Category Archives: Three Mice
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…
LONDON now, then touring UK through 2019
rating three as theatre, but hey, it’s a gig…
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
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
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)
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
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