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TITANIC  THE MUSICAL              Mayflower, Southampton and touring

A LATE NIGHT TO REMEMBER 

 

         At twenty to midnight, 106 years to the day after the collision,  an audience gathered in this big theatre to mark and remember the disaster.    All credit to cast and crew for doing a full production ending at 0230, its last curtain call followed by a sober minute’s silence for the seafaring city.  Cast and audience together stood facing  the memorial to the 1500 people, passengers and (mainly local) working crew, who died that night.     It was a genuinely and gently moving moment.

 

 

    So after the fascinating Shadow Factory , Southampton gets a second theatrical take on its history with the touring revival of Thom Southerland’s marvellous production of Moury Yeston’s musical..  It could hardly have a more resonant launch than this midnight performance on Saturday.   I admired the show two years ago at the little Charing Cross Theatre,  surprised at the modesty of its outing (it won Tonys in the US).   Now in the big Mayflower, with an expanded but still simple version of David Woodhead’s two-level, white-railinged set and a slightly bigger ensemble,  it more than fills the space and emotion of the moment.

 

           I wrote at the time “Stirring, decent, strong”, and that still applies.  Yeston uses the human power of a chorale,  and Peter Stone’s book wisely keeps the devised personal stories – aspirational, ambitious, ambiguous – brief and impressionistic.  The choruses intensify the awareness  that all classes, roles and responsibilities were,  literally,   in the same boat.   There is a fidelity to the period’s Edwardian style, and also to its vaulting ambition and belief in a new world of engineering and opportunity, and to the simple fact that on a sea voyage however firm the class distinctions every individual has a right to hopes and dreams.

 

 

      The pride and astonishment of creating “the biggest moving object on earth” is shared, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes,  to the sixty-shilling Irish in third class dreaming of grander lives in the US, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin, again) determined to stand next to an Astor or Guggenheim if it kills her, the first-class passengers who are also given their humanity, and the labouring stokers in the engine-room.    Philip Rham again is the Captain, and  Greg Castiglioni takes over as the designer Andrews from Harland and Wolf ,  passionately scribbling bulkhead changes which might have saved them, even as he knows it is the end.    Simon Green is the arrogant, legend-chasing Ismay from White Star, urging reckless speed, nagging the Captain, never admitting his share of the blame.

 

         Some arias stand out intensely, like the wireless-operator’s hymn to the magical new connection which could have saved them; but it is the choruses,  the swirling strings under Mark Aspinall’s direction  and the simple honesty of the whole cast’s  performances  that create – unforgettably on that late night performance – a sense of taking part in what is as much a meditation as a drama.    Catch the tour if you can.  

box office 02380 711811  to 21st

touring : titanicthemusical.co.uk   to August.   Touring Mouse wide

rating Five  5 Meece Rating

 

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR CORRECT ASSEMBLY Royal Court, SW1

SCI-FI AND SORROW

 
We begin with a tiny proscenium box, an almost Punch-and-Judy window, framing Harry and his wife Max: nice middle-aged people, evoked to sitcom perfection by a bearded, tinkeringly-engineerish Mark Bonnar and a bright Jane Horrocks. They are ordering a DIY kit for Prime next-day delivery, and starting to fuss over it. Meanwhile neighbours at a dinner party boast of their Oxford daughter and brilliant younger siblings. We gather that Max and Harry had one son, Nick. And what to him happened could be – well, could happen to anyone. Neighbour’s brilliant daughter was sorry to miss the funeral.

 

So far, so middle-class observational. But the first bit of the kit completed, as they prattle on, is a foot. Then a leg.. We guess that the little screen will widen, and widen again, and so does the significance of this arresting, original sci-fi domestic tale. They are building a robot, specification “white and polite”. A young man. It keeps them busy. It looks, the uneasy neighours notice, rather like the late Nick. Indeed it and Nick are both played by Brian Vernel, who in a series of flashbacks shows us how the living boy ran off the rails, stole to buy drugs, ran away…

 

The robot will give no such trouble, though for a while it is both creepy and funny as the couple struggle to programme it to their values, nervously zapping the remote to correct “his”’ attitudes and language. Young Vernel is quite superb, an arresting and technically intensely skilful performer zapping in and out of malfunction as the robot and teenage rebellion as Nick,  often confusing us into thinking Nick reformed before he died (“I’m gonna do it this time Mum”) , until a malfunction reveals it as a delusion programmed by the sad parents. Hilariously he flicks between speaking as an ideal, ambitious, nice-minded perfect son and a complete horror picked up from trash TV, as the parents dive for the remote-control. Sometimes there is an eerie sense that the robot’s AI is picking up the resentments each partner has against the other over the dead son.

 

Yet it is a profoundly compassionate, intelligent, heartbreaking play: about parenthood and grief, self-delusion, and the commodification and competitiveness surrounding the idea of an ideal family (Horrocks is happiest when her son seems to be enjoying ironing) . It is about the unintentional wrongs we all do, the terrible sorrow of love, the dogged need to carry on and seem cosy after a climactic disaster, and the painful empty-nest longing to have young hopeful life around the house.

 

It is terrific, and a delight to see the development of Thomas Eccleshare (I loved his PASTORAL at Hightide years ago). Vernel is a talent to watch, and Hamish PIrie’s direction is sharp and sure-footed, handling the deliberate confusions well. It does not need the interludes of robotic, stylized ensemble movement between scenes, which feel as if Pirie thinks we’re too dim to grasp the idea. But that is the tiniest of flaws in the most thoughtful sci-fi since THE NETHER.

 

box office 0207 565 5000

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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CHICAGO Phoenix, WC2

   THE JOINT IS JUMPING!  AGAIN…

 

 

    Openings are running in themed  sets – three Restoration comedies coming along like No.11 buses, and now  two nights running we have  trials as showbiz and showbiz ending in court.  After the neon ITV world of QUIZ , comes the unmatchable razzle-dazzle of Kander  and Ebb’s 1975 shocker,  under its Broadway director and with Anne Reinking and Gary Chryst giving it a loving update of that jerky, threateningly exhilarating Bob Fosse choreography.  Here are the murderous snarls and artful smiles,  supple cynicism on endless sheer  black-stockinged legs, and a hot hot band. Which lives as usual onstage, 1920’s jazz culture itself a character in the telling of the story of Roxie, Velma and the merry murderesses of Cook County , competing for the flourish and finagle of Billy Flynn the lawyer…

 

 

This time round our Billy is the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr, no less, looking happy as a sandboy on the West End stage.  He’s a workaday basic singer but that doesn’t matter when you’re  a slinky mover,  delivering deadpan comic contempt,  and always an exuberant stage presence  whether smothered in fan-dancers or giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle in a rain of sparkles.   Paul Rider is the best Amos I have ever seen:  his Mr Cellophane  brings the house down in that slyly calculated momentary quietening of pace:  Mr Decent Ordinary Sap lost in the predominant whirl of perfect limbs,  stumping bravely puzzled in contrast to that graceful subversive sexy grotesquery of dances which you never forget.

 

 

      The  London cast is glorious:  Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Is a curly blonde doll, a platinum minx vith a voice of honey : Josefina Gabrielle Velma Kelly , venomously acrobatic (O,the cartwheels!).  Our own Ruthie Henshall is a svelte, sharp -suitedly new interpretation of  Mama Morton  (she’s played  both Roxie and Velma in the past, a record triple).  Her voice is glorious, and mingling with Gabrielle’s in the fabulous “Nobody’s got no class” moment, a proper treat. Others get their moment too, notably Nicola Coates as Go-to-hell-Kitty doing an impressive banister slide. Indeed all the movement is well thought of, down to the single drunk juror who manages to feel up both Billy Flynn and Roxie. 

 

     Oh, and cheers to every last member of the band under Ian Townsend, hitting show-off solos and pumping ensembles with authentic jazzman glee.

 

www.atgtickets.com      to 6 october

rating  five5 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Noel Coward Theatre, WC1

SWOTS OR SWINDLERS, VILLAINS OR VICTIMS?

 

 

Sometimes a West End transfer serves a play royally. At Chichester last year I enjoyed James Graham’s playful, thoughtfully mischievous treatment of the case of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and the geeky Tecwen Whittock: the trio convicted of cheating-by-cough-code on ITV’s triumphantly tacky quiz Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But some overdone pub-quizzery in the first half slowed it down (we have to answer questions like a studio audience, and vitally get to vote electronically at the end on their guilt). And I only gave it four. Here’s the original review, with the bones of it:

https://tinyurl.com/ybwhkmbz

But now in the West End it’s actually better, a real five-star piece. With some audience seats onstage and a hellish neon TV studio set, it makes a great gig: continually entertaining, with a shape-shifting cast conjuring up barristers, ITV executives and every popular hero from Hilda Ogden to Craig David, led by Keir Charles becoming bygone peaktime horrors like Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Des O”Connor. And who is frankly and joyfully beyond-wicked as Chris Tarrant the host – mugging and squirming, a blond writhe of showy self-importance.

It has been tightened a bit, with the result that the two central characters, once more Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street, emerge still clearer . Spokes is a marvel as Ingram, James Graham’s delicate writing establishing him from the start as a bit bumbling, a dutiful middle-aged military chap who cares for his job and his family; Street evokes quiz-mad Diana in her .restless but kindly ambition (this is a service wife, remember: hampered by a lifetime of moves and postings and absences and economies). Their love story, a stick-to-it marriage, is a tribute; if they ever see the show, I cannot see them minding much.

 

And Graham’s serious points emerge still clearer too: the rise of “emo-tainment”, the class-conscious manipulation of the masses for profit, and above all the age – then evolving as the century turned, now extreme – of nosey, lipsmacking knee-jerk judgment of strangers: the age of Twitterstorms and whining, hostile identity-politics. Though you laugh aloud every few minutes, it’s a damn serious piece.

 

And yes, once again the audience voted guilty after the first act, paid attention to a fiery performance by Sarah Woodward as the defence barrister in the second – and voted not guilty. We chose to believe the hapless Ingrams over a vindictive and seemingly manipulative TV company. Apparently that happens most nights. Good.

 

box office 0844 482 5140 http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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CATHY Soho Theatre and touring

CATHY, STILL NOT HOME AFTER FIFTY YEARS

 
Homeless charities like to remind us of the mantra: we are all just two bad decisions away from the pavement. The trajectory of our heroine Cathy’s decline is carefully drawn. A zero-hours contract as a cleaner keeps her short of money, rent arrears build up. The owners of the building want to take away her home of ten years anyway, at 14 days notice, so as to rent or sell it to “young professionals”. Affordable private rents are beyond her and the arrears put her at risk of being “voluntarily homeless”. But she has a dependent daughter, Danielle, moving towards her GCSEs, so the Council must help. It does so by sending them to a temporary b & b room in a grubby tower in Luton,. Danielle has to spend £20 a week and on trains in to school and get bullied as a “pikey” by local girls. Cathy has to find another lavatory-cleaning job.

 

 

The “temporary” placement stretches to months, until an offer of a 2-bed maisonette comes through. In Gateshead. Cathy panics: when you have very little, your neighbourhood and community are precious, and what about Danielle’s exams next month?. She is told it could be seven years before East London finds her home again. The mechanical, helpless council responses “this is our offer” and “You are at liberty to arrange an alternative” are a blank wall. Sofa-surfing with a sister in Braintree ends sharply; she is now 497th on a list, and fears contact with the Council as Danielle could be taken into care. So to the streets, the night buses, a desperate pick-up, a refuge.

 

 

Fifty years after Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s impassioned film about homelessness, the anniversary was marked by the campaigning theatre group Cardboard Citizens with this play, a fictional demonstration – with occasional verbatim recordings – of how clunkingly hopeless our public housing system is. And how woefully underresourced. Two years on, after the horror of Grenfell it returns for an eight week tour. Which is a particularly bitter irony, since if you think about it the council tenants in Grenfell flats were luckier than Cathy: they had flats. The piece has been played f at the House of Lords, where a series of audience suggestions for palliative laws were handed over. Audiences are asked for solutions, public and personal. It is a moving, unsentimental moment.

 

 

The strength of Ali Taylor’s play, directed by Adrian Jackson, is that there is enough credible, flawed, troublesome humanity in it to convince. Cathy Owen as the central figure is decent, hardworking, and at first just unlucky, but the streak of stubbornness which keeps her going contributes to her downfall. Ironically, the things which accelerate her fall (apart from lousy national housing policy) are “bad decisions” which might in a wealthier woman be praised as good feisty qualities. She has refused to try and make her estranged gambling ex-husband contribute, and keeps her daughter away from him; she visits her old Dad once a week, backs her daughter’s education with pride, and cherishes her community. Hence the horror at the blank-wall Gateshead offer.

 

 

As Danielle, Hayley Wareham is heartbreakingly true to teenage temperament and desperation. as her path to upward social mobility is blocked by the struggle even to get to school; Amy Loughton plays a series of council officers, a Latvian fellow-cleaner, and most movingly a kind Arriva lady at the bus station who lets Cathy use her phone , gives her tea and accepts the night-bus sleepers with gentle resignation. Alex Jones is the men: horribly chirpy rent collector, hopeless father, bullying supervisor.
It is set brilliantly against a set of giant Jenga blocks – which of course look like a council building and which get gradually demolished as Cathy’s life is. It reminds us how sharply urgent is the public housing crisis; but also how crushingly unfair it is, in an age of mass immigration and an overcrowded capital, to disregard the needs of the old white working-class. Needs not only for roofs and safe beds, but for a known neighbourhood and extended family.

It will be a great day when this play no longer needs to tour. But for the moment, it is an essential.

 

https://www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/Cathy2018
Soho to 14th April, touring to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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INK  FESTIVAL            Halesworth Cut – Tour starting…

SHORT, SHARP, STIMULATING

  

  The INK  new writing festival (http://inkfestival.org) is a phenomenon: a space where writers of any experience or none  can submit short plays (most under 15 minutes)   or radio plays or indeed musicals in miniature,   and – this is the important  bit    see their work professionally acted and directed.  As a source of seed-corn for new dramatists, or diversification for existing writers, it is unique. 

 

 

       This was its fourth year and undoubtedly its strongest yet:  I saw 18 of  26 plays, and left only one with a shrug.  It now gets hundreds of submissions, and its artistic direction led by Julia Sowerbutts (who has previously transferred productions to the Pleasance) manages to avoid the dour “new-writing” trap of issue-led portentous doominess,  without shying away from tough or shocking subjects when they are well handled.

 

    So cheers to INK 2018:  and here’s to its short  tour of a few picked plays, starting next week.  I’d want, though, to give other hon. mentions to several not on the tour:  not least Martha Loader’s  angry HUMBUG, a skilful crescendo from banality to rage, and a mischievous BLOOD PRESSURE by Jan Etherington in which  an A&E patient demanding a transfusion turns out to be a 147-year-old vampire too diffident about intimacy to get his blood the proper way.  Bien imaginé, as the French say. 

   

       As to the tour , it is led by The Inkredible Five,   brief six-minute plays by local known writers Sowerbutts challenged to write around a pile of antique suitcases.  Full disclosure: I am one, but frankly wholly eclipsed in anyone’s terms by squibs like Richard Curtis’  furious diva being misdirected through Evita, and Blake Morrison’s Cold War spooks trying to exchange suitcases.   To complete the set there’s a poignant Esther Freud piece, and Steve Waters (who wrote the wonderful Temple for the Donmar)  with a strange epiphany at port security.   

 

       But the real meat is in the longer, 15-minute or so,  submissions.   Madeleine Accalia’s WHITE GIRLS is stunning: clever, nuanced , moving from social comedy to anger, naïveté to embarrassment,  tones perfectly caught by Molly McGeachin and Amber Muldoon (a young actress who seems to me a serious find).   They are gap- yah daughters of privilege and insouciance, ignorance and goodwill.  But they are relating their trip – so cool in their shades and Timberlands! – to volunteer at the Calais jungle camp. They moan amusedly in the warehouse and kitchens but then are struck by the Glastonbury-turned-Hell that was the camp at its peak, by the children and the danger and the hopelessness and the incomprehensibility of it being in civilized Europe.   With a bare stage and a coat stand, their bouncy confessional becomes well- caught voices of refugees, a braggart Aussie, wearily seasoned helpers, press, instagramming fellow teens, and of course posh Mum at home urging them not to get filthy and grow lesbian armpit hair and vote Corbyn…   Not a word is wasted, not an emotion or observation false.

 

      Next to it THE KISS by Millie Martin is set in the days when chivalry dictated that a divorcing man hired a private investigator and   faked an encounter with a prostitute : a Labour MP, quivering in distaste, removes his bowler and suit in a hotel room and in an unexpected moment of pure theatrical fantasy the action moves deeper inside the protagonists.  And there’s Ross Dunsmore’s COLD CALL, as a pair of callcentre workers fall out.  Which was sharp and funny enough to make me recant mygrumpy middle-aged fatwa on  plays about doomed romances between whining millennials.   

      So there it is: some of these are plays that could grow to full length; some are just perfect as they are, like short stories or really good songs.  The world should pay attention to INK.   

 Touring East Anglia 12-22 April 

  http://inkfestival.org/ink-festival-2018/ink-on-the-road/

rating:  oh,  a whole festival of fast-breeding mice to share around

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THE WAY OF THE WORLD Donmar, WC1

KNAVES AND FOOLS, BRAIDED COATS AND BASTARDRY

 

 

It’s suddenly a wig-and-fan season, with Mrs Rich at the RSC and now Congreve’s sour, witty classic revived by James MacDonald. There’s even The Country Wife at the Southwark (though apparently fan-free, will report next week). Maybe we need the high-society rogues , dupes and posers of Restoration comedy to distract us from our own set.
This is a full period-dress production, executed immaculately but probably needing another few cuts to be unalloyed joy. The plot is labyrinthine, with a wordy torrent of finely honed wit and derision, fuelled by greed more than love. Congreve is the angriest of the Restoration dramatists. While the lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, end by both admitting their love and winning one another, there can be an Arctic chill of cynical despair at human nature. Knaves and fools, gulls and grabbers are everywhere, adulteries and insincerities part of the game. And to be honest, some of the witticisms have dated too much to resonate in an age without formal manners.

 

 

So the first part at 90 minutes, can occasionally drag and baffle, though alleviated by the truly astonishing costumes. Here’s Witwould in a crazy floral coat: Fisayo Akinade, lately St Joan’s camp Dauphin here thoroughly releasing his inner camp dandy ;he is the funniest thing in Act 1 by far. Here’s Millamant in pistachio frills like a giant toilet-roll cover, and of course the men with tumbling hair fabulously breeched , weskited and braided in their gilt frock coatings. Except of course for Christian Patterson giving it large in check tweeds as the drunken squire Sir Wilful.

 

 

And of course there’s Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort: controller of the money and marital permissions they’re all after but not of her own plaintive ageing desires. This magnificent, towering figure evolves from a mirror-fearing deshabilée in a dressing gown to a glorious spectacle , beflowered, frilled, netted, petticoated , bustled and topped with half a rose-garden. We do not see her for the first fifty minutes, but just as we grow a little weary of the dandies and plotters and disentangling which discontented belle is sleeping with which scheming beau, Gwynne breaks on us like a tsunami. Hard to remember that she was a late booking after a drop-out: she is born for it, magnificent, tall and angular and quivering with eagerness and vanity; nicely contrasted with a brisk Sarah Hadland as the motherly little Foible as her foil ,dresser and secret member of the conspiracy to cheat her.

 

 

 

The great set-piece where Wishfort tries to decide how to be found lolling when her “lover” arrives will never date – “nothing is so alluring as a levée from a couch in some confusion”. Equally grand is her encounter with the fake “Sir Rowland” – Alex Beckett with a faux posh accent and tragedian manner, the impression of Primark-sale Olivier reinforced by the black wig. The scene is both very funny and touched, as it must be, with pathos – Wishfort is, after all, only silly and lonely for love, not an out and out bastard like Fainall, or an opportunist like Geoffrey Streatfeild’s complicated Mirabell.

 

 
As for the lovers, Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell’s brittle, damaged, confined Millamant lay down their conditions about marriage and “dwindling into a wife” with enough sudden seriousness to hold us silent between laughs. And the final showdown at last lets us properly feel for them, and for Wishfort and indeed Foible. But goodness, it is a harsh comedy still. Which is, I suppose, its greatness.

 

 

box office 0203 282 3808 to 26 may
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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