CONSENT Dorfman, SE1

THE HOME LIVES OF OUR OWN DEAR LAWYERS…

 
When a topic is painfully current and theatre plunges in, the heart does not always sing with optimism. But Nina Raine is an old hand , and knows how to make a play work without a virtuous political clunking. Acid-sharp, observant and pitiless this one is as much about normally ghastly marital behaviour as about the drunken-rape case and trial which flashes, with fierce drama, through its core.

 

 

We meet two affluent couples, bantering cheerfully: Ben Chaplin’s saturnine lawyer Ed and his wife Kitty with her new baby – Anna Maxwell Martin, strung like a neurotic violin. Their older friends Jake and Rachel are Adam James and Priyanga Burford, showing signs of irritation which foreshadow news of their furious separation. Adam James is a delight, entrusted with most of the really barkingly funny lines in the play but also emotionally woundable and redeemable when his sins are discovered. They have another friend, singleton Tim (a morosely misfittish Pip Carter ) who they are trying to set up with Kitty’s friend, the foxy, baby-hungry fringe actress Zara. That is a splendid turn from Daisy Haggard, both in initial breeziness and finally a magnificent, angry rage.

 

 
The marital shenanigans do tend towards the category of first-world-yuppie-problems, of which one can tire. Anna Maxwell Martin in particular is given a character so infuriating yet pitiable that empathy stalls. But the point is that Tim and Ed are both barristers, and the heart of the play is about the muddle of emotion and misperception out of which the chilly law must draw conclusions. In one electric scene they snipe at one another while illustrating tricks of advocacy – ask closed questions, make statements disguised as inquiries, leave tense pauses, “repeat their answers slowly, like they’ve fucked up”.

 

 

It is, to them, a game: but they are legal opponents in briefly-glimpsed court sequences of a squalid case in which Gayle – Heather Craney – was raped on the night of her sister’s funeral and didn’t dare report it straight away. Her own drinking and sexual habits are plumbed humiliatingly in evidence, while the alleged rapist’s violent history was “inadmissible”. It is cruelly and sharply done, with no acknowledgement that she would probably have had a victim-supporter with her in a shockingly cold first meeting with the Crown prosecutor; Craney gives Gayle a powerful wounded dignity. Indeed by the end of the lengthy first act, growing rather more fascinated by the trapdoors through which furniture kept rising and falling than with the couples’ bickering, I started to think that the play might be as much about class as about law and sexual consent. Cransey’s irruption into the comfortable home where the stoned, tipsy gang convene for Christmas, and where she sees that the warring barristers “are mates!” has a real shiver of Nemesis.

 
In the second, short and electrically furious act it would take more than trapdoors to distract anyone. Jake and Rachel have forgiven the infidelities, and trouble now focuses on resentful sullen Kitty (“I split myself in two for you and that fucking baby!”) and her attempt to get even for a five-year-old infidelity. It is a passionate half-hour, the two men far more emotionally and brilliantly intense about threats to their marriage and children than we usually see onstage. A nice detail is that the most absurd and painful rows take place with all four on tiny nursery chairs, reduced to sobbing toddlerhood, accusing each other of being mad.

Another rape accusation surfaces; the cool rational lawyer Ed is sobbing helplessly, and Kitty wails “You can’t legislate for human behaviour”, though actually you can . Common sense speaks at last through the most unlikely shaman of them all, ditzy Zara: “Sorry? Sorry for yourself. Stop saying sorry, and be a nicer fucking person!!”. I’d have happily ended on that line, but Raine kindly affords us a small, undeserved redemptive moment.

 
There is, by the way, a wonderfully funny observation about rape as a tool of anger. When one wife is unfaithful and threatens to take the child, the instinct of her husband is towards sex. In the other case, he certainly doesn’t want sex but “to kill her” , and petulantly stamps on her foot. I found that oddly hopeful.

 

Box office 020 7452 3000 to 17 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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CHINGLISH Park Theatre, N4

TWO CULTURES, ONE TRICKY DEAL

 

David Henry Hwang’s play as a hit in the US, and as it premiered at this enterprising little theatre under diretor Andrew Keates, I took an appropriate friend as consultant. For she has travelled repeatedly in China, negotiated there and adopted two children. So after we had both laughed at the absurdities of culture-clash and appreciated the artful, deceptive plotting, she gave her verdict. “Yup. That’s what it’s like”. She recognized the sharp switches of tone, the sudden shouts down the phone, the emotional opacity and different values of an ancient society shaped by Maoist years and scraping now against the expectations of globalized business. Hwang catches it all, in a sharp comedy mocking both sides just about equally.

 
Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman, a bit of a chancer as it turns out, who is in a minor Chinese city trying to sell signage to its new , wannabe-prestigious arts centre. There are plenty of laughs in the existing stiff mistranslations – ‘TO TAKE NOTICE OF SAFE’ , ‘DEFORMED MAN”S TOILET” etc . There are even more in the sequence of interpretation when we hear the Chinese speech in business meetings, see its real meaning flashed overhead, and then hear the hapless miniskirted interpreter (Siu-See Hung, smilingly deadpan and very funny) giving her version. When Daniel boasts that he is big in Chicago, which he isn’t, and explains that it is not a farming area, her version is “their crops failed long ago”.

 

 
Daniel initially thinks he can sew up the deal in a week, but the hangdog, failed-teacher Peter (Duncan Harte) who is his translator and “business consultant” warns him over some grim sour-fish soup that in China all business is built on Guanxi – relationships – and he must nurture those. So he does, but not quite in the way he thinks he is. One great joy of the piece – given the “whiteface” rows and how little airing our cadre of Chinese actors get as a rule – is that it is they who really carry the comedy of the succeeding intrigue of misunderstanding, over-close relationships and intricate betrayal. Lobo Chan as the Minister is wonderful: both funny, threatening and ultimately dignified. He favours high art, singing wailing snatches of Chinese Opera, and abhors the popular taste for acrobatics; he is also tangled up in his sister-in-law’s ambitions and an invisible tough wife.

 

 

Candy Ma is equally impressive, sometimes unreadable, sometimes all too clear, illustrating the character’s sharp difference of sexual and marital values compared to the hapless Daniel’s. Credit too to Hung, as both gormless girl interpreter and prosecutor, and Windson Liong as a favoured nephew even more incompetent in translation.

 
There is a good balance between plot and respect and funny-translation jokes (Deputy Minister Xi’s “I am sleeping with you” to express boredom, or DAniel’s hopeless inability to get the right intonation for his attempts at endearments emerging as Frog Loves To Pee) . And the denouement is finely worked out. A dry awareness of changing times is best expressed in Peter’s dilemma: ten years ago he was one of the few roundeyes living in China who spoke the language, and so much in demand; now the place is full of them and his living is tough but he can’t go home to Leicester because there wouldn’t be any servants to cook and care for him.//

 
box office 0207 870 6876 to 22 april
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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DON JUAN IN SOHO Wyndham’s, WC2

MOLIERE , MOZART, MARBER AND A MORAL..
Something for everyone here. I like the assonance, alliteration and rhetorical flourishes in Patrick Marber’s reworking of the old Don Juan myth via Moliere. Anyone can rejoice in the antihero’s salty, splenetic updated rants against every modern annoyance, from Donald Trump to self-important vloggers. Meanwhile the simpler of mind – plenty of them sniggering away on the first night – will enjoy the prolonged , laddish comedy blow-job sequence in the first act, which left me as cold as a Russell Brand on Red Nose night.
But everyone, in harmony, can enjoy the performance of the season from David Tennant as the perennial seducer. He spins and capers and lounges, callous and languid, fey , filthy and fascinating. Here is the great seducer, the ultimate hedonist and prophet of unfettered pleasure, “ I am a child, a creature of wants”. Can’t take your eyes off him.

 

 

Tennant is an unquestionable star, one of the finest, and it is good to be reminded of that again after a few dreary weeks of him having little to do on Broadchurch beyond the interminable Big Sad Eyes shots. Luckily, most of his Dr Who fans will be just about old enough now to see him lengthily feigning orgasm from a blow-job under a sheet, while his top half is busy poetically wooing a bride whose husband he has put into a coma. Or to have a sudden serious shiver as he taunts a homeless man with a thousand pounds if he is willing to mock Allah (a beautifully dignified cameo there from Himesh Patel).

 

 

Oh yes, the modernized Don Juan is wicked all right. And irresistible with it , whether hurling his long white legs around in a romp with four “delicious slatterns”, or casually winnning back the loyalty  of his put-upon factotum Stan with a bag of chips and a spliff.   Marber directs his own play, with elegant sequences of balletic surrealism and smoke, and Tennant’s rangy elegance is beautifully complemented by Adrian Scarborough’s Stan: puglike and faithful, torn between humane disapproval of this monster and unrequited love. “The man is a slag, he’d do it with a hole in the ozone layer!”. They make a marvellous pair, and when at the end of Act 1 the fatal statue speaks, they unite in a marvellous stoned bromance , crooning and dancing in the Soho night until the dark grinding stone warning stills them.

 
As for the denouement, we get a tremendous moment of dissimulative acting from Tennant, and of real stilling emotion from Scarborough. Then a theatrical spectacular and some earthier violence, a blast of Don Giovanni and a disco curtain-call to celebrate cosmic justice. See? Something for everyone.
And something from everyone, too. The two stars are tremendous, but note the other pleasures: Danielle Vitalis gives an earnest, ankle-socked reality to the wronged bride Elvira, Gawn Grainger is a grumpy reproving Louis, and the smoky dances in white corsets and pants evoke the long-lost dream of louche old unsanitized Soho. And since it’s all over in just over two hours with interval, the audience can head out into a tamer London early, for aphrodisiac oysters and a wistful dream of decadence.

 

box office 0844 482 5120
to 10 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A HANDBAG FROM THE PAST..

 

 

This is a joyful thing, and it needn’t have been. There is always peril in a play you know too well from schooldays and through a score of performances – some great, some quirky, some straight, several very starry. You flinch a little at seeing it again. But I admire Joanna Carrick of Red Rose Chain, who never fails to find some edge or quirk you hadn’t thought of, whether writing a history-play about Ipswich in the age of Elizabeth I or adapting Beatrix Potter.

 

So I sidled along, and found Oscar Wilde’s play afresh. I really did. I had, for instance, never noticed that edge of panic in Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism when, after their stroll together, they suddenly find Cecily missing and rather than suspecting girlish mischief, think she may have followed them down the lane. What fearful impropriety were they up to? Nor had I considered sufficiently the passing horror of Jack/Ernest when in the final scene it seems momentarily likely that he might be his beloved Gwendolen’s brother, rather than cousin.

Partly it is the intimacy of this little space, played in the round, which helps; but also the note-perfect, sharp work of the young cast – especially the men, Lawrence Russell and Laurence Pears, amusingly a foot different in height and utterly distinct in character. Pears is languidly head-boyish and Russell an anxious little tyke, clearly not quite over his Victoria Station beginnings and disliking telling the tale. Pears doubles as Prism in a big skirt, Russell as a gorgeously pompous Chasuble in a vast furry clerical hat. Leonie Spilsbury is a self-assured sophisticate Gwendolen, Joanna Sawyer a giggly Cecily: again the girls are defined as sharply against each other as they could be.
Joanna Carrick herself plays Lady Bracknell, as well as directing: as ever wholly free from grandstanding, she gives us a pragmatic old bat who subtly evidences what Wilde carefully wrote in – the fact that she married into money from a lower social caste, and has to keep her end up at all times. As for “A handbag??!!”, a delicious little pause has her turning to the audience (no fourth wall in this show) with a muttered “WHAT did he say?”. The handbag itself is a splendid, very old battered leather Gladstone, a triumph for the props department.

 

But above all it works because Carrick has set it as a memory play ; we are three generations on, as Gwendolen’s great-great granddaughter clears the attic for sale in the late 1960’s, with old vinyl records and photos dangling from the ceiling as we arrive. The son’s girlfriend Robin arrives with a feminist banner, only to become Cecily, and remind us of how huge was that half-century’s changes. Best of all, the memory which conjures up the gay old story is that of the retiring butler, Merriman, who as we first meet the 1960’s family in their attic is being taken off, wandering a little in his wits, to a Home by his affectionate employers.

 

 

For he was, decades earlier, a 19 year old servant in the household of Cecily Cardew and remembers the momentous day, occasionally informing us of the fact and taking a bit of credit. In the part Antony Garrick, a proper veteran of the 1950’s Gielgud company and later a Rada instructor and AD of the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, is actually the director’s father. So I now see why this tiny, community-minded theatre in an often unregarded Suffolk town is so very well led, with heart and skill and gaiety.

 

box office 01473 603388. to 8 April
Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE FROGS Jermyn St WC1

AN AMPHIBIOUS SONDHEIM ROMP
Here’s the god Dionysius, deprived of his Noel-Coward smoking jacket and unconvincingly disguised as Heracles in a lion skin. He’s having a panic attack on a ferry across the Styx while a chorus of marauding frogs sings a menacing staccato and Charon the ferryman sleeps off a spliff. The frogs represent apathetic conformity – “Brek-kek-kek-kek! Brek-kek-kek-kek Whaddya care the world’s a wreck? Leave ’em alone, send ’em a check, Sit in the sun and what the heck?”. But as the God of theatre our hero is on a quest to bring back a great playwright – George BErnard Shaw of all people – to improve the world with questioning.
There are many fingers in this mad frog pie. Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek playwright who wrote, for the feast of Lenaia, about a journey into Hades to bring back the dead Euripides. Then Burt Shevelove who updated it to include SHAW and Shakespeare in debate, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the music and lyrics, and had it performed in the unfriendly acoustic of the Yale swimming pool. Now add Nathan Lane, who fell for it as if for “a little homely rescue dog”, messed about and wrote new bits. And here it is at the ever-adventurous Jermyn.
Rarely have I been in a more Marmite show. A couple left furiously at the interval, not getting it at all: another woman rhapsodised in the interval expressing surprise that they didn’t adore it like her, then unaccountably picked up her many bags and left ten minutes in making the rest of the row stand up for her.  Me, entrancedly amused mainly by the Sondheim lyrics, I stayed and enjoyed the character of Pluto the underworld king as a leather queen with a whip, the assorted choruses, and the very funny advent of Martin DIckinson as George Bernard Shaw himself, pompous , emitting his famous epigrams and excoriating the frivolity of Shakespeare and his ‘Purple patches on borrowed rags”,.
Dionysius holds it together, the affable Michael Matus alternately alarmed, determined, and nicely gushy as the top Shaw fanboy, praising his “gravity of subject and levity of manner” , which actually describes this whole show quite nicely. The duel of quotations between Shaw and Shakespeare is wonderful, with quite the right winner.

 

So I enjoyed it, crazy as it is, and the music – piano, woodwind, trumpet and cello, is beautifully Sondheim, and Grace Wessels directs with cheerful speed. It feels more like a clever college romp than anything else, but it is a romp composed by a genius, an eloquent wise clown. For Sondheimites, it has the buzz. Or croak.

 

To 8 April. Sold out, but you never know.

RATING three 3 Meece Rating

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

ETERNITY WAS IN OUR LIPS AND EYES….
..and also, frankly, in the stalls. Some evenings, often here at the RSC, three and a half hours pass in a flash leaving you dazed, affected and tearfully glad to have been there. Not this. After the bracing Julius Caesar, this second in the Roman season picks up – very nicely – design details like he Forum’s pillars and the statue of a lion savaging a horse now high above. Robert Innes Hopkins also creates a credible Egypt alongside it, with Cleopatra’s stiflingly exotic interiors (dig that 7ft sacred cat!) and the pillars of Alexandria remind us pleasingly of our own Needle on the Embankment. It opens with a wild masked dance and Cleo and her man rising on a platform, still a-romping, in a tangle of sheets and flowing nightwear.
So we settle contentedly to the epic tale of disastrous cross-cultural love, of Antony’s dereliction of “Roman thoughts” and the Egyptian queen’s magnetism, defeat and demise. But goodness, Iqbal Khan’s production is slow! Keeping a long text is fine, respecting the complicated politics, betrayals and battles; so is it fine to let a production relax into a few dances, fights, and drinking-bouts.

 

 

But even without Antony’s famously protracted death it feels constipatedly slow (everyone else dies briskly after one good stab, but he lasts long enough to be triple-stabbed , manhandled around and hauled up the Monument in an unlikely manner without even dripping any blood). After James Corrigan’s mesmerically fascinating Mark Antony in the last play, we now have him relegated to being Agrippa while here the Roman lover is Antony Byrne: middle-aged, thickset and powerful as a ginger-bearded bull. He bellows like one too, at times, indeed is far better in rage than in love. The other Romans are good too – especially Andrew Woodall’s rough-spoken Enobarbus. Making him a bit geezerish was a good stroke, because it gave an extra poignancy to his descriptions of Cleopatra’s magnetic and exoticism “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne..” . It is one of the few moments when you remember how lyrical the play is.
The weak spot is Cleopatra herself. Josette Simon is on her fifteenth RSC appearance, was a fine Rosaline and Isabella, is experienced, physically astonishing (tall, lithe, a fine mover). She is intelligent too, has talked of her research and reflection on the character and position of this ancient queen. An interviewer the other day, who can’t have yet seen her Cleopatra, talked of her “rare gift for stillness”.
Therefore having seen it, I can only point a trembling finger of bitter blame at the male director. Who must have lost his usual judgement and encouraged her to play it as a cross between a non-singing Eartha Kitt and everybody’s nightmare classmate, the Most Annoying Girl In The School. Oh, the writhing! The capering! The silly voices killing the lines and the meaning, the sexy, playful kittenishness which has to illustrate “O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” by pretending to ride on Charmian. Oh, the self-absorbed one-note vamping!
In the interval, hoping to be fair, I canvassed some men as to whether this was indeed the kind of woman to whom they were drawn like moths to a flame. After a moment one said “Well… legs to die for, character to die OF”.
This hectic performance, and Byrne’s stumping solidity, means there is no credible chemistry between the lovers. Unless one makes the simple, possibly valid, assumption that every drama queen likes a thug and vice versa. In the second act, Antony finds a certain nobility (in between the bull-bellowing). And at last, at the very very last, Simon herself is allowed to deploy that gift for queenly stillness. And briefly it is moving. But after feeling one’s fingers itch for a venomous asp all evening, its arrival is, frankly, welcome.

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 9 Sept
rating three.   Not two, because I might be wrong about what some men fall in love with.  3 Meece Rating

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JULIUS CAESAR Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

SPQR: THE ROMAN SEASON STRIKES HOME WITH COLD STEEL

 
The trumpet sounds for the RSC’s Roman season, the mob is rowdily onstage, and the turbulent politics of 44 BC are reflected through the prism of Shakespeare’s 1599 England to throw light forward onto our own age . Dictatorships, depositions and painful realignments are always with us. Angus Jackson’s thoughtful production is visually classical: togas and breastplates, columns and flickering braziers and a tense atmospheric soundscape by Mira Calix and Carolyn Downing. But the careful, colloquial, muscular handling of the text by Jackson’s cast brings the play’s moralities and relationships harshly close, vivid and often thrilling. Too-famous lines emerge new, hard-edge and even shocking. Characters emerge individual and recognizable, and there is a timeless, sad grainy familiarity in the play’s political shape – conspiracy, assassination and messy, conflicted consequences.

 

Martin Hutson’s Cassius is particularly fascinating, catching the character’s lean hungry hysteria from the start as he begins to woo Alex Waldmann’s decent worried Brutus into the conspiracy gently , then explodes into passionate fury; his second-act tantrum in Brutus’ tent is nicely all of a piece with every appearance. Caesar himself, in this production, is made a more obvious swaggerer than in the last RSC production with Greg Hicks: Andrew Woodall giving him a rather Trumpish self-certainty from the start, which nicely justifies the chief conspirators’ anxiety. Brutus’ early hesitancy is sharply caught, not least in a particularly touching scene with his wife (the women don’t get much of a look-in in this play, but Hannah Morrish makes a striking Portia). Later, in the military scenes, Brutus’ bereaved despair is the more powerful for having glimpsed the reality of his marriage.

 

Yet most arresting of all is James Corrigan’s black-browed, faintly satanic Mark Antony . After the big brutal moment (there’s a sign outside warning us about the stabbing, as if we hadn’t guessed) Corrigan’s honest-john handshakes with the killers and faux humility before Brutus do little to prepare us for his surge of focused anger beside the corpse. As for the funeral oration, the pivot of the play, I have never heard its wickedly brilliant artfulness done with such cynical care. Corrigan never, for a minute, lets us be entirely certain of Mark Antony’s motives, and you have to love that. Brutus in comparison is a clear pool, his private griefs and resigned ending quietly moving.

 

 

The boy servant Lucius, by the way, meets such a sharp and unexpected ending in the brutality of the ending that the audience gasps in horror. Young Samuel Littell did the press night, a professional debut likeable and tuneful in the moody pre-battle scene. We were all more than relieved to see the little lad back at the curtain call.
box office rsc.org.uk to 9 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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