Category Archives: Uncategorized

BELLEVILLE Donmar WC2

SWEET YOUNG LOVE IN PARIS:  NOT.

 

 

“We’re not going the full Mousetrap here” said the press desk, “but there is a moment at the end…we’re asking..” . Fine, no spoilers. Plenty else to write about, what with the knife thing and the bath thing and the DIY toe surgery thing (eurgghh!) and the screams and the vomit. And to be honest you never expected it to end in a well. The plot, I mean: I mean: as a play Amy Herzog’s piece is a cracker, superbly acted by the two fearless principals as young Americans in Paris , and a beautifully contrasted pair, their respectable Senegalese-Muslim landlords downstairs in the shabby Belleville apartment block. Michael Longhurst’s direction is tense, alarming, sometimes funny. So the whole catastrophic unfolding of it is horribly credible.

 

 

Perhaps dangerously credible, given current widespread suspicion among over-fifties that the milllennial generation, now in late twenties, are messed-up spoilt kids prone to binge drinking, drug use and a whining egotism fed by therapy-theory and the language of obsessive, analytical self-exculpation. As in our heroine Abby’s “I am emotionally abusive. I know that about myself . I’m working on that”.

 

 

 

There is sometimes a dark pleasure to be had in being cruelly judgmental of fictional characters, as one should not be about real people. If that is your pleasure, this will feed it in a most unChristmassy way. If you can raise compassion for the central pair, that’d do too: not least because in Herzog’s artful gradual 100-minute exposition you are never completely confident about which of this couple is to blame for the other’s disastrous state.

 

 

Abby – a magnificent Imogen Poots – is first the likely candidate, nervily  and shrieking when she sees through the door her husband Zack pleasuring himself over porn, grumbling that French people don’t seem to like her, giving up her language class because “they all speak English”, and patronizing Alioune the neighbour  and landlord who has popped by to “pack a bowl” – smoke a bong – with Zack. Who owes him rent. Abby’s hysteria over being thought to be 32 – she’s 28 – is combined with understandable holiday-season homesickness and a refusal to try and stop obsessively mourning her mother after five years . None of this is endearing. She makes strident emotional demands , moans “I wish I was less disdainful of everyone and expected a little less from myself”, and after passing out dead drunk again whines “Why did you let me drink so much?” though when he tries she yowled about his male “controlling” and having her personality “subsumed” . Best place for it, I’d say.   On the other hand there is something fishy about Zack’s job, porn habit and tendency to crash into the flat of respectable Senegalese neighbours at 3 a.m. searching drunkenly for more drugs.

 

 

 

As you can tell, it’s all a bit Albee, and there is something bracingly merciless – in this age of compulsory compassion – about Herzog’s depiction of someone both mentally ill and shrilly entitled who systematically wrecks a life, marriage and indeed a flat. But it is also horribly entertaining. James Norton’s as clean-cut Zack takes a remarkable journey from calm doctorliness to utter dissolution, and Poots is fearless, pitch-perfect and generally mesmerising.   Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi are perfect as the neighbours: younger, saner, their hardworking immigrant decency a shaming foil to the lost-soul , self-indulgent Westerneners.

 

 

I’m not sure where it gets us, but as a portrait of modern disjunction it rivets attention. And an almost silent coda , after the event of which we may not speak, is priceless. Especially when the Macbook Air goes in the binbag. That fact, by the way, wasn’t a spoiler.

 

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 3 feb Principal Sponsor: Barclays
rating four  4 Meece Rating

Advertisements

Comments Off on BELLEVILLE Donmar WC2

Filed under Four Mice, Uncategorized

CELL MATES Hampstead, NW3

ESPIONAGE, ESCAPE, AND THE WORLD’S WORST FLATSHARE

 
This is the one that got away. Simon Gray’s 1995 play, set largely in Moscow, is about the Cold War ‘60s spy George Blake and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke, who sprang him from a 42-year sentence Wormwood Scrubs. It toured, but its West End run closed rapidly after Stephen Fry, playing Blake, abruptly ran away to Belgium after some lukewarm critical comments. So the play itself – intelligent, sharp, eloquent, humane and in some ways better than Alan Bennett’s Burgess and Blunt plays – was never given its due. All honour to Ed Hall for reviving it now in his theatre, fretfully apt in the age of Putin and cyberspying and just as the Death of STalin film is creeping us out in cinemas.

 

 
Gray is not interested in the jailbreak, giving only a brief prison scene where the prim, foreign-office-polished Blake makes an unlikely connection with the roguish, street-smart Bourke who edits the prison newsletter. A subsequent one establishes how , while they lay low after the ladder-and-van escape, young Sean became a touchingly kind carer to the concussed, panicking older man. But most of the action takes place in the grimly grand little Moscow apartment – beautifully evoked by Michael Pavelka – where Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Blake is dictating his pompously self-justifying memoirs on tape, and Sean Bourke turns up for what he thinks is a week’s holiday: a bit of exotic experience to add to his own book. It rapidly emerges that the two KGB minders need his passport and are wholly in charge of whether he will be allowed to leave. At all: in case he is a planted British spy.

 

 
Emmet Byrne is wonderful as Bourke, bright but out of his depth, as nonplussed, homesick and intermittently panicky as anyone would be; Streatfeild superbly evokes Blake’s twisted chilly neediness ( though it is only late on that we discover just how twisted). For the most part what unfolds before us, with ever more delays and co-dependent conflicts, is the world’s worst flatshare.
I notice that some commentators want a more homoerotic subtext, but I don’t see any need: friendship on close quarters, after all, can be as difficult as any love affair. Blake, telling himself not to be homesick for his wife and three children because “I am home – morally and spiritually – in the country of the future”, is classically (and literally) buttoned-up, vain of both his advancement in the Foreign Office and his support for Stalin’s murders. About which he comes back often and ever more unconvincingly to the old metaphor about not making an omelette without breaking eggs. ZInaida the housekeeper, played with poignant comedy and drop-dead timing by Cara Horgan, polishes the spy’s Order of Lenin medals daily and likes him to wear them, but gets on at a more human level with Rourke , who just hits the vodka and teaches her to sing Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes with glorious mispronunciations. When it becomes clear that he is trapped here for years (in the end it was two and a half) he tries making Blake’s domestic life hell.

 

 
It is a play less about political belief (Gray prefers to despise it) than about friendship and dependence between men, which he handles with heartbreaking finesse. It is often very funny, because he of all writers understood audiences: the two KGB men nicely combine cartoonish absurdity and real menace: a marvellous performance comes especially from Danny Lee Wynter, rapidly becoming one of my all time favourite character actors. He is KGB Viktor, manspreading to the max, arrogantly terse, shrugging about his gymnast daughter getting too fat, never cracking even the shadow of a smile. Indeed when he grinned at the curtain call it was quite a shock.
Hall’s production zips along, and thoroughly deserves a transfer with this cast. But you leave, as Blake delivers one last self-justifying line to tape, wondering, given the play’s theme of betrayal and shipwrecked co-dependence, about the emotional effect the defection of Fry must have had on the playwright, cast and producers. Financially it was a disaster; for Gray, who wrote a bitter book about the affair, it blew his last chance to establish himself in the West End. I doubt Mr Fry will book in. Everyone else, go for it!

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 20 Jan

rating : five (i know everyone says oh no,  save the fives for Hamilton,  swoon swoon, but in this case it is a terrific play and I can’t imagine it being done better. So there)

5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on CELL MATES Hampstead, NW3

Filed under Five Mice, Uncategorized

THE TWILIGHT ZONE Almeida, N1

TO BOLDLY DREAM.. MAINLY OF PLYWOOD AND PROPS

 
THE TWILIGHT ZONE was , long before the phrase was coined, “appointment-to-view television”. In the US in the 50s and 60s families gathered round and gasped at the hokey, portentous suspenseful mystery series (like a precursor of our own Tales of the Unexpected, only with more to-camera moralizing). Adaptor Anne Washburn slightly annoyed me a few years ago with her “post-electric” MR BURNS, in which all that a post-apocalyptic civilization could remember was Simpsons plots. Now she’s back at the Almeida with a mash-up of eight of the original Twilight Zone stories, cut up , interwoven, and presented with an admirably straight face in a style retro-kitsch, camp and knowing. It is executed in a black-box of vague stars with a dangling grey TV and a stage crew half-visibly trundling the furniture around in camouflage star-studded black onesies, as in the golden age of live telly.

 

 

The ingredients are all there – Cold War neurosis, space travel nightmares, hospital drama, half-digested psychiatry, aliens, ghostly warnings , carnival grotesques, and worrying erotic dreams about Maja the Catwoman (Lizzy Connolly gets a big number in furry black tights before turning into a Hideous Bandaged Head Lady). One poor woman wakes up post-cryogenically in a future century wearing a tight tinfoil dress and black lipstick. And at one point, pleasingly, someone has to be rescued from the Fourth Dimension by the family dog. The way you know you have stumbled into the Fourth Dimension, by the way, is that there are whirly cardboard op-art discs being carried across the stage, and an upside-down placard of E=mc2.

 

It is at times hilarious, with some fine deadpan 1950s performances from the cast of 10 and three supernumaries doing the trundling. Richard Jones directs and keeps it moving, a bit confusingly at times, and the only sustainedly long section comes in the second half when the series briefly gives up on sci-fi and supernatural imaginings to portray with unnerving realism a hysterical rivalry between neighbours during a supposed nuclear attack with only one bunker available. That is the most engaging section, with a very topical race row and an attack on the latest immigrant in the striking cry of “This is a nation not a clown car , the entire world is not going to fit in here!”.

 

 
At last John Marquez as the (very straight-faced) TV host-narrator concludes by addressing us meta-theatrically with a very 1950s sermonette, reassuring us that as we leave we will not really plummet into an endless field of stars but claiming that “with a few frail bodies, the shifting of artificial light and electronic sound, fabric, plywood, can-do and most importantly your own mental technology, we have created aliens, a living dream, an imaginary child, a dimensional vortex,…” etc .

 

 

To which one can only reply “Actually, what you have created is a more like a cheerful holiday-season kitsch tribute to a former age of telly. It passed the time, no more”.

 

 

Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 27 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE TWILIGHT ZONE Almeida, N1

Filed under Three Mice, Uncategorized

A CHRISTMAS CAROL BY FITZROVIA RADIO HOUR Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

LARKING  WITHIN TENT

 

 

As an old radio hack, who started a career over forty years ago in the days when “spot effects” in drama studios were one of the more amusing jobs, I have a feeling for the quintet who create the “Fitzrovia Radio Hour”. In play-that-goes-wrong style they not only score off one another’s fictional actor-personae, but ramp up the comedy by struggling to do the sound effects. It rings true: I remember doing“footsteps” in the gravel tray while clutching the doorbell, and hitting cabbages with an axe for the more bloodstained French Revolution-themed plays.

 

 

So the comedy has a double edge of memory for me, but the group’s success has found a wider, younger following, enchanted by the retro struggles onstage. The only thing that doesn’t ring true for me is that, US-style, they’re doing it with ads and product placement. But hey, a lot of the crowd in the Spiegeltent in December are Americans too..

 

Here, four players take the first hour without “Stanley de Pfeffel”, the veteran who always plays Scrooge and who has been (possibly on purpose) hospitalized by the collapse from a theatre fly-tower of “the entire set of the Importance of Being Earnest” .

That the fifth will indignantly reappear is increasingly likely (nice use of the echo-plate here). The others proceed, entertainingly deploying in a witty set their mass of domestic and DIY equipmen. There is sexual tension between one pair and respective mourning / resentment for dePfeffel by the other.

 

There was a point when it lagged a bit, 45 minutes in, but a fine coup de theatre with Scrooge’s third ghost turns it around, and the ripples and barks of laughter start up again as it accelerates. All power to Michael Lumsden here… enuff said.

 

As a merciful 75-minute, £ 18.50 break from the maelstrom of London Christmas shopping, it is good value.

 

 

box office http://christmascarollondon.com 03333 444167
Weds-Sun at 3.30 pm till the 30th, 2pm on Christmas Eve

rating four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on A CHRISTMAS CAROL BY FITZROVIA RADIO HOUR Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

Filed under Four Mice, Uncategorized

IMPERIUM Swan, Stratford upon Avon

CICERO, CAESAR, CATILINE: ELOQUENCE, AMBITION , HORROR

 

 

It begins with a corpse: a horrid human-sacrifice, as we shall learn, as a set of libertines and plotters swear a blood-oath to kill the Consul Cicero. From there the play roams on, thrilling and tense, subtle and shocking and thoughtful. Oh, the sadness of being born fifty years too soon! When I limped gloomily to a D in the Roman History A level it was because that vivid world – precursor and founder of our own civilization – had been rendered unbearably distant and dry by awful textbooks and a dreary teacher. How were we oppressed schoolgirls to know how thrilling it was? Power struggles, shifting alliances, spurts of dishonest populism by wannabe tyrants, class hostility: a perfect preparation for modern politics, with added bloody rebellion and hideous horror-story deeds. If I had seen this then, I might be a classicist now.

 

 
Mike Poulton, who made such a stunning job of Wolf Hall, has adapted Robert Harris’ magisterial novels based on the career and vast writings of Cicero (a vital player, political republican hero and orator, who gets only a few lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Gregory Doran directs with typical pace and his trademark clarity : as with his productions of Shakespeare history plays, never does your mind wander for a second while you worry which Gaius is which, or which side he is (for the moment) backing. Richard McCabe as Cicero is a marvellous creation: a man risen from lowly beginnings through sheer intelligence and lawyerly eloquence, his genuine belief in the Republic and horror of autocracy fading sometimes endearingly into pomposity; his political gift for expediency always at war with his real principles. It is a masterclass in the running dilemma that is politics, and a credible, poignant human portrait.

 

 

 

Often our sophisticated Cicero is confronted with harsh simplicities of greed and ambition, equally often physically overshadowed. Sometimes by the terrifying brute Catiline (Joe Dixon, making me think of a Marvel Comics super-villain, in a good way ). Sometimes our hero seems staid next to the watchful, sexy young Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey, one of those faces you can’t take your eyes off). The device of using the amiable, keen slave-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska) as narrator is entertaining, and again serves that clarity of plot beautifully. The women in the story are few, but make a forceful mark: Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s rich and barely tolerant wife, a sweet Jade Croot as his daughter, and not least the very foxy Eloise Secker as Clodia, sister and incestuous lover of Clodius, the dandyish young aristocrat who renounces his status to be a Tribune of the Plebs , with pleasing echoes of Wedgwood Benn binning his peerage.

 

 

 

There are six parts, in two sessions (what great television it would make, if TV companies had the cojones!). The first three- CONSPIRATOR – I saw: the second set, DICTATOR , not yet. A hideous weather forecast and four-hour drive home in freezing fog made it unsafe to stay. But the quality, my closer-dwelling companion assures me, is the same: a touch darker, more menacing. Cicero struggles to regain influence and stay alive with his family , and a very different view of Caesar’s rule and death emerges, unlike Shakespeare’s. And comes then Mark Antony , the triumvirate and the dark time after…
I shall buy tickets later and watch both in a day, repeating the first part with pleasure. And I apologize to theatrecat readers for not having both at my fingertips now. But can promise, either way, a sharpening, intelligent, theatrically irresistible experience.

 

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to 10 feb
rating five  5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on IMPERIUM Swan, Stratford upon Avon

Filed under Five Mice, Uncategorized

HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY Young Vic SE1

A SPANGLED ANGLESEY ARISTOCRAT WALKS AGAIN

 

 

One way to win, if your own era rejects you, is to be so spectacularly odd that two centuries later a musical theatremaker gets obsessed with you and recreates your avatar onstage. Growing up on Anglesey Seiriol Davies found out about Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth marquess of that isle, descended from a hero of Waterloo and expected to carry on the line. He preferred to cross-dress (sometimes as Eleanor of Aquitaine, sometimes as a butterfly), gut the family chapel to make a theatre starring himself, marry (rather lavenderly) a poor girl for whom he bought an entire jewellers’ stock only to drape it on her naked and leave out the other marital duty; and generally waste the family money until he died near-destitute in Monte Carlo. And was described brutally in obits as “a strange and repellent spirit opaquely incomprehensible and pathetically alone” , though the Times did say that for all his eccentricity Anglesey quite liked him.

 

 

 

Well, these days such a history – though his family burned all the Marquess’ diaries and letters in disgust – is definitely one you can win with. And Davies makes it happen, playing poor Henry himself, with alongside him Matthew Blake as his theatrical follower and helper, and a comically dour Dylan Townley at a keyboard . The result is a strange wild camp and ultimately endearing squib, 75 minutes long, walking  a tightrope between revue (it began at Edinburgh) and commemorative sermon on individuality. In a spangled blue cocktail frock with a slit to reveal silk stockings Davies speaks and sings, sometimes faint and vulnerable and lonely, sometimes beltingly exhibitionist. There are jokes , as he and Blake go on tour, about the touring lives of actors, which are very funny (the “it went well’ chorus particularly telling).

 

 

There is real pain sometimes, though not often, and a proper sense of how confusing it is to be different in a world and rank that wants you solid and Imperial. It is the same message about cross-dressing eccentricity and self- assertion as in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: except of course that Jamie has a Mum who loves him, classmates who come round, and a 21st life. Oh, how we have come on…

 

 

Fine jokes work, not least a spoof interview with the Daily Mail in which he has to pretend he loves tweed more than spangles; but it is the portrait of poor brave extravagant Henry is as a man that sticks. 75 minutes was enough for this romp, but I wouldn’t mind a less arch, deeper imagined biography of him.

 

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 23 dec
rating four, for sheer oddity and rather nice music

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY Young Vic SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Uncategorized

BARNUM Menier, SE1

A MINI-CIRCUS AND A MISCASTING

 

A nice irony that this revival of this Mark Bramble / Cy Coleman / Michael Stewart musical about Phineas T.Barnum should open now, just as David Attenborough reveals in a forthcoming TV doc that the great showman lied about the heroic death of his big elephant. And that it was a sad beast anyway, what with years of being ridden by Queen Victoria’s children. But then, fake news – ‘humbug” – was a Barnum speciality, a fact merrily underlined in every song and in the constant playful, not to say saccharine, flirtations between Barnum and his cool-headed New England teacher wife Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford, calmly excellent as ever). My favourite humbug, actually my favourite line in this frustratingly frothy account of Barnum’s career, was his solution to the problem of people staying too long in his “American Museum” to gawp at the freaks and exhibits. He just put up a sign saying “To the Egress’. So everyone flocked through in the hope, perhaps, of a giant eagle or an ogress. And ended up back in the street paying again.

 

 

There are such moments of glee, and – in the Menier’s j elaborate canvassy, larky circus-ring set – plenty to enjoy as pure spectacle. Officially the star is Marcus Brigstocke, best known as a Radio 4 standup comedian: but actually the real star is the ensemble. Tumbling, somersaulting, dancing, marching with fifes and euphonium, swinging perilously near the coloured bulbs of the ceiling, they are joyful and nimble as otters. Only with coloured tights and spangles. Director Gordon Greenberg pulls no elf n’ safety punches, and the movement by Rebecca Howell and Scott Maidment (for the circus turns) is terrific, fluent and startling. Brigstocke himself has a circus moment when he is required – to illustrate the dangerous temptation of a liaison with Jennie Lind the Swedish Nightingale – to end the first half by walking a tightrope. Apparently the night before press day he crossed the stage in one go, but tonight he fell off twice, covering himself wittily enough (“I hope none of you have ordered interval drinks”) and finally holding on to a real acrobat’s hand for the last wobbly leg.

 

 

He cannot actually sing very well, and we hear few words in the patter songs: the contrast with Pitt-Pulford’s assured musical-theatre skill is a bit awkward, though nobody beats the coloratura belting of Celinde Schoenmaker as Jennie Lind. But in a way the show’s weakest point is Bramble’s book itself: we have grown used to darker, more Weimar-ish uses of circus as metaphor, and expect a bit more jeopardy than this provides. There’s a setback when Barnum’s museum burns down, but our ploddingly smiling, one-note hero gets over that in about 20 seconds (Brigstocke is not a subtle performer). The second jeopardy – the Lind temptation – again elicits no sign of real emotion either in him or his wife.

 

 

 

Indeed the moment of most thrilling jeopardy came on press night, when the magnificent band parade fills the room and Barnum-Brigstocke has to get a couple of audience members to play the kazoo. The first he picked on was, naturally, Quentin Letts of the Mail , who in a recent book described him as part of a Radio 4 comedy cadre – “as predictable as the tides…they pretend to be poor, hold a sardonic view of manners, a negative attitude to the United States, have slumped shoulders, a secular contempt for religion and a probable hygiene problem”. Surely..gasp..our hero can’t have read that? Anyway, Mr Letts primly refused the kazoo. The Evening Standard took on the challenge instead. One can’t expect edgy insider moments like that every night, but on the whole it’s not bad fun, absolutely a family show. Left me wanting to know a lot more about Barnum in both showbiz and his political career than it offered, and that’s a start.

 

 

box office 0207 378 1713 to 3 March
rating three   3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on BARNUM Menier, SE1

Filed under Three Mice, Uncategorized