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AGAINST Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES HUNGERS BUT DOESN’T GET A BYTE

 

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 STEPMOTHER Minerva, Chichester

A DELICATE TREASURE

 

 

Rarely seen, half-forgotten, Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play is sharp, entertaining, truthful and elegant: Richard Eyre’s direction respects it with delicate precision. It’s altogether a treat, and makes you wail with sadness that – though her better-known Rutherford And Son was a big success – Sowerby never wrote enough to stand known amid acknowledged classics. She is socially as hard-hitting as Priestley, more sharply economical than Shaw, with as good an ear for suppressed emotion as Rattigan. And at moments can be both as agonizing and as humorous as Chekhov.

 

 

 

The story is fuelled by a righteous, exasperated and perceptive anger about the position of women in England either side of WW1. Remarkably, it offers broad human sympathy even to the most appalling character: Eustace Gaydon. He is a marvellous case-study, rendered with (among other qualities) great physical brilliance by Will Keen. Every hunch, every swagger, every snakelike wriggle, reveals almost as much stupidity and deviousness in the man as the script.

 

 

 

Eustace is a middle-aged widower with two young daughters and a taste for vainglorious duff investments. He discovers that he is left nothing by his late sister (who wisely kept her fortune under her own control) . Moreover, she has left the lot to a 19-year-old protegée, the sweetly grieving and grateful Lois (Ophelia Lovibond), In a brief first scene in 1911, he begins a wooing which – as we find on the far side of an elegantly designed time-lapse – results in her marrying him. And devoting herself to his daughters. And finally funding his household by working very hard and setting up a fashion business.

 

 

 

The 1921 scenes are tremendous, as the eldest flapper daughter Monica (a spirited Eve Ponsonby) is in love with a boy back from the war whose father knows how financially flaky Eustace is, and demands a settlement; Lois lovingly promises it from her capital, but we can guess what has happened to that…

 

 

Let there be no spoilers, but the brilliance of the play, revelation after revelation and shock after shock, is served neatly and gorgeously by Lovibond as the now matured, businesslike Lois, by Keen as Awful Eustace and by David Bark-Jones as Peter, the man she should have been with. The audience gasps sometimes, moans sometimes. At one point three of us in our row clapped our hand over our mouths. That’s when Eustace arrives at the fashion shop, his ruined uncertainty buoyed by delusional vanity, and pronounces “I’m our husband, I look after your wealth” . It was all we could do not to shout “O No You DONT!” panto-style.

 

Yet the play’s heart is warm: sharply written lines from the blustering Eustace are balanced by a remarkable tolerance of sexual temptation and some gentle, very womanly wisdoms: not least Peter’s warning to the devoted stepmother not to strip herself of everything for the young. “Life has taken hold of Monica..she’ll have children. Children make everything else a memory”.

 

It is terrific. And I have hardly space to mention that Joanna David, playing far older than usual as Great-Aunt Charlotte, gives it another layer of warmth and a pivotal moment of real sadness, and of awareness of where female self-sacrifice can lead. . The final , expected lines from Eve Ponsonby as the suddenly matured Monica are superb. Eustace’s final firework of spite fizzles, as well it should. We leave happy.

 

 

http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 Sept
rating: blimey, it’s another five for the new regime’s first season!

5 Meece Rating

 

 

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APOLOGIA Trafalgar Studios SW1

GUEST CRITIC TOM HOLLOWAY WISHES FOR AN UPDATE..

 

 

 

Originally debuting eight years ago at the Bush Theatre, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is a story of intergenerational conflict. Matriarch Kristin (Stockard Channing) squares off against her sons’ partners over the course of an evening. After Brexit and a contentious general election, Jamie Lloyd’s revival lands at a time of intense relevancy, as millennials and baby boomers engage in their own game of political civil war.

 

 

But despite being slickly designed, Campbell’s script can’t hold the scope of this promising parallel. Set in the great theatrical tradition of the disastrous dinner party, It is a stimulating, but limp, insight into the choices three women have made in the face of social and economic adversity. His cast of characters is cleverly composed, forcing a proverbial battlefield where they can’t help but question each other’s political and personal ideologies.

 

 

Campbell chooses simultaneously to admonish and sympathise with their perspectives. bringing weight to his exploration of the complex web of political movements that inform identity. So it serves quite nicely as a companion piece to his breakout hit The Pride, which contrasted the closeted gay lives of the Fifties with the liberated but melancholic present.

 

 

However, much of the play seems a bit of a wasted opportunity. He never harnesses a strong enough perspective, making it feel somewhat inconsequential, and radically affecting the pace. It explodes in an electrifying, but unearned, denouement at the end of the first act, whilst the second act ponders slowly into an overlong conclusion. The characters never seem to learn anything, robbing the piece of much needed tension.

 

 

The actors give their all. The definitive highlight is Channing, one of the masters of her craft. She has a superb understanding of the caustic matriarch Kristin: the gaze of her powerful large eyes as acerbic as Campbell’s words, and also elicits great sympathy for the character’s questionable motivations. She is greatly supported by her two foils: soap star Claire (Freema Agyeman) and religious physiotherapist Trudi (Laura Carmichael). Agyeman has a magnetic presence, and is thoroughly convincing in communicating Claire’s artistic sacrifices for financial survival. Carmichael demonstrates fine comic timing, while seamlessly slipping more vulnerable moments. Desmond Barrit delivers a delectable performance, though his character is made somewhat redundant by being only there to administer campy one liners. Joseph Millson in his dual role as the two brothers distinguishes between lost soul Simon and banker Peter so effectively that my companion thought they were two different people.

 

 

Soutra Gilmour’s production design is spectacular, an oversized picture frame, vivid use of colour giving every scene a Hockney quality; Jon Clark’s lighting is similarly effective.

 

BOX OFFICE  0844 871 7632   to 18 nov

rating  three  .   LP seeing this week, might add reflections from Channing’s generation!3 Meece Rating

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THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK Vaudeville, WC1

PRETTY MUCH A BOOJUM

 

I must admit I yearned towards this production – for 4 years old upwards, though there were some younger infants having a hell of a good time, even without booster seats (Vaudeville, please note that need). It is a favourite Lewis Carroll poem, and I did rather hope for a few of the boldly scanned rumbustious quartets and images, especially the bowsprit getting “mixed with the rudder sometimes” and the Bellman landing his crew with care, with a finger entwined in their hair.. But despite one final softly-and-silently-vanished-away, Alice House Theatre merely take the notion as an inspiration for a song-studded adventure of their own.

 

 

 

One day I want the poem itself, possibly rendered by McKellen, Russell Beale and Olivia Coleman. But hey, no complaints about this interpretation. Annabel Wigoder’s take is framing it with a schoolboy stowing away on the adventure funded by his negligent, money-obsessed Mr-Banks type father (Simon Turner) , and led by a splendid Bellman explorer in full 1920s RGS outfit of breeches, leather jerkin and mad gadgets. Gareth Cooper’s songs are fun, sometimes nicely startling (especially the father’s one about how money is all anyone can ever need).

 

 

There are Carroll snark-hunters in it: the Beaver is an enchanting puppet, knitting furiously, the dim-witted Baker is Will Bryant, who is also (there are other Carroll characters introduced) a quite magnificently camp Bandersnatch in Madame Jojo ruffles and shiny lurex tights, and the villainous butcher is Polly Smith (I do like a scary woman). I am not sure which of them plays the Jub-Jub bird, stealing the Banker’s trousers so the Beaver has to knit him a skirt, but I have to say its moment was the highlight for me on Snark Island, being pleasingly reminiscent of the time Rod Hull and Emu assaulted Michael Parkinson.

 

 
Around me very small children gasped and oohed from the moment the theatre darkened, especially in the very noisy shipwreck; deep concentration met the silliness, and real sympathy the marooning of the boy and beaver, unsure (as per The Tempest) whether anyone else was alive. It felt like a proper introduction to theatre, which is the important thing. Though the small boy in front who demanded to see it through again – a true child of the video age – will have to go home, get some ruffles and feathers and soft toys, and re-enact it for himself. Hope he does.

 

 

box office 0330 333 4814 to 2 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

 

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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ Menier, SE1

MICHAEL ADAIR, 25  ¾ ,  APPROPRIATELY TAKES OVER AND WRITES..

 

 

Before The Inbetweeners, the most accurate reflection of the total embarrassment of teenage life in Britain was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. Nearly 35 years on from publication, Adrian, who recently turned 50, has featured in 7 further books and stage radio and TV adaptations. Now Sue Townsend’s aspiring intellectual makes his way to the Menier Chocolate Factor with a musical rendition of his journey into adolescence by composer Pippa Cleary and lyricist Jake Brunger.

 

 

 

It’s set in 1981 . Adrian, played on this particular evening with some wonderful facial expressions by Benjamin Lewis, is a touch more confident and self aware than his literary template. He doesn’t need his grandmother to stand up to the school bully for him and his famous red socks are made to be much more of a deliberate act of political defiance. We are also given a greater insight into the adult relationships than our oblivious protagonist was able to share in his diary. Pauline Mole, played by Kelly Price, is at first quite troubled by the advances of John Hopkins’s suave Mr Lucas who slithers into the family kitchen, his booming baritone backed by a sultry clarinet. It is, however, in these moments of tenderness that the show loses its way. The ballads and flashes of poignancy are instead drowned out by rousing ensemble pieces and swooping moments of nostalgia and fun. We see a school disco complete with dry ice and utterly euphoric synth pop , and an amusing dream sequence where Adrian melodramatically foresees his own death from a bout of tonsillitis whilst accompanied by jiving doctors, funky basslines and an appearance from God himself.

 

 

 

The source material is lovingly adhered to, with many of the book’s most memorable lines given plenty of breathing space and still raising laughs and audible smirks of recognition. Sue Townsend’s sense of mischief is all too apparent in Barry James’s Bert Baxter, who is seen waving a lone Soviet flag amidst a sea of Union Jacks at the wedding of Prince Charles and ‘a virgin named Diana’. The knowing social satire at the heart of Townsend’s work remains, with the outstanding Asha Banks, playing 13 year old feminist Pandora Braithwaite declaring to her classmates ‘Inequality ends from today! We’ll get equal pay!’

 

 

 

The set by Tom Rogers is reminiscent of a 1980s toy advertisement. Cast members stream out of cupboards and wardrobes, manipulating the furniture like a game of Jenga, we see tattered editions of classic board games, a poster of Princess Leia, and Orville the duck amidst the various clutter. Patches of damp cover the walls of the cramped family home and the colour palette is both spectacularly naff and remarkably stylish.

 

 

 

In a world of reboots, relaunches and remasters, the return of Adrian Mole is entirely welcome. It’s a funny and enjoyable show, fresh and relevant and perfectly placed to take advantage of today’s market for nostalgia. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its whip-smart peer Matilda, sometimes the singing sounded strained and the more serious scenes felt incidental – but it perfectly captures the spirit of a cult figure. One we can all relate to, probably more than we’d care to admit.

 

 

Box Office – +44 (0)20 7378 1713  TO 9 SEPT
https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com

RATING    3 ¾   3 Meece Rating1 Meece Rating

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Old Vic, SE1

BOB AND CONOR: A NEW DIRECTION HOME…

 

 

Bob Dylan songs – from each of six decades – woven into a musical by Conor McPherson? At Dylan’s own suggestion? What? But here it is: moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep.

 

 

 

It is actually an inspired match, for Dylan’s songs share the playwright’s Irish sensibility. Apart from the obvious folk and hymn roots there is a particular melancholy, a dry regret, a sense of poverty knowing itself impotent but maintaining an irony, the consolation of a dance step or a late-night lock-in. Dylan and Irish song both tend to a melodic, poetic yearning which taps at the heart’s door with emotional authority and transcends time and circumstance. You can listen alone to It Ain’t Me, Babe even twenty years into a happy marriage; or weep in exile for The Old Bog Road even if you are at home.

 

 
Wisely, Matthew Warchus of the Old Vic left it to the writer to direct, and Rae Smith’s setting is sparse, unpretending, with microphones and onstage instruments as if the story was being told by buskers , as well as lived before us. Simon Hale’s arrangements and musical direction allow for a slight roughness, an air of spontaneity. The setting is a cheap lodging-house in Duluth, in 1934. The players are a community living on the edge. Ironically, just as the sunny Annie is playing just across the river with its orphan chirruping advice to the President, this is the second musical play about FDR’s Depression America to open this summer. But there is no New Deal for Duluth here. As its hero says, “We ain’t go no nets to catch us”.

 

In early film style, the local doctor (Ron Cook) narrates posthumously at beginning and end, adding to the sense of distance.   Nick (Ciaran Hinds) is the solid, striving host , on he last three weeks before  foreclosure on his house. One hope is his mistress and  lodger, widowed Mrs Neilson, with whom he has a fragile plan to start another hotel. His care for his wife continues, through the hopelessness of her dementia: there is a basic decency in the big beaten man, understated,  sometimes immensely moving, feeding her chicken stew as she berates him.  Their foundling negro daughter Marianne (a magnificent, dignified Shiela Atim, towering over her tiny adoptive mother) is pregnant: Nick hopes to marry her off to the only affluent man they know, a widower thrice  her age.

 

 

 

In from the Minnesota storm come two more to drive and aggravate the plot: Michael Shaeffer as a smoothly nasty Bible salesman, Arinze Kene as as an ex-convict boxer. Whose first welcome , in that racist age, is being called “Boy” and taunted by the son of the house, a drunken would-be writer Gene (Sam Reid). In the house too are the Burkes, failed in business, and their feebleminded, threateningly strong son Elias who is growing beyond safe control.

 

 

 

It is a big cast to manage, each with depths of hurt and failure and disappointment; but the songs knit them together in a poetic weave as powerful as the stormbound austerity itself. All the actor- musicians sing, superbly, resonantly, from depths of feeling,  with a particularly astonishing, mould-breaking performance by Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth. Every line of her slight, skinny body is expressive of dementia, disinhibition and disillusion. Sometimes she is cowering like a scared animal, coaxed towards food or restrained from violence  by Nick and Marianne: sometimes dancing, unsettlingly wild, a mad Maenad parting her legs at any man, speaking inappropriate truths. But sometimes she comes to a stillness, and in an immense bluesy voice sings the wisdoms , sorrows and strangeness of some half-forgotten Dylan song.

 

 

 

I say forgotten, because drawn from fifteen different albums, only two or three are familiar anthems like Slow Train. Under McPherson’s guidance they simply grow almost miraculously from the unfolding story, from the desires and despairing secrets of these people on their various edges. Here is lost love, compromised love, failure, weakness, loneliness, endurance. Solos become duets, lines are handed from one to another, sometimes choruses form: women group round a microphone in 1930s radio-hour style, or echo the gospel roots with tambourines.  Some solos are beyond electrifying: Elizabeth’s Like a Rolling Stone, or her final, heartshaking Forever Young, an anthem of hope in the dark, a hand held to humanity. Which comes right out of one of the bleakest speeches on any stage. Duquesne Whistle makes your hair stand on end; Is Your Love In Vain, from the Burkes in their darkest moments, stuns.

 

 

Dylan and McPherson are both poets. Here they meld, mesh, converse. The roughness is necessary. It’s a privilege to watch.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 7 oct
Principal partner: ROyal Bank of Canada
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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MOSQUITOES Dorfman, SE1

A COSMIC CLASH OF PHYSICS AND FAMILY

 

Ah, now this is what the National Theatre is for1 A great reckless sprawl of a brand-new play, with spectacular technology, extraordinary design (Katrina Lindsay!) and the very best of actors: all thrown at it, and directed with wit, clarity and humanity by Rufus Norris . It’s not perfect, but it’s not afraid of anything. That is to love. That wins the fifth mouse.

 

 
For Lucy Kirkwood’s latest is a Catherine-wheel run amok, hurling out ideas and themes , questions and feelings and paradoxes and jokes. It is about cutting-edge physics, cosmology, grief, adolescence, pregnancy, sisterhood, sexting, psychosis, exasperation, the limitations of intelligence , and sad physical decay. It is set amid scientists on the Great Hadron Collider , with added Toblerone and three very funny jokes about Switzerland.

 
Possibly there are too many themes in it, streaming out and colliding like the proton chaos far below, sometimes threatening that there won’t be enough gravity to hold the play’s atoms together, or creating a Black Hole too dense to comprehend (see how dizzy atomic physics makes us laymen, and that indeed is part of the point). But Kirkwood it fetches you back, generally with a snort of laughter. Not least from Amanda Boxer as Granny Karen, mother of the two ill-assorted sisters at its heart, who steals every scene she stumps into. She isn’t quite its centre, but has a doll of a part as the matriarch who once nearly won a Nobel prize and has no illusions left. “Love! Everyone thinks love is the greatest force i the cosmos and it isn’t, you know. The greatesr force in the cosmos is the Nuclear Strong Force. Love’s about twelve things down the list, after gravity and superglue..”

 

 

At its heart, though, displaying the complexities and infuriations of family love with pitiless admiration, are two tremendous performances: Olivia Williams as Alice, a brilliant atomic physicist working on the Great Hadron Collider at Cern, and her sister – the matchlessly funny, subtle, nuanced Olivia Colman as her dimmer but sparkier sister Jenny. In the opening scene clever Alice is on a flying visit to her sister, who after eleven years and IVF is pregnant and anxious, Googling too much and refusing an ultrasound because she read it causes dyslexia (in rats!) she provokes Alice’s cry of “Just because you have access to information doesn’t mean you’re equipped to use it!” . Ah, that speaks for many exasperated experts in the age of the Internet.

 
Then we are in Geneva, where the physicist’s son Luke, a wonderful portrayal by Joseph Quinn as a mass of teenage hormones, anxiety and goodwill, is online with a minx called Natalie. Overbright, underconfident, lonely at his international school, at odds with his mother, infuriated by the merry illogicality of his aunt Jenny, he careers towards a tiny personal collision which, in the moment, is cosmic to him. His father by the way has disappeared, becoming a strange wandering narrator and scientific expatiator who wanders throughout around the edge or occasionally takes the centre of the round stage in a whirl of projected atoms to explain the beginning and end of all matter: in the cast list he is”The Boson” (Paul Hilton) but the part has is a human resonance and importance to the others which is intensely moving.

 

 

 

The family dynamic, driven by a real and ordinary sadness, is as unpredictable and potentially disastrous as the rumours about the great machine beneath them. The GHC is switched on with fabulous sounds and lights, on the very day that Jenny and the troublesome old mother Karen turn up on a visit to a too-small apartment. No spoilers, but as particles collide so do sisters, parents and children. A black hole of despair is swallowing Jenny. The perils and glories of ignorance are nicely counterbalanced by those attached to intense, brain-frying intelligence. It is an intimate family story and a chalice of familiar bitterness , capable in its fearless author’s hands of lurching into a sci-fi-future and back into a messy redemption. Love it.

 

 

At the Dorfman to 28 September
rating five atomic mice  5 Meece Rating

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