WORST WEDDING EVER Ipswich, moving to Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

WEDNAPPED: THE HELL BEFORE THE CALM

 
I really fell for this 2014 comedy by Chris Chibnall, writer of such dark telly stuff as Broadchurch. Not just because it is a hoot, a wickedly joyful take on the hilarity and nonsense of weddings; but because one use of theatre is to reflect us back to ourselves, with a sort of exaggerated recognition that turns the laugh right back in our faces with love.

 
SO here, dealing with a crisis in a middling, non-metropolitan side-street family – good grief, they may even be Brexiteers – Chibnall’s wittily written comedy hits right home. It was a joint commission by Salisbury Playhouse, the New Wolsey and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, and I saw it at an Ipswich Saturday matinee where the audience contained at least two hen-party brides in sashes and a great many potential wedding-day Mumzillas howling with laughter. It reflected a good bit of Britain all right. A third reason is that it is not the kind of play which makes reluctant intermittent theatregoers murmur that it might as well be on the telly: there are coup-de-theatre technical surprises, lighting used surreally at times, an improbable rotating sandpit and members of a live band appearing from the ground, a shed, a Portaloo. It is, as theatre must be, an event. It’s fun to be there.

 
The story deals with Rachel – an extraordinarily attractive, responsive evocation of decent if battered young womanhood by Elisabeth Hopper – and her fiancé Scott, Nav Sidhu. He has a very good line in looking appalled, as well he might. Money is short, for reasons we discover late on, so they want a very basic wedding. Mum Liz – Julia Hills with a barnstormingly chirpy bossiness we all recognize – says they must have the full marquee ’n guestlist deal, so she will organize it cheap or free in the garden and a bit of waste land, assisted by her hippy-dopy dog-loving builder husband Mel – Derek Frood, very funny – and the other daughter, Alison. The latter is mid-divorce with skirts at mid-thigh (Elizabeth Cadwallader , again hilarious). Add a nerdy vicar and a self-obsessed idle brother so feckless and untidy that he “even broke Buddhists” into throwing him out in fury, and there you are.

 
The first act has the young couple desperately trying to wriggle out of being “wednapped” by the insistent Liz (when the groom cries “It’s my day too!” she replies briskly “Not really, but you are a welcome participant”.) The second act covers the hour before the event. There are great gags – some offstage dogs, Mel’s dubious DIY skills, Alison’s tipsy rapprochement with the vicar and indeed the groom (“I’m a good listener and an even better shag”). And despite some revelations which shade a bit too close to the melodramatic in the second half, every shock of sadness is followed by a line so funny the laughs rock the room, , and there’s a bracing moral. That, as Liz says “We’re family, and nobody comes out of a family unscathed”.

I arrived in a gloomy mood and emerged giggling, wanting only to high-five one of the be-sashed hen-party brides. I wish it had a wider run: I’ve had far worse nights in the West End.
Now at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch: Box Office 01708 443333 to 1 April
Rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

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WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

THE DARK HEART OF MARRIAGE

 

One audience tweeter emerged calling James Macdonald’s fine production “exhilarating”. A wet rag after three hours’ exposure to it, I wouldn’t echo the word. More stunned than exhilarated. And anyway, Edward Albee himself wanted his work to be “disturbance..an attack on the unconscious” and decried the idea of art as “pacification”. He was out to get us,. And he does.

I am a good guinea-pig for his effectiveness, since by chance it is the Albee play I have never seen (not even the Burton-Taylor film) or read. I considered reading it by way of preparation, but for the sake of experience opted to arrive as innocent as the 1962 audiences (who kept it running for 664 performances ) and the Pulitzer committee (who found it “filthy” and refused it the prize). So I got the full shock of its hideous raging vigour, its violent brilliance in an unsparing portrait of a toxic, drunken co-dependent marriage in a stiff New England academic community.
The crisis portrayed is between 2 am and dawn as Martha – the Principal’s daughter – and George, who feels a failure as writer and academic, host young newcomers Nick and Honey after a faculty party. It hit me like a truck, as it should: not least because of the explosive substance that is Imelda Staunton, firmly at its black bitter suffering heart as Martha.
There is deep cunning in the way it opens, as the couple burst in half-tipsy and quarrelling with Martha effing and blinding because her – apparently – wearily enduring klutz of a husband can’t help her remember the name of a Bette Davis film. We’ve all been there. Well, a bit. But before long George too reveals his nightmare side, as Conleth Hill’s performance ranks alongside Staunton’s in its fury and pain. Despite its classic status, I will eschew spoilers in case there are other Albee-virgins out there: but we are plunged into shocks, sudden revelations which might not be true, unspeakably painful torrents of scorn and the spectacle of the guests- Imogen Poots both fragile and hilarious, and Luke Treadaway struggling to hold on to his preppie-scientist dignity. They are drawn in to the hosts’ rackety fantasy world. It is the nadir of social hell.

 

The play’s gruelling brilliance is served superbly by all the cast. But then, it has to be – especially by Martha – or it would be downright unbearable. It edges towards that, but is always drawn back by the profound identification of Imelda Staunton as the damaged and desperate harridan; especially in the third exorcising act, her intensity draws out compassion and understanding. But it is still terrifying.

 
Albee was fighting against an enduring 1950’s stuffiness in American society (itself a reaction against the disruption of war) and attacking the safe hokey image of the perfect, indissoluble American marriage and family. It flits through one’s mind occasionally that we are now so far from taking that sort of image for granted that the play might be dated. Would not this terrible pair have torn themselves asunder today and found quieter lives? But maybe not, God help us. The play’s pitiless razor-sharp humanity is universal enough for a good shudder, anyway.

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 27 May
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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LIMEHOUSE Donmar, WC1

LET COWARDS FLINCH AND TRAITORS SNEER…WE’LL KEEP THE LAFITE FLOWING HERE

 

 
Some moments of modern history deserve reimagining by honest playwrights: we need to remember and reflect, shake our heads and laugh and recognize that politics is just people. It is passion and personalities, vanity and absurdity, comradeship and betrayal, faith and hope and often a distinct lack of charity. This funny, serious, timely play brings all those qualities to the forefront in 105 minutes. Steve Waters, who gave us the marvellous TEMPLE about the St Paul’s Occupy protest, turns now to the year 1981, the day after a disastrous Labour Party “special conference” at Wembley. Four of its rebels met at Dr David Owen’s kitchen table in Limehouse to see whether they could agree to form a new party. There were two MPs of shadow cabinet rank, Owen and Bill Rodgers,; the redoubtable Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but remained on the Labour NEC; and the orotundly magisterial Roy Jenkins , once Home Secretary and now back from four agreeable years as President of the European Commission.

 
By early afternoon the “Gang Of Four” had drafted the Limehouse Declaration and founded the Social Democratic Party. Some Labour loyalists never forgave the defection, and blamed them for giving Mrs Thatcher a free run: by the 1990s the remnant had united with the Liberals as Lib-Dems. But it was a quixotic moment, and not for nothing does Nathalie Armin as Debbie Owen – wife, hostess, and often peacemaker through that tempestuous morning – deliver at the end a plaintive “what if?”.

 
The personalities are gloriously, sometimes mischievously created. Tom Goodman-Hill as Owen is a striding, short-fused impatient crusader, a doctor-knows-best column of energy still coping with a young family and insufficient sleep. Paul Chahidi as Bill Rodgers tracks a finely judged, nuanced progress from playing it plumply prattish , wincing at his bad back, humbly awed by “Woy” Jenkins, yet rising to painful sincerity in his foreboding about the people in Labour he will hurt. Debra Gillett is Shirley Williams, spry and determined and knowing her value, at one point walking out to do the World at One and threaning to derail the whole idea. The final arrival (having got lost in Shoreditch and come via Mile End) is Roger Allam, gloriously funny as Roy Jenkins: a man so used to deference that he has no idea what do do when nobody takes his coat. Within moments he is suavely deploring anyone taking “umbwage” and asking plaintively , as he reminisces on Brussels, whether Wiesling can “even be classified as a wine”. Debbie, who emerges as heroine of the play, plies him with two vintages of Chateau Lafite and takes no umbwage when he cannot manage her homely Delia Smith macaroni cheese.

 

 

The glory of this surprisingly moving play, directed by Polly Findlay at a sharp pace, is that it is no cynically hopeless Thick Of It. It does not despise politicians. It gives each of this ill-assorted quartet credit for real faith and real decisions: for caring about voters who “deplore extremes but hunger for justice”, who feel deep loyal roots in Labour but see it collapsing, who remember Attlee and the spirit of ’45 and doubt their own ability to conjure a new party out of a tasteful middle-class kitchen. People who suspect one another , too, and have come from different directions. As Owen says “Bill thinks I’m a wrecker, Shirley thinks I’m a lightweight, Roy thinks I’m Oswald Mosley..”.

 
But hey, they did it. It was a good try, and could hardly be more timely for the yearning leftie in any of us: again today there is an ageing and ineffective leader of the opposition, a Tory PM, Labour divided and mocked; again it ought to be the centre-left’s big moment, if only the LibDems were not obsessed with overturning the referendum. You could feel the sighs in the audience as we centre-lefties trooped out into the night, with nowhere to go.

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to
Principal sponsor: Barclays
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD Old Vic SE1 guest rvw

LUKE JONES, FRESH FROM HAMLET,  SPINS WITH ECSTASY AT THE NEW R & G 

 

I first and last saw this play whilst at school. It was slowly and quite unforgivingly murdered by fellow sixth formers. The morbidity, fear and blood-pumping humanity of it was drained, clearing the way for a flat single-note attempt at the play’s playful side. It was a matter of heads or tails which speech or run of dialogue they would have a stab at next, so unsteady was their grasp of the text. It was hard to appreciate this is one of the best plays a person has written or an audience heard.

But this Old Vic 50th anniversary hoo-ray revival knows that Tom Stoppard offers more than just bouncy a turn of phrase and logical fireworks. Although it does have all of that as well.
Its premise – the offstage story of two of Hamlet’s minor characters – seems predisposed to intellectual fluff and literary grandstanding. But David Leveaux’s production balances the coin on its edge, giving Stoppard’s wit, but also the incredible stench of tragedy. You can see the roots of this in the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Josh McGuire has the spark of a thinking-man’s sitcom lead and Daniel Radcliffe looks like death. But both do both. Each manoeuvre through the semi-automatic dialogue perfectly (and I mean that – not a single misfire) but they also allow space to let the play’s ruthlessness fester and take hold.

 

The perfect tragedy of two unwitting pawns, manoeuvred by events beyond their understanding to an end they have no explanation for suits these two actors beautifully. McGuire is well known on the stage for his zippy tempo and sharp delivery. But to see this collapse every now and again, revealing flickers of despair, is heartbreaking. Likewise Radcliffe’s morose Guildenstern, whipped up into a frantic and repressed fury, is wonderful.  The players are a tightly choreographed musical band of interesting freaks and the proper characters from Shakespeare’s side of the proceedings are nicely hammy.

 
But the over-and-above treat we don’t deserve is David Haig as The Player (the leader of the ragtag group of players who so convincingly replay Hamlet’s uncle’s crime back at him). If life is the terrible game of odds his character convinces us it is, Haig shows us most convincingly both the heads of joy and the tails of cruelty. He plays with more camp abandon than anyone else on stage, he’s slimey, mystical and oddly pervy. He has some of the best speeches and wrings out every last emotional twist.

 
Roll this into a double bill with the Almeida’s knock-out Hamlet up the road and not only will you feel like the cleverest person walking the earth, you’ll also be emotionally knackered.
Until 29th April
Box office 0844 871 7627
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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BANG BANG Mercury, Colchester

CLEESE MEETS FEYDEAU. DOES IT WORK?

 
Farce. French farce. Feydeau farce. Fin-de-siecle farce with curly cornices and ladies in corsets. Feelings about the genre are always, for me,  mixed. You can sigh at bit in these post-stigma days at attempted infidelity being quite so compulsorily hilarious; at emotional improbabilities camouflaged by a formulaic comedy of embarrassment. You know there’ll be wardrobes, doors, beds, trousers, comedy policemen , possibly (as here) a bribeable nephew. You can feel – as I did in the last two Feydeau revivals, despite great talents from Tom Hollander, Hannah Waddingham and the like – something I glumly recorded as “a despondent sense of being trapped in a museum of bygones”.

 
This Mercury production is interesting, though, because Feydeau’s little-seen “La Chasse” has been reworked, and well and truly fiddled with, by no less than John Cleese. It has sparks of more modern comedy , despite an elegantly complete plasterwork-to-parquet set which becomes both the bourgeois home of the Duchotels and a love-nest apartment where Monsieur the lawyer – Oliver Cotton, in the role one suspects Cleese fancies himself in – is to meet one of his client’s wives while pretending to go hunting,. And where his wife Léontine – naturellement! – agrees on the selfsame night to a revenge bonk with Dr Moricet. Leontine is quite beautifully played by Caroline Langrishe, decently convincing in her initial stiff virtue turning to indignation and in her panic in the door-and-trouser moments, but really coming into her own in the second act when a kind of mumsy exasperation suggests an actual reality inside her marriage to the straying Duchotel. The lustful doctor os Richard Earl, Sarah Crowden makes the most of being a countess-turned concierge at the lovenest, and Jess Murphy as the maid Babette deploys sone great expressions as the maid. Whose absurd French accent gives Cleese a chance for a splendid non-Feydeau joke when a character asks “Why’s she got that funny accent?” “Must be Belgian or something..”

 

 

Indeed is interesting is that he real barks of laughter are, as often as not, provoked not by the skeleton of the old farce but the furious vigour of Cleese moments – the Doctor’s mutter of “stupid hint!” and the very un-Feyddeau “I suppose a blow-job’s out of the question?”, some brief asides like “Bit corny, isn’t it?” and a moment between Duchotel and the baffled husband Chassagne – Peter Bourke – which is pure Basil-and-Manuel. The more conventional  shrieks, hidings  under the bed etc are far less effective triggers; the philosophical musings on infidelity just plain dull. But Langrishe is a treat. Ironically, it just needs more Cleese and less Feydeau.

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box office 01206 573948 to 11 March
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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ROUNDELAY Southwark Playhouse, SE1

NEVER TOO OLD TO GO ROUND AGAIN…

 

 

In Arthur Schnitzler ’s LA RONDE was a scandal: a chain of sketched sexual encounters in which one of each couple moved on to a new seduction; Count, whore, soldier. and so forth. Sigmund Freud liked it though: he wrote to Schnitzler “”you have learned through intuition—though actually as a result of sensitive introspection—everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.”
The sense of emotional understanding, at least, is reproduced in Sonja Linden’s new 90-minute version for VIsible – a company founded to make use of older professional performers.

 
There are seven encounters: first former spouses meet at a wedding and are tempted, then we meet one of them in old age and dementia, with her fond second husband (a wrenchingly touching moment thanks to Holly de Jong’s remarkable performance as the wife). But that husband is then awkwardly exploring whether he is drawn to a male sex worker; who we then meet with a very old bedridden widow who craves once again to feel human touch…and on it goes until the first character finds a final resolution.

 

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All the main protagonists are in middle age or older, and the theme of continuing desire and yearning for love develops a real earnest beauty as it does on: wooing, betrayal, tactility, memory, confusion, the lure of youth, the advancing shadow of decrepitude and dementia, the perennial hope. Linden and director Anna Ledwich, however, have framed it as circus – a pun on “ronde’ – as we surround the action and are lectured , whip-cracked and threatened by a Weimaresque ringmistress in fishnets and top hat , who introduces each section as an act. And indeed between the acts some good professional work on the aerial silks is there to divert us, while the rest of the cast doa few dances and juggle-and-hoop tricks not quite as smooth as they might be.
 
To be honest, this presentation distracted more than it engaged me; we are all now well used to La Soiree and the paraphernalia and Weimar-wannabe cabaret style of the genre. But despite mild irritation – and the ringmistress was perfectly competent, within what was awkwardly required of her – it won me round with the very fine acting, economical scripting and a sort of firm, adult reality of character. It’s a curiosity worth seeing.

 

box office 0207 407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
rating Three  3 Meece Rating

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HAMLET Almeida, N1

LUKE JONES EXULTS: A TACTILE MORIARTY PULLS IT OFF FOR A NEW GENERATION

 

 

We’ve had so many ‘great’ Hamlets it’s hard to either keep track or care. Cumberbatch, Peake, Kinnear, Tennant, Branagh. Older readers can summon more. But with its wit, emotional intelligence, absolute clarity of thought and execution, Andrew Scott’s shits on recent ones from a height.
The court of this Hamlet is fashionably Scandi. The clean, grey, glassy set has been ethically recycled from this theatre’s Oresteia and the Royals who populate it are exactly the kind of Cos-wearing, slender Middletons we’ve come to expect in palaces. Robert Icke –  surely the most accomplished director working – has blown the stuffiness from this too often seen play. Twice tonight – once with a fellow critic, once with a muggle – I had the conversation “have they added bits. Some of this seems very new…suspiciously fresh”.

 

 

Although there has been some clever pruning, to my ear there’s been no wholesale rewriting. Icke has instead fired up a cast with the most natural direction; the most thrillingly believable and sympathetic performances.
Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude perfectly navigates the torments and twists in logic her character demands. Laertes (Luke Thompson) is exactly the right mix of wimpish and headstrong. Ophelia – always an unconvincing turn with a descent into madness even Alton Towers would reject as ambitious – is quietly devastating;  Jessica Brown Findlay turns it round perfectly.

 

 

The entire cast (except, IF I’m being mean, ever-stodgy Angus Wright as Claudius) has this incredibly tactility. They hug, kiss, pat on the shoulder, even shake hands in the most human, un-actorish way I’ve ever seen. The result is something so un-Royal, fluid and passionate. Still moments, the kind always sped past in Shakespeares like this, are properly exploited with flesh, not just words.

 

 

Hamlet’s direction to the players could have been Icke’s own;  “in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

 

 

All of this, of course, falls perfectly into place because of the unfailingly watchable Andrew Scott as Hamlet. Yes, the madness suits the range we’ve already seen him exercise in Sherlock. But this has deep and sturdy emotional foundations. He matches like no actor I’ve ever seen the explosion of passions and the precision of logic Hamlet requires. He centres him, makes sense of him and picks a line, rather than giving himself to some undefined frenzy. Every line (literally – see above) sounds like I’ve never heard it before. Even the battle weary catchphrases (to be or no to be, get thee to a nunnery, alas poor Yorick) are touched up with new life. Where most Shakespearean performances veer between sounding meaningless or over-thought, Scott’s streams out like source water.

So rare, but so fortunate, that this star performance is backed up by an equally star production. If you have a dear friend with a hard to come by ticket, I’d seriously consider harming them to get it.

 
Until 15th April
Box Office 020 7359 4404
5 thrilled, galumphing mice.

5 Meece Rating

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