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HIR Bush, W12




There aren’t many issues in life that haven’t been solved, rationalised or  helpfully knocked about by plays. ‘What to do when you lose your identical twin and feel the urge to cross-dress and a random lady falls in love with you’ being one of the trickier knots: Will managed it. But the modern gender revolution, with its own thesaurus and code of conduct, has yet to trouble the mainstream London stage in an effective way.



So I understand the effort here. But Taylor Mac’s play HIR doesn’t get us any closer to an intelligent, insightful or useful theatrical outing (pun intended). The Bush’s traverse stage is a filthy American house. The aircon is blasting, dirty clothes outnumber visible floor-tiles and Arthur Darvil’s Isaac has returned from war to find his father in a dress (massive stroke), his sister with a beard (transitioning) and his previously beaten-down mum alive with the excitement of gender debate.
Nothing is how he left it. I rubbed my hands ready for a ride through identity, home, belonging, family. I got sitcom. Loud conversation, with little to say.



Characters have ‘a thing’ and they stick to that. Anything we slowly learn about them (the Dad was horrible, the Mum now humiliates him in his infirmity), just slides off, leaving little impression. And because the characters don’t move, neither does the dialogue. Every conversation fits the formula ‘indignant person explains being transgender to shocked person’. There are occasional laughs (Noah and the Ark being transphobic) but the debate isn’t up to the fight, and the performances are far from fit enough to save it. Arthur Darvil just shouts every line in surprise, Ashley McGuire as the mum delivers speeches as the primary-school explanations they are, and Griffyn Gilligan (Max, Darvill’s transgender sibling) fails to make anything convincing of what should be the most emotionally engaging part.



It’s clear the playwright is excited by the topic. Rightly so, it’s fertile ground. But for us to care as well, there needs to be some soul, some humanity beneath the debate .



Box Office: 020 8743 5050 to 22 July
rating: one  Costume design mouse resized

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GLORIA Hampstead, NW3




There are three acts: the first long, expressing an enervatingly pointless world and ending in a sharp shock. The second is competitively cynical and rises to another kind of shock, the sort with disgust in it. The last is shorter still, offering a nicely vicious resolution. Some characters in the first act return as new but related people; others as their psychologically damaged selves, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere . This play won Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins a Pulitzer last year: it is clever and angry, though its rage is overlaid with a detachment reminiscent of Neil Simon: a sense of the author standing back with “Lord, what fools these mortals be” rather than suffering alongside them.



It is also, in its theme, horribly topical when Britain has just suffered four murderous shocks and must accept that we may see parallels to the devil’s-dance of aftermath that this play demonstrates. For Jacobs-Jenkins’ theme is “the commodification of the witness or victim: the marketability of the survivor-story. We do not initially know this: the first scenes, set in the junior assistants’ cubicles of a glossy magazine office , are intermittently funny, dense with embittered office banter by a group of millennials. They seem to be focusing on quite other things. Perhaps generational rivalry – Kae Alexander is appositely recognizable as the fashion-blogging, brittle Kendra ranting against bed-blocking babyboomers; so is Colin Morgan as Dean, who yearns to get the hell out and pen a memoir of his so far uneventful life. Bayo Gbadamosi as the still younger intern looks on, and is darkly suspected of wanting to get their jobs. Fury rises further in the young at the news that an invisible older writer is getting the gig of doing a profile of a dead pop star of their era. Meanwhile a comparative veteran fact-checker has a sort of existential breakdown, and the unpopular office geek dashes through, glaring.
The point, nicely made, is that in this ‘glamorous’ job, all the interesting power stuff is always happening in another room. We all remember the feeling.

Then comes the disaster. Never mind what. The succeeding acts move us by stages from New York to LA, from real fear and facts to the stage where it matters more who gets their account in print most lucratively, and whether there’s a mini-series in it. And, indeed, how much the publishing industry cares who was actually in the room, once “great angles” , “personal catharsis” and “beautifully written” accounts are weighed up.




This distortion happens. There is no point hoping that right now, out in our own city, there are not publishers and film-makers sniffing with careful, hopeful tact and chequebooks around the survivors of Grenfell Tower and the London and Manchester attacks.



Michael Longhurst’s production is not quite perfect, or not yet. Kendra’s brittle lines in the first act sometimes defy full comprehensibity to the untuned ear, though Kae Alexander gets the hair-flicking horror of her character absolutely pat. Some scenes could be trimmed down. But it is fascinating and timely, and sometimes horribly funny (the IT guy in the final scene is pure joy). And of the performances, Bo Poraj’s and and Morgan’s in particular stand out as fully-inhabited and memorably troubling. Not every survivor has a story he wants to tell in public, or should be encouraged to.



box office 020 7722 9301 to 22 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating


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BAT OUT OF HELL           London Coliseum WC1



“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Or in this case, a red carpet  lined with Hells Angels and three generations of fans. Would you? Swelteringly, yes!. On this hot summer night, the howling, raw-rocking, Fender-bashing wolf can have us, throats and all.



Jim Steinman’s astonishing rock ballads, brought to our hearts (and my car stereo, pretty well daily)  by Meat Loaf, were originally meant for the stage, rather than just that immortal album. So this isn’t some limp jukebox musical, with a thin storyline by some dreary Ben-Eltonish  hack. They were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of  teenage yearning: “the flesh and the fantasy, the mystery and the muscle of love”.



So of course they should be onstage: and now they gloriously are, with exploding bikes and flames and a car, and guns and multicoloured smoke and somersaults and projections.    And, at their heart not just  burning jealousies but the sudden  jokes which bubble up in the deadliest of times if you are young, as they have done ever since Mercutio punned on his deathbed.




Jay Scheib’s production is a technical spectacular, Jon Bausor leading the design, and wild exuberant choreography by Emma Portner – the ensemble are unbelievable, both in song (Michael Reed is musical director) and in the street-wild movement. But  its chief glory is narrative and emotional. It is set in a scifi  urban dystopia where a  tribe of the  “Lost”‘ ,permanently mutated to be forever eighteen, live in tunnels under the rule of Falc, the rich property landlord. Nicely topical for London: he  rules  in his tower with his discontented wife Sloane . But Falco’s daughter Raven is loved by the gang leader Strat, who comes to her  bedroom as if in a dream (shades of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, and rather more of Peter Pan and Wendy, since Strat can’t grow older and has a jealous best friend called, er, Tink, who hates Raven).




Andrew Polec, a rising US star, is a powerful intense Strat in both snarling and sentimental rock mode. Christina is Bennington an enchanting Raven:  a Juliet sometimes hesitant, sometimes headlong.  Both have great rock voices, but equalling them , often cripplingly funny and occasionally touching, are Rob Fowler’s Falco and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane. The joy of Steinman’s construction is that the beloved songs are parcelled out to different characters, often  with a chorus and other subplots joining in. So Fowler and Sexton’s rendering of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, (“we were barely seventeen, we were barely dressed”) may, in its wicked hilarity get me back there. Danielle Steers’ bluesy Zahara gets the heartbreak of “One outa three aint bad”, , and – when imprisoned and beaten by Falco –  the gang members in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits get to break your heart with memories of those objects in the rear view mirror: (“So many threats and fears, so many wasted years, before my life became my is just a highway and the soul is just a car..”


I keep quoting, and call on Keats and Shakespeare,  for good reason. For Steinman is a real poet: an emotionally intense balladeer of thrilled new love, when electricity runs through a beloveds  very hair, and bodies seem to rhyme:  of doubt and desire and daring and regret and absurdity, and longing for sex to be more than the moment. As an expression of eroticism it is the antithesis of porn; as a bard of biker bravura and rebellion Steinman is refreshingly uncynical.


And the music! Real rock, melodious and violent, ragingly operatic. Generations gather round it like a fire: I went with my daughter; one fan group had been over twenty times, and not all were anywhere near young. Actually, the middle aged even have a new song in which to laugh at ourselves and be laughed: Falco and Sloane’s  furious number “Who needs the young? when all WE have is traces – of the faces we once were..”


In short, it’s three kinds of bliss. Only those now locked impenetrably into their middle age will resist it.


box office   020 7845 9300        to 5 August     Off to Toronto in autumn.
Rating. Five.  5 Meece Rating

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It’s fun down in the Dorfman pit. Under exuberant African barbershop posters from Lagos, Harare, Accra – and London – a cast of barbers and customers-to be josh and wander, dance a few steps and accost the front row. Their territory is a mongrel assembly of garden chairs, sofas, much-used equipment, lanterns and one ancient generator. Overhead a wire globe rotates among chaotic drooping wires and lights. We will live for a hundred and five minutes in this raggedy low-rent masculine world, amid the men of the African diaspora. Seamlessly, at showtime a television on the far side summons them all to an Oh! and a “no!” and a final cheer for the football. And we’re off.



Hopes and fears and preoccupations are filtered through one long day in the barber-shops, which can be as one wise South African clipper says near the end, “beacons”: the heart of communities . Places where troubled male hearts find a truce, and ask themselves and one another about what is it to be a black man? A strong black man with pride and purpose, groping in a world where national father-figures – and real fathers – so often let you down?



Inua Ellams, Nigerian poet and playwright, was last in this space with his BLACK T SHIRT COLLECTION, and sparked sharp mischievous delight with his show AN EVENING WITH AN IMMIGRANT. This is a fuller and more satisfying play, though there are times when you wonder if it will complete itself and become a play indeed, or remain a run of sketches linked only by the rattling-castored, dancing swirl of movement from one country, one group of men to the next. There are sly linking themes – a joke about three men in a bar which appears to be universal, or the young men noting the proverb that “the older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy”. Often it comes back to that theme of fatherhood. There are wonderful one-liners: a few probably lost in patois on some of us, but many direct hits.. There is a furious political debate about whether pidgin is a language which must be preserved, and a knockabout over whether Mugabe is a national hero or a thug.



. But as Bijan Sheibani’s fast-moving direction steers it towards resolution , a wider theme grows: solidified in a superb rant by an old, desperate south African drunk expressing something which – as a former appalled schoolgirl in apartheid south Africa – I have long expected to hear. That is an expression of the stark anger which must rise in poor black South Africans now: rage even at Mandela himself for his benignity and rainbow words, because the white masters were not driven out, not annihilated and exiled, not belittled and humiliated in return. They still hold most of the wealth and power. The calm old barber beside the angry old man talks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to move on. And then through a rapid swirl and rattle of castors, we are back in the London barbershop where a more personal truth and reconciliation has to take place.



And, in a quiet falling coda, an 18 year old comes in after hours for a trim because he is an actor due at an audition . It’s a neat trick, as the play began in Lagos with someone turning up at 6 a.m. desperate for an “aerodynamic” cut for a job interview. This lad, well-spoken and shy and a little camp, is going for a part as “a black man ..a strong black man” . But his own father left when he was six, and he plucks his eyebrows and is an actor doesn’t know what a strong black man is any more, because the Mandelas and Luther Kings are “continent sized’ and he is only a small island…



And so the play, the scruffy barbershop world, in its last phases becomes itself more of a continent than a quirky island. What makes a good man?


box office 020 7452 3000 8 July
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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TRISTAN & YSEULT Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1




This is a famously significant piece of theatre: created in 2003 in a Cornish field , it was one of the first successes of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh, precursor of wild successes like Brief Encounter, Rebecca and The Wild Bride. Her idiosyncratic, joyful style of course led her to her short-lived tenure in charge of the Globe. But this adaptation was the genesis of it all: its larky, irreverent, vaudevillian style at the time revolutionary. It ran at the NT Cottesloe, toured two hemispheres, and now returns re-cast , but with the same spirit and the most of the original Bill Mitchell design and rope-hauling aerialism. Here in the Globe – currently still in the Emma Rice it’s-a-gig mode, with amplification and fancy lights – the tempo is turned up more than Cottesloe audiences remember. To the extent, indeed, that sometimes the broad jokes, asides , urgings of the groundlings and bursts of pop singalong (“Up all night to get lucky”) could make a newcomer feel a bit as if he had wandered into Butlins.


Especially since the story, or the core of it, is the mythic medieval-Arthurian tragedy of Tristan – born in sorrow to a broken heart – and his love for King Mark of Cornwall’s bride Yseult. You do get a couple of bursts of Wagner’s Liebestod – one at the start, one at the finale – but in between there are comedy kick-fights and goolie-grabbing, and a musically unWagnerian diversity from Nick Cave to tango. As to the spoken text – by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose – some of it is strikingly poetic, even profound; some is not. King Mark – Mike Shepherd, one of the few accorded some dark dignity – has loose iambics which often work; Kirsty Woodward, narrating from the point of view of Tristan’s eventual wife, delivers dry sharp storytelling in strict 1950’s ladieswear; only occasionally is there a line truly bathetic, like Kyle Lima as the Iago-ish betrayer Frocin lamenting “I’ve been nothing but your loyal servant, my King / Don’t say Ive ruined everything”… Luckily, Lima’s physical brilliance and bonkers fight-dancing carries him along for most of the evening.



But actually the whole shebang carries you along: as Yseult Hannah Vassallo is light, touching and lovely, and Dominic Marsh a goodly glamorous Tristan. THe play is short (two hours five including the interval), vigorous, and above all rather interestingly framed. For Rice’s perception is that while lovers are interesting, most of us have had periods, or indeed lives, in “The Club of the Unloved”, who can only look on. They are represented here by a chorus of anoraked, bespectacled, balaclava-wearing figures with birders’ binoculars (a bit unfair, surely some anoraks have lovers too?).




This chorus , often musicians as well, can test the patience slightly with their miming, larking and asides; sometimes, as can happen in a Rice production, there is an uneasy sense that every flash of sincere emotion must be sent up as fast as possible. Still, there are moments she does not undermine. Niall Ashdown as the maid Brangian is very funny indeed in his cross-dressed, anxious bridal moment, yet genuinely poignant in its aftermath. And as the sky darkens over London and the reality of love, betrayal, separation and death swells before us, the sad cry of Iseult White-hands, on behalf of all the unglamorous unloved, suddenly grows real power.



It is – the director says – possibly its last outing, and probably one of its noisiest. But because of its history and the theatrical style is pioneered and spread,  it is a show for anyone interested in theatre to see. And for the young hilarious groundlings and many singing and cheering from the galleries, clearly just pure pleasure.



box office 020 7902 1400 to 25 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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KISS ME Trafalgar studio 2 SW1





I have a taste for plays about the years between the wars. The WW1 anniversary saw some fascinating contemporaneous ones, often at the Jermyn. There is rich material in it: the weight of grief, survivor-guilt, the shadow of the next war only 21 years later, and not least the new awareness and independence of women who had done tough wartime jobs in munitions or nursing, but then found that the great toll of young male deaths left them as “surplus women” with no family future. So it was irresistible to see how Richard Bean, in our own time and best known for sharp comedy, would deal with it in this two-hander set in 1929, as strangers meet in a bedroom with all this weight of history and sadness still heavy upon them ten years after the Armistice.



It succeeds, in the most curious of ways beyond both its comedy and its setting, creating by the end a perennial meditation on the triangular relationship between love, sexual desire, and procreation. In an age when so much fiction centres on zipless hookups which try to avoid both emotional entanglement and pregnancy, what we have here is a fictional – but not improbable – situation where a rogue Dr Trollope (unseen) arranges insemination by anonymous sex for women esperate for babies, whether widowed or with damaged husbands.



Our young woman (Claire Lams) is an independent widow of ten years who drives a munitions lorry. She waits in her lodgings for the appointment, nervous, checking the mirror, smoothing the eiderdown. The man (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is youngish, bowler-hatted, with an umbrella over his arm. He prissily removes his tiepin, lays down the doctor’s rules about no-kissing and no-real-names. The woman is the brighter spirit, chatting and bantering; he, a sober and at first unreadable veteran of these excruciating encounters, wants less talk. But he has to explain why he was not enlisted, is not dead… his very survival proves too much, at first, for her to carry on.
Yet they do, because to separate feelings from sex is never as easy as moderns like to think. We see a development over months of encounters: the back-story of her lost husband and brief teenage marriage, a weird, unsettling glimpse into the man’s motivation and his damage. It is alternately touching, absurd, thoughtful, painful and poignant . Anna Ledwich directs, drawing a whole reality from the two characters. You can laugh with the banter – Lams is superb in her evocation of spirited, awakened, hurt womanhood – and wince at the psychological scars on both of them, and on the reflection that no war is every really over. The angel of death has long, dark wings.
It is a curiosity of a play, unexpected and impossible to forget. I’m glad I went.


box office to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ANNIE Piccadilly theatre, W1


If Nikolai Foster’s production of Annie came in a tin, it would prove to be exactly what the label promised. Feelgood, joyful, corny, gorgeous. Ruby Stokes’ chirpy first-night Annie manages to deliver a flawless first “Tomorrow” even while having her face licked by a large hairy dog (a labradoodle, anachronistic for 1934 but hey, who cares?). The orphans are choreographed with ferocious playfulness and naturalism – no eyes ’n teeth artificiality and some cracking good bucket-and-mop percussion work in “It’s a hard Knock Life. The natural mode of adult group emotional expression is,, of course, the tap-dance, both in and out of natty sailor-suits. The set, framed in jigsaw pieces of the old NY street map, turns featly from orphanage to Hooverville shanty to mansion, radio station and cabinet room without wasting a minute.

And as the tin promised, the first entry of the villainous oppressor Miss Hannigan is met with a deafening cheer from stalls and circles. For it’s Miranda Hart: a national TV treasure too long absent from both singleton horseplay and retro midwifery. She’s back, storming a West End debut as beneath the part’s entertainingly drunken malevolence there bubbles the familiar gleeful larkiness. This is a pratfalling, artfully hapless comedienne whose every gawk and absurdity is calculated with the professional finesse of a Chaplin.  She can put across a song, too, at times swooping down to a near- baritone range which dips below even Alex Bourne’s sonorous Daddy Warbucks.


The show (for whose London debut in 1978 I was sent to interview an endless line of auditioning tots outside the VIctoria Palace) is of course a fairytale, a fond imagining of childish gallantry in the Great Depression. Who does not sigh with nostalgia at the idea that a lonely unmarried billionaire could innocently summon up an orphan to share his fifth avenue Christmas, even specifying hair colour? Who knew that Roosevelt’s New Deal was inspired by the optimism of a pigtailed ginger orphan carolling “The sun’ll be out tomorrow!” in the Cabinet room? Or that a Republican billionaire would soften towards FDR (“Find out what Democrats eat!”) until together America , orphans and all, could walk to the sunlit uplands. While, of course, foiling a plot by Hannigan and her crooked brother (Jonny Fines is a fine Rooster, Djalenga Scott a perfect bad-broad).



Actually, so entangled are we today with the absurdities of US politics that I found myself nodding in relief at the way Bourne is playing Daddy WArbucks shaven-headed,not a blond lock real or fake in sight, presumably in order to stop us musing about parallels between another billionaire businessman who can “summon up the FBI” and call detectives off the Capone case when he has a personal issue to resolve…

Perish the thought. Such dark cynicisms are unfit for an Annie audience. Stick with the joyfulness, the crazy optimism, the triumph of simple goodness and the leaping exuberant orphans. Stokes is a lovely Annie, and I am sure the other two alternates are as well, and the orphan ensemble are terrific. But you’ll be in particular luck if you hit on a night when a mop-headed Nicole Subebe,on a professional debut, is playing Molly the smallest orphan with extreme pizzazz, drop-dead timing and glee. Every time she and the mob spill onto the stage the energy rises. The child is yeast.


Box office 0844 871 7630 to Jan 2018 (Miranda Hart until 17 Sept)
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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