Category Archives: Two Mice

MY COUNTRY Dorfman, SE1 then touring

BREXIT MEANS… A BIT OF A DOG’S BREAKFAST

 
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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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Young Vic, SE1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES GROPES FOR DIAMONDS IN THE MUD

 

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

IN WHICH LUKE JONES TRIES AND FAILS TO DISINTER DEEP TRUTHS

 

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

NOT A BARNSTORMER. NOT THIS TIME..

 

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 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 17 Jan
rating two  (crediting, mousewise, set design and sound..)

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KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

AYCKBOURN AT IT AGAIN..OR IS IT

 
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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ROMEO AND JULIET Garrick WC2

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES SLUMPS IN DISAPPOINTMENT

 

 
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.

 

2 MICE
Until 13th August.
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THE TEMPEST Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth

SEASIDE, BUT NOT QUITE CIRCUS 

 

 

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 http://www.nnfestival.org.uk to 21 May
rating two  2 meece rating

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