Category Archives: Three Mice

HEISENBERG : the Uncertainty Principle Wyndhams, WC1

A FINE ROMANCE?

 

A quick quantum-mechanics lesson (though this is not a play about science). The Heisenberg principle asserts that there is a limit to knowing what will happen to the position of a particle, even if you know its momentum. As a physicist explains in the programme, “vagueness is built into nature..it is simply now knowable”. The author Simon Stephens adds the metaphor of music, in which we cannot know which note comes next. Surprise is good. Uncertainty is life. OK?

 

 

Stephens’ own work, knotty and perverse, is rarely as universally loved as his brilliant adaptations like A Dolls House and that Dog In The Night Time. This one has been received with respect, but it was hard to help feeling that this 80 minute two-hander represents one of those cases where an immensity of theatrical talent gets heaped on a work so weightless that it would crumble to dust without that exoskeleton of high craft and sincerity.

 

 

For here are two fine-tuned and beautiful actors of great soul, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff; add the marvellous director Marianne Elliott, the abstract design beauty of. Bunny Christie’s set, marvels of atmospheric lighting (Paule Constable) and smooth stage engineering which can pop up and vanish pieces of furniture to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Add the reassuring pretensions  of theoretical  physics and you have a real chin-stroker, blaring “Important! Seminal!” at you and daring you to contradict it.

 

 

It is a sort of love story: absurdist and asymmetric. It begins when – I suppose like particles colliding – blonde American Georgie kisses a total stranger on the back of his neck at st Pancras . She is 37 and claims to be an Ottolenghi waitress (Hmm. Very Islington) but is a school secretary. He is 75 , a Bach-loving butcher who likes his job because he enjoys how that animals fit together with “seams”.  A horrid memory arose of this author’s’ “Morning” at Edinburgh, all murderous teenagers prodding a flyblown corpse and snarling ““All music is shit and all art is shit and all television is shit and all sport is shit…there is only terror. There is no hope”. For a while I feared that he was going to dismember her.

 

 

But no. The pair sleep together, rather beautifully choreographed (the movement is dreamlike, slo-mo, graceful). She complains about his fridge and asks him for £15k to find her son in New Jersey. At which point one’s inner pedant protests that you can get a NorwegianAir  return via Reykjavik for £700 quid , and airbnb for ages on a thousand, so it’s a bit steep. But his response, after a while, has grace. Unlikely grace, but Cranham can make you believe anything.

 

 

For all the plonking significance it’s the good old two-lonely-people-odd-couple tale, which as rom-com writers know depends on charm. This Cranham bestows on his elderly character with ease; but Anne-Marie Duff is given a near-impossible job finding it in hers.  Georgie is a toxic variant on the kooky-yet-troubled heroine from Hepburn to Goldie Hawn, only more annoying. She is what the Germans beautifully call an ich-bin-so – every rudeness airily dismissed with “It’s just something that I do” “I’m like that” and a flirty, hipswivelly “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”.  Only Duff’s ability to drill down to the sincerity of pain and damage finally redeems her. And then only just.

 
For the relationship does, in the end, become touching. Though old Alex’s devotion – enchantingly expressed by the glorious Cranham in the best and final speech – depends more on her sexual availability than a feminist would like. The idea that a young woman would adore “clumsy” sex with an old man wrinkled “like Europe” is a bit Woody Allen for my taste. And it is a pity: a similar Heisenberg collision between our hero and someone less physically foxy might be, in the end, more moving.

 

 

 

box office 0844 482 5120 http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
to 6 jan

rating three  3 Meece Rating

 

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DIDO, QUEEN OF CARTHAGE RSC, Stratford Upon Avon

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS HERE, TOO, ARE TEARS FOR THE MISFORTUNES OF TROY

While there are many excellent reasons to read Virgil’s Aeneid from cover to cover, more than once, the fourth book of the great Roman epic (Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide) has perhaps inspired more artistic reactions than the whole of the rest of the poem put together in art, music, and literature. Christopher Marlowe’s beautifully detailed, erudite retelling of Dido’s fatal passion draws on Aeneid Book 1 as well as the seminal Book 4, plus Ovid’s moving and often witty Heroides, to produce a sensitive, rounded love story powered throughout by original classical sources, all gleaming with the fresh, lyrically romantic firepower of Marlowe’s verse. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, where his mother Venus decides it would be terribly helpful if Dido were to fall in love with him, just so she can get his ships mended in order to convey the hero on to Italy, where fate requires his presence. However, these self-serving immortal wiles provoke a storm of raw human emotions which, when finally thwarted by an unmoved destiny, ensures no one survives intact (and many don’t survive at all: we end up with a positive heap of bodies on stage).

Director Kimberley Sykes opens proceedings with a cruel party on Olympus, the gods behaving (or misbehaving) with callous disregard for themselves and one another to brash music which veers between deconstructed jazz and rock guitar. While we get off to a literally jarring note, one lovely touch is that the gods can conjure, adjust or extinguish music throughout with a swirl of their fingers, and can manipulate light in the same way. The stage is filled with grey sand, projecting far out into the audience, while a recessed section at the back soon shows us, through sheets of lashing rain, Aeneas’ sailors lit by flashes of lightning as they cling to ropes. Ti Green’s elegant, functional design thus provides plenty of open playing space, as well as opportunities for magically beautiful effects with light (sometimes combined with water) by Ciaran Bagnall. While the gods are in contemporary evening gear (Venus gets sparkly purple trainers and a leopardskin coat for her Tyrian huntress disguise), mortal costumes look generally classical, with the Carthaginians in loose, flowing gowns with large African prints, which they lend to the ragged Trojans as an early sign of friendship.

The cast are not smooth, but we see truly impressive central performances from Sandy Grierson as a thrillingly emotional, endlessly pessimistic Aeneas and Chipo Chung as a poised, noble and yet fragile Dido, whose descent into desperate, doubt-riven passion is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Tom McCall is nicely brisk and determined as Achates, Aeneas’ trusted (and ever practical) companion at arms, and Amber James is a poignantly cheerful Anna, whose heartwarming smile becomes more fixed as her own dreams and plans fall by the wayside. Bridgitta Roy’s sashaying, vengeful Juno and Ellie Beaven’s manipulative, needy Venus balance each other nicely. Sykes requires incessant striding around the stage and lots of blokeishly tactile physicality from her cast, which can irritate after a while, but energy levels stay generously high. When her characters are allowed to employ stillness, particularly in the tragic final scenes, a new intensity is achieved. Still, I found my tears came at the beginning: Aeneas’ cry of anguish to his disguised mother as she leaves him once again, a line I can’t read in Latin without crying either.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

At the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01789 403 493

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CORIOLANUS RSC, Stratford Upon Avon

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS CLASS CIVIL WAR AT THE RSC

Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM John Peel Arts Centre, IP14

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DREAMS COMING TRUE IN MEDIEVAL NORFOLK

In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.

However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.

Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and calm honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Touring: 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130) and 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham (joan-h@live.co.uk – charity performance) 

Rating: Three (and a rural outing for the Musicals Mouse)3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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KNIVES IN HENS Donmar, WC1

A PRIMITIVE AWAKENING 

 

 

It is dark. An earth floor, plank stable door ,  murky pond. Sometimes a candle is lit, but Soutra Gilmour’s set remains tenebrous , primitive. A woman sits plucking a chicken, legs apart, with sullen concentration . A man comes and throws her to the ground for sex so urgent you wonder if it is rape. But no, they talk amicably, if in short rather contemptuous basic sentences. “I”m not a field” she says. He demurs, says she is LIKE a field, a fertile one he likes, flat and wet. She says she is not because after all, “the moon is like cheese, but it’s not IT”.

 

 

We are in some indeterminate, pre-industrial rural village society. Both are groping for more expressive language, words for things. “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow. The bird flies. The rabbit runs” she says, then looking upward “the clouds..er.. run?” The matter of God – indeterminate, universal – comes up soon. And alongside the primal , slowly awakening urge for words and knowledge in the woman, so do still more basic conflicts and dark deeds.

 

 

 

The fierce Yael Farber gave us a profound, five-star, smoky dark and physically intense Crucible at the Old Vic. It is not surprising that this director’s vision should now be drawn to David Harrower’s uncompromising, superstitious primitive portrait. But Miller’s language is poetic and his Salem setting precise. This is harder work to appreciate: gruelling, indeed even at 90 minutes and even with a blazingly effective, courageous and committed performance by Judith Roddy as the woman. She is, we gradually see, married to the ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke) and envious of his love of his horses, notably his pregnant mare. He sends her to drag their sacks of grain to the mill, where the widowed Miller (Matt Ryan) is feared and disliked for his “magic” tendency to read and his ownership of an actual pen (“Them’s an evil stick!” cries the woman).

 

 

 

She fears, defies him, says she “lives under a different sky” and defends her village world: all in short, harsh, limited sentences. But the fascination grows, and back with William her dreams (hauntingly staged) fill with visions of his sprinkling the fine flour onto her heaving body. There is an obvious metaphor, I think: crude basic grain is refined by the miller’s hard stone into something finer, just as her thoughts refine. In one of the play’s few rhetorical moments she begins to write: “This is me. I live now. Others have, more will. God put me here..each day I want to know more”. But the new knowledge, as in Eden, leads to a dramatic sin. Again, compellingly staged.It’s a very large millstone.

 

 

 

But I would be lying if I said that it made the time fly by. The indeterminate setting hampers it: when, where are these people? How evolved is their religion, with all this talk of God? William has horses, not oxen, which puts them into the 18th century at least, but the ceremony of rolling a new millstone seems importantly primitive. They appear to have a glass milk bottle, the Miller has books on shelves, and the woman rather startlingly beneath her coarse homespun robe has a neat modern bra and pants. The unclear setting kept bothering me, making the simple speech seem mannered. Once the words “Cold Comfort Farm” ran through my mind.

 

 

But its meaning and message about the birth of language and awakening of choice may move some deeply, and it was hailed as a classic in its original Traverse production. The cast are very fine , and Farber and Gilmour can certainly build an atmosphere: that it was one I was glad to get out of may reflect more on me than them.

 

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 7 October
rating  three   3 Meece Rating
Principal Sponsor: Barclays

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ARMIDE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS THE ROYAL TREATMENT AT GRIMEBORN

If you fancy being entertained like a French king, head to Grimeborn for Lully’s Armide. Lully’s artistic monopoly over French opera lasted well beyond his death (thanks to some dastardly patenting, as the excellent programme notes explain): he took full advantage of his pre-eminent position musically, as well as financially, creating opera for Louis XIV of rapturous, languorous beauty, and this is one of his finest works, though poignantly one the king refused to see after a scandal drove Lully from Versailles. An anguished, passionate story, it depicts the doomed love of the proud Muslim warrior princess Armide (a beautifully acted Rosemary Carlton-Willis) for the Christian knight Renaud (sweet-toned tenor and capable actor Guy Withers), who alone among men is impervious to her charms, his virtue and valour equally unassailable. Armide, who is also a sorceress, conjures demons from Hell to enslave Renaud to her will with false desire, but finds she cannot master her own infatuation, and worse, finds she has no genuine will to do so. When her enchantments are eventually broken, and Renaud escapes with his heart intact, Armide’s despair and fury cause her to destroy her own palace, in the vain hope that her unrequited passion will also be buried with it.

Directing both stage and music is talented Brazilian baritone Marcio da Silva, who also plays an erotically charged La Haine (the demon of hate, resplendent in a blood-red suit), gives luscious strength to choruses with his sumptuously smooth, tenderly expressive voice, and represents a scattering of other characters, some silent. This is a production whose cast all work hard, often doubling roles, which can become disorientating; even our conductor (Matthew Morgan) breaks into song in the final act, standing on the platform above the main Arcola stage with his small band of skilled musicians (harpsichord and baroque guitar adding credible period dimensions to the warm, highly wrought score, sung in French with English surtitles projected on three sides of the theatre).

The set is simple, with a red silken dais in the centre of the stage used alternately as the pedestal of a throne, a bed, or a meadow where knights wander to meet temptation. Long candelabra at the end of this dais hold the candles which come to represent Armide’s spells, ignited and snuffed out at key points in the action, and two chairs compose the rest of our scenery. Costumes are contemporary but timeless, with Armide and her handmaidens dressed in long, metallic evening gowns recalling classical drapery and an idea of burnished armour, while Hell is a cocktail party, judging from the female demons’ glittery dresses. Knights and prisoners appear variously in black, or white, shirts and trousers; I couldn’t quite trace the narrative logic of the colour changes here, nor understand the reasoning behind the widespread huge, dark and smudgy eye makeup, and this production doesn’t altogether live up to the high expectations it creates. Da Silva’s vision is ambitious, and ought to work brilliantly; his lean, minimalist concept is ideal for this space, and despite lifting the instrumentalists up high and facing the conductor away from the singers, timing only rarely gets hazy. The music is often beautiful, with magical unaccompanied choruses, a generally capable, passionate central performance from Carlton-Willis as Armide, and charismatic contributions from da Silva throughout; but poorer, less confident acting and singing in the smaller roles tend to puncture our conviction just when we need it most.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 12 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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APOLOGIA Trafalgar Studios SW1

GUEST CRITIC TOM HOLLOWAY WISHES FOR AN UPDATE..

 

 

 

Originally debuting eight years ago at the Bush Theatre, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is a story of intergenerational conflict. Matriarch Kristin (Stockard Channing) squares off against her sons’ partners over the course of an evening. After Brexit and a contentious general election, Jamie Lloyd’s revival lands at a time of intense relevancy, as millennials and baby boomers engage in their own game of political civil war.

 

 

But despite being slickly designed, Campbell’s script can’t hold the scope of this promising parallel. Set in the great theatrical tradition of the disastrous dinner party, It is a stimulating, but limp, insight into the choices three women have made in the face of social and economic adversity. His cast of characters is cleverly composed, forcing a proverbial battlefield where they can’t help but question each other’s political and personal ideologies.

 

 

Campbell chooses simultaneously to admonish and sympathise with their perspectives. bringing weight to his exploration of the complex web of political movements that inform identity. So it serves quite nicely as a companion piece to his breakout hit The Pride, which contrasted the closeted gay lives of the Fifties with the liberated but melancholic present.

 

 

However, much of the play seems a bit of a wasted opportunity. He never harnesses a strong enough perspective, making it feel somewhat inconsequential, and radically affecting the pace. It explodes in an electrifying, but unearned, denouement at the end of the first act, whilst the second act ponders slowly into an overlong conclusion. The characters never seem to learn anything, robbing the piece of much needed tension.

 

 

The actors give their all. The definitive highlight is Channing, one of the masters of her craft. She has a superb understanding of the caustic matriarch Kristin: the gaze of her powerful large eyes as acerbic as Campbell’s words, and also elicits great sympathy for the character’s questionable motivations. She is greatly supported by her two foils: soap star Claire (Freema Agyeman) and religious physiotherapist Trudi (Laura Carmichael). Agyeman has a magnetic presence, and is thoroughly convincing in communicating Claire’s artistic sacrifices for financial survival. Carmichael demonstrates fine comic timing, while seamlessly slipping more vulnerable moments. Desmond Barrit delivers a delectable performance, though his character is made somewhat redundant by being only there to administer campy one liners. Joseph Millson in his dual role as the two brothers distinguishes between lost soul Simon and banker Peter so effectively that my companion thought they were two different people.

 

 

Soutra Gilmour’s production design is spectacular, an oversized picture frame, vivid use of colour giving every scene a Hockney quality; Jon Clark’s lighting is similarly effective.

 

BOX OFFICE  0844 871 7632   to 18 nov

rating  three  .   LP seeing this week, might add reflections from Channing’s generation!3 Meece Rating

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