Category Archives: Three Mice

HIGH FIDELITY                Turbine Theatre, SW11

VINYLLY,  THEY ALL GROW UP…

     

Theatrecat is always up for a new-fledged theatre,  however hard to find in the drizzle.   This – a bit east of the south end of Chelsea Bridge – is the latest railway brick arch to turn thespian,  trains rumbling atmospherically overhead in the quiet bits and tucked behind some flash new flats which think they’re in Manhattan.   Paul Taylor-Mills is into  musicals, and has MT Fest coming in 2020:  this fling  is a remake of the off-Broadway musical of the Nick Hornby novel,  which itself followed the film with John Cusack.    It’s Tom Kitt’s  music,  Amanda Green’s lyrics, and book by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote that stonking GOOD PEOPLE play a while back). 

    

  So much for its pedigree.  The tale of Rob, one of those Nick Hornby heroes who badly needs to grow up and sweetly does, but only  at the very end,    was transposed from Holloway to Brooklyn for film and musical,  but has been firmly brought back to London by the savvy Taylor-Mills with Vikki Stone script-doctoring.  So the idea is – according to the flyers – partly to draw in dating couples who will both go awwwwww, for different reasons;    and partly to let us all  “experience hip Camden vibes without the tourists”.   To which end they’ve even bothered to make the front row, where you’re practically hanging out in Rob’s cluttered vinylworld , into sofas and beanbags.  Tom Jackson Greaves directs and choreographs (excellent movement, stompingly vigorous in the tiny space) and David Shields goes mad with old vinyl records dangling and perching like crows.  

 

   Speaking as an old bat who outgrew the Camden vibe in about 1980,  I didn’t expect to fall in love with the show.  And didn’t with its hero (though Oliver Ormson is a fine singer ,devilish handsome and does his best with the annoying character).   There are too many Robs in the world –  or were in 1995, when economics  were less hostile to youth and MeToo was not yet born.   The ensemble, on the other hand,  had me helplessly grinning with affection from the start. 

  

    Carl Au as Dick,  Joshua Dever as the hopeless customers turned Springsteen, and  Robbie Durham as Barry the aspiring songwriter who despises Natalie Imbruglia more than Satan –  all are glorious. So are the rest of the geeky, misfit customers and friends who shamble around and up and down the aisle  in tie-dye, beanie hats, foolish trousers,  Oxfam sweaters and endearing attempts at boho-transatlantic hair.  I became half-nostalgic, half- maternal.    When they variously grow up and accept that “it’s not what you like that counts but who you are”,  a proper feelgood warmth vibrates around the arches.   Shanay Holmes is good as Laura, though it’s a dull part being the ultimate girly-swot.     Robert Tripolino makes the most of the fearful hippie-spiritual Ian.    

     

     And the show itself?  Off-Broadway it was observed that the lyrics are a lot hotter than the music, and this is  still the case.  But it stomps along unmemorably with great goodwill and a three-piece band overhead,  and moments of soul or hare-krishna pastiche are wittily done.  The Springsteen moment is certainly worth seeing, and the fast-rewind staging of Rob’s defiance of Ian is genuinely funny stagecraft.    What you carry away most, though,  are memories of the endearing ensemble , daftly good  lines like Laura’s wistful  “He’s got insurance, self-assurance, marketable skills” , or the moment when each of the young idiots sleeps with the wrong person and the words “used/ confused” echo sadly round the stage.   

 

box office TheTurbineTheatre.co.uk    to  7 Dec

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A MUSEUM IN BAGHDAD Swan, Stratford upon Avon

TWO CURATORS,  ACROSS EIGHTY YEARS

 

  The little Swan , a jewel-box of a theatre, often sees the new plays the RSC does best: immaculate technique and careful clarity elucidating complex and unfamiliar themes.   From nuclear research to prehistoric China , Rome and medieval or Tudor political histories,  intricate stories have leapt into life here.    This, infuriatingly, is not such a moment.

     

 It should be, for the topic of Hannah Khalil’s play is arresting.   It takes two ages in parallel:  in 1926  the archaeologist-explorer and nation- builder  Gertrude Bell is passionately founding a museum after the Great Powers drew their arrogant ruler-straight lines across the Middle East  to create nations and “mandates”  out of Ottoman Mesopotamia.  Then in 2006, after the Iraq wars, with American troops still there, we see the modern attempt under a new curator – Ghalia, again a woman – to  rebuild it after the years it became ‘Saddams gift shop’ inaccessible to the public, and many antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia had fallen to looting and sectarian destruction .

   

  The  subject and intention are good, the questions worth asking.   What are museums for?   Do people need them to buoy up nationhood, community and pride?  Do colonial or interventionary powers have any right to try and tell hungry nations how to feel anyway?   The  performances  are fine – especially Emma Fielding as Bell and her quiet dignified  aide Salim (Zed Josef) , and  Rendah Heywood’s wearily anxious modern curator, a returning Iraqi educated in the West .  All do their best with the repetitiveness and the infuriatingly threadbare drawing of relationships.  Two characters,  Abu Zaman and  Nasiya,  are intended entirely as symbols, timelessly straddling time and space, and sometimes leading incantatory ensemble movements in Arabic and English. These,  according to the script, should “have the effect of simultaneous translation”,  but in fact, unless you are an Arabic speaker,  are as incomprehensible as cuneiform itself.

     

    The atmospherics in those chants and movement,   the centrality of a rather marvellous ancient crown and a final cascade of the sands of time over the whole doomed lot, are elegantly RSC.  And there is nothing wrong with having two periods onstage at once: sometimes, not often enough,  parallels and ironies are well pointed up as the two curators battle with time, local problems and – in Bell’s period – with the brisk tweedy view of the English archaeologist Woolley . He is trying to borrow a statue for the British Museum and presciently barks as Bell struggles to fill the shelves    “I predict it’ll be all back in the BM by teatime, when civil war erupts again and they go back to their tribes”.

  Advance study of the background, the text, the period and the good programme would help,  but for a lay audience it feels,  despite Eric Whyman’s direction,  like a mess.  The first half caused some heads to nod visibly, and  the conversations between the teams, for all the cast’s high competence, felt as repetitive and frustrating as the job itself must have been .

      Some light relief is provided, though rather too often,   by Debbie Korley  as  a honky American soldier with a flak- jacket and extreme Tennessee twang, forever sweeping the floor  (did they?). She adds to the sense of misandry,  perhaps to echo Bell’s exasperation at warmongering males,   with a nasty tale about strangling a fellow-GI’s pet stray dog to because he pinched her bum.

rsc.org.uk    to  23 May

rating three   

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GROAN UPS Vaudeville, WC2

ANOTHER SPIN OF THE BOTTLE FOR MISCHIEF

 

I admit soft  maternal feelings for Mischief Theatre – Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and their confreres – because I was one of the first to spot the comic precision and élan of their Play that Goes Wrong,  fresh from Lamda on a shoestring and a basement .  I have watched it grow,  tour, transfer, triumph, cross the Atlantic and spin off Peter Pan goes wrong, and the Bank Robbery play.    So I braved the plush red-carpet-and- XR  hell of their west end launch for this :  not a pre-honed fringe lark but  a new play tipped straight onto the Strand with more Ayckbournian ambition.

   

     To my slight dismay, it shows the join. The idea   – very on-trend in a stage year of Adrian Mole, Jamie and the awful Heathers  – is to show us five  schoolfriends at there stages:   6 years old in playschool outfits, subverting an assembly by sending up their parents, then at 14 breaking into their classroom with beer to celebrate end-of-year exams and worry about GCSEs while playing truth or dare and attempting awkward snogs.  Finally we meet them at thirty at a reunion, nipping away from the fray to see the old classroom.  

   

They all play all ages. There’s serious Archie (Shields) ,  Sayer as the geeky slow developer Simon,  and Lewis as a big bear of a lad ,Spencer,   at six on the verge of being put in  ”the Red Group, with the Problems”  and at fourteen fearing being ‘held back”. There’s the posher girl Moon, entitled and bitchy (the glorious Nancy Zamit) , and clever shyer Katie who has a feeling for Spencer. (Charlie Russell).  All are veterans of the Play That Goes Wrong, honed in the bruises and split-second timing of physical theatre and absurdity.

    But both these pre-interval scenes are too long.   Amusing at times, deftly acted but sorely in need of cuts. With all  these previously triumphant creators in the cast, it may be hard for director Kirsty Patrick Ward to tell them so.  Maybe the fear was that a 2 hr 15 play would be too slight, and an extra half hour would add heft. It doesn’t.    All these scenes need is to establish characters – they do, deftly and amusingly – to set up a running joke about a hamster (I now think of it as Schrodinger’s Hamster, both alive and dead )  and  to plant one key plot point for the denouement.   They did not need to spin out the 6-year-old scene so much (though I’d be sad to have missed Zamit’s superb tantrum),  and as for the teenage yearsI seem to have scrawled “Adolescence , bad enough first time round, why re-live it..”.   

  

I suspect  cuts will  happen. Because after the interval  it takes off , vroom! One is a barrister, one a pet shop manager, one a urinal-cake salesman so desperate to impress that he has hired a fake girlfriend.  The  sharp comic abilities of all five are off the leash, the jokes good (a fine hamster cage gag before the first line..) and enriched by the addition of the peerless Bryony Corrigan as the fake girlfriend in lurex, and Dave Hearn as the alumnus-from-hell partyboy nobody actually remembers.  It roars along, with all this group’s honed skill in doors, hamster- substitutions and unexpected subtler laughs. There’s a moment of real pathos,  and another one subverted with genius wickedness (O, Zamit!) as it swizzles into something more poignant“Aren’t they beautiful, the lives we never had?”.  

 

    You forget the longeurs of the first two scenes. And these kids know enough about showbiz to trust that we will forgive them a lot for Hearn’s walrus imitation and the final  dancing lobster.  Trim off some flaband it’ll run and run like a Captain of Athletics.  Though it’ll be too Brit the Americans, and that’s another good mark.   Good tickets in the,  20s and 30s range and so far no silly Premiums.   Fun.  

nimaxtheatres.com   to 1 Dec  

rating three but….  an added  comedy mouse. .

3 Meece RatingComedy Mouse

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FOR SERVICES RENDERED              Jermyn St Theatre WC1

THE LOW DISHONEST DECADE…

 

It’s always intimate, the Jermyn,.  We’re in an autumn garden, apples on the ground and fading roses on the wall;  birdsong,  and a tea table set defiantly Edwardian-style by a maid in a cap.  But everything has changed.    By the end of two fraught, frustrated hours spread over days, the roses will be dead  and a chill fallen on both teapot and human hearts.   Somerset Maughan’s 1930s play surfaced last at Chichester, in the heart of the WW1 anniversary years, and reminded me  how much theatre taught me about that war and, not least, its aftermath (this refers btw:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html ).    If 2019 middle-Britain thinks it is in a social and political crisis,  it does well to glance back at those grim inter-war years.  

 

Here we have the Ardsley family,  smug prosperous Leonard and his wife Charlotte, and their three  children; Sydney is war-blinded and bemedalled, dryly unreconciled to Braille and tatting and more clear sighted about the mess of it all than any of them.  Evie is bereaved of her own man but yearns towards Callie,  who once drove a destroyer but now is a failing garagiste.  Lois longs to find a lover but  may  be doomed to being one of that generation of “surplus women”,  unless she succumbs to a loveless profiteering alliance with the concupiscent married Wilfred . And Ethel,  married to what was once a dashing officer whom “The king made a gentleman”  finds him reverted to bering a boorish tenant farmer, and not necessarily faithful.    

      

    Period and design are perfect (costume designer Emily Stuart has somehow sourced some retro long tennis skirts, fairisles,  and truly depressing greenish tweeds for Richard Derrington’s Leonard).   In most cases the period manner – stiffly upper-lipped – is convincingly held, though Sally Cheng’s brittle smile could do with a rest occasionally.   Derrington gives lethally smug precision to Leonard’s self-satisfied platitudes –  goodness. Maugham is savage –  and Diane Fletcher,  in her final resignation to the whole horrible mess,  is particularly fine.

 

  Rachel PIckup’s Eva, sweetly devoted and right on the edge of madness, handles the shock and rage of her final scenes well,    and  I admired Richard Keightley’s Sydney a lot:   for his stillness and, in one horribly revealing moment, for the wince when the appalling wittering neighbour Gwen  swoops on the blind man to kiss him (as I said, Maugham doesn’t hold back. This may be a play full of good female parts,  and an honest reflection on the particular grimness of their post-war lot. But face it,  the old devil doesn’t like us much really. ) 

      All in all, it’s worth its revivals,  and a fascinating reminder of how the aftermath of WW1 was harder to bear in many ways than the aftermath of WW2 when at least there was clarity about the wickedness of the enemy.    But it’s a  bleak number.    A few more days to run: worth catching. 

 

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk   to 5 oct 

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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KING JOHN Swan, Stratford upon Avon

KING JOHN WAS NOT A GOOD MAN…

 

  Maybe we should stick to AA Milne’s version?

 “King John was not a good man

He had his little ways

  And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days…”

     There’s something about this account of “England’s worst King”,  one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, which causes directors to go “let’s ZHOOSH it up for the Youth!!”.  Newish directors, that is: that old fox Trevor Nunn served it up with traditional fleur-de-lys and trumpets at the Kingston Rose a while ago, and ironically I found myself more engaged:  not even too bothered about the missing bits and disputed authorship.  Its cores –  political weakness, familial rifts and self-interest showed up better.  

 

  But it attracts gimmickists.  Last time it was done here by the RSC  it was like a hen party designed by  Timmy-Mallet, with balloons, harlequin tights and a vital    character dropped.   Now once again the baton  goes to a new director – Eleanor Rhode from Hightide – who appears enamoured of  mid-20c soap and movies,  sartorially and tonally (Max Johns designs, albeit with a huge tapestry backdrop conflating all periods, which is rather fine. ).  It seems to say hey, forget the tragedy-plantagenetty stuff,  it’s just a dysfunctional family comedy!  A royal Dynasty, innit, what’s not to like?  Queen Eleanor is basically Joan Collins…

 

       It could work, and  in the shorter, darker, more medieval part after the interval it begins to, with the actors  at last allowed to stop yelling and clowning (good work from Charlotte Randle as Lady Constance in her grief,  Rosie Sheehy as King John collapsing into hysteria and blaming Hubert,  Tom McCall as Hubert the failed murderer himself,  and Michael Abubakar as a sprightly Bastard).     The first half, though,  is a gruelling 90 minutes which could wear you down a bit .  Though there is quite an entertaining food-fight at the wedding of the Dauphin and Blanche, and the movement and fight directors (two of the latter!)  deserve a lot of  credit.   Especially for the bit when King Philip gets a floury bap stuck on the point of his crown.   And it is quite witty (and technically clever) that in the course of that shenanigan the JUST MARRIED balloons are twisted into JUST DIE.   

   

      But all in all,  the shouty carelessness with the verse (some of the loveliest lines of Shakespeare are in here) and the desperate determination to be fun  made it less than gripping until its last more solemn moments.  But look, I’m not hostile:  it’s 2019,  the RSC has lots of crap telly to compete against,  so I’ve no  objection to Cardinal Pandulph being depicted as a pouting, mincing  Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street,  nor to the homages to Bunuel and the Sopranos.  And yes, on press night anyway lots of people did often laugh.   And young Ethan Phillips was very good indeed as the doomed child Arthur,  indeed displaying a finer sense of language than some of the adults.  

   

    Maybe I’m just an old misery.   It gets one mouse more than the last RSC King John did.  And as it’s never a set book, extreme larkiness doesn’t confuse the poor GCSE kids the way a gimmicky Macbeth would.   But it would be grand if, as the new decade begins, the RSC  had a think about doing the play another way.  

 

Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk   in rep   to  20 march and in cinemas on 29 APril next year

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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HEDDA TESMAN Minerva, Chichester

THIRTY YEARS LATER AND STILL FURIOUS: HEDDA’S BACK

 

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

 

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

 

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

     

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

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

 

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

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

www.cft.org.uk    to 28  September

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THE ENTERTAINER             Curve, Leicester & touring 

BITTERLY BRITISH

 

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

  

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

       

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

   

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

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

 

 

Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next

dates & box office   www.theentertainerplay.co.uk  

rating three

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HOTSPUR /PIERROT LUNAIRE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT THE OPERATIC POTENTIAL OF SIGNDANCE

The double bill of Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s great Modernist Pierrot Lunaire is the first outing for innovative opera company formidAbility, which seeks to bring disabled and non-disabled professional artists together on (and off) the opera stage. Accessibility is at the heart of the project, building features which will make opera intelligible to disabled audiences into the very fabric of every performance, rather than bolting an interpreter onto the stage for a night or two (usual practice in most opera houses). This is a noble aim: and the outcome can benefit any audience, as was clear on their opening night, when formidAbility gave us the privilege of seeing the first ever opera production to include Signdance, a highly aestheticised form of sign language created for the theatre stage, at Grimeborn.

If this all sounds a bit experimental – it is. But, like most really useful scientific breakthroughs, it seems obvious in retrospect. Opera and dance have long been friends, and using a dancer to express a singer’s inner feelings, doppelgänger style, is not a new concept. The flowing physical lyricism of sign language, meanwhile, is a dance-like performance of meaning. formidAbility showed convincingly that Signdance can work brilliantly in opera: dancers Isolte Avila and David Bower added beauty and emotional resonance to Hotspur and Pierrot Lunaire respectively, in minimalist, intense settings directed and designed by Sara Brodie. However, like most early experiments, the formula is far from perfect yet.

Hotspur is a short series of five tiny monodramas depicting the inner monologue of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur” Percy, as he campaigns his way around 14th century Northumberland. Fleur Adcock’s poems are glorious: superb lines like “The field of battle is a ravening flood,” and “A heavy price he paid /For juggling with thrones” are interleaved with the repeating refrain, “There is no safety, there is no shelter,” as Hotspur’s lust for political warfare thrusts Elizabeth into ever greater danger at home. With poetry of this quality, the meaning of each passage extends far beyond the sum of its words, and Isolte Avila’s elegant, expressive Signdancing feels like a natural development of the libretto. Joanne Roughton-Arnold’s clear, forensic and cool soprano is spellbinding, as is her mix of wifely anxiety and queenly composure, confessed with appealing frankness. Whitehead’s score is limpidly clear, distinctive, and feels led by texture: we hear the sounds of nature, battle, and fear. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s certainly an evocative one. So, plenty to capture us on stage: but frustratingly, Whitehead is not immune to the perennial pitfalls of setting English to music, and so with great irony, given the production’s fundamental commitment to accessibility, Hotspur didn’t land as a plot. We needed surtitles, or at least Adcock’s poems printed in the programme, to get to the bottom of what Elizabeth was facing. The twirling dynamism of the signdancing could also be hard for deaf audience members to follow, with spectators on three sides of the open stage.

Pierrot Lunaire is rather more of an acquired taste, perhaps to be acquired by eating a hearty breakfast of nails, or bashing your ears with iced rocks daily. Joanne Roughton-Arnold proved to be a brilliant exponent of the sprechstimme style demanded by Schoenberg of his performer, using her spoken voice rhythmically to reach the myriad range of pitches and tones of this severely challenging piece. Conductor Scott Wilson navigated his way calmly through the seeming chaos, his ensemble slick and responsive at every bar. David Bower’s mischievous, devious and often desperate Pierrot was full of pathos, Bower’s lithe, dynamic performance recalling the rich tradition of Pierrot as a mime. But Giraud’s poems have a demented nastiness at their core which makes them difficult to stage convincingly, even with this much skill to hand: with surtitles provided, we were clearer on meaning, but meaning is often meaningless in this surreal, formless piece. Meanwhile, the flapping cuffs of Bower’s soft, dark Pierrot suit could obscure his signing for deaf spectators, and the decision to send him up onto a platform blocked by a huge pillar from a third of the audience for much of the latter part of the piece was a serious problem.

This experiment has only just started: formidAbility has already unearthed something of great promise for opera’s future. It has also created new problems of stagecraft to solve. But musical and visual quality are already there, along with a remarkable ensemble feel. Exciting.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 1 September)

A formidAbility production in collaboration with Sign Dance Collective, the Rationale Method, Golden Chord Braille Music Transcription Service, Wycombe Arts Centre and 73, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

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AURORA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DIMNESS RATHER THAN DAWN AT GRIMEBORN

If Aylin Bozok is directing anything at Grimeborn, I always try to go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her past productions: her powerfully considered, exquisitely poised approach is always rich in symbolism, intensely crafted in detail, and beautifully acted. Grimeborn has seen some wonderful opera from Bozok in recent years: her Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther there remain some of the most hauntingly memorable accounts of those works I’ve seen on any stage. Noah Mosley’s Aurora channels several themes at which Bozok excels: it’s a fairytale full of brutal characters, playing with questions of destiny, fate and love, human greed versus nature, and the timeless opposition of male and female. Taking a monochrome palette for Holly Piggott’s design, characters appear on a plain stage in pale, softly sculptural versions of eighteenth-century dress, with a gloriously billowing many-caped cloak for the King of Loreda that any Georgette Heyer hero would strangle his valet for. Bozok’s visual language is characteristically controlled and resonant: characters who are in sympathy with nature, for example, ‘bleed’ earth on stage, explained in a programme note which carefully delineates her overall vision for the piece.

So Aurora, thanks to Bozok and Piggott, looks gorgeous. It also has a great cast, headed up by Andrew Tipple as the grief-stricken King who, having lost his wife to suicide, is desperate to prevent his deeply depressed daughter going the same way. Tipple gives a mesmerising and sophisticated performance full of natural drama, trembling with unresolved anguish at one moment, prickling with uncontrollable fury at the next, as his ever more forceful attempts to save his daughter only serve to drive her further from him. Tipple’s honeyed, yet accurate bass and subtle, expressive acting are a joy. Katherine Aitken is a delight as the dynamic Wild Woman to whom he turns for help, her body language sparky and semi-animalistic, her soprano full, clear and warm. Isolde Roxby has a harder task with the eponymous heroine Aurora, an unlikeably bitter, selfish princess, but skilfully brings her on an emotionally believable journey, finding an adolescent, selfish inner truth in her defiance against the world (as symbolised by her father). Dominic Bowe’s winsome Prince doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself; Magid El Bushra has much more fun with two smaller parts, a catty, camp suitor for Aurora and a marvellous owl (also the best costume, a pillar of dark cloth with a resplendent headdress of feathers). The chorus are slick and effective when on stage, less convincing off. Jean-Max Lattemann’s vocally piercing, stentorian Mountain Witch was a difficult listen, and an awkward presence in the piece; but that wasn’t Lattemann’s fault.

The trouble is that, despite excellent design and direction, and a committed cast, Aurora is let down by two key things: libretto and score. Elisabetta Campeti’s plot begins with a couple of interesting ideas (nature as a reciprocal power relationship in which we must participate responsibly; the lasting family impact of suicide), but these are unfortunately mixed in with many boring old tropes: feisty princess constrained by angry father, rich elite sneering at nature… Worst of all, it culminates in a princess being chained to a rock, and when liberated (more by accident than design), what should she do but fall in love with a passing prince, who is charmed not by her personality, or her abilities, but by? Her appearance. This was when I completely lost patience with Aurora: we need to go forward, not backward, and perpetrating harmful stereotypes in which women need to be “saved” or defined by their interactions with men is just demented on a modern stage. Campeti chickens out of saying anything profound, which leaves Bozok with a mess to clear up that is hard to disguise. The libretto itself is dire, verging on Pearl Fishers levels of banality (we even get “every cloud has a silver lining” – without irony). Noah Mosley’s schizophrenic score lurches across a myriad of styles, often delivering a musical mood directly at odds with the action on stage, which I found irritating rather than interesting. The occasional moments of jazz could have been used in a fascinating way, but in fact, felt like Mosley had run out of ideas and was throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, or was just irresponsibly making musical mischief – neither helps form a coherent or compelling narrative act. Mosley is just as callous with his good ideas as his bad ones: one brilliant melody, a lilting Middle Eastern aria for the Owl, created temporary magic on stage, only to be summarily destroyed moments later as the score rocketed off in yet another direction. The whole evening felt rather like being stuck inside a musical expression of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, or watching a child juggle with the entire contents of a bedroom. Noah Mosley, conducting, seemed to be getting what he wanted from his orchestra, who played with joyful aplomb, but this score sat stubbornly between us and the opera, rather than carrying us into it.

Bozok’s directorial skill ironically highlights these flaws, her instinct for inner meaning coming up empty-handed against the eventual floundering of the opera as a piece of meaningful drama, though she put as much emotional gloss on the disappointing ending as she dared. I can see why the piece initially tempted her: but ultimately, this superb director can achieve far more with a meatier, better reasoned piece.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (22-25 August only)

A Bury Court Opera production, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

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THE WEATHERMAN Park Theatre

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

box office 0207 870 6876    to 14 Sept

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

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

 

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

 

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

   

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

  

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

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON                Park Theatre N4

CRIKEY!  IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN!

 

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

      

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to  8 june

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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ROSMERSHOLM                     Duke of York’s, WC2

GUILT, GRIEF,   POLITICAL ANGUISH     

 

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

 

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

     

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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CREDITORS              Jermyn Street Theatre

DEADLY DEBTS 

 

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

 

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

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

       

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

  “Are you saying you wrote my books?”

  and he moans:  

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

playing in rep with Miss Julie  to  1 June

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

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

  

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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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      THE TELL TALE HEART. Dorfman, SE1

A GOTHIC EYEFUL

 

In this troublous nation,  2018 seems to be the Christmas of Aaargh! and Eughhh! and hahahahaaa! , as a gross-out  gigglefest sweeps London theatre.  There’s the McDonagh Veryveryvery at the Bridge,  Burke and Hare hilariously murderous at the Jermyn, Patricia Highsmith brandishing a knife  up West, and now this: Anthony Neilson’s knowingly gothic take on Edgar Allen Poe”s famous first-person narrative.

 

    Remember?  The lodger so fascinated and repelled by a kindly old landlord’s huge never-closing “eye of a vulture” that he kills him , chops him up under the floorboards but at last confesses, in hysterics,  because he still hears the heart beating under the floor. It is, of course, his own heart: thudding guilt, a moral metaphor.

 

So here is the 2018 version:  Tamara Lawrence as a smart young playwright who has just tuned down an award with a stirring speech about how art needs to be about flaws and failure,  not success. There will be a  backstory to explain her attitude tacked on at the end, rather pointlessly.  Meanwhile,  thogh,  stuck on her second play she rents an attic in Brighton to write in,  and is befriended by the gabby, needy, fey young  landlady whose horribly deformed eye…yep, you guessed it!

 

     Lawrence is splendid in the character, very much the boho sophisticate, sexually adventurous and keen on snorts  of cocaine.  She is patronisingly kind to Imogen Doel’s garrulously pally landlady, urging  her to take off her plastic eye mask and be seen,  loved, and accepted  as her full self.  All  very PC.  But when the huge comedy-swollen eye is revealed to her, looking like those  Halloween joke ones on a spring,  the writer shrinks and shrieks.  And as she  becomes ever more cowed and repelled,  gales of laughter cross the audience.

 

Which rather gives a  sense of he piss being taken.  The professional theatre right now spends endless effort on telling audiences and critics never to comment unfavourably on anyone’s features, physicality , size, age, disability or visually unlikely casting.  Yet here it is,  in the heart of the Dorf, overtly demanding unkind merriment over a deformity. So while solemnly warning us of strobe lighting, provocative language, some violent scenes, and moments and themes that some people may find distressing” ,  the NT offers not a word of caution to the facially abnormal. Who  may, what do I know?  be affronted at the idea that one look at their horrid features  might provoke  a sensitive artistic spirit to cut their throats with a pizza wheel.

    

But never mind. Let’s not be more po-faced than the theatre itself:   we get a grand  murder, plenty of gory chop-up nonsense, and there are wonderful special effects nightmare sequences abetted by Francis O”Connor’s lovely attic set.    Lawrence moves brilliantly between horror and comedy, and we all enjoyed being swept by a blood red  spotlight of doom at one point .  There are some arty flashforward interludes when all the house lights come on and a  detective    – David Carlyle –  joins in. As it is all part-dream part-reality,  he is alternately proving menacingly sharp or idiotically obsessed with his musical- theatre ambitions (“If you need a singer in a play call me..you won’t , you people never do!”)   He does very good bad-singing.

 

       By the way, talking of what is demanded of Carlyle,  note that in another plot strand Neilson – like McDonagh and a couple of other bright gross-out  playwrights in recent years –  demonstrates his belief that the physical mechanics of hanging are simply  hilarious.   So watch out if that upsets you.  Overall,  though,  it’s a mildly amusing schlock-horror piece, performed with comic brilliance and – by way of figleaf -a coda of moral seriousness on the subject of remorse. Two hours and a bit, with interval.

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 Jan

rating three   

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TRUE WEST Vaudeville, WC1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR EMPATHISES WITH DEADLINE FEVER..
Here is a tale of two brothers. First, Kit Harrington’s serious, intelligent and moustachioed Austin, Ivy League educated and with a family ‘500 miles up north’, he’s come south to California to look after his mother’s house and water her plants whilst she’s in Alaska. Then his brother arrives, Lee, played by Johnny Flynn – a nomadic waster who has spent months living alone in the desert. The pair haven’t seen each other in years. They appear to have little in common – Austin’s calm and quiet order is completely at odds with Lee’s chaos. The stage seems to be set for a millionth take on the Odd Couple format. 
But as the two brothers battle over a script that could make them their fortune – this becomes a play that is really about the writer, the late Sam Shephard. The two conflicting personalities on show serve to make one whole person. It’s a study in the struggle of any of us who might have a desire to be free, creative and unpredictable, but thwarted by that serious, uptight, niggling side, that needs to stick to the rules and play the game. Watching the pair reminded me of working close to a deadline – feeling the desperate need to focus and deliver, but suddenly also an overwhelming urge to procrastinate and learn everything I possibly can about how submarines work. Here, the serious Austin tries to play by the rules, having regular meetings with a Hollywood producer to try and sell his script, which he is diligently working on. Lee is a chancer – he assuredly flogs the same producer his half-baked idea for a movie almost immediately, but needs the talent of his brother to deliver a script. As the play wears on, Harrington’s once sensible Austin becomes wilder, drunker and begs his brother to take him to the desert. As he’s faced with delivering something he is not capable of, Flynn’s Lee begins to dream of normality. At one point he is seen trying desperately to phone women who might be interested in settling down with him. 
Visually, this is a treat – the house is in a washed out Californian palette, all green and faded orange – with a side of dusty Levis. Set and Costume Designer, Jon Bausor has done a terrific job.  Especially when considering the late Shephard’s stage directions are so meticulous – apparently he even went so far as to specify that the house plants should be ‘mostly Boston ferns’. Credit too to Joshua Carr and Ian Dickinson for light and sound respectively. The searing California sun rises and falls on the house, the moon whispers through blinds and all the while we are enveloped by the cries of crickets and the wails of coyotes. There is a Forced perspective of sorts to the house –  the kitchen seems to stretch further and distort – making our characters taller and more imposing the further away from us they are.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable exploration of the human psyche that is owned by the charisma and energy of its two leads. Harrington and Flyyn are both superb – the further they drag themselves towards the conclusion the more enjoyable their performances become. Amidst fighting and screaming, there is some great dark and physical comedy, with Harrington stealing all of the neighbourhood’s toasters to help him prepare a small mountain of toast being especially amusing. But at two hours with interval – the whole thing feels excessive and a little dated in such a large theatre. At times it feels expansive where there is a need for intimacy, and there is only so far the raging turmoil of a struggling writer can take you. 
Until 23rd February
Box Office: 0330 333 4814
rating three3 Meece Rating

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THE SIMON AND GARFUNKEL STORY Vaudeville, WC2 & touring

LIKE A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED DECADES….

 

 If you’re my age, it’s a time machine. Songs like The Sound Of Silence and  Bridge Over Troubled Water (bestselling album 1970,71 and 72)  saw us through tempestuous teens and disastrous student passions, even more in some ways than the Beatles because there was something always jauntily cheerful about them (even Yesterday..).  Few songwriters catch melancholy, muddled self- doubt laced with romantic wonder at life better than Paul Simon: in the folk-rock genre (always better when most folky) they swept the West; unbelievably, even the schlocky soundtrack of Mrs Robinson –  heyheyhey!  – knocked Hey Jude’s na-nanananaaaas off the No.1 spot.

 

So here, as Mr Simon finally hangs up his touring boots fifty years on , is a tribute show with Sam O”Hanlon as him and Charles Blythe as Art G , and a variety of instrumental ensembles and video backdrops of news, ads and cityscapes, to feed our nostalgia and demonstrate to the new generation the late sixties vibe.  Which is, basically,  agitprop-meets-playschool.  Plaintive songs from Simon’s solo time in London merge into the astonishing line of hits which still startle in their poetic energy and inventive scoring.

 

The word ‘story’ is stretching it a bit: it is more tribute gig than theatre, unlike Jersey Boys or Million Dollar Quartet or any of the doomed-diva-drink-and-drugs  genre.    The story is mild: two nice middle class friends make music, go their separate ways for a bit, reunite, tour exhaustingly, hit Grammy success and separate again    piquantly,  at the very moment their big album starts its three-year dominance.   Garfunkel even went back to teaching high school math in 1970 for a bit.  Can you imagine any of our boy-band lightweights doing that? 

 

     A series of captions in part 2 reminds us of their  subsequent, less glittering  achievements. But it’s hard to make theatre out of their lives, not least when they deliver the brief  rather wooden narrative moments while still standing behind their mics so you can’t see their faces. The new generation may  also find itself baffled by the all-too-faithful evocation of the pre-choreography age of rockers who only twitched the odd leg or snapped their fingers, preferring to concentrate on the actual singing. Even when they are “dadadadaaa daaa da da daaaa.. feeling GROOVEEEE”  against a sort of teletubby frieze.

 

But musically it is a treat, from the opening growl of  The Sound of Silence , through the gentle folksy love songs  O”Hanlon does alone in the London scenes,  to the complex harmonies and crypto-prophetic lyrics developing through the Bookends and Bridge albums. Blythe does Bridge over Troubled Water alone as an encore, displaying an amazing voice hitherto masked in the harmonies.  In the first half genius burns – hardly one song less than brilliant –  in the second I found it less likeable,  but I suspect it depends at what stage  in their career you used them as a soundtrack to those adolescent, face-down-on-the-futon, moments.

  

There was a lot of clapping along, which was fine. An odd retro evening, but agreeable. I hope the young adopt the best songs.   O’Hanlon broke my heart in Cathy’s Song,   just as the real Paul did…. long, long ago…

 

Tickets: Touring Mouse wide

http://www.thesimonandgarfunkelstory.com/tour-dates/

LONDON now,  then touring UK through 2019

rating  three   as theatre, but hey, it’s a gig…Musicals Mouse width fixedMusicals Mouse width fixed

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WISE CHILDREN                  Old Vic SE1

ROMPING FABLE OF A GREASEPAINT CENTURY

     

       Twins, three sets of them,  in a dynasty of performers from the 1880s onward: a theatrical boarding-house with a heart-of-gold harridan landlady,  lies and confusions about paternity (“it’s a wise child that knows its own father”), and  a touch of incest and  child abuse.   Dauntless old age  and memory, song and dance acts, betrayals.  Angela Carter’s last novel – a strange, fantastical, vigorous but delicate feminist imagining of a century of high and low performers –  beguiled  Emma Rice for a long time.   So  her new residency with the Old Vic opens with her adaptation of the book,  and shares its name with the new company she has founded after the wounding debacle downriver at the Globe.  A nice name for a Rice ensemble: makers of theatre do indeed need to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves…

 

         Old Carter fans (and fresh ones fizzed up this year by radio 4s versions) will recognise the writer’s world, though not quite her tone.    Rice is broader, less delicate in imagination, more deliberately rorty.   So we  meet,  on their 75th birthday,  our narrators  Dora and Nora :  erstwhile chorines, startled to be summoned to the 100th birthday of Melchior tge legendary actor-manager and Edwardian ham.  He is their father, but disowned them and left them to think they belonged to his lepidopterist businessman brother Peregrine.  Who has actually fathered Melchior’s supposed younger twins by his now- discarded paralysed wife, now cared for by Dora and Nora  who call her “Wheelchair”. Got it so far?  Keep up at the back! 

 

      Actually, it isn’t hard , because for all the intricacies the narration – mainly by old Dora, who is played by Gareth Snook  and ends up looking disconcertingly like the Rev Richard Coles if he had been wearing a butterfly kimono on Strictly – is fairly ploddingly linear.  It is enlivened by flashbacks of the younger twin sisters,  at one point intriguingly played by Melissa James and a genderswitched Omari Douglas , only their clothes being identical.  Though that doesn’t get noticed by the blue-eyed lover who Nora gives to Dora for a her first night’s sex.  Song and dance numbers of various periods are threaded through,  but though amusing they never exactly move us on.   It’s a circussy, seedily bright-lights world of louche showbiz nostalgia in a world that never quite was: panto, puppetry, comedy sex,  very old pier-end jokes , keep on coming. 

 

      There are actually interesting themes in the book: about the gap between the showgirls’ illegitimacy in both senses, their world of jugglers and speciality acts and red-nose comics despised by those in Melchior’s selfishly triumphant “legit” theatre  (a lot of very very hammy, parodic, almost despised Shakespeare lines are thrown in) .  There’s the sense of the oldest taking most responsibility for the youngest,  of paternal neglect , exploitation of young women and the paltriness of the cardboard crown of Shakespearian grandees.  But none of those things ever seem as if they actually mattered in life.    By the end of the first half I appreciated the laughs and energy and audience whoops – Katy Owen’s Grandma is also great fun – yet felt a curious disconnection,  feeling a fragment of credible emotion or sense of jeopardy.

 

       The second half is better, with one moment at least that jolts you a little.  But while Emma Rice in the Kneehigh years showed she can unpeel emotion –  remember Brief Encounter, Tristan, Rebecca –   somehow it doesn’t take.  Overwhelmed by stage whimsy,  Carter’s strange thread of magical seriousness doesn’t show through.   I wanted to like it more. 

box office 0844 871 7628  to 10 Nov

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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STORIES Dorfman SE1

CONCEPTION AND THE CREATIVES

 

   It’s a sign of the sparky credibility of Nina Raine’s play about a woman desperate for a sperm donor  – having broken with her younger, unwilling boyfriend – that half an hour in I started thinking “aren’t women hell!” .  But by the interval this had changed to “aren’t men ridiculous!”. Only to be modified later into “actually, it’s theatricals and intellectual creatives who are hell”. It is all very NW3.

 

       For self-flagellating Anna (a likeable Claudie Blakley) is some kind of director, and among the men ,straight or gay, who fail to be her longed-for donors are the following:  two novelists (one a gay fantasy writer), an actor who is miffed because he thought her call was about a part, a hipster rock star and  a film director who feels he is simply too famous.  That she eventually strikes lucky with an art dealer we learn in a flash-forward opening scene. Which is a nice comedy-of-modern-embarrassment as he takes his little jar off to the lav with some phone porn, and she retreats to the bedroom to read the newspaper and worry which syringe to use.

  All these chaps are played, ina a dazzling variety of accent and manner, by Sam Troughton, always a treat.  Her parents are a treat too, being Stephen Boxer with  some glorious dry grumpy lines, and Margot Leicester. They and her brother are supportive as she trawls her laptop for sperm sellers, which means that all the doubt and worry come  from within Anna.  The most extreme and serious  doubt comes near the end, when she talks to an anonymously donor-conceived young man who expresses the misery of never knowing his origin and looking at every man in the street with hope. 

   Mostly we just share her politely middle class desperation (this is most unlike the Billie Piper raw yearning in YERMA). She confronts these diverse gits who, as she bitterly says, typically say yes, then “get anxious, stop sleeping, fall into a depression and say they can’t do it”.  Amusingly, the hysterical panic of her 26 year old ex- boyfriend (she is 38,then 39) is almost identical with the later hysteria of her gay potential donor. 

   So while the deliberate single-mother route by turkeybaster is not all that uncommon, Anna’s anxieties are definitely niche. But Blakley makes her believable, and quite likeable when not being hell; touching are her attempts to tell stories – sometimes about her quest – to a friend’s 9year old daughter, who sometimes becomes her own  inner child wanting to make  the story come out right.  And there are some seriously good laughs, not last in a crucifyingly embarrassing encounter with Thusitha Jayasundera as someone she really shouldn’t have tried to involve..enough said, let’s not spoil it. It is an undemanding two hours fifteen, and not bad fun.  

    A real quibble though is technical: we learn that for two years Anna and the very young boyfriend tried for a baby and froze  embryos for IVF. It makes no sense that a woman who has had to resort to that route would, two years later, put much faith in simple turkeybaster tactics.  And even less credible that when the nice art dealer says “a week’s time then?” she  doesn’t start calculating ovulation dates. Just saying: it’s a girl thing…

nationaltheatre.org.uk to 28 Nov

 

Rating three3 Meece Rating

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I’M NOT RUNNING Lyttelton, SE1

A DOSE HARD TO SWALLOW

 

David Hare has chronicled Labour politics – and the state of the nation  -for nearly half a century,  brilliantly catching  truths and tensions. This time his main theme is the difference between campaigners who become treasured heroes on limited issues – especially the NHS, which pushes everyone’s button – and pragmatic machine-politicians in government or opposition . With  a certain ominous predictability, the politico Jack  is a male lawyer, and the shining campaigner  a woman doctor Pauline, saving her local hospital.

 

But it feels like a mess. .We leap and fro over years 1997-2009-2018, with a revolving box of rooms which become, elegantly, a vast moving tv screen on which campaigner and politician offer fragments of interview. A press conference opens it,  a spin doctor announcing that Pauline is not running for the Labour leadership (which, as  in the daydreams of all right- thinking citizens and playwrights,  is obviously not held by an immovable old geezer with an allotment and an army of Twitter trolls).

 

 

Then we whirl back to her student digs and a set-to with her boyfriend Jack, involving  furious accusations about her promiscuity, his boozing, and how he made love to her in the wrong mood on Friday when they were both sozzled (a whisper of MeToo here). So they break up,and she gets on with her essay on the oesophagus.

 

Next time we all meet it is 2009,  Pauline has done a tracheotomy and is campaigning to save the hospital,Jack is married ,a rising Labour candidate armed with the usual arguments about centres of excellence actually being safer.  But they have no sooner met than hurtled into bed, then  promptly fought again.  It’s  Noel Coward’s Private Lives done grunge: no balconies or cocktail frocks but Sian Brooke as a ferocious ball of female rage in leggings and biker boots . She plays this not-entirely-likeable part with ferocity,  gamine, tense, confident and fuelled by childhood damage:  shouting, her trademark stance is hands on hips and body bent forward from the waist like a dangerously angry Principal Boy . Alex Hassall’s Jack has convincingly morphed from a drunken needy student boyfriend to a Blairy smartass keeping his nose clean with a Suitable Wife.

 

Joining the party is an agreeable young person called Meredith – Amaka Okafor – who admires the charismatic Pauline and fights FGM – another theme picked up and promptly ignored – and Joshua McGuire sweet   as the hard tasked PR.  But neither writer or director seems  sure whether it is about an impossible personal relationship Coward- style, or politics. Especially when we are suddenly catapaulted back to the 1990s in a vignette of Pauline’s drunken  dying mother, romanticising her violent late husband in a tangled squalor of bedding and bottles like something out of Tennessee Williams. Only with more shouting.  Then we are at Westminster    with nice young Meredith delivering the best lines of the play about how “these days the moral high ground is overpopulated territory” ,and politics is more about buffing up your own image than doing good.

 

 

An abrupt  death happens -possibly just to move the plot along, for God’s sake – and to allow a Thick-of-It row between the  ex-lovers who both want to lead the Labour Party. That is better, with  some good lines and laughs and a brief lyrical speech about ducks at dawn which felt like the human Hare awakening at last again. But I have rarely seen one of the great man’s plays  so grievously in need of more work, more focus.

nationaltheatre.org.uk. to 31 jan

In cinemas 31 Jan

Sponsor Travelex. (£15 seats)

Rating. Three.  3 Meece Rating

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PINTER AT THE PINTER: TWO Harold Pinter Theatre

GUEST CRITIC BEN BLACKMORE MUSES ON CHEESE-KNIVES AND TELETUBBY HOUSES

 

PINTER 2 announces itself in bold, Sex And The City-type projections, in the Sex And The City font as though it were the sequel.  The late summer blockbuster you never knew you wanted.   

A comedy from Pinter usually gets treated one of two ways: irony-steeped laughfest or anxiety-inducing fake-comedy, and tonight’s plays go both ways – in more ways than one.The curtain opens first onto The Lover, and one of the gaudiest sets I can remember,  in pupil-dilating Technicolor.  Adorned in kitschy 50s cribbing, everything is either baby pink or radioactive green: a Mr Blobby interior. If it wasn’t for the unsettling restraint shown in the Stepford kitchenette, the whole thing would look as though it were staged on a Teletubby’s tummy. 

 

Richard and Sarah are a married couple, who each speak candidly of having a lover. The not-so-shocking reveal, which comes early on, is the identity of the lovers. Yes, they’re…Richard and Sarah, navigating a delicate, double-dealing game of role play. John Macmillan and Hayley Squires cope well with the relative paucity of material they’ve got to work with.  As if they were melting waxwork figures at Madame Tussauds, their pathos plays out almost entirely in facial expressions: smiles pained and ripping at the seams, alternatively vindictive and humiliated. Yet atop these grimaces is smeared a kind of lurid conviviality. 

 

The whole thing is very disquieting , and all will rejoice to hear that the Pinter-Pauses are out in full force, deployed for the most part as the catchment into which errant and uneasy titters from the First Night audience fell. It does does manage to capture the millennial crisis of feeling simultaneously on the verge of bursting into tears and bursting into flames.  The sexual fantasy  is enacted with compulsive dexterity, as though  expunging  some clinical neurosis. Only lust disrupts the set’s considered symmetry, before the fever bleeds out into a bruised purple vignette. 

 

The second play, The Collection is thematically and stylistically loosened and dimmed down; the stage draped with dusky curtains, evoking the louche atmosphere of a late-night talk show.  Gone is the manic pixie house, dissolved into a dreamlike promontory which two couples occupy, together yet separately, while trying to comprehend their lovers’ infidelities.  The calm doesn’t last long, as The Collection swivel-tilts rapidly towards camped-up ribaldry. Macmillan and Squires are joined by Russell Tovey and David Suchet, whose arrival fleshes it out into a haughty, far more gestural affair.
Tovey is an awkward yet endearing mixture of campy and cockney, inviting calumny at every turn.  Suchet, the arbiter of The Collection’s real comic potential, occasionally pushes it too far in the direction of panto – there’s a moment where he sidles across stage to intercept his lover’s phone call and I was reminded of the Grinch on Christmas morn.

 
The Collection (and The Lover) still feel incredibly modern in their case-study observations on  infidelity and subterfuge, even though none of the indiscretions seem particularly radical by today’s standards. They’re double-edged daggers – or maybe cheese knives – at once  genuinely tickling and instruments of torture.

box office  www.atgtickets.com

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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HEATHERS Theatre Royal, Haymarket

DARK LARKS AND HIGH SCHOOL HOMICIDE

 

You thought there were enough school-themed musicals?  What with  Bring it On,  School of Rock and our own dear cross-dressing Jamie…?  Make room, here comes Heathers.   It was that cultish movie with the three bullying Queen-Bee girls, all called Heather,  and Veronica who tries to join but falls in with a cool yet psychopathic geek boyfriend.   Now it’s a musical,  with the murders starting briskly at about forty caterwauling, leaping dancing minutes into Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keeffe’s  creation…

 

Imagine Grease,  rewritten by a Joe Orton fan high on Diet Coke and back-bedroom Satanism, yearning for knee socks on sturdy female legs and suffering from a needy urge to outrage public taste.  When the film came out, set in Reagan’s 1989 world when The Simpsons was considered edgy and anarchic, it became a cult. It still is, if the number of bobbysox outfits and Westerberg High sweatshirts in the stalls is anything to go by (I  do not judge the whooping dress-up fans, not after myself  turning up at Bat out of Hell in a Bat out of Hell T shirt).  The point is that those who love the film will probably love the musical. Or fill the seats, anyway. 

 

    It was an  off-Broadway hit and then delighted Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace on a smaller scale without inviting press. How well it does in this high-profile exposure we shall see.  It will be a useful barometer of public taste, since its USP is extreme tastelessness and its musical default mode an amplified belting of really very same-y tunes.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is Veronica, feverishly supported by a likeable ensemble and a nicely pallid Jamie Muscato as JD the bookish boyfriend turned killer thanks to having a Dad in the demolition business and “freezing his brain” with ice-pops.  And there is a hilarious rendering of the chief bitch-Heather:  Jodie Steele pretty much hijacks the show, composedly vicious in life and barmily so in ghosthood. 

 

 

For she indeed gets killed early on, a fake suicide note forged with artful reference to her reading of The Bell Jar.  Before long two maraudingly rapey jocks share her fate,  another fake note suggesting they were gay suicides.   This enables the school leaders, mercilessly guyed, to hold excruciating therapeutic pep rallies for suicide prevention.  There is something irresistible, horribly so, about the big number where staff and pupils sentimentally hymn the human merits of the girl who had none to speak of, and clasp her ghost to their bosom.  As for the boys,  the gay-acceptance assembly is even heavier with irony,  given that they weren’t:  one  has to giggle at the Dad suddenly seeing the liberal light with  “I never cared for homos much until I reared me one”. 

 

Indeed the lyrics are the real pleasure of this show:  you can even nod profoundly at Veronica’s sudden remorseful “we’re damaged, really damaged, but that doesn’t make us wise”.   A few confessional columnists might take that to heart.   

But that – and the conclusion – are cheating moments in a story which someone described as  “The nastiest cruellest fun you can have without studying law or or girding on leather”.  And as long as you stay on that wavelength it is fun. But it walks a tightrope:  the moment the wild dancing and the snappy lyrics ease off or get inaudible you may wince.   How tolerant is London, a few days after suicide prevention day , with youthful mental welfare an anxiety and  school massacres reported in the US every month? Are we sufficiently, callously tired enough of being preached at on the subject to welcome a blast of black and rackety cynicism?

    I dunno.  Maybe.  I did laugh a lot, until it palled.

www.heathersthemusical.com   to 24 November

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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DANCE NATION Almeida, N1

GRAND PLIE, FIRST POSITION,  TURN…TWERK…

 

     My friend and comrade-in-the stalls Mr Letts of the Mail has suggested ( by means of Twitter ,review on Friday, always worth a read) that he was less than pleased by a group of grown women pretending to be children  and shouting a chorus about their pussies in a subsidized theatre.  Which is fair comment,  though wilfully unsympathetic toward Clare Barron’s spirited play about a children’s dance troupe in a fierce American competition,   directed by Bijan Sheibani ,  choreographed by Aline David and very fetchingly designed and lit by Samal Blak and Lee Curran.  

 

       Maybe it helps to have been a pubescent teenage girl.  And to come fresh from the more literal but equally endearing Lin-Manuel Miranda BRING IT ON at the Southwark.    As for the shouting about pussies,  fair enough.  My generation felt the term rather too coyly Mrs-Slocombe for our taste, and  it is only lately that feminists and the US President severally grabbed it back for common use.   But let the ladies shout it:   after all we ladies have put up with  years and years of literary and theatrical blokes going on and on  – and on and on  again –  about their dicks.  From Portnoy’s Complaint to  Alan Bennett’s WH Auden demanding to “suck off” a rent boy at the National  (and, review tomorrow, now in York)  the line of literary willies stretches out to the crack of doom.  Dicks have delighted us long enough.  Indeed at one point I declared a critical fatwa on any show about Young Men Discovering Their Sexuality.  

 

          But the aspect potentially most jarring here  – adults playing near-pubescent children – is actually no problem:  once you pass fifty  these days it is quite hard to distinguish between tallish 12-year-olds and young adult women, what with the  flicky hair, scrunchies, ballet flats and trackie-bottoms.   My own daughter at fourteen went to the Old Bailey on an education visit and got asked by an elderly clerk where she was doing her pupillage.   So Sarah Hadland, Nancy Crane, Karla Crome, Ria Zmitrowitz, Kayla Meikle,  and Manjinder Virk are perfectly convincing, in and out of the dance routines and dressing-room banter.  

  

 

     It’s the banter that makes it.  The competitive dance team – overseen by a rather thuggish Brendan Cowell as the teacher, and mystifyingly including one boy, Irfan Shamji less convincing owing to the whiskers  – provides a frame and metaphor for the turbulence of everyone’s female puberty.   You’re learning your dismaying, changing body, comparing yourself with friends and rivals,  fantasising about a future,   half-proud and half-ashamed of the glances in the street.   There are monologues,  notably a tremendous rant from Meikle about her hidden powers which include a good ass and  being good at Math,  and a nocturnal fantasy from Zmitrowitz – the most troubled of them – about how she will lose her virginity to a handsome Canadian fiancé at age 23, having just bought together a New York apartment “with hardwood floors”.   Ah, the impossible dreams of childhood… 

 

 

        Sarah Hadland is both funny and intensely touching as cheerful Sofia who is assaulted by a first period on competition day:  in a memorable triple tableau that night she rinses her pants and wards off a sympathetic Mum, while on the two sides of the stage one girl lays out her model horse collection and the other vainly attempts masturbation.   Tampons and toys, wanking and weeping,  ignorance and speculation and secret societies.  That’s puberty.  And above all, and movingly often in chorus, there’s  a hope that you might make the world  OK  by dancing through it.  

 

 

       It’s an odd, short evening (105 minutes)  but likeable.  And  dickless. Though one memorable line, never explained,  is when a girl blurts out “I saw a penis, once”.   It is never explained how.  Best not to know.

box office  almeida.co.uk     to 6 oct

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS THE BOYS GET ALL THE DRAMA AT GRIMEBORN

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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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Vaudeville, WC1

A HANDBAG?  

 

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 shakeapearesglobe.com  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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HOME, I’M DARLING Dorfman, SE1

RETROMANIA AS A ROAD TO RUIN

 

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 nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 31 August

rating three

3 Meece Rating

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THE BOATSWAIN’S MATE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI VOTES FOR ETHEL SMYTH AT GRIMEBORN

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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A MONSTER CALLS Old Vic SE1

A TREE, A TEENAGER, A FAMILY TRAGEDY 

 

 

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

A RISOTTO OF RESENTMENTS 

 

 

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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JULIE Lyttelton, SE1

STRINDBERG MEETS STENHAM, BIRD MEETS BLENDER

 
We’re in a Hampstead mansion. The daughter of the house is whooping it up at her birthday party, a deafening, purple-lit rave where tight-buttocked androgynes and glittering hair-flickers writhe and shriek. Below them in a bland grand kitchen the help – Ghanaian chauffeur John (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his girlfriend Kristin the maid (Thalissa Teixeira) tidy up, take a swig of the absent Daddy’s Chateau Latour and comment on the chaos. Down comes the birthday girl Julie, leaping around barefoot on the worktops flashing ever more thigh at Jean. And so the trouble begins.

 

 

The scenario is familiar, you say? Indeed. It’s a Strindberg update by Polly Stenham,  who at 19 famously wrote “That Face” , brilliant on the damage of growing up in a boho, addiction-addled posh family. A few years later she gave us No Quarter, which was frankly just annoying, since rather than any relatable pain it exuded a tiresome conviction that rich decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people . Which is an attitude you can only get away with if you’re Noel Coward, and capable of lightening it up a bit. Which Stenham, as yet, is not.
But this time she joins the endless line of adaptors and updaters of August Strindberg’s toughly nasty, misogynistic Miss Julie: a play soaked in such fin-de-siecle Nordic hopelessness that it makes Ibsen look like PG Wodehouse.

 

It is hard to see why – apart from the obvious marketing reason – Stenham would need to borrow the classic. There are other ways to tackle the hypocrisies and inequalities of rich London versus its immigrant servitor class – the stated intention here – without piggybacking on the miserable old Swede. Stenham’s Julie is not an 1888 ingenue for whom sex with Jean would be momentous , but a 33-year-old trust-fund waster, returned home to live with her affluent father, party, and self-medicate with everything from Xanax to cocaine. The gang upstairs is not Strindberg’s estate peasantry but the usual upmarket druggy ravers; the heroine’s degenerate behaviour and distress has less to do with social pressures than with the fact that she’s off her face and with a bolted-on back-story about her mother’s death.

 

 

Only the character of Jean with his hard-edged ambition and eye for the main chance feels close to the original, and he is a man for all ages. Stenham’s social-outrage intention is clear enough, especially when the chauffeur (good line) exasperatedly tells the wealthy messed-up Julie “We don’t have the luxury of being sad like you”. And again when Kristina the maid is given a very un-Strindbergian speech of indignation near the end about how she has washed our heroine’s blood-stained underwear , picked her up from abortion clinics, listened to her endlessly but despises the faux-liberal pretence that they were ever any kind of friends.

 

But with the glossy visual values (Tom Scutt design, amazing) and some remarkably directed movement by the ensemble of non-speaking partygoers (Ann Yee clearly should be booked for your next rave), the howling flaw is that Carrie Cracknell’s production feels more like a zoo – “see the rich posh ravers!” – than any sort of polemic exposure. There is one particularly enjoyable moment when – in what may be a dream sequence – the dancers creep down from above with cockroach-like crawling movements and vanish into the mysteriously changed kitchen appliances. It’s not often you encounter the stage-direction “Exit through the dishwasher”.

 

And there’s the extreme audience giggle when (back to Strindberg’s detail again) our modern Julie rather improbably insists on taking her pet canary with her on the fantasy flight to Cape Verde with Jean. When told to kill it, she puts it in the Magimix. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie (a tremendous performance, as one would expect) then collapses in sobbing grief about her terrible traumatic past experience. But the Magimix giggle ’n groan has spoilt that. So we feel nothing. What a waste.

 

box office 020 7452 3000 To to 8 Sept
Travelex season. NB in cinemas 6 Sept, NT Live

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON Bridge, SE1

A WRITER, A MOTHER, A LIFE

 

The elegant new Bridge continues to demonstrate – firmly — that it is uniquely versatile. After one traditional tragicomedy (Young Marx) we had a swirling mob-riot immersive Caesar , then an intimate pastoral quartet , and now the 900-seat space offers a bare square of light, thrust forward for intimacy. And ninety minutes of sparse projections, artful lighting, a single hospital bed and chair and one narrator talking about a not particularly exceptional life.

 

Risky? On the other hand, the performer is Laura Linney, fiercely intelligent star of screen and Broadway, the source bestseller is by the Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout, the adaptor Rona Munro who dazzled us with the James Plays at Nicholas Hytner’s NT. And the director is no less than Richard Eyre. So, not such a risk.

 

And if you have a taste for this particular tone of intense, forensic emotional autobiography with a strong tang of the creative-writing course, it’s top of the genre. And it isn’t entirely fair o say “not particularly exceptional’, because Strout’s novel sets her heroine – a successful writer – at a moment of private crisis . She is remembering nine weeks in hospital with some undiagnosed serious condition, apart from her rather unengaged husband and two small daughters. But to her surprise her mother, long estranged, turns up and sits by her bed relating nicely sour stories of old neighbours. It reignites the writer’s memories of a fairly grim and lonely childhood in the Illinois croplands, in an isolated house without books, television or friends, and a father emotionally war-damaged and difficult. The twist is that Lucy Barton, rather than being a bit irritated and wanting to get the hell out, finds immense solace in her mother’s undemonstrative but positive presence. A slow catharsis takes place.

 

Linney is brilliant, evoking in turn both Lucy and the twanging, tough-nut mother. Elegant projections give us the Chrysler building outside the window, memories of wide fields , of her first married apartment and of the louche , alarming but stimulating freedom of New York and its people during the AIDS crisis. The strongest aspect is her evocation of childhood loneliness and a sense of never quite identifying and belonging, even in marriage. It tips over, though, typical of its post-Salinger genre, into a righteous affirmation of writerliness and its “ruthless” need to centre on itself and tell its “only story”.

 

And sometimes that can wear you down a bit. Make you feel a bit – well, I dunno, British. Suddenly the spell breaks and you wish she’d talk about something else. I would pay a lot to see the wonderful Linney, in a space and production like this, telling any number of other stories. But maybe not this Strout one. But it’s a class act, and could well be absolutely for you.

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 23 June
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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PETER PAN. Open Air, Regents Park

LUKE JONES FALLS FOR TINKERBELL…
Peter Pan has now flown into every medium possible. He is a play, novel, pantomime, musical, television programme, cartoon and a Kate Bush single. This version, at the leafy, fairy light-twinkly and on this night, bone dry and sunny Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, is another twist. 
Directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have melded World War One and circus. Despite the play being written a full 10 years before Franz Ferdinand took a ride through Sarajevo, the allegory is snug. Neverland is the escape, the idea of adventure and derring-do which Barrie himself peddled during the war, alongside many famous authors, in the War Propaganda Bureau. 
This production opens in a field hospital outside the trenches. Wendy is nurse, soldiers are limping in. Their suffering soon slips into the dream of Neverland. The device may be snug, but this is where the play is weakest. 
Give it ropes, give it flight and fight; that’s where things get cooking. When Sam Angell’s Panto Pan clambers through the window and into this scene, it’s as if someone has dropped a tea tray. Why is it so broad, so camp and so green? I slumped into my squeaky outdoor chair and prepared to lose an evening. But as the sun dipped behind the park, and the spotlights clicked on, things mightily picked up.  Dennis Herdman’s Captain Cook and his catalogue of tunes and gurns had us all chuckling, Tinkerbell (in the hands of the brilliant Elisa de Grey) had grown men cooing and even the Lost boys (who had a strong whiff of mid-morning kids TV) made sense. Cora Kirk as Wendy, (with a corking Hull accent we need to hear more of) was a solid attempt at the kind of generically defiant female lead of a musical, although this wasn’t one. Once everyone accepted it as just a very well-executed panto, things clicked.

 

 

The clutter of props, carried from wartime England, were transformed. Hospital beds were fireplaces, islands and boats. Curtains became fish. A briefcase and collection of hankies became a gull. Most importantly, the tick tock tick tock of the crocodile cumulated in a beast made of beady lanterns, a swishing tail of corrugated iron and a snapping jaw of deckchair. The entire evening is owed to puppet designer Rachael Canning. Her creations somewhat save the night from the concept. 
Even when Peter exclaimed that “to die would be a great adventure”, I was thinking pirates and canon, not soldiers and trenches. Which is why the war is nodded to, or when finally the lost boys return to the army uniform they started the night in, it all falls to pieces. They make a serious point; about lives being lost and wasted. But the performances are still loud, the dialogue still basic and cliches abound.
At the end of the war, in what’s described as Barrie’s first and last public appearance, he spoke of the war and of how they had told the “youth, who had to get us out of it, tall tales of what it really is and the clover beds to which it leads.”.
Box Office  0844 826 4242 
rating.  Three.   3 Meece Rating

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HAMLET                 Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

THE NEW ERA BEGINS…

   

 

Here’s a vulnerable Hamlet:  a lonely lad in proper tearful grief and disappointment at his mother’s remarriage.    A Hamlet who, in feigning madness,  loses his grip for a while on sense and kindness;  whose treatment of Ophelia we can wince at but understand.  Above all it is a Hamlet whose progress through the switchback of grief and anger and self-doubt and superstition and affection is diamond-precise,  driven by the text.  His final brief adult nobility where “readiness is all” is all the more effective for that.  I have seen more spectacular Hamlets and more arresting ones, but few with such intimate, credible accuracy in the arc of his suffering and resolution.

 

 

This Hamlet is a woman, Michelle Terry.    Horatio is female too, as is Marcellus, and Laertes is the tiny, sparky Bettrys Jones. On the other hand Ophelia is a man:  Shubham Saraf,  with a delicate and touching  performance but also an uncompromisingly schoolboy short-back-and-sides above the ballgown, standing a head taller than her brother or Hamlet.   Rosencrantz – looking a bit old to be a schoolmate -is a conventionally bearded Pearce Quigley, but Guildenstern is  Nadia Nadarajah , who is Deaf : she communicates with sprightly good humour in BSL -British Sign Language – to which Hamlet responds skilfully and Rosencrantz sometimes translates.

 

 

This production is a key moment in Michelle Terry’s new role as Artistic Director of the Globe, after the less than happy departure of Emma Rice. And power to her:  not only kicking off with two plays (often running  on the same day, as yesterday) but using a hefted, identical company for both,  and in the second playing Hamlet.  I call that leading from the front. 

 

 

         I missed the As You Like It, in which she took a smaller part. But towards dusk saw Hamlet. Terry has made it clear that in  casting she plans 50:50 gender equality and greater diversity; she also  runs rehearsals more startlingly open to outsiders than most actors have ever known.  The actors,  composer, choreographer,  two directors ( Federay Holmes and Elle While)   and the designer Ellan Parry are equal partners, she says,  and use rehearsal as a “test tube” of experimentation.  With Parry by the way we are instructed to use only the pronoun “they”, though there is only one of they. Fine but confusing: I prefer “xi” myself.. 

     

           Do not flinch. Gender politics are in the air, women do need a better break in theatre, and there is a place for free thinking collaboration.  As a fine and seasoned actor and scholarly Shakespearean  – but not a director  – Michelle Terry  might as well rattle the cages of the old school “auteur-director”  with a personal vision of  a classic. That, after all, has lately led to a couple of quite tiresome  Macbeths.   But  as an  audience we too are in the experiment and collaboration.  And for all the engagement and skill, for all the leader’s strong Hamlet, the fine blaring trumpets and stellar performances like Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude,  Colin Hurley’s Ghost  and a wonderful, slyly funny Poloniusn from Richard Katz,   there are moments which jar.  

 

 

     For, this  humbly collaborative audience member ventures to say,  it jars when the physical casting and mixed costumes impede the storytelling, slow us down, make the watcher  think “ah, another 21c sensibility there!” rather than feeling the line of the tragedy.    Honestly,  get rid of that bobble hat in the battlement scene, tone down the clown suit sooner,  restrict some of the BSL moments.   We need to be transported and the Globe, with the pulsing energy of the groundlings , can do that better than many.    Interestingly, there was far less interaction with the groundlings than we are used to here, and that matters  ( Terry’s Hamlet is better at it than anyone else. She knows how to Globe-it from earlier performances). 

 

 

  And  one should not have to feel sheer relief when the gravedigger is not another modishly diverse gesture but just Colin Hurley again,   curmudgeonly male in  a hi-vis vest, 100% proof traditional as Shakespeare would remember.     Terry does no arms-length skull-work but just  hops into the new-dug muddy grave beside him.  The prince’s memories of Yorick are properly affecting. Moments like that stay with you as strongly as the jerky 21c devices.  May there be many more .

 

box office 0207 401 9919    

 to 26 aug

rating   three  

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MINDGAME Ambassadors, WC2

SCHLOCK-HORRORWITZ  AND HURRAH FOR THE SKELETON

 

    Gotta  love the buccaneering quality of west end theatres: the Small Faces musical at the little Ambassadors off Cambridge Circus closed early , and David Haig’s  wonderful Pressure doesn’t come in for another fortnight. So a quick pounce by  producers hauled in this pocket psycho-thriller by the alarmingly prolific Antony Horowitz ((he of the junior James Bonds and sexed-up Sherlocks, plus TV Foyle’s War).  The play has been touring for years in bursts, having just delighted the Isle of WIght:   so tell the cast of three they’re coming Up West for a couple of weeks, keep the tickets well under the fifty mark,  set up bargain packages and hope for thrilled bums-on-seats.

 

 

By serendipity this weary but gallant little theatre is bang next door to that very un-thrilling geriatric landmark, The Mousetrap.  So I slithered in.  Always  worth observing the vagrant, less-celebrated creature that is UK theatre in the wild. Especially when it’s a retro,  schlock-horror mystery psycho bamboozle.

 

      I can certainly tell you, hand on heart, it’s better than the one next door. Though I had better be careful, since two-thirds of the cast and the producer are ex mousetrappers, with natural affection for the fusty old beast.   This one is set in a psychiatrist’s office in an improbably bijou secure hospital for the criminally insane in Suffolk.     A certain artificiality about this is, you find,,  part of the delusion under which which one or other  – or all three  – of the characters are labouring. So is the view through the window,  a portrait on the wall which it is worth keeping an eye on, and a full skeleton in a remarkably camp hand-on-hip pose  as if saying “Duh! Can he really be a doctor?”.  

 

 

 Added to the usual task of persuading us they’re not actors, the cast have the burden of acting as if they might be acting.  On the face of it Styler (Andrew Ryan) is  a supercilious true crime author  who has arrived, in eyewateringly tight Dad jeans,   to persuade Michael Sherwin’s Dr Farquhar to let him interview a serial killer in his custody.   An occasional scream in the distance,  a strangely tense nurse and an unnerving malfunctioning speaker system create the required traditional loony-bin atmosphere.  Not quite the ticket for Mental Health Week,  I suppose,  but it feeds nicely into two of our favourite worries:  fear of psychiatrists,   and a conviction that murderous insanity involves  devilish superhuman cunning.  Blame Anthony Hopkins and his damn fava-beans.   Tyler’s fascination with the subject is questioned by the shrink,  who lectures him for slightly too long on  reformation,  psychodrama therapy etc. 

   

 

 Who is deluded, and what is real?  What is the significance of this stuff about wisteria and dogs called Goldie ?  What is wrong with the  presumed nurse  (Sarah Wynne Kordas,  who valiantly maintains her own confusing is-this-acting-or-acting-as-acting ).  What is in that sandwich?     Why is  Dr Farquhar  growing ever more elfin in his manner?   Sherwin conveys a powerful air of an accomplished light-comedy actor wondering how far he dares push the camping-up.  When he asks “Is this spiralling into farce?” the urge to shout “Oh yes it is!”  is extreme.   There’s a strait-jacket and some nasty menace (not one for the kids, this).    But the skeleton in the corner has, by Act 2, assumed an even more “ooh-Matron” pose with one hand on hip and one in front of his mouth.  That won the third mouse, to be honest.   

 

box office 0844 811 2334    to 10 June

rating   three  3 Meece Rating

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PRESENT LAUGHTER                  Chichester Festival Theatre

COWARD GOES FARCEO-FORTISSIMO

 

 

         In the final outburst from our hero Gary Essendine –  silk-dressing-gowned philanderer,  arrogantly insecure darling of the West End    his backer Henry reveals that he has booked the Forum Theatre and the actor howls that he cannot do a light French farce in a space like Wembley Stadium.   A similar faint misgiving afflicted me at the thought of this lighter-than-air Noel Coward comedy surviving in this big airy theatre (especially after the cocktail-sharp intimate miniatures  of Tonight at 830 in the teeny Jermyn last Sunday, see below) .   And for much of the first half deep unease persisted.  On Alice Power’s detailed, towering, detail-perfect set (some very funny touches)  there was shouting.  Yelling.   Overdoing it to the point of mania.  

 

 

       Didn’t matter with Lizzy Connolly’s ditzy, Sloaney invader of her hero’s apartment ,  voguing around in his silk pyjamas the morning after “losing her latch-key”.  Nor did a bit of extreme upstaging bother me when Tamzin Griffin as the housekeeper repeatedly hobbled around the stage in the manner of Mrs Overall.  And Katherine Kingsley as the ex-wife and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Monica the secretary both were as tart , emotionally restrained  and deadly on-the-lines as they should be.  

 

 

     But Rufus Hound –  better known as a standup, TV host and fiery left activist –   is the oddest possible casting for Essendine!     He is thuggish not smooth,  laddish not sophisticated.    Coward wrote for the smooth, the clipped, the swish deployer of killer asides.      Even Essendine’s dramatic  absurdities, designed to fend off clinging girls ,  are cool Charles-and-Fiona stuff.    “There’s something awfully -sed – about heppiness”  “I can’t be free like other men..I belong to my public”.    Hound just  yells them.    Thus by kicking off at top volume Mach 3 from the start  he eaves himself  no space for the real panics into which his entourage throws him  as the farce speeds up later.  

 

 

      Ben Allen’s Maule, the obsessed stalker-worshipper,  goes hell-for-leather too,  giving us no time to wonder whether he is as mad as he seems.    Great laugh lines are wasted: at times the first act is like hearing Bach played on kazoo-and-tuba,  or brain surgery in boxing gloves.   When at last Lucy Briggs-Owen sashays on as the man-killing Joanna you sigh with relief: at last a classic classy Coward-cool character, a long streak of slink and scorn and sexual threat. She’s wonderful.

        

 

        But what begins as a  comedy of manners does turn gradually into true farce,:  wrong people behind doors,  disastrous  revelations of affairs, panic.   And in this area director Sean Foley is wholly reliable: a master when it comes to sofa-bounces,  painful handshakes (an excellent joke here near the end),  and the possibilities of soda-siphons and spilled drinks.   So the second half is properly full-on funny.   And the curtain call is a full-cast rendering of “Why do the wrong people travel?” and a dance. So we all leave happy.  

 

box office 01243 781312   to 12 May

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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GUESTHOUSE Eastern Angles tour

GOLDEN SANDS AND GRIEVANCES

 

 

Nicola Werenowska has certainly found fertile ground for the setting of her play: the decline of English seaside towns (in this case Clacton) from the first flashback to 1963 up to today. They suffer still from that decay: the rise of foreign package tours, the closure of a Butlins and the general disillusion with bucket-and-spade-b&b in our uncertain climate. Her designer Anna Kelsey has also found – and protects on a simple curtain – some very evocative images of these towns’ brighter past. At times you can almost taste the candyfloss and Kia-Ora.

 

 

The story, told partly in flashbacks, is about decisions on a failing boarding-house’s future by three generations of women: the doughty Val (Amanda Bellamy), her troubled nervy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) and Lisa’s daughter Chloe. Who, we find, was largely raised by Granny Val and her drunken, disappointed husband whose end we only gradually learn, but suspect for quite a lot of the 2-hour evening.

 

All three performances are fine, nuanced and credible, and Eleanor Jackson’s sulky, resentful Chloe is particularly good: a scowl to remember. The sense of mother and daughter competing for the child in the past is a strong thread. All that is on the side of the play, and I wanted to love it but despite Tony Casement’s direction and the neat little set , there is something woefully untheatrical about it: it might as well be a radio play. Werenowska also lacks the comic lightness for which one yearns. Given a Val as skilful as Bellamy, playing a stubborn old pragmatist, one hungers for the salty seaside wit of her generation. But we never get it. There is a sense, notably from Clare Humphrey, of the sheer slog of running a b & b, and of the way the family all to some extent cling to it as part of their identity. But few lines stick, and few hit home, for all the cast’s efforts. Its themes will be recognized, though, in many of the places the tour visits..

 

box office http://www.easternangles to June
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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GOOD GIRL Trafalgar Studios SW1

A SOLO REFLECTION ON PUBERTY AND AFTER.

 

 

Naomi Sheldon’s solo, semi-autobiographical hour comes from Edinburgh crowned with plaudits, though cunningly in the programme she does an “alternative poster” of rude things people have said about it. Like “Posh bird talks about women’s ‘hardships’”, and “stereotypical vagina talk”. Crafty, that. And indeed there is much to like in a well-crafted monologue, delivered with considerable physical and verbal agility as she comically manoeuvres as a sub-teen worrying about her lady-bits, or takes on the persona of Laura the Cool Schoolfriend who is less intensely bovvered about everything.

 

 

She also knowingly laces it with references which delighted the audience (mainly women, nearly all her own age). Patrick Swayze in Ghost, the Spice Girls, potato waffles, LIam Gallagher, Michael Jackson (one of her teenage pinups alongside Henry VIII). And, of course, that cliché of a self-help question so utterly baffling and faintly repellent to my generation, “What would Madonna do?|”. Her evocation of Sheffield schooldays is one of the best bits, the boys forever drawing dicks on “any flat surface” including her art project, the conspiratorial conversations about what sex might be, the amateur witch-coven round a dying hamster.

 

 

So I can see why it shone in the frenzied Fringe environment. And I would very much like to see this actress – sweet-faced, dungareed child of the millenim, in a play interacting with others. And, to be frank, with more gripping issues. I know I am older, raised in a culture more restrained and more broadly idealistic about love, honour and faith; , but I have vivid teenage memories too, and do not entirely believe in the utter fixation on sexual physicality which is the core theme, diluted only with repeated confessions of “rage”, not against anything specific, and with her metaphor of feeling that her body had no edges.

 

Certainly it is clear that sexual developing for some of her generation has often been an utterly joyless, mechanistic, impersonal affair, improved only by a short-lived obsession with lonely vibrator sessions so intense that even the sight of an AA battery could set her off. Similar female angst was better done in the solo version of FLEABAG, which was more bitterly honest about the damage of a sexually obsessive culture. But here, there is no sense of search for an actual lover or actual love – beyond the all-girls-together school gang . Nor do I entirely believe the narrative about the character selling herself at a masked sex-party, or fully buy her conclusion that it is good to be like her, full of passionate vague self-absorbed rage, one of the “people who burst at the seams” ; as against the “good girls with tidy little emotions and tidy little vaginas”.

 

www atgtickers.com to 31 April
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MACBETH Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN

 
It is awkward that two major new productions of the Scottish Play, by two determinedly auteurish directors, open in the same month. Rufus Norris’ bleak “post-Brexit” apocalyptica at the National Theatre came first, and now Polly Findlay’s RSC version takes the Stratford stage. Double, double, toil and – yes – trouble.

 

 

Impossible not to compare the two: both modern dress, both strongly directorial in concept,  both led by eminent actors – the seasoned Rory Kinnear at the NT, and here Christopher Eccleston, far newer to major Shakespeare. Both productions also share a taste for plastic baby dolls: at the NT dismembered and fixed to witches’ tummies, here carried by three witches who are for some reason small girls in pajamas and pom-pom bootees . The creepy chants become nursery impertinence, competently , but short on impact.

 
But if the Norris NT version was a graffiti Macbeth , scrawled on a pee-stained blockhouse, Findlay’s is more like one written in bold block capitals (which indeed are projected overhead, echoing significant lines). Its pace is unrelentingly staccato, emphatic, and with little variety of pace.  Where Norris’s was all swagger and bash, this one is strut and fret.   Violence is largely offstage till the end, and it is mercifully free of decapitations. But there hangs about both productions a sort of dismayed ambition: a desire for modern relevance at all costs and resentment of tradition and of verse. Wrong to compare, I suppose, but I yearned back to the Michael Boyd production which launched this RSC theatre . With less fear of “historic” trappings, ironically it hit home with stronger human power.

 

Findlay has some interesting ideas: she picks up the play’s repeated mention of time, with a digital clock running inexorably backwards like a bomb timer on SPOOKS, from the moment of Duncan’s murder to the death of Macbeth. The flash-freeze LATER moments give impetus to the final battle. One very sharp perception too is that Lady Macbeth’s emotional deterioration is triggered by hearing the cries of Macduff’s murdered children relayed to her mobile phone (one can sometimes wonder why she loses it so abruptly).

 

But those are consolations. Mostly, the production suffers from one-note, race-the-clock vigour; Ecclestone’s delivery (with the sole exception of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) is a real problem: jerky, seeming actively hostile to the idea that it is a verse play. Even in soliloquy he seems to be fighting to prevent us recognising the familiar words or reflecting on their extraordinary painful depth : more The Bill than the Bard.  Niamh Cusack is more at home with the text but plays Lady Macbeth hectic: an ambitious Rotary wife who  never got over being captain of games. As a scold to her husband she is good, and the sleepwalking is finely done. But like her husband she is rarely allowed to express any of the the interiority  of feeling, horror, determination and remorse which make the play so disturbing .

 

The only frisson of real feeling and arresting, affecting delivery is from Edward Bennett’s Macduff: the only one of the classic scenes which strikes properly home is his receiving the news of his family’s murder – his “What, all..?” is superbly shocking, with Luke Newberry’s fine public-schoolboy Malcolm crassly interrupting his grief to urge revenge.

 

As to Fly Davis’ set, it might be a concrete hall in a brutalist 1960’s college of further education, with a sharp rectangular gallery.  You don’t feel that Macbeth wins any kingdom worth murdering for. The porter is an all-purpose janitor in white socks (Michael Hodgson does get a couple of laughs) and sits gloomily at the side throughout, delivering odd messenger lines or wandering round with a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper.

 

Polly Findlay is an excellent director – BEGINNING, LIMEHOUSE, TREASURE ISLAND in London, an inventive Merchant of Venice in the big house here, two very good Renaissance plays in the Swan. But this is not her finest hour. And between them, the two March-beth openings make me cry “Hold, enough!” and hope that soon the pendulum will swing. And directors stop being scared of the Scottish Play and return to more reflective and respectful renderings . Meanwhile, the unfortunate A level set-book class of 2018 are at risk of associating it only with concrete, gaffer-tape, plastic dollies and carpet-sweepers.

 

box office 0844 800 1110 to
rating, three.  Just. 3 Meece Rating

 

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MACBETH Olivier, SE1

THE SCOTTISH PLAY, DARK AND DANK

 

 

You don’t expect robes and battlements these days. This is a shaven-head-and-machete Macbeth, its theme an indeterminate, timeless squalor: possibly a feral modern war, possibly post-apocalyptic. The murder of Duncan, set thus, is hard to see as regicidal sacrilege – ‘his silver skin laced with his golden blood”. Though the always fine Stephen Boxer as the short-lived monarch does, with characteristic subtlety, manage to express something I had never really noticed: that his betrayal by the original Cawdor , who he had t,rusted, distressed and unbalanced him into over-trusting the tricky Macbeths. The problem, however, is that the world Rufus Norris directs in Rae Smith’s tenebrous, crumpled-binbag-and-blockhouse set with its dark steep trundling ramp ,towering diseased trees, disorderly roistering and makeshift armour fastened on with rolls of duct-tape, seems as if it never had any place for loyalty, moral codes or civilized reflection. Indeed the only times we glimpse any furniture that isn’t plastic or a folding old camping-table are in the home of Lady Macduff and the English refuge of young Donald (it may be that the presence of a carpet and sofa and tidier clothes is code for higher moral virtue). Though Lady Macbeth does eventually get out of her vest and pleather jeans into a ragged ,sub-Oscar, sequinned raspberry frock once she is Queen.

 

 

The bleak, smoky, savage setting makes Rory Kinnear’s task as the racked, tempted, murderous, hesitant, panicking Macbeth harder than it need be. Of course he is as ever a great Shakespearian, each word and gesture achieved with intelligence and feeling. His relationship with the equally remarkable Anne Marie Duff as his sexy, tricky, maternally hungry and tormented wife is as good as I have seen it. Their first eye-meet, when each knows that the other is thinking murder, is riveting, as is the moment when he holds her dead body in his arms for “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Norris’ technique of creating action-freezes for soliloquies helps in the first half too, detaching Kinnear for a merciful moment from the thuggish hopeless scene.

 

 

Yet somehow, I’m not quite buying it. We are used to gore and nasty things hung on trees and lots beheadings, ever since the technology for reproducing actors’ heads improved. Fine. But unlike the Hytner Othello – set in a modern army camp – or his Hamlet in a recognizable police-state, the misery-world evoked here gives no sense that there ever were nobilities to be breached by the Macbeths. It’s just chaos, and you expect no better. There are excellent Norris touches – the always problematic “comedy’ porter (Trevor Fox) is allowed to have seen into Duncan’s death-room, and weaves into his ramblings bits of Lady Macbeth’s speech about boneless gums and nipples. That absolutely works. So does Alana Ramsey as a cross-gendered Second Murderer, giving it large as a furious slaggy blonde in fishnets , fur boots and machete: the character’s claim that life has treated her so badly that she’ll do anything has a MeToo feeling about it, and Ramsey is superbly vicious, presenting Lady Macduff with her slaughtered babies in plastic bags like a nightmare Ocado delivery. Kevin Harvey’s Banquo is excellent too, with a dry civilized air about him which makes his return as a bloodstained lurching zombie ghost all the more effective.

 

 

Oh, and the witches? They’re OK: shamanic, acrobatic, eerie, one wearing what looks like entrails outside her body but which turn out to be bits of dismembered baby dolls. Or possibly actual babies, it’s that sort of show. But on the whole, by the time the three main zombie victims return to watch the final fight (King Duncan endearingly finding a plastic chair to settle down and watch from) there is no sense of a tragic fall. Just of another thuggish gang war,  an East End brawl with no sense to it and not much hope for young Donald.

 

 

box office 020 7452 3000 to 23 june
in cinemas NT LIVE on 10 May
and touring nationwide from Sept 2018
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE CULTURE – a farce in two acts Hull Truck

CELEBRATION FOR A CITY

 

Right place, right time, a last flurry of fireworks by the Humber. The hottest of young playwrights, James Graham, lovingly teases the city where he was a student : a place more joked-about than celebrated, but in an unexpectedly enthusiastic mood about itself. He reimagines and larkily mocks the end of its City of Culture year, as a manically overenthusiastic team prepares to hand the baton to Coventry the C of C for 2021.

 

 

It’s a great idea, and studded with good jokes both about Hull itself, the wackier events of the year, local authority ploddery and – principally – the absurdity of bureaucrats trying to evaluate the point of art through statistics and surveys. On one side big fat folders and prattle about outcomes and targetation, metrics, amalgamated workstreams and data-capture; on the other the kind of artist who pitches up with equally loopy jargon and a “Transportational Touch Exhibit” involving a blindfold , a caseful of objects and a chanted commentary through a distant microphone.

 

The inciting incident of the plot itself is the kind of modernism which brings  the aggrieved Dennis the sign-maker to turn up and accidentally disrupt the big day. He put an old fridge and sofa out for the Council refuse collectors, all correct, and it immediately got elected as an artwork, surrounded by keen art students and attracting respectful coachloads from Leeds.

 

 

All ll great stuff. And Andrew Dunn as Dennis is, as ever, a gem of grumpy, eloquent, dryly bluff blokeishness.  To get the idea, remember him as Tony in Dinnerladies on TV. Indeed quite often this play feels like James Graham channelling Victoria Wood: and once Ab-Fab too, as Janice the overkeen volunteer is played by Nicola Reynolds (in one of three fast-changing roles ) as pure Bubble.   So we’re rather at an angle from the familiar Graham of tightly researched, purposeful and beautifully structured recent-history plays – This House, Ink, Labour of Love. And he is not a natural farceur, though there are some intricate misunderstandings, crossed lines, redial-jokes and a lot of dashing about through doors.

 
It comes to life best when the people are more credible than merely comic: shrieking Janice is far too broad, and Amelia Donkor as Lizzie, the manic statistician who is trying to organize the handover and presentation is far too hectic.   There is no sense of how she really is, still less of how she ended up in Hull.   Mark Babych, otherwise directing with pace and farce-door ingenuity, would have done better to slow down her gabble-and-shriek, which  blurs into incomprehension some of Graham’s fine parodic jokes about her trade.

 

 

But the second half in particular is full of strong laughs, some nicely smutty, some manic, and many particularly fun for Hull people (I came with my husband, a former Radio Humberside man, who got them all).   Short cameo characters are great – especially Nicola Reynolds as a smugly self-assured DCMS minister, and Matt Sutton doubling as a furious Labour council chief in a red tie and a bored lawyer, who has a late artistic catharsis brought on by blue cake-icing (don’t ask). There are two nice phone events with local heroes Tom Courtenay and Maureen Lipman, and a nicely thrown-away reference to them both melting down in pique later.

 

 

Martin Hyder is terrific as both the baffled Coventry council chief (“I thought you just toss some cash to some artists and they do some art?”) and later as another volunteer, an ageing ex-deckie off the trawlers of long ago. He is glowing with pride at having done masterclasses in both CPR and LGBT “so I can both save lives and talk to gay people’. He gets, near the end, a moment of truth when he admits that as the year ends he’ll miss it, the sense of belonging that vanished when the fishing declined. Dunn too speaks for Hull’s pride and insecurity too, in the final moments. And it is in those moments that we’re back with the Graham we know, humane and perceptive.

 

So not one of his best plays, though the arguments about measuring art are sharp and useful. But at this moment, in this place, it’s a lovely thing. I’m glad to have been there.

 

hulltrucktheatre.org.uk to 17 February

rating three.  3 Meece Rating

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ROTHSCHILD & SONS Park, NW11

BANKERS AS LIBERATORS 

 

 

The first recitative line in this one-act musical, as the little band sounds curfew, is chilling: a Town Crier from the 1760’s :
“Jews and aliens of Frankfurt. Return to your homes. The Ghetto is closed”.
The shopkeeper Meyer Rothschild, yellow star on his sleeve, is baited by local oafs – “Jew, do your duty!” and made to bow. Officialdom cheats him of twelve krone. Returning to his affianced wife Gutele, he speaks ambition and dreams of sons who will “extend a man’s reach!” once the repressive laws controlling Jews allow them to marry. He resolves to build wealth, brushing off the Biblical camel-and-needles’s-eye rule with “when you’re rich enough, you find tiny camels and enormous needles”.

 

It is one of the very few jokes in the show. Our hero, played by Robert Guccioli with vigorous charm turning gradually to patriarchal authority, strikes banking deals with incompetent courtiers in the kingdom of Hesse. Five sons are born, trained up and spread across European capitals to found the immense House of Rothschild. They are fawned on by desperate and prodigal governments in the Napoleonic Wars. Their unbreakable family network of information and prediction makes them unbeatable.

 

The one-act, two-hour musical is – with Sherman Yellen’s book – by Bock and Sheldon: who of course wrote Fiddler on the Roof, so gloriously played lately at Chichester with Omid Djalili . Some have expressed disappointment that Rothschild is no Tevye: rather than lovable, traditional and downtrodden, this time the hero is the diaspora Jew as winner. His sons take after him: black-suited, relentless, careful, riding the hard fact that their success and cleverness make them suspect and despised in their chosen nations. Leaflets on the “international Jewish conspiracy” are already circulating. But there’s a lovely, lightly choreographed, sequence when Gary Trainor as Nathan – the family hothead – is being watched by envious London Stock Market top-hats, trying to guess if the angle of his cigar or a gesture of his sleeve means ‘buy’ or “sell’ some commodity.

 

 

It is Nathan who first suggests that an offer to fund the Grand Alliance against Napoleon could persuade Britain to put pressure on the arrogant Metternich to abolish the ghetto laws across the Austrian Empire. It is a risk to everything they own ; after some conflict they all agree it, twice over, putting serious fiscal pressure on the brocaded , duplicitous Christian leader.

 

It may seem an odd moment for a paean to investment-banking and the way that giant fundholders can wield political influence. With nice irony, a few hours after I saw it I watched DRY POWDER (below) about another kind of banking altogether. On the other hand, with Hamilton in town, what better moment to portray pompous royals in brocade and periwigs being outwitted by clever, energetic nobodies from the wrong side of the tracks? And in an time of Holocaust memory and an uneasy sense of reanimated antisemitism, it does no harm to be reminded, from the age of Waterloo, of the troubled, talented, vigorous history of the Jewish diaspora in Europe.

 

And though the first third of the show is unaccountably slow, and some of the dealings with the Hesse court unengaging, when the father-son conflicts begin it gets peppery and satisfying. The songs improve too; especially “In my own LIfetime” and “Everything”. Cuccioli is tremendous, but so are Gary Trainor as Nathan and the other sons. Glory Crampton, though she is often just background, is moving and melodious when her moments do come. Like Cuccioli she is a personality who can fill far bigger stages than this . It isn’t one of the great musicals, but I left it feeling moved, and thoughtful, and a bit more educated about the diaspora’s journey.

 

 

box office 020 7870 6876 to 17 FEb
rating three.   3 Meece Rating

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