AFTER DARK – A DRAMA OF LONDON LIFE Finborough, SW10

A SHILLING SHOCKER IS A JOY FOREVER

 

  To come clean:  one reason I dashed to catch this fresh back from holiday is  not only that the Finborough is always interesting,   but that  family tradition tells us that Dion Boucicault’s 1868 play,  a confection of dastardly deeds and heroic redemption,   is one in which my great-grandfather (an actor of no great fame) appeared on tour. Possibly even with my great-grandmother as a harridan or heroine.    It may be that a taste for melodramatic romance runs in the family.    That was certainly satisfied in a roisteringly absurd two-hour tale of London life,  directed with furious vigour by Phil Willmott .  

 

A cast of twelve, including three musicians,  featly trundles around a set of two ragged brick arches on castors  ,  and shows a joyful relish in correctly overdoing the significant glances and gestures of despair,  not to mention lines like “You fiend in human shape!”   “I am your Father!”   and “Stand aside, Chumley, I’ll interrogate the baggage!”.     There is a particular pleasure in having such grand shouty melodrama right in your face in this teeny auditorium.    It roars along,  from the opening moment when a strapping Queen Victoria  and a statue of Britannia (it talks, later…) welcome the first steam-train to run in the new London Underground District Line  (piquantly, the last one just has last week, marking the 150th anniversary).     Amid cries of alarm and stage-fog a figure they descry a figure on the rails silhouetted against the lights – aaaghhh….  and we’re only 30 seconds in.  

 

Then the plot begins,  involving, just as one would wish,  a raddled scheming nightclub hostess whose criminality is matched only by her gift for Malapropisms, a decadent aristocratic heir,  a tricky will, star-crossed love, betrayal,  pregnancies, a drowning achieved with shiny mirrors,  a mysterious tramp, a  Salvation Army lady called Aviona Crumpet, a dastardly lawyer  and mistaken identity under a veil.   Oh, and apart from the traditional music-hall scene (sing along, do!),  later we get a three-lady chorus of Russian tarts in ginger wigs and fur hats singing “Kalinka!”  and chasing a policeman, while still playing fiddle and accordion.  

   

   The plot is pleasingly ridiculous,  tying everything up in a proper happy ending for even the worst, and  the performances vigorous .  Victoria Jeffrey is a splendid Dicey Morris (I am proud to have had her crinoline sweep over my feet in the front row) and   Jonathan le Billon as the hapless aristocratic hero deploys a deadpan helpless stare I particularly enjoyed.    Jemima Watling as the one poignant character Eliza wisely keeps a lid on it and is actually rather touching,   and Toby Wynn-Davies, frankly, was born to play an evil, conniving lawyer and should now be first call for all Dickens adaptations.   Talking of Dickens, there’s even a cheeky  Magwitchian rip-off in  the plot – it was seven years after Great Expectations.    

  

    What the hell more do you want of a night out over a pub?  Only eight more performances.  Hurry.  Get round there. It’ll take your mind off Boris…

box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk    to 6 July

rating four 4 Meece Rating

 

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EUROPE Donmar, WC1

GUEST CRITIC  LUKE JONES REMAINS UNIMPRESSED

 

“A dirty nothing place” is what the Donmar is dressed up as this summer. It’s a chilly, lightly filthy train station in a forgotten part of Europe. “A place people pass to get somewhere.” Even the interval drinks are wheeled round in carriage trolleys.

 

This 25th anniversary revival of David Greig’s play is, for the most part, a long chin scratch about home, belonging and division. What in this wide continent unites us and what forces are agitating against it? That kind of thing. Apt during the years of the Yugoslav war. Apt now during our never ending Brexit debate. But nonetheless a sinfully tedious drama on a Thursday evening in June.   The station is closing, refugees have arrived, racism is bubbling and many want out. The town is literally being cut off from the rest of the continent. WHOOSH, there goes clunking metaphor No.1.

 

Ron Cook as the put-out station master is entertainingly straight; a man of broom, tannoy and timetable. His daughter Adele (the forever charming and and charismatic Faye Marsay) is a far more romantic breed of train fancier. She wants to break free from the small town so is naturally obsessed with the trains that leave the station. CLANG, metaphor Nr.2.

Onto this concourse arrive two weary refugees, Adele’s husband and his increasingly racist friends. Wolves from the forest, we’re told, newly emboldened, often decent into the town. CLUNK –   keeping up?

 

Onto this it  heaps wooden dialogue ,  and a preference for the kind of strained, ethereal conversations people only have in (small p) political plays. Shane Zaza (returning to the town after making it big abroad) has a maddening melodic delivery and Natalia Tena (as the refugee Katia) barely shifts an eyebrow or tone. It’s packed with these strange dehumanising decisions: but thankfully a gently thrilling love story and a couple of genuinely shocking violent moments perk you up.

 

But the only genuinely impressive aspect of the evening was Tom Visser’s juicy lighting. The rumble and rattle of passing trains is beautifully expressed. We get a flock of rattling ceiling tubes, flashing streaks across the floor, slutty neon, warm sunrise. If only the text had such dramatic grammar:  if this is what we can expect from new Artistic Director Michael Longhurst, I’ll be changing at the next station.

 

Box Office: 020 3282 3808  to 10 August

rating   two 2 meece rating

LUKE JONES

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THE HUNT Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL SHIVERS – ADMIRINGLY – AT A TROUBLED TALE

 

In this hypersensitive age of MeToo accusations, anxieties about online pornography and even deeper-seated disquiet about questions of childhood innocence, it’s a brave move to tell a story where a child is an unreliable accuser claiming to be a victim of sexual abuse.

 

Adapted by David Farr from the screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (and made into an acclaimed  2013 movie starring the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen), our focus is Danish primary school teacher called Lucas (played with quiet authority by Tobias Menzies), a loner who lives in the middle of nowhere in his already isolated community. He  has found himself teaching much younger children after the secondary school closed down.

 

The opening moments feel eerily innocuous – two six-year olds, Peter and Clara, are forced to stay late because their parents have failed to get their act together; and as Lucas looks forward to a lonely Friday night in his remote cottage, he gets them to help with clearing up the classroom before the folks arrive. Only young Clara has other things on her mind when she is alone with Lucas – she wants to give him a lollipop and she touches him in a way which makes him uneasy.

 

Of course Lucas tells Clara gently that this is the way Mummys and Daddys can touch children, but not teachers. But quite why young Clara wants to be close to him is apparent when the parents arrive – frazzled mother Mikala and alcoholic father Theo, both of whom happen to be old friends of Lucas’.

 

Seemingly hurt by Lucas’ rebuff Clara accuses him of doing something devastatingly inappropriate which sets off a train of nightmarish accusations, suspensions, police involvement  and the kind of vigilantism that is a particular preserve of this kind of small community.

 

It’s a deeply involving story told with power and clarity in Rupert Goold’s production. Menzies’ Lucas is a rock of inscrutability and stubbornness who fails to flatly deny the accusation. He also inhabits a world of manly ruggedness where he and his friends, most of whom seem to have children in the school, frequent a lodge where they go hunting (there is more than one type of pursuit here), take saunas and dip in icy water while shouting a lot. Thanks to typically effective work by designer Es Devlin, a simple house design serves as the lodge, Lucas’ home and the children’s Wendy house, the place where the crimes supposedly took place. In a final reckoning, it becomes the town’s church. All places of safety and bonding (and, weirdly, love), all in their way, assaulted.

 

Farr’s taut and powerful script manages to convey the ambiguity of ruptures – both on a societal level and within the mind of a little girl and the surrounding adults. Is the problem the online porn which Clara seems to have seen on the phone of her friend Peter (who has stolen it form his father)? Or is the demolition of childhood innocence down to the fecklessness of her parents who have driven Clara to seek love and comfort form an inappropriate source, a quiet, kind and well-meaning teacher? The lack of answers speaks of the play’s intelligent sense of the enormity of the questions it is asking.

 

Lucas’s  innocence is never in doubt, however, and his strange reluctance to  proclaim his innocence means he is at the mercy of events around him, which can feel frustrating.

 

But Goold gives his production enough thriller-like pacing and intensity to keep us hooked. And what resonates at the close is a portrait of mind and a wider world in torment and an idyllic society, very sure of its values, and seemingly incapable of having its complacent perfection questioned. A troubled play for our troubled times.

 

box office almeida.co.uk  to 3 Aug

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

  All the little Jermyn needs to complete this reimagination of Wildean epigrammatic decadence is to scent the auditorium overwhelmingly with lilies and light joss sticks round the tiny stage.  Oscar Wilde’s aim after all is to overpower us until we faint with forbidden aesthetic passion.    The  deathless tale of Dorian Gray, who stayed beautiful while his portrait in the attic betrayed his hideous moral corruption,   is one of Wilde’s most flutingly swoonsome hymns to art and beauty,  and warning against their innate decadence.  

 

Its a loose impressionistic take by Lucy Shaw, and Tom Littler’s handsomely staged production is a joint enterprise with the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, where it knocked them out (Ayckbourn it ain’t).   There are two vast frames,  mirrored or translucent:  we never see the portrait, wisely, but there’s a Narcissus-pool in which Dorian can gaze in admiration and later in horror.  Four actors switch round in versions day by day:  mine was Picture B, with Stanton Wright as Dorian,  Helen Reuben as Basil the painter and Augustina Seymour as Henry Wotton, while Richard Keightley does others or hangs about the edge of the stage speaking Wildean epigrammatica to fit the moment.

 

  It’s intriguing, and offers chances to see the parts played differently,  but there are inevitable losses.  The heaving gay subtext in Wilde’s book cannot simmer quite perilously enough if Sybil Vane is explicitly and verbally a bloke  (as in versions B and D).     A female Wootton and Basil work fine though,  Seymour is splendidly smart-louche as the tempting friend,  and Reuben as worried Basil. As to Dorian, the trouble is that it always helps if you look as if Aubrey Beardsley had drawn you in a fug of opium.    Stanton Wright’s handsomeness is a bit more in modern stubbly style than is ideal  . But on nights  C and D  I imagine Reuben is ideal:   ever so ethereal and soulfully androgynous.  Must make it all the more shocking to hear him/her being accused of “creeping at dawn from dreadful houses”.

  

  The style is broken,  witticisms and profundities about art and beauty dropped in whenever it fits;  the story is familiar, with the betrayal of Sibyl,  the brother’s vengeance and the horror and fate of the artist.   Sadly, Shaw leaves out what in my brooding teens I thought was the real kicker:   the irony when the final murderous degradation of Dorian shows in the picture and appals him.   He decides to be good and spare a flowerlike  maiden but it doesn’t work.  In the book he just looks into the portrait and finds it just as hideous  but with a taint of hypocrisy…  Put that back, I say!

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

  This is a dream of a Dream.  One expected fun from the  combination of Nicholas Hytner,  a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit  and a Bunny Christie design which  makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks.  Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals:   beds fly and travel,  pits open, platforms appear,  gymnastic fairies  somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!”  exit move.   

 

     But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things.  He   pursues, as most modern interpreters do,   the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream” , releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court.  That psychological captivity includes Duke  Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.  This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally,  sweetly, awake confused , four in a bed which was once a grassy bank,  looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear,  wakened from his Oberon dream.   

    

    But it’s the other thing that had us whooping,  even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time:  I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes,  went twice,  but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee).    The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines,  so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child.  It is Oberon.  This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince,  everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).    

      

     Making Oberon the patsy,  enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing).     Oliver Chris, on the other hand,  gives the comic performance of a lifetime.  He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun  in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight.    The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile.   Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does:  the immortal Weaver is, in any situation,   a miracle of happy self-flattery.   

    

    The flying fairies are gorgeously  sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of  the young lovers.  I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches.  But not a single thing went wrong.   

 

 And  there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy  king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after ,  decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta.   I always wondered why:  here we know.    It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind.    There’s a quizzical look from his bride,  who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won.   Theseus is humanized.     Thus, bingo!  the reversal serves  both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.  

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse.  It was right to include them in the curtain call… 

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – a note Southwark, SE1

A NOTE ON A TREAT,  MOUSELESS BUT MELLOW 

 

The film based on Scott Fitzgerald’s story of a life lived backwards, born old and ending in babyhood,  was pretty awful.  So I did not leap at the news that Jethro Compton  and composer Darren Clarke had made a musical of it – transporting the action to Cornwall 1918, the war years and after.  But curiosity gripped,  Southwark doesn’t often programme anything dull,  and I bought an impulse matinee ticket.  Even though I knew guiltily  that owing to the annoying late slot (matinee ending at 6+) I might have to skip at the interval and miss the last 45-minute act.  

 

Which  I did.   So I can’t mouse-rate it.   But after 75 enchanted minutes I fervently hope this lovely quirky show goes on and upward, and especially on tour.  Take it to the  seaside, and to places beyond the London bubble.  It had me from the first Cornish  gull-cry, buoy bell, storm sounds, and folktale -vigourous storytelling.   It kept me all the way,  the modern-Celtic songs and dances driven by five actor-musicians reeling and stamping and ever in motion on the tiny stage below the fishing-nets.

 

The sincerity of the piece makes a whimsically impossible tale into something that drills rapidly into real feeling, real wondering compassion for all of us who whirl through our brief lifespans in the normal direction. The birth of the old, old man in a bathchair wanting his pipe is met by the parents with all the dismay of any grotesque abnormality:   his confinement in an attic with only a tiny window to see the moon is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current exposure of how some deeply autistic children are kept.  In those first scenes Ben is a life size puppet, gloriously devised by In The Bellows  from driftwood and wicker creel.  It – he!-is handled with intense  sensitivity. We see him breathing asleep, and his song of longing  “All I want is to live a little life, feel a little freedom, see a little sea”  seems to come from the ragged wooden mouth.

 

The  mother’s song before her clifftop suicide is equally  wrenching and real.  When released from the room as his age becomes more fiftyish,  he is played by the real James Marlowe:   meek and diffident and sweetly childlike .  As he sets eyes on his life’s love, he is any older man struck hopeless  by a young girl.  When, now young enough for the WW2 Navy he meets her again more equal it is any love story.  Love, loss, war, disappointment, hope are so real, so musically deft and honestly rendered that the whimsy is irrelevant. Button has his unique and difficult life  problem, but so do we all..

 

The tight  cast –  Marlowe and Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – tell the story in turn, sing harmony, and play fiddle, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and occasionally drums. The move wonderfully well and radiate sincerity and a sense of an urgent tale to tell . I suspect that if I had been able to stay I would have shed a tear at his infant ending. Hope to go back    

 

box office   0207 407 0234    southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

To 8 June

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THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

  Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim.  This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching.   I loved that.  I wish more was made of it in  Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse,  deliberately low-powered play.  Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set.  Such ideas matter to them.  

 

It is about a mid-life crisis.  In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky.   These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best.  Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed.   His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated” , pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.  

 

  But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!).   She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar.  A sort of affair ensues.   The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid:  but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.    Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton)  and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews).    And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feele entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.  

   

    Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are.  There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.  

  

      But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace,   it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark.   There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him,  a wistful unfulfilment.    Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play.    But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and  the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..   

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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