HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY Young Vic SE1

A SPANGLED ANGLESEY ARISTOCRAT WALKS AGAIN

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

4 Meece Rating

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BARNUM Menier, SE1

A MINI-CIRCUS AND A MISCASTING

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE Charing Cross Theatre SW1

 NEW GENERATION CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR WONDERS WHO IT’S FOR….

 

 

When The Woman in White debuted at the Palace Theatre in 2004, much of the commentary focused on it being a technological feat, with digital projections in abundance. With this first revival, directed by Thom Southerland, the more intimate setting seems to lend itself more readily to Wilkie Collins’s gothic source material. But what begins by looking like a dark, haunting thriller soon descends into much less : for a production running in excess of two hours, too much feels as if we are being dragged from one dusty drawing-room to another, the only sign of transition being two moving wooden panels. Sometimes there is a door.
 

 

But, of course, there is always the music. This is Lloyd Webber, and when it hits the right notes it is superb. With shrill, suspenseful violins, ominous clarinet and timpani, we are treated early on to a stunning, soaring duet between Anna O’Byrne’s Laura Fairlie and Ashley Stillburn’s amiable Walter Cartwright. The two fall madly in love but suddenly, and for little discernible reason, she soon wanders off to marry the obviously-up-to-something Sir Percival Glyde, played by Chris Peluso, who hadn’t even been mentioned. That is the main crux of what is wrong here: with so much strung-out exposition and rambling sing-song conversation throughout the first act it is hard to know or care why anyone is doing anything. The eponymous Woman in White and her connection to the sinister Sir Percival barely make sense.
 

 

In the midst of this lengthy exposition are lyrics by the multi-award winning David Zippel. As one might expect in a musical of this lineage, the entire thesaurus of rhyming couplets is mercilessly unleashed – ‘this story breaks my heart, I don’t know where to start’ is one of the many waves of maddeningly contrived lines which would even make Dr Seuss blush. Sometimes it feels as if the cast are making the rhyme up as they go along, and by the second act it becomes a game of guessing the next line. A mention must also go to some of the driest recitative I have ever witnessed, as poor Laura frantically sings ‘A document!? What kind of document?’.
 

 

Should that matter if it’s fun? There are a number of hackneyed troughs, but most certainly peaks. By the second Act when the plot is finally established, we are treated to a joyous performance from Greg Castiglioni as the scene-stealing Count Fosco, who rightly received the loudest cheers of the night. There are even a few bells and whistles in the form of a humorous game of roulette where the audience is treated as the table, although it only seemed interesting because the rest of the staging was so lacklustre. The question remained, who is this show for? There are moments of genuine humour , and coupled with the silly rhyming and the music it suggests that this is a family show – but then come the bloated scenes in murky drawing rooms, full of men sitting around in period costume sipping brandy and scheming. Hardly something to thrill the kids.
 

I recognise that the plot is based on a Victorian novel, but the tired lapse into gender stereotypes becomes tedious. Much of the conversation in the first act was concerned with men acting with integrity (doing what they want) – while in the second, our heroines yearn for a man to help right all of the wrongs in the world. One even admits ‘We are powerless at the hands of these men.’ Our female protagonists are treated as if they only have looks and wealth on their side. I find it disappointing.
 

The cast are fantastic, the music does its job. But they are letdown by a convoluted and tired plot and some dry dusty staging.

 

BOX OFFICE 020 7930 5868 to 10th February
rating three  3 Meece Rating
 

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LA SOIREE Aldwych, WC1

EROTICROBATICS, BANANAS, HIGH JINKS

 

 

Relief flooded in with the first act, Cabaret Decadanse from Montreal. Here was a larger-than-life lip-synching puppet diva made of glittering springs , doing a Shirley Bassey version of “If you could read my mind” while rather skilfully groping her own puppeteer’s bra. Splendid. This is what we came for. Then barely time to clap before Rajesh Amrale and Rajesh Mudki, fresh from Mumbai, sprang into action like twin Mowglis in extraordinarily graceful , rapidly accelerating poses and balances and twirls around a fat wooden pole. Next, to lower the tone a bit on came the pleasingly disreputable Mark and Svetlana from Vegas in leopardprint naffery (“Daredevil Chicken” they call themselves ). Their first of several turns was the classic gross-out of long-distance spitting into one another’s mouths. In this case not ping-pong-balls but fragments of banana. One, as it happened, landing in my ringside friend’s lap.

 

 

That one is never my favourite genre, but was somehow reassuring. The relief is because I had wondered whether La Soirée would work without the Spiegeltent on the South bank, the whiff of old hot-dogs and Thames fog. Would Brett Haylock’s fringe-born, “dysfunctional family” of new-variety acrobatics and cabaret be somehow selling out by coming in to the stately Aldwych Theatre? Has it gone all premium-price black tie on us?

 

 

Nope. None of that. Tickets from £ 17, stalls removed for those red folding chairs; a ring in front of the proscenium , a few table seats onstage, a drink in your fist, plenty of smoke and razzle. And – a plus – the full height of the space can be used to spectacular effect for higher aerialist turns than the old tent could accommodate. And actally, this year’s line-up is probably the best they’ve had yet, quite making up for the retirement from nude hanky frolics of Ursula Martinez (she’s up at the Soho by the way, in a new show). Daredevil Chicken were back several times, banana-free and really quite horribly brilliant in their Vegas way, and meanwhile we were dazzled repeatedly by acrobatics (in one case I find I wrote “eroticrobatics” . That was when Leon and Klodi slithered around one another, as if doing a neck-stand upside down on one’s partner’s shoulders was really pleasingly sensual rather than an oof-ouch! moment).

 

 

The sheer marvel of athleticism is an important part of new-variety evenings – a certain blindfold swinging and catching aloft was almost shocking – but in some ways it is pure beauty that stills the heart: Michele Clark’s manipulation of hoops is hypnotic, optically illusionist grace: the remarkable Fancy Chance may dangle alarmingly from her own hair but it is the swirling of her white angel-wing robe and the glitter of her spinning finale that entrance.

 

 

Favourite for me was the dryly, extravagantly witty turns of Amy G from New York. She can perform flamenco on roller-skates with sharp banter and male audience recruitment, deploy risqueé inappropriateess in a 10ft feather boa, caress helpless stage-seat chaps with “Ooh, my lipstick;s on your nose” and fondle men’s ears with her stiletto shoe. Nor do many shows feature a Trump-era rendering of “America The Beautiful” on what I can only call a genital kazoo.

 

 

And the Decadanse puppeteers were back twice, brilliantly. And yes, some stark nudity occurred, male this time and very funny, plus La Serviette, which is a masculine take on the fan-dance with tablecloths. They’re doing a petite soiree for the more easily shocked age group in the afternoon, but – despite a particularly interesting employment of a Beatle-wig as a temporary male merkin – there is nothing which is not , in the last analysis, absolutely admirable.
Well, except the soggy bananas. But no cabaret should take place entirely in anyone’s Safe Space, should it?

 

 

box office 0845 200 7981 http://www.la-soiree.com To Feb.

rating four

 

 

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GOATS Royal Court SW1

LUKE JONES WANTED TO CARE, BUT SOMEHOW..

 

 

Running again through the plot of this play l in my head, I think ‘surely it’s gripping’.? Coffins of martyrs are continuing to stack up in a Syrian village. They’re fallen government forces fighting ‘terrorists’ in their own country. Amongst the choreographed, state-approved celebration is a father fuming. He’s not allowed to see his son’s corpse and this just fuels his mistrust in the government and the local party. Why can’t he see his son? Where is he?

 
‘Goats for martyrs’ is the new scheme – a goat for every family who lost a son. What should be a slap in the face is lapped up by the propaganda-soaked residents. It’s a solid story and the playwright is a Syrian documentary maker (Liwaa Yazji). If anyone can distil and stage this story surely it’s her. It’s not some West Londonite tapping their pencil on their noggin trying to squeeze some creative juice out of the foreign horrors they’ve just seen on Newsnight. They’re proper.

 

 

But the result is a dramaless, limp and lifeless play. It’s desperate stuff. The plot – essentially simple – is congested in a jumpy and ugly staging by director Hamish Pirie. The set is a wonkily lit and cluttered arena with screens dotted on scaffolding poles.The snappy succession of scenes, set up with standard dramatic tension just fizzle to nothing with the barren dialogue. The day A.I writes plays, they will sound like this.

 

 

 

As a result the performances were broad and emotionally deaf. The only variety, surprisingly, came from the unexplained variety of accents. I counted various London, East Midlands, pseudo-American and middle eastern voices, despite all the characters being from this one Syrian village.  A procession of live goats is trotted to the stage. Why not? Much publicised and, oddly, the only thing that made sense.

 

 

I wanted to feel something, When brainwashed youths raged against the older man who defied the propaganda, or a silent mother listened on the phone to the gunshots her son was enduring , when the state-tv journalist trotted out lies to the mourners she was reporting on, I wanted to feel.  But the total lack of stagecraft killed everything. There was no drama, no journalistic insight, no character exploration, no jokes. Just goats.

Full disclosure; I bailed at the interval.

 

Until 30th December

LP writes:
Rating: Theatrecat can’t rate it because Luke bailed out early…his reaction is ,like all audience members’ , to be  respected, and just because a subject is real and harshly tragic it doesn’t mean a play works as drama. But in fairness I must mention that the Guardian preview claimed it is “bitterly funny”, others say words “bold” and “important”
. See  other reviews , make your own mind up…

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED

 

 

Good to see the Old Vic auditorium in the round again (a Spacey innovation). Though this time, there’s a long transverse thrust stage enabling Marley’s ghost to drag a spectacular 40ft or so of chains and strongboxes behind him, and to be dragged out backwards by it. The book is adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell with many a dangling, swooping lantern, invisible door and pop-up strongbox, It is therefore tempting to start with the grand finish: to refer to Matilda and Harry Potter and the like, and reveal staging-finale matters aerial, textile, meteorological, zipwire and sprout-related.

 

 

But no spoilers. Take the kids to see, mark, draw in its sternly humane morality and wait for the big gasps till the end. Take it as straightish Dickens with artful Thorne adaptations, whose marvellously heartfelt Christmas quality would delight the author of 1843. It begins and ends with the cast playing the silvery simplicity of handbells, and all through it in a mood-setting score by Christopher NIghtingale, there are laced familiar carols. They fit: “In the Bleak Midwinter” can be, after all, eerie for a midnight haunting. And thundering words like “Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!” could hardly be more apt for old Scrooge’s final relieved awakening. And if you are a miserly old bastard being harassed by carol-singers approaching up the long stage, what tune could be more approriately infuriating than “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”?

 

 

 

Scrooge is a dishevelled Rhys Ifans, an actor who can produce mad-eyed mania but keeps it under control in a fine and often movingly anguished process through his ghostly torments, until the great relief unleashes crazed capering. Thorne’s adaptation is clever enough to add surprise and even suspense to the well-worn tale: cunningly, it begins with choral narration by the black-cloaked cast intoning from “Marley was dead”, and sometimes reverts to the letter of the text both in narration and dialogue. But there are differences, surprises; the ghosts are not spectacular but motherly, pram-pushing: there is more emphasis on the harsh father and sad boyhood, without excuses (“These are the bricks you are made from…we are all made. But we make, too”). Fezziwig becomes an undertaker; Scrooge’s lost sister a ghost, his early lover a figure who, in Thorne’s unusually long coda, is modern enough to need a face-to-face reckoning forty years later. There are moments which without losing the cloaked, top-hatted, handbell mood of the piece , seem directed harder at our TV-news generation than at Dickens’ contemporaries. When the ghost shows him Tiny Tim’s likely end Scrooge cries “a dying child – is it wrong not to want to see that?”. Good question.

 

So it is DIckensian and modern, clever and heartfelt, gripping and touching and tuneable and serious and sometimes funny (Ifans is indeed let off the chain for a while in the end, and Marley gets a moment. In restless late November, it began Christmas as it should be.

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 20 Jan
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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THE SECRET THEATRE Wanamaker, SE1

RUFF WORK: AN ELIZABETHAN MORALITY FOR TODAY

 

 

This is a devilish cunning ploy from Anders Lustgarten – an impassioned critic of state and social policies, sometimes a bit one-note. Artful to move from the smug tedium of “If you don’t let us dream..” and his better, wrenchingly moving, literal depiction of refugees in Lampedusa , and to turn up unexpectedly in this new context.

 

For this is the glamorous, pantalooned and be-ruffed and candlelit Elizabethan world of the Wanamaker where one can be tempted to stay cozily safe in history, drawing only psychological messages rather than political ones. Not this time: Lustgarten’s period piece, spectacularly set by Jon BAusor and directed by Matthew Dunster,  may take place in the court of Elizabeth I and her (real) spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, but it is mischievously and cleverly designed as a full-on satire of the empire-building instinct of the intelligence and propaganda world, from Le Carré to Fake News.
 

 

The parallel is everywhere. There’s the sense that as new money and people flow to London, so do new heresies and threats; the way that spooks can spook governments into fresh paranoia, and the feeling that tricky populations can be quietened by “a royal wedding, and setting the poor against recent immigrants”. It’s there in the determination of Walsingham to watch as Burleigh says “every beer-maker, washerwoman, steeplejack and kitchen drudge”. It is there in the paranoid conviction we all have from time to time, that some near-miss terrorist attacks are faked by the security empires for their own sake.  This happens, splendidly, in one moment as a drunken innkeeper takes the fall. Another sharp parallel is in the cynical decision to recruit cheap troops from agricultural labourers starving after the Enclosures. How many modern squaddies are from care homes, from hopeless backgrounds, from unemployment?

 

 

 

It moves along well, with only a few moments of Pythonesque absurdity:  notably in a trapdoor-and-dagger meeting of double-double agents. But there’s real darkness in whispers from the darkness as the spymaster reads dispatches, and in the crazy chill of his conviction that Catholics are demons. Visually, it is a treat: candelabras and braziers, torches and lanterns and dimly seen nooses , a headman’s axe, a rack; candles dramatically used with a fine threatening dowsing scene as the first act ends.   Lustgarten’s cynical rage about war propaganda is magnificent; when Walsingham has at last persuaded the chalkfaced queen to kill Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Philip Sidney’s plea is that his death shall not be used for propaganda. The second act sees exactly that happening: massive mourning, and eloquent rage from the hero’s daughter “You promised not to use his name to make roisterers in shabby taverns swear oaths to the Queen..you wrapped his bones in a flag and jiggled them to make them dance!”.

 

 

 

This second act is more gratuitously gruesome, not one for younger schoolchildren, with the martyr Southwell on the rack spitting defiance through his screams to make the Guantanamo point about the futility of creating martyrs. At last the Armada comes – fine model ships aflame on a trolley – and the decline of Walsingham is paralleled by the Queen’s cry “Your kind of knowledge does not make us safe, only more afraid”. Burleigh (Ian Redford) predicts jovially that the apparatus of surveillance invented by Walsingham will be with us for ever.

 

 

And so it is. That there actually was a real Armada – a serious threat from powerful Spain backed by the Papist south and enemies within – does not deflect our author from his moral. But it’s a terrific play for the Wanamaker, and Aidan McArdle giving Walsingham some poignant final reality. So we can forgive the author’s conviction that Elizabeth I (Tara Fitzgerald) was no virgin queen but well into rough sex with the Tower of London rackmaster and all comers. Boys will be boys.

 

box office http://www.shakespeares-globe.com to 16 dec

rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

 

 

 

 

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