Category Archives: Three Mice

THE SORROWS OF SATAN Tristan Bates Theatre, WC1

BACK TO FAUST PRINCIPLES

 

“I hope nobody misses / The moral in a show as short as this is..” . Marie Corelli, whose 1895 bestseller on the Faust theme inspired Luke Bateman and Michael Conley, may have a brief spin in her grave but emerge with a rueful grin. Her story is about a writer, Geoffrey Tempest, tempted by Satan in the person of his patron – the rich Italian Prince Lucio (Lucifer, geddit?) . The devil rather hopes to be turned down, so he can gain remission and not be bound longer by human weakness and greed. Bateman and Conley make the writer into an impoverished but self-important composer of a“serious” musical play on that very theme. He is a sort of proto-Sondheim without the wit or talent: the play has three characters plus the accompanist and every song sounding exactly the same, earnestly unmelodious and with splendidly dreadful witless lyrics.

 

 
So naturally, the task of Lucio is to ply him with money, fame, and promises of “the woman”, provided he turns his oeuvre into a sparkly 1920’s musical comedy played for laughs and backed by a line of “chorines” kicking stockinged legs.
It’s a neat idea, and fits this studio scale with cabaret slickness and plenty of in-jokes about producers, audiences, critics, cheap commercial populism and the pointlessness of making art that nobody wants. A major asset (and the main reason I tumbled off a two-plane journey just in time to get there) is Stefan Bednarzyk, the king of intelligent cabaret. He is musical director and Satan’s slave accompanist (apparently dumb, till he sings). He occasionally and delightfully accompanies Tempest’s more overblown emotional speeches with well-judged crashes and trills on the piano, and otherwise deploys some cracking fed-up reaction faces.

 
Simon Willmont is a bewildered, vain Tempest (though the gag about him throwing up in the wastepaper basket at Lucio’s jollier tunes is overdone), and “The Woman” is Claire-Marie Hall, who has to be three different girls in succession owing to Lucio’s impatient tendency to murder anyone who doesn’t co-operate. She does well, though is stuck with a few too many sub-Wildean-cum-suffragette observations about womanhood.

 

 

But the real joy is Dale Rapley as Lucio: middle-aged, thickset, cynical in demeanour, his is a more dangerous handsomeness than any hapless juvenile can eploy. He abandons the dreary young man’s score for his big number “Ta-ta-ta-ta-Tartarus! Youll think there’s no rules when you see our boys and ghouls…Tartarus! Sin and guilt are quite bizarre-to-us!”. So we howl and whistle as he flings himself round the stage, burly as a bouncer and camp as ninepence. Wouldn’t have missed that bit for the world. It’s the frothiest of Fausts.

 
Box Office 020 3841 6611 / http://www.TristanBatesTheatre.co.uk
to 25 March sponsor: Inland Homes
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THE WHITE DEVIL Wanamaker, SE1

CORPSES BY CANDLELIGHT

 

 

“Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood, and not be tainted in a shameful fall?” asks Cardinal Monticello of the murderous Lodovico, a man who tends to write off his homicides as “but flea-bitings”.

 

Well, of course not. Everyone is tainted in this most unrestrained of Jacobean revenge tragedies, and all but a Pope, a boy Duke and a couple of assistant murderers get stonking death-scenes. Flamineo actually gets two.  It was written by John Webster in 1612, inspired by an Italian elopement and murder, and is as violent as his masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi , which opened this lovely candlelit playhouse a few years back. But it doesn’t have quite the horror and sustained tension that directors find in the later play, nor its shining sense of real virtue in the heroine. It also tips over into absurdity more often. In this production the text is adjusted ,and cut of some of its intellectual wranglings, by Michael West, and Annie Ryan’s direction goes hell-for-leather with the shouting and murdering, sometimes at the expense of the more memorable  lines.
But enough of them hit home, like “We think that caged birds sing, when indeed they cry”. And as the main victim and sinner Vittoria Kate Stanley-Brennan has an arrogant, beautiful dignity and gives her lines the weight they need.  A strong point is Ryan’s clarity: I admit to a quick refreshing glance at the plot outline in advance, but overheard chatter in the interval proves it was clear enough to newcomers. Vittoria and the Duke, both otherwise married,  are smitten: her atrocious brother Flamineo is playing the pimp to further the affair.    He is strikingly played by Joseph TImms in the style of a longhaired, joking, glottal-stopped, crotch-clutching Russell-Brand-alike in a leather jacket.  It works surprisingly well, and in the dim candlelight the more or less modern dress doesn’t jar either, girls being in grand dresses and noblemen in skirted leather coats.
The first couple of murders get going briskly, assisted by magic overhead, a balcony ,a trapdoor  and a poisoned portrait . Webster loved his gadgets, like an early James Bond: later there is discussion of killing the Duke with a poisoned tennis racket handle, but they settle for a poisoned helmet. It makes you realise how very restrained Shakespeare was.   Vittoria (in a scene where Stanley-Brennan excels with real seriousness) is tried as a whore by the prim Cardinal,  who then becomes Pope with sonorous clanging bells, enabling her to elope and marry her Duke to a very jolly trumpet tune from the musicians overhead ( previously condemned to a great deal of Psycho-style violin angst in Tom Lane’s atmospheric score).
Meanwhile – pay attention at the back there – Lodovico ,who loved the murdered wife of the Duke, returns from exile to avenge her, Flamineo wipes out his brother (good work in the grieving from Anna Healy as poor old Mum Cornelia), and so to a barking-mad OTT showdown with four pistols, culminating in a heap of candlelit corpses, who have to rise rather sheepishly for the curtain call.

 
This play can, by fierce determination,  be made into a darkly credible epic of lust and murder, its huge emotions taken seriously.   Doesn’t quite happen here. The candelight helps, and it is vivid, entertaining and probably truer to the spirit of the period that way.  Though I have to note that in the programme, amid more interesting observations, there is a ripe bit of oh-for-gods-sakery from the director attempting to relate it all to “post-Brexit, post-Trump…It has to feel like those debates, Hillary standing there and this monster prowling behind her like a wolf” .
Nice try, but we don’t need it. More interesting to reflect on its own century’s fierce protestant spirit, and villains as dastardly foreign papists.…

 
box office Box office 020 7401 9919 to 16 april
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MURDER FOR TWO Watermill, Newbury

A DAFT DETECTIVE DOUBLE-ACT
Retro clutter round a piano: files, a hatstand, model house, gun, notebook, handcuffs. We are in the territory of smalltown detective fiction, a touch of the Poirots crossed with parodic Chandleresque film-noir ( this miniature musical was born off-Broadway, and won a Jefferson prize in Chicago). Add a dash of Marx brothers, a memory of Tom Lehrer and an overlay of vaudeville. The style is frantic: riffs and duet tricks on the piano and songs with memorably cod-desperate rhymes (“When you’re feeling stressy – a bit -er – S-o-S-y..”. Or “He said I was graceful, said I had a faceful / Of features, like eyebrows and eyes”).

 
Its creators Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair meld the musical outbreaks into the story with considerable skill and determinedly batshit silliness. All this is performed by two young men in pinstripe trousers and formal grey waistcoats. Ed MacArthur is an ambitious policeman yearning for detective glory, and Jeremy Legat, changing character sometimes second by second , is all the suspects. With reversible hat he is a bickering old couple accusing one another, with glasses on his nose the victim’s suspiciously undistressed wife , an ageing former showgirl. By crossing his arms and booming he becomes a needy psychiatrist, and with nothing but some elegantly skilled physical work a geeky girl doing a criminology PhD, a choir of boy scouts and a soulful, suspicious ballerina. They all have a motive, obviously, for killing a famous novelist.

 
There are jokes which would drag a laugh out of anyone, and a couple of stunning big numbers (Legat eventually gets green smoke, bubbles, sparkles and a Chicago leg up on the piano). But there’s a lot of mugging and broad self-awareness, and some, like my companion, won’t entirely take to it. But if you have a cheerful drink inside you and a yearning for some proper flippancy in this angst-loving age, it just about hits the spot.

 
The performers are superb, not least as pianists. MacArthur is earnestly geeky as the detective , and Legat, in his multiple fast-changing characters, walks the tricky line between being seriously annoying and dazzlingly brilliant. For me he stayed just the right side, and that in itself is a trick worth watching.

Luke Sheppard directs with Tom Atwood as musical director. It’s off to the former St James Theatre next, where Andrew Lloyd-Webber aims to curate and encourage just such musical flights.

 

box office 01635 46044 to 25 Feb
Then to: The Other Palace studio, SW1 2-18 March 0844 264 2121

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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LOVE Dorfman, SE1

LIVES IN LIMBO
At the Connection at St Martin’s they say that none of us is more than two bad decisions away from the pavement. The street homeless we know, a little. Less plainly laid before us is the next step up: the hostel with small bare rooms off a common area, a squalid shared kitchenette and bathroom where different welfare “clients” may live for months on end before anything like a home is found. That is where we find Tharwa from Sudan averting her eyes from big shambling tattooed  Colin , and the fragile old mother for whom he proudly proclaims himself “carer”. And in a cramped bunk-room a recently evicted family of four shortly to be five: Dean, his very pregnant partner Emma, and their two children. A bearded Syrian lad wanders through from time to time, sometimes settling down to watch Billy Elliot on his phone while drinking orange juice from the carton.

 

 

The title is canny. Alexander Zeldin could have called it “Austerity” or just “Bastard Tory Benefit Cuts”. There is a substantial essay about recent welfare history in the programme. But by the title he wishes us to note the human relationships as valid and honourable in this hundred-minute, painfully naturalistic, low-key slice of life . Which, by the way, makes you nostalgic for the days when people talked of kitchen-sink drama: any of these poor souls would kill for a private sink in which nobody else washes old ladies’ hair with Fairy liquid, borrows their mug without permission and gets territorial about fridge shelves.

 
As a conscience-pricker, the NT’s Christmas feelbad offering, it is effective. When the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall as the old mother finally staggers through the audience towards the stage death of the year, there was a standing ovation and I think it was mainly for her. But as drama it is pitched so low and slow, so anxious to convey the despair and boredom of this life by making us share it, that it is hard entirely to admire. Some muttered lines can barely be caught from halfway back in the stalls; more importantly, it is a very long time before we get even a hint of back-story, for which we hunger and thirst.
We do learn that Dean (Luke Clarke) and Emma (a dignified Janet Eluk) were evicted, and that in the stupid rigid system financially ‘sanctioned’ for missing a Jobcentre appointment on the day of eviction. This family provide the only clearly expressed narrative, and the children are finely played on press night by Yonatan Pelé Roodner and Emily Beacock, the latter providing a few laughs with her doggedly tuneless rehearsal of Away in a Manger and her keenness on decorating the miserable place with tinsel. The lad is just fed up, ending on the way to school with his determined parents as a surly dont-wannabe-shepherd with a teatowel on his head.
As to the devoted son Colin – Nick Holder – it is only in one significant late moment that we understand that beyond being merely thick and tactless he is in some way seriously emotionally damaged. Of the Sudanese lady we know little, until she suddenly livens up and chats in Arabic with the Syrian. But because this is basically an angry political play it would help immensely if it, or the programme, offered us imaginary social-workers’ notes on these people , a notion of the great complex engine which crushes them . We want to know exactly what systems failed them and for how long. Otherwise all we can do is echo Colin’s complaint that “the Council f—- you”.
Near the end actual crises happen: and indeed no woman three weeks off giving birth should have to mop up the double incontinence of an aged stranger in a common area where her children play and cross in neat school uniforms. But hell, we knew that. And we also know that people love one another, even when things are hard and horrible. But one longs for some politics, some admin, some acknowledgement of how vast the problems are and how we got here. Squalid misery at Christmas is easy to portray: economics and complexities less so.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS Park, N4

BETTER TO RANT IN HELL..

 
Magnificent in military jacket as he lectures the College of Tempters, then at ease in his study in fine brocade against a marvellous backdrop of skulls and bones and fire, Screwtape dictates his letters to a junior, his nephew Wormwood. Our hero is a senior in Hell, his unseen correspondent a rookie nephew, deployed as a guardian-devil tasked with tempting a youngish human, sabotaging his Christian conversion and undermining his virtues.

 

 

The older man’s monologue is accompanied not by any sign of the humans – messages are sent and received via a splendid fiery tube at the top of a ladder – but by the scaly-ragged, face-painted, lithe junior secretarial devil Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight ), who skips, crawls, gibbers and occasionally, rather brilliantly, acts out in dumb-show the human characters Screwtape desribes as living around the patient. This is particularly fine during the riff about how, over centuries, Hell has managed to distract human males from women likely to produced happy healthy marriages, teaching them instead to admire impossible haughtiness, fainting feebleness, a boyish outline which no normal woman can keep ontor many years, or shapes so artificial that they both disappoint men and put pressure on women. Wight does them all in a few neat moves.

 

 

But as he stalks, this Screwtape lays it on hard, some of his delivery made almost unclear by emphasis: for too much of the time Max McLean rants, shouts, drawls, acting more like an overweening arrogant demagogue than an academic, thoughtful, experienced adviser. He needs to be more urbane, smoother, more nuanced : because that is the way C.S. Lewis wrote him in the famous 1941 book. It is notable that McLean is credited not only as performer but co-adaptor, founder of the US production company FPA and – crucially – director. I applaud the enterprise, but wish it a tougher hand on the performer.

 

 

That gave me a problem, though probably not universally shared, because I have known the book from childhood, and treasured the sharp elegant prose and Lewis’ deadly serious playfulness as he inhabits the mindset of an imagined devil: ravenous for souls, relishing human suffering but always haunted by the prospect of failure when one slips from Hell’s grip into the clear light of heaven, which to the underworld’s dark denizens is a blinding, suffocating, noxious horror. Screwtape is a great creation, a minatory, didactic senior uncle experienced in bringing about damnation. Which is defined, as always in Lewis’ theology (see The Great Divorce) as an individual’s gradual distancing him or herself from God and the virtues God enjoins.

 

 
But that is an issue of direction and tone, and the script, solid Lewis, is worth it. There is plenty of fine sharp psychology in Screwtape’s proposals: his definition of “the gluttony of delicacy” in which people eat moderately but fussily is apropos in the age of clean-eaters and faddish. Equally, his favourite way to ensure damnation is not provoking huge sudden crimes but creating mere lethargy and neglect of duty: since Satan hates pleasure as well as virtue, the best catch is not when you get a man carousing, but drinking alone and bored by a dying fire; or neglecting his duty not for fun or good reading but mere distraction that bores him (bring on the social media and the box-sets). And – in a rare updating Screwtape brandishes a big Madonna album – there is the startling message that the job of temptation is now largely devolved by hell to the example of “demagogues, dictators, and almost all screen and music stars”.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 7 Jan
Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME Young Vic, SE1

HURRAH FOR HOLLYWOOD, AND LONG LIVE FOOLS

 
’Tis the season to be silly, and the Young Vic’s revival of a screwball 1930’s Hollywood satire hit the spot triumphantly with this theatre’s warm, responsive audience. It draws on two perennial daydreams: the first being that if you tell the boss he’s wrong his indignation will turn to wonder and he’ll promote you for fearlessness. The other is the even older folk-tale in which Foolish Jack accidentally does the right thing and wins the Princess and the fortune.

 

 

In Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s play it’s foolish George, played with nice naive indignation by John Marquez. He is one-third of a failing vaudeville troupe, with Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and the longsuffering May (Claudie Blakeley). The talkies have just begun so they hit on the idea of running an “elocution and speech culture” course for previously silent film stars. Once in Hollywood they encounter monsters like the overspangled, cawing showbiz-journalist Helen (Lucy Cohu), and Daniel Abelson hysterical with frustration as one of the latest mass “shipment” of playwrights hired by Glogauer and given nothing to do. A crazy workplace where a man is employed full time taking peoples names off their office doors and putting up new ones is led by the studio boss Mr Glogauer: a perfect shuffling, balding, amiably tyrannical plutocratic idiot of a part for Harry Enfield’s stage debut. George, a mooncalf in love with dim wannabe star Susan (Lizzy Connolly) , loses his temper, accidentally is promoted to total charge, and makes the wrong film without lights or plot. Which of course becomes a critical triumph for its originality. The reviews are beautifully written, classic emperor’s-new-clothes fawning on the obscurity and bad acting of George’s creation.

 

It’s a grand Christmas treat,  and there are some glorious moments especially in the second half.  The first takes time to warm up, often seeming like just a series of absurd sketches, though Richard Jones’ direction (and a lovely revolving segmented set by Hyemi Shin) keep it moving well enough. Enfield doesn’t have much to do in the first hour, though he is a treat to see shuffling through thickets of wannabes, complaining “wherever I go they ACT at me” or happily crying “That’s the way we do things out here – no time wasted on thinking!”.
Actually, though, most of that half and a good few moments in the second are stolen, with shameless comic brilliance, by Amanda Lawrence in a tight, worried pinkish hairdo as the receptionist Miss Leighton. She deploys a wonderful ladylike obstructiveness with people attempting appointments, and an anguished, spinsterish Glogauer-worship, following him around with a solid gold coffee mug . Her character could step straight in to most of the corporate workplaces any of us knows. And even a few doctors’ surgeries. Oh yes.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 14 Jan
Rating three  3 Meece Rating

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KING LEAR Barbican

LUKE JONES ON THE RSC’s NEW LEAR.. (interesting contrast of response with LP’s Stratford review  , here on http://tinyurl.com/gnu73zq . We both love Essiedu’s Edmund though!) 

 

You’re not to know this, but King Lear bears the proud seal of ‘The Best Shakespeare Play According to Luke Jones’. It pleasingly eschews the clunk of the others. Where most are a web throughout, Lear has an easy setup, clearly defined bust-ups all of which turns shit-shaped in a thrillingly desperate way. If there were ever a Shakespeare play less in need of a concept or re-versioning it is this one.

 

 

I see and appreciate that the director Gregory Doran has aimed to reflect this clean simplicity. The stage is either neat brick or bright white and the only disturbances on stage are either actors, big chairs or branches. They have tried to give the drama of this bloody, vindictive and mad play the space to play out. Unfortunately what should be simple and sharp, reads as bare and saggy.

 

 

Anthony Sher is the bright face on the programme, but his Lear and his gurgling, oddly flat and timid voice which weigh it down. It has the whiff of a performance which thinks it’s a heart-wrenchingly Olivier turn, when in fact it’s just well annunciated reading. Sher perks a little as Lear’s madness sets in, but for the most-part every emotional highlight is squadered. “Let me not be mad”, Sher says to the fool, in what should be him tipping into decline. Instead it’s chewed by an over-RSC’d delivery and shouted to the back of the stalls. The same is true of Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Reagan (Kelly Williams) who don’t quite navigate the path from wronged daughters to blood-thirsty abusers. I’m not moved for the same reason I’m not moved by the performances in TV adverts. It’s too mannered and lacks depth.

 

 

Doran seems to have them in. Some wildness rages, but for most of it tempers don’t boil naturally, madness doesn’t ring true and emotional reunions as a result don’t satisfy. It’s all a little surface.

 

The gold-plated exceptions to this are star turns by Papa Essiedu as the conniving power-seducer Edmund and Oliver Johnstone as the wronged Edgar. As Lear’s brood slightly fuck-up giving us the fucked-up siblings, it’s these two that deliver. Both have a gloriously genuine delivery. Essiedu has a bully’s charm I think we’d all like in our arsenal and Johnstone’s reuniting with bloody Gloucester land almost all the production’s emotional punches. You can’t take your eye sockets off them.

This, and dynamic script in the first place, kick the whole thing along.

Do not come if you’re in the mood for a towering central performance. But if you’ve the patience and the predisposition for the play, hold hands, splash some cold water on your face in the interval and it’ll be fine.

 
Box Office 01789 403493      Until 23rd December

rating three3 Meece Rating

 

 

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