Category Archives: Three Mice

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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