Category Archives: Theatre

BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS

 

This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.

 

In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up)  to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school .  His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a  (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun,   and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.

 

It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness,  to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.

 

But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame)  is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.

 

As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.

 

There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.

 

Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also  give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.

 

So, all in all,  smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions.   But not in a Big way.

 

box office 0844 847 1775.  to  2 Nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Guest reviewer Ben Dowell wishes an important story was better told…

 

The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company,  is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling  the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however  in the form of a 2 hr 35-minute play .

 

It’s certainly  cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s pay. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and  sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den) ,who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrongand gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities. 

 

The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability.  Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Pebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.

 

Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of  trucks in order to win compensation . And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue , in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.

 

Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative.  This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle,  and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story,  factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.

hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October

 

2 meece rating

Rating. Two

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HEDDA TESMAN Minerva, Chichester

THIRTY YEARS LATER AND STILL FURIOUS: HEDDA’S BACK

 

     Last night, while Parliament spiralled into disorderly, resentful confusion and Mr Bercow dramatically put an end to himself after a lot of furious shouting because other people didn’t accept his “re-alli-tee!” I was having a parallel experience at Cordelia Lynn’s new updating of Ibsen’s most troubling heroine.  Who, significantly, the original author called by her maiden name Hedda Gabler:  perhaps to indicate that the most toxic influence in her life is her father the General, whose huge portrait dominates her married home and whose pistols she fiddles with in preparation for her final suicide.   This updating author  calls her by her married name:   poor affable dull academic George Tesman , who is here given almost too much likeability by Anthony Calf.     She,  on the other hand remains Ibsen’s sarcastic, prickly figure,  an intelligent  woman trapped in an 1890s patriarchal society.   The other men in her life , according to Ibsen , were the volatile Lovborg, another academic writing a “brilliant” paper despite being  drunk, brilliant and doomed ,  and  the patriarchally controlling  Judge Brack.    As everyone knows, it ends with a gunshot.  

 

       Cordelia Lynn,  for this version   has imagined that it’s thirty years later (but, a bit problematically, actually 115 years later, and therefore right now).  Her Hedda didn’t shoot herself in the head when pregnant but lived on, had the baby, called her Thea, didn’t like motherhood and spent decades feeling under-used, degraded by wifehood, intellectually frustrated and bored stiff of George’s enthusiastic research into “Domestic crafts in medieval Brabant”.    They’re back from two years at Harvard,  starting to unpack (the box with the pistols in first, obviously)  Thea is deep in therapy,  moved out to live with Aunt Julie,  then walked out of a brief marriage , and hasn’t spoken to herparents for five years .  But she bursts in,  mardy and cross, full of shrill demands (in the interval I looked at Parliament channel online and the echoes were remarkable).    She says they must invite Elijah (a version of Ibsen’s Lovborg) with whom she has been collaborating on a handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future”.    She also says that Elijah is off the booze, but we all know how long that’s likely to last. What with the moody twangling of a piano dimly seen overhead,  a sinister spotlight on old Gabler’s portrait,  and the temperament of Hedda herself hanging over the household like a rancid thundercloud.  

 

   Lynn keeps close to the shape of the original play,  but mercifully expands the tiny role of the maid Bertha to be a cheerful, normal agency cleaner who speaks merrily  to the un-mothered Thea about how much she enjoys being a Mum, with all the worry and laughs.  That’s touching.  So, in a way, are the scenes between Hedda and the daughter she resents; and there are some good, weird sparks between Hedda  and Irfan Shamji’s ’s louche Elijah while she prepares a celeriac and expresses her frustration to him.  

     

      She, of course, is the main reason to go and see this play:  for Hedda 2019 is Haydn Gwynne. And from the moment she descends the stairs – to be no help at all with the unpacking –  the woman is mesmerizing:  a tall pale streak of vivid resentment,   every turn of her head dangerous,  every smile faintly deranged even when her wit is sharpest.  She shines,  demanding our partisanship even in her most bonkers statements about self-destruction being “beautiful, brave, brilliant”  or her self-absorbed refusal to join her husband at his aunt’s deathbed.    “You know I can’t have anything to do with hospitals or death” she says haughtily,   milking away at her thirty-year-old experience of her father’s death. 

        She’s immensely watchable, and utterly awful, and it takes all Gwynne’s finesse, and the directorial devices of Holly Race Roughan,  to make us see deep enough into her pain to sympathize.  Well, a bit. . Even though she is living in 2019 , with a pussycat of a husband, no parental responsibilities and a cleaner to look after the house , so  any frustration she has is self-inflicted. 

 

       But more and more, there’s a sense that what you are seeing is some damn fine acting in a rather ho-hum play.    Jonathan Hyde’s Brack is suitably saturnine and finally satanic;   Natalie Simpson  as  the daughterThea is fascinating, and there is a bat-squeak suggestion – – due to their similar colouring and the intensity of their collaboration – that perhaps Elijah, not poor old George,  was actually her father. But that may not be intended.  What jars most is the sense that the stark despairs  of Ibsen’s heroines are not the despairs of our own times,  and his social  injustices are not ours.  Nor is it easy to accept the idea that the most terrible thing n the world is the loss of Lovborg-Elijah’s handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future” . It sounds  hell. 

       But Haydn Gwynne  in full snarling Hedda mode  is something to see.   It suited the evening.  As I staggered out to watch the news online,  I could only reflect that only she could make the resigning John Bercow look mild and resigned.   

www.cft.org.uk    to 28  September

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON Old Vic, SE1

IN  PLAYFUL  ANGER,   A TALE FOR OUR TIMES

     

  On his deathbed in 2006  the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed , to make public what had been done to him.  The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble.   He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before-  and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest.   Police work at last pretty much proved this,     but governments of both colours  explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity” .  There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers  Lugovoi and Kovtun,  or to remonstrate with Putin.

 

     But in their teeth,  his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers  fought for a public inquiry,  and ten years later it reported damningly.   She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this  extraordinary evening.   At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A & E,  is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself:  gangling, earnest, decent,  a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB)  who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it,   refused the “wet job”  of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky,  and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts.    He couple believed in British justice ,  but it failed him after his death.   And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”. 

 

     The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience,  meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning.    Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony. The two absurdly incompetent murderers  – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls .   Between the domestic stories of the LItvinenkos and  the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs., one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky  about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs. There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily  patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play,  and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus.    But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real –  based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko.    It is satisfying that Prebble,  who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning,  should do it again with even more fury,   using theatre to entertain and appal  in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might  “go down in flames” .

 

     It won’t.  The very absurdity of the killers  (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral,  and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders .  Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella;  have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide.  There is nothing tasteless about anger  being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it.  And the human reality is held constantly before us  in the  shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko. 

 

     Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city  will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her  and shame at our shabbiness.  It needed telling.  

box office   oldvictheatre.com    to 5 Oct.    It deserves to transfer.

principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

     

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HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

OLD TIMES,  OLD  SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW

 

With Parliament in uproar upriver ,  the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a  “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”.  Just the night to hurl  some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session.  It’s  a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all. 

 

      It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right,   brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with  that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.     For younger readers who may naively imagine  a binary political split on the question,  it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming:  only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage.  Time moved on.  Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.

 

But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury.    Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am,  stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.    But subtly,  beneath it lies  a more personal  anger whose cause only gradually emerges.    Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty,  and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal  theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.  

 

     .  There are many laughs.  But Robin  is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery.  The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties  unearthed uncomfortably by human reality.    Vulnerabilities widen in both,  in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple  had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened  Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day.  She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it . 

 

        Best not to reveal all,  but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory,  Toynbee ’n Tebbitt,  Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all.    Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression.  Oh, and  the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago  when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise  quite decent people dreaded encountering it.   Regrettable, wrong, cruel,   but true.

 

BOX OFFICE  nationaltheatre.org.uk       to  25  nov

 In cinemas 7 November    www.ntlive.com

Rating   four  4 Meece Rating

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THE ENTERTAINER             Curve, Leicester & touring 

BITTERLY BRITISH

 

   It was  a good mix of ages in the Curve audience,  so perhaps a  public service to remind the rising generation, awash in Brexindignation,  that Utterly-Despairing-Of Britain-Especially-Tories is not new.  It’s been a tradition ever since 18c cartoonists mocked John Bull.   John Osborne”s disgusted play about a washed-up, alcoholic  comedian whose son is at war dates from 1957 – Suez & Macmillan –   but Sean O’Connor    has hauled it forwards to the 1980s  – Thatcher and the Falklands.   Though to be honest,  if you’re going to move it on  three decades  you might as well go further and drag it right up to Blair and Iraq, and make the vaudevillian into a game show host…

  

      The story of Archie Rice,   his downtrodden wife Phoebe ,  old school Dad Billy,  son at war and stepdaughter seeing through him has been hailed as a masterpiece from Tynan to Billington and beyond.    It’s last big outing was in Kenneth Branagh’s London season,  and I have to admit I found that one  flat and dated,  and unkindly snarled about  the “ long and tedious line of male ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision.”     Partly the problem there was that Branagh is no Ken Dodd:  the stage-interludes should convince that this was at least once a comedy pro.    In O”Connor’s production Shane Richie (famed from  EastEnders, TV hosting and tabloid gossip)  is a lot better:  in a spangly purple jacket  he evokes all the horrid hectic desperation of shiny-floor show hosts.  He’s as nasty as Bernard Manning,  as knowing as Howerd, as scampering as Forsyth but without the smile.    

       

           The director-adaptor has a brilliant eye for newer songs:  Rice’s  rendering of  the Eurovision “I was born with a smile on my face” positively chills the blood,  as does his final “Those were the days” .  We also get a storming second half opening – against Sun and Mirror headlines about the Falklands War, riots and unemployment – as Richie in a Thatcher costume does Noel Coward’s “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”.   A song which Coward, of course, wrote in gaiety to mock the post-war gloomsters of 1952.   Here,   Osborne’s Archie Rice means every word of it   as he snarls “It’s as clear as crystal From Bridlington to Bristol That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care”.  That got a laugh, on Proroguement Day.  The other notable response from the stalls was gasps at the heavy-duty sexism, misogyny and racism of our hero.  “Owwwww!!” cried a young girl next to me.

   

            It’s cleverly done,   if sour-tasting.   Richie is also good in the offstage scenes, in the claustrophobic family home with old Billy –  Pip Donaghy giving it the full  Alf Garnett but showing an older decency behind it –  and Sara Crowe is an excellent Phoebe,  the eternal demonstration that  behind every grumpy bastard you’ll find  a woman trying to make things nice again.   It is a bit one-note – hectic, angry,  drunken, hopeless – but that’s Osborne for you.  

      O’Connor ramps up the hatred of pointless wars and deaths for the Union flag,  relishing that Osbornian question “Why do we just lap it all up?  Is it just for a hand waving at you from a golden coach?”     Richie has genuine depth when he steps forward for that terrifying admission of how dead he is behind the eyes. And I had forgotten the best line of all, which is his explanation of how the great comedians work, as his former hero Eddie did, in a denser version of the commonplace,   seeming  “to be like the general run of people,  but more like them than they are”.    So not sorry I went.  And it’s a bit of theatre archaeology everyone should know.   But I needed a drink afterwards, and I still don’t think it’s that great a play.    

 

 

Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next

dates & box office   www.theentertainerplay.co.uk  

rating three

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EDITH IN THE BEGINNING Sutton Hoo

A STRANGE RESURRECTION, BETWEEN WARS

 

    A red sun was setting beyond the trees as we gathered around a square, isolated house in the golden-hour splendour.    Here the land rises above the river Deben,  and with medieval man’s arrival artificially rose higher  into grassy mounds.  In the greatest of these barrows slept, for a thousand years,  Raedwald the king:    coffined in the long ship dragged up from the water and  surrounded by treasure.  From this quiet earth in the 1930s rose  gold and jewels,  a sword and helmet, intricate brooches and pins, platters and drinking-horns.   This is Sutton Hoo, which  was called  “England’s Little Egypt”. 

 

      The story of its finding feels as domestic and workaday as the burial was extravagant and splendid.   The house belonged to Mrs Edith Pretty, a Colonel’s widow, former suffragist and WW1 nurse with one small son born late in her life.  Perhaps because her father had been interested in archeology,  perhaps (so legend says) because one night she dreamed of Anglo-Saxon warriors rising from the mounds,  in 1938 she recruited Basil Brown : a former farmworker and self-taught archaeologist from Ipswich museum ,.  In 1939 the first ship rivet was found.   The British museum moved in , and Brown was  sidelined.  By the end of 1939 the massive treasure was up;  Mrs Pretty donated it to the British Museum, the largest ever private gift.    As  war approached, the trench was backfilled and the army used the site .  Mrs Pretty was offered a CBE by Churchill, and refused. She died in 1942.  

      

          There is meat here for tremendous drama and personal interaction:  the moment of discovery, the class-awkward relationship flowering between the rich lady and the meticulous, spiky Basil Brown,   the long grief of widowhood assuaged by the marvel.  There’s  the sidelining of Brown by the London experts,  and overarching it all the simple wonder of a king who slept in his treasure-ship  thousand years below the Suffolk grass.  To put on a play  on the very site  – as Stuff of Dreams  has done – was always going to be special.   

       This is not quite a review, because it only had three nights’ run and is over,  and also because, to be honest,  what Karen Forbes has done feels like a work in progress: albeit one whose progress I would love to follow and see.   The construction is odd: some things work very well, like the book-ending of it by Brown bringing flowers to her grave,  and a rather marvellous dream sequence  where  Dawn Brindle as Queen Raedwald wanders in,  pinches an apple,  remarks that she never quite “got” Christianity,  drops her brooch obligingly into the latest seed-tray or rubble which Basil is going to look in next,   and  vogues off bringing shivers to the spine with  a folk ballad affirming, as the light fades,   “He shall not dwell in darkness” .

       Other aspects are sometimes frustrating.  Forbes burdens her cast with overlong  monologues, sometimes rhymed;  when Kiara Hawker as Edith reads her late husband’s wartime letters it is useful in pinning down the period, the uneasy 30’s. and works well, but when he appears as a ghost in a monologue about the horse he took to war,  the play grinds to a halt.  Especially as we are by now interested in tantalizing details: as Ivan Wilkinson’s excellent, gruffly Suffolk Basil Brown explains  how the soil changes as grains of bone or iron dilute it.  We just long for a catharsis,  for him to find something as he shakes out fragments in his seed-tray.  Indeed the moments of first discoveries are almost prudishly ignored or underplayed:  the great sword is simply mentioned in Brown’s presentation at the drinks party.  

     

   And so is the difficulty, which still rankles in Suffolk,   of the local expert’s job being taken over by haughty Londoners.   At one point Edith says how tactlessly she spoke to him,  and how she regrets it,  but we never see a moment of that, or know why,   and remain a touch puzzled. 

    I wanted it to be better. But it may yet be.  Wilkinson is good as Brown,  and Hawker catches a mournful, determined, ladylike tone,  suggesting depths in Edith it would be good to explore.  And anyway it is a marvellous thing to have sat in the sunset on that hill above the river,   thinking of Raedwald’s strange resurrection.  I hope this is not its only outing as a theatre.    

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THE WEATHERMAN Park Theatre

GUEST REVIEWER  BEN DOWELL SEES A GOOD SUBJECT NOT QUITE GETTING THERE…

 

The trafficking of human beings – 7,000 identified in the UK in 2018 – is a disgusting blight on our country. The  fledgling playwright Eugene O’Hare is among many earnest contemporary writers (working in theatre, film and stage) seeking to shine a light on the problem.

 

Two drifters, Beezer (Mark Hadfield) and O’Rourke (Alec Newman), are heavy drinkers who have been lured by the brutal Cypriot gangster Dollar (David Schaal) into his grotty north London digs to hold the fort and do his bidding. Only by the time the action starts, Dollar’s bidding includes looking after a 12-year-old Roma girl who has been smuggled into England.

 

Beezer and O’Rourke are a vulnerable pair but not without a conscience; they will themselves into accepting assurances that Mara has been recruited to do photography work. Nothing “core” they are told, just a few saucy snaps. She’s nearly 13, they muse. And what’s worse? A life on the streets in Romania or a slightly better existence in the UK? After all, they have a bad life too.

 

This kind of moral reflecting – and constantly seeking of justification – is a strong and not always welcome feature of this drama,  where the characters spend a lot of time earnestly explaining themselves away while poor Mara (Niamh James) sits in the corner, hunched, often scratching at her crotch.

 

It’s hard not to feel that she is merely a cipher to enable these men to wang on in a vaguely Pinteresque way,  and when they do it doesn’t always ring true. The real world of people trafficking, I would suggest, involves sharp business transactions and not much self-reflection. And it is probably not run these days by a figure like Dollar, an East End gangster of yore complete with a suit, camel overcoat and threatening manner that sometimes feel straight out of a 1960s caper, or (worse) EastEnders.

 

There’s no doubting that this is a play which comes from a good and worthy place and O’Hare’s well-constructed text is very good at evoking the sheer awfulness of the world it embraces. James Perkins’ set  also evokes superbly the grotty down-at-heel flat brilliantly.   My problem is it all feels a bit on the nose. Cyril Nri’s Turkey, Dollar’s bagman who drives Mara to her “work”, clearly loves his own two daughters who are the same age as Mara. Is he too wrestling with his conscience? Or is his selfish, blinkered hypocrisy just that – one of the many morally failed people in the play . In the end, he’s just a vile git.

 

Likewise, as a drama, it doesn’t really go anywhere, a point epitomised in the title. This refers to Beezer’s nickname – his ability of always knowing tomorrow’s weather outlook. By the end we’re told it doesn’t matter – the forecast will always be gloomy. So a bleak start leads to a bleak end and there isn’t much we audiences can do except shake our heads sorrowfully.

box office 0207 870 6876    to 14 Sept

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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8 HOTELS Minerva, Chichester

A GRIPPING PIECE OF HISTORY     

 

      In 1944  the adventurous British director Peggy Webster cast the first black Othello in the USA,  where for a white woman even to walk with a black man still attracted spitting hostility. Her Moor was Paul Robeson, already  a star  for his singing, acting and eloquent civil rights rallies.    After a Broadway run the  four toured as far south as they dared  to mixed audiences, finding hotels often reluctant to accommodate a “negro”.   Nicholas Wright’s sharp play imagines that tour, and its aftermath in the uneasy years of the McCarthyite search for Communist sympathizers.  For Robeson was not only a black civil rights hero, but passionately  pro-Soviet , believing it better than the racist USA.   

     

  American Tory Kittles is Robeson,  showing a man vividly irresistible in his energy and – at first – his dangerously high self- confidence.     Uta Hagen (the playwright worked with her, fifty years later)  was Desdemona;   her husband Joe Ferrer was Iago.  But on tour  Uta was sleeping with Robeson, Joe himself straying, and the director uneasily keeping an eye on them.     As they  progress between hotels the tangle becomes not only sexual but racial, political and professional.    Robeson is too stubborn, angry and stiffly himself to be either a good actor or a fair lover.  Uta and Joe both have the quality of great actors, both a brilliance and a flaw,  as they seek out their own emotional extremes and use them on stage.    By the end all three have, despite basic decency, both betrayed and been betrayed.  

  

      Under Richard Eyre’s taut direction we get a chain of  brief scenes:  some funny,  some moving, some cracklingly  tense (a chess match between the men, black Paul and Puerto-Rican Joe,  reveals envies and social insecurities almost too painfully).  One night in Seattle Robeson,  charged with his own promiscuity,  turns blame round and vents  violent fury on Uta.   Emma Paetz gives  a vivid, flaming performance as his lover. As Joe,  Ben Cura  elegantly changes from  an eager young actor irritably outshone by Robeson to reaching the top himself and showing that he’ll play dirty to stay there.   Despite the intimacy and speed of the play – a tight 105 minutes – you feel you have seen an epic.   

 

only another few days:  cft.org.uk  to 24 August

4 Meece Rating

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THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…

   

  The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly    to our own.  

 

      The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents,  hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

 

      Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from  above the bare stage,  into the combative craziness of the modern world .  The row, alas,  will be all too recognizable to a 21c  medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).  He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters.  Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward.   I am not sure why this works, but it does.  It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics. 

        

          Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism,  religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’,  Icke hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.     As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into  separate identity groups we know where that led.  To tattoos on people’s wrists”.    Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

         

          But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.         

    

    As a show it is pure essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving.  In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping.  Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both  concerned with faith and hope.  

     

  The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag  will only be noticed by Catholics,  because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was  – as “Extreme Unction”for  deathbeds only.  Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed.   But that’s a quibble.  You won’t regret the ticket.    

box office  020 7359 4404    to  28 september      www.almeida.co.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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GO BANG YOUR TAMBOURINE Finborough, SE10

A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH

 

       ANother fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough,  buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour .    As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community.   The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger.  The one he accepts,  to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber ,  is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion.   The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one:  the quartet  work through  a counterpoint of innocence and experience,  old resentments,  father-son rivalry,  religious devotion and simple friendship .        

      

        David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21c,  loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising  and utterly containing a character from another age.   Calver emerges from the sophistication of  London’s E15 Acting School  to become with utter commitment  a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire.  Here’s a boy grieving his mother,  living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off  years before with a Doris.     Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness  – and a struggling stubbornness  – which show the man he might become.      Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…   

          

       It’s a fine performance.  So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath  her  neat  bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of  the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour.  John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy,  is the father;  and there’s a really lovely,  explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess. 

    

  In one fine   scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine  into his daily life.   That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists,  whose band echoes briefly between scenes,  is obvious, but King is not sending them up.   Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable,   and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father.   Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco. 

    

        Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly.   Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set,  build a past  world without caricature and with understanding,  reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness.   It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders.  It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?

 

boxoffice   finboroughtheatre.co.uk   to  31 August .  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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ROMEO AND JULIET           Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead Suffolk

   ROCK ’N ROLL N’ ROMEO 

 

    Deep under the trees, beyond Jimmy’s meerkat and camel enclosures lies a 1960’s beach: shelter, deckchairs and lounging teens,  Mods and Rockers,  Montague and Capulet.   Shakespeare speaks the famous prologue:  “Two households, both alike in dignity…” as a puppet in the Punch-and-Judy booth, interrupted by the crocodile before finishing his appeal to our patience for the “two hours’ traffic of the stage” .   No need for patience: Red Rose Chain’s outdoor production, under Joanna Carrick,   is a blast, a treat,  a serious kind of joy. 

 

         Of course the rock ’n roll setting  suits the play’s youthful vigour,    with blasts of  wickedly appropriate classics from Jerry Lee or Elvis :what better than “Fools rush in”?. There’s a swaggering rock-star Paris,  and Juliet in a  swirling polka-dot jiving  petticoat.   There’s  running,  climbing, larking comedy:  Darren Latham (doubling as Paris and a grumpy  behatted Lady Montague) receives my rarely given  award for a Not Annoying Mercutio.  Not least because Carrick has him deliver that problematic Queen Mab speech as a terrible guitar number,  and the most impenetrable banter is sauced with laddish brawls.  So Mercutio’s death – a boy still valiantly, angrily joking – is a proper shock, as it should be. 

 

           Ailis Duff is the nurse,  all middle-aged raunchy inappropriateness in gingham pedal-pushers, never missing a laugh;    Luke Wilson’s Friar Laurence  – again doubling,  as dangerous Tybalt – is a streak of raw Jamaican mischief, a mentor-mate who can sort you with a potion.   It all fits, and it’s all fun.  

     

     

     And the tragedy?   Oh yes, we feel it, as the light fades in the darker second half.   Jack Heydon’s daftly innocent Romeo and Emmy Rose’s frolicking Juliet are as beguiling as they must be to make us weep for them,   and Carrick knows exactly which scenes to leave absolutely alone,  beautifully delivered without interruption.   The balcony scenes (from a lifeguard tower) are tense and endearing,  and there is clever chopping (smartly lit) between Juliet’s terror learning of the deaths and Romeo’s collapse in the Friar’s cell.   Also frighteningly straight is a rendering of old Capulet’s patriarchal bullying of   the disobedient Juliet :   Soroosh Lavasan,  who has spent most of the play affably being Benvolio in a ridiculous motorbike helmet,  suddenly hauls out a properly horrible, unnerving power,  a father not fully in control of his own darkness.  

  

    Indeed they’re a classy cast:  worth noting mentioning that  although it’s a substantial arena nobody is miked and amped  and the discipline,  despite some fine front-row larks by the nurse,  is impeccable.   Never think that  community-based theatre is just socially useful and virtuously sweet: that several of the young cast wander amiably about greeting visitors and selling programmes does not dilute Red Rose’s professional standards.   Maybe it feeds them:    Carrick hauled up every single member  and helper of every ability to join the curtain call,   and raised a cheer for her fight-choreographers Darren and Alex.  They weren’t there to take a bow:  both are inmates in HMP Warren Hill where she runs a drama programme.  

       

          It could be too, I suppose, that  the group’s social swoop and sense of life’s absurd variety feeds its fearlessness over contrasts in tone.   For just as the growing darkness and impending grief are properly weighing on us,  and the Friar’s vital letter to Romeo has gone amiss, the fatal error  is celebrated.   With a dancing letterbox and a GPO-uniformed chorus line doing adapted words to  “Please Mr Postman”

       .  I am telling you, it works.    On both levels. 

box office 01473 603388    redrosechain.com    to 25 August.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER Jermyn St, SW1

HEROIC ENDURANCE  

    

    In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless,  finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island,   and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men.  It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter,  Harry McNish,  who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.

  

  He is.   On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat,  raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts.  Derelict, delusional,  defiant but near to death,  he addresses Shackleton,  himself already a ghost,  and other shipmates.   Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle,  Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery,   survival in grim Antarctic beauty,  pride ,  trauma and not least,  fury.

   

    He has never  forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat,  Mrs Chippy  (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups .  (Of course he  would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done:  the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death.  The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that  dark cold Antarctic winter.  But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance.  And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy,  who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…). 

      

      Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels.   He was denied  the Polar medal for his defiance,  and also – it seems to him – for having been  right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes.   A brilliant workman,  he had other ideas for escape when the  great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes.  Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services.  But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum,  twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality.  Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night.  “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”. 

    

    Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death,  This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory.   If you catch it, you won’t forget it.  

 

Box office  0207 387 2875   www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to August 17  

tour dates uk & Ireland :    shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS

   

    I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser,   the bit that sticks, and stimulates,  is that troublesome  “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.  

        Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand  they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife,  and in the scuffle is killed.   And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral,  the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork.  So off go the happy couple in a jalopy,  and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.   

 

\    Everyone white, that is.  For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast.   He was indeed  drunk and threatening,  but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey    she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover  to hang himself,   in the weirdly compelling  “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events  the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy. 

  

    Edgy and interesting;  just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans).    Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey,  and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait.   Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not?   The result is that for all the merriment,   the production has uneasy overtones.  These come  to a head in the  extraordinary sexual  ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography)   as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys,   and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence.   Until  the real Jed,  anxious and spruced-up for courtship,  wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.  

  

    All this adds astringency,  and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong.    Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it,  the political-racial unease helps.   Not least because the early scenes felt oddly  conventionally, almost disappointingly so.    We have enjoyed the  musical-theatre lollipops:   the Surrey with a Fringe On Top  and the lively nonsense of  Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having  excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish  pedlar.   But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.  

   

      Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is  a perfect Laurey:   the finest voice of the year,   soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness.    If the overall effect is more of  a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better.    Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.     

 

box office cft.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating four      4 Meece Rating  

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THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA       Noel Coward, WC2

FALLEN ANGELS ENDURING THE STORM 

  

    You can feel the heat in Rae Smith’s design,  Mexican sun on the rock overhead, and the corrugated iron roofs of the rundown hotel. Somewhere below the cliffside verandah an  invisible tour-bus hoots impatiently for its leader,   as the disgraced Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon yells down to  his rebellious Baptist ladies that they are staying on here  and to hell with the schedule as per brochure. 

 

      Clive Owen is Shannon,   returning to the London stage with no inconsiderable triumph, a masterfully crumpled white suit and a positively demonic level of energy.   This pastor, fresh out of the Casa Locos asylum with a breakdown,   struggles to reconcile life’s brochure -schedules (and conventional theology and behaviour)  with the vague truth of something beyond.  Unfortunately the something has most recently materialised  as statutory rape of a very eager 16-year- old.    His altercation with a magnificently harsh and furious Finty Williams as the girl’s duenna  is watched with lustful amusement by Anna Gunn as Maxine,   the exuberantly décolletée newly-widowed  scruff who runs the hotel.

  

      Into the mix appear more strangers:   the travelling watercolourist and sketch peddler Hannah, and her 97 year old grandfather Nonno  “the world’s oldest  practising poet”.   In the play’s last moments he will at last speak his final poem, evoking the fall and rot of fruit, “the earth’s obscene, corrupting love”. 

 

My hard-hearted young colleague Luke Jones has observed that you know you’re watching Tennessee Williams if “everyone talks like a teenage poet”. But then, Williams himself quoted an accusation that he had only “ the uncontrolled emotionalism of a minor lyric talent totally unsuited to the stage of life as well as the theatre”.    But if you love him no emotional overkill or slo-mo breakdown will be too much.    I think this is a  tremendous   play,   perhaps without the explosive excitements of Streetcar or the simpler poignancy of the Glass Menagerie,   but distilled Williams, groping for meaning.  Nor does director  James Macdonald jib at letting it tip gruellingly over the three hour mark. I staggered out ,properly overwhelmed but thrilled to have been there.   Williams  has much to say about degradation, breakdown, innocence, guilt, God, sex, pain , wild nature and loneliness.  

 

       His gift is as ever  to say it all through  characters who are  flawed to the point of being reprehensible,   yet inspire irresistible love and empathy.  Indeed the only atypical thing about this play is the intermittent and very funny invasions of the verandah by four rowdy Germans in naff beachwear,  singing Nazi Marching songs and jeering that London is burning. They do not inspire love at all, but are chucked in there simply because the author is remembering his own   depressed exile in 1940,   in just such a tropical flophouse where triumphalist German revellers were indeed part of the scenery.     Life’s patchwork absurdity need not always be simplified for a tidy stage.

 

The central  performances are judged to a hair:  Gunn’s Maxine is endearingly managerial and sometimes on the edge of cruelty,  but emotionally and sexually needy and seeing Shannon’s loneliness through his terrible behaviour.   He  is God-hungry and  sinful,  ranting at the deity as a “senile delinquent”,  struggling back into his clerical collar or ripping off his gold cross and chain. Guilty, mother-haunted, fleeing and needing women and haunted by his  “spook” depression he stands in the tradition of  Greene’s whisky-priest or Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. 

     

    Owen gives a wonderfully physical performance , crazedly vigorous in the crackup which has him literally tied down to the hammock,   but  stilling gradually under the influence of the other key to the play’s troubled heart:  the  straight-backed Lia Williams as the oddball artist,  “a New England spinster and not young”. With her gold choirboy crop and precise calm endurance she is a still cool flame of  generous chastity.  Both do justice to the wild lush text,  rich in wonder  and filth, corruption and beauty.  It tells us only to endure,  and grow as old as  Nonno so we can speak our poem before we go.

 

box office  0844 482 5151     delfontmackintosh.co.uk   to 28 Sept

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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   JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT                London Palladium W1

  IT’S BACK,  YOUNGER THAN EVER…

 

  We love a starry debut, especially on opening night in a huge theatre:   a 21-year-old not yet through drama school making a stonking, belting first professional appearance in a title role.  We get on our feet:  can’t help it.  Cynicism melts, especially in musical theatre where the energy, the leaping and twirling and singing-while-dancing and sheer bodily skill brings a lump to your throat at even the blandest show.  

     

  So Laurence Connor   knew what he was doing when he cast young  Jac Yarrow in the role more often awarded to existing celebrities:   Joseph is a story about youthful dash , innocence and courage,  its school-play origins in are still at its core and deliberately underlined in this zippy new production.    Giving it such a young star underlines its freshness and fun,   and Yarrow does not let his director  down.  When he comes to the end of his big number behind bars, affirming “Children of Israel are never alone!”  we cheer.  And it’s all the cleverer an effect for Connor’s staging it  – in contrast to the previous relentless cheerfulness of the show –  with one of the few moments of sharp contemporary anxiety:  real children trapped behind him, on the iron bars.

 

         MInd you, you need troupers as well:   the Elvis Pharaoh who bursts on us deafeningly in the second half  is Jason Donovan,  and  the peerless Sheridan Smith is the narrator,    frolicking and clowning  and gagging,   whipping a false beard on and off to be Jacob,  every inch the manic primary-school cheerleader as she encourages and leads a wonderfully child-heavy cast (there are 32 of them in rep:   on press night little Potiphar stole his moment, as well he should).  

        As I say, it began as a school musical about the biblical story of Joseph, his jealous brother’s and the prophetic dreams that saved Egypt from famine. It belongs  in the playful youth of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a stage of life when pastiche is mischievous fun, energy raw and you can get away with lines like “All those things you saw in your pyjamas /  Were a long range forecast for your farmers”.    Lloyd Webber’s inalienable romanticism could already soar easy as a bird into  songs like Any Dream Will Do,  and his sense of parody in the developing show include styles  from Country & Western to Maurice Chevalier (“Ah, zose Canaan days..”),  bubblegum pop and retro tap numbers to that gold-plated Elvis moment here awarded to Pharaoh Jason Donovan.  Of the latter,  the only snag is that unlike the excellent verbal clarity of the rest, it is entirely impossible to follow his growly-rock account of his dreams.  But if you bring a child not yet familiar with the Bible stories of the seven years harvests,  shame on you anyway.

        

    So it’s pure pleasure,  in energy and design (Morgan Large has more fun than is decent, what with Egyptian slavers on tricycle-powered camels, a 15ft gold Anubis statue that mimes with a guitar, and hieroglyphs including beefburgers.  The coat itself is magnificent,  with echoes of Edina Monsoon’s taste in OTT Lacroix).   Sheridan Smith frolics with lunatic competence,  a windmill of energy (see her give the Pharaoh a shoulder rub!  Observe  herself wildly flinging herself at poor Joseph  as Mrs Potiphar in a leopardshkin rug, head and all).  Dance styles draw from Riverdance to Breakdance and most stops in between.   Fun is had. 

box office  lwtheatres.co.uk   to 8 September

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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PETER GYNT Olivier, SE1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS CAPTIVATED BY LIFE’S FUTILE MISSION…

 

Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s almost unperformable meandering 1867 epic, –  written as a poem and not really designed for the stage –   has been a problem for directors for more than a century. In Willy Russell’s 1983 film Educating Rita, Julie Walter’s aspiring graduate answered her first essay question about the problem of staging it with the words “do it on the radio”. She could just as well have said “get David Hare”.

 

Because what the veteran playwright has done is nothing short of marvellous – bringing the saga bang up to date, he has made it a searching inquisition into today’s online, self-obsessed world, a place where, as Peter tells us, “people don’t have lives any more, they have stories”. Hare has made as much sense of Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece as seems possible.

 

Peter’s futile mission to discover a sense of his self throughout his story (never mind the human cost of those he encounters) is so redolent of the narrative-making of narcissistic Instagrammers the world over it’s almost eerie. Added to that the prefiguring of Freud in Peter’s dreaming, his egotism and his problems with his mother accentuate a sense that this is an astonishingly prophetic piece of work.

 

James McCardle’s Peter is living on a remote Scottish island in this telling, just back from a war somewhere in the Middle East and full of mendacious claims of his heroism. This obviously allows Hare to scratch all his itches about Tony Blair and Weapons of Mass destruction, which feels a bit overdone.

The moment mid-way though his story when Peter makes his fortune, becoming a reckless Florida gold club-owning businessman and head of Gynt Enterprises is also rather blunt in its satire of You-Know-Who in the White House.  But the play’s Fake Noos-ish assertion that “if people believe you did something then you did it” certainly makes this feel more justified in Hare’s retelling.

 

But he certainly goes a bit far at the close,  when David Cameron pops up to bemoan his failure to understand the wishes of voters who weren’t as privileged as him. It’s a fair point to make, but it didn’t add much dramatically,  and felt more like the kind of jokey insertion you’d expect at the Hackney Empire panto than the National. It also prompted that most irritating of National Theatre traditions – the knowing, liberal guffaw.

 

Still, it’s bonkers in a wonderful way, and you’ll be thinking of it long after the curtain comes down. Not just of our own age and problems but the stories and traditions it emanates from – the story of Job,, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  And director Jonathan Kent’s staging is quite breathtaking at times. Designer Richard Hudson’s clutter-free stage evokes the majesty and grandeur of this epic story with fabulous evocations of a Troll dinner party with a skewed table, the Egyptian desert, and Peter’s sea-voyage complete with enormous ship.

 

But in the end it all comes back to Peter, and his sudden sense at the close that most of our lives, however much we want to be at the centre of the world, are mediocre and hollow.  McArdle is more than up to the job, coping with a hugely demanding night with intelligence and verve; his Peter is infuriating  for most of the play,  and its testament to our lead’s skill  is that we continue to root for him.  And we are left with some hard and painful questions of our own.

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 October

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DEVOTION , DISGUISE,  DECADENCE  

  What a strange and stirring play this is!    Set in convent, court and condemned-cell,  it is spiked with moral ambiguities and fuelled equally by sexual desire and sexual distaste,   as Isabella refuses to yield her chastity for a brother’s life.  There’s a Winters-Tale resurrection moment, several powerful emotional cliffhangers,  questions about corrupt power ,   necessary  disguises  and defiances.  Dark villainy is given a curious reprieve and purity questioned.    Last time the RSC did Measure for Measure was in the Swan, with whips, nipple clamps, spiked leather collars, and Mariana hanging out  sullenly in the Moated Grange in a filmy negligée and studded biker belt.  I enjoyed it.   It had ‘élan.   But this production strikes deeper. 

 

       Set in Vienna 1900 under Gregory Doran’s thoughtful, clear and gripping direction,  this time there is not a fetish in sight,   though plenty of stocking-tops and bustiers and no small pleasure –  as Angelo cracks down on the brothelkeepers – in seeing Graeme Brookes’  huge-frocked Mistress Overdone swing both her arresting officers around by their chains .  More pleasure indeed when the said Brookes reappears as Barnadine,  the belching, farting,  degenerate murderer who refuses to be executed because he’s having a kip, and in the end whoops along the walkway to freedom. Pompey the pimp is given full rein by David Ajao, and as for Joseph Arkley poncing around in spats and a malacca cane as Lucio,  and interrupting the final judgement, words fail me.  There are malapropisms from Constable Elbow and a particularly creepy weirdness in Abhorson the executioner, and it’s all done superbly.  

 

        But what Doran frames most brilliantly is the central confusion of morality.  The Duke-Friar is the anchor of   it (if sometimes an unreliable one, Anthony Byrne showing him both determined and troubled).     As  for his better behaved henchmen,  the director’s decision to cast Claire Price as Escalus and  Amanda Harris as a really excellent, watchfully troubled Provost is a gender-switch  used with great intelligence.  Here are  two grown, completed women are drawn into the play’s conflicted atmosphere of sexual sin:   not buying it,  aware that Angelo is wrong,  quietly maternal towards poor Claudio. As indeed we all were:   James Cooney’s delivery of the speech about the terror of death was heart-stopping.   Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a puzzle,   but then Angelo always is:  his smooth-pated suaveness chiefly makes you reflect that the worst villains are often weak characters.  

    

      As for Lucy Phelps’ Isabella,   she is simply tremendous and will be   memorable for years.  She  is credible both in her eager devoutness and solid defiance,   and in the breathtaking moment of despair when her whole body becomes a terrible Munch scream.   The scenes between her and  Mariana are womanly, intense and real;      that Doran leaves us uncertain that this woman will agree to marry the Duke creates an final moment which most excellently serves the play’s problematic quality.  Wonderful. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 4th April 

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

FARCE AS LIFE, LIFE AS FARCE, FRAYN AGAIN TRIUMPHANS

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

box office  lyric.co.uk   to 27 July

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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

GROWING PAINS IN THATCHER-TIME…

 

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

    

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

 

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

 

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

 

Box Office: 0843 904 0061  to 12 October

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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PRESENT LAUGHTER Old Vic SE1

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

   

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

box office oldvictheatre.com   to 10 August  

RATING four 4 Meece Rating

 

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AFTER DARK – A DRAMA OF LONDON LIFE Finborough, SW10

A SHILLING SHOCKER IS A JOY FOREVER

 

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

 

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

 

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

   

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

  

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

box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk    to 6 July

rating four 4 Meece Rating

 

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EUROPE Donmar, WC1

GUEST CRITIC  LUKE JONES REMAINS UNIMPRESSED

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Box Office: 020 3282 3808  to 10 August

rating   two 2 meece rating

LUKE JONES

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THE HUNT Almeida, N1

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

box office almeida.co.uk  to 3 Aug

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

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

 

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

    

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

      

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

    

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

 

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

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

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

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

A NOTE ON A TREAT,  MOUSELESS BUT MELLOW 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

box office   0207 407 0234    southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

To 8 June

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THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

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

 

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

 

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

   

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

  

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

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

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

 

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

 

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

   

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

 

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

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

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

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WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

  WHY BE WHITER?

 

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

     

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

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

 

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

    

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

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

   

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

 

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

box office  020 7565 5000            to 15 June 

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

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

      

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

        

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

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

     

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

      

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

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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    SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING  EMPIRE 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 13 August

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

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON                Park Theatre N4

CRIKEY!  IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN!

 

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

      

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to  8 june

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

box office rsc.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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FEAST FROM THE EAST              Tristan Bates Theatre WC2

SMALL IS  BEAUTIFUL, SHORT CAN BE SHARP

 

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

  

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

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

     

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

 

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

      

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

 

box office  0203 8416611   tristanbatestheatre.co.uk

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SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

LOVE  AND LOSS AND ‘THAT’S THE DEAL’

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

box office  cft.org.uk  to  25 may

rating four  

4 Meece Rating

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JUDE Hampstead, NW1

ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY ,  FRESHNESS OF YOUTH

    

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

 

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

   

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

   

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

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

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

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 1 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ROSMERSHOLM                     Duke of York’s, WC2

GUILT, GRIEF,   POLITICAL ANGUISH     

 

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

 

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

     

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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CREDITORS              Jermyn Street Theatre

DEADLY DEBTS 

 

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

 

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

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

       

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

  “Are you saying you wrote my books?”

  and he moans:  

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

playing in rep with Miss Julie  to  1 June

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

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

  

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THIS IS MY FAMILY Minerva, Chichester

ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE SONG 

     

 

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

   

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

  

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

  

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

    

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

 

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

 

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

rating  5    5 Meece Rating

    

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GHOSTS Royal, Northampton

A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s

 

 

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

    

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

   

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

         

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

 

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

 

www.royalandderngate.co.uk    to  11 May

rating four   4 Meece Rating

        

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ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

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

  

 

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

   

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

 

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

   

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

 

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

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

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

 

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

        

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

   

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

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

    

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

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE SISTERS Almeida, N1

DOWNBEAT, DOWNCAST  

 

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

   

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

box office 0207 359 4404 

rating  three     3 Meece Rating

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INK FESTIVAL – Halesworth Cut – envoi 2019

REFLECTIONS ON A RICH SEA OF INK…

    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Small can be very beautiful.  Suffolk can be proud.     

THE FEAST FROM THE EAST TOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 25th April – Westacre Theatre– 01760 755800

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

Saturday 27th April – Bradfield Community Centre– 01986 872555

Sunday 28th April –  Brandeston  Village Hall – 01728 685655

 

THE PLAYS

 

AFTER PROSPERO by Martha Loader

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

 

NINA’S NOT OKAY by Shappi Khorsandi

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

 

WELLINGTON by Scarlett Curtis

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

 

MIXED UP by James Mcdermott

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

 

BUS STOP by Dan Allum

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

 

THAT’S GREAT! by Shaun Kitchener

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

 

THE SOUND GUY by Corin Child

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

 

  

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HOTEL PARADISO          On tour pre Edinburgh Fringe

ANOTHER KIND OF HOUR

  

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

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

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

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

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

Performing tomorrow Friday 12  

Bristol  7:30pm    Circomedia St Paul’s Church

0117 947 7288 www.circomedia.com

Then   Lincoln
Friday 19 April 2pm

Lincoln Drill Hall pay what you can

01522 873894 www.lincolndrillhall.com

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WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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