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Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera of shocking brutality, with savage emotional aggression rivalling physical violence throughout its fast-paced plot. Fulham Opera’s reduction for Grimeborn brings Donizetti’s dark, doomed characters to vivid life with some glorious principal singers, supported by a dramatic piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward. Foremost is Alberto Sousa’s passionate, difficult Edgardo, a man torn between his sworn vengeance on the scheming Ashtons and his love for their daughter Lucia: the intimate setting of Arcola’s Studio 2 (rather too small for this production) only magnifies the supreme emotional and musical detail of Sousa’s harrowing, exhilarating performance. Snapping at Sousa’s heels is a magnificently cruel Enrico from Ashley Mercer, able to throw grit or gossamer over his penetrating bass-baritone in a brilliantly dramatic performance which proves bel canto also works with serious attitude. Nicola Said’s Lucia copes with Donizetti’s challenging soprano writing, producing a ravishing “Egli è luce ai giorni miei”, the very image of a headstrong teenager in love, and a musically lyrical Mad Scene; Said’s Lucia is a lost little girl in a vortex of male vendetta, a not unjustified interpretation, though her acting can flicker when silent. Rebekah Jones’ handwringing Alisa, Simon Grange’s anxious Raimondo and John Wood’s wonderfully clear Arturo complete the picture.

The emotional and musical success of this production, however, is countered by practical glitches. The surtitles misbehaved throughout on opening night, and Jim Manganello’s screened translation is ungenerously brusque with Cammarano’s libretto. Daniel Farr’s lighting is surprisingly clunky, and Anna Yates’ design isn’t helpful: Lammermuir Castle seems to be a messy building site, with pointless minor scene-fiddling delaying the action, while costumes are contemporary, but similarly incoherent. Lucia has a fit of teenage sulks in pyjama bottoms and slippers, but mysteriously later remembers to put on shoes (!) and a man’s (bloodstained) shirt for her mad scene: are we supposed to imagine she allowed Arturo to rape her, then dressed herself in his shirt and only then stabbed him? This is an opera where sides are a matter of life and death, and Donizetti moves the plot so fast that we need to conceptualise and believe Lucia’s predicament quickly, usually conveyed through design, but the main difference between Enrico and Edgardo here is suit versus Barbour: hardly murder territory. The chorus start in anoraks, more Neighbourhood Watch than gangland acolytes; their presence is never fully legitimised on stage by designer or director, and becomes particularly confusing as they pretend to be Edgardo’s ancestors, then rise up and tell him about Lucia’s fate, a zombie interpretation at odds with the libretto. Director Sarah Hutchinson’s management (or lack of it) of the chorus is a perennial issue, as is her disorganised placing of characters on stage: this close-quarters production offers us a rare, intimate perspective on the finely-honed structure of Lucia di Lammermoor, with its many private parallels and fascinating internal reflections, but we can’t detect that in the stagecraft, which leaves the Fulham Opera Chorus weak and exposed, and puts too much on the shoulders of its admittedly fine principals.

Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 11 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here (returns only)

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating


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You’re not often given a  surprise by Lane the butler in in his short appearance,  as he delivers those immortally celebrated cucumber sandwiches to the piano-strumming young master Algernon.  But when Algy has given him a couple of kisses, hand and lips, lit his  cigarette for him and sat down matily beside his gentleman’s gentleman to listen to Jack,  you think again.  And you couldn’t choose better for  Lane than Geoffrey Freshwater: a dubious, battered paternal figure, serving himself a sherry and maintaining a classic RSC deadpan expression on those senatorial features.  Algernon may be about to pursue Cecily, but as marriage material…? Well, Oscar was, and loved his sons, so fair enough.


It has been a Wilde year, with Rupert Everett’s stunning film about the playwright’s last years and Dominic Dromgoole’s curated season at the Vaudeville: the last opening, An Ideal Husband, proving the crowning glory. It has been a  treat.  But this, Wilde’s epigrammatically nonsensical final squib , is the toughest task.


It is worth doing, though.    It  is almost an amoral parody of romantic comedy and has – if,  like director Michael Fentiman,  you look at it in the context of the author’s imminent downfall –  a real  whiff of sulphur round the edges.  Unlike in Wilde’s more probable plots, here we do not wish or need to imagine the future marriages of the young characters, based as they are  deliberately on  whimsy. And so well known are the top lines – the diaries, the HANDBAG, the muffins, the Fall of the Rupee etc – that there have been times, for all the deployment of Denche or Suchet quality, that you wish The Importance could be given a rest for fifty years or so, to come up fresh.  Indeed the last version  I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Joanna Carrick’s, framed as the memory of an old  butler and containing, among other joys, a unique  sense of guilty sexual chemistry between Prism and Chasuble…


But never mind. Fentiman’s cast got unforced guffaws on even the most well- expected lines, despite  an opening-night audience who must have known them. So there is a fair chance that a new generation coming to it will love it to bits.  Sophie Thompson has just the edge of  lunatic authority that one needs in Lady B, and Fiona Button is an absolutely glorious Cecily. Fehinti Balogun – on a West End debut – is the unnervingly sexually fluid Algernon, at first a little stilted but coming  into his own in the second scene as he saunters, louche and irresistible in a tilted hat, into Cecily’s sheltered life.  He eats muffins  to perfection and is, by then, very funny.


Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is Jack, more conventionally the Woosterish man about town and a nice foil to his cleverer friend.  And Fentiman’s grace-notes (heaps of tottering luggage, furious food-stuffing and diary-ripping, as well as the sexual ambiguities – keep the pace up. So yes, fun. Though I can’t think what Oscar’s audience would have said about Algy pinching Jack’s bum.


Box office 0330 333 4814. To  September

Rating. Three.


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OTHELLO. Shakespeare’s Globe Se1

GUEST CRITIC  and sharp-eyed millennial BEN BLACKMORE DOES THE STATE (well, theatrecat) SOME SERVICE….

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

box office  to 13 Oct

I have never seen Othello before — either on stage or film — so I wondered, as I took my perch in the sweaty tinderbox of the Globe on a sultry summer’s evening, how this would affect my ability to review. The micro-agressions fuelled by the Globe’s whittled stall seating are hard to overlook.During the Cypriot storm sequence a lady sitting behind me fainted, her head bowling into my back.


The first thing that became clear to me, once I recovered from the blow, is that we need to talk about costumes. The dress code for Othello is, for the most part, a bizarre, unwieldy marriage of military-issue boots and red berets, with rococo-finished ceremonial dress. The feel, in the opening salvo, is that of a band of mercenary bellhops on bank holiday. It’s not clear whether these people are about to launch an offensive or misplace your luggage.


And who thought it was a good idea to put Sir Mark Rylance, playing Iago, in an outfit — jaunty cap on an angle, sad droopy moustache — that made him look less like Shakespeare’s super villain and more like Super Mario.


Yet the first act garners a surprising amount of laughs, from Rylance with his deft patter, but particularly from Andre Holland, in the title role, inventing moments of comedy where before there were none.


Claire van Kampen’s production is accelerated; rapidity moving past alacrity into a sort of ‘can’t stop to chat or I’ll miss my train’ mode where the players are constantly coming and going, dashing off the stage only to return to finish their lines moments later.


This frenzy yields an oddly comic traction, as many lines are played for laughs or occasionally parcelled out to the audience for panto points. Reconciling this larky mood with a slow build towards tragedy proves increasingly elusive.

Mr Holland, of Moonlight fame, acquits himself well as Othello, playing the part in his native Alabama drawl and providing a much needed sense of cool collectedness. That said, I thought he fared better in the opening half, when he was mollifying the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy rather than succumbing to it.


As to Mark Rylance, the last time he trod the boards here, he was largely suspended above them, being flown around in a Beckettian rendition of The Tempest. .  This production, directed by his wife and markedly removed from overwrought conceptualization, at first feels like a safer option. And yet, even by my novice standards, it was possible to see that the plum role of Iago had been taken to strange new places. Flying out of  the traps in scene one, Sir Mark is all diagonals: stealing slyly across the stage, slicing between pillars like a bishop on the chessboard. His movements all begin at the hip and, compounded by the  flying monkey bellhop costume, he vacillates from cheeky chappie to hyper-accelerated cartoon plumber.


If Rylance is what people came for, then Sheila Atim as Emilia surely be what one stays for. I can’t recall an actress of such ineffable magnetism, for whom language feels superfluous.She alone manages to weather the sartorial storm of baffling costume changes, which send her through an increasingly bombastic array of catsuits.

That she imbues the role with understated, devastating potency while wearing what looks to be an archive rive gauche Yves Saint Laurent mustard onesie, is testament to how beguiling a force she is; Emilia barely speaks for her first scene, but the way she moves expresses far more than words — and, unfortunately, with those costumes makes everyone else looks like bizarre off-cuts from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Lacking a concerted build-up, the crucial strangling scene feels less savage than sterile. In her programme notes, Van Kampen said: ‘We felt we really wanted the audience to have most of their energy intact for the tragedy that happens right at theend of the play.’ However the trading of suspense for surprise is a gamble which ultimately doesn’t pay off.

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In a lovely dolls-house set,  Judy bustles about happily in a gay flouncy full skirt and pinny.  She  runs hubby’s morning bath, makes his packed lunch in a handled box ( no plastic) and trills up the stairs that she’s taken the top off his fresh- boiled egg.  Off to the office he goes, with hat and dutiful kiss.  Then getting  the first proper laugh of the evening,  wifey takes out a MacBook Air. She has to google the best way of shining taps with lemon-peel  and knocking up cheese straws and hellish devilled eggs for cocktail time.

For it is not actually 1953, except in Judy’s stubborn head.  She is, a century on,  a sort of negative of the domestically trapped heroine in Ibsen’s A Dolls House  . An anti-Nora. There’s even a  parallel door-slam at the end to be spotted by the theatresavvy ironists.


Laura Wade scored a big  hit when she wrote POSH,  which became the film Riot Club:   I was the exception, finding  its Bullingdon -Club hatefulness too much of a cartoon and its conclusion improbable. But it suited the easy-leftish  mood of the time and the rise of Coalition resentment, so good luck to its fans.   This time Wade’s gift for caricature is turned on a target  more interesting, and more attention is paid – though not entirely convincingly – to the characters’ real psychology.


    That target, the root of her heroine Judy’s disturbingly deluded lifestyle,  is the recent emergence of retro domestic-goddessry, that Bake-Off,  Cath-Kidstonian idea of ditching feminist striding to live the flowery 1950s dream.  She has -we learn a bit too slowly – rebelled against a feminist-commune hippie upbringing , given up a well- paid job and devoted herself to amassing retro housewares (I did admire the lacy bobble cloth on  the milk bottle) .  She loves to do  obsessive perfectionist housework before getting  lipsticked and “fresh as a daisy”  to greet John (the provider, “my rock, my Rock Hudson”)  back each day from his precarious job as an estate agent on commission. That this hobbyist lifestyle choice is economic nonsense becomes clear as the first act ends;  even more obvious that it  threatens his very survival in the modern world under a  sleek woman boss (Sara Gregory, foxily omincompetent).



Katherine Parkinson’s Judy is perfectly pitched, a staccato brittle sweetness overlaying timid rage and fear of  modernity; the hapless John (Richard Harrington)is sympathetic.  There is obvious fun to be had with the situation, though Tamara Harvey’s directorial flourish of having their friends Marcus and Fran  jiving round the set in related entr’actes palls a bit. There are some good laughs: the  absolute best is a grand long  rant in the second act when the magnificent Sian Thomas  as Judy’s mother explodes in contempt of her daughter’s  “gingham paradise”.   Nostalgia, she points out, used to be regarded as an illness.  And “the ‘fifties were terrible. Do you know how cold it was? everyone huddled round their own fireplace ‘cos everwhere else was freezing…Sudays that lasted a month, nothing open..greymeat, grey people, everything grey…and don’t expect not to be groped at work, that’s the least of your worries..”  It goes on.    One longs to shout “ encore!” and hear her do it again. Especially if the said 50s were one’s own early childhood, chilblains and all.  



       That is one of the few blasts of real, exasperated truthfulness.   Johnny’s sudden honesty is good too, as he pleads that in this prissy escapist make-believe to which he agreed,   they are only “performing” their marriage.   That could hit home in many relationships of the Instagram age.   But the play’s  construction – especially one  ill-placed brief flashback scene with no apparent reason unless to display a cunning set trick by Anna Fleischle -feels  clumsy. And  the feelgood ending hovers between being improbably saccharine and – because Parkinson really is superb – properly touching.  The problem for me is that as her eccentricity suggests for much of the play that she is quite mentally ill,    recovery comes that bit too quickly.


box office         to 31 August

rating three

3 Meece Rating

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The celebrations of the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Britain have reached Dalston’s cultural heartland as Spectra Ensemble present a little-known opera by Suffragette composer Ethel Smyth, The Boatswain’s Mate, at Grimeborn. Smyth had to fight hard to become a composer, and even harder to get her work on stage, but she won through on both counts, being the first woman to have an opera performed at the New York Met. You might be forgiven for thinking that any opera we are going to get from Smyth could be tough medicine: something stridently defiant, even deliberately difficult. What we actually encounter in The Boatswain’s Mate is a warmly comic operatic farce: undeniably empowering, but also incisive, touchingly romantic and, most importantly, hilarious.

An isolated country pub, The Beehive, is run singlehandedly by its queen bee, the determined and charismatic widow Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin). Elderly retired sailor Harry Benn (John Upperton) is keen to take possession of both lovely Mrs Waters and her thriving business, repeatedly proposing to her but finding himself repeatedly and firmly refused: Mrs Waters proclaims herself “once bitten, twice shy” when it comes to marriage. Unable to accept this, Benn persuades a wandering former soldier, Ned Travers (Shaun Aquilina) to carry out a fake ‘burglary’ so that Benn can finally win her heart with a dashing midnight rescue, staged to his own design. However, his plan backfires spectacularly when Mrs Waters proves herself more than capable of defending her pub from intruders, but in a brilliant twist, she may not in fact be able to defend her heart from the inconveniently dashing, open-hearted Ned. In a mounting storm of physical attraction and social convention, Smyth screws the farce tighter and tighter while creating a very real drama of courtship shot through with humour, wit and respect.

Director Cecilia Stinton slightly overeggs Mrs Waters’ prim respectability at the outset, and the drama feels a little static and lumpen to start, but just stay with it: once this opera takes off, it goes like a rocket. Christianna Mason’s sparse, effective design takes us to Margate in the Coronation year of 1953, with a pub simply suggested by a couple of tables and stools, and a revolving window alternating parlour and bedroom. Hilary Cronin’s Mrs Waters carries the piece with increasing presence, moving from schoolmistress control to magnetic emotional command with her pleasing soprano, finding increasing interest in her character’s secret inner vulnerabilities. John Upperton’s bald, tattooed Benn, a little unfocused to start in Studio 2’s very intimate setting, soon gets the laughs rolling in. Shaun Aquilina’s mellifluous Ned similarly grows in dramatic conviction, conjuring superb chemistry with Cronin. John Warner, leading the accompaniment from the piano, delivers Smyth’s score (in a piano trio) with exceptional care and skill: we have rollicking shanties, spikes of high and ribald drama and sinuous themes of thoughtful yearning, not to mention The March of the Women embedded in the overture. Disarming, surprising and brilliant.

~ Charlotte Valori

Presented by Spectra Ensemble

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 31 July. 

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or tickets here

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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This is billed  for ten years old or more, and its protagonist is a boy of thirteen. But  warned: this  Old Vic young adult summer special is no cosy Lorax. It starts with a nightmare and ends with a deathbed.  In between come plunging, flashing, fiery, black night terrors and a voice at the dark midnight window calling the boy Conor by name. His mother has cancer,  clearly terminal though nobody is admitting it or letting him prepare. To aggravate his plight, his Dad is an oaf who has run off to America with someone called Stefanie and  had a new baby. By day Conor is  relentlessly bullied at school,  at home his Granny is a bossyboots he  dreads living with.


For thirty years or more a series of little books by “Althea” specialised in titles like “I have Cancer”, “I use a Wheelchair”, My Two Families”, “Visiting the Dentist”, etc. Useful for families facing a crisis, well respected, but giving rise to the unkind observation that any middle-class child seeing the A-word on a cover knew that some bloody awful thing was about to happen.  Patrick Ness’  novel is a subtler production, having won both the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals, and I cannot fault this ensemble adaptation under Sally Cookson, who so brilliantly evoked Jane Eyre in scaffolding at Bristol and the NT, This time she has Michael Vale design a set  of ropes dangling from high above ,  skilfully manipulated by the ensemble into a great yew tree of which the Monster is the ruling, terrifying, remorselessly storytelling spirit.  He specialises in subverting apparent fairytale morals into the direction of ambiguity and ethical  complication, preparing Conor for there being no happy ending.


Matthew Tennyson, who I have  been approving of no end ever since Flare Path, carries with intensity and honesty the emotional role of Conor,   Stuart Goodwin is a burly, wrestlerish Monster, Marianne Oldham the mother and Selina Cadell  wonderfully solid as the problematic posh  Grandma. All step in and out of the ensemble , and there’s a nice Cookson touch in the domestic scenes .   Conor dresses for school and does   the housework for his weakened Mum, and the ensemble in chairs at the side chuck his socks and blazer on the floor and hand him kettles or plates with a blank noncommittal  stare. It expresses his lonely tension and predicament : even the house is not connecting with him any more. Except  for the big old yew and its  bullying spirit…



So, excellently done. And the final message is strong and subtle and should make any family  think twice about inflicting  obtuse optimism on children, and failing to let them admit their darker thoughts .  Yet as a play there is something  too laden about it. The school is exaggeratedly feral, ineffectual teachers with no ability or will  to tackle extreme bullying or help Conor.   The father on his brief visits is cartoonishly useless too, with references to his quack  crystal-healer partner in America.   Wit or defiance could have lightened the script and doesn’t,  though Tennyson brings  strong teenage reality to the boy.  It may do service to children  in tragic circumstances and their friends, so good luck to it.   It means very well.    But it’s a heavy evening.



box office 0844 871 7628 to 25 august.  Principal Sponsor Royal Bank of Canada

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MONOGAMY Park Theatre N4




In some plays, you reach the interval not exactly dissatisfied but wondering “where is this going next? How will it knit  up the ends.?  So many characters – and their  troublesome characteristics – have piled in, manic sitcom style, with bursts of backstory and downright bafflement, that it seems a problem beyond solution in a final hour. That is why you should not leave in the interval. 


      I wouldn’t have anyway, being keen on Torben Betts, whose INVINCIBLE should be much better known.    And the superscription of the play promised that it was, beyond the satire about celebrity-TV-chef in family meltdown, a reflection on the “culturally imposed aberration” of nuclear family life in general.   I am not sure it achieved that, given that the characters as individuals were so much more (entertainingly) flaky than the norm.


      So we had the great Janie Dee as TV cook in rehearsal , clearly drinking too much,  preparing a family gathering and rather more bonded to a crucifix on the kitchen wall than is normal in cookery celebs. She has   a TV assistant  (Genevieve Gaunt) manically Bubble-y , swerving begin street, Sarf-London PA efficiency,   and a loghorrreic intricacy of sentence .   She is in communication with the Mail over some shaming drunken photos of the saintly cook.  Then there’s Caroline’s son ( Jack Archer)  frustrated by her failure to listen to something he has to tell her (it’ll be Act 2 before he manages) and a hunky builder Amanda fancies and who clearly prefers the maturer mistress of the house. But then, exploding into the kitchen with his gold clubs in comedy woolly pompom hats, there is Mike the red faced banker husband.



At which point you stop worrying about whether Betts will take it anywhere interesting because Patrick Ryecart is just plain hilarious,  from his bristling ginger eyebrows to his ramblingly explosive anecdotes about the glory of golf and his choleric outbursts about “homosexual bolshevist vegetarians” his theory that ‘vegetarian’ is neolithic language for “shit at hunting’.  Every scene he is in lights up.  


        Too many issues of the day seemed to cram in : some current to the characters (Charlie Brooks is very touching as the newly arrived Sally, mistaken for someone else) and many in back-stories.    There’s gayness, infidelity,  religious mania, Syrian refugees, an Afghanistan veteran suicide,  Japanese POW postwar trauma, multiple,sclerosis, autism, benefit cuts and the criminality of the British empire.  I began to wonder whether Mr Betts was fulfilling a side-bet on how many issues he could get in without mentioning Brexit.


     As to where this entertainingly jerky goes in Act 2, –  the answer is drunker, wilder, increasingly funnier (Alistair Whatley of the Original Theatre Company clearly enjoys directing chaos).  Characters do grow, esp Dad Mike:  I was actually slightly tearful at his realization that he’d never told his son he loved him. Janie Dee is as ever credible even at the characters oddest , drunkest and most religiously transfixed,  Archer as  the son poignant and infuriating. The carving knife brandished in scene 1 gets its moment, as is the grand tradition of theatremaking;  the entire act  is constructed in a rising thunderstorm effect. 


box office 0207 870 6876  to 7 july

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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