Category Archives: 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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PINTER AT THE PINTER –    ONE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

STEEL CELLS AND SADISM

 

     Settling in, you’d think you were at the Cenotaph or the Tattoo.   A military soundtrack booms out Imperial Echoes and Jupiter (I Vow To Thee My Country).  The forecurtain has a single word in brutalist stone-grey letters  and as it goes up there’s a deafening Rule Britannia.  Oh,  and a shower of tickertape.

 

 The stony word is PINTER,  and this launches a short season marking his death ten years ago by assembling, in seven sets,  all his short playlets, sketches and poems, with starry casts including (in this first set)  Paapa Essiedu, Maggie Steed and Antony Sher.     This opener is themed on atrocity, repression, dictatorship and state torture.  

 

          It is no secret that Harold Pinter’s gift was for evoking threat, emotional cruelty and downright bullying, whether official or familial. The first half, directed by Jamie Lloyd, starts with the brief “Press Conference”  in which a suave“Minister of Culture” speaks of annihilating subversive children. Next a bufferish caricature of two politicians dismissing millions of deaths, and an audio clip of the author himself about  “putting my finger on the body politic of the world”.  Next a naked figure sits on a chair while two torturers in shades gleefully discuss without detail how much they will do to him: there’s a playfulness which the author is enjoying worryingly much.  The glee continues in the next one, as two thuggish soldiers ask impossible questions of cowering women trying to visit a bloodstained prisoner in a steel cell and the voice of Michael Gambon forbids them to use their language.   In between these imagined atrocities the music blasts out Zadok The Priest, presumably  to suggest that monarchy causes such things.

 

         And on we go to Kate O’Flynn as an American Football cheerleader shrieking one of PInter’s favourite tropes about how “we blew the shit outa them, they’re suffocating in their shit, praise the Lord”.   Oh, and a jejune joke  “undiscovered” sketch in which a bad-wig Trump (a different guest star each time) orders “Nuke London”. 

      

        There is brief relief as Maggie Steed beautifully speaks his gentle poem about death,  and then a longer, quite remarkable performance by Antony Sher interrogating,  in a nightmare of suggestive bullying,  a silent dissident. Then, really nastily,   the man’s raped wife and small child. Sher is of course brilliant.   And of course drama should reflect the existence of torture, fascist dictatorships, bleak cells,  sadism and the banning of free speech (something which the ever-lionized Pinter never suffered).   But the danger of  anthologising like this is the lack of any specificity.   Without relating it  to the realities of Nazi Germany, Guantanamo, Syria ,Russia, China, wherever,  or even and without even declaring it a dystopia –   it can decline into mere sadistic fantasy.  Wallowing. 

Pinter does wallow, no question about it, and the director Jamie Lloyd’s belief that it is amusingly satirical to suggest with his Cenotaph-music that we’re in a fascist state here,   is not only silly but an insult to those who really are in one.   So the lack of context in that sequence bothered me. 

 As for the second half, where Lia Williams directs  Ashes to Ashes with Kate O”Flynn and Essiedu, it is again well-executed. But  dripping with sexual sado-masochism of the kiss-my-fist variety and,   in the woman’s final words, rather disgustingly hijacking  images of the Holocaust trains.   Still, we were spared another blast of Zadok the Priest.    Look, if you love this aspect of Pinter – the wallowing threat –  you’ll not find it better evoked than in Pinter One.   For the other six in the series, watch this space. 

 

www.atgtickets.com   to February

rating  two   2 meece rating

   

 

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EMILIA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

DARK LADY DEMANDING LIMELIGHT

 

     The Globe has had some tremendous new-writing about history, for which it is nicely suited.  Remember Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and  Dr Scroggy’s War, or Jessica Swayle’s fine Nell Gwyn and Bluestockings.    This latest one, commissioned by Michelle Terry from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is not in that class.  Which is a great pity, because the theme is intriguing and useful:  the too-long-tolerated invisibility of women as writers and thinkers.  

 

 

       It deals with Emilia Bassano Lanier (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady  of the sonnets, unless that was a bloke, as others opine).   What we know of her is scarce:  daughter of a Italian court musician,  mistress and protegée of a Lord Chamberlain and later married for convenience, she published a religious text aimed at women – Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum – with strong and laudable attitudes to her sex.  She may conceivably have met Shakespeare.  The astrologer Simon Forman was rude about her.   And that’s about it. 

     

But the author, and director Nicole Charles, regard this lack of facts as freeing  and make the most of it. Their Emilia is played by three women, Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson, with Perkins a declamatory, narrating old-woman version and the others as younger selves.  Their Emilia speaks her mind from childhood onwards, defies the ludicrously caricatured capering men of the court to their faces,  as she does the more conventional, crinolined court ladies.  She meets the young Shakespeare (a spirited Charity Wakefield), becomes his lover and tells him about women.  He offers to ‘pour you into my work and immortalize your soul” and she snarls “I don ’t want your platform, I want mine”.    She  utters lines like “ I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” which he promptly nicks,  so she gets furious.  When  his Emilia-and-Desdemona scene is on stage she rampages amid the groundlings shouting for her rights of authorhood.  She berates him when he tries to “mansplain” the craft of writing (hoots and cheers from a very ‘woke’ audience at all these points). 

 

  She befriends the poor washerwomen and prostitutes of Bankside after they rescue her from drowning (in a still very clean bra-slip)  and decides to educate them.   She runs a risk of being burnt at a witch, and one  friend is.   She finally gets her pamphlets about women’s equality published by disguising them as religious works.  

         

     The play creaks beneath  its burden of feminist ideology , underlined in the programme by Shami Chakrabarti and an excitable essay by Deborah Frances-White,  who feels familiar enough with the eluxive historical Emilia to call her “a poet, a class warrior and champion of women – but she knew how to party..shagged loads of people”) .   And as if  the feminist line was not enough, as the three Emilias are women of colour  we get another theme of the plight of immigrants.  The heroine embraces modern victimhood-identification  language and complains about “not belonging” due to being Italian by ancestry.  She   demands to be judged by virtues not inheritance,  and mourns over an exotic seed-pod on the riverbank which will never grow in “a land unforgiving”.  Though in fact Elizabethan London was more than open –  to Europeans like her at least – and awash with active and successful immigrants .   The paranoia is underlined as Lady Katherine Howard tells her that her sort take jobs from English workers.  Clunking?   Very.   

  

     It’s an undercooked, issue-driven play.  The Emilias in particular are fine performers,   but mainly given only shouty rants as lines;  the language is banal and plodding,   veering between brief archaisms like “I care not”  and Blackadderish slang and “That’s a bit weird innit?”.   Thus whenever the odd real line from Shakespeare crops up,   it is like an unexpected orchid in an arid lawn.  Everyone is encouraged to caper cartoonishly, a la Horrible histories.  There is little light and shade,  no sense of real interaction with men except once with Shakespeare,  and just whenever you start to identify with the two younger Emilias,  the older one powers in to interrupt with another diatribe. Concluding, in the final moments, with a ranting  paean to all female anger and hostility towards men responsible for our ongoing slavery. Her final injunction is “burn the whole fucking house down!”.  

  

      Look, I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be good, embrace some subtlety, open doors on the past.  It is perfectly true that women have been sidelined and silenced over centuries, and  I liked stage-Emilia’s view  (in one of the few good lines) that to succeed we have needed to be “tricksters, shape-shifters,  upstream swimmers” .   But  to my real dismay,  as the evening went on all shouty and furious and improbable,   despite the first-night laughs and acclamations I felt less and less sympathetic towards the cause.    

to 1 Sept

rating two  2 meece rating

    

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