Category Archives: Three Mice





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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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Everyone loves the film. Something in the nostalgic British psyche likes to think of a gang of ruthless desperadoes lodging with a dear old lady, pretending to be a chamber music quartet, but being foiled by her innocence and their own incompetence. It was a jewel of Ealing cinema and then a wonderful stage adaptation, and now Eastern Angles home in on it, in their Christmassy panto spirit, with their own spoofy account of a similar old lady, Binkie, and her boarding-house in a quiet Ipswich lane (it’ll be a side street in Peterborough when they move it there).


This time, to enable in-jokes about actors, theatre production finances and crazy headgear, the villains have broken out of Norwich jail and their plan is to put on The Importance of Being Earnest, lure in the whole street and nip out to burgle their empty houses during brief periods offstage. A cast of five is valiantly gender-blind (Emma Barclay doubles as Binkie and as CowCrusher the heavy, and Keshini MIsha is Chugger). And, for a lot of the time, they’re very funny. Especially Daniel Copeland as the dimmest, beardiest of them . His veteran drop-dead timing provides the best laughs of the show. Especially when he plays Gwendolen and rather likes it. And it’s quite funny when he plays the flute too, in the musical numbers, because a big bearded heavy with a sweet piping flute always is.



Which is, I fear, a bit more  drawn-out than it need be. Laura Keefe’s direction is full of good gags, not least the meta-theatre moments when they use us as the gullible audience, and Barclay’s turn as Binkie , full of local jokes (again, they’ll adapt them for Peterborough) is fun (“This is Rushmere Community Centre, where I first performed the Downward Dog”) . I loved the music, especially the robbery song, and more of that and less of the slower jokes would help. But, as so often, the spirit of place and the general glee the Angles’ Christmas show carries it through. Even into this filthy January.



box office to 27 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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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 to 10 April
rating three






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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 to 7 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating


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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 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




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



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




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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OF KITH AND KIN Bush Theatre W12



It is a brave theme that Chris Thompson – a former social worker – has chosen. It is also a darkly, and accidentally, topical one since a court case is still running in  which the younger of two gay male partners is accused of violence towards their baby.  Parenthood and its stresses are perennial themes, but as the idea of family changes, it is only fair to imagine and depict ways in which the new structures – so full of optimism and liberal approval – can implode . As  easily as he old heterosexual model. Sometimes perhaps more so if – as transpires  here – there are generational gulfs and unresolved resentments in an age of fast change.



We  meet 46 year old solicitor Daniel (a saturnine, powerful James Lance) with his partner Ollie (Joshua Silver) who is fourteen years younger and a party-planner. They are having a larky baby-shower with Priya (Chetna Pandya) their heavily pregnant surrogate. They vogue their camp wedding dance, snog,  giggle that “Daddy” has had a sexual overtone for them, nudge nudge, so they’d better stick to “Dad” for the baby.  So far, so modern, so cosy, . Priya has a 15 year old son who the boys see a lot and mentor, and once bore a surrogate baby for her sister. All is set fair.
But the second scene (after an elegantly staged suggestion of birth, director Robert Hastie keeps things neat and fast here) is a furious courtroom battle. Priya has reneged and kept the baby and Daniel in particular is eloquently distraught.



I notice that two (male) reviewers complain that we aren’t told what her motivation is to do this harsh thing: but hang on – speaking as a female, I have no such problem. Go back to that opening scene and the point when the consensual cosiness collapses.  Daniel’s mother (“on a freedom pass from Woolwich”) arrives,  not homophobic exactly but feeling they’ll need more help than they admit. Ollie resents here commonness, insults her repeatedly for everything including buying a Christmas turkey at Iceland, and blames her for every hangup that Daniel has, because she was in an abusive relationship and his father threw him out at fifteen. Daniel, defending her against this onslaught, becomes physically violent in no time, and the whole thing becomes so ugly, so revelatory, so testosterone-charged and immature and dangerous, that no sane woman would let the chaps mind a hamster. Let alone a newborn, however donor-egged. Pandya draws the pregnant Priya assuredly and vividly, both here and in the final scene. In court she says nothing, while Joanna Bacon changes role to be a rather man-hating barrister taunting Daniel to more outbreaks of rage and Donna Berlin as a dryly funny family court judge slaps them both down.


There are lots of arguments winding through the play: not least Daniel’s fury that any “Peggy sue from Woolwich” can get pregnant and have full rights over her baby, yet a man must be humiliatingly questioned just to get his son..”. And in the final at, after Daniel has rather chillingly furiously wrecked the planned nursery, we veer off into the problem between the men, which is about generational change, and Ollie being all “entitled” because he never went through the days of stigma and deprivation before gay marriage.   His resentment at not having a beautiful “proposal story” from the tougher, older Daniel – who popped the question under duress, in Nandos – is both funny and telling.


The battle concludes, not entirely credibly. But what sticks in the mind is the abrupt, unrestrained tendency to male violence in Daniel. There’s a briefly sinister moment when Lance walks quietly into the immaculate nursery (we don’t know what happened in court, and who won) and plunges into the cot in rage, to hurl its contents around.
OK, there is no baby there. But if I was Priya, I’d have thought again.


box office 020 8743 5050 to 31 Nov
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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Not a good week for AA Milne. That “Goodbye Christopher Robin” film about his WW1 trauma comes out – then Philip Pullman sounds off scornfully about how he despises the coziness of the books – now old Otto in Judith Burnley’s play starts inveighing against the “sentimental, sanctimonious, false” stories. It’s an Eeyore chorus.



But help is at hand, as the cantankerous Jewish survivor’s German carer Lotte stands up for Pooh and Tigger, because when she was five in 1939, a sprig of the old (antifascist) nobility,  her English nanny read them to her. She liked how different it was, since with Poohsticks you can cheer for the understick. “In Germany children were indoctrinated to believe that to be German was superior. You had to win. In England they hung over that bridge and watched the natural forces, wind, water, shape, size and above all luck determine which stick won…sometimes you wanted the big one to win, sometimes the smaller”.


The play is a two-hander, set in a pleasant Belsize Park flat in 1991 just as the Wall has come down. , Clive Merrison is angry Otto, hating old age. He has made a good industrial career in England though his deepest love is his music. Lotte , who escaped East Germany when her family estate was cut by the border, has been living in Israel with her beloved Yakov (“the first Jew I eve met socially”) and in widowhood was hired by Otto’s Israeli daughter to be his carer, against his will.  And to make him sign he papers for the property reparations Germany was still making to Jews whose property was seized.


They both have scars of war. His are deep and obvious – Buchenwald , and a final traumatic reveal about his little sister’s horrid death. Here are subtler, both personal about her father’s execution, and more generally in her great cry of “There isn’t a monopoly on suffering. What did I lose? Everything. Lands, heritage, money. But most of all I lost the sense of what it was to be a German, a real civilized traditional German with real and honourable and lasting German values”. It is a fair point, rarely made.



Not that she breaks out often in emotion. Lotte is played with beautiful , intensely felt restraint and gentleness by Issy van Randwyck: beneath her necessary matronly fussing there are layers of sadness, expressed in stillness, half-smiles, and benign attention to the difficult, sometimes disinhibited old man. It is worth seeing for that performance alone; though Merrison is as good as ever, he has been handed an awkward task. The writing is sometimes clunky (there are near the start two unconscionably long and clumsy one-sided phone calls to negotiate, neither of them wholly necessary). Sometimes it is just psychologically odd: once, the fourth wall comes down for a soliloquy about sexual desire, and the most wrenching bit of his wartime backstory – which explains the title –  is unaccountably told not to Lotte but to us, with a strength of delivery which is a bit confusing since he is by then near his end.




There is also a continuity problem, in that we know he was interned as an enemy alien in 1939 and never saw his family again, yet somehow he has vivid knowledge of their final night, later. Maybe I missed a line, but it is not the sort of thing one should – at such a point and on such a theme – be worrying about. Making you do it is a structural flaw.


Indeed often I had a  restless sense that there is a seriously good play trying to be born here and almost making it, and I hope another version will rise.   But von Randwyck’s performance, and the theme, were satisfying. The Jermyn , intimate and intense, has always been a good place for reigniting  history.


Box office 0207 287 2875
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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By ‘eck, luv! They Northern Broadsides, they weren’t hid behind t’mangle when they were handin’ out stair-rods!  Who’d be a mauping mardy-grouse, when that Barrie Rutter sets his cast a gabbling and jabbernecking fit t’jeggle a ticket price out o’yer. Even if you are just a harming  nanny-goat from t’South, fandangering shitehawks that you are, making a face like a ram’s clag, skewerin’ up yer eyes to t’caption screens when our Marlene speaks her mind…



Or, to put it another way, in the final days of the great Rutter’s leadership of Northern Broadsides he is directing and starring in Blake Morrison’s adaptation of Alain-René’s 18c satirical comedy Turcaret, and giving at least half the characters a Yorkshire argot so extreme that my husband – Yorkshire born and bred – rather suspected that a lot of it came straight out of the Old Amos column in The Dalesman. Or in some cases, possibly, the heads of Messrs. Blake and Rutter. Just sayin’.  If it wasn’t Northern Broadsides you’d accuse them of sending up t’North. Practically a hate-crime.  But done with love, fair enough.



At Bury St Edmunds, where we caught it early on the tour, it happened to be a caption-screen night. Maybe it always is. It wouldn’t be a half bad idea, especially when Jacqueline Naylor’s Marlene-the-housekeeper starts up in scene 1 and you wonder what language it’s in. There is more RP language, if not accent, from the heroine Rose – a susceptible widow (Sarah Jane Potts) — and from Rutter himself as the venal and lecherous bank manager Fuller, who lavishes rich gifts on her unaware that she passes the money on to the more presentable, r Teddy-boy-smooth quiffed Arthur, a gambler, and his gopher Jack. I rather took to Jos Vantyler as the cad.



An oddly pleasing double-vision will afflict any theatre scholar, though, because beneath the dialect and the 1920’s setting this is every inch a cynical 18c French comedy: stylized asides, obvious overhearings, capering entrances (people always first appear just as their name is mentioned). The characters are staunchly immune to development or reform, figures straight from commedia del’Arte and Punch &Judy. A simpering but deceitful lady, a rich adulterous banker, greedy handsome suitor, crafty servants, comedy farmer, deus-ex-machina bailiff, etc.



The cast play it that way, which sometimes feels jerky and tends to be psychologically un-engaging (that’s Moliereish comedy for you). But once you get used to that, the second half in particular is farcically entertaining. Rutter booms and blusters, Jim English as the farmer (“nazzled from lookin’ after t’tups since back-end”) finds love with an admirably tarty Sarah Parks as the mysterious Teresa, and Jack (Jordan Metcalfe) gets to run off with most of the money and his prostitute girlfriend (Kat Rose-Martin, even tartier). As he informs us in a final caper, , “A lad and a lass, we may not have class, But we’ll live as we want ter – now we’ve got brass!”


It’s an oddity, but by the end quite fun. And one always enjoys the sight of Barrie Rutter doing a curtain-class Charleston while still in handcuffs.


Touring Mouse wide
Touring. Rose Kingston next, then Newcastle under Lyme, Scarborough, York…

rating three

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Ibsen’s 1889 work, The Lady From the Sea has washed ashore at the Donmar in a new version written by Elinor Cook and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who next year will lead the Young Vic. Set in the 1950s on a Caribbean island the lady is Ellida : the wonderful Nikki Amuka-Bird. She is a lighthouse keeper’s daughter and second wife to the island’s physician: Finbar Lynch as Doctor Wangel. As contemporary audiences will readily diagnose, Ellida suffers from depression. Each morning she gets into the sea: leaving the water becomes a ‘catastrophe’, so she swims until she shivers and her teeth are chattering. It’s an unhappy household. Ellida’s stepdaughter Bolette dreams of leaving the island to fulfil her academic potential, yet feels obliged to stay and look after her father. Bolette’s younger, brasher sister, Hilde, yearns for maternal attention. The girls’ father duly spends much of his time at his surgery, avoiding confrontation with his increasingly troubled wife.




On their island, Ellida and her stepdaughters are trapped, surrounded by a sea of masculinity. The affable Doctor Wangel enlists another man to help heal his ailing wife, the war-veteran Arnholm (Tom McKay). He immediately sets about attempting to seduce his former pupil, Bolette, half his age. For comic-relief, Johnny Holden’s Lyngstrand is a sickly and awkward sculptor who has delusions of going to New York to find fame and fortune. He informs us that a good wife is merely a reflection of an even better husband, and learns her talents from him, by osmosis. It is Ibsen’s prescience that is the most fascinating aspect here. At a time when we are still only beginning to uncover the extent of toxic masculinity in present-day society – this century- old plot, with men assertively controlling and manipulative to each woman’s detriment, feels remarkably current.




Tom Scutt’s set is sparse but effective, white paint flaking off of wooden boards and a large pool of water filled with coral-coated rocks. It is well used, particularly with the rather beautiful effect of mushrooming clouds of sand whenever the cast step into the water. But when Ellida’s former lover appears, and she is torn between him and her husband, the mood is tainted by the staging here. Each appearance of ‘The Stranger’ prompts dark lighting and ominous music – as if the intrigue surrounding this character is more important than her mental state. It was rather a distraction.



Amuka-Bird is captivating, and Ellie Bamber as Hilde and Helena Wilson as Bolette are wonderful as the daughters, their strength, intelligence and humour tempered with the fragility of living in a world owned by men.
It’s a well put-together and impressive performance of a lesser-known Ibsen play:. Less shocking than in the 1880s, but as relevant as ever.


Box Office – 020 3282 3808 to 2 December

RATING  THREE   3 Meece Rating

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HEISENBERG : the Uncertainty Principle Wyndhams, WC1



A quick quantum-mechanics lesson (though this is not a play about science). The Heisenberg principle asserts that there is a limit to knowing what will happen to the position of a particle, even if you know its momentum. As a physicist explains in the programme, “vagueness is built into is simply now knowable”. The author Simon Stephens adds the metaphor of music, in which we cannot know which note comes next. Surprise is good. Uncertainty is life. OK?



Stephens’ own work, knotty and perverse, is rarely as universally loved as his brilliant adaptations like A Dolls House and that Dog In The Night Time. This one has been received with respect, but it was hard to help feeling that this 80 minute two-hander represents one of those cases where an immensity of theatrical talent gets heaped on a work so weightless that it would crumble to dust without that exoskeleton of high craft and sincerity.



For here are two fine-tuned and beautiful actors of great soul, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff; add the marvellous director Marianne Elliott, the abstract design beauty of. Bunny Christie’s set, marvels of atmospheric lighting (Paule Constable) and smooth stage engineering which can pop up and vanish pieces of furniture to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Add the reassuring pretensions  of theoretical  physics and you have a real chin-stroker, blaring “Important! Seminal!” at you and daring you to contradict it.



It is a sort of love story: absurdist and asymmetric. It begins when – I suppose like particles colliding – blonde American Georgie kisses a total stranger on the back of his neck at st Pancras . She is 37 and claims to be an Ottolenghi waitress (Hmm. Very Islington) but is a school secretary. He is 75 , a Bach-loving butcher who likes his job because he enjoys how that animals fit together with “seams”.  A horrid memory arose of this author’s’ “Morning” at Edinburgh, all murderous teenagers prodding a flyblown corpse and snarling ““All music is shit and all art is shit and all television is shit and all sport is shit…there is only terror. There is no hope”. For a while I feared that he was going to dismember her.



But no. The pair sleep together, rather beautifully choreographed (the movement is dreamlike, slo-mo, graceful). She complains about his fridge and asks him for £15k to find her son in New Jersey. At which point one’s inner pedant protests that you can get a NorwegianAir  return via Reykjavik for £700 quid , and airbnb for ages on a thousand, so it’s a bit steep. But his response, after a while, has grace. Unlikely grace, but Cranham can make you believe anything.



For all the plonking significance it’s the good old two-lonely-people-odd-couple tale, which as rom-com writers know depends on charm. This Cranham bestows on his elderly character with ease; but Anne-Marie Duff is given a near-impossible job finding it in hers.  Georgie is a toxic variant on the kooky-yet-troubled heroine from Hepburn to Goldie Hawn, only more annoying. She is what the Germans beautifully call an ich-bin-so – every rudeness airily dismissed with “It’s just something that I do” “I’m like that” and a flirty, hipswivelly “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”.  Only Duff’s ability to drill down to the sincerity of pain and damage finally redeems her. And then only just.

For the relationship does, in the end, become touching. Though old Alex’s devotion – enchantingly expressed by the glorious Cranham in the best and final speech – depends more on her sexual availability than a feminist would like. The idea that a young woman would adore “clumsy” sex with an old man wrinkled “like Europe” is a bit Woody Allen for my taste. And it is a pity: a similar Heisenberg collision between our hero and someone less physically foxy might be, in the end, more moving.




box office 0844 482 5120
to 6 jan

rating three  3 Meece Rating


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While there are many excellent reasons to read Virgil’s Aeneid from cover to cover, more than once, the fourth book of the great Roman epic (Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide) has perhaps inspired more artistic reactions than the whole of the rest of the poem put together in art, music, and literature. Christopher Marlowe’s beautifully detailed, erudite retelling of Dido’s fatal passion draws on Aeneid Book 1 as well as the seminal Book 4, plus Ovid’s moving and often witty Heroides, to produce a sensitive, rounded love story powered throughout by original classical sources, all gleaming with the fresh, lyrically romantic firepower of Marlowe’s verse. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, where his mother Venus decides it would be terribly helpful if Dido were to fall in love with him, just so she can get his ships mended in order to convey the hero on to Italy, where fate requires his presence. However, these self-serving immortal wiles provoke a storm of raw human emotions which, when finally thwarted by an unmoved destiny, ensures no one survives intact (and many don’t survive at all: we end up with a positive heap of bodies on stage).

Director Kimberley Sykes opens proceedings with a cruel party on Olympus, the gods behaving (or misbehaving) with callous disregard for themselves and one another to brash music which veers between deconstructed jazz and rock guitar. While we get off to a literally jarring note, one lovely touch is that the gods can conjure, adjust or extinguish music throughout with a swirl of their fingers, and can manipulate light in the same way. The stage is filled with grey sand, projecting far out into the audience, while a recessed section at the back soon shows us, through sheets of lashing rain, Aeneas’ sailors lit by flashes of lightning as they cling to ropes. Ti Green’s elegant, functional design thus provides plenty of open playing space, as well as opportunities for magically beautiful effects with light (sometimes combined with water) by Ciaran Bagnall. While the gods are in contemporary evening gear (Venus gets sparkly purple trainers and a leopardskin coat for her Tyrian huntress disguise), mortal costumes look generally classical, with the Carthaginians in loose, flowing gowns with large African prints, which they lend to the ragged Trojans as an early sign of friendship.

The cast are not smooth, but we see truly impressive central performances from Sandy Grierson as a thrillingly emotional, endlessly pessimistic Aeneas and Chipo Chung as a poised, noble and yet fragile Dido, whose descent into desperate, doubt-riven passion is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Tom McCall is nicely brisk and determined as Achates, Aeneas’ trusted (and ever practical) companion at arms, and Amber James is a poignantly cheerful Anna, whose heartwarming smile becomes more fixed as her own dreams and plans fall by the wayside. Bridgitta Roy’s sashaying, vengeful Juno and Ellie Beaven’s manipulative, needy Venus balance each other nicely. Sykes requires incessant striding around the stage and lots of blokeishly tactile physicality from her cast, which can irritate after a while, but energy levels stay generously high. When her characters are allowed to employ stillness, particularly in the tragic final scenes, a new intensity is achieved. Still, I found my tears came at the beginning: Aeneas’ cry of anguish to his disguised mother as she leaves him once again, a line I can’t read in Latin without crying either.


Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

At the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01789 403 493

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CORIOLANUS RSC, Stratford Upon Avon


Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.


Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM John Peel Arts Centre, IP14


In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.

However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.

Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and calm honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.


Touring: 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130) and 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham ( – charity performance) 

Rating: Three (and a rural outing for the Musicals Mouse)3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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It is dark. An earth floor, plank stable door ,  murky pond. Sometimes a candle is lit, but Soutra Gilmour’s set remains tenebrous , primitive. A woman sits plucking a chicken, legs apart, with sullen concentration . A man comes and throws her to the ground for sex so urgent you wonder if it is rape. But no, they talk amicably, if in short rather contemptuous basic sentences. “I”m not a field” she says. He demurs, says she is LIKE a field, a fertile one he likes, flat and wet. She says she is not because after all, “the moon is like cheese, but it’s not IT”.



We are in some indeterminate, pre-industrial rural village society. Both are groping for more expressive language, words for things. “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow. The bird flies. The rabbit runs” she says, then looking upward “the run?” The matter of God – indeterminate, universal – comes up soon. And alongside the primal , slowly awakening urge for words and knowledge in the woman, so do still more basic conflicts and dark deeds.




The fierce Yael Farber gave us a profound, five-star, smoky dark and physically intense Crucible at the Old Vic. It is not surprising that this director’s vision should now be drawn to David Harrower’s uncompromising, superstitious primitive portrait. But Miller’s language is poetic and his Salem setting precise. This is harder work to appreciate: gruelling, indeed even at 90 minutes and even with a blazingly effective, courageous and committed performance by Judith Roddy as the woman. She is, we gradually see, married to the ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke) and envious of his love of his horses, notably his pregnant mare. He sends her to drag their sacks of grain to the mill, where the widowed Miller (Matt Ryan) is feared and disliked for his “magic” tendency to read and his ownership of an actual pen (“Them’s an evil stick!” cries the woman).




She fears, defies him, says she “lives under a different sky” and defends her village world: all in short, harsh, limited sentences. But the fascination grows, and back with William her dreams (hauntingly staged) fill with visions of his sprinkling the fine flour onto her heaving body. There is an obvious metaphor, I think: crude basic grain is refined by the miller’s hard stone into something finer, just as her thoughts refine. In one of the play’s few rhetorical moments she begins to write: “This is me. I live now. Others have, more will. God put me here..each day I want to know more”. But the new knowledge, as in Eden, leads to a dramatic sin. Again, compellingly staged.It’s a very large millstone.




But I would be lying if I said that it made the time fly by. The indeterminate setting hampers it: when, where are these people? How evolved is their religion, with all this talk of God? William has horses, not oxen, which puts them into the 18th century at least, but the ceremony of rolling a new millstone seems importantly primitive. They appear to have a glass milk bottle, the Miller has books on shelves, and the woman rather startlingly beneath her coarse homespun robe has a neat modern bra and pants. The unclear setting kept bothering me, making the simple speech seem mannered. Once the words “Cold Comfort Farm” ran through my mind.



But its meaning and message about the birth of language and awakening of choice may move some deeply, and it was hailed as a classic in its original Traverse production. The cast are very fine , and Farber and Gilmour can certainly build an atmosphere: that it was one I was glad to get out of may reflect more on me than them.



Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 7 October
rating  three   3 Meece Rating
Principal Sponsor: Barclays

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ARMIDE Arcola, E8


If you fancy being entertained like a French king, head to Grimeborn for Lully’s Armide. Lully’s artistic monopoly over French opera lasted well beyond his death (thanks to some dastardly patenting, as the excellent programme notes explain): he took full advantage of his pre-eminent position musically, as well as financially, creating opera for Louis XIV of rapturous, languorous beauty, and this is one of his finest works, though poignantly one the king refused to see after a scandal drove Lully from Versailles. An anguished, passionate story, it depicts the doomed love of the proud Muslim warrior princess Armide (a beautifully acted Rosemary Carlton-Willis) for the Christian knight Renaud (sweet-toned tenor and capable actor Guy Withers), who alone among men is impervious to her charms, his virtue and valour equally unassailable. Armide, who is also a sorceress, conjures demons from Hell to enslave Renaud to her will with false desire, but finds she cannot master her own infatuation, and worse, finds she has no genuine will to do so. When her enchantments are eventually broken, and Renaud escapes with his heart intact, Armide’s despair and fury cause her to destroy her own palace, in the vain hope that her unrequited passion will also be buried with it.

Directing both stage and music is talented Brazilian baritone Marcio da Silva, who also plays an erotically charged La Haine (the demon of hate, resplendent in a blood-red suit), gives luscious strength to choruses with his sumptuously smooth, tenderly expressive voice, and represents a scattering of other characters, some silent. This is a production whose cast all work hard, often doubling roles, which can become disorientating; even our conductor (Matthew Morgan) breaks into song in the final act, standing on the platform above the main Arcola stage with his small band of skilled musicians (harpsichord and baroque guitar adding credible period dimensions to the warm, highly wrought score, sung in French with English surtitles projected on three sides of the theatre).

The set is simple, with a red silken dais in the centre of the stage used alternately as the pedestal of a throne, a bed, or a meadow where knights wander to meet temptation. Long candelabra at the end of this dais hold the candles which come to represent Armide’s spells, ignited and snuffed out at key points in the action, and two chairs compose the rest of our scenery. Costumes are contemporary but timeless, with Armide and her handmaidens dressed in long, metallic evening gowns recalling classical drapery and an idea of burnished armour, while Hell is a cocktail party, judging from the female demons’ glittery dresses. Knights and prisoners appear variously in black, or white, shirts and trousers; I couldn’t quite trace the narrative logic of the colour changes here, nor understand the reasoning behind the widespread huge, dark and smudgy eye makeup, and this production doesn’t altogether live up to the high expectations it creates. Da Silva’s vision is ambitious, and ought to work brilliantly; his lean, minimalist concept is ideal for this space, and despite lifting the instrumentalists up high and facing the conductor away from the singers, timing only rarely gets hazy. The music is often beautiful, with magical unaccompanied choruses, a generally capable, passionate central performance from Carlton-Willis as Armide, and charismatic contributions from da Silva throughout; but poorer, less confident acting and singing in the smaller roles tend to puncture our conviction just when we need it most.


Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 12 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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APOLOGIA Trafalgar Studios SW1





Originally debuting eight years ago at the Bush Theatre, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is a story of intergenerational conflict. Matriarch Kristin (Stockard Channing) squares off against her sons’ partners over the course of an evening. After Brexit and a contentious general election, Jamie Lloyd’s revival lands at a time of intense relevancy, as millennials and baby boomers engage in their own game of political civil war.



But despite being slickly designed, Campbell’s script can’t hold the scope of this promising parallel. Set in the great theatrical tradition of the disastrous dinner party, It is a stimulating, but limp, insight into the choices three women have made in the face of social and economic adversity. His cast of characters is cleverly composed, forcing a proverbial battlefield where they can’t help but question each other’s political and personal ideologies.



Campbell chooses simultaneously to admonish and sympathise with their perspectives. bringing weight to his exploration of the complex web of political movements that inform identity. So it serves quite nicely as a companion piece to his breakout hit The Pride, which contrasted the closeted gay lives of the Fifties with the liberated but melancholic present.



However, much of the play seems a bit of a wasted opportunity. He never harnesses a strong enough perspective, making it feel somewhat inconsequential, and radically affecting the pace. It explodes in an electrifying, but unearned, denouement at the end of the first act, whilst the second act ponders slowly into an overlong conclusion. The characters never seem to learn anything, robbing the piece of much needed tension.



The actors give their all. The definitive highlight is Channing, one of the masters of her craft. She has a superb understanding of the caustic matriarch Kristin: the gaze of her powerful large eyes as acerbic as Campbell’s words, and also elicits great sympathy for the character’s questionable motivations. She is greatly supported by her two foils: soap star Claire (Freema Agyeman) and religious physiotherapist Trudi (Laura Carmichael). Agyeman has a magnetic presence, and is thoroughly convincing in communicating Claire’s artistic sacrifices for financial survival. Carmichael demonstrates fine comic timing, while seamlessly slipping more vulnerable moments. Desmond Barrit delivers a delectable performance, though his character is made somewhat redundant by being only there to administer campy one liners. Joseph Millson in his dual role as the two brothers distinguishes between lost soul Simon and banker Peter so effectively that my companion thought they were two different people.



Soutra Gilmour’s production design is spectacular, an oversized picture frame, vivid use of colour giving every scene a Hockney quality; Jon Clark’s lighting is similarly effective.


BOX OFFICE  0844 871 7632   to 18 nov

rating  three  .   LP seeing this week, might add reflections from Channing’s generation!3 Meece Rating

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The poems which inspired the mysterious song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared first appeared anonymously published in a newspaper in May 1916. They immediately caught the eye of composer Leos Janáček, who completed this song cycle by 1920. The poems, eventually attributed to Ozef Kalda, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a gipsy girl, and decides to abandon his family and village in order to follow her, and their child. Or, less romantically, it actually tells the story of a man who is consumed by a sexual passion for a gipsy girl, which she encourages him to gratify; when pregnancy inevitably results, he is horrified, and actively considers putting her aside before finally realising he has created a responsibility which he now needs to fulfil, and leaves the shelter of his family on the basis that he feels so socially blighted by his association with her that to marry her, and bring her into his community, would be unthinkable, so departure – or disappearance – is the only option.

The way he repeatedly castigates his supposed “love”, thanks to her race, makes it hard to believe there’s any true love in this sordid story: though the poetry (here sung in a very fine English translation by Seamus Heaney) is coated with sensuality, obsessing constantly about the girl’s physical beauty, and the extent of his desire for her, there’s no sense of any deeper or more profound personal connection. Janáček’s score is disorientatingly beautiful, and Shadwell Opera produce a gorgeous musical account, with a passionate piano accompaniment from Matthew Fletcher, and fine singing from our two principals (tenor Sam Furness and mezzo Angharad Lyddon) and chorus.

Director Jack Furness’ asylum-centre setting plays with our preconceptions from the start: although those girls seeking asylum from their former countries (all listed, with photos, on a large whiteboard) may be said to have already “disappeared” from their families and friends at home, it is Sam Furness’ character, an employee in the asylum centre, who is due to disappear. The gipsy Zefka (played with poise and charm by honey-voiced mezzo Angharad Lyddon) is one of his clients, creating a modern taboo against their subsequent love, but inadvertently throwing his patent hatred of gipsies into ever more confusing relief: we wonder how he ever got this job. Sam Furness, his strong tenor often feeling too large for this small space, sings with dewy-eyed intensity into a camera over his laptop screen, which projects his “video diary entries” onto the whiteboard behind; we wonder who else is watching, as his confessions steadily amount to professional suicide.

In fact, Jack Furness’s directoral concept, though visually arresting (diary projections are occasionally interspersed with shots of wild woods, or the gipsy girl’s eyes), creates more barriers than narrative aids for the audience: a sexist, racist story of objectification doesn’t survive well in a modern context (and for a modern audience) which, in real terms, wouldn’t tolerate any of those positions. The impressionistic majesty of the score makes this song cycle, indubitably, a piece worth hearing; but its unappetising core would be better hidden than highlighted, not least because it no longer makes human sense to us.


Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 5 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating


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DESSERT Southwark Playhouse SE1



Piquant idea, to open Oliver Cotton’s play about financial inequality in BBC Salary Embarrassment Week.  While the inequity between multi-million popinjays and mere 149k losers in the weird world of showbiz is perhaps not especially  worth angsting about, there were nice resonances.


For it’s a good subject: Cotton is having a spirited pop at the Philip Green fatcat amassers of money, and especially the asset-strippers who leave investors broke like the antihero Hugh – who is Michael Simkins, always a treat. Trevor Nunn’s production (so soon after his latest Rattigan) wins another lovely drawing-room-play design – all Farrow& Ballish with old masters which are part of the plot tastefully framed in elegant white mouldings against fashionably duckshit-green walls. At a selfconsciously posh dinner table we meet two couples – Hugh and lady Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) entertaining American friends, who are played by Stuart Milligan and Teresa Banham with a nice annoying edge. They are contacts in the murky world of enormous investments . Milligan has less to do, but as the trophy-wife Meredith, Ms Banham navigates hilariously from being a defiant ignorama droning on about some ridiculous Blairish spiritual healing in South America, through a brief hysteria to display in the crisis an unexpected rather likeable solidity. Which is more than can be said for Graham Turner, who does a splendid turn as a burnt-out City maths genius turned herb-cookery nut and butler. He has become Hugh’s loyal factotum and has, as it turns out, a remarkable gift for making disasters even worse.




For a disaster is what the evening rapidly becomes. One hesitates to offer spoilers, but you should at least know that “Dessert” is a joke: they never get to the pudding because a young man in camo gear breaks in with a gun to lecture them on the evils of undeserved wealth (desert, geddit?) .  He has come make threats and demands which fatcat Hugh (Simkins rather splendidly drawing a tiny bit of sympathy from some of us) won’t meet.




It certainly keeps you watching, Nunn’s direction is sharp, and gunshots and other surprises come just when you aren’t quite expecting them. But Cotton’s play has one serious flaw: it puts an unreasonable weight on the tough young intruder Eddie, played as well as he could be by Stephen Hagan. It is an unusual, if not incredible, portrait of a self-educated, art-fancying, justice-seeking young soldier; but it is plain unfair to bestow such immense, Guardian-leader sprawls of angry egalitarian and ethical argument on one character. There is – certainly at first – far too little interruption and dialogue with the others to sharpen it. Eddie, frankly, goes on and on in a way few characters have been allowed since the days of George Bernard Shaw. It slows the play and detaches you.




With some cuts, it could be sharp indeed. And is certainly topical. And Eddie is morally quite right. But it’s not good being right if you’re boring, and even a Rylance would be hard put to make some of the character’s scenes anything else. Cotton has done this ranting before, in DAYTONA: looking back, I notice I wrote about “long, emotionally charged narrative monologues demanding from the other [cast members] the equally difficult art of listening and reacting.” But I did enjoy the dénouement. I hope for more Cotton, because he’s a great plot-maker. All it needs is a bit less of the GBS speechifying .



box office 0207 407 0234
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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YANK! Charing Cross Theatre, SW1




Arriving at the Charing Cross Theatre this weekend, in the wake of London’s Pride weekend, is this transfer from the enterprising new Hope Mill Theatre.Inspired by the musical traditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Yank! was written by Joseph and David Zellnik: in this Pride week it tells a tale those veterans could not have dared to: the story of Stu and Mitch, two soldiers who fall in love whilst in the US Army. Dressed in the drag of the old MGM musicals Yank! becomes both a homage to 1940’s Hollywood glamour and a testament to the bravery of the gay American men and women who fought on the front lines during World War II.



It’s a fascinating concept: it feels as though this is a lost musical from the era’s canon, recovered and reinserted into history. This seems to be exactly the Zellnik Brothers aim: they have reclaimed a pivotal moment of gay history which has been lost to the record, by using the very iconography with which the gay identity found itself.



However, the execution seems slightly unfocused. Incorporating an overabundance of themes, David Zellnik’s book never concentrates on the beats it truly wants to explore, playing erratically with plots and motifs, not awarding the themes the complexity they deserve. There is too much extraneous fluff built into it, which combined with some of the show’s anachronistic humour muddies what it has to say about sexuality and gender.



This extends to his characters, which are mostly stereotypical tropes, many of whom who do little to serve the narrative. The two lovers are very much of the masculine protector/feminine protected type seen in a lot of queer media, and despite the World War II setting that feels a little tired. This is particularly a shame, as the play makes it clear that this is a crucial moment of history where the concepts of gender and sexuality are being discovered, so it seems somewhat of a missed opportunity.



This is to not slight the performances, which are all exceptional. Scott Hunter is incredibly affecting as Stu, masterfully guiding his character’s subtle transition from nervous youngster to brave freedom fighter. He is supported wonderfully by Andy Coxon’s Mitch (whose honeyed voice is nothing short of excellent), who excellently conveys his character’s internal struggle with the expectations of masculinity, and Chris Kiely’s Artie, who gives the show a much needed comic flourish.



However, best in show is Sarah-Louise Young, whose smoky vocals and bold character turns makes her a wonderful ode to both the struggle of women throughout the war and the glamorous old Hollywood starlets who occupy queer iconography to this day. All of the company’s tight vocals and choreography are up to any West End performer’s: it’s just that some of the characters get lost in the mix.



But this is definitely worth seeing, and a great insight into American queer culture during the Second World War. The Zellnik brothers produce a score of fantastic tunes, conveying both the vibrant hope and suffocating loss of the era. Victoria Hinton’s set uses the space well, and has a wonderful sliding door element revealing a wide array of characters, musicians or obstacles, meaning you never know what awaits our protagonists next. Particularly fantastic is Aaron J. Dootson’s lighting design, a wonderful spectrum of scenes and moods, all the way from the horror of war to the glamour of the silver screen.


So Yank! is definitely a much-needed, and charming, ode to the courage of these lost heroes – it just gets a little distracted along the way.



box office 08444 930 650 to 19 August
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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GLORIA Hampstead, NW3




There are three acts: the first long, expressing an enervatingly pointless world and ending in a sharp shock. The second is competitively cynical and rises to another kind of shock, the sort with disgust in it. The last is shorter still, offering a nicely vicious resolution. Some characters in the first act return as new but related people; others as their psychologically damaged selves, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere . This play won Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins a Pulitzer last year: it is clever and angry, though its rage is overlaid with a detachment reminiscent of Neil Simon: a sense of the author standing back with “Lord, what fools these mortals be” rather than suffering alongside them.



It is also, in its theme, horribly topical when Britain has just suffered four murderous shocks and must accept that we may see parallels to the devil’s-dance of aftermath that this play demonstrates. For Jacobs-Jenkins’ theme is “the commodification of the witness or victim: the marketability of the survivor-story. We do not initially know this: the first scenes, set in the junior assistants’ cubicles of a glossy magazine office , are intermittently funny, dense with embittered office banter by a group of millennials. They seem to be focusing on quite other things. Perhaps generational rivalry – Kae Alexander is appositely recognizable as the fashion-blogging, brittle Kendra ranting against bed-blocking babyboomers; so is Colin Morgan as Dean, who yearns to get the hell out and pen a memoir of his so far uneventful life. Bayo Gbadamosi as the still younger intern looks on, and is darkly suspected of wanting to get their jobs. Fury rises further in the young at the news that an invisible older writer is getting the gig of doing a profile of a dead pop star of their era. Meanwhile a comparative veteran fact-checker has a sort of existential breakdown, and the unpopular office geek dashes through, glaring.
The point, nicely made, is that in this ‘glamorous’ job, all the interesting power stuff is always happening in another room. We all remember the feeling.

Then comes the disaster. Never mind what. The succeeding acts move us by stages from New York to LA, from real fear and facts to the stage where it matters more who gets their account in print most lucratively, and whether there’s a mini-series in it. And, indeed, how much the publishing industry cares who was actually in the room, once “great angles” , “personal catharsis” and “beautifully written” accounts are weighed up.




This distortion happens. There is no point hoping that right now, out in our own city, there are not publishers and film-makers sniffing with careful, hopeful tact and chequebooks around the survivors of Grenfell Tower and the London and Manchester attacks.



Michael Longhurst’s production is not quite perfect, or not yet. Kendra’s brittle lines in the first act sometimes defy full comprehensibity to the untuned ear, though Kae Alexander gets the hair-flicking horror of her character absolutely pat. Some scenes could be trimmed down. But it is fascinating and timely, and sometimes horribly funny (the IT guy in the final scene is pure joy). And of the performances, Bo Poraj’s and and Morgan’s in particular stand out as fully-inhabited and memorably troubling. Not every survivor has a story he wants to tell in public, or should be encouraged to.



box office 020 7722 9301 to 22 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating


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This cheerfully macabre celebration of Charles Addams’ famous 1930’s cartoon is off on tour: link below. I saw one of the last shows in its opening Wimbledon week, and judging by the larky atmosphere of both audience and cast the cast are having enough fun to storm very happily round the country. The moment you see Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in a bald wig and banjo, dancing in a graveyard to rouse his random ancestors – a chorus who turn out to be Tudor, Japanese, and everything between – you are swept along in its rather magnificently silly, cobwebby train.
To be honest, the story is weak (it’s basically meet-the-parents, young Wednesday wants to marry a preppy muggle) and the music is – well, it just feels like a musical. Any musical. Only one song stands out, a beautiful “Death is just around the corner” by Morticia. But the general jollity of the evening is unarguable.

Matthew White directs this UK version: the book is by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, the lyrics and music by Andrew Lippa. Some lines are lovely in-jokes “Trapped! Like a corpse in the ground. Trapped! Like theatre in the round..” and there are some neat jokes about New York – they live in Central Park – and of course about Trump. And, of course, the dark Addamsy jokes. When the parents of the fiancé arrive (Charlotte Page daintily funny as the wife) the question “Do you have a little girls’ room?” is answered “We used to, but we let them all go”.The zombie butler Lurch is Dickon Gough, whose every move sparks gurgles of laughter;



Another focus is on the flirtatious and argumentative marriage of Gomez and Morticia – she a sinuous Samantha Womack, he a sharply comic Cameron Blakely (“Darkness and grief and unspeakable sorrow” – “Ooh I love it when you talk dirty!”. She dreams of Paris, where she wants to see the sewers. Uncle Fester has a sentimental love song to the moon, who is his ideal partner since a quarter of a million miles away is a good distance for romance: Les Dennis is the one you most warm to, and the most rounded romantic character. Which, for a chap playing ““a fat bald man of indeterminate sexuality” up against the gorgeous Womack and Carrie Hope Fletcher’s beguilding Wednesday, is not a bad result. The mainly young audience adored it. The final corpsy chorus “look into the dark and smile” does bring on that smile.

box office
Touring nationwide till 4 November
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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London is  getting used to Ivo van Hove of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. But his tremendous A View from The Bridge (in a bleak arena)  and his striking NT Hedda (in a bleak white room) were written as plays: whereas one of his great tastes  as a director is adapting film screenplays. Not of the bubblegum family-fun variety, perish the thought: he best likes Visconti. Though the plays are made without re- watching or copying the original’s look and interpretation: rather his idea is to go right back to the screenplay and suck out the essence of it. If tonight is anything to go by, he is actually better with the comparative discipline enforced by stage plays.

But play or movie, the van Hove trademark fascination is with pressure. Put humans under increasing emotional stress and watch them wince, resist, dent and finally blow up: Eddie Carbone with a knife, Hedda with a gun. Here it’s Gino with a lorry,   plus a rubbish-hurling rage from his illicit lover Hanna. The various crises are accompanied by  exceedingly loud – and I fear rather clunkingly  obvious – music: Traviata for forbidden love, hard-rock for a brawl, French chanson for Hannah  throwing dustbins around, Woody Guthrie for Gino running away. Plus a lot of random sinister  angel choirs and some ominous silences. Especially early on, when distant cats miaow and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) goes out and shoots them seven times. With all this racket, it is as well that the cast are heavily miked.

This tale, a  timeless one , requires the drifter Gino, an impoverished ex-soldier,  to be as the press release promises  “powerful and graceful as a puma”. So that’s a case for casting Jude Law, and puma-like indeed  he is.   Add a bored young wife in a rough roadhouse, a choleric older husband who takes Gino in to mend his lorry, and we are set for  passion and murder , remorse and disillusion and  classic betrayal and the whole stage suddenly turning into a lot of crashing waves of doom. Projections remind us of its film origins more than once: not least the remarkably sensual giant close-ups  of the skin-on-skin moments.

True to form, van Hove attempts no period or Italian  setting, but in the great bleak stage gives us a  block bar counter, a treadmill insert for Gino to keep trying to run away on, and a bath for Hannah to strip off into, and for the men to shave at in a combative manner. Oh, and  hanging overhead, ready to emit sparks, deafening engine noises and a cataclysmic oil leak , there’s a whole lorry engine which travels up and down on wires. Looming over them. The lorry is in the plot, but one darkly suspects that its suspension overhead has something symbolic to do with Sophoclean nemesis.
Halina Reijn is good as the tempestuous, changeably cautious love object, and van Aschat as Joseph convincingly patronises his wife and  belts out the Di Provenza bass aria from La Traviata shortly before getting lorry-murdered.   An  unusually helpful corpse, he then has to mop up the oil-leak mess while the guilty pair scrub one anothers’ beautiful backs. I think that’s symbolic too.

But to be honest, for all the aesthetics, the sustained Van-Hovery is as tiresome as it is inventive. So the 105-minute evening stands or falls on Jude Law alone. Fortunately, he is magnificent, and somehow snatches from the overweening directorial pretensions a genuinely felt performance of young Gino’s passion, poverty, damaged emotional confusion, baffled remorse and mournful yearning for the simplicities of the road. From his first seductive swaggering entrance, playing the mouth organ rather badly, to the obsessive need and rage and tragic grandeur of his fate Law moves through the slow, portentous interpretation like an actual human being, restrained and strong and heartfelt. Two of the mice are for him alone.



Box Office : to 20 may
then touring Vienna, Amsterdam, Luxembourg
NT Live in cinemas Thurs 11 May

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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WHISPER HOUSE The Other Palace SW1


“When all the world’s at war, it’s better to be dead”. Pallid pessimistic ghosts roam around a lonely Maine lighthouse in WW2, with heaving sepia seas behind (Mark Holthusen’s projections are ace, atmospheric, and so is Andrew W Riley’s circular pit of a set). The two disaffected phantoms roam around  singing , between the two halves of the band, and serve as narrators, when not looming over the other dramatis personae like singing Dementors, or luring  the young hero Christopher onto the causeway to drown.

He is a doughty child (a fine debut on press night for Stanley Jarvis, sharing the role with Fisher Costello-Rose) . He has lost his airman father, his Mum is in an asylum after trying to drown herself, so he is sent to live in the lighthouse with his curmudgeonly club-footed Aunt Lily who “isn’t used to children ” . She has a dark sad secret sin in her past which the ghosts understand daily resent, and puts cod liver oil in the boy’s  porridge. The ghosts have it in for him too,  and howl in his little ears in his bed as the seagulls shriek and the waves roar, Gothically moaning in mid-market rock “If this doesn’t terrify you, it should”.


So here’s a rock-opera cross between Turn of The Screw and Silas Marner, with – as it turns out – a dash of The Go-Between. For little Christopher is a patriot, determined to do his duty and tell inconvenient truths to the simple hearted sheriff . Which is awkward, since Lily”s longtime assistant and friend is a tall, kindly Mr Yasuhiro, who before long she is ordered to give up as a potential spy an enemy alien. The friendship between the pair – gentle giant Nicholas Goh beautifully restrained, and Dianne Pilkington, gruff and enduring – is the psychologically solid anchor of the story, though needs more work in the script.
The plot thickens,  quite satisfyingly, before a dramatic U- boat bombing, fight, ghost-drowning in smoke, and a resolution happy enough to make is safe enough to bring any child old enough to see Goodnight Mr Tom.  Actually, for an early taste of rock musicals, it’d be ideal.  Tickets go down to £ 15.



That it is here at all is encouraging.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, well on a roll after the smashing School Of Rock – which he opens in workshop form – has taken over the former St James as a crucible for experimenting with new musicals, pocket shows which might grow, and unreviewed experiments. This one is more finished, and up for review, though interestingly its advertised 2 hrs 10 came in at under two hours: one suspects late cuts in Adam Lenson’s production. That makes for a briskly enjoyable evening, though the music is not particularly memorable, and themes recur in both tune and lyrics more than often enough.  The composer is Duncan Sheik, who hit awards with Sspring Awakening, the book and other lyrics by Kyle Jarrow , inspired by true wartime events and sharpened by Trumpian 21c xenophobia. There’s a ghoststory-within-a-ghoststory too, because our moaning phantoms were drowned in a yacht cursed by its owner “Solomon Snell, Ring the Bell, Too much trust is the road to Hell”. He got buried alive. Eeek.


Actually, It’s not a bad yarn, and top marks for not being a movie-echo. Needs more varied numbers, though, to develop the characters of Lily, Yasuhiro and the sheriff. Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are fabulous as the ghosts though, every bit as petulant, resentful, threatening and glamorous as one could ask.


box office 0844 264 2121 to 27 May
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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SEA FRET Old Red Lion, Islington


This substantial début play by Tallulah Brown hits an intriguing syncope with David Goodhart’s much-discussed definition of the UK tribes. Not left and right, not even just Brexit and Remain: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. The first are confident, mobile, probably graduates: their identity is rooted in their own achievements and portable abilities . The Somewheres, in contrast, draw their psychological strength and happiness from belonging to a community, a place, sometimes a trade (“I am a Durham miner. I am Yorkshire / Suffolk / East End” etc). Deracination or an overwhelming influx is a problem to them more than to Anywheres, who just float away and choose a home that suits. We all have elements of each, but there is a real clash.

In this play, two girls on an East Coast shore are childhood friends. Now (in a rather overlong first half) they are school-leavers having all-night beach raves, necking absinthe and sniggering about sex in the manner of girls thee years younger: their territory a half-submerged WW2 pillbox on the shingle, on which they have scrawled memories of childhood and teens. Ruby’s mother is long gone, her piratical father Jim complicit in her drug-dealing. Exams and the outer world mean nothing to her, as her passion is for home , the beach and fun in the moment. Whereas Lucy is an embryonic Anywhere, off to “uni”. Her middle-class mother Pam (here’s an invisible commuter Dad) is exasperatedly helping Jim in his protest against the Environment Agency’s decision to let that bit of beach go, and his clifftop house with it.



A summers-end rave ends in a boy overdosing, eating pebbles and ending in a coma (this has happened: I too live along that coast). At the same time Jim’s protest fails. The second act shows the girls’ social estrangement and Ruby’s obsessive – and guilty – use of her earnings to organize truckloads of spoil and rubble, Canute-like, for a private battle with erosion. That has happened too, at one famous point along our Suffolk coast.

“Loving where you live with every bone in your body has got to count for something” cries Ruby, aggressively furious at the public meeting. There is some lovely writing here, romantic about the bleak North Sea and its phosphorescent or stormy moods. Jim – who may owe a bit to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem – punctuates scenes with Shallow Brown, Lowlands Away and other sea songs in a properly thrilling folk voice (Philippe Spall is immensely watchable, and nicely subtle in his later un-Rooster capitulation to reality). He is terrific, but the necessary engine of the play is the troubled, determined Ruby (Lucy Carless).


It is a professional debut, and taken a bit too fast and garbled at first in the naturalistic teenage chatter. The author would also have done her a favour by making her less obnoxious in her sexual bragging, contempt for her friend’s ambition and shrugging at the overdosed boy. But Carless certainly scores a startling theatrical first when she hurls a tampon from under her PVC kilt to go skinny-dipping, and there is real, solid tragic feeling in the second act as she labours with her barricade and her conscience.



As Lucy Georgia Kerry is a good contrast, torn between maturity and a desire to be as sexily cool as Ruby; Karen Brooks is Pam, every fed-up commuter wife, having a credible salty exasperated friendship with Jim. Who knows really, that you can’t ever stop the sea and that great sections of our coast will vanish without it being anyone’s fault (he haltingly brings up an old Devon case, Hallsands, caused by a shipyard development but geologically completely different). It is Ruby, the passionate damaged child, who can accept neither erosion nor adulthood. That’s what you leave remembering.


box office to 22 April
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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Here’s the god Dionysius, deprived of his Noel-Coward smoking jacket and unconvincingly disguised as Heracles in a lion skin. He’s having a panic attack on a ferry across the Styx while a chorus of marauding frogs sings a menacing staccato and Charon the ferryman sleeps off a spliff. The frogs represent apathetic conformity – “Brek-kek-kek-kek! Brek-kek-kek-kek Whaddya care the world’s a wreck? Leave ’em alone, send ’em a check, Sit in the sun and what the heck?”. But as the God of theatre our hero is on a quest to bring back a great playwright – George BErnard Shaw of all people – to improve the world with questioning.
There are many fingers in this mad frog pie. Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek playwright who wrote, for the feast of Lenaia, about a journey into Hades to bring back the dead Euripides. Then Burt Shevelove who updated it to include SHAW and Shakespeare in debate, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the music and lyrics, and had it performed in the unfriendly acoustic of the Yale swimming pool. Now add Nathan Lane, who fell for it as if for “a little homely rescue dog”, messed about and wrote new bits. And here it is at the ever-adventurous Jermyn.
Rarely have I been in a more Marmite show. A couple left furiously at the interval, not getting it at all: another woman rhapsodised in the interval expressing surprise that they didn’t adore it like her, then unaccountably picked up her many bags and left ten minutes in making the rest of the row stand up for her.  Me, entrancedly amused mainly by the Sondheim lyrics, I stayed and enjoyed the character of Pluto the underworld king as a leather queen with a whip, the assorted choruses, and the very funny advent of Martin DIckinson as George Bernard Shaw himself, pompous , emitting his famous epigrams and excoriating the frivolity of Shakespeare and his ‘Purple patches on borrowed rags”,.
Dionysius holds it together, the affable Michael Matus alternately alarmed, determined, and nicely gushy as the top Shaw fanboy, praising his “gravity of subject and levity of manner” , which actually describes this whole show quite nicely. The duel of quotations between Shaw and Shakespeare is wonderful, with quite the right winner.


So I enjoyed it, crazy as it is, and the music – piano, woodwind, trumpet and cello, is beautifully Sondheim, and Grace Wessels directs with cheerful speed. It feels more like a clever college romp than anything else, but it is a romp composed by a genius, an eloquent wise clown. For Sondheimites, it has the buzz. Or croak.


To 8 April. Sold out, but you never know.

RATING three 3 Meece Rating

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

..and also, frankly, in the stalls. Some evenings, often here at the RSC, three and a half hours pass in a flash leaving you dazed, affected and tearfully glad to have been there. Not this. After the bracing Julius Caesar, this second in the Roman season picks up – very nicely – design details like he Forum’s pillars and the statue of a lion savaging a horse now high above. Robert Innes Hopkins also creates a credible Egypt alongside it, with Cleopatra’s stiflingly exotic interiors (dig that 7ft sacred cat!) and the pillars of Alexandria remind us pleasingly of our own Needle on the Embankment. It opens with a wild masked dance and Cleo and her man rising on a platform, still a-romping, in a tangle of sheets and flowing nightwear.
So we settle contentedly to the epic tale of disastrous cross-cultural love, of Antony’s dereliction of “Roman thoughts” and the Egyptian queen’s magnetism, defeat and demise. But goodness, Iqbal Khan’s production is slow! Keeping a long text is fine, respecting the complicated politics, betrayals and battles; so is it fine to let a production relax into a few dances, fights, and drinking-bouts.



But even without Antony’s famously protracted death it feels constipatedly slow (everyone else dies briskly after one good stab, but he lasts long enough to be triple-stabbed , manhandled around and hauled up the Monument in an unlikely manner without even dripping any blood). After James Corrigan’s mesmerically fascinating Mark Antony in the last play, we now have him relegated to being Agrippa while here the Roman lover is Antony Byrne: middle-aged, thickset and powerful as a ginger-bearded bull. He bellows like one too, at times, indeed is far better in rage than in love. The other Romans are good too – especially Andrew Woodall’s rough-spoken Enobarbus. Making him a bit geezerish was a good stroke, because it gave an extra poignancy to his descriptions of Cleopatra’s magnetic and exoticism “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne..” . It is one of the few moments when you remember how lyrical the play is.
The weak spot is Cleopatra herself. Josette Simon is on her fifteenth RSC appearance, was a fine Rosaline and Isabella, is experienced, physically astonishing (tall, lithe, a fine mover). She is intelligent too, has talked of her research and reflection on the character and position of this ancient queen. An interviewer the other day, who can’t have yet seen her Cleopatra, talked of her “rare gift for stillness”.
Therefore having seen it, I can only point a trembling finger of bitter blame at the male director. Who must have lost his usual judgement and encouraged her to play it as a cross between a non-singing Eartha Kitt and everybody’s nightmare classmate, the Most Annoying Girl In The School. Oh, the writhing! The capering! The silly voices killing the lines and the meaning, the sexy, playful kittenishness which has to illustrate “O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” by pretending to ride on Charmian. Oh, the self-absorbed one-note vamping!
In the interval, hoping to be fair, I canvassed some men as to whether this was indeed the kind of woman to whom they were drawn like moths to a flame. After a moment one said “Well… legs to die for, character to die OF”.
This hectic performance, and Byrne’s stumping solidity, means there is no credible chemistry between the lovers. Unless one makes the simple, possibly valid, assumption that every drama queen likes a thug and vice versa. In the second act, Antony finds a certain nobility (in between the bull-bellowing). And at last, at the very very last, Simon herself is allowed to deploy that gift for queenly stillness. And briefly it is moving. But after feeling one’s fingers itch for a venomous asp all evening, its arrival is, frankly, welcome.


box office to 9 Sept
rating three.   Not two, because I might be wrong about what some men fall in love with.  3 Meece Rating

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BANG BANG Mercury, Colchester


Farce. French farce. Feydeau farce. Fin-de-siecle farce with curly cornices and ladies in corsets. Feelings about the genre are always, for me,  mixed. You can sigh at bit in these post-stigma days at attempted infidelity being quite so compulsorily hilarious; at emotional improbabilities camouflaged by a formulaic comedy of embarrassment. You know there’ll be wardrobes, doors, beds, trousers, comedy policemen , possibly (as here) a bribeable nephew. You can feel – as I did in the last two Feydeau revivals, despite great talents from Tom Hollander, Hannah Waddingham and the like – something I glumly recorded as “a despondent sense of being trapped in a museum of bygones”.

This Mercury production is interesting, though, because Feydeau’s little-seen “La Chasse” has been reworked, and well and truly fiddled with, by no less than John Cleese. It has sparks of more modern comedy , despite an elegantly complete plasterwork-to-parquet set which becomes both the bourgeois home of the Duchotels and a love-nest apartment where Monsieur the lawyer – Oliver Cotton, in the role one suspects Cleese fancies himself in – is to meet one of his client’s wives while pretending to go hunting,. And where his wife Léontine – naturellement! – agrees on the selfsame night to a revenge bonk with Dr Moricet. Leontine is quite beautifully played by Caroline Langrishe, decently convincing in her initial stiff virtue turning to indignation and in her panic in the door-and-trouser moments, but really coming into her own in the second act when a kind of mumsy exasperation suggests an actual reality inside her marriage to the straying Duchotel. The lustful doctor os Richard Earl, Sarah Crowden makes the most of being a countess-turned concierge at the lovenest, and Jess Murphy as the maid Babette deploys sone great expressions as the maid. Whose absurd French accent gives Cleese a chance for a splendid non-Feydeau joke when a character asks “Why’s she got that funny accent?” “Must be Belgian or something..”



Indeed is interesting is that he real barks of laughter are, as often as not, provoked not by the skeleton of the old farce but the furious vigour of Cleese moments – the Doctor’s mutter of “stupid hint!” and the very un-Feyddeau “I suppose a blow-job’s out of the question?”, some brief asides like “Bit corny, isn’t it?” and a moment between Duchotel and the baffled husband Chassagne – Peter Bourke – which is pure Basil-and-Manuel. The more conventional  shrieks, hidings  under the bed etc are far less effective triggers; the philosophical musings on infidelity just plain dull. But Langrishe is a treat. Ironically, it just needs more Cleese and less Feydeau.


box office 01206 573948 to 11 March
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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ROUNDELAY Southwark Playhouse, SE1




In Arthur Schnitzler ’s LA RONDE was a scandal: a chain of sketched sexual encounters in which one of each couple moved on to a new seduction; Count, whore, soldier. and so forth. Sigmund Freud liked it though: he wrote to Schnitzler “”you have learned through intuition—though actually as a result of sensitive introspection—everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.”
The sense of emotional understanding, at least, is reproduced in Sonja Linden’s new 90-minute version for VIsible – a company founded to make use of older professional performers.

There are seven encounters: first former spouses meet at a wedding and are tempted, then we meet one of them in old age and dementia, with her fond second husband (a wrenchingly touching moment thanks to Holly de Jong’s remarkable performance as the wife). But that husband is then awkwardly exploring whether he is drawn to a male sex worker; who we then meet with a very old bedridden widow who craves once again to feel human touch…and on it goes until the first character finds a final resolution.


All the main protagonists are in middle age or older, and the theme of continuing desire and yearning for love develops a real earnest beauty as it does on: wooing, betrayal, tactility, memory, confusion, the lure of youth, the advancing shadow of decrepitude and dementia, the perennial hope. Linden and director Anna Ledwich, however, have framed it as circus – a pun on “ronde’ – as we surround the action and are lectured , whip-cracked and threatened by a Weimaresque ringmistress in fishnets and top hat , who introduces each section as an act. And indeed between the acts some good professional work on the aerial silks is there to divert us, while the rest of the cast doa few dances and juggle-and-hoop tricks not quite as smooth as they might be.
To be honest, this presentation distracted more than it engaged me; we are all now well used to La Soiree and the paraphernalia and Weimar-wannabe cabaret style of the genre. But despite mild irritation – and the ringmistress was perfectly competent, within what was awkwardly required of her – it won me round with the very fine acting, economical scripting and a sort of firm, adult reality of character. It’s a curiosity worth seeing.


box office 0207 407 0234
rating Three  3 Meece Rating

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THE SORROWS OF SATAN Tristan Bates Theatre, WC1



“I hope nobody misses / The moral in a show as short as this is..” . Marie Corelli, whose 1895 bestseller on the Faust theme inspired Luke Bateman and Michael Conley, may have a brief spin in her grave but emerge with a rueful grin. Her story is about a writer, Geoffrey Tempest, tempted by Satan in the person of his patron – the rich Italian Prince Lucio (Lucifer, geddit?) . The devil rather hopes to be turned down, so he can gain remission and not be bound longer by human weakness and greed. Bateman and Conley make the writer into an impoverished but self-important composer of a“serious” musical play on that very theme. He is a sort of proto-Sondheim without the wit or talent: the play has three characters plus the accompanist and every song sounding exactly the same, earnestly unmelodious and with splendidly dreadful witless lyrics.


So naturally, the task of Lucio is to ply him with money, fame, and promises of “the woman”, provided he turns his oeuvre into a sparkly 1920’s musical comedy played for laughs and backed by a line of “chorines” kicking stockinged legs.
It’s a neat idea, and fits this studio scale with cabaret slickness and plenty of in-jokes about producers, audiences, critics, cheap commercial populism and the pointlessness of making art that nobody wants. A major asset (and the main reason I tumbled off a two-plane journey just in time to get there) is Stefan Bednarzyk, the king of intelligent cabaret. He is musical director and Satan’s slave accompanist (apparently dumb, till he sings). He occasionally and delightfully accompanies Tempest’s more overblown emotional speeches with well-judged crashes and trills on the piano, and otherwise deploys some cracking fed-up reaction faces.

Simon Willmont is a bewildered, vain Tempest (though the gag about him throwing up in the wastepaper basket at Lucio’s jollier tunes is overdone), and “The Woman” is Claire-Marie Hall, who has to be three different girls in succession owing to Lucio’s impatient tendency to murder anyone who doesn’t co-operate. She does well, though is stuck with a few too many sub-Wildean-cum-suffragette observations about womanhood.



But the real joy is Dale Rapley as Lucio: middle-aged, thickset, cynical in demeanour, his is a more dangerous handsomeness than any hapless juvenile can eploy. He abandons the dreary young man’s score for his big number “Ta-ta-ta-ta-Tartarus! Youll think there’s no rules when you see our boys and ghouls…Tartarus! Sin and guilt are quite bizarre-to-us!”. So we howl and whistle as he flings himself round the stage, burly as a bouncer and camp as ninepence. Wouldn’t have missed that bit for the world. It’s the frothiest of Fausts.

Box Office 020 3841 6611 /
to 25 March sponsor: Inland Homes
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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“Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood, and not be tainted in a shameful fall?” asks Cardinal Monticello of the murderous Lodovico, a man who tends to write off his homicides as “but flea-bitings”.


Well, of course not. Everyone is tainted in this most unrestrained of Jacobean revenge tragedies, and all but a Pope, a boy Duke and a couple of assistant murderers get stonking death-scenes. Flamineo actually gets two.  It was written by John Webster in 1612, inspired by an Italian elopement and murder, and is as violent as his masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi , which opened this lovely candlelit playhouse a few years back. But it doesn’t have quite the horror and sustained tension that directors find in the later play, nor its shining sense of real virtue in the heroine. It also tips over into absurdity more often. In this production the text is adjusted ,and cut of some of its intellectual wranglings, by Michael West, and Annie Ryan’s direction goes hell-for-leather with the shouting and murdering, sometimes at the expense of the more memorable  lines.
But enough of them hit home, like “We think that caged birds sing, when indeed they cry”. And as the main victim and sinner Vittoria Kate Stanley-Brennan has an arrogant, beautiful dignity and gives her lines the weight they need.  A strong point is Ryan’s clarity: I admit to a quick refreshing glance at the plot outline in advance, but overheard chatter in the interval proves it was clear enough to newcomers. Vittoria and the Duke, both otherwise married,  are smitten: her atrocious brother Flamineo is playing the pimp to further the affair.    He is strikingly played by Joseph TImms in the style of a longhaired, joking, glottal-stopped, crotch-clutching Russell-Brand-alike in a leather jacket.  It works surprisingly well, and in the dim candlelight the more or less modern dress doesn’t jar either, girls being in grand dresses and noblemen in skirted leather coats.
The first couple of murders get going briskly, assisted by magic overhead, a balcony ,a trapdoor  and a poisoned portrait . Webster loved his gadgets, like an early James Bond: later there is discussion of killing the Duke with a poisoned tennis racket handle, but they settle for a poisoned helmet. It makes you realise how very restrained Shakespeare was.   Vittoria (in a scene where Stanley-Brennan excels with real seriousness) is tried as a whore by the prim Cardinal,  who then becomes Pope with sonorous clanging bells, enabling her to elope and marry her Duke to a very jolly trumpet tune from the musicians overhead ( previously condemned to a great deal of Psycho-style violin angst in Tom Lane’s atmospheric score).
Meanwhile – pay attention at the back there – Lodovico ,who loved the murdered wife of the Duke, returns from exile to avenge her, Flamineo wipes out his brother (good work in the grieving from Anna Healy as poor old Mum Cornelia), and so to a barking-mad OTT showdown with four pistols, culminating in a heap of candlelit corpses, who have to rise rather sheepishly for the curtain call.

This play can, by fierce determination,  be made into a darkly credible epic of lust and murder, its huge emotions taken seriously.   Doesn’t quite happen here. The candelight helps, and it is vivid, entertaining and probably truer to the spirit of the period that way.  Though I have to note that in the programme, amid more interesting observations, there is a ripe bit of oh-for-gods-sakery from the director attempting to relate it all to “post-Brexit, post-Trump…It has to feel like those debates, Hillary standing there and this monster prowling behind her like a wolf” .
Nice try, but we don’t need it. More interesting to reflect on its own century’s fierce protestant spirit, and villains as dastardly foreign papists.…

box office Box office 020 7401 9919 to 16 april
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MURDER FOR TWO Watermill, Newbury

Retro clutter round a piano: files, a hatstand, model house, gun, notebook, handcuffs. We are in the territory of smalltown detective fiction, a touch of the Poirots crossed with parodic Chandleresque film-noir ( this miniature musical was born off-Broadway, and won a Jefferson prize in Chicago). Add a dash of Marx brothers, a memory of Tom Lehrer and an overlay of vaudeville. The style is frantic: riffs and duet tricks on the piano and songs with memorably cod-desperate rhymes (“When you’re feeling stressy – a bit -er – S-o-S-y..”. Or “He said I was graceful, said I had a faceful / Of features, like eyebrows and eyes”).

Its creators Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair meld the musical outbreaks into the story with considerable skill and determinedly batshit silliness. All this is performed by two young men in pinstripe trousers and formal grey waistcoats. Ed MacArthur is an ambitious policeman yearning for detective glory, and Jeremy Legat, changing character sometimes second by second , is all the suspects. With reversible hat he is a bickering old couple accusing one another, with glasses on his nose the victim’s suspiciously undistressed wife , an ageing former showgirl. By crossing his arms and booming he becomes a needy psychiatrist, and with nothing but some elegantly skilled physical work a geeky girl doing a criminology PhD, a choir of boy scouts and a soulful, suspicious ballerina. They all have a motive, obviously, for killing a famous novelist.

There are jokes which would drag a laugh out of anyone, and a couple of stunning big numbers (Legat eventually gets green smoke, bubbles, sparkles and a Chicago leg up on the piano). But there’s a lot of mugging and broad self-awareness, and some, like my companion, won’t entirely take to it. But if you have a cheerful drink inside you and a yearning for some proper flippancy in this angst-loving age, it just about hits the spot.

The performers are superb, not least as pianists. MacArthur is earnestly geeky as the detective , and Legat, in his multiple fast-changing characters, walks the tricky line between being seriously annoying and dazzlingly brilliant. For me he stayed just the right side, and that in itself is a trick worth watching.

Luke Sheppard directs with Tom Atwood as musical director. It’s off to the former St James Theatre next, where Andrew Lloyd-Webber aims to curate and encourage just such musical flights.


box office 01635 46044 to 25 Feb
Then to: The Other Palace studio, SW1 2-18 March 0844 264 2121

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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LOVE Dorfman, SE1

At the Connection at St Martin’s they say that none of us is more than two bad decisions away from the pavement. The street homeless we know, a little. Less plainly laid before us is the next step up: the hostel with small bare rooms off a common area, a squalid shared kitchenette and bathroom where different welfare “clients” may live for months on end before anything like a home is found. That is where we find Tharwa from Sudan averting her eyes from big shambling tattooed  Colin , and the fragile old mother for whom he proudly proclaims himself “carer”. And in a cramped bunk-room a recently evicted family of four shortly to be five: Dean, his very pregnant partner Emma, and their two children. A bearded Syrian lad wanders through from time to time, sometimes settling down to watch Billy Elliot on his phone while drinking orange juice from the carton.



The title is canny. Alexander Zeldin could have called it “Austerity” or just “Bastard Tory Benefit Cuts”. There is a substantial essay about recent welfare history in the programme. But by the title he wishes us to note the human relationships as valid and honourable in this hundred-minute, painfully naturalistic, low-key slice of life . Which, by the way, makes you nostalgic for the days when people talked of kitchen-sink drama: any of these poor souls would kill for a private sink in which nobody else washes old ladies’ hair with Fairy liquid, borrows their mug without permission and gets territorial about fridge shelves.

As a conscience-pricker, the NT’s Christmas feelbad offering, it is effective. When the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall as the old mother finally staggers through the audience towards the stage death of the year, there was a standing ovation and I think it was mainly for her. But as drama it is pitched so low and slow, so anxious to convey the despair and boredom of this life by making us share it, that it is hard entirely to admire. Some muttered lines can barely be caught from halfway back in the stalls; more importantly, it is a very long time before we get even a hint of back-story, for which we hunger and thirst.
We do learn that Dean (Luke Clarke) and Emma (a dignified Janet Eluk) were evicted, and that in the stupid rigid system financially ‘sanctioned’ for missing a Jobcentre appointment on the day of eviction. This family provide the only clearly expressed narrative, and the children are finely played on press night by Yonatan Pelé Roodner and Emily Beacock, the latter providing a few laughs with her doggedly tuneless rehearsal of Away in a Manger and her keenness on decorating the miserable place with tinsel. The lad is just fed up, ending on the way to school with his determined parents as a surly dont-wannabe-shepherd with a teatowel on his head.
As to the devoted son Colin – Nick Holder – it is only in one significant late moment that we understand that beyond being merely thick and tactless he is in some way seriously emotionally damaged. Of the Sudanese lady we know little, until she suddenly livens up and chats in Arabic with the Syrian. But because this is basically an angry political play it would help immensely if it, or the programme, offered us imaginary social-workers’ notes on these people , a notion of the great complex engine which crushes them . We want to know exactly what systems failed them and for how long. Otherwise all we can do is echo Colin’s complaint that “the Council f—- you”.
Near the end actual crises happen: and indeed no woman three weeks off giving birth should have to mop up the double incontinence of an aged stranger in a common area where her children play and cross in neat school uniforms. But hell, we knew that. And we also know that people love one another, even when things are hard and horrible. But one longs for some politics, some admin, some acknowledgement of how vast the problems are and how we got here. Squalid misery at Christmas is easy to portray: economics and complexities less so.
box office 020 7452 3333 to 10 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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Magnificent in military jacket as he lectures the College of Tempters, then at ease in his study in fine brocade against a marvellous backdrop of skulls and bones and fire, Screwtape dictates his letters to a junior, his nephew Wormwood. Our hero is a senior in Hell, his unseen correspondent a rookie nephew, deployed as a guardian-devil tasked with tempting a youngish human, sabotaging his Christian conversion and undermining his virtues.



The older man’s monologue is accompanied not by any sign of the humans – messages are sent and received via a splendid fiery tube at the top of a ladder – but by the scaly-ragged, face-painted, lithe junior secretarial devil Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight ), who skips, crawls, gibbers and occasionally, rather brilliantly, acts out in dumb-show the human characters Screwtape desribes as living around the patient. This is particularly fine during the riff about how, over centuries, Hell has managed to distract human males from women likely to produced happy healthy marriages, teaching them instead to admire impossible haughtiness, fainting feebleness, a boyish outline which no normal woman can keep ontor many years, or shapes so artificial that they both disappoint men and put pressure on women. Wight does them all in a few neat moves.



But as he stalks, this Screwtape lays it on hard, some of his delivery made almost unclear by emphasis: for too much of the time Max McLean rants, shouts, drawls, acting more like an overweening arrogant demagogue than an academic, thoughtful, experienced adviser. He needs to be more urbane, smoother, more nuanced : because that is the way C.S. Lewis wrote him in the famous 1941 book. It is notable that McLean is credited not only as performer but co-adaptor, founder of the US production company FPA and – crucially – director. I applaud the enterprise, but wish it a tougher hand on the performer.



That gave me a problem, though probably not universally shared, because I have known the book from childhood, and treasured the sharp elegant prose and Lewis’ deadly serious playfulness as he inhabits the mindset of an imagined devil: ravenous for souls, relishing human suffering but always haunted by the prospect of failure when one slips from Hell’s grip into the clear light of heaven, which to the underworld’s dark denizens is a blinding, suffocating, noxious horror. Screwtape is a great creation, a minatory, didactic senior uncle experienced in bringing about damnation. Which is defined, as always in Lewis’ theology (see The Great Divorce) as an individual’s gradual distancing him or herself from God and the virtues God enjoins.


But that is an issue of direction and tone, and the script, solid Lewis, is worth it. There is plenty of fine sharp psychology in Screwtape’s proposals: his definition of “the gluttony of delicacy” in which people eat moderately but fussily is apropos in the age of clean-eaters and faddish. Equally, his favourite way to ensure damnation is not provoking huge sudden crimes but creating mere lethargy and neglect of duty: since Satan hates pleasure as well as virtue, the best catch is not when you get a man carousing, but drinking alone and bored by a dying fire; or neglecting his duty not for fun or good reading but mere distraction that bores him (bring on the social media and the box-sets). And – in a rare updating Screwtape brandishes a big Madonna album – there is the startling message that the job of temptation is now largely devolved by hell to the example of “demagogues, dictators, and almost all screen and music stars”.


box office 0207 870 6876 to 7 Jan
Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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’Tis the season to be silly, and the Young Vic’s revival of a screwball 1930’s Hollywood satire hit the spot triumphantly with this theatre’s warm, responsive audience. It draws on two perennial daydreams: the first being that if you tell the boss he’s wrong his indignation will turn to wonder and he’ll promote you for fearlessness. The other is the even older folk-tale in which Foolish Jack accidentally does the right thing and wins the Princess and the fortune.



In Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s play it’s foolish George, played with nice naive indignation by John Marquez. He is one-third of a failing vaudeville troupe, with Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and the longsuffering May (Claudie Blakeley). The talkies have just begun so they hit on the idea of running an “elocution and speech culture” course for previously silent film stars. Once in Hollywood they encounter monsters like the overspangled, cawing showbiz-journalist Helen (Lucy Cohu), and Daniel Abelson hysterical with frustration as one of the latest mass “shipment” of playwrights hired by Glogauer and given nothing to do. A crazy workplace where a man is employed full time taking peoples names off their office doors and putting up new ones is led by the studio boss Mr Glogauer: a perfect shuffling, balding, amiably tyrannical plutocratic idiot of a part for Harry Enfield’s stage debut. George, a mooncalf in love with dim wannabe star Susan (Lizzy Connolly) , loses his temper, accidentally is promoted to total charge, and makes the wrong film without lights or plot. Which of course becomes a critical triumph for its originality. The reviews are beautifully written, classic emperor’s-new-clothes fawning on the obscurity and bad acting of George’s creation.


It’s a grand Christmas treat,  and there are some glorious moments especially in the second half.  The first takes time to warm up, often seeming like just a series of absurd sketches, though Richard Jones’ direction (and a lovely revolving segmented set by Hyemi Shin) keep it moving well enough. Enfield doesn’t have much to do in the first hour, though he is a treat to see shuffling through thickets of wannabes, complaining “wherever I go they ACT at me” or happily crying “That’s the way we do things out here – no time wasted on thinking!”.
Actually, though, most of that half and a good few moments in the second are stolen, with shameless comic brilliance, by Amanda Lawrence in a tight, worried pinkish hairdo as the receptionist Miss Leighton. She deploys a wonderful ladylike obstructiveness with people attempting appointments, and an anguished, spinsterish Glogauer-worship, following him around with a solid gold coffee mug . Her character could step straight in to most of the corporate workplaces any of us knows. And even a few doctors’ surgeries. Oh yes.


box office 020 7922 2922 to 14 Jan
Rating three  3 Meece Rating

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KING LEAR Barbican

LUKE JONES ON THE RSC’s NEW LEAR.. (interesting contrast of response with LP’s Stratford review  , here on . We both love Essiedu’s Edmund though!) 


You’re not to know this, but King Lear bears the proud seal of ‘The Best Shakespeare Play According to Luke Jones’. It pleasingly eschews the clunk of the others. Where most are a web throughout, Lear has an easy setup, clearly defined bust-ups all of which turns shit-shaped in a thrillingly desperate way. If there were ever a Shakespeare play less in need of a concept or re-versioning it is this one.



I see and appreciate that the director Gregory Doran has aimed to reflect this clean simplicity. The stage is either neat brick or bright white and the only disturbances on stage are either actors, big chairs or branches. They have tried to give the drama of this bloody, vindictive and mad play the space to play out. Unfortunately what should be simple and sharp, reads as bare and saggy.



Anthony Sher is the bright face on the programme, but his Lear and his gurgling, oddly flat and timid voice which weigh it down. It has the whiff of a performance which thinks it’s a heart-wrenchingly Olivier turn, when in fact it’s just well annunciated reading. Sher perks a little as Lear’s madness sets in, but for the most-part every emotional highlight is squadered. “Let me not be mad”, Sher says to the fool, in what should be him tipping into decline. Instead it’s chewed by an over-RSC’d delivery and shouted to the back of the stalls. The same is true of Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Reagan (Kelly Williams) who don’t quite navigate the path from wronged daughters to blood-thirsty abusers. I’m not moved for the same reason I’m not moved by the performances in TV adverts. It’s too mannered and lacks depth.



Doran seems to have them in. Some wildness rages, but for most of it tempers don’t boil naturally, madness doesn’t ring true and emotional reunions as a result don’t satisfy. It’s all a little surface.


The gold-plated exceptions to this are star turns by Papa Essiedu as the conniving power-seducer Edmund and Oliver Johnstone as the wronged Edgar. As Lear’s brood slightly fuck-up giving us the fucked-up siblings, it’s these two that deliver. Both have a gloriously genuine delivery. Essiedu has a bully’s charm I think we’d all like in our arsenal and Johnstone’s reuniting with bloody Gloucester land almost all the production’s emotional punches. You can’t take your eye sockets off them.

This, and dynamic script in the first place, kick the whole thing along.

Do not come if you’re in the mood for a towering central performance. But if you’ve the patience and the predisposition for the play, hold hands, splash some cold water on your face in the interval and it’ll be fine.

Box Office 01789 403493      Until 23rd December

rating three3 Meece Rating



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It’s not the first time that the idea of a family “intervention” has tempted a dramatist. Why wouldn’t it? You’ve got one character out of control and in danger, others wrought with anxiety and possibly deluded about their own motives and wisdom. Love, impatience, delusion, rebellion: what can go wrong? Peter Quilter – whose previous smash successes have been fuelled by real lives, of Judy Garland (End of the Rainbow) and Florence Foster Jenkins (Glorious); they have also starred remarkable divas, Tracie Bennett and Maureen Lipman. This time the characters are all his, and the setting modestly experimental: the 90-seat space at the Park, furnished in the round as a suburban living-room, its only physical scar a symbolic diagonal rip in the patterned carpet, revealing a multicoloured plethora of giant pills.



For this is 1996, the height of the Ecstasy and rave-culture craze; when the death of Leah Betts filled parents with terror and exasperated the young who thought themselves safe. Or who – like the eponymous Jason – just needed the “dancing, sweating, screaming under the lights, and afterwards everyone sits and talks with total honesty, and hugs…it might be the edge of a cliff, but it’s got a staggering view”.



His parents, nervy Linda and solid, subtly damaged Trevor (Tor Clark and William Oxborrow) have hit on the wacko intervention tactic of holding a pretend funeral for him in their front room as a warning. They invite her sister Angela, a troublesome am-dram exhibitionist who turns up in a veiled black hat from their last melodrama (“though we sell more raffle tickets when we do an Ayckbourn”). Along too comes her American husband Derek, a big hunk of sissy, wholly unfit to play the celebrant. Mary next door pops in and out too.


After a slow scene-set, 35 minutes in the lad himself appears in a garish anorak and a cloud of 17-year-old affront. Jacques Miché is tremendous as the teenager, catching a familiar mixture of vicious scornfulness, uncertainty and underlying good sense. His resentment of the nonsensical ‘funeral’, complete with portrait, mourning-cards , Iceland buffet food and a catering-pack of inedible crisps, leads quite rapidly to a pleasingly violent food-fight, with buns skimming dangerously past the audiences ears at times. So – Interval!



Except that it doesn’t need an interval: part 2 begins at the same moment, and as a sharp 85-minuter the play would work better. We rapidly, and without much surprise, learn that Linda is an unrecovering alcoholic, Angela (a rumbustious Julie Armstrong) rattles with prescription pills, and the two men have their own issues. Which the clear-eyed exasperated Jason points out. Though, as Linda says, “Just because something’s true doesn’t stop it being rude and offensive” . Mary the neighbour is played with vigour and a touching reality by Paddy Navin, though it is uncertain to me why Quilter had to give the character lines indicating a kind of intermittent dementia and other signs of advanced age, when Navin looks and acts like a spry forty-five year-old. That jars, and it’s a shame because she is a key and interesting figure. Almost surprisingly, the final turnaround of Jason (beautifully handled by Miché) is genuinely convincing, and is brought on by the play’s one sharp plot twist.

It’s interesting enough fun. But I left it wishing it wasn’t set twenty years ago, because that is an awkward world to step back into. The same theme could tackle some generational attitudes (and some different drugs) recognizable now. I would love to see young Miché as a rebellious Snowflake of today, set against lackadaisical boomer parents.


box office 0207 870 6876 to 3 Dec
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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This is, of course, “event theatre”. Glenda Jackson, aged 80 , after 25 years off the stagedourly battling as a Labour MP, returns to the boards not by taking the gentler slopes as Helena or Gertrude, but hurling herself at King Lear. So here’s a comeback, a veteran, a crossgendering, rash and eccentric and newsworthy. It is to Ms Jackson’s high honour that as it transpires the most notable thing is that she is tremendous. Archly parental at first, pompous and swaggering thrillingly terrifying in her rages and curses, a terror of the earth: shudderingly out-ranting the tempest, losing herself in pity and remorse, tender with her Fool, writhing in the madness of .disgust, finally “a foolish fond old man” and valiant in defeat. Really, a Lear to remember.


But unfortunately, one doomed to batter her way towards us through an irritatingly, exhaustingly overemphatic and gimmicky production. Deborah Warner gives us an acceptably bland modernist staging – white panels – which is fine, and a cracking storm made of giant sheets of bin-bag plastic and a wind machine. She makes use of a supermarket trolley for Poor Tom and a number of trestle tables and plastic chairs (Lear threatens Kent with one in the first scene, an unusual yet rather pleasing weaponisation of cheap school-hall furniture). All, as I say, fine. We don’t need ruffs and tights.



The irritating bit, a the production stamps and shouts its head off around Jackson’s undimmed and perfectly controlled power, is the director’s detemination to stomp home every point. She makes her cast treat the text (mainly honoured, and running to a gruelling three and three quarter hours) as if it was modern, jerkily emphatic vernacular.   Some overcome this: Sargon Yelda’s Kent is fine, though hampered by having to use a comedy pan-Slavic accent in his impersonation, Celia Imrie is a clear, mischievous Goneril, Karl Johnson a moving, strong (and traditional) Gloucester. And Harry Melling, ever more of a rising star to watch, is a memorable Edgar, both in dignity and feigned madness. He’ll be a Hamlet soon.


But perhaps due to a modish dread of the Victorian “stand still and shout” tradition, few of the cast are ever allowed to utter a line without unnerving gymnastics. Edmund’s revelatory first , important, speech planning treachery and dedicating himself to raw nature is conducted by Simon Manyonda skipping like a boxer, doing pressups , burpees and side stretches as he speaks, then rounding it off by dropping his shorts for a spirited wank (back view only, small mercies). Cordelia at one stage seems to be allaying her anxieties with a stretch ’n squat routine , Jane Horrocks’ Regan strides around ceaselessly in spray-on Levis and killer heels, and Kent mystifyingly goes through a complete change of tracksuit and socks during another key narrative speech.  Understandable that the Fool (Rhys Ifans in a tattered Superman outfit) should mug and lark and skip around, but he actually has more presence and interest in a rare moment when he stands still and delivers his last song in the style of Bob Dylan.



There are sharp bits of staging and interpretation; the blinding of Gloucester is most explicit in shadow-play against the white screen, though the supposed eye itself is thrown at us (Row L, stage right, watch it). But all through, as if the director didn’t trust Shakespeare an inch, there is just too much physical disturbance. It ironically detracts from the great emotional disturbance of the play itself.

Still, the text burns through: the immense chiming wisdoms and griefs of the end bite hard enough to compensate for a uniquely messy shambles of scenes, leading up to a stage cluttered with corpses dragged around on blankets until the dead Goneril and Reagan (and quite possible Edmund, I lost count) distractingly surround the tableau of Lear and dead Cordelia.
Which, of course, Jackson again delivers with an intense and ancient power. It could have been one of the great Lears, and its star certainly is. But not the frame she shines in.
box office 0844 8717628 to 3 Dec
principal partner Royal Bank of Canada
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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The first impression of this RSC import to London is messiness. The staging; nipped and tucked from the RSC thrust to the Barbican widescreen. The performances; broad and occasionally unwieldy. The design; confused, clunky and distracting.



Now let me row back slightly. At the centre of this Cymbeline are three gripping performances. Imogen (Bethan Cullinane) separated from her husband is a beautifully real portrait of a miserably toyed with woman. Her scenes with Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone), where he stalks and surveys her bedroom are full of grim thrills. His is a near-perfect performance of the original dickhead. His smarmy charm is joyous is wittily used. A peg down from the other two, Imogen’s banished husband Posthumus Leonartus. Hiran Abeysekera gives an excellent turn, but I fear the wrong one. He is slightly wet where he should be furious. But between them, these three bat around the best scenes with youthful vigour.



The rest smells a bit panto. My instinct is to blame the director, Melly Still. She draws out all the thigh-slapping, jaunty walks, knowing delivery and twists to the audience. But this tires quickly and the meat of Cymbeline is left largely untouched. In fact, when juicy revelations are revealed and characters emotionally reunited, we weren’t in any way prepared for something moving. So it just moved on.



Cymbeline himself (or herself in this production with Gillian Bevan) picks an expression a scene and sticks to it. Shouty Cymbeline, flouncy Cymbeline, sad Cymbeline. The Duke (James Clyde) and his son Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) are equally as broad. I should stress these are no bad performances, they just feel a little standard issue RSC. Laughs were had, lines made sense and the 3 hours (three whole hours) whizzed by nicely. But I couldn’t help my eyes glaze and droop slightly, like a Stratford schoolboy promised that this will be an educational revelation.



All this isn’t helped by the design. What should help explain, muddies. I understand the attempt to make the English and the Welsh, earthy, root-ravaged grass people and the Italians Dolce Vita types wearing tight trousers and living the life of Aperol. But it looked dreadful and often got in the way. Two giant half-cylinders, ostensibly part of the set, span around, clunked and creaked to no effect.


If you are a passing visitor, after the Shakespeare experience, wander to the Box Office for a solid experience. But if you’re after something a little more nourishing, a little fresher… look elsewhere.


Rating  3 Mice    3 Meece Rating
Box Office 01789 403493
Until 17th December.

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The cancer thing finished off another old friend at the weekend, the call coming between the official press night and my getting to Bryony Kimmings’ show. Even before that, having lost a brother this summer and several friends beforehand , I was among those who flinched at the title and was ready to question the auteur’s voice-of-God announcement that we don’t talk enough about cancer: another thirty years’ attrition, girl, and you’ll know different. But I suspect this play’s real strength is in addressing a millennial generation and – importantly – one more at home with cabaret and fringe performance than traditional theatre. Fair enough.


It as divided critics sharply, the grumpier reviews provoking defiant tweets from the creator “I think I just care about other things to lots of people in this theatre lark”…”I am feeling protective of the space we are trying to create… The alternative stories we are trying to tell. The truth”. and tellingly, “reviewers have little time for performance art”. Oh come on! We’re all fringe-hardened, quite at home being pushed through car-tyres in the dark or forced to role-play as talking cucumbers. There’s a place for kicking down the fourth wall . And this is a partnership with Complicité, and we trust that.

With some lovely bluesy and harmonic songs by Tom Parkinson (lyrics by Kimmings), it follows the first day of an unwilling pilgrim in the “Kingdom of the Sick”: a hospital set with seven baffling exits, and a nicely diverse dozen playing as patients at various stages, some occasionally nipping into bulgy colourful costumes as cancer cells (the young Imperial medic next to me said they are pleasingly accurate). Sometimes huge inflatable cells come out of the walls in fantasy dread sequences, hemming them in; sometimes the ensemble realistically wait on plastic chairs, or nightmarishly jerk and stamp like zombies. Sometimes they express to our heroine – Amanda Hadingue as Emma – recognizable gripes. Like ripping up the hospice leaflets in denial, or having friends putting on the soupy “cancer face”, enjoy the drama too much or offer quack cures. In the most convincing song (to my mind) they all just furiously sing a hissing chorus of “Fuck thissss! Fuck thissss!”.


A problem , though, is that (because of her own experience with a sick baby, which Kimmings recounts in voiceover at the end) she makes the main protagonist not a patient but a single mother, apparently without friends, bringing her infant for cancer treatment. Now a new mother’s agonies are specific, violent and unique: not the experience of a diagnosed adult. And this, I am afraid, unbalances the piece. It’s not unconvincing – the second half opens with five minutes of a roaring, throbbing, spotlit stillness of waiting, and a crazed ritual of maternal grief. But it oddly dilutes the more common cancer experience, the quieter truth we all get to know as hardened supporters and funeralgoers. Because it is so much a young person’s piece, my generation may miss what we see more of: the black humour, the stoicism, the focused desire to understand the science, the lassitude, the quiet talk of the past with old friends.


The tone moves from furious zombie energy to nursery platitudes: let me hastily say I have nothing against that, sometimes a warm-milk platitude is just what an invalid needs: a jingle like the one the cast sing at the end after revealing that they are representing research subjects whose recorded voices come out of the air: “Fingers crossed! Make a wish! For myself! And those I miss!”. The audience was not entirely on-side when asked to speak the name of someone with cancer they love or lost, and a survivor invited onstage to express her hopes for the NHS etc. was represented by a gallant stage-manager reading her message.
That bit really annoyed some critics, but in the general oddity of the piece as a whole, I was fine with it. The conclusion may be  soupy, but it is heartfelt. For some, it may prove important.

box office box office 020 7452 3333 to 29 Nov
rating three

3 Meece Rating


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OIL Almeida, N1



What I like about the Almeida is that is that the audience smells as if they’ve been bathing in red wine right up until entering the auditorium. Good stuff, mind. But troubling when the shimmering projections of oilfields, fighter jets and motorways on stage give way to a set lit only by candles.


Ella Hickson’s play is essentially two concerns; Oil and family. It’s the question of why we feel we have the right to be warm when it’s cold outside, combined with the turbulence of a mother/daughter relationship. To mine this, Hickson drills into lives across a 200 year period.



A late 19th Century farm in Devon, appalled and intrigued by an American visitor’s kerosene lamp (“It stinks!”), runs straight through to somewhere at the back-end of this century. A mother and daughter, sat freezing, are appalled and intrigued by a Chinese visitor’s cold-fusion home energy kit. Neat. Along the way we drop into Persia, 70’s Hampstead (let’s give the audience a little bit of what they know) and an unnamed Middle-Eastern war in 2021.


In the finger-burning cold of the candle-lit farm, Anne-Marie Duff’s May is the one seduced by the oily man’s demonstration. We’re “bleeding it, sweating it”. She’s ambitious, pregnant. It’s lit something in her, so she runs away. The gripping drama is off. Duff gives us a painfully powerful performance, but is persistently dragged back to trot through quite bland dialogue about energy policy, OPEC, Libya and China. All interesting, but there’s a better show going on, and it’s on the same stage.



For the first half this drip drip drip of oil is nicely managed. It informs, but doesn’t control. The play gives a mixed picture and isn’t the Green Party political broadcast some of us were expecting. We’re given wittily drawn portraits of destructive government types and idealistic young lovers. Carrie Cracknell’s production lifts the humorously human, but indulges in strange flashing projections of oil fields and fighter jets. Stock imagery doesn’t make a strong message.


But running through all this confusion is Duff’s troubled pragmatist; compromise, responsibility and the most expressive face on the English stage. Duff’s performance is like combustion, sparring beautifully with lesser mortals on all sides.


So far, so good. When we return from the interval, noticeably refuelled on Rioja, we find a lesser play. Yolanda Kettle, as May’s daughter Amy, is given the glibbest scene about the middle east I have ever heard and her performance arrives in primary colours of whining. The pull of their relationship sours in the surroundings of glib China gags, nonsense futurism and tired nods to the cyclical nature of the play creaking to completion.

If you left at the interval, you’d probably have better conversations in the car home. It had a fiery start, but unfortunately ran out of fuel.

Box Office 020 7359 4404  To 26 Nov.

Rating three 3 Meece Rating

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THE AUTUMN GARDEN Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

Lilian Hellman – tough, personally unconventional, a liberal ahead of her time – counted this as one of her favourite works. Most of us admire her more for The Children’s Hour, The LIttle Foxes and her fierce 1940’s anti-fascist writings. This one ran only a few months, and is pretty well forgotten: but Antony Biggs of the Jermyn Theatre specializes in forgotten classics, and has opened many doors into past sensibilities for us.




Having said that, the 1951 play has problems. It is set in 1949, the restless postwar time when society was changing and the deep south – it is set, in a boarding-house near New Orleans – was changing slower than New York and Europe. Gregor Donnelly’s design is on the face of it an intimate drawing-room (everything in the Jermyn is intimate: your feet may be on the very carpet on which emotions are unrolling). It has distressed wallpaper, though, in almost camouflage-colouring, a reminder of that war. As is General Griggs – Tom Mannion – glum in a wicker chair, studying a Chinese grammar and planning to divorce his wife and attempt a new life. She, played with vigorous deliberate absurdity by Lucy Akhurst, has somehow escaped from a Tennessee Williams play: a southern belle past her best, flirting absurdly, the kind of pretty girl a man marries suddenly in a war. As the General sadly says ‘All professional soldiers marry Rose. It’s in the army manual”.

In another corner is the pleasingly sour old Mary Ellis (Susan Porrett, sharp as a tack), her overpossessive daughter-in-law Carrie dominating a deeply wet son Frederick; he is engaged, in a lukewarm fashion, to the most mysterious of the group, Sophie: a French waif from Europe, adopted with good intentions by Constance, who runs the boarding-house. Constance is a likeable, layered, gentle performance by Hilary Maclean, a woman who for years has failed to notice the devotion of old Ned, but nurtures a nostalgic affection for her girlhood flame, the truly awful Nick. Who is imminently expected with his wearily fed-up wife Nina.
So there’s a big cast, a complex set of relationships, and a theme of middle aged disillusion poised between tough old age – Mary holding the purse-strings – and youth, represented by wet Fred and Sophie. Ah, Sophie: Madeleine Millar on her first professional job has the most interesting part to play: slight, emitting a rather sour European realism , folding up her face into tight unreadability, world-wearily European, a child of war, she bats off the ultimately disastrous drunken advances of Nick; and finally, in a sharp twist, reveals that she knows perfectly well the vulnerabilities of the affluent Ellises and their Southern fear of “scandal”.



The trouble is that it doesn’t quite get the grip and pace and complex involvement of such a group which Chekhov can. It does in its centre drag a bit, for all Biggs’ delicate direction and Hellman’s acid sharpness and compassion for failures (Mark Aiken’s Ned has little of interest to do until the end brings a profoundly moving speech about a lost life: MacLean too is memorable then. The second half is the best, though the drunken dissolution of Nick only catches fire in his dealings with the remarkable Sophie. Who is of another world: my favourite line is from absurd, atavistic Southern Rose: “A nice girl woulda screamed!”. Too late. The world was on the move, with or without Louisiana.


box office 020 7287 2875 to 29 October
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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A ROOM WITH A VIEW Theatre Royal, Bath


The view E.M.Forster sought for his heroine in the novel is more than a pretty Italian backdrop or a Surrey hillside – though this unfussy, delicate setting offers us both. Views are projected behind an uncluttered stage which transforms from pensione to backstreet, riverside, cathedral, conservatory and a reedy English pond which (for the first time here since the theatre’s gorgeous Mrs Henderson presents) goes nude. A brief and splendid scuttle of bare-arsed embarrassment by three men enlivens Act 2, the eldest – Simon Jones as Mr Beebe – in nothing but his clerical collar. That’s our happy view. The metaphorical and important one, as sought by the innocent, half-defiant half-reluctant Lucy Honeychurch (Lauren Coe) is a view out of the stifling decorums of Edwardian England. Beyond their sheltered circle, she says once, lies “poverty and vulgarity, orange peel and broken bottles”. And, in another direction, headlong and fulfilling love affairs.


But alone she cannot raise the nerve to assert her unacknowledged desire for the wilder rougher shores of life and love. It takes a catalyst: the rough-spoken parvenu socialist Emerson – a splendid Jeff Rawle – and his chippy, brooding son George (Tom Morley). Opposing Lucy’s escape – or is she really? – we have the cousinly chaperone Charlotte, one of the great female grotesques of literature given full absurdity, and ultimately redemptive pathos, by the exquisite timing of Felicity Kendal. Pleasingly, she is out-grotesqued and thus humanized by the presence of the far more dangerous character, the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish being given equal brio by Joanne Pearce. The quintessential British snob-tourist despising her countrymen, feet up and fag waving, Lavish proclaims “I revel in shrugging off the trammels of respectability!”, but takes no risks. Whereas spinster Charlotte, in her own way, does…


Forster’s story of the holiday encounter and its Surrey aftermath is rich in his yearning themes : of art’s importance and a sexual energy which alone can connect the beast and the angel in man. In plot it is slight enough: in the novel it was deepened by a slower pace and prose. Yet Simon Reade’s adaptation makes a highly entertaining evening, and underlines Forster’s beautiful humour and drily observed dialogue. “Is he a friend of yours?” “We are friendly” “Then I shall say no more!”. Charlie Anson’s Cecil Vyse, posing and writhing elegantly above his ridiculous spats like a Beardsley drawing come to life, is marvellously funny, and a good foil for the awkward intensity of his hot-eyed rival (Tom Morley).


Some, admittedly, may feel that a masterpiece of a novel has been bleached of its seriousness (especially politically) and turned into a mere Edwardian rom-com – a wrong man, a right man, a slow realization of which is which. But enough of its essence is there, performed with energy and honesty by this fine cast, to draw a new generation to this marvellous writer. For like Tennessee Williams and Rattigan and Coward and Bennett, Forster belongs to that odd and significant company of gay men who, oppressed themselves, created some of the most memorable female characters we have. For that I give thanks. It’s touring, last night tonight in Bath; off to Brighton and Richmond next.



box office 01225 448844 for tour
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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PILGRIMS Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh

From Wales to this easternmost festival Tamara Harvey – newish artistic director of Theatr Clwyd – brings a new play by Elinor Cook. It’s about two young men – celebrated climbers, Everest-conquerors, bonded buddies – and their interaction with a young woman engrossed in a PhD about “folk songs, war, travel, heroes, the romantic era..”. Indeed, by the sound of it a bit of a muddle: one is not especially surprised at the later suggestion that her academic entanglement between the ballad Tam Lin, colonialism and feminist theory is running into the sand.


They’re very watchable, though: Amanda Wilkin Roche, striding, bubbling, confident, is Rachel. In a punchy opening she is conversing, in imagination, with the men as one (Stefan Donnelly as the exuberant Will) lies apparently dying 18,000 feet up on a mountain with Dan (a quieter Jack Monaghan) at his side. Sometimes one or other of the cast becomes a narrator, delivering stage directions “Two men alone on a mountain. Tall, Caucasian..” “He hands her a gift” or moving us back and forward in time – “Six weeks earlier”. Sometimes this experimentalism works, and keeps you focused; at other moments it distracts, as if the three of them were enacting some sort of moral fable which we should listen to for our own good, rather than lose ourselves in.




This tone, indeed, is the weak spot of an otherwise ingenious play, nicely staged on a flat jagged platform enabling the lithe, spidery chaps to express the edginess of their mountain trade. We discover in the flashbacks that Rachel was first the girlfriend of one, then of the other; that they each in their own way find it impossible to give up the dangerous life though she might have got Dan to try; and that she suffers both a fascination and a revulsion about their heroic ideals. There is a sudden anti-colonialist rant from Rachel – who is black, which I suppose is the point here – about “cruel arrogant wicked people in helmets and medals who dared to impose their way of life..” Later on, when the disaster has happened on The Last Climb, she translates this into feminist relationship outrage worthy of a Rob-and-Helen Archers storyline – “ Sometimes it felt like an invasion. I was losing whole chunks of land to you”. And “Must there always be a girl, must she always be the prize?”.


Both good points, but neither sharp enough to hurt; nor are the men drawn with much conviction. There are two sorts of passionate mountaineers – the conquerors, who score summits and routes – and the romantics, who find more joy in their beauty. This pair appear to be the first, and therefore don’t quite fit the romantic PhD; but we’re still not sure what goes on in their minds. In other words, it’s all about Rachel, and the poorer for that. But Elinor Cook can certainly write, and I look forward to whatever she does next. transferring next to Yard Theatre and Theatr Clwyd Cymru

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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If you find yourself in an audience of maturer years , flee quickly at the final curtain, or someone will creakingly inform you that they saw Olivier as Archie Rice, John Osborne’s failing music-hall performer  in 1957. Or maybe it was the 1960  I, on the other hand, can offer for what it’s worth the perspective of one who never saw this glum, angry metaphor for Britain’s decline into 1950’s pointlessness and Suez disgrace played at all.



So I come fresh to this finale of Kenneth Branagh’s season, starring the man himself directed by Rob Ashford. On the other hand, after Derby’s revival of Look Back In Anger, the Finborough’s rather marvellous “A subject of scandal and concern”, and the Donmar’s Inadmissible Evidence, the theme is familiar: Osborne’s men, especially Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice, are ancestors of a long (and generally tedious) line of ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision. One meets them at the Fringe, or sidling into the mainstream with a light metrosexual-confessional gloss.




So it was interesting. But for all the professionalism, the marvellous seedy ‘50s backdrops of peeling gilt and holiday postcards by Christopher Oram; for all the standout brilliance of Greta Scacchi playing blousily despairing and helplessly angry as Archie’s wife Phoebe, it doesn’t really work. Not even with Archie’s truly terrible music-hall jokes and Branagh’s truly admirable admirable tap dancing – feet syncopating like the last faltering drumbeats of the Empire . It is not a great play. It makes you dismally wonder whether it isn’t time to ring down the curtain on angry-old-Ozzy for a while, saving only his Luther. As Archie would say, it “played better first house”.



One problem is a slow start: Gawn Grainger is splendid as grandad Billy, ranting about Poles ,Irish , male ballet dancers, railway food and how people used to take their hats off passing the Cenotaph (“even on the bus”). Yet there’s nothing striking there for a post-Alf-Garnett generation, and the one-note delivery of Sophie McShera as granddaughter Jean, supposedly the modern voice, is disconcertingly dull. Scacchi is terrific, giving Phoebe real depth and pain below the absurdity ; Jonah Hauer -King as the draft-refusing son is fine too, sharply touching when not forced to spout the usual nihilist-atheist-depressive Osborne shtick about how we’re all alone and nobody cares, especially Tories.



But the central problem is Archie. Branagh delivers the stage routines competently, but without the mesmeric conviction and control which even a middling music-hall veteran deploys. Perhaps too keen to justify his later claim of being “dead behind the eyes” he has an air of ironically knowing how awful it all is, even while he’s doing it. It doesn’t ring true: nobody keeps it up as long as he is supposed to without being addicted to rapport and laughter. He is far more convincing in the domestic rants and vituperation, but the halves don’t stick together . The Osborne misogyny grates too: nuns, tarts, barmaids, Phoebe herself are despised, and even when he gets tearful about a “negress” who sang a gospel song he can’t stop sneering at the “fat cheeks” of the “old bag”.



It is hard to care about his despair. And without that, the play’s own despair at the state of Britain rings hollow and dated. Osborne gave up on the nation too soon. And, indeed, on music-hall. As a silently ironic audience scoffs at Archie’s awful routines, note that in 2016 the great Ken Dodd is still touring, selling out vast houses and entrancing us for four hours on the trot with just the sort of bad jokes Osborne despaired of sixty years ago. I don’t know what that proves, but it feels important to mention it.


box office 0844 482 9673 to 12 nov
In cinemas nationwide 27 Oct
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S Theatre Royal Haymarket SW1




It’s easy to get worked up by celebrities and big names crowding out the talented-but-unknown usuals. ‘They’re just there to get bums on seats’, is the most common cry. But somewhere along the line we have to accept that these people – these stars – are some of the most charismatic people to ever walk the planet. And when the rock-star du jour is Pixie Lott – impossibly attractive, entrancingly charming and dramatically fluent… BOOK THEM BOOK THEM BOOK THEM. Slap up the billboards, pay they whatever they want, just get them behind that curtain in time.




What alchemy then, when the part waiting at the end of the red carpet is Breakfast at Tiffany’s Hollie Golightly (see descriptions above, impossibly attractive, entrancingly charming etc). She’s the mystery neighbour who we want to know everything about. It’s a perfect, heady mix. It’s not a classically tuned theatre performance, but that’s not what you want. Lott’s Golightly is emotionally versatile, seductive and youthfully talented. 5 stars.



Such a shame, then,  that the rest of the production goes heavily. The superstar has shone so brightly across the stage, the rehearsal room and the desk of the producers, that the rest has been forgotten. Nikolai Foster’s production smells as if it started life as a musical. A shiny and glitzy number, which was forced to empty it’s pockets of songs as it walked across Haymarket.




Some tunes remain, and because Lott is an exceptionally talented singer they’re a joy. But the sheen of Broadway has translated into a needlessly mechanical and chunky set, which screams and whirs when moved, disco lighting which shines slutty, and incredibly irritating background music. It’s like seeing your favourite late-night bar with the big light on; good grief!




The cast too keep up to some speedy beat, despite their being none. They zip around and chatter, but lose all control and end up flat and cartoonish. Matt Barber (the frustrated neighbour Fred, our lost guide) is shrill and uncomfortably unfunny. Capote’s dry humour (direct narration carved out in chunks by the adapter, Richard Greenberg) goes stale in his mouth. The rest of the cast roll and rollerblade in and out of the stage aimlessly but achieve little. But when Lott gracefully walks in ,much of this seems to lift. You understand the infatuation the rest of the characters have for her. You see why they’re all turned to mush trying to understand her motivations and moves. But when you can’t see that glorious puzzle in front of you. You’re just left with the mush.Thank you, celebrity casting.

Box Office 020 7930 8800   In London until the 17th of September, then on tour.

Rating;  three3 Meece Rating

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HALF A SIXPENCE Chichester Festival Theatre




This 1963 show – based loosely on H.G.Wells’ semiautobiographical KIPPS – was originally a vehicle for Tommy Steele. And there were moments, as curly-haired young Charlie Stemp capered, frolicked, twirled, grinned with a whole keyboard of gleaming teeth and strummed a manic banjo, when I thought “Help! Some bastard has gone and cloned Tommy Steele. Where will this end?”.


For the part of Arthur Kipps, humble draper’s assistant who comes into money and nearly marries a posh girl, is pure quintessence of Steele in bad ways as well as good. Agile, likeable, fizzing with energy but shallow as a saucer. Becoming rich by inheritance, he forgets the childhood sweetheart to whom he gave half a broken sixpence as a boyish love-token, proposes to a posh and controlling girl whose family only want his money, realizes his mistake enough to be glad when the money’s embezzled, and returns to his old love. And that’s it.




The original work by Beverley Cross and David Heneker has been tweaked as to story by Julian Fellowes, the go-to man on Edwardian snobbery, with some new and revamped songs by Stiles and Drewe and loving oversight by Cameron Mackintosh. Immense fun has been had with the design by Paul Brown – an elegant diorama revealing English Edwardiana dripping with atmosphere whether in chandeliered drawing-room or ‘umble pub . Even wilder fun rules the choreography by Andrew Wright, which particularly in the second half is exhilaratingly witty. There’s a tremendous set-piece musical evening in which a nicely dreary bassoon solo by Lady Dacre morphs, with crazed psychological improbability, into a wild mass percussion event in bustles, led by Kipps on the banjo and culminating with the butler swinging from the chandelier. And of course the flash-bang-wallop wedding photo number ends it with dazzling precision and proper joy.



But for all Stemp’s valiant effort at character as the deluded hero, despite Devon-Elise Johnson as his beloved Ann (she has one fine moment of invective which got a small cheer), plus a dignified bland Emma Williams as posh Helen, the thinness of the story makes it un-engaging. Certainly it feels oddly dated, and devoid of the emotional kick we are used to in musicals all the way from Showboat to Sweeney Todd and Gipsy, and indeed Bend it like Beckham and Mrs Henderson Presents. Musicals can deliver a visceral, engaging, breath-holding thump but this one, overpacked with big numbers following relentlessly boom-bang-a-thump on one another’s heels carries you no further than foot-tapping and technical admiration. And there are some hellishly embarrassing lines illustrating Kipps’ social gaucheness: really, nobody on a public stage in 2016 should have to perform exchanges like “I suppose you like Bernini” “I don’t drink much”.



It would have been possible to drop a meaningless song or two to give us a lot more of Jane How’s magisterial Lady Punnet and Alex Hope’s Sid the Socialist (very HG Wells, but perhaps not very Fellowes). And I could have taken a great deal more of Ian Bartholomew’s bohemian actor-playwright Chitterlow, who beneath some very Donald Trump hair plays it genuinely funny with sparks of real eccentricity. It just needs something to throw a hook into our hearts, or at least our funnybones. But it’s fun, it’s vigorous, and the choreography and band are great.  And Stemp is a real find.   If you’d never seen a musical, it might dazzle.



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rating three  3 Meece Rating

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