Category Archives: Two Mice

LIGHT FALLS             Royal Exchange, Manchester

NORTHERN GUEST REVIEWER HELEN GASKELL TIRES OF THE RELENTLESS GRIT

 

A family of five, scattered across the North of England, are brought together by tragedy.  The play shows a picture of their lives as they find their way home.  Written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sarah Frankcom with music by Jarvis Cocker, it’s something one would really love to love: the brainchild of three Northern legends in the ultimate Northern theatre.  The writing is superb, the direction too, the music thoughtful and brave.

 

But it’s too Northern.  It’s far, far too Northern.  The grit-spreaders have truly been out in force, and it’s excruciating to swallow so very many clichés in one dose.  The lead protagonist Christine (Rebecca Manley) and her youngest daughter Ashe (Katie West) both have matching Maxine Peake haircuts.  There are drugs, drink, a single mother, a debt collector working for a bookie, down-to-earth swingers and an awkward, overweight,  cheating husband in an ill-fitting suit trying to pay for sex.  Rain was a pivotal plot point.  Everyone is startlingly poor and grindingly miserable.  We were only missing a whippet on a bit of string eating a pie, and perhaps Morrissey wailing plaintively in a corner to make the tableau complete.

 

    Stephens writes in the notes that he has spent the past 25 years in London, and that he felt relatively untouched by the financial crash of 2008.  He notes that “the more I travelled outside of London, the more the heft of that collapse seemed legible and the more that economic disparity seemed oddly brutal.”  He and Frankcom (then Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, now Director of LAMDA) then went on a road trip across the North and met with people who “in some way echoed the lives from my life before I was born”.   Which, incidentally, has led to half the North being tarred with their wild and inaccurate brush strokes.  Cocker, too has left the North: he now splits his days between Paris and London.  It is difficult to see plays about poverty written by the privileged, and foolhardy to set decades-old experiences in the modern day.

 

  This review is hard to write, and it may be hard to read.  This is the kind of play which gets made into Radio 4 plays and gritty TV adaptations.  It was described to me as “a powerful allegory to the North”.  It absolutely is art, and there was some exceptional acting – Lloyd Hutchinson’s portrayal of middle-aged wannabe-swinger Bernard was spot on.  But the role he nailed was a stereotype.  Likewise Jamie Samuel, playing flight attendant Andy: he was kind, compassionate and convincing, but being asked to walk in a direction unworthy of his talent.  The writing cannot be faulted in its style and tone, but it clings to outdated stereotypes.

 

    Affluent southerners will love this play: this is how they like to see us.  Poor, grimy, suffering.  It makes them feel especially cosy in their little southern nests.  But the financial crash was not an exclusively Northern affliction: there is poverty everywhere, and affluence everywhere. Stephens might not have noticed the poverty in East London but that is not because it has been razed from the Greater London area altogether: it is because the impoverished people who used to live there have been forced out.

 

   Frankly,  you’d have to work spectacularly hard to find a bunch of people as resolutely downtrodden as those in this play – not just in the North, but practically anywhere in the world.  It needs to replace half its A Taste Of Honey with a hefty dose of Abigail’s Party.  Either that or focus less on the North and more on the universality of struggle.  We in the North are sick of being told we are cheerless and tough. As in the title of this play suggests, light falls.  So show it, please.

 

Rating: Two   2 meece rating

royalexchange.co.uk   to 16 November

Comments Off on LIGHT FALLS             Royal Exchange, Manchester

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

VASSA Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL DOES NOT HAVE A GOOD NIGHT OUT

 

What a strange evening this is. Young director Tinuke Craig has taken Maxim Gorky’s 1911 play (there was a revision in 1935 but she has opted for the earlier text) and fashions a strangely free-floating family drama that seems part French farce, part panto, part absurdist horror. It’s certainly discomfiting, but not always in a  good way.

 

At its centre is Vassa herself (Siobhan Redmond), mother to an unruly brew of disaffected, dysfunctional children and  a hard-nosed patriarch who is dying upstairs. The business the two built together is also going to pot and Vassa will do anything (and you will see quite what that means) to protect her interests.   But what was a timely satire of the iniquities of capitalism in its day doesn’t really have much to say when Craig has so squarely decided to move it so out of time, place and a story of a generic family. It could be anywhere, which seems strange for a play aimed squarely at the horrors of late-stage capitalism before Russia’s glorious 1917 revolution.

 

So instead of saying much about our world,   it is just a clanging, unmodulated mix of registers. Mike Bartlett’s text gives its characters few asides about the stupidity of politicians (and also, on one instance, “fucking theatre” itself) to attract those knowing theatre chuckles we know so well.  But mainly this feels redolent of a panto star at the Hackney Empire getting a cheap laugh. The constant comings and goings and door slams (lots of doors in designer Fly Davis’ drab-looking, wood-heavy set) also brings an edge of farce to proceedings . Which feels aimlessly frustrating.

 

I suppose it could be said that tyrannical parents, shepherding the lives of feckless greedy children egged on by avaricious spouses,   can ring true regardless of its time and place. But it’s hard not to think that these themes are more cleverly and stylishly brought out in, say, HBO’s Succession. This just  seems unmodulated, relentless and, in the end, rather depressing. It’s as if Craig isn’t fully in command of her material.

 

And while there are some funny moments, with something grotesquely compelling about Redmond’s portrait of Vassa’s cruelty and curtness, you cannot help wondering what Samantha Bond, who was originally chosen for the part but was forced to back out due to injury, would have made of it.

to  23 Nov

rating  two 2 meece rating

Comments Off on VASSA Almeida, N1

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Guest reviewer Ben Dowell wishes an important story was better told…

 

The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company,  is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling  the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however  in the form of a 2 hr 35-minute play .

 

It’s certainly  cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s pay. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and  sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den) ,who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrongand gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities. 

 

The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability.  Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Pebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.

 

Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of  trucks in order to win compensation . And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue , in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.

 

Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative.  This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle,  and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story,  factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.

hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October

 

2 meece rating

Rating. Two

Comments Off on THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

ORIGAMI SOUNDSCAPES /THE CRANE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS NOT MUCH UNFOLDING AT GRIMEBORN

I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a bit of rarefied Japanese elegance on stage in almost any context: the very mention of Noh theatre always makes my ears prick up. So, when Grimeborn proffered Verity Lane’s double bill of bilingual English/Japanese pieces inspired by Lane’s time in Japan, drawing on ancient Japanese folklore, I knew instantly what I was doing with my Friday night. Or, at least, I thought I did.

This performance proved very difficult to get hold of, in more ways than one. The first part opened with a messy stage strewn with crumpled paper, bowls of various sizes, drums, and two small fishtanks filled with water, with Japanese graffiti scrawled on many objects in neon paint. Onto the stage arrived Coco Sato, our live origamist, accompanied by Kiku Day to provide an atmospheric accompaniment on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute whose breathy, breathless and occasionally shrieking whistle will be familiar to you if you’ve ever curled up with a good (old) samurai film. The ‘Soundscapes’ began in earnest with narration by Tomoko Komura: although loud and clear, her English was so rapid I found it hard to cotton on to most of the poems, which seemed to be aiming at mystical beauty (the nightingale, the owl, and the crane) but generally erred on the side of incomprehensible kitsch. Into this by now slightly scrappy arrangement, with remarkable calmness, danced percussionist Beibei Wang. Wang was the undoubted highlight of the night: her intense, focused musicality was simply extraordinary, part percussion, part theatre, part dance. There seemed to be nothing on stage Wang couldn’t turn into an interesting sound: her fingers flashed and flew as she splashed and paddled water, scrumpled brown paper, and kept on rhythmically drumming on anything and everything she could find. Now, the other elements (origami, flute, spoken poetry) became distractions from Wang’s sinuous, agile brilliance; despite sincerity and commitment on all sides, there were several moments when it all felt dangerously on the edge of being silly. Perhaps less might have achieved more.

As the final Soundscape culminated in a large paper origami crane flapping off the stage, the interval came as a surprise: given that we had seen a crane, had we now seen everything? With no more than a bare cast list to go on, it was difficult to know what more there could be; but ‘The Crane’ proper began in the second half, and here the wheels sadly came off altogether. Some elegant animations by Rowan O’Brien of cranes flying over snowy mountains created lovely visual tone, but the narrative impact of whatever was supposed to be going on was thoroughly deadened by the absence of translation provided (unusual for Grimeborn), the extensive portions in Japanese proving frankly impenetrable, rather than intriguingly mysterious. Again, Beibei Wang was a virtuoso spectacle, the best drumming I have ever seen on any stage, opera or rock, but if you were not already familiar with the folktale of the crane, you really were none the wiser as to its plot, or its lesson. I came away frustrated, rather than mystified.

Grimeborn is an ideal platform for experimental pieces: this was a well-intentioned creative act on the very edge of opera, which showcased some remarkable talent, but ultimately failed to fly. However, innovation is always disorientating: Verity Lane should be commended for trying something new. With a little more refinement, and clearer narrative guiding for an English audience, she might really be onto something.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (23-24 August only)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

Comments Off on ORIGAMI SOUNDSCAPES /THE CRANE Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Two Mice

VIOLETTA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WATCHES VERDI’S MASTERPIECE WILT LIKE A CRUSHED CAMELLIA 

Violetta is a reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, using only three characters: the doomed courtesan Violetta, her idealistic yet immature lover Alfredo, and – surprise! Alfredo’s mother. Yes, Germont père is exchanged by Opera Allegra for Germont mère; an eyecatching decision with a potential cascade of interesting effects on the all-important gender dynamics of this piece at Grimeborn. I set off to the Arcola full of excitement. What new things would I see? I was a little confused when I saw the librettist was still Piave – so, we weren’t getting any new words. Well, what would they do, then, to bring out those fresh and fascinating nuances from the inclusion of Alfredo’s mother?

The answer was: nothing. The part was unchanged (“Giorgio” simply became “Giorgia”), sadly miscast, and kept on stage pointlessly for most of the action. Our gruff, proud Provençal gent who learns humanity the hard way was transmuted into a weak, querulous irritating-mother-in-law figure with no influence over proceedings, and no presence to match her fellow principals. In La traviata, the clashing pressures of public versus private life should pound our protagonists towards misery and emotional enlightenment, via lust, gambling and consumption, but as this chamber version only shows three characters, we completely miss the glittering whirl of the convivial, cruel world which exploits and abandons Violetta. We are left with a rather flat story of an unwise love affair, paused briefly by the interference of a small-minded mother. If you know this opera well, you’ll enjoy Ben Leonard’s clean, springy tenor as Alfredo, but you will be amazed how poorly the opera functions as a dramatic piece when cut so savagely. If the opera is new to you, you get barely a sniff of the real thing, and if you find it long, boring and confusing, I’d sympathise: please don’t judge Verdi on this, as it’s not his fault. Worst of all, the much-vaunted ‘contemporary twist’ of the production never lands – the work simply hasn’t gone in to back it up.

Ashley Pearson’s revival direction feels remarkably outdated: characters sing in lumpen stillness, often without making eye contact with one another when confessing deep emotion, with only faint glimmers of natural expression occasionally breaking through their patchy acting, because his singers are left stranded by Pearson’s lack of ideas. Compounding the problem, Martin Berry’s staging is heavy-handed Merchant Ivory, with elaborate Alphonse Mucha-esque costumes, and no distinction made between gracious apartment, country hideaway or death scene garret. The narrative, already maimed, thus has no way left to express itself on stage. Opera Allegra only get away with it at all thanks to Verdi’s superb writing, which does all the hard work for them whenever they let it. Still, it is astonishing to find La traviata – the world’s most-performed opera – not functioning dramatically, or moving us emotionally. Uneven casting adds a brutal congé; Leonard’s pleasingly agile Alfredo doesn’t pair well with Loretta Hopkins’ vocally unwieldy Violetta, while Alison Thorman is completely, and unfairly, out of her depth on all fronts. As she approached “Di Provenza il mar,” I crossed my fingers – meanwhile, my toes curled.

I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to watch Violetta’s interview with Germont without crying; but, with such poor direction, it definitely is.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (29-31 July only, run now finished)

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

2 meece rating

Comments Off on VIOLETTA Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Two Mice

DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

Comments Off on DIDO Unicorn, SE1

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER Bridge, SE1

NOT SO VERY

 

  A wooden box swings, pendulum-regular, in a peerlessly spooky attic of Halloween horror,  designed with glee by Anna Fleischle .   It is inhabited. Difficult, says its captive (using the unaccountable cowboy tones of Tom Waits)  to hang yourself when you are shut in a 10 ft box with one foot sawn off and no rope or laces.   Hans Christian Andersen, downstairs,  receives plaudits for  reading aloud – with some unfamiliar stumbles – The Little Mermaid.  He comes up to tell the captive – a Congolese female pygmy he calls Marjorie – to make the next story she gives him upbeat.  No  more “cripples dying in the snow”. Otherwise he might saw off her other foot.   Every other word in their conversation is ‘fucking’ or “cunt”, though she at least is crisply intelligent ,whereas Hans is a stumblebum (who does stumblebums better than Jim Broadbent , eh ?  OK, he is sometimes genuinely funny despite the text’s  lazy limitations).  

 

 

 Hans is under stress  because two bloodstained time-travelling Belgians from the future are trying to prevent themselves being killed in that future by “Marjorie” , whose family they slew during King Leopold II’s appalling 1880s genocide.   Luckily she has a haunted concertina with a hidden machine gun,  in case they come for her while Hans is visiting Charles Dickens.  Who he confuses with CharlesDarwin, but who also got his tales from a captive but creative Congolese pygmy.  Dickens’ wife and small children, by the way,  also eff and blind a lot, which may be lazy dialogue but  is handy because it proves that -in defiance of increasingly compelling suspicion on my part  -Martin  McDonagh’s new absurdist play  is not just a string of dated Monty- Python sketches.   Its more modern: a sweary  gross-out horror fantasy , a cheese-dream for intellectual literati.

 

 

         You might enjoy it.  Matter of taste.   Dress it up  perhaps as a solemn metaphor about colonial guilt and exploitation.  Or go Freudian and decide that Marjorie is the dark  inner side of any tormented artist.  Alternatively just shrug. I did.  It felt lazy and silly in equal parts.    The brightest aspect   , though, should be celebrated:   it is a remarkable, assured, tough and sharpwitted professional debut for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles playing the Congolese captive. She even gives it edges of proper emotion,  despite occasionally having to mime to that unaccountable cowboy Waits  voice. 

 

 

    So OK, glad she got the gig.  And mirth matters, wherever it is found, so glad too that quite a few of the audience laughed.  Though rather tellingly,  they never laughed never as heavily  as at a theatreworld  in-joke about German directors.   By the way, McDonagh in his Mr McNasty mood adds a really  unpleasant, and wholly gratuitous, little tale of a conjoined twin who dies slowly, deaf and blind,  of rigor mortis when his sibling’s throat is cut.  But hey, it’s dark comedy, innit?  Sick, man!

 

box office  www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 6 Jan

rating two  2 meece rating

Comments Off on A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER Bridge, SE1

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice