Category Archives: Three Mice

PINOCCHIO Lyttelton SE1

DISNEY ECHOES AT THE NT: YOU WOODN’T BELIEVE IT

 

The first glimpse of old Geppetto does make you gasp. He is immense, a huge benevolent head bowed attentively as great arms operate the strung marionettes below – who are of course real people, operating him. Like the other two giant characters who appear later, the wicked Stromboli and the deceiving Coachman, he is only a huge head and torso, with a tangle of puppeteers’ legs below. Yet somehow the illusion works, not least because Toby Olié and Bob Crowley, the designers, have given him such an expressive, moving old-man face that the unmoving mouth is somehow not noticed. And of course he looks just like Mark Hadfield, the human Geppetto among his puppetteers below.

 

 

 

Confusing? Well, it’s an old tale and a magical one. The deployment of spectacle and effects under John Tiffany’s direction and the remarkable tech and design team are not allowed to overshadow its old-fashioned moralities, though. The book, rewritten by Denis Kelly, is on touching themes: a child who knows he is different (being wooden), who has to learn unselfishness and humanity; a lonely father who searches, mourns, forgives and is rescued by the son he was trying to save. Joe Idris-Roberts has a sparky Blue-Peterish presence as Pinocchio, and Annette McLaughlin is a dignified Blue Fairy, when not fiddling with her hood or being represented by a really baffling flying blue flame across the Lyttelton’s big stage.

 

 

But there’s a curious disconnection at the play’s heart. It’s not quite a musical, not quite a solid play. Apparently this is the first time Disney has allowed the classic film’s songs to be used in a stage production: Martin Lowe has woven round them some lovely arrangements and extensions, and Hi diddle de dee works remarkably well, as does the vaudevillean rearrangement of the No Strings number as Pinocchio dances stringless with a brilliantly choreographed ensemble playing marionettes on coloured  ribbons . But there are few good tunes there, and infuriatingly repetitive -“give a little whistle” can grate, as can the injunction to wish upon a star.  Indeed Kelly’s take on Jiminy Cricket as not only a nagging conscience but a health ’n safety fusspot is a bit too annoying for an adult eye, and gallant though her operator is, she looks so uncomfortable shuffling round on her knees that adults wince.

 

 

Children? I think they’ll have fun (the problem with press nights is too few children to judge by. The ones who do come are too well-drilled to whoop). They will certainly be on Pinocchio’s side, not to mention appreciating the lairy Scottish girl Lampy who joins him on Pleasure Island with a Glasgow Saturday night  cry of “wha’s better than smashing things and farting?”.

 

The Fox, by the way, is not a puppet but a suave, sneering panto villain with an impressively manoeuvrable tail (David Langham) and as for Monstro the Whale, words fail me. With help from a brilliant lighting design, that scene set everyone gasping. And yes, there is flying. Of course there is flying. It’s Christmas.

 

box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 April
rating three

 

 

 

 

 

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THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES Jermyn St Theatre, WC1

OLD DOG NEW TRICKS

 

 

After a couple of challenging takes on Strindberg, the little theatre’s new AD Mr Littler (one presumes with a “whoooff!” of relief) has booked in, and jazzed up, an ex-Peepolykus show , co-producing with English Theatre Frankfurt a mercifully un-German interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor mystery. Through a dense stage fog covering the front row we see a top hat looming, hear a cry of terror and an owowowow barkint. The first victim (Sir Charles Baskerville) falls dead.

 

Whereon his two colleagues, Max Hutchinson and Simon Kane, trip on, say “thank you Shaun, excellent bit of mime” and help him up before embarking on a metatheatre explanation of what they – with Shaun Chambers – are going to do. Shaun will play Sir Henry, a Scottish doctor, a cabbie, and two distinct yokels, just to start with. Max is Holmes, plus the eventual villain, one glamorous Latina, a butlering couple and another yokel. Simon Kane, in magnificent ginger sideburns which meet his moustache, is the hapless Watson and, in passing, a spare yokel. And that’s it: Lotte Wakeham, fresh off the Matilda team, directs; the writers are Steven Canny and John Nicholson.

 

What I like – as well as the daft jokes and a ridiculous sauna scene in sock-suspenders and full tweeds — is the disciplined slickness of it: that Reduced-Shakespeare or play-that-goes-wrong quality which lifts shows like this out of the tiresome arent-we-amusing college revue level and into proper theatre. They handle rapid character changes both with and without visible panic, have one interlude of fast-moving slapstick, and cheerfully dart in and out of realism to address us. The production has a neat hand with smoke, the old upright-bed trick, a portable thicket, a fandango interlude and some knee-challengingly convincing sinkings into the Great Grimpen Mire. It is also the first time I learned that the Jermyn can muster the technology to drop a dummy corpse from the roof without anyone noticing it was up there. One of the best bargain 120 minutes-worth of Christmas nonsense around; and they even do two matinees a week.

 

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 7 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating

 

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THE TWILIGHT ZONE Almeida, N1

TO BOLDLY DREAM.. MAINLY OF PLYWOOD AND PROPS

 
THE TWILIGHT ZONE was , long before the phrase was coined, “appointment-to-view television”. In the US in the 50s and 60s families gathered round and gasped at the hokey, portentous suspenseful mystery series (like a precursor of our own Tales of the Unexpected, only with more to-camera moralizing). Adaptor Anne Washburn slightly annoyed me a few years ago with her “post-electric” MR BURNS, in which all that a post-apocalyptic civilization could remember was Simpsons plots. Now she’s back at the Almeida with a mash-up of eight of the original Twilight Zone stories, cut up , interwoven, and presented with an admirably straight face in a style retro-kitsch, camp and knowing. It is executed in a black-box of vague stars with a dangling grey TV and a stage crew half-visibly trundling the furniture around in camouflage star-studded black onesies, as in the golden age of live telly.

 

 

The ingredients are all there – Cold War neurosis, space travel nightmares, hospital drama, half-digested psychiatry, aliens, ghostly warnings , carnival grotesques, and worrying erotic dreams about Maja the Catwoman (Lizzy Connolly gets a big number in furry black tights before turning into a Hideous Bandaged Head Lady). One poor woman wakes up post-cryogenically in a future century wearing a tight tinfoil dress and black lipstick. And at one point, pleasingly, someone has to be rescued from the Fourth Dimension by the family dog. The way you know you have stumbled into the Fourth Dimension, by the way, is that there are whirly cardboard op-art discs being carried across the stage, and an upside-down placard of E=mc2.

 

It is at times hilarious, with some fine deadpan 1950s performances from the cast of 10 and three supernumaries doing the trundling. Richard Jones directs and keeps it moving, a bit confusingly at times, and the only sustainedly long section comes in the second half when the series briefly gives up on sci-fi and supernatural imaginings to portray with unnerving realism a hysterical rivalry between neighbours during a supposed nuclear attack with only one bunker available. That is the most engaging section, with a very topical race row and an attack on the latest immigrant in the striking cry of “This is a nation not a clown car , the entire world is not going to fit in here!”.

 

 
At last John Marquez as the (very straight-faced) TV host-narrator concludes by addressing us meta-theatrically with a very 1950s sermonette, reassuring us that as we leave we will not really plummet into an endless field of stars but claiming that “with a few frail bodies, the shifting of artificial light and electronic sound, fabric, plywood, can-do and most importantly your own mental technology, we have created aliens, a living dream, an imaginary child, a dimensional vortex,…” etc .

 

 

To which one can only reply “Actually, what you have created is a more like a cheerful holiday-season kitsch tribute to a former age of telly. It passed the time, no more”.

 

 

Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 27 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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BARNUM Menier, SE1

A MINI-CIRCUS AND A MISCASTING

 

A nice irony that this revival of this Mark Bramble / Cy Coleman / Michael Stewart musical about Phineas T.Barnum should open now, just as David Attenborough reveals in a forthcoming TV doc that the great showman lied about the heroic death of his big elephant. And that it was a sad beast anyway, what with years of being ridden by Queen Victoria’s children. But then, fake news – ‘humbug” – was a Barnum speciality, a fact merrily underlined in every song and in the constant playful, not to say saccharine, flirtations between Barnum and his cool-headed New England teacher wife Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford, calmly excellent as ever). My favourite humbug, actually my favourite line in this frustratingly frothy account of Barnum’s career, was his solution to the problem of people staying too long in his “American Museum” to gawp at the freaks and exhibits. He just put up a sign saying “To the Egress’. So everyone flocked through in the hope, perhaps, of a giant eagle or an ogress. And ended up back in the street paying again.

 

 

There are such moments of glee, and – in the Menier’s j elaborate canvassy, larky circus-ring set – plenty to enjoy as pure spectacle. Officially the star is Marcus Brigstocke, best known as a Radio 4 standup comedian: but actually the real star is the ensemble. Tumbling, somersaulting, dancing, marching with fifes and euphonium, swinging perilously near the coloured bulbs of the ceiling, they are joyful and nimble as otters. Only with coloured tights and spangles. Director Gordon Greenberg pulls no elf n’ safety punches, and the movement by Rebecca Howell and Scott Maidment (for the circus turns) is terrific, fluent and startling. Brigstocke himself has a circus moment when he is required – to illustrate the dangerous temptation of a liaison with Jennie Lind the Swedish Nightingale – to end the first half by walking a tightrope. Apparently the night before press day he crossed the stage in one go, but tonight he fell off twice, covering himself wittily enough (“I hope none of you have ordered interval drinks”) and finally holding on to a real acrobat’s hand for the last wobbly leg.

 

 

He cannot actually sing very well, and we hear few words in the patter songs: the contrast with Pitt-Pulford’s assured musical-theatre skill is a bit awkward, though nobody beats the coloratura belting of Celinde Schoenmaker as Jennie Lind. But in a way the show’s weakest point is Bramble’s book itself: we have grown used to darker, more Weimar-ish uses of circus as metaphor, and expect a bit more jeopardy than this provides. There’s a setback when Barnum’s museum burns down, but our ploddingly smiling, one-note hero gets over that in about 20 seconds (Brigstocke is not a subtle performer). The second jeopardy – the Lind temptation – again elicits no sign of real emotion either in him or his wife.

 

 

 

Indeed the moment of most thrilling jeopardy came on press night, when the magnificent band parade fills the room and Barnum-Brigstocke has to get a couple of audience members to play the kazoo. The first he picked on was, naturally, Quentin Letts of the Mail , who in a recent book described him as part of a Radio 4 comedy cadre – “as predictable as the tides…they pretend to be poor, hold a sardonic view of manners, a negative attitude to the United States, have slumped shoulders, a secular contempt for religion and a probable hygiene problem”. Surely..gasp..our hero can’t have read that? Anyway, Mr Letts primly refused the kazoo. The Evening Standard took on the challenge instead. One can’t expect edgy insider moments like that every night, but on the whole it’s not bad fun, absolutely a family show. Left me wanting to know a lot more about Barnum in both showbiz and his political career than it offered, and that’s a start.

 

 

box office 0207 378 1713 to 3 March
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE Charing Cross Theatre SW1

 NEW GENERATION CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR WONDERS WHO IT’S FOR….

 

 

When The Woman in White debuted at the Palace Theatre in 2004, much of the commentary focused on it being a technological feat, with digital projections in abundance. With this first revival, directed by Thom Southerland, the more intimate setting seems to lend itself more readily to Wilkie Collins’s gothic source material. But what begins by looking like a dark, haunting thriller soon descends into much less : for a production running in excess of two hours, too much feels as if we are being dragged from one dusty drawing-room to another, the only sign of transition being two moving wooden panels. Sometimes there is a door.
 

 

But, of course, there is always the music. This is Lloyd Webber, and when it hits the right notes it is superb. With shrill, suspenseful violins, ominous clarinet and timpani, we are treated early on to a stunning, soaring duet between Anna O’Byrne’s Laura Fairlie and Ashley Stillburn’s amiable Walter Cartwright. The two fall madly in love but suddenly, and for little discernible reason, she soon wanders off to marry the obviously-up-to-something Sir Percival Glyde, played by Chris Peluso, who hadn’t even been mentioned. That is the main crux of what is wrong here: with so much strung-out exposition and rambling sing-song conversation throughout the first act it is hard to know or care why anyone is doing anything. The eponymous Woman in White and her connection to the sinister Sir Percival barely make sense.
 

 

In the midst of this lengthy exposition are lyrics by the multi-award winning David Zippel. As one might expect in a musical of this lineage, the entire thesaurus of rhyming couplets is mercilessly unleashed – ‘this story breaks my heart, I don’t know where to start’ is one of the many waves of maddeningly contrived lines which would even make Dr Seuss blush. Sometimes it feels as if the cast are making the rhyme up as they go along, and by the second act it becomes a game of guessing the next line. A mention must also go to some of the driest recitative I have ever witnessed, as poor Laura frantically sings ‘A document!? What kind of document?’.
 

 

Should that matter if it’s fun? There are a number of hackneyed troughs, but most certainly peaks. By the second Act when the plot is finally established, we are treated to a joyous performance from Greg Castiglioni as the scene-stealing Count Fosco, who rightly received the loudest cheers of the night. There are even a few bells and whistles in the form of a humorous game of roulette where the audience is treated as the table, although it only seemed interesting because the rest of the staging was so lacklustre. The question remained, who is this show for? There are moments of genuine humour , and coupled with the silly rhyming and the music it suggests that this is a family show – but then come the bloated scenes in murky drawing rooms, full of men sitting around in period costume sipping brandy and scheming. Hardly something to thrill the kids.
 

I recognise that the plot is based on a Victorian novel, but the tired lapse into gender stereotypes becomes tedious. Much of the conversation in the first act was concerned with men acting with integrity (doing what they want) – while in the second, our heroines yearn for a man to help right all of the wrongs in the world. One even admits ‘We are powerless at the hands of these men.’ Our female protagonists are treated as if they only have looks and wealth on their side. I find it disappointing.
 

The cast are fantastic, the music does its job. But they are letdown by a convoluted and tired plot and some dry dusty staging.

 

BOX OFFICE 020 7930 5868 to 10th February
rating three  3 Meece Rating
 

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THE RETREAT Park theatre, N4

MANTRAS AND MONEY

 

There is a useful play to be written about the lure of fashionable Western Buddhist retreats, and the way discontented rat-racers can transfer their competitive ambition directly into “me-and-my-enlightenment” oneupmanship without breaking a step. Or remembering the bit about faith making you nicer to other people. Sadly, this is not quite that play, though it has the bones to be one.

 

Still, Sam Bain, wisecracking creator of laddish shows like Fresh Meat and Peep Show, at least opens up the subject with his stage debut: a 90minute three-hander.  Luke (Samuel Anderson) is seen in a nicely conceived Scottish stone cell, shaven-headed and punctiliously balletic in his opening obeisances and Oms . He’s got a nice floor altar and brass bowl with a satisfying ‘ting!”. All the kit. We will learn that he is an affluent city worker who has decided to sell his flat to build a temple ( without mentioning it to his riotous, druggy younger brother and flatmate) and to get ordained as a monk.

 

 

His meditation is disturbed by the noisy arrival of the said brother Tony (Adam Deacon) ostensibly to tell him that some forgotten uncle has died but really, one quickly suspects, just to check up on him. Luke’s sanctimonious prating of his newfound beliefs is punctured repeatedly by Tony’s incredulous contempt; when Luke says he is too busy with his meditation to go to a funeral Tony delivers the unmatchable line “So, some important sitting to be done? And there’s nobody else with an arse?”. St Benedict (laborare est orare!) would be proud of him.

 

It would be more interesting if we were allowed to see some proper emotional underpinning: clearly Tony needs his big brother, and not only for somewhere to live. But whenever it lurches in an interesting direction Bain opts to put in a sharp sour bloke-joke instead. Mind you, some of them are good ones, especially from the hilarious Deacon.

 

 

When the third party, Tara, arrives disguised as her favourite goddess in green body paint and a cardboard tiara, the lads’ various lusts and confusions take over, though Tony’s attempt to talk her language is very funny. The dénouement reveals a flicker of proper brotherhood and a revelation about the financial underpinning of this holy operation.

 

 

It’s enjoyable, though others in the audience laughed more than I did. Kathy Burke directs, which at times made me surprised because her other work – notably The Quare Fella and Once A Catholic – has always been well-paced and engrossing. But perhaps because of the switch from TV to stage, and a conscious awareness that it’s a different and more demanding medium for audiences, Bain gives us far too much static talk without progress. And the talk isn’t quite as wonderful as it has to be to get away with that.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 2 dec
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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NETWORK Lyttelton, SE1

PROFIT AND  A PROPHET: RANTINGS AND RATINGS

 

 

I came to  this a day late for tedious domestic reasons, but
since the original film is about a news anchor , Howard Beale, going messianically nuts when he is sacked after 25 years for falling ratings – and then becoming a TV star for ranting against TV –  I felt a natural empathy.   Having  just spent six months sulking (alas not messianically) after 34 years of a Radio 4 show (without falling ratings), I felt a certain wistful solidarity.   Besides, the script is by Lee Hall and direction by Ivo van Hove, who never Van-hoves into view without at least being interesting. So, with yesterday’s first nighters starring it between 2 and 5, the humble mice needed a view.

 

 

It must be said that Ivo the Inventive has gone over the top this time. The wide stage is split in three – a glass TV control cubicle one side, a vast central screen, and on the right some onstage seats where richer and earlier-booking audience members  are actually eating (they also score a disconcerting closeup view of a very funny quickie between Michelle Dockery’s programme chief Diana and the angsty midlife Schumacher). I think the idea is to suggest that we all watch TV  while snogging or snacking, giving only grudging attention to the celebby performers we don’t care much about until they go nuts or get Yewtreed.  Which is, broadly, true.

 

 

In the event, it deserves  neither  2 nor 5, but wavers uncertainly, minute by minute in between.  Bryan Cranston certainly earns  every  award going for his craggy, convincing  Beale, moving from Dimblebyesque authority to a crazed Learlike  breakdown, a self-indulgent, unwell despair. WHen he steadies, he is more  than powerful in his detailed denunciations of  capitalism, and marvellously weird when the corporate boss Jensen (a terrific sinister Richard Cordery ) convinces him that only the money system works  now that there are no democratic nations only corporations (a slightly dated list of course, but we fill in Apple and Google for ourselves).

 

 

Cranston  is,  however ,given one or two too many cracker-motto truisms to cope with,  especially at the end. For which I blame Mr Hall.   It is the dementedly keen Diana who is  strangely the most credibly written: not least when she starts buying terrorists’ home videos, or analysing ratings while giving a businesslike shag to her colleague.  I think I’ve met her somewhere..

 

As to staging, there is mild irritation sometimes when a live  conversation is near-invisible in the clutter of screens and set, so we have to see it on the big screen: the pre- filmed bits fit in with technical perfection but add to the distancing and cooling of the real, hot theatricality the live cast bring.  This Katie-Mitchell I-heart-video experimentalism in theatre is becoming, dare one mutter, a bit of a bore.

 

And the message? Some things strike home hard, especially the rise of news-tertainment: some aspects feel dated now that  TV is being superseded by digital and social media. So does the rant against Saudi petrodollars – “you are owned by half a dozen medieval fanatics” – in the age of China. The  show runs two hours straight, and a cut or two wouldn’t hurt. And though the famous “I’m mad as hell” shout is well staged with vox-pop surround-sound video, it palls a bit when we have to join in for the third time.

 

But it’s a different night out. And  Cranston is fantastic, a proper star.

 

Box office.   Sold out to end of the run (24 march) BUT
tickets are still available through Day Seats and Friday Rush.
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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