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ALBION Almeida N1



There’s a lawn and a vast magnificent tree. In dim moonlight before the start a figure in khaki – could be any war – kneels to feel the earth. Your mind flits to every subaltern war- poet dreaming of country houses; a Forty-Years-On mood flickers.  The title has made its intention clear. Yet in the event Mike Bartlett’s play – directed by Rupert Goold – mercifully does not hammer home its metaphors about England, changing values, retrospection, regeneration. You can pick them up, or not bother.



For it is an intimate epic of one family, and the lost soldier is specific. He was the heroine Audrey’s son, blown up in one of our inconclusive modern conflicts. It is his absence, and his ashes, which dominate the play’s emotional explosions. And how! After the trauma of the TV Doctor Foster saga, if there is one thing we know Mike Bartlett can create  it is an obsessively barmy woman who in the grip of outrage and personal entitlement will stop at nothing. There are two, or possibly three of these  in this long play (just over three hours). Only the brilliance of the writing, a welcome satirical edge in the first hour and some remarkable breathtaking performances all through prevent it feeling like a Hampstead Novel made flesh.




Both Audrey and Anna’s behaviour hover often on the edge of psychological incredibility – especially if you actually are a woman – but then so have all the great tales from Medea to Lady Macbeth. And there are moments where Victoria Hamilton’s Audrey and Helen Schlesinger’s Katherine circle one another like panthers: scenes so stunning, so eloquently perfect in every tone, gesture, word, half-laugh and expression, that the sheer dazzle of it silences criticism.


Audrey is a chic businesswoman – owns shops where everything is white . She has abandoned London with her languid second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) and her aghast millennial daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope), a  Cambridge graduate with Camden attitudes  who is working as a marketing intern for a publisher (there is perhaps tiresomely much in this play about literary ambition, but this is Islington after all). Anyway, Audrey has bought a 15-room manor house her uncle once owned, with a legendary garden designed in the 1920s and now derelict. She wants to recreate childhood memories and older ideas of grand house life with dressed-up parties and county style.



The early scenes are very, very funny, as her brisk controlling ways – echoes of every Victoria Wood posh-cow sketch – upset the veteran gardener and his slow-moving wife Cheryl the charlady (grand work from Christopher Fairbank and Margot Leicester) . She replaces Cheryl with a go-getting young Pole who works four times as fast, and the village hates her as she bars them from their traditional fetes in the Big House garden. Visiting is her college friend, the crop-haired, satirically laughing boho lesbian novelist Katherine. Like the bored husband (Rowe is very funny indeed) Katherine provides more laughs and perspective. But fifty minutes in, as Audrey clashes over the ashes with the dead son’s girlfriend Anna (Vinette Robinson) there is a turnaround. Bartlett forces us to accept that even an irritating memsahib draped in asymmetric oatmeal cashmere and business-school ethics can suffer deep, disabling grief.




Something Audrey has done, in her unshareable maternal mourning, enrages Anna: who despite only dating the son for three months has her own tendency to possessive entitlement. Indeed if you get lulled into thinking that you are watching a decorously entertaining tragicomedy with some nice choreographed entr’acte shrub-planting, brace yourself. By the end of the 95-minute first act it goes the full hyperGoold: thunderstorm, heavy real rain, furiously demented sexual raving in wet earth, and a shock announcement. And that is even before the stinger involving Katherine and Zara, and another demonstration of breathtakingly selfish parasitical entitlement from Anna as she and Audrey grapple for possession of the soldier’s memory.



Nobody behaves rationally – except surprisingly, the husband, and less surprisingly the Polish cleaner. The London business in the background wobbles, as it would; Audrey’s retro dream dies. Or does it? I have to say that the ending convinced me not at all. But after those marvellous performances, excellent startling laughs and virtuoso explosions of OTT DoctorFosterism, one forgives much. Not all, but much.



Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 24 November

Principal Partner; Aspen
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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A theatrical phenomenon of the 20th century is that some of the most perceptive parts for women were written by gay men: Tennessee Williams, RattiganM Noel Coward; Alan Bennett kindly, Joe Orton cruelly. And, in this case, Oscar Wilde. Because of The Importance Of Being Earnest with its demurely comic Gwendolen and Cicely and absurd Prism, we can forget that he had a savage anger about social justice for women: powerful unease about the double sexual standard and a bracing admiration for tough, outspoken American womanhood. His was, remember, the time when squads of wealthy US girls like Jennie Churchill were coming over and improving our aristocratic breeding-stock no end.



Of all the plays this is the most melodramatically and explicitly angry: at its heart is the long-wronged, virtuously hiding Mrs Arbuthnot, who finds out at a brittle social house-party that her illegitimate son Gerald has met her faithless lover – now titled and powerful – and been taken on as his secretary. There are terrific, and unfashionable, set-pieces: in among the excellent and familiar epigrams come long speeches of great earnestness both in favour of ‘virtue’ and against it.




But it bounces along, director Dominic Dromgoole allowing absurdity (borderline clowning at times) to keep the mood moving. The casting is wonderful: Eleanor Bron ,as arch as her own eyebrows, expresses aged aristocratic complacency and a throttling dominance of her husband. Anne Reid exudes daffy benevolence , and both senior ladies have split-second comic timing, and can throw lines away so that they explode unexpectedly a second later, and we guffaw). Harry Lister Smith is a sweetly tousled, eager Etonian Gerald, Emma Fielding the cynical Mrs Allonby, Crystal Clarke the priggish American reformer who comes good in the end.


Dominic Rowan makes a convincing coxcomb as the seducer. Gorgeous nonsensical cameos are added by William Gaunt’s senile Archdeacon, William Mannering as a drunk lordling, and Phoebe Fildes as poor dim young Lady Stutfield. But at its heart is Eve Best: mournful and troubled in black velvet, hair tumbling, a humble church-mouse amid the quipping brittle socialites. Her wronged Mrs Arbuthnot is the emotional and moral core of the play, and her sincerity carries the melodramatic scenes – no small feat – to just within the bounds of modern tolerance.




As many don’t know the plot, no spoilers. But I will signal to you the production’s grand and suitable joke. Anne Reid, benignly smiling as our stately hostess, turns out to have a fabulous knack for singing the most sentimental and minatory of Victorian parlour songs, trilling thrillingly in a character so extreme that I thought my late and shameless Granny was back to haunt me . She does three unexpected entr’acte moments, so that the three sumptuous sets (by Jonathan Fensom) can be changed in impressive silence as she emerges through the blue velvet curtains with her staff – and Ms Fildes – on fiddle, clarinet and guitars. Thus Reid belts out emotional renderings of “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother” and The Gypsy’s Warning, and we melt and cheer. Give that woman an album, now! These appearances, nicely introduced by her butler as if we were guests at the same social weekend, betray that Dominic Dromgoole, late of the warm and larky Shakespeare’s Globe, does not wish entirely to dispense with its spirit cosy inclusivity and confine his casts entirely behind a fourth wall.



Actually, talking of that, here’s a nice irony. This week Nicholas Hytner opens his new theatre, The Bridge, and you can hear him on Radio 4 musing on how the Victorian proscenium theatre, a gilded picture-frame, was ideal for plays up to 1950 but is problematic now. (R4 PLANKS AND A PASSION, 1130 tues 17th). While at the same moment Dominic Dromgoole – late of the Globe – begins his Classic Spring series by demonstrating, in this first Wilde revival, precisely how they did work for those plays and audiences.




But some things linger on for centuries. In this Harvey Weinstein week, there was not a little topicality in the theme of women being sexually shamed and hiding while men get away with it, “Women are pictures, men are problems” scoffs Lord Illingworth. His real nastiness emerges through the charm, just as the real pain of the second act gives a sharp sour jangle to the familiar epigrams. Wilde didn’t only use his teeth to smile.



box office Phone: 0330 333 4814 to 30 Dec
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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When the music stops and the lights click on, your first thought is ‘sweet Jesus what the hell went down at this party”?     I thought twenty year olds were bad. These two late thirty/early forty year olds were knee deep in bottles, stubbed out fags, plates, streamers, scuffs, spills and no doubt smells. They’re the only ones left,  and it’s her flat. It’s a housewarming which has noticeably cooled. But they’re staring at each other intensely.




David Eldridge’s new play is a tense, frustrating flirt. Laura and Danny (absolute champions Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton) don’t know each other but, over an hour and forty minutes,  dig an incredibly intense relationship. Like 2017 Pinter the majority of their chat is bleakly familiar, but still somehow thumps you in the feels. The plot is nicely thin; two strangers lost in loneliness, edging closer to life’s dusty shelf, fall in something resembling love. But Eldridge’s skill –  also down to Polly Findlay’s incredibly naturalistic direction – is in quietly cranking up the tension then puncturing it. Sometimes you feel the dramatist’s direction a little too much, but for the most part you can lose yourself in it. Towards the end as they strip almost naked, kiss and desperately cling to one another, Danny (after a corking pause) asks if Laura could flip the heating on. Reader, we roared.



Troughton steals the show with his nervy, boyish and damaged 42 year old Essexian. His drunken wobbles and neuroses are a photorealistic portrait. Theatrics  have been parked. Mitchell’s too is a witty performance which nimbly negotiates the gags cracking into profundities.



My only hesitation about this play is that occasionally – and very briefly –  the pace dipped and my interest slipped. And a few times Mitchell’s performance veered just far enough out of the outstanding naturalism  into something a smidge stagey. Also social media mentions occasionally feel a bit stale and forced, but it is set in 2015 and don’t forget these characters aren skirting forty so….y’know.



But these gripes are slight. ad I not brought my pen and sharped my critical binoculars as is normally my way, this all would probably have passed me by.   If you’re up for a bleak, honest, comparably brief manifesto for shaky late-love; strap in.

Luke Jones
Box Office: 020 7452 3000  to 14 November

rating  four 4 Meece Rating



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Sometimes you just want a bit of fun. That is the moment to turn to Mel Brooks, master of daft parody. At 91, the master strode onstage tonight with director Susan Stroman, and told us that the only thing wrong with this glorious London launch of his 2007 Broadway show – his own musical based on his film – was that all us bastards got in free. Cue cheers, standing ovations and a wild hoofing reprise from the cast during which I fled to write this.



Because it is a pleasure to tell you that , whatever your doubts about making musicals out of beloved films, this one pretty much works just as well as The Producers did before it. And there is special satisfaction in letting Britain demonstrate that it can effortlessly raise a cast to delight the Brooks and Stroman and the rest of us. So you need a Gene-Wilder type, earnest and bewildered as the grandson of Viktor Frankenstein? We have Hadley Fraser. Want a crazy sinister old housekeeper with a terrifying goose-step and worrying erotic memories? Step forward Lesley Joseph. A diva for a mighty love song ? Dianne Pilkington. Were you worried that nobody can rock a humpback and a bat-flapping cloak like Marty Feldman in the film? Fear not, there’s Ross Noble. He has just the right manic edge. For a one-armed one-legged Mayor doubling as a blind bearded slapstick hermit we can offer Patrick Clancy, who even manages a unique transformation in the curtain call.




And when there is a need for a glorious, shameless, leg-flashing, top-hoofing comedy blonde bombshell who is able and willing to do the splits in frilly knickers on a sinister lab gurney without even holding the rusty chains, Britain can proudly supply a Strallen. Summer Strallen as Inga, in this case, and very fine too. So is the swing chorus: Nathan Elwick in particular getting a nice pair of cameos. Only The Creature himself is a US import – Shuler Hensley. And he played it on Broadway, so it would be criminal not to re-use his talent for roaring, stumping, staggering, and finally bursting into neat tap to Put On The Ritz before miraculously morphing into a Noel-Coward gentleman-roué.



So pure and almost constant pleasure, sharp and witty from Fraser’s opening number “There is nothing like a brain” which reassures us that Brooks is as determined to pay mocking homage to the musical genre itself as he was to 1930s horror films. It is slyly self-referential all the way through, the numbers echoing everything from Oklahoma to Les Miserables. Favourite jokes from the film are there in script, but it is the newness of the musical line that delights. Frankenstein’s frigid fiancée has a particularly original number Please Don’t Touch Me (“You can squeeze me till I scream, if it’s only in a dream”), waltzing touchlessly into a very good gag about Catholic girls’ schools. As for the hay-cart on which Inga takes Frankenstein to the castle (with splendid horse and wolf behaviour) words fail me. So enjoy hers – “When life is awful, just jump on a strawful, and have a roll in the hay”.




Any time, any time. Enjoy the daft jokes, relish the pace (only slows down a bit, in the villagers’ scenes, before the barnstorming Act 1 closer with the Creature rampaging down the aisle). Cheer for the splendidly disgraceful objectification of women with big breasts and a Creature with unusual endowment south of the belt. Take a happy break from news bulletins about Brexit. Mel Brooks loves us, so we must be all right after all.


box office 0844 482 9673 to 10 Feb.
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HEISENBERG : the Uncertainty Principle Wyndhams, WC1



A quick quantum-mechanics lesson (though this is not a play about science). The Heisenberg principle asserts that there is a limit to knowing what will happen to the position of a particle, even if you know its momentum. As a physicist explains in the programme, “vagueness is built into is simply now knowable”. The author Simon Stephens adds the metaphor of music, in which we cannot know which note comes next. Surprise is good. Uncertainty is life. OK?



Stephens’ own work, knotty and perverse, is rarely as universally loved as his brilliant adaptations like A Dolls House and that Dog In The Night Time. This one has been received with respect, but it was hard to help feeling that this 80 minute two-hander represents one of those cases where an immensity of theatrical talent gets heaped on a work so weightless that it would crumble to dust without that exoskeleton of high craft and sincerity.



For here are two fine-tuned and beautiful actors of great soul, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff; add the marvellous director Marianne Elliott, the abstract design beauty of. Bunny Christie’s set, marvels of atmospheric lighting (Paule Constable) and smooth stage engineering which can pop up and vanish pieces of furniture to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Add the reassuring pretensions  of theoretical  physics and you have a real chin-stroker, blaring “Important! Seminal!” at you and daring you to contradict it.



It is a sort of love story: absurdist and asymmetric. It begins when – I suppose like particles colliding – blonde American Georgie kisses a total stranger on the back of his neck at st Pancras . She is 37 and claims to be an Ottolenghi waitress (Hmm. Very Islington) but is a school secretary. He is 75 , a Bach-loving butcher who likes his job because he enjoys how that animals fit together with “seams”.  A horrid memory arose of this author’s’ “Morning” at Edinburgh, all murderous teenagers prodding a flyblown corpse and snarling ““All music is shit and all art is shit and all television is shit and all sport is shit…there is only terror. There is no hope”. For a while I feared that he was going to dismember her.



But no. The pair sleep together, rather beautifully choreographed (the movement is dreamlike, slo-mo, graceful). She complains about his fridge and asks him for £15k to find her son in New Jersey. At which point one’s inner pedant protests that you can get a NorwegianAir  return via Reykjavik for £700 quid , and airbnb for ages on a thousand, so it’s a bit steep. But his response, after a while, has grace. Unlikely grace, but Cranham can make you believe anything.



For all the plonking significance it’s the good old two-lonely-people-odd-couple tale, which as rom-com writers know depends on charm. This Cranham bestows on his elderly character with ease; but Anne-Marie Duff is given a near-impossible job finding it in hers.  Georgie is a toxic variant on the kooky-yet-troubled heroine from Hepburn to Goldie Hawn, only more annoying. She is what the Germans beautifully call an ich-bin-so – every rudeness airily dismissed with “It’s just something that I do” “I’m like that” and a flirty, hipswivelly “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”.  Only Duff’s ability to drill down to the sincerity of pain and damage finally redeems her. And then only just.

For the relationship does, in the end, become touching. Though old Alex’s devotion – enchantingly expressed by the glorious Cranham in the best and final speech – depends more on her sexual availability than a feminist would like. The idea that a young woman would adore “clumsy” sex with an old man wrinkled “like Europe” is a bit Woody Allen for my taste. And it is a pity: a similar Heisenberg collision between our hero and someone less physically foxy might be, in the end, more moving.




box office 0844 482 5120
to 6 jan

rating three  3 Meece Rating


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THE LIE Menier, SE1




This is a companion-piece to the stormingly funny, cruelly witty THE TRUTH: Florian Zeller, translated from the French with verve by Christopher Hampton, directed by Lindsay Posner, and once again starring Alexander Hanson. An actor who does wounded-insincere-yet-sufferingly- self-righteous infidelity like nobody else. Once again Zeller is playing around with the question of who is lying, who believes who, and who is pretending to lie in order to conceal that the lie is actually a truth, etc. It is not quite as chokingly and constantly funny as The Truth, which was the most sophisticated of farces in shorter sharper scenes. This one is more philosophical, with possible longueurs in at least one scene where the key couple are persuading one another to disbelieve the lie which they have told one another and which is – at some points – actually true.



Treble-bluff, whip-smart , and it is always entertaining to spot “tells” and think you know better than the protagonists. It begins with the deceptively simple fact that Alice – an elegantly businesslike Samantha Bond – wants to cancel a dinner with their closest friends Michel and Laurence, because she has seen Michel with another woman in the street and feels she should in honesty tell her friend. Her husband Paul – Hanson, who feels sympathy for Michel – says that it is kinder not to, and struggles in the dinner to prevent her having any time with Laurence.


But the very discussion of infidelity makes Alice, with righteous paeans to truth in marriage, ask him frankly whether he has ever cheated. And for a while we think aha, maybe this is the core of the plot, a solid marriage crumbling on suspicion for no real reason. At last her husband admits it, then says he made it up because she pushed him, so was lying about having lied. Whereon she says she has also cheated. And the complications mount as Michel (Tony Gardner, always a touch satanic) comes round to console the panicking Paul. And the diabolical truth-that-is a lie-about- the -ruth builds up between them and spills over into philosophical craziness and sometimes cruelly funny moments. Hanson, Bond and Gardner all have utter mastery of the half-noticed “tell”, and the faux-tell, so we are never entirely sure who is lying. Except that we pretty much reckon they all are. And in a final coda we find out anyway.



The laughs are sometimes pure happy shock, sometimes cruel : the blackmailing moral “you have to believe em if you want me to believe you” being pretty much the closest to an ethic we get. But Zeller does have a moral insight – note his remarkable The Father and The Mother, both recently in London . So one suspects that if you drill down, what he actually thinks is that that infidelity is not the end of the world.. So clever, entertaining, not quite the dazzler his other plays have been, but solid pleasure. Though one hopes Mrs May and Mr Davis don’t see it, or they’ll never trust a French negotiator again.



box office 0207 378 1713 to 18 Nov
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE NORMAN CONQUESTS Chichester Festival Theatre



In more rigorous technical times there was an art school exercise: “draw an imagined street-scene in perspective as if from an upper window at one end, then the same street and figures as seen from ground level the other end”. What Alan Ayckbourn did in 1973, with this domestic six-handed trilogy, has that quality of intricate, interlocked perspective. Each play shows what is  happening, at the same time or adrift  by minutes, in three parts of a dilapidated Sussex vicarage: dining room, living room, garden. Sometimes a character exits to join another play, or comes in from a scene you will only see in the next show. The final part begins half an hour before the first and ends after them all, providing prequel and sequel by half an hour.




The maestro has said it doesn’t matter which you see first, as each makes sense: Chichester’s 3-play days (there are four more to come) put them in the order above. Otherwise, take your pick.     The concept in itself brilliant, but could have been hell. It isn’t: being vintage, observational, sad-heartedly compassionate Ayckbourn executed with flair, it is a treat. The Festival Theatre has been set in the round as the playwright intended, as stage seats enable us – like the chaotic, overgrown garden – to circle Simon Higlett’s elegantly evocative sets (love the broken gnome, and the real roses).  Blanche McIntyre directs with pace and wit: the cast – notably Sarah Hadland’s brittle nervously controlling Sarah – are superb. The quality of direction is such that even when Trystan Gravelle’s seductively irresponsible Norman had his back to our side at the table for a long speech, the back of his scruffy neck and his fine Welsh projection were quite enough. Indeed throughout the plays the body language is particularly fine, from John Hollingworth’s amiable lolloping vet Tom to Sarah’s furious trip-trapping step and Annie’s glum hunch. Three of them even use the garden swing in character.




But goodness, among the considerable laughs (you can’t miss at Chichester with the East Grinstead joke) there is classic Ayckbourn pain. It deepens like a coastal shelf, and that Larkin echo is deliberate: glancing references betray that the three adult siblings Reg, Ruth and Annie were well f—d up by their unseen, now invalid, monster of a mother. So their own partnerships take the brunt. Hadland’s Sarah, brisk and neat and nervously controlling, has taken on the peacefully dim Reg (a touching mole-like Jonathan Broadbent in awful driving gloves). He yearns  back to boyhood balsa aeroplanes, and nobody will play his invented board game. Sister Annie (Jemima Rooper) is festeringly lonely and has been landed with caring for Mother in a dowdy life leavened by the big literal-minded hunk Tom who frustratingly never makes a move.  And sister Ruth (a fine striding Hattie Ladbury) is the forerunner of all these 21c women who in profiles find that out-earning their husbands causes problems. But she has scored the maverick assistant-librarian  Norman.




For Norman, wild-bearded in a beanie hat, is the wild card. Gravelle is perfect as the irresponsible spirit of chaos: seducing Annie, beguiling prim Sarah even in her moments of greatest fury like Richard III wooing his Anne, and easily disarming his own scornful wife. His refrain is desire to make women “happy”. His weapon is claimed vulnerability and absurd humour. The strength of this subtle production is that you are quie often rooting for Norman, disgrace as he is. Since none of them are happy as they are, you might as well give it a roll…when he fixes you with that glittering eye, at least fun lies beyond it.




The skill of script and production is that facets of  each of the six emerge , haphazard as life itself. By the last one we understand that Norman’s yearnings and manipulations come from need as well as mischief, and that his relationship with Ruth is necessary to both of them. It is all gloriously achieved, detailed and paced: no cardigan, traycloth, jam spoon, deckchair, lettuce, biscuit box or opaque carrot-wine flagon fails to contribute to the psychological jigsaw. It is as polished as the dining table, as evocative of life’s erosion as the shabby living-room, as pleasingly disorderly as the brambly grass around. The first and last plays are perfection; the middle – living-room – one is play is perhaps the least, though after a slower start its second act springs to vigorous life. The ensemble is a joy.



Box office. 01243 781312    To 28 oct
Sponsors: Conquest bespoke furniture and Irwin Mitchell
Ratings :
Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden FIVE   5 Meece Rating
Living Together FOUR   4 Meece Rating





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