all thrilled to be back on the road.    Roars of joy from the crowded floor.  That sense of performers grateful to be back and appreciating audiences has been strong this autumn in concerts and plays alike; never felt anything quite like it.
     La Clique’s  performers are always quality, from several continents; :   top acrobatics, and the deathless Skating Willers (third generation incarnation)  turn up again this year with terrifying near-death whirling. But  it’s the unexpected acts which are is the joy of La Clique’s mix. Some are classic: Heather Holliday sword-swallows (can’t watch!sorry! especially the curved scimitar, that’s new to mr and just too inadvisable) but she also fire-eats , with spectacular humour and skill.   And the highlights were surprises.  Craig Reid,  The Incredible Hula Boy fresh from Vegas, is all beer-belly, lederhosen and pretzel-throwing in a whirling tangle of hoops (used to be a computer programmer, he says).  His hula act is great fun in the first half,  but in the second  the vaudeville classic quick-change tube-act with Mirko Kockenberger (elsewhere a dazzling acrobat) is pure joy, as witty as it is bafflingly skilled..   So is J”Aimime, who does a lovely variety-classic one-as-two ballroom dance act, with a jacket and hat on a stick. It has a very topical MeToo conclusion as her invisible partner actually gets her shiny dress off.  But her other act, described by her as “Balloon eats awkward blonde girl” was brand new to me, and glorious. I have no idea what magical fabric that balloon must be made of, and still don’t quite believe what happened.   But we were all just credulously gleeful by then; abd as we all were punch-drunk near the end, there was  a most extraordinary ,rackety musical parade round the tent by Leo P,  the pink haired saxophonist from Pennsylvania.  His twerking moves make the young Mick Jagger look like an arthritic Benedictine. , and Jagger only had to strum, not blow. The lad’s lungs must be phenomenal.  Ah, go on, mice! give them the Christmas cheese…

Box office lacliquetheshow.com to 8 Jan

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.       Southwark Playhouse, SE1

A HUMAN ZOO OF ALPHA MEN

There are good plays to be written about white male privilege, and about modern capitalism and its relentless expectation of self-promotion and constant advancement at the expense of sanity and morality.  There is also always room for more plays  about adult siblings reverting to childhood resentments.  This one, by Young Jean Lee  – reportedly the first Asian-American woman to have had a play on Broadway – has a fair tilt at all the above, but it left me a bit frustrated.   

        There’s  some banging rap music as we settle, and a nicely sly introduction by two nightclub-glitzy figures, of whom more later: they, not white at all, and in one case definitely a ‘her’ pronoun, are billed as “Person In Charge”,  curating as a show or zoo the performance of the eponymous white men.  This takes place in the Christmas-stockings, workaday home of widowed Ed (Simon Rouse) who has got his three sons round for the festive days. Well, Matt the eldest lives with him at the moment, very housewifely in his ways, and divorced banker Jake and youngest bro Drew have breezed in for the three days of Christmas. So far, so Ayckbournian – as the teasing persons-in-charge say,  that format is the straight white male of theatre. 

     The young men’s relationship seems based heavily on extreme banter, teasing, wrestling and – though not for long enough, because it’s interesting – getting out an adapted family Monopoly set reorganised as Priviege-checking. . For they are all well schooled in white male privilege and its guilts by their late mother, and none of them really knows what to do about it. Matt (a performance of finely judged benignly depressed helplessness by Charlie Condou)  actually says this in a late line – that he “doesn’t know what the answer is or whether  there is an answer”. 

       He is living at home, doing volunteer work and part-time, saying he “just wants to be useful” and that it isn’t political.  The pivot incident of the play (too much of which is taken up by the really annoying bro-banter of the others) is when Matt bursts into tears at a meal and the others don’t quite get why.  But it leads to the point of the piece.   Jake  (a vigorous Alex Mugnaioni),  is ashamed that in his company he knows he deliberately doesn’t bring on women or interns of colour  to client meetings,   even though his own kids by his estranged wife are mixed race.  He praises Matt because he thinks  his brother is being virtuous, doing the right thing,  because he’s a white male getting out of the way to leave success to the less privileged. 

       Matt denies this and clearly is mainly depressed. His question “why do I have to have a career?’ Makes everyone  annoyed, including Dad Ed who finds it “repugnant” that he doesnt want to make anything of himself. The idea that Matt might be a loser for no political or ethical reason enrages Jake.   Which is interesting,  but leads nowhere much. 

       The frustration for me was how little use was made of the nice device of book-ending it with the non-SWM characters.  Kamari Romeo and Kim Tatum, both in nightclub gear, glittery-slinky-sexy, one Zambian-American one Polish-Jewish-African-American (I think I caught that).  All very LGBTQ+++, gay-leatherwork-harness and, spikes in hair, much glitter:   ineffably charming both of them.  But they vanish after  the start and appear at the end briefly, meanwhile  only turning up once in a silent sequence where they fill a binbag with various things of no notable value, including a rainbow flag.  

      I really would like more of them:  they could have popped in once or twice to take the mick out of these men,  or at least roll their eyes a bit at some of the annoying bro-banter.   They could have  pointed out, for example, when the brothers start dancing (to banging rap of course,and a  female vocalist) that it is pure cultural appropriation.   As in any club night full of cool white kids, all the moves are shamelessly pinched off black street-dance.  

       It’s just one of the jokes – and we do need jokes around this subject- which the play doesn’t have enough fun with.  Condou is a real treat, though, wish we saw more of him.  And as with so many Southwark productions, worth it. 

Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk     To 4 Dec. 

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PRIVATE LIVES Touring, Chichester next

THEY DO NOT GROW OLD AS WE IN THE STALLS GROW OLD

     

May as well tell you,  last week I had the ultimate pensioner experience, and it was a blast.   A midweek, senior-price matinee in staid Richmond for the new touring production of Private Lives (no idea when press night might be is for Christopher Luscombe’s long delayed production,  it’s been to Bath already anyway.   I just bought tickets for curiosity).

          The curiosity was because Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are more than double the age Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda to be: 70 and 75.   That is getting on, even these days, for a runaway  romance with old flames, abandoning two new spouses in a Deauville hotel on their honeymoon and subsequently breaking things over one another’s heads in a Paris hideaway. 

        But goodness, it works.  Pensioners ain’t what they used to be, as the matinee  audience absolutely knew,  and there was much chortling at every bicker and making-up.    Love is love at any age, but we all fell  about with a particular glee at the gloriously recognisable way that when Amanda turns down Elyot’s lovemaking on the sofa on the grounds that they’ve had a heavy meal,   he gets up miffed but is caught by a sudden leg cramp. The only flaw is that the “five years” separation in the text ought to be rewritten , with the Coward Estate’s permission, as twenty five . Just for realism. Otherwise the fact is that play fits the quarrelsome exasperated affections of middle age quite perfectly..

       Of course both players are sharp and  brilliant comedians. Havers gets a roar of applause on his first balcony appearance, probably because way beyond the stage he is beloved for his stellar performance as the octogenarian Audrey’s dodgy paramour in Coronation Street.     But he always gives good cad-and-charmer, and here he is glorious:   from the first panicky twitch of his smart blazer when he spots Amanda on the next balcony,  to a peerless demonstration of how to eat a brioche with maximum  impertinence in the final scene.    And Hodge is his equal. She does look near to her age (well, to the most impossibly-chic versiont of it)  but in her striped pyjamas is sexier than many a younger women in her devil-may-care recklessness. And the pair achieve the fight, the smashing of a record over his head,  and the lounging and the reconciling. All done magnificently, lithe as well-preserved panthers. It’s a joy, sparking Oohs and aahs and giggles and barks of laughter all the way. Matinee idols both. Respect. 

         One thought did wistfully come to me  in the first scene. Simon Higlett’s design is fabulous – especially the Paris flat, very arty-twenties – but in the first scene there are two other  hotel balconies, looking functional,  above the principals’ ones. I sort of wanted another pair of couples – maybe their far younger selves – to appear ghostlike up there,   maybe even speak an amazed line or two, meta-style, about how strange and wonderful it is that we all grow old yet never change…

rating four

Touring: Chichester on Tuesday,  then onward till 23 April    www.noelcoward.com for details

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BOBBY AND AMY               Seagull Lowestoft, touring on

TWENTY YEARS AGO, ANOTHER HEALTH CRISIS CHANGED LIVES

  

Just before the pandemic closed everything down, Emily Jenkins’ deft two-hander  won a top Edinburgh Fringe award and many plaudits.    It took us back two decades  to the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis:  six million mainly healthy cows were shot and burnt on pyres, the army had to be called in;  family farms, traditions and carefully bred herds were ruined,  eight billion lost to the economy,  footpaths and whole areas fenced off to the public.  

        It is interesting to be taken back to  memories of that time, in the aftermath of our own human health crisis: you can draw private parallels about poor planning, slow response and authoritarian government enforcement creating a sense of unease in communities normally happy to look inward and get on with their lives. 

     Kimberly Jarvis and Will Howard play 21 parts,  at the centre of it being two teenagers in an unnamed small town in the Cotswolds.   He is an oddball – probably living with a degree of Aspergers, obsessed with counting and finding safety in facts.  They are friends, hanging out together round an old folly tower in the fields,  both with difficult family situations.   Vocally and physically they evoke a whole town:  an angry father, a weary mother with a troubling new partner a bit too keen on Amy,  local bullies, a pharmacist, a helplessly blustering council official and – importantly – a local farmer who gives them a ride on his tractor and lets them watch the difficult birth and survival of a calf in the barn.  Amy takes the farmer’s voice and hauls the calf clear:  Bobby, rigid with nervous fear,  strokes  the invisible cow’s nose, calming her, and when the calf coughs into life,  names it Abigail.   All this is finely evoked in the empty black-box setting: classic fringe skills from both performers.  

     So that when the fences go up,  and the government orders, and the terrible fire where they glimpse skulls, eyes, faces, Abigail, her mother –  the shock is considerable to all of us.  And the words “Something inside us has shrunk” are met with still, attentive horror.    And of course the farm will be sold. And houses built on the green land, and “holiday home” signs up, and Range Rovers, and their world has ended, and the farmer’s tragedy is completed. 

         But during the time of change the teenagers protest occupying the old folly,  naive and simple-hearted,  the misery of it all alleviated by the support of the town who, again rather wonderfully,  the two of them evoke from their eyrie.    And time goes by, and we glimpse their new  evolving near-adult world. 

       Because Jenkins’ intention is not to leave us all miserable, but to remind us in 75 minutes of a crisis, a neglected community suffereing its impact,  and the way that in the end, we all have to carry on.   If it comes your way, give it that hour or so. 

box office    bobbyandamy.co.uk      TOURING to  27 November:  dates left are 

    Artsdepot tonight, then Harlow, IoW, Tonbridge, Folkestone, Farnham, Colchester, Wells next the Sea, Swindon

rating four 

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TOP HAT The Mill at Sonning

FACE THE MUSIC, AND DANCE!

      

This was a new outing for me.    I have long loved the Watermill some miles west,  but I hadn’t really registered the Mill at Sonning with it’s even bigger – and working, and electricity-providing –  waterwheel ,  roomy ancient bar and elegant semicircular auditorium with perfect sightlines everywhere.  It makes you wish there were even more theatres in old watermills: they’re obviously ideal for it. 

     Anyway, several reports had assured me that Irving Berlin’s Top Hat was being given all it needs, out there by the Thames banks, not least top quality tapdancing.   They were right. This is the frothiest,  most absurd of the golden-age film musicals (everyone’s FredAstaire-way to movie heaven).  It is a gorgeous wisecracking nonsense ,  with a plot based on a single improbable misunderstanding spun into absurdity gold.   Kenny Wax got the rights to do it on stage in 2011, whence it toured the UK with extra Irving Berlin songs and duly hauled in Oliviers at the Aldwych.  

     But how does it do on a smaller scale?   Excellently,   not least because the extraordinary percussive mass tap-sessions are  even more exciting right up close;   and there is something almost pheromonally stimulating about being in the actual room,  not at all far from the energetic, impossible athleticism of top dancers. Whether hard tap, soft shuffle or ballroom it has  dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone, as witnessed in a certain amount of scampering and attempts to shuffle in the gravel on the way to the car park.  Well, in my case anyway.

      Jack Butterworth is a light-footed whirl of mischief as Jerry Travers,  Billie Kaye just the right foil for him, both of their looks pleasingly in period (Jason Denvir’s set is wonderful Art Deco,  and ingeniously turns the backdrop and cramped wings into a Broadway stage, a park, two elegant hotel rooms with big beds and the Venice Lido) . Tiffany Graves and Paul Kemble are irresistible as the put-upon producer Horace and his cool sarcastic wife Madge,  bringing the house down with their big late number about hating each other (“Outside of that, I love you!”).  Delme Thomas is suitably ridiculous as a cartoon Italian dress designer in snow-white spats, Brendan Cull suitably weird as Bates the Valet,  and Charlie Booker,  making a professional debut among the fantastic fast-moving ensemble,  gets a special camp moment of his own. 

       Actually, one of the pleasures of this daft piece is that so many performers do get their high moment,  as well as the four principals.   And of course the vaudeville-level wisecracking crosstalk is vital. Magnificently terrible 1935 jokes:   I had completely forgotten that gag “You don’t know what it means to come home to a woman who’ll show you a little love a little tenderness.  It means you’re in the wrong house”.  Beautifully delivered: we all barked delightedly.  

       Jonathan O”Boyle directs with speed and elegance,  and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is a marvel.  Well, show-dancers close up are a marvel anyway.    To make it all still jollier, for a proper night out under the ancient beams  the £69  ticket includes a two course buffet dinner (top steak and ale pie!) . I have rather taken to the Mill at Sonning, and am very glad its angels and the Covid Recovery Fund mean it’s still here.  A Christmas treat. 

 Box office  millatsonning.com    to 8 Jan (wisely having a Christmas break, though, so get booking)

rating four  

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SIX Vaudeville, WC2

Reprise: they’re still at it, as good as ever

     If I were a PR for the Society of London Theatres,  I would get these six performers together for a photocall with the five from Pride and Prejudice (sort of), and announce them as the female first-eleven of London theatre.  Sisters are doing it for themselves, all right. And both shows are a delight.

   SIX of course has been around ever since in 2017 a couple of students – Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – for an Edinburgh fringe joke decided to give voices to the wives of Henry VIII, as if they had in the afterlife formed a Spice-girls style band and were competing for who had the roughest time with old Henry.  They will tell you in the programme that it was all about the authors’ “individual journeys discovering the discourse surrounding gender”, and that it’s aim is giving female historical figures a voice and drawing parallels with today, through use of the pop- concert genre.

    All valid and pleasingly millennial, though wise to put that stuff in the programme rather than the advertising.  Because the actual experience of this “historye-mix” is a gig: a pop-rock-ballad-techno explosion of highly-lit, rackety, jokey, booty-shaking in Tudor-inspired hotpant-and-hi-thigh slutwear and fishnets (hell of a leg show), with the odd dash of neon and a lot of sparkles.  It’s brilliant.  And goodness, it’s clever: daft rhymes like “tried to elope, but the Pope said nope” and “my loyalty is to the Vatican, try to dump me and you won’t try that again”, and plenty of high-spirited bitching,   but also slyly-inserted historical edges about everything from  the dissolution of the monasteries to Katherine Parr’s campaign for the education of women. 

    The music is well-paced: rackety numbers like Boleyn’s followed by the poignant love song of poor Jane Seymour so the audience can breathe a bit.  And in this incarnation, its second West End theatre since the post-pandemic revival, the casting is – like everything else – well thought out.  They’re all great singers and movers, but gorgeously diverse in physical type and character. Courtney Bowman is a mischievous worst-girl-in-the-school delight as Boleyn, constantly pulling rank because beheading scores higher than divorce or “ordinary death”;  Jane Seymour is given a romantic grace by Natalie Paris,  and as for the superb Anne of Cleves created by Alexia McIntosh, words fail me.  She’s glorious, furious at being dissed after the Haus of Holbein (a great chorus) creates a Tudor Tinder-profile,but gleeful at being pensioned off without a “wheezy wreck 24 years older” to boss her about. She towers over tiny Katherine Howard (Sophie Isaacs), a determined sexpot whose comeuppance is surprisingly moving;  and Catherine Parr rounds off the six with dignity before they all decide that women shouldn’t just fight among themselves and  in the end they win, because they’re a lot more famous than any other royal wives.   

       It is, in its return to the West End, yet again an utter triumph. And frankly, after a wasted afternoon watching the film SPENCER,  where a lachrymose and hopeless Diana is haunted by a rather less entertaining Ann Boleyn,  it redeemed my day entirely..

Box office.    Sixthemusical.com.     Booking pretty much forever

Rating. Still 5 royal mice.   

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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE    Duke of York’s Theatre

 

THE MYTH AND  TERROR THAT CHILDREN KNOW 

  

     Sometimes a violent rip occurs in the thin veil of materialism ,commonsense, morality and law.    Children know this: a bereavement, a glimpse of a corpse you must be forbidden to look at again, an adult who beneath a smiling face is a chaos of filthy rags and crawling horrors.   Down the centuries storytellers and mystics and believers in the demonic have woven these terrors into stories and rituals.   Fun is made of it all at Halloween, and decorous solemnity calms it in the prayer of quiet evensongs. But it’s always there.   In a theatre, even a cherub-gilded playhouse, the sense of it can be released in sound and spectacle, clouds and crashes and half-seen giant batwings, set against the clash of homely reality.

      And here it all is.  I came to it cold, Neil Gaiman’s play (adapted by Joel Horwood) having  passed me by in the Dorfman just before lockdown. And coming to it cold has advantages: it is a story about children, and to some extent for them (though I wouldn’t take the youngest: they need to be of Narnia or Pullman age to be confronted by complex terrors and bereavements and take a story for what it is. The hero, James Bamford (a Cursed Child Potter veteran), convincingly plays a twelve year old . He has not only lost his mother without helpful talk about it by his frazzled father, but is alarmingly confronted with the darkest of adult mysteries when the lodger takes the family car and uses it to kill himself after, it seems, a financial disaster.  Wandering out to a duck pond down the lane he learns from a confidently cheerful young farm girl, Nia Towle as Lettie,  that it is an ocean. A strange coin is found a fish (50p not a sovereign, for the solidity of Gaiman’s myth throughout is in the mundane details). Lettie warns him that it may be a sign that the sudden death nearby has “woken up” something forever lurking, predatory and evil, on the edge of their reality…

    So the playmates , with her as experienced leader and mistress of ritual, head through thickets (wonderfully evoked by stage managers who also whisk furniture in and out, it’s a fast moving show). And they meet It:  the dreadful Something, unnameable except as “flea”.   And it is shatteringly terrifying, a vastness of ragged skeletal  wings and sticks and beak, in dim light, dark puppeteers part of it and its terror. Lettie can “bind it” but not destroy.   Later the pterodactylesque black spirits of hunger summoned to attack it are even more alarming,  and I am a grownup with a notebook but my heart hammered.  Worse still, IT can shape-shift and be a person, a smiling new family member.  Laura Rogers.  Lettie has power – whoever or whatever she is, possibly nothing at all, possibly one of a witchy trinity led by Penny Layden as a serenely powerful farm grandmother .   And the nightmare, or breakdown, or serious spiritual crisis, which the boy undergoes is real – as the old woman says “truer than any hard facts in this universe”.  And it is on a level more fearsome than any Narnian or Tolkienesque or Carroll tale.

      Some make simplistic metaphors about adolescence, puberty, bereavement, teenage mental health.   Not me.  I loved it because it is a new retelling of the most ancient of true legends,  the shivering courage that confronts supernatural evil.   And, of course, because the puppetry and ocean-waves are magnificently done:  a bow to director Katy Rudd, and to  Fly Davis and  Samuel Wyer, and the movement director Steven Hogget. They all earn the extra design-mouse below.

www.atgtickets.com    booking to 14 May

rating four and a set-mouse

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INDECENT PROPOSAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

COULD YOU? WOULD YOU? FOR A MILLION BUCKS?

Here’s a struggling young couple (well, not that young,  both on second marriages and he has a daughter going to college). Along comes a billionaire, offering a million dollars for the wife to spend one night with him. Will they or won’t they, and what will it do to them? The film, from Jack Engelhard’s novel, rather confused the morality of some of us in the late  80s, n because the rich exploiter was Robert Redford , and even the blokes fancied him more than the drippy husband. 
       So there was an existing curiosity for me about what Michael Conley (book and lyrics) and composer Dylan Schlosberg, would make of it as a chamber musical.And  Southwark is always worth a punt.  And designer Anna Kelsey has set Charlotte Weatenra’s production in a beautifully seedy nightspot: the Ruckus Room In an awful casino resort in Atlantic City under a washed up compère-chanteuse Annie. Who frankly steals the show because she is Jacqueline Dankworth and a great credit to her parents. So atmospheric is that set hat you can almost smell the stale beer , vomit,testosterone, gambler-panic  and disinfectant.  

    So far so good. But one problem is that the music , absolutely right for the seedy, mawkish plasticky  setting, never rises to express the reality of emotions as it needs to in a musical.  Norman Bowman and Lizzy Connolly do their best as the couple, and she has some good low-key numbers alone in her bathroom, offering the best example of singing through cold- cream and eyeshadow remover you’ll see this year.  But the weakness of the early scenes means it’s  hard to believe in their relationship,   and the few zingers in the script rarely fall to the lot of the supposed stars. The best indeed are from Larry the rich tempter – a suave Ako Mitchell. Notably when, late on, the sacked old Annie in her spangly jacket drily asks “Any advice for an older woman who’s broke and unemployed?”. “Yes” he replies. “Don’t be any of those things”.  Ouch. 


       A puzzle for me is that nothing is made of the fact that in this casting Larry is black and the couple white. Which normally would be unremarkable race-blind casting but…this is Atlantic City, not unknown for racial tension, either in the past or right now with BLM demonstations . And in the original novel (an aspect ignored by the film) the husband is Jewish, and the billionaire predator Arab.  

   Yes, using that extra edge even subtly  would have made it a different show, but certainly a grittier and more satisfying one. As it is , all we have is the disintegration of a not very lovable couple’s relationship, and a few good lines about the sovereign power of money. But it is a reminder that I want to see a lot more of Ako Mitchell in big roles.  He deploys an excellently judged flatness in his most outrageous lines: so when he pleasantly says to the husband after buying his big night: “It was nice doing business with you”, hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

It’s unusual for any peace loving woman like me to want to see someone punched in the face, and to struggle with your own affront when it doesn’t happen…

 Box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. To 27 nov
Rating three

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