ANNIE Piccadilly theatre, W1

BET YOUR BOTTOM DOLLAR ON IT…

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 
Box office http://www.anniewestend.com 0844 871 7630 to Jan 2018 (Miranda Hart until 17 Sept)
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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GIFFORD’S CIRCUS Touring

MOLTO SPLENDIDO

 
From caravans in little greens and fields, Velasquez figures emerge into the hastily erected big Top in silks and plackets, ruffs and feathers and frilled pantaloons and cloth-of-gold cloaks: more Renaissance costumes than you’ll see in a week of modern Stratford. This classiest of village-green circuses always likes to have a theme, and this year it is called ANY PORT IN A STORM, and something to do with “a lost kingdom of the sea” melded with “the dark, closed and highly formal world of the Spanish court”.

 
Not that you’d think there was a sea theme, unless you buy a nicely eloquent and colourful programme – where they’re all posed chiaroscuro as portraits – and invent some mad sea-story to fit the various acts. It isn’t as literal as it was when a few years back Nell Gifford decided to turn the entire show into a retelling of War and Peace, complete with a marching goose. This is just very classy circus, international acts directed by Cal McCrystal with minimal ringmastering from David Pillukat, some stamping flamenco interludes and a comic heart in the great Tweedy the clown (sometimes looking unnervingly like Mark Rylance in one of his nuttier parts).

 

 

Oh, and interventions from some remarkably well-trained chickens. Especially the fluffy white one which between acts marches disdainfully all alone round the velvet rim of the entire ring, ignoring small children holding out their hands towards it.

McCrystal, master of physical theatre direction, keeps it sharp and fast-paced : sometimes the acrobatics are comic, sometimes startling (a swing act in particular). One is gently beautiful: Sergii Poliakov, “Acrobata Celestial” in renaissance silks strikes graceful poses on a harpsichord while a baroque soprano sings alongside.

 

 

The clowning, let me reassure coulrophobes, is un-traditionally theatrical (Tweedy’s attempted escapology is memorable). A highspot in the second half is when he, with the acrobatic Mustache Brothers and Pillukat, perform a “tribute” to all the other acts so far: hobby-horses, desperately failed acrobatics and a wicked drag parody of the traditionally pole-dancery poses of circus girls. That is quite brilliant. But the whole show ensures that there will never be a dull moment in its two hours, and that your candyfloss sugar-rush endures.

 

 

http://www.giffordscircus.com – touring on to Blenheim, Oxford, Chiswick and points west till 24 Sept

rating   four diverse mice Meece with mask tiny compressedTouring Mouse widelibby, christmas catComedy Mouse

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THE ISLAND Southwark Playhouse , SE1

PITY, TERROR, TRIUMPH

 

 

For the first fifteen of the hundred minutes no word is spoken by the two men in ragged prison cottons: Edward Dede as the younger Winston, Mark Springer a powerful monolithic figure as John. As we sit around silent, almost awkward,they mime intense labour. Muscles gleam, sweat breaks, as they lift and shovel and push and strain with harsh breaths. It becomes oppressive. It is meant to. John Terry’s direction does not spare us because nothing spared these prisoners. Athol Fugard’s play about Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27years to 1988, needs to make it clear that what the political internees endured was not only imprisonment but enslavement.

 

 
He wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the originals of these two characters, who performed it for many years (and several arrests) during the years when the island was still in use, its very name forbidden. It has become a modern classic, a hard and dour and ultimately redemptive vision of endurance and imagination. The two men, once released (and releasing us) from the day’s labour sit with their bedrolls and single cell bucket and begin to talk, to plan, to become the humans they are and no longer labouring beasts. In a moment of sudden piercing pathos John says of the sweltering beach they work on “same old sea sand I used to play with when I was young..”.

 

 

They are to perform a version of the trial of Antigone at a prison concert (this happened) and there is humour and no small conflict as John, the more educated, nags Winston about his part; they bring out the pathetic props – Creon’s tin-lid medallion, Antigone’s daft rope-ringleted wig and necklace of nails. It seems as if Winston won’t do it: but their bond is strong, built on their shared, consoling fantasies: of phone calls home or acted-out nights at the “bioscope”. Tha word jolted me with familiarity: I hadn’t heard cinema called that since I was a child in Johannesburg, a diplo-brat as aghast as my parents during the apartheid years .

 

 

The simple account – jolted again by the agony of both after hearing that John will be released in three months. Winston agonizes because he has years to run; John – in a way only prisoners can understand – because the very act of counting days, fearing and hoping, is a new and strange kind of pain in itself. Winston overcomes his fear of mockery in the daft wig as John teaches him the great theatrical lesson “behind all this rubbish is me…if they laugh at the beginning and listen at the end…”. Antigone’s trial is performed. One of the oldest stories of law, power, injustice and rightfulness in the world, yet still we hold our breath. Southwark is its last point on the tour: it is a co-production with Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster. It has lost none of its pity and terror.
 

box office     www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk 020 7407 0234 to 24 June
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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TWITSTORM Park Theatre, N4

THE PERILS OF PC, THE TERROR OF TWITTER

 
This little  theatre is on a roll, catching topicalities as they fly. After David Henry Hwang’s wonderful CHINGLISH. about trade with China, this play by Chris England is the ultimate British mediaclass, middleclass, middle-aged nightmare. As such it is, of course, enjoyably vicious on every level. It was time that both social media pieties and the snarky, jokes-are-sacred comedi-ocracy both got a good slapping-about, and here it is. England’s tale, performed with frighteningly recognizable accuracy and directed with glee by Jonathan Guy Lewis, is about a Twitterstorm: the contumely that falls with tedious regularity on public figures who step out of line in a world whose hobby is taking offence.

 
Screens overhead give us arch or vapid tweets, and then a blast of “Arguing the Toss”, a TV comedy chat-show halfway between Piers Morgan and Charlie Brooker: all sarky superiority and scripted gags. Below it, in a smart urban kitchen, meet its host Guy, our pleasingly dislikeable hero. Jason Merrells gets him to the last detail: a man forever hovering between sincerely felt grumpiness and tiresome auto-banter (he’s the kind of man who calls his patio barbie “the Klaus”). His sweet-natured charity-supporting wife Bex writes chick-lit novels he despises, and has a direct debit to sponsor a “Child 4 Africa”. They are suppressing their post-Christian smugness to schmooze their child into a faith school . Oh yes: the only thing missing on Anthony Lamble’s set is an unread Guardian.

 

 

Like all propsperous bien-pensants they have serfs. Lumbering amongst them in Lycra, having cycled miles every day to write Guy’s jokes for him, is Justin Edwards as Guy’s old pal Neil, who the star and his manager secretly plan to dump. The pair used to do fringe shows together as “The Potato People” – very Edinburgh – and now Neil just writes Guy’s endearing daily tweets to reinforce the brand. But a stranger comes to the door, a cuckoo in the nest not unconnected to Bex’s charitable direct-debit. And a chain of events, driven largely by Guy’s own smug comedic persona, leads towards comeuppance.

 

 

Never mind exactly how. I won’t spoil a fun plot which tips over at the end into eventful improbability. . And which also reminds us, among other things, how thin the partitions are these days between comfy middle England and Africa’s failing states. There are masses of one-line jokes of suitable tastelessness, an artful navigation round the n-word (never spoken) and a rare banana-skin moment which does not even involve taking the skin off the banana. There is also a nice moral turnaround, as PC rage implodes and eats its own backside. And there’s a beautiful, deadpan, deliciously hateable star turn by Ben Kavanagh as a gender-fluid ponytailed PC smugatron with a video blog.

 

 

The performances are beautifully judged all round: whether in the moment when Guy’s cool-dude persona slips into unadmitted middle age as he has to peer, without reading-glasses, at the unfolding twitstorm on someone else’s phone, or in the body language of Justin Edwards’ amiably hapless Neil or Claire Goose’s patient appalled Bex. The author himself plays the horrified agent.

 

 

But most of all I loved Tom Moutchi as Ike the interloper, all African openness and an impoverished dignity calculated to spread unease. It is necessary that we should never be quite sure whether his innocence is real or not: Moutchi carries this manner off with delicate mischief. Apparently he is an instagram star himself among under-25s, but I don’t see why they should get all the fun. So I am looking him up.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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TWELFTH NIGHT Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

GUEST REVIEWER MICHAEL ADAIR ROCKS ALONG WITH RICE AT THE GLOBE…

 
“In Love We Trust” – is the motto of the SS Unity, the ship that swiftly sinks moments into Emma Rice’s take on Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre. Yet there is nothing to trust about love in a play where each of our hapless character’s affections are so easily and inexplicably won.

 

 

Set on a Scottish island in 1979, this Twelfth Night has all of the hallmarks that has made Rice’s tenure at the Globe so controversial, and so, well…fun. We have the music of Sister Sledge, we have sequins and we have a show-stopping performance from acclaimed cabaret performer, Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. The whole performance is caught somewhere between campy 70s sitcom and full blown-pantomime – and it is wonderful.

 

 

As Joshua Lacey sweeps to the stage as Orsino, complete with trench coat and mullet a la John Cusack in Say Anything, there isn’t the faintest whiff of a suggestion that Rice has sought to appease her critics and opt for the more ‘traditional’ staging of the Bard that some feel is more befitting of the Globe’s unique setting – and more power to her. Fusing the 400 year old language of Shakespeare seamlessly with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is startling, amusing and just one way of freshening up an ancient comedy and giving it relevance to a younger audience. The gender fluidity in this tale feels modern and well-managed. Annette McLaughlin’s Olivia rolls her eyes and chastises herself in despair for asking Cesario ‘What is your parentage?’ toying with the source material and very much letting the audience in on the joke.

 

 

Amidst the funk of a slap bass guitar there were some indisputably outstanding performances. Of our comic performers, Marc Antolin brings the joy as Sir Andrew, sashaying around the stage, chomping on Monster Munch and exposing himself at every opportunity. Katy Owen is an inspired Malvolio – shifting ceaselessly between comic and tragic, a character who explodes before our very eyes in a burst of mad energy, to be seen wildly humping a tree in a fit of passion before ultimately giving us the play’s sincerest glimpse at poignancy.

 

 
This was a warm summer’s eve where young and old came together beneath a blue sky to find new life in the work of our most celebrated playwright. The joy of the Globe is that it is inclusive – amongst those standing or sitting there was laughter, applause and a palpable sense of participation and togetherness that is unique to this wonderful space. We shouldn’t, therefore, seek to stifle innovation in the name of historical accuracy, merely because it is in this particular theatre- it should simply be about the sheer pleasure that we find there. This play is silly, powerful and reflective in part, but above all it is a fabulous, sparkling, spectacle that demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare and his Globe is theatre for all.

 

 

Box Office – +44 (0)20 7401 9919  to 5 Aug
https://tickets.shakespearesglobe.com/

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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WOYZECK Old Vic, SE1

 

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS LOVE, PITY AND HORROR IN EQUAL MEASURE AT THE OLD VIC

Jack Thorne’s explosive new Woyzeck brings Büchner’s unfinished working class tragedy to Berlin in 1981, with our hero a British Army private, trying to adjust to life on the German border between capitalism and communism after a hideous stint in Belfast. Strapped for cash, patronised by those in authority, and frantic to shore up his fragile new family of girlfriend and baby in the face of widespread disapproval, Woyzeck’s increasingly desperate cries for help fall on deaf ears in a cynical, hypocritical world which only wants to exploit him. Quite what happened to Woyzeck on his service in Troubles-torn Ireland, and what dark deeds he witnessed in an exceptionally traumatic childhood, tease us throughout Thorne’s version; military characters mutter about Woyzeck’s past career, Thorne brings Woyzeck’s mother onto the stage as a terrifying spectre haunting his memories and nightmares (grittily played by a compelling Nancy Carroll, also glorious as callously posh officer’s wife Maggie), and a boy actor represents Woyzeck’s childhood self, witnessing casual atrocities whose psychological impact only deepens over time.

As his mind unhinges, Woyzeck clutches desperately at hope, love and goodness, but the perennial uncertainty implicit in hope steadily drives him mad. We tread the path of insanity with him as his nightmarish insecurities take over during a medical trial; even such staunch realities as the gender of his child become bewilderingly uncertain in his increasingly surreal mindscape. Meanwhile, Thorne gives Marie’s own story more prominence and poignance, her wholehearted commitment to Woyzeck clear, making her murder a final tragedy for them both. A selection of Büchner’s characters are synthesised into Andrews (Ben Batt), Woyzeck’s charismatic comrade with an unquenchable thirst for life, especially other people’s wives. Thorne has certainly been busy: but these additions all serve to build a quiveringly taut narrative structure, full of pathos, with Woyzeck’s disintegration implicit from early on. In other words, it’s a barnstorming success.

Joe Murphy’s blistering production does full justice to Thorne’s text, with no holds barred when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and gore, yet nothing otiose either; pace is relentlessly high, tension even higher. Design by Tom Scutt communicates a brutal landscape almost sterile with constant aggression and inactivity, as menacing walls of rough insulation swoop down from the sky, alternately enclosing and exposing characters who live by definitions, by barriers, and above all by hiding what they truly are. But it is John Boyega’s astonishing Woyzeck which is the powerhouse of this piece, beginning with unassuming gentleness and sincere affection, and culminating in a truly exceptional depiction of madness. In a performance of frankly terrifying physical and psychological intensity, Boyega balances a soldier’s physical machismo with profound inner vulnerability to produce a Woyzeck both utterly lovable and undeniably frightening, ravenous for an impossible level of emotional reassurance from Marie (movingly played by Sarah Greene), and endlessly haunted by his past, always worried that the present is “too good” to stay that way for long. Woyzeck’s betrayals by the two father figures on stage, Steffan Rhodri’s nicely observed Captain Thompson and Darrell D’Silva’s delightfully creepy Doctor Martens, feel as appalling as they are inevitable. Boyega’s profoundly affecting portrayal goes to the very heart of this character, a man driven to madness and violence by a cruel world – and, crucially, by his own doomed determination to do good in it.

In such a generally slick, potent play, it’s surprising to note that we do still find the odd clumsy or under-rehearsed moment, and lines don’t always flow seamlessly; but this is nevertheless an emotionally challenging, deeply unsettling must-see.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 0844 871 7628. At The Old Vic until 24 June 2017

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating

 

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THE ADDAMS FAMILY Touring

LOOK INTO THE DARK AND SMILE ALL TOUR LONG    Touring Mouse wide
This cheerfully macabre celebration of Charles Addams’ famous 1930’s cartoon is off on tour: link below. I saw one of the last shows in its opening Wimbledon week, and judging by the larky atmosphere of both audience and cast the cast are having enough fun to storm very happily round the country. The moment you see Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in a bald wig and banjo, dancing in a graveyard to rouse his random ancestors – a chorus who turn out to be Tudor, Japanese, and everything between – you are swept along in its rather magnificently silly, cobwebby train.
To be honest, the story is weak (it’s basically meet-the-parents, young Wednesday wants to marry a preppy muggle) and the music is – well, it just feels like a musical. Any musical. Only one song stands out, a beautiful “Death is just around the corner” by Morticia. But the general jollity of the evening is unarguable.

 
Matthew White directs this UK version: the book is by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, the lyrics and music by Andrew Lippa. Some lines are lovely in-jokes “Trapped! Like a corpse in the ground. Trapped! Like theatre in the round..” and there are some neat jokes about New York – they live in Central Park – and of course about Trump. And, of course, the dark Addamsy jokes. When the parents of the fiancé arrive (Charlotte Page daintily funny as the wife) the question “Do you have a little girls’ room?” is answered “We used to, but we let them all go”.The zombie butler Lurch is Dickon Gough, whose every move sparks gurgles of laughter;

 

 

Another focus is on the flirtatious and argumentative marriage of Gomez and Morticia – she a sinuous Samantha Womack, he a sharply comic Cameron Blakely (“Darkness and grief and unspeakable sorrow” – “Ooh I love it when you talk dirty!”. She dreams of Paris, where she wants to see the sewers. Uncle Fester has a sentimental love song to the moon, who is his ideal partner since a quarter of a million miles away is a good distance for romance: Les Dennis is the one you most warm to, and the most rounded romantic character. Which, for a chap playing ““a fat bald man of indeterminate sexuality” up against the gorgeous Womack and Carrie Hope Fletcher’s beguilding Wednesday, is not a bad result. The mainly young audience adored it. The final corpsy chorus “look into the dark and smile” does bring on that smile.

 
box office http://www.theaddamsfamily.co.uk/tour/
Touring nationwide till 4 November
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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