Category Archives: Three Mice

OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

THE WORLD DONALD GREW UP IN…      

 

  It’s a long transverse stage:  at one end  at a scruffy crowded steel desk sits Jorgy, Michael Brandon exuding down-home amiability as the longtime head of a New England wire and cable company.  Not so profitable these days,  but jogging along, keeping 1200 jobs in the fading division ,   no outstanding liabilities, no breaches of health and safety law. Decent values.  At the far end facing him is a sleek black desk under a fake Picasso,   and the huge figure of Larry the liquidator:  Rob Locke as a massive,  dougHnut-addicted and majestically pinstriped vulture capitalist.  He is buying his way in, bit by bit,   to take control of Jorgy’s company,  close the unprofitable bit and strip the assets.  This is gladiatorial,   Wall Street versus Main- Street-USA.     Even in 1989, as the lawyer Kate says, it is  “what’s happening’.

 

 So how nicely appropriate of Katharine Farmer and Blue Touch Paper productions to  open  this 1989 play by Jerry Sterner on the very day we learned that President Trump gets a State Visit this summer.   Trump, apparently, saw it and loved it on its first outing.  It is almost a fable:    Jorgy, and his loyal PA Bea  (Lin Blakley, a lovely portrait of female loyalty)   represent the decent American business  dream of Harry S Truman,   as opposed to the less-decent American reality of Trump Tower.  Larry is entertainingly frank about the only point of anything being to get money, get it right now, and enjoy the shootout on the way.    “In the old Westerns, didn’t everyone wanna be the gunslinger?”.   But once, as Jorgy says,at least the robber barons left traces like banks, railroads and mines. Now it’s just a trail of theoretical paper.

 

 

    Brandon is a likeable Jorgy, never wavering,  exuding decency,  but rising to eloquence only  in his final plea to shareholders.  More anxious is his deputy and likely heir Billy (a weasel-sharp Mark Rose)   who begs the insouciant Larry to wait two years before his wrecking operation,   so he can save his career.   Bea’s daughter Kate  (Amy Burke)  is a NY lawyer deputed to make the company’s case and outwit or persuade Larry out of his hostile takeover.   But he fascinates her, as pythons do.   

   

 

      The action is a series of duels and confrontations, and in the first half has trouble holding interest unless you really enjoy share-dealing intricacy  (though Bea’s donut-carousel is the most magnificent prop of the season so far).    It heats up nicely  in the second half with some treacheries and twists,   not always from a predictable direction.      Kate has some startling  pre-Weinstein moments with the appalling Larry.  And there are lines which, in the year of Trump’s arrival here,  and a time when workforce welfare is rarely top of the financial world’s priorities,  are telling. 

   “What about the planet?”

   “Sold for scrap”

   “What about the workforce?”

   “It’s called maximizing profit. Restructuring”

   ‘So restructuring means you never have to say you’re sorry?” “Yep”

   “How can you live with yourself?”  “I have to. Nobody else will”. 

 

box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk   to 11 May

rating three

 

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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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THE TIDE JETTY              Eastern Angles, touring

SECRETS AND MEMORIES IN A WASTE OF WATERS

     

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

 

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

           

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

    

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

easternangles.co.uk     touring to 1 June

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MARY’S BABIES            Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

A COSY NIGHTMARE LEGACY OF THE 1930’S

 

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

  

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

  

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

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

    

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

 

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

rating  three  3 Meece Rating

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY              Theatre Royal , Bury & touring

WHAT THE BUTLER CAME TO KNOW…

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

     

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

 box office   01284 769 505   to 30 March, 

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

rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE RUBENSTEIN KISS              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

 MARTYRS OF THE MCCARTHY YEARS

    

    Ideological hostilities across the world,   fake news and paranoia, a resurgent deep left,  uneasy relations with Russia, antisemites questioning the patriotism of Jews:  no bad time to revive James Phillips’ powerful play.   It is based on the 1950’s trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing details of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union.    Revulsion at McCarthyism and the electric chair provoked decades of liberal rage and campaigns to prove their innocence:   still later, records revealed that they probably were indeed doing it.  

       With little changed but names,   Phillips creates a play in the spirit of Arthur Miller:    about belief and betrayal, idealism and vanity, family shame and pride.   With deft timeshifts it is set half in their time, half in  the 1960s where the couple’s son falls for his cousin, daughter of the uncle whose evidence betrayed them.  Sometimes they  are onstage together,  the four elders like ghosts;  sometimes round a very significant table.    As Joe Harmston’s long, careful production swings into its second act, you can hardly breathe for tension and pity.  

 

           But it takes time. I must be honest and say that the first half didn’t engage me fast enough.  Henry Proffit, long and lean and scholarly,  is a marvellous Jakob,  every generation’s dangerous academic idealist;  his passion is reflected back to him in Ruby Bentall’s fragile romantic Esther, forever singing snatches of opera because it “makes working people big inside”,  while her bluff brother complains that it is bourgeois and Italian a “fascist language”.   But in that first act the growing relationship of the young people drags a bit,  and it is only after the interval that we get an electric, eloquent,  Milleresque piece I would kick myself to have missed. 

 

        Never mind.  When Stephen Billington as the FBI agent Cranmer engages with Jakob then Esther,  pity and terror crackle as violently as Matthew Bugg’s menacing soundscape.  Cranmer says his  war service was against  “the enemies of my country”;   Jakob, excused the draft on health grounds,  only wanted to “fight Fascists”.  It’s a telling distinction:    the Soviets after all were allies.   Deeper division is philosophical and practical:   trying to persuade them to make a deal and talk  Cranmer cites Stalin’s murders  while Jakob refuses to believe it.  To Esther’s proud “we have courage because of our convictions” Cranmer cries “you are dying for a lie…you will orphan your son for an idea!” . Jakob piously returns “Ideas are more important..I can’t deny the man I have spent my life trying to become”.   With ten days to go before execution,  Esther’s operatic preoccupation makes her sing “Un bel di” from Madam Butterfly and vaunt her “pure hope” to the interrogator;  the FBI agent exasperatedly begs “don’t wait for the white ship in the harbour, Esther!” .

  

    Echoes of Antigone, of Joan of Arc of the perilous streak of vanity in martyrdom.  It is  reflected again as 25 years later  when Katie Eldred as the niece confronts her father with a half-hearted suicide attempt.  Phillips is grimly aware of every irony:  when Jakob (more scared than his wife) shudders about the inhumane horror of his coming death,   we sharply remember his insouciant blindness about Stalin.  The coda, with a final physical reveal and a still more ironic decision by Dario Coates as the son Matthew,  leaves you reeling.      

box office 020 7407 0234 | www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

to   13 april

RATING  THREE

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THE CANE                Royal Court, SW1

PSYCHOPATHIC LIBERAL MEETS DINOSAUR PARENTS

   

  Can we, I wonder, ever  learn to deplore past attitudes without being vengeful about it?  Hot on the heels of Mike Bartlett’s heartfelt SNOWFLAKE,  here’s another three-hander , another estranged daughter and another go at the subject of intergenerational affront and cold, angry youthful righteousness.  This, though, is a  more mischievously satirical – and unsettling – imagination by Mark Ravenhill.  We find Anna (Nicola Walker) a composed, professional young woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a single mother visiting her parents after a long gap:   her mother is both depressedly defensive and seething with lifelong frustration (Maggie Steed gives a note-perfect performance,  catching every resentment, fear and disappointment of a generation of women).   

  

      Father, a teacher on the verge of retirement after 45 years at the same school,  is initially upstairs working on a rebuttal of a damning OFSTED.   Parents and daughter have, we learn, become estranged because of her Academy chain,  which hopes to take over the failing school and impose its frozen eyes-front silent righteousness on it.    But, as also becomes clear, they never got on: Anna was an ‘angry child” who once threatened her father with an axe and ripped up the room.  In the eerily bleak, high-ceiled set, the marks are still on the wallpaper, underlining a sense of parental stasis. 

 

 

  But the point is that children from Dad’s school are gathering outside, throwing bricks through the window in protest at the father (Alun Armstrong) who appears, fretting about his report and as weirdly ambiguous about his daughter as his wife is.  It turns out that until the ban thirty years ago,  father was deputy head and therefore responsible for caning naughty boys.   There’s a ledger that proves it,  complete with “parental permission” signatures and carefully recorded number of strokes  (on the hand, by the way, not the backside, no skin broken).    He never liked it, as becomes clear:  Armstrong gives a wonderful picture of the old-style, basically caring Mr Chips trapped in a rigid system, doing his job.       Now, though, having suddenly found out this bit of pretty obvious social history and discovered that the mild teacher they know was once a “child-beater”,   the new generation are hunting him down in their hundreds and carrying on as if he was Josef Mengele.

    

          The core of the conflict and its absurdity is nicely summed up  when the mother says”They’re snowflakes. These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own. They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today.  If something was done differently int he past they bawl and they whine, kick and spit and attack”. 

     To which the pious daughter replies”Young people today are much more aware of issues relating to coercion, personal space, violence”.  She suggests formal apologies to the new generation (which hasn’t personally suffered)  and a safe space for them to discuss feelings. “To indulge themselves further in their introspection and self-pity” replies Mum sharply. 

  

    Sympathy and irritation swing (well, mine did) between the hidebound, slightly bullying but  long-serving older generation and the almost psychopathic liberalism of the bossy modern daughter,  with her pious jargon about “pupil voice” and prating about Best Practice and the inadvisability of Off Site Meetings.  Not to mention a grating tendency to say  “utilize” not “use’, and a millennial assumption that whatever is in the attic must be pornography, because her father being male must want some.  “I wouldn’t judge”.   After an hour I did wonder what Mr Ravenhill and director Vicky Featherstone would do with the remaining 45 minutes , stuck in a bleak set with three bleak people.  But the drama did rise – to the point of improbability  – with more argument, a minor coup-de-theatre by Chloe Langford’s set,  and an increasingly violent and improbable conclusion. 

 

    The last speech also revealed the fact that the liberal-caring-personal-space daughter  probably always was as mad and vindictive as a box of fascist frogs.    On the way out audience members over 50 muttered about how they got leathered at school ,so what?   And a nice young man next to me almost fainted when I told him that in 1965 Mother Rita in Krugersdorp  used to lash out with a ruler without any parental signature.   

box office  royalcourttheatre.com  to 26 Jan

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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