Category Archives: Two Mice

LIGHT FALLS             Royal Exchange, Manchester



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   to 16 November


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VASSA Almeida, N1



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

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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. To 12 October


2 meece rating

Rating. Two

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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.


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 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.


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



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   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 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   to 6 Jan

rating two  2 meece rating

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PINTER AT THE PINTER –    ONE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1



     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.   to February

rating  two   2 meece rating



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EMILIA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1



     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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Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to ensure human progress, and met with a grisly eternal punishment as a reward: Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver daily. Keith Burstein’s new opera The Prometheus Revolution attempts to engage with this Greek myth through a story of modern-day capitalism and revolt. Peter (Alex Haigh) redirects two trillion pounds from the City to the Prometheus Peace Movement, revivifying a socially rebellious organisation which he founded, but left to become a successful banker or deep undercover rebel agent: his erstwhile partner in the Prometheus Movement, Aaron (Robert Garland), can’t be sure which, as the (mainly sexual) tensions of their youth threaten to break the Movement apart just as civil war finally gets going. Fulham Opera field a dazzlingly strong young cast to give Burstein’s opera its world premiere; singing is lyrical and compelling throughout, piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward richly expressive, direction from Sophie Gilpin clear and clever. Sunny Smith’s pared-down, efficient design uses a grid of steel ropes on a platform in the centre of the playing space to suggest the glass and steel of a City office, or a prison cell; the addition of blinds, swags or banners suggests meeting rooms, hotel balconies and Movement HQ. However, despite music, design and direction all being on point, The Prometheus Revolution is a severe test of performance, and ultimately only the strength, charm and skill of Fulham Opera’s company carries us through this piece. The opera is unfortunately stymied by its weak, derivative and repetitive libretto, which loses sight of its myth early on: the point of Prometheus’ rebellion was the foundation of human technology, a revolutionary achievement enhancing life for billions and possibly worth an eternity of pain for one. We never hear of Peter’s trillions accomplishing anything useful or tangible for anybody. Nor is his punishment permanent (a quick death, stabbed by a spurned lover and a political rival).

This is an opera which constantly tells you what it is doing without ever actually doing it, nor showing you why it needs doing. Though we get endless sloganising about peace, love, truth, equality and so on, we never quite understand what the Movement truly entails. It certainly includes universal love, mainly focused in Peter: everyone (it seems) is passionately jealous of Peter’s sexual favours, and his relationship history is trotted endlessly around the stage like a tired beach pony. Nor can we perceive what social evil they are fighting, beyond generalised comments about the State not respecting the individual. The libretto lurches from cliché to cliché, repeating characters’ names endlessly without establishing any credible inner life, indeed repeating itself generally. Gender dynamics are exceptionally dated, with men making all key decisions while women coo admiringly, smoulder tactically or plot jealous revenge. The plot is so dense that no action can find any emotional context, bashing ever onward with all the subtlety of handwritten capitals in thick black permanent pen, despite a cast who can act their socks off and cope magnificently with its leanest opportunities for expression, even when Burstein (regularly) sets text of one mood to music of quite another. Caroline Carragher’s Wona is outstanding; James Schouten’s Des, brilliantly vivid; Nick Dwyer’s oily Zapruder, eye-catchingly charismatic. Burstein’s inconsistent, lumpily quote-laden score (the ghost of “Nessun Dorma” becoming ever more curiously insistent as we reach the underwhelming finale) doesn’t honestly deserve them.

Fulham Opera’s upcoming Grimeborn Lucia di Lammermoor (already sold out) is the hotter ticket. But what they achieve with this piece is seriously impressive, given its flaws.


Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 10 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: two 2 meece rating



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THE WRITER Almeida, N1



It is a curiosity of the age that young British women seem to be far angrier about The Patriarchy than their mothers , even though law, language, women’s accomplishments, education, and domestic social conventions are infinitely more on their side , and their struggle is far less. None of our ‘60s victories counts: one wrong pass or incautious phrase and they cry outrage. Every global cruelty and disaster from war and capitalism to environmental disaster is men’s fault too – even when a woman sends the bombers, runs the shops or uses the microbead lotions. Odd


In this show the bastards are also in charge of the arts: ruining creative women’s holy myths by mentioning squalid things like the need to sell tickets for the Sacred Space that is Theatre. Ella Hickson’s meta-theatrical play opens with a bracing encounter between a male director (Sam West,) and a truculent, furious young woman (Lara Rossi, brilliant at it) . She has seen a play and informs him that it was unreal,“saying lines..fake hair and new shoes and famous people doing things badly”, that he’s just a “good night out sort of guy” (ugh!) and that old men with flaking skin “tell THEIR truth” and don’t change the world with holy fire. So he offers her a writing commission, but it turns out that when they met before he tried to kiss her, so that invalidates everything, hashtag MeToo !



The patriarchal idea of logical narrative is obviously out of the question, so it jerks on to a quite funny sketch of a panel – adding Romola Garai and Michael Gould to the first two – discussing a work in progress. There’s one great exchange where the elder man sneers that drama can’t be “just one person’s self-involved perspective on their own anguish” and the woman writer replies “Hamlet!”.


Hence to a half-finished playlet (Anna Fleischle’s set nicely built in moments onstage) in which Garai and West are a couple. He (after a quick shag) serves her supper and wishes she would accept a £ 40K film offer for her play. She says it would be like mutilating an unborn child, that she is “broken” in agonizing pain by his love of sofas and Waitrose, and that Picasso didn’t do anything he didn’t want to , so why should she? A real baby is briefly brought on, to prove she doesn’t want one, and next thing we know the set has vanished and she is having an IUD fitted. Which brings on a mythic monologue about being in a tribe with the goddess Semele and having lesbian sex under rippling lighting effects, which is better than the “semi devastated feeling that follows sex with men” because you negotiate your own sameness…
The producer comes on and mutters that though she is frighteningly gifted the play would be better without this “tribal shit” and with an actual ending. So despite her affront (“writers need to be safe”) we move to that ending. Which consists of a ritzier set, the two women eating a takeaway and having sex, once without a huge vivid purple dildo and once with it. Which upsets them, because just as in the end of Animal Farm. the power-game panting of the topmost one means that she has become one of the oppressive pigs. Dicks are evil, see?


I get it. I see why this means to break boundaries and change the world, know why the real male boss-class put it on, and why some uneasy middle-aged men – with and without flaky skin – will give it an approving nod. And the cast are all excellent. But I’m a woman, and a fiction writer, and frankly, if this is feminism and a plea for creativity I am a banana. It speaks only for the narrowest of demographics: a notional angry , unloving, sexually militant mythoholic 24-year-old riddled with humourless artistic vanity and self-pity. That Ella Hickson gives her male characters occasional sharp funny lines to puncture this monstrous kid’s balloon is to her credit. But as a play, it is pretty awful.


box office to 26 May
rating two   2 meece rating

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“I never boasted an education. I learned tricks” says Princess Margaret, bitterly, at a late point in Richard Stirling’s interesting but frustrating new play. For a moment you think – yes, that’s it! if a wilful, lively, pretty young woman learns nothing of science, history, and the deeper nobility of history and literature, but all she is given is that Princess status, things will go sour for her. And they did. Between the impertinent imaginations of The Crown on Netflix , and the brilliant “99 glimpses” collected from memoirs by Craig Brown in his book Ma’am Darling, there is a resurgence of interest in the Queen’s late sister. So Stirling’s play is well placed to attract interest.



And with more refinement, it could be genuinely worthwhile. It encounters the Princess in lateish middle age and the royal family’s Annus Horribilis: she’s divorced from Snowdon , resenting Diana (“Golden Girl”) and bitching about the “rentaKents” next door. Separated for the moment from her young lover Roddy, she is engaged in a curious incident, based on reality, when she burned a number of potentially damaging letters and papers from the Queen Mother’s Clarence House.



Stirling himself plays the QM’s ‘page” Backstairs Billy, with rather more camp than is strictly necessary, assisting her and keeping the drinks coming. A fictional young chancer turns up, to indicate the general hunger for royal gossip and leaks, and in the second and more interesting half the thuggish ex-con Bindon (in real life one of her Mustique pals) turns up, terminally ill, to challenge her.



That bit is interesting, touching at times. And Felicity Dean is brilliant as Margaret, catching – whenever the script allows – a confusion between being posh and frozenly Princessy and being slangy and matey: a problem widely observed by those who perceived her best. Patrick Toomey’s Bindon is strong too, and between them we get some real chemistry. Though I doubt he’d have rough-housed her as readily with staff in the next room, ex-lover or not.


But the terrible slow-burn of the first half merely exasperates: the witty one-liners are placed too obviously from real memoirs, and you get no real sense of the mixed hauteur and familiarity in her rather overlong dealings with Billy. I really want this to be a better play, and it may grow into one. But too much misfires. The best line is when Bindon threatens her saying “If you were a man – “ and she snaps “If I were a man, I’d be king”. That hits home. to 17 March
rating two  2 meece rating

PS    By the way, the excellent co-production of A Passage to India is still running in the bigger space at the Park…till the 24th.  This is my Northampton review of it:




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The return of Glengarry Glen Ross feels rather timely. There is something striking about a play consisting entirely of middle-aged men arguing amongst themselves and battling for their place in the world. But where the idea is relevant, here the execution feels anything but.

David Mamet’s Pulitzer prizewinning drama about the dubious and duplicitous acts of four Chicago salesmen has been revived at the Playhouse. We meet Ricky Roma, Dave Moss, George Aaronow and Shelly Levene, each desperate to get their hands on ‘the Glengarry leads’ – the contact details of promising prospective buyers for the Glengarry Highlands in Florida, a piece of prime real estate, which each of our salesman is desperately trying to flog, with the ultimate prize being that they might just get to keep their jobs. As we’ve come to expect from these kinds of characters, they’re willing to lie, cheat, bribe and steal to get any sort of competitive advantage over their colleagues.

The premise is simple, which makes the entire first act all the more baffling. It is the slowest of slow burns, with three separate scenes all comprising of two men, legs spread, talking at length to each other over mugs of coffee, in a Chinese restaurant. The dialogue really flickers in and out of life – whole sections of exposition go missing as our British actors in particular seem to be concentrating more on maintaining their, admittedly rather good, American accents rather than delivering any weight. It’s a sacrifice that struggles to pay off.

It does, eventually, warm up and the starry cast is undeniably likeable, Stanley Townsend has the shtick of Jackie Mason with the timbre of Jeffrey Tambor as Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levine, a desperate and faded old schmuck well past his prime. Christian Slater provides the glamour and credibility that the role of top salesman Ricky Roma deserves -with his accent already in the bag, it is his effortless charm that commands the most attention and is a standout performance.

Where this play shines is in its Thick of It-esque descent into sweary oblivion – Slater provides us with the best moment with his furious tirade against Kris Marshall, playing boss John Williamson – whose role generally is to lean on things and get shouted at.
Credit to designer Chiara Stephenson, the set for the second act is a thing of beauty, a ransacked office covered in scattered papers and piles of cardboard boxes, broken window shutters and chipboard repairs, however it’s arrival seems to further highlight just how much of a non-event the first act is. There were some real flashes of promise in the second as our cast came together – the chemistry rose to a simmer and there was almost even a whiff of there being something at stake.

Ultimately, this feels somewhat like a missed opportunity. It’s amusing in places, and ends in much finer fashion than it begins – but feels disappointingly hollow for too much throughout. If you are a fan of watching men sat with their legs spread and talking loudly at each other, then this might well be the show for you.
Box Office: 0844 871 7631
rating  two   2 meece rating

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AGAINST Almeida, N1



I’ll give them this; it’s timely. After the violence in Charlottesville, we’ve all been asking what on earth is happening with American society. Christopher Shinn’s Against has a silicon valley billionaire asking the same question, and has the cash and the sense of entitlement to march round the country trying to find out.




The Almeida – almost certainly the best stage in Zones 1 or 2 – has given way to the shiny wooden floor and fashionably dusty brick wall of an Apple Store in 2009.  Ben Whishaw is Luke; a nondescript standard tech billionaire preoccupied with what we’d expect. Artificial Intelligence, , transport, medicine, whatever.  He talks in platitudes, but I think the playwright doesn’t recognise them as such. He has that strange evangelical streak we increasingly see in tech leaders, but this is more than a bubbling sense of social justice or philanthropy. Strangely for this godless valley, Luke has been talking to the Man Upstairs.  “Go to violence”, God tells him, so Luke starts a “project”, a website (the details of which are always glossed over).




He sets out on a tour of the USA to hear from people, chronicle their experiences of violence and generally stare at them like a puppy. The issue? There are too many issues. A play is never going to drill down to recognisable truth if it takes wild shots at the conscience of the tech industry, gun violence at schools, sex, sex work, addiction, prisons, workers’ rights, wealth, and family. Each is given a glib going over, and that’s the only meat on offer. The first (a school shooting) starts well. It even had the early tinglings of a thriller. But we are quickly moved on, and it’s not mentioned again.




The thread which supposedly weaves all this together, Luke ’s curious relationship with a colleague, is frustratingly flat. None of this is lifted by Ian Rickson’s direction. A final shootout flits between huddles and stories we’ve followed, and is quite snappy. But the rest is stodgy. As if they’ve had a jolly good time tossing all 15,000 ideas around in the rehearsal room, but come up with little. There are flashes of humanity: the play quite refreshingly wears it’s sexual impulses on its sleeve and some of the incidental characters (Elliot Barnes-Worrell as a manual worker fan of Luke’s, Kevin Harvey as the most outrageously camp lefty University tutor and Naomi Wirthner as the tormented mother of a student shooter), but these glimpses don’t exactly make 2hrs 50 fly by.



Whishaw himself suits the mellow manners of a humble billionaire; uncomfortable away from a computer, stumbling through life. But where’s the range? There’s as much character in his crisp polo and bright white trainers as in his face. His charisma supposedly draws the masses of smalltown America (a touch of Jesus) and makes them divulge their lives to him. But none of that allure reaches the stalls.

This is clearly one of the most fruitful subject areas of our time. There’s been some incredible writing on the social responsibility of the tech world (not least from Jamie Bartlett) and how it’s possibly waking up to it. The motives of people like Mark Zuckerberg, who actually has toured the country to listen to people, are ripe for artistic investigation.
This play talks a lot about the difference between knowing and feeling, and journalism, when these people are so cagey, can take us only so far. A play could burrow further. Annoyingly, after this one neither knows nor feels.


Box Office 020 7359 4404 Until 30th September
rating two   2 meece rating

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The subtitle is “The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids’ Company”. Josie Rourke, with Hadley Fraser and Tom Deering’s music, has made a sort of opera from the verbatim public record of that day in October 2015, when the most normally “un-sexy” of Select Committees, under Bernard Jenkin MP, interrogated Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded and led the charity for two decades, and her Chairman Alan Yentob.




It had gone broke, salaries unpaid, and abruptly closed after accepting over the years £ 42m of public subsidy including a final, desperate £3m emergency bung. Indeed the rather cruel payoff is Batmanghelidh’s indignant “On what basis have you decided this is a failing charity?” and Jenkin’s “Because it’s gone bust!”. She, however, is allowed one last majestic aria about poor and abused children failed by the state.




Which, of course, they often are. And that derogation of social duty, erosion of social services and lack of trust in public organization is one reason that KidsCo lasted so long, a refuge and succour to its “self-referred” young clients. It impressed many ministers and donors, ticked the box for Cameron’s ‘big society’, and was allowed to suck up public money with little oversight by its puffed-up, self-satisfied networking-freak of a chairman. Who, in a rare descent into plain speaking, replied to the question of why they didn’t “restructure” with the words “We believed the government was going to give us more money”.



It is a fascinating and still unresolved story, not least because of the exuberant, eccentric figure of Camila herself; and the way a select committee works is actually not undramatic, especially when made surreal as the panel rise up, sing choruses (“We want to learn! This is not a show trial, we want to learn!” ) or read written statements from outside witnesses. The interrogators are all pitch-perfect, with that characteristic MP-mixture of earnest administrator and “showbiz-for-ugly-people”. Notably there is Alexander Hanson’s urbanely civil Jenkin, Liz Robertson’s sarky Cheryl Gillan, Rosemary Ashe as the maverick Kate Hoey and the Welsh terrier Paul Flynn (Anthony O’Donnell).




But of course the focus is on the odd couple who sit before them (and are seen up on screens, and occasionally rise to pace the floor, singing) . Sandra Marvin is unnervingly like Camila in multicoloured dress and turban, gait, high-pitched speech, and unnerving smile: when she sings the sincerity of both the woman’s good intentions and her dangerous self-belief are gloriously magnified. As Yentob, Omar Ebrahim is not quite the cornered-rat one remembers from the TV relay (possibly because he’s a splendid baritone, which gives a Verdiesque dignity even to his absurdities, like the notorious claim he signed off that without more money London would see “riots and looting”) . But he does often catch the pompous worry of a man addicted to citing powerful friends and colleagues who approve of him: the PM, Michael Gove, the “Chairman of WH Smith”, big banks, whoever….


So it’s all there: the Camila flakiness, the Chairman’s complacency, the dark unseen hinterland of tragic young lives, and the clash between idealism and safe administrative procedure. You reflect, watching and listening to Batmanghelidjh,, that giving – financially and emotionally – is a satisfying addiction, and can if imprudent bring you down. As for Yentob, the reflection is that thinking well of yourself and collecting plaudits from grand friends is probably another addictive behaviour. So what we had here was a kind of folie-a-deux. If the Chair had been some tough, clever, unimpressable terrier of a manager, we might still have the charity.



But is this good drama? Not really. The sense of going round in circles of irritable mutual misunderstanding – which that hearing of course did – means it feels unresolved, even sometimes dull. Despite the pair’s arias, you get little sense of the diverse realities of these unseen children. None of the outside written submissions , for instance, reflect the large number of clients (one of whom, a friend, was sitting next to me) who saw it close up. Especially those who were initially helped and grateful, owe KidsCo a lot and give it thanks, yet had firmly to disentangle themselves from the therapeutic emotionalism of the increasingly dominant foundress as they grew up. There’s a whole other play there. But this one may, in going off at half-cock, have stopped that happening for a few years at least.



box office 0844 871 7624 to February 2017
Principal Sponsor Barclays.
Rating two  2 meece rating

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COMMON National Theatre, SE1


“You are blight and darkness and sin…” Lost village girl Mary comes home to her beloved Laura after a lifetime of sin in “that devil-town London”, but finds – well – that’s the problem. This play by DC Moore, part lesbian Catherine Cookson fantasy, part undead horror slasher, via a Wicker Man of the woods and fields, isn’t actually about much at all. Moore’s central fascination seems to be Mary’s selfishness, but this quickly becomes so farcically exaggerated that we scarcely care about her: indeed, the production’s finest moment is Mary’s lynching by the rest of the village just before the interval, a splendid scene which conjured my full and wholehearted sympathy – just pass me a pitchfork – but sadly this most irritating of characters came back to life for an entirely pointless second act. Moore fails to convey anything interesting about love, incest, being undead, or the social ill of enclosure, which is never properly explained, or functionally connected to the lives of the villagers in a moving way, nor indeed genuinely integrated into the plot. He also appears to claim a world without spirituality, while focusing his plot on real-life resurrection. In short, this is a muddled, missed opportunity of a play, which (by way of zero change) brings a sophisticated character from the metropolis to stir up the lives of ye backward locals, all of whom come from different corners of England, some from more than one, judging by their mobile, inconsistent faux-rural accents. It’s playwriting as if Jerusalem – that mad, brilliant, beautiful paean of Englishness, class and the rural world – just never happened.

Director Jeremy Herrin does a stellar job with DC Moore’s clunky ideas, with wonderful group choreography (did I mention that brilliant lynching?) and decent tension in individual scenes, which momentarily draw us into a few interesting scenarios; the fact we never actually care for those characters is Moore’s fault, not Herrin’s.  Nor is it the fault of the actors, who mostly do their best with Moore’s gawky script; fine performances in particular from Trevor Fox as Geordie enforcer Heron, Lois Chimimba doubling a rather dim-witted Eggy Tom with an altogether more interesting Young Hannah, and Brian Doherty as affecting Irish foreman Graham. However, apart from forcing his actors to speak like Yoda every few lines in the name, presumably, of poeticism (“Burn gone this unfine village” – indeed), Moore deploys swearwords like AK47 bullets across his script, wielding them with about as much subtlety and fascinating power as foam arrows. Anne-Marie Duff gets the worst, and filthiest, lines, presumably because Moore is most anxious (rightly) about his failed central character, and consequently takes his shock tactics to the max. But it just alienates Duff’s smug, canny and cold performance all the further from our suspension of disbelief.

Richard Hudson’s set and costumes are stunning, especially the masks for the mischievous villagers, all conjuring creatures from nature made of tendrils, leaves, animal skulls and towering grasses. Paule Constable’s lighting design creates silhouettes and giant shadows to gorgeous effect. And, once we get beyond lynching to disembowelling and cutting people’s hearts out, it all looks deliciously, stickily real. Sadly, however, we just don’t care.


At the National Theatre, SE1 until 5 August

Box office: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Two

2 meece rating

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MY COUNTRY Dorfman, SE1 then touring


Rufus Norris of the National Theatre is to be applauded for taking on the post-referendum mood, and making an honest stab at understanding why it happened. Last June the theatre community and its followers tended more to utter cries of horror and pour torrents of frank calumny on the 52% : dupes or xenophobes, Ukippers and racists, OMG how could they? It was (and we need a properly funny Richard Bean or James Graham play about this) a bizarre moment in social history, when the left and the Fabian-minded liberals furiously scolded the northern unemployed and the neglected rural poor for disobeying an Etonian, Tory, prime minister and big business…

This is a verbatim piece, billed as a work-in-progress and oddly selective in its regions (East Anglia forgotten, as ever). Britannia, splendidly played as a worried matriarch by Penny Layden morphing into various politicians (she does a cracking Boris), has assembled representatives of each region – Scotland, Cymru, Northeast, Northwest, Midlands, Southwest – who speak the words gathered by researchers, irrespective of gender. They then fall – an hour into the 90 minutes – into some nicely furious argument and movement.

The beginning, though, is pretty static: they state their lives, a bit of childhoods sometimes, and utter their preoccupations before moving on to the Brexit issue. There are a few nice comments which are familiar enough – one seeing the EU as like an older sibling who’s on the dole but buys you presents with money you’ve contributed to anyway, others fretting about immigration, though with the usual failure to distinguish between global influx and actual EU citizens. Unfortunately some speakers, through this selection, end up with particular characteristics: a chippy Scot, resentful Midlander, a comically smug Southerner (who’d have guessed..).



There is a lot of “if I moved to their country I’d keep their rules” and a few stupidities. And here I became uneasy. It is not free from the same flaw that made the artistically brilliant London Road hard to watch for me (and a good few others). Verbatim interviews re-created by actors, however skilfully, create a distance. Since they are usually interviews with unpractised and unguarded speakers, it is fatally easy to seem to send them up. Three or four times in this show, a line raised a laugh from the knowing NT london-liberal audience. Yet when a medley of real recordings was played at the end the voices were less likely to be ludicrous. More hesitant, real, humble.

So there’s a discomfort in the sense that ill-phrased but sincere views are being, however subtly, mocked. One critic complained that the play’s fault was that the metropolitan liberal elite wasn’t represented. Trouble is, it was: it was out there in the stalls, sniggering.


But it was worth a try, and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetic moments, spoken by Layden (who really is very good) are powerful. “I am Britannia. I am your memory, your cathedrals, schools, pubs, hospitals…your rain. I sing your thousand musics” etc. And when it becomes purely theatrical, in a big final row, the vote moment, and the astonished huddle of people who realize that bloody hell, they’ve actually done it, broken the union… then, it is striking.

It goes off on tour round the country soon. Interesting to see what the real regions make of it. I see it gets as far east as Cambridge, but once again the mystery and identity of East Anglia remain unexplored by mainstream theatre.
Box office 020 7452 3000
rating two  Touring Mouse wideTouring Mouse wide

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Timothy Spall tells a good story – bear with me – about performing a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National. Just like this Joe Hill-Gibbins production at the Young Vic, it was caked in mud; a great big sloppy heap of it that the cast had to wade through for every scene.


The story goes that Timothy Spall found a great big shit in it. Human. Don’t ask how he distinguished it from the mud. Smell, probably. But it’s fair to say it must have thrown him.   I bring this up because in this 2017 production I too found nothing but distraction in the mud.
(I’ll leave you to make the pile of crap gag)


I fear Hill-Gibbins is bored by text. His usual sweetener is random live video. Thankfully he’s shaken that  habit. But the stark, sludgey set the cast have to hobble through, the crowded staging (no one ever leaves), the interruptions of pointless movement and bad song make it hard to see the play for the direction.


The story of confused love in the forest is confused further.
Michael Gould and Anastasia Hille’s  Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta, the tent-poles of the play, are limp. Their lines are delivered with such GCSE incomprehension, it makes the plot near-impossible to find.



The four toyed-with lovers land occasionally good comedic moments (thanks to Jemima Rooper’s Hermia and Anna Madeley’s Helena), especially in the 4-way fights. But the romance, the raw attraction and sex drive? Lost in the sludge. Any textual drama is skimmed through. Any additional gesture, flourish or diversion is indulged in. A particularly tuneful Fairy is bad for this.

But the saving grace of this 2 hour (no interval) poo party are the Mechanicals, and Leo Bill’s glorious Bottom. The sometimes wooden Shakespearean playfulness is fully whipped off the page in their performance , and brought to life with real comedic flair.  The frantic Am-Dram of Pyramus and Thisbe, complete with a topless obese man-lion, was bang on the money.  They all fully round out their lightly sketched roles, get big laughs and reach that blissful moment when Shakespearean dialogue turns from being the kind of thing at which your 15 year-old self glazed over, into something incredibly clear, rich and present.



But  brief sketches won’t save this production. Solidly comedic moments are adrift in a brown sea of almost unintelligible drama. When you find yourself inspecting the filthy state of the mirror or wincing at the muddying of white trousers, it’s clear the play is not gripping you.



Compare the (mostly) slack recitation of lines here to the ferociously intelligent Twelfth Night up the road at the National and you’ll see how high the bar is, if you want to pull off genuinely entertaining, dramatic and moving Shakespeare.  Muddying the waters with panto flourishes does nothing to hide basic failures in storytelling.

Box Office 020 7922 2922
Until 1st April

RATING two  2 meece rating

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BURIED CHILD, Trafalgar Studios SW1A



As in  all slow-burning plays there moments where you tune out for a second and ask yourself ‘is this a masterpiece or are they just all softly spoken?’ Is this drama reimagined or theatre deluded?

Sam Shepherd’s 1978 pulitzer prize-winning play centres around one unhinged Illinois family who have just about managed to let things settle. Then their grandson appears. Ed ‘Hollywood’ Harris is the patriarch Dodge, the Jim Royale of the midwest. Lolling around on the sofa, Harris quips about booze and complains about his wife with the whisky-warmth and elderly daze you imagined this old American farmer would. He is a solid, thoroughly watchable mess of a man.

Whirling around him, ‘babbling’ (as he puts it), and ploughing through the kind of half-relevant/half nonsense dialogue people have in dreams, are his wife (a vicious Christian played by Amy Madigan) and their two remaining sons. One of whom has one leg (“he’s a pushover”).

As they discuss absolutely nothing it dawned on me that this play had plenty it wanted to say, but no coherent means of doing so. Scott Elliott’s production tries to ramp up the mysticism as it becomes clear there is some bone-shuddering secret they’re all trying to keep from their eager grandson (a weak, single-note performance by film-favourite Jeremy Irvine) and his nosey girlfriend (Charlotte Hope). But the reveal is seen a mile off and when finally produced is laboured and uninteresting.

Having shunned the bar to read my programme like a good boy, I expected a devastating landscape of disenfranchised America. A rootless family in a wilting country. The self destruction inflicted on the ignored. What a freshly relevant evening in the theatre for patrons of 2016.

But the snake oil Sam Shepherd peddles is stodgy incoherence. It masks itself with empty dialogue suggestive of meaning, confusion in the place of actual thoughts and solid characters with inexplicably disturbed ones. If your play makes no sense, the excuse ‘well they’re all bonkers’ will only get you so far.

There are interesting moments around identity – in a slightly nightmarish moment, no one recognises the grandson and that sends him round the same loop as them. I get the broad aim, but it is in no sense original, insightful or entertaining.The only reprise is a charmingly haggard Ed Harris pining after liquor and quiet, and his lunatic evangelical wife snapping with discipline and fawning over the local priest.


Hearing some members of the audience chuckle, gasp and eventually rise to their feet in applause, it made me think of the art critics pranked into valuing IKEA framed posters as £2.5m masterpieces.

The hunt for the play which explains Donald Trump continues.

Box Office 0844 871 7627
Until 18th February.

2 meece rating

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THE RED BARN Lyttelton SE1



About 65 minutes in, the willowy monotone Mona sighingly asks her lover “Don’t you get tired of your character? I think I do”. So civil is the National Theatre audience that not one of us muttered “Yep! Definitely tired of yours”. Disillusion flowered even though the ever-moaning Mona is Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian caryatid who hypnotized us – visually at least – in The Night Manager.



That this new play should be a lemon is a serious disappointment. It’s by David Hare; it’s got Debicki’s physical glamour, Mark Strong’s authority as Donald the antihero, designer Bunny Christie making elegant use of the Lyttelton’s sliding ability to frame and reframe significant moments, deafening storm surround-sound and sinister music by Tom Gibbons, and in charge – with many a bang and flash – is Robert Icke. The much-awarded star director rashly gave an interview last week saying how a lot of other people’s theatre is “boring” , so he often leaves at the interval. Ironic that he promptly socks us an underpowered 110-minute gloomfest with no interval at all.

Pile all this literary, directorial and performing talent together , in a tale taken from Simenon – the Maigret author, moody master of crime fiction – set it in restlessly glamorous 1959 America, and the result should at least be a bit of classy noir. Even if , with the cast heavily miked and mechanically cinematic frames and cuts, at moments it feels more like cinema. We are put in the mood for a thriller with the blacking-out of shiny exit signs and a warning that there is no readmission because of the tension. And it starts promisingly enough in an impressive Connecticut storm, through which struggle the four principals – Debicki, Strong, Hope Davis as the sweetly saintly Ingrid, and Nigel Whitmey as someone called Ray. They have been to a party and left their car in the blizzard, groping towards Ingrid and Donald’s house. But Ray never gets there.



We settle in, hoping for shocks and revelations , only mildly disappointed that despite the wind-machine gale from the wings whenever the door opens, nobody does the Morecambe-and-Wise trick of throwing handfuls of fake snow in. There’s a police Lieutenant deploying an unaccountable Pinteresque menace, and a couple of flashbacks of the culpably smart party they left (I think this is a social message about American values, though not sure what). Otherwise we just get a series of gnomic conversations as the group wait in vain for Ray, hear the bad news, and move on several months to an improbably, ludicrously chemistry-free rapport in a chic New York apartment with dangly perspex chairs.
This affair is between Strong’s Donald, struggling to escape his smalltown sports-jacket life and saintly wife, and the impassive, not to say crushingly boring, Mona , dangerously upstaged by her own zebra-print kaftan. Obviously, no good comes of it but my God! it comes very slowly indeed. Chekhov it ain’t, Raymond Chandler it ain’t, though it seems alternately to be aiming at both. Not the actors’ fault, but t for all the fancy soundscapes too many scenes are just fist-gnawingly boring. Let kinder spirits dig for silk-purse words : melancholy, noir, nuanced, delicate, Beckettesque. But honestly, and with real disappointment, I rate it a sow’s ear.



box office 020 7452 3333 to 17 Jan
rating two  (crediting, mousewise, set design and sound..)

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KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough


There’s tennis without a ball (audience requested to do plock-plock sound effects on drums), a mini-farce, thriller and horror story also supported by audience playing birdsong, creaks and sirens. Oh well. Theatre begins after all with the idea of play, and needs an audience to complete it. Modern “immersive” work is all the vogue and one must play with the genre, must one not? Hence this mixture of cabaret, charades, improv and a particularly inventive family Christmas game with a dash of Victorian illusion at the end.



Not everyone may realize straight off (I only just did) that it’s a spoof; Alan Ayckbourn himself relates in the programme a solemn story of taking the ensemble under his wing, first meeting spoofy magician Oliver Nelson and Karen Drake “of Frenzied Flyweheel” in a fictional fringe theatre, and pub encounters meeting the others – Rufus Wellington and Anna Raleigh , the invisible Kenneth Benbow and Alyssia Cook, whose names (plus their dutiful stage manager’s) spell out KARAOKE. Ayckbourn’s story ends with him having offered to direct and being told “Sorry, we feel we don’t really need a director”.



Yet must assume that he did direct this. In which case, the spoof has gone too far in its pretence at non-direction. Directors are aware of the importance of pace, and the small annoying austerities which, gently inflicted, keep shows moving. And this featherlight, meringue-sweet offering could have been, without spoiling the gag, made into something properly special with a bit of snappy authority.




The ball-less tennis is delightfully funny, especially when one audience member entrusted with a drum fails to do it and the player has to grunt. But it goes on too long. The setup for the farce, with Anna instructing the audience in sound-effects, takes too long, praising every volunteer and block so that self-applause slows it terribly. The 15-minute playlet itself is OK, if silly. In the period drama spoof with brilliant Georgian wigs and a nice sharp plot (borrowed, I suspect, from a Saki short story) we suffer the same slow-burn setup, and then the damn thing is repeated, with an audience member as a key character reading from boards. The Scandi-noir murder takes a different tactic, using volunteers as talking subtitles and muting the actors, and works far better, partly because on press night a middle-aged man in a tartan tie and glasses did a superb vocal turn as the glamorous maid, top screaming there, mate. And the Victorian Gothic is enlivened by some ingenious traditional spot-effects – coconuts, wind and rain machines and a thunder-sheet: the sort of stuff Ayckbourn and us theatre-nuts love.




The very able cast throw themselves into parody-acting with gusto nicely send up the rather impressive find-the-lady trick with three secret cabinets for a finale. And the audience laughed a lot, especially the young. I’d bring along any child or teenager with a taste for larks and theatre games, and sit them close to the front to get involved. And the props are great fun. But a spoof on theatre and theatricality has to be – well, properly theatrical. And, ideally, hold an edge of insecurity. This doesn’t. I love Ayckbourn for his contrariness and adventurousness, but this is a baffling use of nearly three hours…

box office 01723 370541 to 8th October
rating two

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Kenneth Branagh’s entire season has been built on one universal truth. From star to stage-sweeper, pack the production with the best talent and glorious things will inevitably follow. Why then, has that same formula now stumbled?I couldn’t have been more predisposed to liking this production, the cast or it’s director. But Branagh’s sweatily Italian and disastrously unfunny production is such a disappointment.



The scene looks like a Dolce and Gabbana advert. Cafe chairs are forever being put out and stacked away. Characters shimmy in, espresso in hand. And when the director can’t use the text at hand for whatever extra-curricular contrivance he has up his sleeve, they all start shouting in Italian.



It is these contrivances which are the fundamental flaw. Everything is played for laughs. With Meera Syal’s nurse (one of the better parts of the production) this sits fine. She jogs in, jogs out, lights a fag, winks and collapses. Lovely. But when Richard Madden’s maddening Romeo and Lily James’ flat Juliet start comedy-swigging from bottles and hamming up lines in the balcony scene you realise it’s gone too far. Too far, Ken.



It almost seems unfair to blame the cast. A lightening-fast pace is set in the first few moments and they’re all left panting to keep up. The protagonists are fine, but lack any kind of chemistry. Other than some panicked kissing, no moments of intimacy are allowed. There is no sex or fire behind anything. Just an eye on the clock and a mind on dinner.



The parents, Tybalt, and Paris are (to be fair like in most productions) quite forgettable, but Derek Jacobi’s shamelessly camp (and mysteriously old) Mercutio is light relief and one of the few moments where the incredibly camp production makes sense. This is weighed out by a Friar in his 20’s who only speaks sitcom.



But I can forgive the cast. They are cut adrift and lost in pointless songs and infuriating background mood music. Every inch has the director’s paws all over it. I never thought I would write the phrase this Romeo and Juliet has too much lounge jazz.The shame is that Richard Madden and Lily James probably have a brilliant Romeo and Juliet in them. Something fiery and youthful. Perhaps in a production which allowed silences and pauses. I have no idea why that production isn’t this one. But seems incredibly un-Kenneth Branagh like to try and whizz through the poetry to dig up a gag.


Until 13th August.
Box Office 0330 333 4811

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THE TEMPEST Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth




It should have been fantastic: a site innately theatrical, a celebration of Shakespeare year at the heart of the always sparky Norfolk and Norwich Festival (which has in recent years led me through deep woods with wolves, dangled me from a tree all night and led me through Dinner With Alice). The 1904 Hippodrome is the only Edwardian circus building still standing in the UK, one of three in the world and the only one capable of being flooded for water-ballets. It was an ammo dump in the war, its cherubs shot to pieces for target practice; it still has extraordinary hand-coloured frescoes of St George, echoing tiles and creepy backstairs. Its vibe is spooky-yet-festive. It’s something to see, a wonder of the East. You itch to put on Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde here.


Director William Galinksy pays respect to the building’s normal life by recruiting Lost in Translation Circus to evoke Ariel’s magical powers : the stately Jane Leaney at ground level gets a beautifully expressive trapezing avatar overhead, and a troop of sinister faceless spirits in skintight black from head to toe. They mime and dive and vanish through underwater exits once the floor has sunk dramatically to reveal the big deep pool , around which a sloping gold walkway shines like a magic ring.


Yet somehow, painful to relate, it doesn’t really come off. Galinsky takes it more or less straight, and surprisingly long for this short play (2 hrs 45). Prospero is impressive: Tony Guilfoyle giving him from the start an itchy, angry resentment which is only just quelled in the final scenes; Pia Laborde Noguez is a sweet Miranda, tomboyishly earnest. Of the others, Colin Hurley’s Stephano is genuinely funny, having (appropriately for the building’s age) the air of a vaudeville bruiser in a bowler hat, with a cowed Trinculo. Caliban is Graeme McKnight, interpreted here as a hunched, furious hoodie, not unrecognizable if you’ve just walked past the Great Yarmouth arcades on a Saturday night. Several cast members fall or dive into the pool, though I would wish for the sake of rumbustiousness that the two clowns had done it a lot earlier in their full tweed suits, bowler-hats floating pathetically above them.




But  that rumbustiousness is lacking, and so is the magic: the spirit- feast is ingenious, with a 2ft high floating fruit croquembouche, but the fertility masque for some reason is interpreted as a sort of drunken Playschool baby-mobile, with Juno, or possibly Ceres, as a giant demented bumblebee. The lethal thing, though, is the way the pace flags, often and all through: you start to suspect that there was not enough rehearsal time in the difficult, intricate walkway-and-watersplash surroundings for Galinsky (a famously good festival director here and in Cork) to rethink, take risks, work on the cast’s full passionate understanding of the text, and speed it up.


The heart of the failure, though, is probably just a mismatch. This huge, weird, majestic, slightly sinister building is built for circus and spectacular, for gasps and cheers and unbridled merriment. It’s a sort of lowlife Royal Albert Hall. So anything you put in it demands high energy, cheek and nerve; this doesn’t provide it.



box office to 21 May
rating two  2 meece rating

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COSI FAN TUTTE /COSI Kings Head Theatre, N1


Pairing a copper-bottomed opera classic (Mozart’s Così fan tutte) with an imported Australian play exploring the idea of mounting that very opera in a mental asylum amidst Vietnam war protests (Lowra’s Cosi) is a brave and interesting idea from the King’s Head Theatre. It was always unlikely that the play would ever surpass Mozart and Da Ponte’s painfully callous dissection of infidelity, often billed as a comedy but really a far darker and weirder creature, and the opera definitely comes off best in this duel. Paul Higgins’ modern update of Mozart moves the action to a TV show of the Jerry Springer variety, which proves an ideal vehicle for translating its hysterical atmosphere and strange emotional gamesmanship: a shiny mirrored set, digital screen captions (“Your fiancées will cheat on you”), use of live video feed and even occasional incursion from an in-house bouncer when group tensions threaten violence (don’t we all love those bits?) all contribute to the semi-comic, ultimately heartless ‘human zoo’ phenomenon which is entirely familiar to us, dramatised across multiple channels every day. Don Alfonso (Steven East) is a suitably oily celebrity host, Despina (the significantly gifted Caroline Kennedy) his long-suffering, sassy production manager, boasting a range of comic accents as well as her warm, bright soprano, while our lovers are sung impeccably by a talented young cast including a standout performance from Stephanie Edwards as an exceptional Fiordiligi. I can’t often admit that I don’t actually like Così fan tutte much, but Higgins’ production conveys its strange dynamics with such skill and care that even I found I stopped resisting, and started enjoying it: and this cast, with unstinting energy and noticeably sparky pacing, showcase Mozart’s gorgeous music as the flourishes of genius all night. Warmly recommended.

Pacing, unfortunately, is one of the chief problems of Lowra’s Cosi: although it, too, contains some wonderful performances (particularly from soft-voiced Susie Lindeman as an enchantingly unhinged Ruth, Nicholas Osmond as a withdrawn, yet passionate Henry, and Paul-William Mawhinney as the earnest young director Lewis), there are gaps and flaps everywhere, which nuke otherwise comic possibilities. Sometimes a joke comes across with Pinteresque darkness: “I’ve been having treatment for my pyromania,” remarks Doug (Neil Toon) casually as he lights a horrified Lewis’ cigarette with a Zippo that we’re sure Doug shouldn’t have. But then, instead of gracefully leaving that to fester in the imagination as Pinter would have done, Lowra pushes it too far: this joke soon wears thin as Doug sets fire to the theatre repeatedly. Too often, Cosi takes the easy route, with quick pot shots at its parent opera, not often getting under the piece’s skin in anything but the most obvious way. Consistency is another problem, with some cast members repeatedly tempted (or encouraged) to overact; Wayne Harrison is an esteemed director, but this piece feels altogether misjudged for a world-weary London audience, and badly in need of an edit.


For the opera: Four 4 Meece Rating

For the play: Two 2 meece rating

At the King’s Head Theatre until 2nd April for the play, 3rd April for the opera. Box Office: 020 7226 8561

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ELF Dominion Theatre, W1


Play critic-cliché bingo once they’re out! One point each for “Elf ’n Safety”, “National Elf” , kids with phones outside taking Elfies , pixie-lated publicity, gnome runs, and anyone saying “this’ll sleigh them”. The one about feeling good “from head to mistle-toe” is actually in the lyrics, so that doesn’t count.
But who am I to, er, rain-deer on its parade? The story is from the much-loved film with Will Ferrell, about an infant who stowed away in Santa’s sleigh as an orphan and is raised by elves before setting out to find his neglectful human father. It is determinedly good-hearted. The press night was an Alzheimer’s Society gala, the producers donating all the free press ticket prices to the charity. Ben Forster bounces enthusiastically around in an embarrassing green elf-suit with no sign of discomfort, and Kimberley Walsh of Girls Aloud deploys – in the one decent solo she is allowed – a dry wit and really beautiful, strong musical-theatre voice . For the benefit of Dads, she is first spotted in an elfin skating-skirt high up a stepladder in Macy’s (New York has long since stolen Christmas from old Chas Dickens’ London). And she accepts without snarling the possibly suggestive line from Buddy the Elf “I’d like to stick you on the top of my tree”. Hmmm.

If I was a starry-eyed seven-year-old, or if its ferocious Christmassiness wasn’t launched on Bonfire night to an almost totally adult audience, I might record more pleasure. The score and songs by Matthew Skier and Chad Beguelin are OK – Ms Walsh’s “Never fall in love with an Elf” being the best, and the reiterated “Christmas Song” the catchiest . The ensemble tap-breaks are professional, and there are two or three genuinely witty moments. The best involves the panic to pitch a children’s book and save the Dad’s publishing job; by happy serendipity the show opened the day after the cringiest Apprentice show yet when the teams had to devise a toddlers’ book in four hours and sell the ghastly result. Even they didn’t suggest “a family of asparagus children”.
But over and over again the word in my mind was “workmanlike”. It isn’t special, spectacular or magical enough to justify the record seat prices (from the high fifties (bargains 48.50 on one site)   to £ 160-plus, with no halves) . This production, by Bord Gais Dublin and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is not a slick Broadway stunner. The story, with its moral of goodwill, family, and a Scroogeian grump learning “It’s never too late to grow” is simple even by child standards: children’s theatre these days is nuanced, strong-flavoured, thrillingly demanding. Yet it isn’t full-on panto either.

And to be honest, for most of its length – when Buddy the Elf is being no help in either Macy’s or his Dad’s office, playing with the shredder and throwing “snow” around like the intern from Hell – his “ lovable” naivete gives a worrying impression of bordering on serious mental retardation. He’s supposed to be thirty years old, and is expert with an iPad. Was there no wifi at the North Pole? One should not, perhaps, find oneself siding so exasperatedly with the nicely sour Joe McGann as the unwilling father…


Box Office: 0845 200 7982 to 2 Jan
: /

rating Two. You can add a third  if you’re under ten and get a bargain ticket.

2 meece rating

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It’s a portmanteau of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. And, one must sorrowfully surmise, was lit upon by The Team, a collaborative group, mainly for the sake of using that gamesome centaur of a title. Not too bad an idea, though, to have the spirits of two national heroes competing to hearten a shy, depressed citizen of today on a road trip. As if we were to portray a struggle between Churchill and John Lennon to offer life-coaching on the A 14 .

The heroine here is Ann (Libby King), meat-packing factory worker in South Dakota, who holds imaginary conversations with her alternative persona as Elvis, longs for lesbian love, and welcomes to her apartment the more adventurous ourdoorsy Brenda (Kristen Sieh) who she has met online and who is a bit Roosevelt. There’s an introduction in which they run us through a few details of their alter egos’ lives , in full drag including Brenda in sidewhiskers and bucksins. Then we find them on a middling-unsuccessful romantic campervan weekend to Mount Rushmore.

Brenda finally reproves Ann for being “unbrave”. In this sequence, and others, they spend a lot of time passive, watching bits of pre-created location film of their own activities on screens around the stage: theatre for the selfie generation. It does at least give them time to hop in and out of the costumes of their personae: Elvis’ is simple enough given Ann’s macho outfits and “dude underwear”, but Sieh has some sharp quick-changes into buckskins and sidewhiskers.
For most of the 95 minutes Ann is alone, going crosscountry to Graceland to show she is not unbrave; we gradually work out that the sidewhiskered Brenda now exists only in Ann’s head, ever at her side leaping around punching video-screen buffalo or delivering inspiring Roosevelt quotes. Conveniently, the real Elvis did love the President’s line about “great and generous emotion, high pride, stern belief, lofty enthusiasm”. Finally they fall out, Roosevelt calling Elvis “degenerate” and lazy, Elvis snarling “Rich kid!” and whining that he couldn’t have done any better with his life after coming from a family of “dirt farmers”. The message, unsubtly and repeatedly hammered home, is that there are two kinds of America, and that each of us as Whitman says “contains multitudes”.
Oh, and part of Ann’s problem is that she’s ashamed of being gay. The real Brenda, reappearing on the phone at Ann’s lowest moment, turns out to be a chilly cow anyway, telling her she’s “depressed” and that no, she never gave her much of a thought after that camping weekend. One finale inevitably references them as Thelma and Louise going over the Grand Canyon, the other has Ann glumly reaching Graceland.
The laborious whimsy wears thin, and there’s a a skill deficit. Ann’s voice and body language simply do not change enough between being herself and being Elvis, though the script needs her to do it moment to moment. Sieh as Roosevelt has created an accent so bafflingly odd (an idea of late-19c American Toff) that it grates into irrelevance. . She is, though, at least physically adept, spurting with energy and a good comic mover in the imaginary Roosevelt’s odd dance sequences. King, though more real, offers only a sweet one-note melancholy with underpowered Elvis moments. In the end, she has a speech of proper strength. But only the one.

box office 020 7565 5000 to 14 Nov
rating two   2 meece rating

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It’s a portmanteau of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. And, one must sorrowfully surmise, was lit upon by The Team, a collaborative group, mainly for the sake of using that gamesome centaur of a title. Not too bad an idea, though, to have the spirits of two national heroes competing to hearten a shy, depressed citizen of today on a road trip. As if we were to portray a struggle between Churchill and John Lennon to offer life-coaching on the A 14 .

ThE heroine here is Ann (Libby King),  a shy gay meat-packing factory worker in South Dakota, who holds imaginary conversations with her alternative persona as Elvis, longs for  love, and welcomes to her apartment the more adventurous ourdoorsy Brenda (Kristen Sieh) who she has met online and who is a bit Roosevelt. There’s an introduction in which they run us through a few details of their alter egos’ lives , in full drag including Brenda in sidewhiskers and bucksins. Then we find them on a middling-unsuccessful romantic campervan weekend to Mount Rushmore.

Brenda finally reproves Ann for being “unbrave”. In this sequence, and others, they spend a lot of time passive, watching bits of pre-created location film of their own activities on screens around the stage: theatre for the selfie generation. It does at least give them time to hop in and out of the costumes of their personae: Elvis’ is simple enough given Ann’s macho outfits and “dude underwear”, but Sieh has some sharp quick-changes into buckskins and sidewhiskers.
For most of the 95 minutes Ann is alone, going crosscountry to Graceland to show she is not unbrave; we gradually work out that the sidewhiskered Brenda now exists only in Ann’s head, ever at her side leaping around punching video-screen buffalo or delivering inspiring Roosevelt quotes. Conveniently, the real Elvis did love the President’s line about “great and generous emotion, high pride, stern belief, lofty enthusiasm”. Finally they fall out, Roosevelt calling Elvis “degenerate” and lazy, Elvis snarling “Rich kid!” and whining that he couldn’t have done any better with his life after coming from a family of “dirt farmers”. The message, unsubtly and repeatedly hammered home, is that there are two kinds of America, and that each of us as Whitman says “contains multitudes”.
Oh, and part of Ann’s problem is that she’s ashamed of being gay. The real Brenda, reappearing on the phone at Ann’s lowest moment, turns out to be a chilly cow anyway, telling her she’s “depressed” and that no, she never gave her much of a thought after that camping weekend. One finale inevitably references them as Thelma and Louise going over the Grand Canyon, the other has Ann glumly reaching Graceland.
The laborious whimsy wears thin, and there’s a a skill deficit. Ann’s voice and body language simply do not change enough between being herself and being Elvis, though the script needs her to do it moment to moment. Sieh as Roosevelt has created an accent so bafflingly odd (an idea of late-19c American Toff) that it grates into irrelevance. . She is, though, at least physically adept, spurting with energy and a good comic mover in the imaginary Roosevelt’s odd dance sequences. King, though more real, offers only a sweet one-note melancholy with underpowered Elvis moments. In the end, she has a speech of proper strength. But only the one.

box office 020 7565 5000 to 14 Nov
rating two

2 meece rating

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THE MAIDS The Space at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh


From time to time, the seeker for cultural enlightenment must deliberately book in to the works of some author he or she can’t see the point of. For some its Beckett, for others Sarah Kane, for many the excitement faded (forty years ago actually) for the knottier French existentialists.  For me it’s Jean Genet , ragamuffin darling of the 1960s intellectual left and subversive prophet of the “beauty of evil”. So, in a spirit of hopeful generosity, I staggered off the Caledonian Sleeper for my first Fringe outing to see what All Bare theatre made of this, described once as “a poisoned pearl”, and revived a few years ago in New York with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, no less. It’s that sort of play: the kind actors challenge themselves with for intellectual credibility.
Genet took inspiration from a 1940s case where two maidservants brutally murdered and mutilated their employers. His black-stockinged maids – who clearly don’t have much housework to get on with – spend 75 gruelling minutes in role-play, switching names (one is Claire and one is Solange) and they each take random turns at impersonating the employer, who also briefly appears.
In eloquently contemptuous speeches – Martin Crimp translates -they play and taunt, one forcing the other to crouch spitting and polishing her patent shoes and then despising her very spittle. Sometimes Claire, or possibly Solange, gets overwrought about the rise and fall of the mistresses “ivory” breasts. Often they boast of being capable of murder. Bizarre statements of stoned poetic import are made –  that the image in the mirror has a ‘stench’ , that objects accuse them. Neither seems fond of the other , or sounds much like a real woman, and both hate and revere the mistress. She despises them. Its socialist-capitaIst resentment of the servant relationship: none of your Downton Abbey stuff.

Crowdfunded, played with dedication by the three young cast, it is a waste: one of those determinedly academic exercises which never quite gets within striking distance of any truth or pleasure.   Even as a curiosity of theatre history it is pretty dated: its appeal (Think Blanchett and Huppert) is faile social indignation and candy for the male gaze – French maids outfits, breasts, say no more . Si no, I still don’t get the point. But I did try. Honest.
to 22 aug.
Rating: two  2 meece rating

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ADA Bedlam, Edinburgh


It’s a topical, Tim-Hunt-tastic moment to celebrate one of the forgotten women of science, and the Edinburgh University Theatre companyhave hit on a cracking good story. Ada Lovelace (her married name, she was a Countess) was Lord Byron’s daughter, his only legitimate child, by the clever and mathematically gifted Anne Milbanke. Who, understandably, left him, what with the sibling-incest and the philandering. She raised Ada to be a femme serieuse: the child’s daring imagination may have come from the absent Dad, and she fought her mother over the idea of “poetical science”, but her hard gift for mathematics led her to collaborate with Charles Babbage, first father of computing. He was working on his huge clattering cog and wheel “Engine” (nicely evoked here in huge noisy projections) and dreamed of a still bigger Analytical Engine .

Ada brought her skill to his work, but also that poetical imagination about its possibilities: she is credited with creating the first algorithm, and with pushing the idea that in the future, computers might be able to work with things beyond mere numerical calculation.   He called her “ a fairy who cast a magical spell over the most abstract of sciences’. She said “My intellect will keep me alive!”. What Lady Lovelace would make of the age of Instagram yoga selfies and click-porn doesn’t bear thinking of.

But it was a hell of a life, cut short at 36, and there is gold in her writings, from childhood dreams of flight to a fiery correspondence with Babbage (“I cannot stand another person to meddle in my sentences!” – yep Ada, I know the feeling.)  He and she apparently started a horserading syndicate late on, victims of the common delusion that there is a System, and lost money at it. In this production’s rareish moments of clarity – either biographical or computer science lecturettes – it becomes fascinating. The six- strong student group, however, unfortunately opt for a sour, pretentiously ‘devised’, black-clad, mimetic- symbolic interpertation, full of showy lifts and fallings to the ground. It is a theatrical idiom which only works at the very top of its game. Not here, alas. The show claims itself to take the form of an algorithm, but …no. . So while I am immensely grateful to have learned of the lady, and have looked her up like mad ever since, the show barely gets off the starting block.  But what a cerebrally adventurous story, what a feminist pioneer yarn! I was going to say, bring on a Frayn or Stoppard to do a less drama-schooly version; but hey, the old boys have done their time. Give the story to James Graham. Or Lucy Prebble. Use more of the contemporary letters. Shine a light on Ada the Algorithm lady, not on outworn theories of theatrical form. to 30 aug rating two    2 meece rating

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After 17 years away, the grown-up daughter returns with the illegitimate child which got her thrown out. One of her brothers is having marital problems, whilst also being a doctor. Her other brother is autistic. Her mother is a basic, frustrated housewife and her father doesn’t understand anything but definitely has affairs. The grandchildren also don’t get on.

If you’re starting to think that all sounds a little Sunday mid-morning on Radio 4, it’s because it is. Playwright Andrew Keatley has delivered The Archers and every other soap you could imagine. It is amusing but absolutely nothing more. The acting is entirely conversational and anything overly dramatic falls flat. All of this over Easter weekend with the ’97 election looming – for no reason whatsoever.

It is baggy, for 2 hours, and needed hefty trimming. The only relief was a decent joke every 4-5 minutes.

The play calls open season on all issues. Tracey Letts’ Orange: Osage County got stuck in with vividly entertaining relationships and acute deconstruction of each misfits’ dilemma. This play kicks the problems around with simplistic language and zero poetry, pumped with gags which almost never suit the character they come from. Wherever this dies, another random problem is added into the mix. Textbook family woes for Playmobil characters.

The best plays put issues under the knife, dig a little depth. There is no dramatic use to ambling around, airing them.

Despite much of the cast being related (Jane Asher/Katie Scarfe, Alexander Hanson/Tom Hanson), none gel. Huffy delivery of over-explained lines gives them little to work with. Basic emotions are handed to them and nothing is left to drama, atmosphere or the audience. Every little thing has to be over-explained in the dialogue for fear of someone 20 miles away missing it.

The only decent performances are from Clive Francis as the grandfather – a painfully conflicted character he makes sense of – and Nick Sampson as the autistic uncle. Although delicately and almost movingly played, he is the butt of every joke. A room of 200 laughing at someone pretending to be autistic is frankly not my cup of tea – no matter how much it tries to make moral conversation of it.

This is a basic play, with no direction from Antony Eden, but had some laughs.


2 Mice 2 meece rating

Until 15th August at Park Theatre: Box Office: 020 7870 6876

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hang Royal Court, SW1


In a bleak neon office (design by Jon Bausor) a much awaited new play by debbie tucker green, always modishly lower-case in titles, takes no prisoners.Except that it is about one, unseen and awaiting a capital punishment decision by his victim in some unspecified but British dystopia. Directed by the author, it is a 75 minute study in unreconciled trauma and the awkward insensitivities of officialdom and protocol. And perhaps (to a sympathetic ear) a good evocation of the perennial inability of non-victims to understand the tearing ,incurable dislocation of personality involved in rape.
Well, we must assume it was violent intruder rape, since all the household members – husband, sister, children – are spoken of as alive, if damaged . The characters, unnamed, are three. Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza do rather well as awkward, witteringly nervous bureaucrats, fretting antiphonally about IKEA coat pegs and getting real glasses for the watercooler. Zaza has a particularly fine crass moment as he stamps the final document with ‘love this bit!’   And Rushbrook, slightly senior, a good defensiveness about how long it has taken the system to disgorge the  criminal’s letter to his victim

That victim is a shabby black woman on mid-life, nervous but defiant : Marianne Jean-Baptiste couldn’t be better.  The trio work round awkwardly to the point, the officials prating of decisions and offering time, supporters, literature etc, all by the book. Jean-Baptiste is uncommunicative until she breaks out into passionate testimony to her family’s utter lack of any recovery in three and a half years: the children’s terrors, neighbours’ shunning, marriage damaged.
As it becomes clear that she can choose his death, Tucker  Green goes into ghoulish execution-shed options and descriptions, of a kind tiresomely familiar to frequenters of “brave” theatre. The victim wants him hung, ideally by an incompetent who risks overlong twitching asphyxia or gruesome decapitation. Finally she reads his letter.  In the original playscript there is a moment of potential subtlety at the end as she does this: onstage only telling silence.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a great actress, and the author deft and verbally clever.  But not one of the trio is given full credible humanity: the two interviewers are merely symbols of officialdom ,  and the subject an avatar of bleakly ,determinedly pessimistic and vengeful victimhood.  Given any scope at all, Jean-Baptiste could have far better served a better play.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 18 July      Rating  two   2 meece rating

pessimistic and vengeful victimhood.  Given any scope at all, Jean-Baptiste could have far better served a better play.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 18 July

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Capitalism, consumerism, the banking system, the transactional heartlessness of modern relationships, the illusory comfort of a deluded Europe. Dreadful. We have all had been screwed senseless by a pitiless demon with black semen who didn’t really love us and left hideous red scars on our bare heaving bosom. His un-defiable curse will lead to penury, prostitution, humiliation, closed borders, universal political collapse and shipwreck. Holding our breath won’t help. Shocking business, life. Might as well stick our heads in a bucket.

The frustrating thing about this mess of a play by Zinnie Harris, directed with artfully frightening nightmare inconsequence by Vicky Featherstone amid random furniture, naked shop dummies, an old bath and some posters, is the way that sometimes it threatens to redeem itself. Mainly by starring the matchless, emotionally open, skilful and altogether beguiling Maxine Peake. She plays Dana, who in the rather promising opening scene has just had a one-night stand with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) a hunky blond who claims to work for the UN. He assumes she is a tart, on the flimsy grounds that she accosted him in a bar dressed in a wispy dress and took him home. When he tries to pay she is affronted, being really an academic studying emotional mutuality in commercial relationships. She thinks their relationship was tender. He puts her right in one of the better speeches “I am unloveable, the unloved…a demon, a thunderclap, I am a nightmare, an underpass in the dark, an alleyway, a bridge that you don’t cross”.

She won’t take his 45 euros (we’re in Berlin) and moves on through bizarre exchanges with another key symbolic figure – a Librarian (Peter Forbes, rather good) who offers self-help books throughout the ensuing collapse of civilization. Demon’s influence, or possibly just the political and financial collapse of Europe, strands her and her pregnant sister in freezing desperation halfway to Budapest while trying to get to a job interview . The borders are closed and they end up huddled on an unseaworthy sea-crossing to somewhere or other. Though she wakes from this nightmare to a reiterated modern life when the demon (he gets all the top lines) recites the books she’ll need now “How to furnish a flat in a weekend…what to say on a first date, to floss or not to floss” etc. Which is almost funny enough to get you out onto Sloane Square without wanting to torch the place.

Not for an unsatisfactory two hours – that’s fair enough, some plays must fail – but for exploiting in a jejune fable not only a superb and subtle actress but a raft of issues about refugees, poverty, Greece, Europe and banking . These really are crying out for intelligent treatment, but not shagging demons, soggy dialogue and outbreaks of manipulative yowling. The worst thing I have to report is that I – the softest, most weepy of theatregoers and emotional mothers, forever mocked for sentimentality by my fierce male colleagues – sat dry-eyed and irritable while Christine Bottomley as the sister delivered a long speech about a dead, maimed, bleeding boy-baby. That tells you something. It wasn’t real, any of it.

box office 0207 565 5000 to 21 March

rating two 2 meece rating

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THE RULING CLASS Trafalgar Studios, SW1


Sometimes in the reviewing business there’s an almost irresoluble conflict between detached appreciation and wincing personal indifference: a temptation to stick to reportage and lay the feeling self aside. I am almost there with this first revival of Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, a semi-surreal black comedy. It is an unresolved, furious blend of bouffon farce, adolescent class outrage, glee at the fact that stage censorship ended one year earlier, and ferocious tastelessness – up to and including a couple of lines on the Holocaust. The same writer did set a farce in Auschwitz.

As you’d expect in Jamie Lloyd’s second season of the enterprising, popular and serious Trafalgar Transformed, it’s performed and directed with headlong skill. And designed by Soutra Gilmour: whose surreal delusional interludes (especially the giant dinosaur-rat-Satan thing) gave me actual pleasure. James McAvoy plays Jack, heir to an ancient earldom after his Dad kicks off the gross-out tone by accidentally going too far in his nightly autoerotic ritual with a silken noose. The family compete to be the most cartoonishly aristocratic, a contest won by dim Dinsdale the Tory candidate (you see where this is going). They are horrified because Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is God (a rather old-fashioned trope these days). He talks in tongues, sleeps on an upright crucifix and daubs GOD IS LOVE across the glorious bare McAvoy torso.


The only two credible supporting characters are Kathryn Drysdale as the non-aristocratic wife they marry him to to produce a sane heir; and the genuinely hilarious Anthony O’Donnell as the butler who is secretly a one-man Trotskyist cell. Oh, and Forbes Masson, who never disappoints, is a county lady straight out of Little Britain, a detective, and another lunatic who thinks he is God and whose competition apparently shakes Jack into sanity. So yes, some fun. Though nothing to do with real mental illness, real aristocracy, or real anything at all.


After the interval Jack seems cured, but of course is not: suave aristo arrogance is no guarantee of sanity in this self-consciously impertinent piece, rather the reverse. He reveals that he is now the God of Vengeance, declares it is 1888, and conjures up London fog so – so no prizes for guessing which Jack he is being now. Cue an erotic disembowelling, to happy shrieks from the loyal younger McAvoyites in the stalls (some vg prices, kids, go for it).


McAvoy in this last act does demonstrate that he is becoming a fine stage actor, snapping from smoothness to ferocity in seconds, even cartooning his own Richard III, performing a good cane-twirling stepdance and singing the Eton Boating Song. That gets him certified sane by a posh doctor. Of course it does. So, here you have dated 1969 agitprop, a proto-Pythonesque and sub-Joe-Orton raspberry to the world of Macmillan and Douglas-Home and anyone-for-tennis plays; an aged squib revived for the election season and the Guy Fawkes mask set. OK, I hated it. But McAvoy is brilliant, and will find better plays for his gifts.

BOX OFFICE 0844 871 7632 to 11 April
Rating: two        2 meece rating

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In the most genuinely engaging sequences of this odd improv-based show, two of the ten-strong cast get a mat out and wrestle, struggling to rip off one another’s clothes and shoes in play-fight frenzy. Before each assault they gasp out the names of their fears: “Drowning” “Not being with people I love” “Syphilis” “Finding out I -um -haven’t got two eyes” “Buried alive” “Rottweilers” “Dying alone” “Being cheated on”, etc.

So picking up the disjointed, energetic argot let’s say that the show expresses the following: “Youthful” “Communal” “Baffled by life” “Adolescent” “Longing for love” “Larky” “Frustrated” “Spontaneous” . And, I fear, overarching it all, “Drama School Exercises”.

Which is not to deny that it can be fun, for a while, watching selfconsciously expressive, vaguely linked improv sequences performed by young people in random gym gear, expressing meanings which touch them without ordering them into something more traditionally theatrical. And around me there was laughter and applause and approval from an audience of twentysomethings or not much over. Sean Holmes’ “Secret Theatre Company” from the Lyric Hammersmith has had a lot of success. But it didn’t ring my bell.

It is framed in the struggle of the title. The audience pulls a name out of a hat, and he or she becomes the protagonist. That night it was Steven Webb – “Stevie”, a likeable, skinny blond who at three points – the opening, middle and end – silently attempts a series of notorious impossibilities of the kind teenagers challenge one another to in the schoolyard: bending an iron bar, fitting in a suitcase, vaulting a high broomhandle, moving a heavy tyre with his mind, eating a whole lemon, licking his elbow. He fails. Except at the very end, when he manages a couple when the whole ensemble helps him. That is oddly touching.



In between there are the wrestling matches, and a series of courtships between him and three girls, consummated in one case in an irritatingly crypto-acrobatic metaphorical sequence amid neon tubes. She dances, he lies at her feet and gets into La-Soiree style acrobatic poses so that you hope they’ll do a balancing act, but it never happens. Rather better is a sequence which takes a whole relationship from start to finish in a series of questions the girl reads from a paper; and another, actually funny, where the tallest, broadest member (Hammed Animashaun) acts like a relationship counsellor undermining Stevie with another fusillade of questions. The final courtship, after some fierce wrestling, took them abruptly into Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, which they did remarkably well. But it made me wish they’d done some real acting earlier.



So no, not for me. But others have rated their 70-minute performance engrossing, moving, lovable, meaningful, all that. The talent and desire to push theatrical boundaries is not in doubt. But I couldn’t feel they were pushing them anywhere very interesting.

Box office             020 7328 1000 / to 31 Jan
rating: two   2 meece rating


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Immediately this play had the whiff of a concept. This is a shoebox theatre, and the tiny clearing at the front (stage?) was occupied by only a plain white kitchen. Suli Holum, who performs the piece on her lonesome, appears in the audience (strange) but paints over the blanks with the kind of oomph only an American can muster.
A joint effort from writer/director Deborah Stein and performer/writer Suli Holum, the play is largely dull argument, but with a thrilling story poking in where it could. Broadly it is a story about a woman, who for various scientific reasons I can’t remember, has a son who is not hers. She gave birth but it isn’t her DNA in him. It’s vaguely common. Apparently.



The story is emotionally gripping and the characters are well drawn. A garishly accented American coffee lady/narrator is nicely cartoonish and pronounces ‘chest’ as ‘cheyesta’. Every syllable is a new invention.
The mother is only just about there; angry and sharp, cold yet a bit weepy. And the son is freakishly good. Suli pulls this shy yank student (think pre-crime Bieber) literally out of nowhere and it is thrilling.


Unfortunately here ends the praise. The script veers from witty to shitty and loses sight of the actual nub of interest – the story – far too often in favour of lecture. It is also regularly far too cerebral, talking about Darwin and DNA instead of people or experience. It also goes so meta for so many minutes that all we’re left with is jokes about how the taps don’t work because it’s a set. This feels like filling in the gaps for the boring science. As does the trippy pseudo-scientific projections which at first have a point, but end up just facilitating what looked like, and has the intellectual fibre of, the Galaxy song bit from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. You know the bit where Eric Idle comes out of the fridge into the Milky Way. This happens, although with far less substance.



It is a shame because the central performance was excellent and the lost story had the beginnings of something solidly dramatic. Unfortunately it throws all this to gawp at the great unknown / some facts I first heard on QI circa 2009.
Box Office: 020 7229 0706 to 20 Dec

Rating: two   2 meece rating

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2071 Royal Court, SW1


It so happened that, on my way to 2071, I had been listening (repeatedly) to Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene: Wagner’s cataclysmic vision of the end of the world dissolving in purifying fire, flawed humanity and gods with it. So, I was rather in the mood for Armageddon. What I got was more of a science lecture.

2071, by Duncan Macmillan & Chris Rapley, is “a play exploring the future of life on earth and climate change” – or so it claims. I would agree with every word, except the word “play”.  2071 is, in fact, an elegant and succinct overview of the science of climate change, but it is an academic experience, not a dramatic one. Briskly, and with a bewildering battery of statistics throughout, Chris Rapley walks us through the scientific evidence for climate change, the global scientific efforts to track and analyse it, and the human behavioural factors to blame. Effectively, it’s like a guided tour of the coming apocalypse from the relative comfort of your theatre seat, given by an expert whose eminent and pioneering career gives him the gravitas to speak from experience, as well as intellectual prowess in his several fields. Rapley’s grasp of his subject is breathtaking: the concise elegance of his chain of thought, superb. But the overall effect is that of a rather dry, if beautifully reasoned, lecture: and in a warm dark space, at the end of a long day, it is just as soporific as you would expect.

Luke Hall’s wonderful video designs, part informational slides, part atmospheric animations, serve to enhance and clarify Rapley’s words as far as possible. Waves merge beautifully into an image of the globe, which steadily darkens into a view of Antarctica. Grids grow and multiply across the cornered stage to produce three-dimensional laser graphs illustrating the dangerously rising temperature. We also have almost constant soundscapes, designed by Max and Ben Ringham, composed by Paul Clark. But adding visuals and sound effects to a talk does not make it a play. It makes it more like one of those educational videos a tired teacher would show you on a rainy Friday afternoon: worthy, interesting, and wholeheartedly factual.

Prescient observations emerge. “Our infrastructure is not designed to deal with the climate we are provoking. …Science can inform, but it cannot arbitrate: it cannot decide.” Ultimately, Rapley explains, the resolution of climate change is not a scientific question, but a moral one: for governments, for communities, for individuals to choose which parts of the planet they do, or don’t, want to destroy. Here lies the piece’s dramatic problem: it draws together a dazzling array of evidence to provoke the question, but does not actually pose it, nor attempt to answer it. So there’s not so much a dramatic arc, as a dramatic hole.

I applaud and appreciate the intention to bring this science to a wider audience. The Hay Festival has been doing so for years. Still: Wagner’s pyromaniac vision of the end of the world may not be so accurate, but it is far more exciting.


Rating: Two Mice 2 meece rating

At the Royal Court Theatre Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, until 15 November: 020 7565 5000

In co-operation with the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg

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TRUE WEST, Tricycle Theatre, NW6


This is a drunk play. It rambles a great tale at you, mildly hooks you, then fluffs the end as it totters off for another tipple. We’re promised a great modern classic from Sam Shepard but the result is uneven, strange but interestingly cinematic. Our view is a widescreen picture of a house in LA. The kitchen is perfectly even, the plants scream 70s from the far wall and the sky is piercing blue. The designer Max Jones has built a creepily smooth Stepford house; the kind you can easily picture yourself having a breakdown in.

The play, however, has no such vision; no coherence. Austin is a successful screenwriter with an all-American face and bright blue shirts. He is house sitting for his mother. His rough-looking brother, with muddy hands and an unwashed t-shirt with many tales to tell, has arrived unannounced. Austin has a screenplay to write, but, uh-oh, Lee has an idea. An idea from the desert, no less. This sets us off nicely. The dialogue is hit and miss, a little self-absorbed, but with enough shine to make it promising. A suitable but not particularly exciting turn comes from Steven Elliot (as a ‘moooovie’ producer with cash to splash) who appears to get Lee’s idea rolling. An outline is written, the brothers clash; it is thoroughly usual but is lifted by good humour and nice outbursts from Alex Ferns as Lee. There is nothing more intriguing than the mentally unstable and Alex starts with this well.

Its biggest crime at this stage is simply self indulgence. It rambles, stagey arguments bubble from nowhere, and this Tricycle audience gasps with horror at snide remarks about producers, and roars at jokes about agents’ fees. This is the best, I thought, that a play about screenwriting could do. Until it twists. It is as if Sam Shepard, or the director Phillip Breen (who draws some nice tense moments in the first half) utterly lose faith in the will-they-won’t-they ‘brothers who work together’ dynamic. It flips into a horrible dream; the lights are cranked up, the performances are strained and the script melts into nonsense about stealing toasters and whether the desert would be a suitable home. All of the tepid momentum about their father, different upbringings and contrasting lifestyles (which we attentively waded through with the promise of a payoff) is cast aside in favour of getting the brothers pissed and trashing the mum’s house. The cinematic style, tense edge and average humour are lost. Eugene O’Hare becomes absolutely cartoonish, Alex Ferns ditches all character in favour of the obscene and the script droops lower and lower until the excruciatingly obvious return of the mother. An interesting premise bottled.

Rating: Two Mice 2 meece rating

Playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 4th October
Box Office: 020 7328 1000

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HOLY WARRIORS Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

When this “fantasia on the third crusade” picks up momentum and reaches the summit of its oddity – a spectacular, if rather foggy peak – there comes an ensemble chant of “When does the West act wisely in these lands?”. Er, not often. Little wisdom is evident in the 11c declaration that certain bits of other people’s countries were “Outremer”, and Christian-ruled. Or in the 1099 sack of Jerusalem. Or the crusades. The partition of Palestine and the Balfour declaration could have had happier results, too, as could the Iraq war.
Not that the locals were models of benign wisdom: you could take this play as a requiem for some terrible ideas. “Caliphate” is one, “Christendom” another. “Holy War” is one of the worst concepts ever, and it is ludicrously unspiritual to believe in “Holy Places”: lumps of earth worth killing the locals for, even if they were mildly letting you visit…
David Eldridge has bitten off a lot in this pageant-play, and Dominic Dromgoole deserves credit for putting it on just as Syria, Gaza and the civil war in Iraq dominate the news. But clarity of exposition is not Eldridge’s strong point, and unless you’re a medieval historian with a taste for broadsheet middle-east analysis, buy the programme and study the historical essays and timeline first. Slowly.


It opens with Globesque spectacle: Director James Dacre uses the big space with confidence. Priests chant, Saladin brandishes his scimitar, a great jewelled cross descends and Raymond of Tripoli rants to King Guy (no, me neither, till I read the notes). “If Jerusalem is lost” he roars “Christendom will be lost and the penitent willwalk like lost souls on this earth forever more”.
Scenes whirl on, with dynastic marriage bickering which resolves into fierce Eleanor of Aquitaine urging her son Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) to war. Gregory VIII urges “every true Christian Lord and man of honour” to win eternal life by zapping the infidels. But its success as a history-play is hampered by gratingly archaic lines and a lack of earthy commoners who don’t see the point (Shakespeare always put them in). And when Berengaria invites the Lionheart to bed with the words “I will make for you a gift of sensuality that will smooth your troubles” you wince. Actors should not be forced to speak such lines. Not outside Spamalot. It isn’t fair.
Later Saladin reappears in modern militaria surrounded by a chorus in chrono-clashing helmets, turbans, business suits, epaulets and battle-fatigues; Napoleon has a row with King Abdulla, and fragments of real 20c speeches raise the interest, not least King Faisal’s “We Arabs have none of the racial or religious animosity against the Jews” while warning that imposing a Jewish homeland in Palestine – where many Jews had lived in peace – might bring strident new arrivals with little respect for “their duties under a Muslim power or a foreign Christian power mandated by the League of Nations”.
Begin, Ben-Gurion, Sadat, and kindly President Carter of Camp David flit by. Blair speaks to Congress after 9/11. Richard and Saladin bicker about who massacred most people, and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a fine Geraldine Alexander) returns to riff about what a mess it all is 800 years on. Richard becomes a modern British soldier, effing and blinding then suddenly going all medieval about how he will rip cherubs from their clouds to win the New Jerusalem. George W Bush gives him a sword.
In consort with an earnest study of the programme and source books it could be thought-provoking (if depressing). It looks good. Elena Langer’s music is enjoyable. But it’s a bit of a mess.
box office 020 7902 1400 to 24 August

Rating: two  2 meece rating

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THE GIRL’S GUIDE TO SAVING THE WORLD – Hightide Festival, Halesworth

Maybe this play about “friendship, feminism and what it means to be successful” would be less annoying if the characters – Bella, Jane, and Jane’s boyfriend Toby – were not clearly signalled as being in their thirties. As it is, their self-indulgent kidult carryings-on rapidly alienate. Grow up, you stupid drunken whingers! And for a “feminist” tract, it has to be an own goal to make the man the least infuriating. Poor old Toby may be a disillusioned English teacher who wants to be a househusband (“me and all the other Dads in a pavement cafe with a low-alcohol beer..taking the kids trips to Tate Modern with a sketchpad”). But at least he cooks supper, decorates, takes the cat to the vet and doesn’t blame everything on the opposite sex. And he wants a baby, and to love it, while Jane just moans “Kind of horrible – my vagina will never be the same…imagine me pinned to the sofa by a red slithery otter thing”.


It is a crying shame that Elinor Cook’s play, at this fabulous new-writing festival, should misfire. Because the staging (Amelia Sears directs) is ingenious and elegant, especially in a neon railway-line moment, and the performances – notably Jade Williams as Jane – are very good indeed, sucking every rare, available bit of reality from their parts. And Cook does write good one-liners. When Bella – who is doing a feminist blog with Jane – is being wooed by the editor of the hated Grazia magazine, Jane cries “she will force you into a scented room, yank out every one of your pubic hairs and give you a cupcake!”.


When she is in this Caitlin-Morannish vein Cook is fun. But too fast it turns into moaning hatred – Bella claiming that she let a boyfriend screw her without a condom because an “Embedded, societal” force enjoins us to worship The Penis. My companion cruelly said the whole thing had clearly been put through a computer programme called GuardianTranslate. Men are either sinister creatures at bus stops, useless drones, or silly fantasies. The women want to be as flaunty as they like, shed inhibition, abort pregnancies they conceived deliberately, get stinking drunk at clubs and fantasise about barmen. Irrelevant feminist as I am, let me confirm that both a nearby 29-year-old and a 21-year-old were just as irritated.


There is good stuff here, but it needs trimming by a third, refocusing and humanizing. The most telling moment is when, returning to their querulous feminist blog, they finally give a nod to the rest of the world and speak of “India, Somalia..! the more you scratch the surface of this stuff..” Yes. Right. Keep on scratching, girls, and not just your own itches. to 19th

RATING:   two   2 meece rating


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What is this neon box rising from the floor, with Matt Smith inside it?  Can it be the Tardis?  Nope:  a sunbed, and the former Dr Who has a cold unfamiliar stare in his deep-set ferret eyes and nothing on except for bulging white YSL knickers.  He enumerates shower products as he shrugs on his immaculate suit.  Around us in the auditorium the chorus croons “He is clean. A killing machine, he is so clean”.

It’s  definitely a coup for Rupert Goold’s Almeida, co-producers Headlong and Act 4 Entertainment:   a world premiere of Duncan Sheik’s  musical from Bret Easton Ellis’ cultish novel about a 1980’s  Wall Street trader.  Suffering from an existential inner void (the author was 26, go figure) the hero Bateman wants to vanish into a crack in the urinal wall but alleviates it instead by murdering people,  especially young women,  chopping them up, chewing bits of them and pleasuring himself with the remains.   The programme reminds us that the book was called “Numbingly boring, deeply and extremely disgusting” by one critic while another cooed “A careful, important novel”.   Some deem it feminist, others a wallow of misogyny and homophobia.  So the musical could be either a darkly clever  (if dated) satire on 80’s materialism, or just a chance to show bloodstained female thighs while integrating cheesy soft-rock tracks nostalgic to people old enough to afford tickets.

It’s a bit of both.  And since it stars Matt Smith as the anti-hero Bateman, it has pretty well sold out anyway.  Rupert Goold directs in his most extreme flash-Harry mood, with Es Devlin’s designs and the Almeida’s best machinery.   There’s pop-up furniture and taxi seats (at one point a pop-up Tom Cruise in aviators rises from the floor).  Elegant double revolves bear disco ensemble choreography (by Lynne Page)  freezing to jerkiness with Bateman stabbing and shagging in their midst.  Brilliant projections evoke the chaos of the hero’s mind and memory,  something which Matt Smith – encouraged to narrate and perform with a dead-eyed deadpan demeanour – has little chance to do for himself.

Obscene? Objectionable?  Not really: less than the book itself, so jokey is the style.  There is plenty of nervous  sniggering in the stalls.  I was least happy about the necrophiliac moment with the stabbed girl in the disco scene,  and the later line “She annoyed me, so I crucified her with a nail-gun”.  Whereas a friend who went on Wednesday says that she drew the line at the bit where Bateman sodomizes a giant stuffed pink rabbit with his girlfriend underneath it.

Some of the numbers are genuinely funny, especially the chorus of hair-flicking Carrie-Bradshaw socialites.  Trouble is, it’s all style and very little substance.   We have been shaking our heads over the Gordon Gekkos of the Wall Street boom for two decades, and fascination with serial killers is taste not all of us have acquired.   The only recognizably human character, beautifully played by  Cassandra Compton,  is the secretary Jean.  And most of the music, though beautifully rendered,  is monotonous and unengaging.

box office  0207 359 4404 to 1 feb    Sponsor:  Mr    Partner: Aspen

rating:  two      2 meece rating

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NUT – National Theatre Shed, SE1


What would you like to have written in your funeral eulogy?   Aimee, scruffy and pallid in urban battle-fatigues,  busy painting her toenails green, says.   “Brilliant.  Thass it. Brilliant. One word, no lists , no instructions. I was – It was –  I will be remembered as  –  brilliant!”.  Her friend Elayne, a young black woman,  remarks  “Thass not no eulogy, that’s a piss take”.
For all the mouthy eloquence, though, it is Elayne who is in trouble, and too receptive to the idea of hastening the day of her own funeral eulogy.  Nadine Marshall has a  clever, angrily troubled beauty,  well contrasted with the coarser Aimee (Sophie Stanton).   We do not know what sort of mental trouble Elayne is in, any more than we know why the set (by Lisa Marie Hall) consists of random crooked girders and bent pipes swaying overhead,  as if we had stumbled into an unfinished section of Crossrail.

Nor,  in the seventy-minute span of Debbie Tucker Green’s self-directed play,    do we really learn much more.   The first section, sparkily written and often amusing,  has the two women arguing about funerals, interrupted by an assertive young man grumbling that the doorbell doesn’t work  and a strange, faintly singing boy child who is half-noticed, half ignored in a way which makes you wonder whether he is supposed to be dead, or a memory.  It is that sort of play.   The next section is a two-hander, splendidly venomous and beautifully observed, in which a divorced couple rip chunks off one another over who has the best relationship with an invisible 11-year-old. Sharlene Whyte and Gershwyn Eustache Jr do it magnificently.

In the final section Whyte turns  out to be the younger sister of the troubled Elayne.  She too complains about there being no batteries in the doorbell,  so we must assume that the battery deficit is symbolic of Elayne’s voluntary isolation.  Another symbol is cigarette smoking,  with some weird semi-sadistic play in the first and third sections,  and numerous burns on Elayne’s arms.    Oh, and the mystery singing child is back  (Tobi Adetunji on press night, rather good and distinctly spooky).   Is he dead?  No idea.

The temporary Shed theatre has proved its worth this summer,  its informal warmth perfectly framing some bracingly unusual and striking work.   This one is as well performed as any,  credible in dialogue  and watchable in a depressing sort of way as a study in female unhappiness and unease.   But it is the least engaging Shed night so far,  smelling too strongly of neo-Beckettian theatre-anorakkery and mired in unsatisfying,  unnecessary, unresolved mystification.

box office 020 7452 3244  to 5 dec       Shed partner: Neptune
rating:  two         2 meece rating

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Austentatious! – Leicester Square

The hour contained a haunted Viking burial ground, a dubious Spaniard called Senor Knobflap,  several titled ladies in sprigged muslin and an 18c eczema epidemic.  Not that any of that will turn up again,  not if this improvisation troupe is honest about its spontaneity.
It is not quite fair to judge improv shows on one night only,  though I did fall in love forever with the brilliance of Showstoppers, the musical-theatre makers,   on the basis of one nocturnal Edinburgh romp.  This younger sextet  (plus discreet ‘cellist) came with a warm reputation from fringegoers and the Latitude festival, and  performs three times a month in London,  so I was curious.  Their premise is that most of Jane Austen’s 700-odd novels are lost, so the audience offers titles which they, in flawless period costume,  promptly perform.  My niece and I were rather hoping that they would pick ours out of the hat – “Mansfield Shark” in which  Fanny defeats Jaws.     But it was “Wit and Profanity” which became their title,  and even with a butler called Shitt  it took them a while to hook onto the profanity bit.
There is real talent there,  but even with a happy rowdy audience on this particular night the group seemed,  to use a shepherding term,  less well-hefted than they should be.  Seamless improv depends not only on picking up clues fast,  but on a willingness to get laughs from fellow-players who get painted into an impossible corner, and letting them struggle while ripples of laughter build.   Here it felt – despite some promising openings – as if some cast  members were leaping in too early, too anxiously, or  abruptly distracting us with unnecessary mugging.
When the more measured and watchful cast members – notably Andrew Murray and Rachel Parris – were let alone we got some good , even Austenian,  moments of pleasingly awkward courtship.   And Joseph Morpurgo made the well-worn joke of a comedy Spanish accent surprisingly fresh:  the lad has a certain edge of mania which may take him far.   “You must forgive me”  he snarls at one point:  “It is a Spanish custom to bluster into the bedroom of your landlady” .   As for the hospital he unaccountably plans to build,  with confident grandiosity he claims it as an important innovation.    “Up till 1813 in England,  everyone has died. Of everything”.  Nice.   I suspect that on other evenings, the third and fourth mice will romp home.    for dates at Leicester Square and the Wheatsheaf pub,  Rathbone Place
Rating:  two         2 meece rating

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