Category Archives: Three Mice

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

Comedy Mouse

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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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