THE CARDINAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

FRESH AS A (VIOLENT) DAISY AFTER 376 YEARS

 

 

What wonders, sir, are these? How beauteous fringe theatre is! We Tuesday matinee-goers, paying peanuts for the smaller space in an  unlovely hangar near  the Elephant, hardly deserved such riches.   We got an impeccably mischievous RSC-grade performance in a long-forgotten play, a voice from the turbulent London of Charles I rising ragingly agai, with Stephen Boxer himself in Cardinal”s robes (albeit in need of an iron). This actor, seen nicely close-up in the small room rather than across a vast Stratford arena, can be studied rewardingly as he deploys a pleasing ability to express villainy as convincingly with one furry eyebrow as with a crazed ranting fury. Around him a fine – and mainly young – cast must be inspired to what will certainly be higher things. Not least Natalie Simpson as a fiery, passionate wronged noblewoman with a vivid emotional range (the part needs it, they were starting to take women ever more seriously . Simpson’s energetically un-corset-bound  body-language brings her dizzyingly close to any modern miss appalled at being betrothed to the wrong bloke and plotting to cut loose.. And that is as it should be.

 

 
This rumbustious tale of old Navarre, unseen in London for nearly four centuries, was a victim of the closure of theatres under Cromwell. It belongs firmly to the English Protestant tradition of Wicked-Foreign-Papists plays – like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.  And in that genre it is a cracker: taut, clear, personal rather than political, revolving round a strong woman.  It is unusual to have to avoid spoilers in a 1641 play, but since John Shirley’s  revenge tragedy hasn’t been seen – certainly in London – its Blackfriars opening after which  the puritan axe fell,  I will give little away.

 

 

 

Just know that the Cardinal wants the rich Duchess Rosaura to marry his warlike nephew Columbo. She prefers Don Alvarez and begs to be released from the expected marriage, and the Cardinal is not happy about that. The King (Ashley Cook) is prone to trust far too many people who let him down – possibly Mr Shirley was sucking up to Charles I here. Rosie Watt and Sophia Carr-Gomm are entertaining, and involved, companions of the Duchess; Phil Cheadle a pugnacious Hernando, who hates Columbo (Jay Saighal a turkey-cock of offended hyperactivity). Expect masked and murderous revellers, blood on a bridal robe, deceit and anger and letters , lovers betrayed, two cracking sword and dagger fights (it’s a very small space, we flinched in the front row). There’s bloodshed ,spitting, a barely thwarted rape and a poisoning so complicated it makes the end of Hamlet look straightforward.

 

 
All shall unfold before you before the last corpse gasps its last, and a storm of applause meets them all as led by the wonderful Boxer they rise from the floor to a well deserved bow. It may be theatrical archaeology, but by God it’s entertaining. Honour to Troupe, director Justin Audibert (another RSC chap) and the Southwark. With luck someone will pick up the play for a candlelit reprise at the Wanamaker. It’s made for it…

 

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 27 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALL OUR CHILDREN Jermyn St Theatre

A CRIME, A CARDINAL, A CONFLICT

 

 

It is Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, 1941. In the Jermyn’s tight intimacy we are sitting in the clinical director’s office of a home for disabled and mentally incapable children: “incurables”.   We watch a series of the paediatrician’s meetings, from chill dawn light to evening candleglow , in a study beautifully evocative of old bourgeois Germany and bathed from time to time in equally evocative Bach and Mozart from the radio Dr Victor impatiently tunes away from broadcasts about Herr Goebbels.
He is ailing, coughing and weakened: his clinic is three months in to a new regime laid down by the National Socialist government. Each week a grey bus arrives (with blanked out windows to avoid distressing “hardworking families of the Third Reich” ). It collects some thirty of the inmates, between infancy and the age of 25, and takes them off to be gassed. The principle is economic: they are deemed “lebensunwurtens Leben” – lives not worth of life . The cost of their maintenance would, in the sternly pragmatic thinking of the New Germany, be better deployed on the productive citizenry,. And of course on armaments.

 
This is history: in the first two years of war some 100,000 disabled people were killed from such clinics. Writer-director Stephen Unwin, himself devoted father of a son with learning disabilities and chair of the national KIDS charity, infuses the awful record with a powerful and palpably personal eloquence as he imagines Victor’s encounters on a day which may move him from a depressed but helpless complicity to a dangerous moral resistance. Colin Tierney is strong in the difficult central role, not least when the doctor nerves himself to argue the case he cannot really believe; and also when, confronted by a suspicious mother of a boy already dispatched, he cracks and admits the truth.
Sometimes the author’s determination to air enough aspects of the ghastly business creates an unevenness in the hero’s psychological progress, but in the end that hardly matters. It is the meetings which strike home. There is the good motherly Catholic maidservant, Martha (Rebecca Johnson, sweetly credible) and the rather brilliantly appalling SS man Schmidt, seconded as administrative director. Edward Franklin is immaculately Nazi, with clean-cut cheekbones and a cold eye, whistling the Horst-Wessel-lied and punctilious in his Heil-Hitlers. He brings in files of names to which Victor must say “yes..yes…yes… yes…yes…No, not yet for young Karsten I think…yes..yes…No, not Edith Manstein. Really no. I heard her singing the other day…”

 

 
At this point one wonders whether the play might have had more bite if we hadn’t been told, in publicity beforehand, what is happening. But the shock is pretty good all the same. Especially when a grateful mother, the widowed Frau Pabst, brings the good doctor some stollen and enquires about her son Stefan, who it inevitably turns out was a “Yes” only last month. Lucy Speed is wonderful in the role: a tiny, bright-eyed, overalled factory worker whose Cockney humility turns into a towering, furious rage when she finally understands.

 

 

And then there is David Yelland as a pivotal historic figure in the whole story: Cardinal Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, an aristocratic Catholic prelate and fierce traditional conservative, who during that year preached strongly against the cull of disabled people and challenged the entire ideology of Nazism. He survived Hitler’s displeasure, probably because of fear of alienating the many German Catholics who could just about put up with the regime or preferred not to know. But in Unwin’s imagined encounter Galen takes on the weary Victor with immense eloquence and principle, his unassailable moral confidence battering down all the weak arguments (“all medicine is a matter of priorities..doctors are always involved in making touch choices”) like a sainted bull in a china shop.

 

 

 

So – while the whole theme is historically fascinating, and the character and pathos of each character is well done – it is this duel scene which gives the play proper dramatic fascination. Because what we are watching is a clash of two men: one is a hardworking functionary who is tired, ill and in mental torment and has just been spat upon by a grieving mother and threatened by his SS subordinate . The other is a well-fed, aristocratic, self-confident and bullying presence, a grandee who has been wafted here by his driver from a bishop’s palace, resplendent in a red skullcap and sash. The human instinct to feel for the hectored victim – Victor – is at odds with the plain fact that the overbearing Cardinal is absolutely right. And that is dramatically interesting and unsettling.

 

 
After a final swaggering entrance from the terrible Schmidt , voicing drunken disgust at the “blind dumb faces, drooling mouths” of the inmates and glorying in the new Reich, and a corresponding moment of good Martha as she begins to understand the horror, you emerge sober. You feel as if you’d been there, and were more than glad to be home in 2017.
box office to 3 june http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
4 Meece Rating

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OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS Hampstead, NW1

AFTER SADDAM: WHAT’S LEFT WHEN YOU TAKE AWAY A TYRANT?

 
An electrifying moment in this sharp, riveting play sees two bitter rivals, in a moment of stillness between blood-feud brawls, shaking hands. A miraculous moment, inspired by the unity of a young Muslim’s prayer, and a passionate speech about an ancient clay tablet by a naively romantic Scot. “The outlaw days are passing” he says: this land, cradle of civilization, is no longer torn by tyranny but looking for a stable democratic peace…

 

 

Ah, if only! This is Iraq, 2003. Rory Stewart (now an MP) was thirty: a Foreign Office drop-out and fascinated Arabist who had walked six thousand miles across the Middle East and Afghanistan. So fuelled by idealism about the reconstruction, he went to Baghdad after the invasion and found himself in charge of Maysan province in the South. He was to organize a democratic council to elect a local governor, himself holding the preposterous title of “Governorate co-ordinator”. But it was all preposterous: how can an unelected foreigner smoothly enforce ‘democracy’, under the protection of British tanks?

 
Stewart’s memoir of events in his nine months there has been carved with great clarity and drama into a gripping 100-minute play by Stephen Brown and director Simon Godwin. It is riveting, funny, depressing and inspiring by turns: an angry fragment of a history still not played out.

 

 
And it is a personal story too. Stewart (played with eerie likeness in speech and intensity by Henry Lloyd-Hughes) addresses us at the start with an apologetic “it is about the confidence of youth”. The overconfidence of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad is expressed too, by a breezy John Mackay as Paul Bremer optimistically predicting a “multicultural decentralized democratic state”: Doubling as the Colonel on the spot, Mackay is rather sourer in tone, reluctant to let Stewart even speak to the local Islamist leader Seyyed, whose followers have just murdered six of his men.

 

 

He looks with more favour on Seyyed’s more liberal-minded rival, Karim , a Marsh Arab leader and on the face of it more democratically minded and less fanatical. Both rivals fought hard against Saddam, but hate one another with deep sincerity. Stewart must bring them together. And , ideally, not to get them both falling on him with cries of “capitalist imperialist crusader!”, provoking riots in the square and tribalist murders. Even putting the Council together is like getting scorpions to dance a highland reel, or as Stewart says “the table plan for the world’s most awkward wedding”. Every scene has its shocks (and, occasionally, black laughs).

 
It is played out against a sparse, evocative Paul Wills design of sliding concrete walls, indicating the stern makeshift of a battered land where even getting the electricity and water to work is a fragile triumph. Wonderful performances crackle through it: Silas Carson as Karim, initial dignity blooming dangerously into arrogance, Johndeep More’s stubbornly devout Seyyed, Aiyisha Hart representing the few women who tried to step forward. Abu Rashid, ally of Karim, is Vincent Ebrahim, who doubles as Professor Khaled, an exasperatedly pessimistic non-aligned museum historian of Iraq’s 5000 years. And there is a particularly subtle, touching performance by Nezar Alderazi as Ahmed, trying to assist the impossible process.

 
It did prove pretty impossible. As the Colonel says, exasperated by Rory’s arrival “You say these people want democracy? They want to be not fucking dead!”. Many more of them were dead before the chaos abated, and what they got was not a multicultural tolerant democracy, but today’s stern brutal Islamism.

 
But whatever you think of the invasion with hindsight, the Colonel’s last words to Stewart feel right. “Forgive yourself. You should be proud”. Certainly proud of giving us this account, and letting it be staged. An account from a pariticipant, rather than just journalists and polemicists, is useful. And the question echoes in our ears as we leave: what’d we do another time in a collapsing country? “Sit and watch as they blow each other into bonemeal?” Or try to reconstruct?
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 3 June

RATING  four 4 Meece Rating

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ANGELS IN AMERICA : MILLENNIUM APPROACHES Lyttelton, SE1

REAGAN, RELIGION, AND REMEMBERING…

 

Direct comparisons are dangerous, even when – as this week – two consecutive days see major works opening in London, both set in the 1980s and concerned with nation, ancestry and internal division. Butterworth’s magnificent THE FERRYMAN last night showed a Northern Ireland divided in the age of hardline Thatcherism; this NT revival under Marianne Elliott’s direction is of Tony Kushner’s Reagan-era howl of liberal dismay, combined with a threnody for gay men’s victimised alienation in the dawning of AIDS.

 
So there are parallels. But it is hard, after the fizzing warm naturalism of Butterworth’s farm-kitchen, to bond immediately with Kushner’s often self-conscious wordiness. His characters are sometimes almost Shavian in their  reluctance to stop gnawing repetitively over every socio-political bone. The play’s odd pacing jars too : there is really no need for two intervals, as Ian MacNeil’s setting of revolving roomlets needs no fussy resetting (indeed in the last acts the set does its own tricks, spectacularly). But the double interval breaks up an already episodic play, making it feel oddly more dated than it need be.

 

 

It need not, because in the age of Trump the echoes are useful. Kushner uses the real Republican lawyer and keen McCarthyite homophobe Roy M. Cohn as a key character, weaving in and out of the lives of two fictional couples. And when as Cohn Nathan Lane – always a treat! – breaks out into roars of contempt for legality (“Law is pliable! What the fuck is, this, Sunday school? This is enzymes, bloodshed, politics!”) you sense a proto- Trump. There’s the same contempt, the bending of truth, the same dismaying but almost attractive jollity of energy. Though there is no jollity when Denise Gough – normally rather wasted as the disturbed, depressed housewife Harper Pitt – slimes onstage crossdressed in a sharp suit as the Reagan insider Heller.

 

 

That sense of a runaway, opportunistically religious political right shouting for “the end of liberalism, of ipso facto secular humanism” is topical. The gay angst at the play’s heart is less so, thank heavens, but it is worth remembering that first terror of AIDS, and the sudden, sometimes unmeetable, duty on young healthy men to become carers for disintegrating lovers. Not to mention the fear of coming out at all, for fear of being branded a danger to society and probably a Commie.

 

 

But a play must work on an emotional level too, and here it is fitful. Kushner does fatally over-write, though there are treasurable lines: Jewish Louis’ at a funeral moaning “I always get so closety at these family things” , his dying lover Prior’s “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when drag is a drag”. Or Susan Brown’s Mormon Mum Hannah, losing patience asking for street directions from a rambling homeless woman : “I’m sorry you’re psychotic, but just make the effort!”. There are some tremendous short scenes, too, which keep it moving. Even though caring deeply about these people is harder than it should be.

 

 

Some do at moments touch the heart. Russell Tovey’s anguished Mormon Joe is restrainedly moving in his pious, panicked denial of his nature, fascinated from childhood with a picture of Jacob wrestling with a particularly buff angel. James McArdle is Louis, who can’t bring himself to stay with his sick lover, and is at his best in a scene delivering Kushner’s satirically observed paranoid-liberal-Jewish ramblings about racism to the patient, irritated Belize: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the most sympathetic character, an Afro-American nurse and drag queen. Indeed Stewart-Jarrett, fondly tending the dying deserted Prior, is one of the standout stars of the play.

 
The other is Prior Walter himself, its dying centre: camp but movingly gallant, it’s a humorous, suffering and boyishly open-hearted performance by Andrew Garfield. He is perfect, from the first jokey awareness that the curse has come upon him to the extraordinary near-death hallucination scenes where he is greeted by a 15c ancestor (broad Yorkshire, earthy, grumpy) and a 17c forebear ( Nathan Lane again , flouncing for England this time in a curly periwig). It is hard to play princessy-queeny with so much real, mortal feeling beneath it. Garfield achieves that.

 
box office 020 7452 3000   to 19 August
Rating for MILLENNIUM APPROACHES : four  4 Meece Rating

Afterword`: regarding PERESTROIKA

It was for critics a two-show day, but I must leave star-ratings and final analysis of this second one to an (angelic?) host of colleagues online and in print. For 95 minutes in, the first interval found me hosting a sweating temperature and spinning head (no fault of the production) so the mice and I had to bail out for everyone’s sake. Nothing spoils a retro “gay fantasy on national themes” like women keeling over in the stalls.
So here’s what I can report for theatrecatters:
Those who know PERESTROIKA, the sequel to the above, will remember that we meet again the same characters, who gradually grope towards personal and political reconciliation, albeit by way of a some ornately written dream-sequence mystico-bollocks involving a multiple-vaginaed angel seducing the still-dying Prior, and a wrenching separation for Louis and Mormon Joe because it transpires that a whiny New York Jewish liberal can never quite get along with a Reaganite, however luscious.
I can confidently report, though, from seeing the long first act that production and design do it even prouder this time, with acrobatic Finn Caldwell puppetry making a sinister angel of Amanda Lawrence, and Tovey becoming a Mormon-visitor-centre diorama puppet. And also note that for anybody with a taste for magnificently villainous invective there is the AIDS-stricken Cohn in a hospital bed now, outraged by only having one phone line, selfishly hoarding AZT. Glad I didn’t miss Nathan Lane splenetically informing the other Nathan – Stewart-Jarrett as the tolerant gay nurse – that when he had pubic lice once, he actually admired them for their itchy tenacity because they exemplified his hard-Republican philosophy : “Fuck nice! You want to be nice or you want to be effective?!”
Enjoy. Hope it makes your head spin in a more benign way than mine.

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THE FERRYMAN Royal Court, SW1

IRELAND OF THE SORROWS: THE KIDS, THE  CRAIC AND THE KILLING

 

It is 1982 in  County Armagh. Not a good time to be Irish, not there. Not with internees still in the H blocks and ten recent deaths on hunger strike. The family farm kitchen (Rob Howell’s design so complete you could almost run up the creaky staircase to bed) is getting ready for the comradeship and craic of harvest day. For half an hour the worst that happens is that the fatted goose escapes, Auntie Pat pours cold water on Uncle Pat’s favourite story, and young Oisin gets teased and wrecks his newspaper kite. But two bus rides away in Derry, impassive before a scrawled-wall curtain, we have seen hard men putting the frighteners on Father Horrigan over a dark, dead secret. Which will by slow degrees, interwoven with hearteningly ordinary farmhouse chaos, raise comedy to tragedy.

 

 

For three enthralling hours this is a hell of a piece: theatrical, engrossing, a world unfurling and reaching out hands to the heart in a dozen directions. Fizzes of humour, surprise and shock dart through it. There is immediately a lamp set on fire,  a posse of small and eloquently profane  children, and a real baby staring out the front rows with placid equanimity. There is a live goose and a baby rabbit hauled from the poacher’s pocket of a giant beard-draggled simpleton. There is Quin Carney, father of an extended family with two mothers who each have hard emotional rows to hoe, Uncle Pat who thinks the answer  to most things is in Virgil,  sour passionate Auntie Pat who has wanted to kill Englishmen ever since 1916 and greets the voice of Thatcher on World Service with a fury burning since at Cromwell and honed by worship of Parnell and O’Connell.  There are volatile teenage boys, threatening Provos , an unusual proposal of marriage, and a body in a peat bog all too recognizably preserved. There is every reason for “Aunt Maggie Far-Away” in the chimney-corner to emerge from her placid dementia from time to time with a terrible clarity of prophecy, memory, and justifiable belief in the banshee spirits who wail of death.

 
Jez Butterworth’s immense, ambitious new play takes us deep into that world and – as in his great JERUSALEM – roams beyond it into universal themes of history and legend, memory and love, childhood, song and poetry and national identity and the way national dreams sour to vicious partisan expediency. It is sometimes ragged, always magnificent. And – though after all that you may not be expecting this news – it is very often dryly, shockingly, tenderly funny. Especially in the superbly directed posse of children and teenage scenes.

 

 

Spoilers of plot – or even explaining too soon who is who – would be unforgivable. But know that the performances in Sam Mendes’ production well match up to the material: there is an extraordinary delicacy in the way that apparently comic figures become importantly tragic: not least Dearbhla Molloy’s satirical Pat and John Hodgkinson’s heartbreaking Tom Kettle , a half-witted English foundling drawn into the farm thirty years ago. Notable too are Paddy Considine as Quinn, Tom Glynn-Carney as the half-childish teenage recruit, and Laura Donnelly’s restrained, enduring Caitlin.
And for evocation of the sheer dominant cold-bastard, smart-jacketed IRA commanders of that terrible era, Turlough Convery sends shivers up your spine. The dénouement, half-expected, still shocks.

 
box office 020 7565 5000 to 20 May. Sold out, but West End transfer in June.
rating Five    5 Meece Rating

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CYRANO Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

NOBILITY AND THE NOSE  on tour  Touring Mouse wide

 

You’ve hardly sat down before there’s a jolly mass drinking-song in pantaloons, leather breastplates and hat-feathers being romped through in front of cod-17c drapes covered in zodiac signs, followed by a magnificent somersaulting dwarf pickpocket emerging from a bustle, a wild chase, a fabulous spread of patisserie and a violent duel with rapiers in a theatre not unlike our own dear Bury. During which Cyrano simultaneously swashbuckles, leaps on and off tables and recites a complicated duel-poem. Then off he goes to fight a hundred men waiting in ambush for a friend, bring their hats home as trophies and proceed with sighing of love and despairing of his ugliness.

 

Which is to say, of his huge nose. Which, be reassured ladies, though a fine prosthesis which never falls off even in extreme fight scenes, does not entirely quench the gorgeous Christian Edwards’ appeal. Energy attracts, even accompanied by the strangest of noses, and energy is what Edwards has in abundance.
It’s a mad, poetic, roistering, barnstorming thing, Rostand’s original 1890’s play. Cyrano’s ugliness makes him despair of being loved by the lovely and brilliant Roxane, but also fuels a headlong, pugnacious arrogance and “ferocious integrity”. And, as it turns out, a sort of self-sacrificing but bonkers nobility which (I speak as a past French schoolchild) strikes me as the rich rank fruit of a Roman Catholic culture. There were a lot of martyrs in our convent school curriculum, back then. Also, a lot of rhetorical flourishes, and Rostand is not short of those: so in adapting it Deborah McAndrew goes for broke with the long speeches, rhymes, and almost rap-style rapid assonances dear to Cyrano and his cohort of warlike cadet poets, plus the devoted patissier Ragueano and the drunken yet musically gifted Ligniere.

 

 

So, very French, not least in a plot which makes even Shakespeare’s more exotic flights seem realistic. Roxane, here a dignifiedly mournful-looking Sharon Singh, is desired by the wicked count De Guiche, who tries to marry her to a wet nobleman who will be willing to share her favours. Cyrano, her cousin, loves her purely, to the extent that he’ll disrupt a theatre with that crazy rhyming duel merely out of fury that the star once looked lustfully at her. She, however, falls for pretty-boy Christian (Adam Barlow) who has no gift of language. So Cyrano writes the love letters – a beloved Victorian-era trope, that – prompts the dimbo lover from a dark bush and finally takes over, standing aside only for Christian to claim the actual kiss and the bride, leaving our big-schnozzled hero bereft. Everyone off to war, then, and there’s a death, and a revelation of how Roxane really feels. Fourteen years pass and, amid some nuns, there’s the love ’n death scene.

 
Which goes on too long. That is a problem. At 2 hrs 45 minutes a generally highly enjoyable romp could have done with stern trimming by director-composer Conrad Nelson: too many long poetic flights, so that at some moments you feel you actually have lived through the Thirty Years War. But take away twenty minutes and it’d be perfect. The songs are lovely, Edwards is tremendous, and the ensemble are Northern Broadsides at their merriest: broad Yorkshire and Lancashire voices suiting the military rowdiness and banter brilliantly well .

 

Indeed all the cast are smart, funny and elegantly choreographed. A particular palm should go to Francesca Mills as the tumbling pickpocket, the patissier’s apprentice and a small but resolute nun . Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company.
01284 769505, http://www.theatreroyal.org to 6 May Then TOURING on – dates, www. northern-broadsides.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating
joint production by NOrthern Broadsides and New Vic

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THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI Donmar Warehouse WC2

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS THE DONMAR’S NEW VERSION OF BRECHT CRIMINALLY IRRESISTIBLE

How do you get, keep and wield power? What do you use it for, and why? And, if you will stop at nothing, how can the rest of society stop you? Brecht’s satirical attack on the political rise of Hitler and the Nazis, in a vibrant new translation by Bruce Norris bolstered by punchline rhymes and lashings of Shakespeare, bounds onto centre stage blazing pinstripes and Tommy guns galore as part of the Donmar’s timely ‘Power’ season. Simon Evans directs a slick, fast-paced and deliciously brutal production which involves and implicates us in the inexorable success of Arturo Ui, as Evans whisks us into Brecht’s imagined world where “small-time racketeers and fascist politicians…illuminate each other reciprocally.” As Brecht intended, we’re in Chicago, rather than Germany, and the power everyone wants is over the lucrative cauliflower racket – not to mention a dodgy council deal or two, sliding public funds into the pockets of criminals who go on to forcibly wrest public office from the weak, the partially honest, and the easily silenced.

Peter McKintosh’s design welcomes us into a speakeasy bar at whose centre is a clear playing space, ringed by stalls seats collected around cabaret tables – and beware, if you sit in the stalls, audience participation beckons its determined finger. But this is entirely apt for a play which Brecht designed to provoke the German people into understanding how Hitler rose, in the hope of empowering them to resist corrupt populist dictators in future; Norris’ scattering of Trump references show the Western political system is still not immune to the charms of any rich, ruthless bully who sets their mind to power. Scene changes are beautifully and simply engineered by light (designed by Howard Harrison) and scraps of live music, as cast members each take turns to grab a swinging microphone from the air to serenade us with a few gorgeous bars of the Blues; Ed Lewis creates a luscious period soundscape with live piano, scratchy samples, and blistered radio transmissions. Meanwhile, violence is sharp, convincing and bloody, with just enough sour humour to keep pace and tension relentlessly high. Brechtian directness – ‘dead’ actors walking off stage, potted plot narration delivered through the fourth wall – reigns supreme, giving us a riotous evening which is theatrically unpretentious, fun, and sometimes unnervingly profound.

Lenny Henry gives a generally commanding performance as Arturo Ui, though occasionally struggles to exert Ui’s full authority on a stage chock full of frighteningly talented actors. However, Henry can conjure wonderful menace from stillness, and is particularly brilliant at channelling the Shakespearian roots of Ui: wheedling Betty Dullfeet over her husband’s coffin with the revolting magnetism of Richard III, portraying real terror when Ernesto Roma’s bloodied ghost (Banquo-style) appears. Henry finds the self-conscious weakness at the heart of the power-hungry, and exploits it well; still, a more solid sense of nastiness might improve things further.

Giles Terera is chillingly convincing as Ernesto Roma, a keen killer with a short fuse, in it for the long game. Roma’s death, literally stabbed in the back as Ui looks on, genuinely feels like a betrayal of trust – suddenly, we realise how enmeshed we are, Evans successfully warping our sympathies into Brecht’s illuminating web. Guy Rhys is unfailingly and brilliantly oily as Giuseppe Givola. Justine Mitchell makes a spectacularly elegant, proud and vulnerable Betty Dullfeet. Exceptional further contributions from the rest of the strong cast, including Michael Pennington’s memorably pathetic Dogsborough, keep things vivid, as well as lurid, in this finest of history lessons.

~ Charlotte Valori

Box office: 0844 871 7624 until 17 June

Principal sponsor: Barclays

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating

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