Category Archives: Theatre

Kunene and the King. Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE OLDEST HAVE BORNE MOST…

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 23 April

 

rating five5 Meece Rating

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THE TIDE JETTY              Eastern Angles, touring

SECRETS AND MEMORIES IN A WASTE OF WATERS

     

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

 

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

           

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

    

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

easternangles.co.uk     touring to 1 June

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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ADMISSIONS                  Trafalgar Studios , SW1

CRACKS IN THE LIBERAL VENEER

   

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

    

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

  

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

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

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

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

   

box offfice www.atgtickets.com    to 11 may

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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MARY’S BABIES            Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

A COSY NIGHTMARE LEGACY OF THE 1930’S

 

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

  

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

  

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

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

    

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

 

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

rating  three  3 Meece Rating

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DOWNSTATE Dorfman, SE1

BRILLIANT, NECESSARY,   QUESTIONING

  

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

 

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

       

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

   

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

     

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

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

     

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

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

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY              Theatre Royal , Bury & touring

WHAT THE BUTLER CAME TO KNOW…

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

     

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

 box office   01284 769 505   to 30 March, 

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

rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE PHLEBOTOMIST                 Hampstead Theatre, NW1

WRITTEN IN THE BLOOD

 

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

 

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

  

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

    

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

    

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

 

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

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

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to  20 April

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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