NIGHTFALL Bridge Theatre, SE1

ROUGH, RURAL, A NEGLECTED ALBION

 

 

An immense intrusive pipe bisects the stage, a rusty oil tank below it with part of a tractor one side and a cheerless Victorian brick farmhouse indicated on the other. It is dusk, stars emerging behind; brighter starbursts from a welding-torch behind the pipe meet laughing enthusiasm from two lads in overalls. Anyone accustomed to rural dodges will grasp that they are tapping one of the ugly oil-pipes from the coast which – for a useful few quid – a farmer will allow across his Hampshire land. Ryan and Pete, gleeful in matehood, complete the job; Ryan’s sister Lou looks on with resigned scorn. Earlier than expected home, their mother Jenny strides up onto the stage and is not pleased at the felony. Even though, by this time, it is becoming clear that the farm is on its uppers and every little helps.

 

 

Thus the brand-new Bridge continues to defy predictability: after the serio-comic-historic Young Marx and the riotous immersive Julius Caesar here is a plaintive, conversational four-hander by Barney Norris. His marvellous earlier works (Visitors, https://tinyurl.com/ycz2qajc ) and Eventide (https://tinyurl.com/ycxjdw4j ) have been in more intimate fringe theatres. And there are not many 900+ unsubsidized houses which would take a punt like this, on a slice of 21c rural life in decline. Not even after Jerusalem, not even for a short run.

But it worked for me. With a fine-tuned cast, Rae Smith’s immense and atmospheric set and Laurie Sansom’s direction, Norris’ intense personal and social observation command attention: from a dangerously slow-burn start it proves to be not only an engrossing play but quite an important one.

 

It is on the surface a portrait of grief: the family’s father died of cancer a year or so back, and they are stuck in awkward irritable love, and also stuck with a heavily indebted farm which Ryan can hardly cope with and whose financial disaster Jenny, in her nostalgic resentful grief, denies. . Back into their lives comes Lou’s former boyfriend Pete, a childhood friend of both siblings , not a farmer but a council-estate lad fresh out of prison (we learn more, in dramatic second act revelations, about this). He is the skilled welder who has the bright idea about the pipe, his lifetime motto being “as long as you get away with it”.

 

But it is also a play about forgotten lives. A fierce essay in the programme has Norris reminding us that “We live in a country stolen from its people..by a political class, a monopoly capitalism that locks us into wage brackets while leaving the lost of living to go wherever the wind blows; stolen by the swamping homogeniety of middle class white western taste“. These are probably, despite EU agricultural subsidies, Brexit people. Which is another good reason for the Bridge to kick the subject about , however obliquely.

 

The interweaving of the personal stories with that social observation has real power, just as Miller’s did in Death of a Salesman. The humanity of the four is to the forefront: Clare Skinner’s Jenny infuriating, needy, controlling, unhappy, trying to play normal and resolutely middle-class with her M & S nibbles and whatever wine the TV show says is fashionable, her Fevertree tonic and tea-lights. These distractions serve her nothing: “I’m never all right, that’s the trouble”. Ophelia Lovibond as her daughter is equally caught in grief, but more clear-eyed about the missing father’s shortcomings, and has suffered in other ways from the debacle. Ryan, saddest case of the four, struggles under the burden of the farm and of his mother : a terrific Sion Daniel Young, big-eyed, skinnily desperate, struggles on with forced optimism, irritated by the romanticization of his mother (“I chuck chemicals on wheat, Mum, I’m not a tree hugger. I make money, I make food, we’re not Druids living off roots”. Pete is Ukweli Roach, who from the laddish wide-boy of the opening scene reveals himself by stages in a tough, touching decency.

 

They are all, in their way, fascinating. Their diverse grief is part of them, an overarching reason to be stuck; but they are stuck anyway. A lot of people in rural Britain are, but they are not often put into focus, not in the most fashionable and chic of London theatres. There is mischief and usefulness in programming it just as the urban second-homers  return from their  May holiday in the pretty hills and fields, blind to the minimum-wage hinterland …

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 26 May

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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AN IDEAL HUSBAND Vaudeville, WC1

OSCAR AT HIS MOST EARNEST

 

Worth going to Jonathan Church’s  latest Wilde “Classic Spring”revival if only for a feast of Foxes: patriarch Edward as  old Lord Caversham and his real  youngest son Freddie as his stage son Lord Goring. They do not disappoint, octogenarian Edward doddering for England, a testy dinosaur but sharp as a tack on the Earl’s exasperated lines.   Freddie – lately so memorable as Wilde’s nemesis Bosie in The Judas Kiss – is perfect too as the dandyish heart-of-gold. Which is crucial, as Goring speaks for Wilde himself in both his flippant epigrammatism and his genuine plea for a life lived more by charity and affection than by impossible moral pieties, “pitiless in perfection”.

 

They’re a treat, those two, with on the press night an extra gale of affection for Fox junior when he strides across the gilded  apartment to burn the blackmailer’s letter on a candle. Perhaps  due to over enthusiastic  elf ‘n safety fireproofing,  it failed to catch. And failed again,  and nearly dowsed  the candle. As  he improvised “nobody can read it now”over the barely charred remains, he and Frances Barber’s malevolent Mrs Cheveley gallantly resisted corpsing.  Almost.

But enough Fox-worship. More urgent in its Wildean philosophy than the earlier, larkier ones in the season, this is a fascinating and heartfelt play.  It is serious, despite  all the beloved absurdities, preenings, and wicked satires on high society prattle (Susan Hampshire’s monologue on modern dreadfulness is another veteran treat, showing the kids how it’s done) .  It is not mere social reputation at odds here, but the career of Sir Robert Chiltern: a  rising politician who years ago founded his wealth and career (political careers cost money then) on leaking a Cabinet secret for money.

The adventuress Mrs Cheveley can expose him and wreck career and marriage unless he compounds the dishonesty by praising her South American investment which he knows  to be a swindle.  Nathaniel Parker carries the torment of capitulation and regret well, and Barber is a rattlesnake foe.  Their encounter in the first act is electric,  and the villainess’  confrontation with the wife -Sally Bretton -equally so. It is assisted by the way that Cheveley wears immense and truly menacing puff sleeves and the pious Liberal-Ladies-Club wife  the demurest of white scalloped  collarettes: Simon Higlett’s design  is sumptuous but unfussy under a gilded dome, every detail elegant.

A bravo too  for the melodramatic entr’acte fiddler  Samuel Martin and the suavely intimidating Phipps the Butler (Sam Waller).And above all  Faith Omole’s West End debut as Chiltern’s sister: she handles Wilde’s Benedict-and-Beatrice sparring with Fox beautifully, with an edge of defiant mischief he’d have liked.

 

Box office 0330 333 4814. To 14July

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MOOD MUSIC Old Vic, SE1

CREATIVES, C***TS AND  CONTRACTS

 

  The theatrical repertoire has a new monster:   Bernard, created by Joe Penhall  and brought to scorchingly memorable,  sociopathically  irresistible life by Ben Chaplin.   Who is wonderful.  Made for the part.    Bernard is a music producer-creator-arranger,  a drawlingly infuriating musical genius idolised for his long record of successes by the very young singer he decides to “use”- his word – on a two-album deal and US tour.  But she is also a creative, a songwriter and a girl of some spirit (Seana Kerslake, convincingly teenage and even more convincingly troubled).  She is  not a submissive Trilby to his Svengali.    So he likes to confuse and belittle her instinctive, passionate talent with advice that artfully undermines (“Let’s try it with a mandolin. Or a glockenspiel”).    And when it comes to crediting her in the sleeve and at the Novello awards, Bernard doesn’t. Won’t. As he amiably puts it “On the one hand I want to be kind and generous and co-operative. On the other hand, why the hell should I?”.   

 

 

    She’s just another tool for his genius, like the drummer he hit because “drummers don’t feel pain, they’re like fish”.    The music industry happens to be hungry for girl singers ,  now that “girls are the new boys”.   She feels robbed and abused, which indeed she is.    For most of the play we see the pair of them onstage both at once but in different places:  each is giving their version of the poisoned collaboration to a therapist,   with increasing interventions by the respective lawyers.    We learn that it has turned nasty following a US tour and the credit row, and the lawyers fight with increasing viciousness –  Neil Stuke and Kurt Egyiawan, both overwhelmed by their clients’ temperaments  – while one therapist (Jemma Redgrave) spouts psychotheory to her about how music activates the reward centres , and Bernard’s psych makes helpless attempts to humanize him. 

 

 

        Sometimes in flashbacks you see them together, and  get small moments at the keyboard or with the opening words of a song when you think first yes, he’s an old-stage, a perfectionist, he  can enhance what she creates:  make it a hit .  But  then moments later you think   “he is just messing with her head, that glockenspiel business is pure bullying”.   But if he’s a demon, she can be a diva: when she bites back accusing him of “dad-rock” values he winces;  when she dismisses her therapist for not understanding the fiery world of creativity, Seana Kerslake is plain terrifying.

 

       That she is a young girl and he an older, battered, canny man is important, yet this is not another predictable  bit of MeToo outrage. The point is that this is a specific environment, the Winehouse-hothouse of a music industry where private damage and profound feeling -“deeper than sex” says Cait –  are for sale. And, crucially,  intense performances  are achieved on gruelling, drug-fuelled tour schedules.   The most darkly hilarious scenes are between the two lawyers when hers – hearing that she was carried senseless from Pittsburgh to LA and woke backstage in her underwear – realizes that  them taking her across state borders means he can involve the FBI and claim kidnap.  Bernard on his side explains it’s all part of the tour camaraderie. “Esprit de corps,  or Stockholm syndrome?” comes the riposte. 

 

 

       But there are hundreds of wonderful lines and ironic, profound reflections on the business. “A song doesn’t have a heart” says Bernard.  “It has a void” . Yes. These are the soundtrack of all our emotional lives; we creep inside a song with our own pain and longing.  We invest in it. But so do vast multinational corporations, sharp lawyers, promoters and a myriad of session players, roadies, groupies, entourage sycophants and rehab therapists.   Penhall was once  a rock journalist, and had a tough time writing Sunny Afternoon about the warring Kinks. He knows both the power and glory of great songs,   and the potential for appalling behaviour, feuds, neuroses , sexist abominations, exploitation and lawsuits which beset the business.     So with director Roger Michell Michell and an irresistible cast,  he made it into a lethally funny, memorably moving, elegantly threaded play.   Wince and marvel. 

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628   www.oldvictheatre.com   to 16 June

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada 

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ROMEO AND JULIET Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

FAST, FINE  STREETWISE SHAKESPEARE 

  

 

    Running and scuffling, a crowd of kids in  black scatter across the stark stage under an open-sided, distressedly concrete-looking box. They fizz with energy, insult and partisan gang loyalty. And they all have knives.  This young community chorus  share the  opening : Erica Whyman’s take on “fair Verona” and the feud of Montague and Capulet is contemporary,  its lethal blade  culture all too topical.

 

 

     So is the casting of  “Prince” Escalus,   Beth Cordingley striding exasperatedly in a swishing smart coat to stop the latest melée:   a woman in power despairing at immature male aggression.   In another intelligent gender-switch,  the Prince’s  cousin is one of two tough girls as combative as their male peers. Mercutio, normally just one of the most irritating, punning  hyper characters in Shakespeare, is  the quicksilver performer Charlotte Josephine:  androgynous, crop-haired, mocking, a far tougher cookie than Josh Finan’s gentle, lovingly homo-affectionate Benvolio.  

 

 

      But it is not a tiresomely gimmicky ‘now’ production, but one marked all through by that  close-worked RSC concentration on the text which always prompts interesting new thoughts about a play we know well.   Bally Gill’s Romeo is excitable, daft in his mooning for Rosaline ;  but in the freeze-frame moment at Capulet’s wild disco party he grows into a thunderstruck sincerity which, for all continuing puppyish and impulsive moments ,  gives him an enduring open-eyed  dignity.    Though the one bit of textual meddling that raised my eyebrow was when he sees  bright Juliet hanging on the cheek of night “like some rich jewel on an Ethiop’s ear”.   This Romeo says “ebony ear”.  Which just sounds weird, and in a relaxedly diverse cast, more prissily PC than is necessary.

  

      Otherwise it’s wonderful.  Karen Fishwick’s Juliet is fresh, brave,  growing through the play from childlike simplicity to reckless and honourable love.  Her Scottish tones give the lines the poetry they need;   yet the hot reality of the coup-de-foudre affair enables the pair,  without strain,   to get unexpected moments of comedy out of the often overswoony balcony scene.  His attempt to depart is every besotted couple’s “no, you ring off” “No, you..”  The Nurse, Ishia Bennison, is wonderfully funny, cackling about her nursing years, earthy and interfering,   not an “ancient” though she seems so to the young but full of knowing middle-aged familiarity and self-importance.  A small bouquet here too to Raif Clarke as her fed-up attendant Peter: he scores several of his own laughs.  The nurse’s first scenes with Juliet are telling, the girl flopping on her lap and giggling at her feet while the  seeming at times a decent pragmatist,  but suddenly terrifying, a proto-Lear when  he curses his rebellious daughter “Hang, beg, ie in the streets!”.   Again, a thought arises:  this man  feels his status and authority crumbling,  see how he sucks up to Count Paris…

 

 

        And the fighting?  Tybalt is a thuggish Raphael Sowole, knife-happy and aggressive;  when the mocking, slender Mercutio provokes him you sense layers of private animosity.  And for me a new reflection arises: the lazy truism is that it was the feud of the elders that caused the tragedy, of which the young lovers were victims.  But the text makes it clear that the elders are wearying of the old battle – when Romeo has crashed the party,  Capulet restrains young Tybalt with “be patient, take no note of him, he shall be endured”.     Both sets of parents are more than ready to listen to Escalus by the end, blaming nobody, reformed by sorrow as we all wish enemies would be.   It is the young, the impetuous kids in black, who keep the feud alive:  thumb-biting idiots Gregory and Sampson,   swaggering Tybalt defying his uncle in his determination to  punish the outrage of Romeo invading his ‘hood.    And not least Mercutio:   who for all Romeo’s pleading is spoiling for a fight with knife and insult, and won’t let up.  That it should be swagger, stupidity and verbal defiance that  lights the fuse of  disaster  for the lovers is as topical as it always was. 

 

box office  rsc.org.uk  to 19 Jan

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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NINE NIGHT Dorfman SE1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR  FINDS  KINSHIP IN  A FAMILY SORROW 

 

 

Well, this is timely. In the shadow of Windrush, a play  immerses us in the colourful traditions of Caribbean funeral culture,   but unites even the uninitiated in a shared understanding of grief and family.

 

Nine Night is a sensational debut written by Natasha Gordon and directed by Roy Alexander Weise. We meet Lorraine and her daughter Anita as they are taking care of Gloria, Lorraine’s dying mother. Gloria is of the Windrush generation who came to the UK 70 years ago, looking for work and opportunity. When Gloria passes, the dark and quiet household is transformed into an explosion of light, colour, food and music. You can smell supper simmering on the hob as the family dances into the kitchen, the table soon covered in bottles of rum, flowers and a feast as they begin the traditional Jamaican Nine Night wake where family and friends drink, dance and eat to share condolences and celebrate the life of their departed loved one.

 

 

The play takes place in Gloria’s kitchen, a set by Rajha Shakiry which pays hugely satisfying attention to detail – from the tropical yellow wallpaper to the rickety kitchen drawers, it all feels real;  it has been lived in by this family. From the kitchen we hear music from the adjacent sitting room, the throbbing bass of reggae music and the busy chatter of voices. We are told the house is full of strangers, all here to join in the festivities. We are introduced to Great Aunt Maggie and Uncle Vince; the former an utterly glorious performance from Cecilia Noble, a domineering matriarch, defiantly rooted in her Jamaican traditions as she criticises and irritates her family relentlessly. Her sassy patois serves up many of the funniest lines of the evening as she boasts that her bush tea recipe can cure diabetes and that her cousin simply must be buried in a new wig, or else she’ll ‘frighten Jesus’.

 

 

But whilst there is much to amuse in this very funny play, it is ultimately a reflection on grief. The loss of Gloria brings about fissures in an already dysfunctional and disparate family unit. Franc Ashman is superb as Lorraine – tensing and shuddering with annoyance at the cringe-inducing insensitivities uttered by her family; not least by her brother, Robert, another terrific performance by Oliver Alvin-Wilson. Robert is coping with his mother’s death in the way that men do best: by bottling up his emotions until they explode as anger and frustration, antagonising his niece and being cruel to his sister. His grief can also be glimpsed behind the veils of a drunken joke shared with the only other man in the play, Uncle Vince, played by Ricky Fearon.

 

It is Gordon’s mastery of the family dynamic and relationships that makes this play such a spell-binding experience. There is a sense that this is what all families are like: an assortment of disparate personalities, everyone rolling their eyes and attempting to get along whilst having been steamrollered by their grief. This becomes all the more poignant when set against the most contradictory of backgrounds – all of these people are suffering, yet the music is still blaring and the rum is still flowing. It’s breath-taking.

  There simply isn’t enough theatre like this. Poignant, authentic, stunning.

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 12 may

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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PRESENT LAUGHTER                  Chichester Festival Theatre

COWARD GOES FARCEO-FORTISSIMO

 

 

         In the final outburst from our hero Gary Essendine –  silk-dressing-gowned philanderer,  arrogantly insecure darling of the West End    his backer Henry reveals that he has booked the Forum Theatre and the actor howls that he cannot do a light French farce in a space like Wembley Stadium.   A similar faint misgiving afflicted me at the thought of this lighter-than-air Noel Coward comedy surviving in this big airy theatre (especially after the cocktail-sharp intimate miniatures  of Tonight at 830 in the teeny Jermyn last Sunday, see below) .   And for much of the first half deep unease persisted.  On Alice Power’s detailed, towering, detail-perfect set (some very funny touches)  there was shouting.  Yelling.   Overdoing it to the point of mania.  

 

 

       Didn’t matter with Lizzy Connolly’s ditzy, Sloaney invader of her hero’s apartment ,  voguing around in his silk pyjamas the morning after “losing her latch-key”.  Nor did a bit of extreme upstaging bother me when Tamzin Griffin as the housekeeper repeatedly hobbled around the stage in the manner of Mrs Overall.  And Katherine Kingsley as the ex-wife and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Monica the secretary both were as tart , emotionally restrained  and deadly on-the-lines as they should be.  

 

 

     But Rufus Hound –  better known as a standup, TV host and fiery left activist –   is the oddest possible casting for Essendine!     He is thuggish not smooth,  laddish not sophisticated.    Coward wrote for the smooth, the clipped, the swish deployer of killer asides.      Even Essendine’s dramatic  absurdities, designed to fend off clinging girls ,  are cool Charles-and-Fiona stuff.    “There’s something awfully -sed – about heppiness”  “I can’t be free like other men..I belong to my public”.    Hound just  yells them.    Thus by kicking off at top volume Mach 3 from the start  he eaves himself  no space for the real panics into which his entourage throws him  as the farce speeds up later.  

 

 

      Ben Allen’s Maule, the obsessed stalker-worshipper,  goes hell-for-leather too,  giving us no time to wonder whether he is as mad as he seems.    Great laugh lines are wasted: at times the first act is like hearing Bach played on kazoo-and-tuba,  or brain surgery in boxing gloves.   When at last Lucy Briggs-Owen sashays on as the man-killing Joanna you sigh with relief: at last a classic classy Coward-cool character, a long streak of slink and scorn and sexual threat. She’s wonderful.

        

 

        But what begins as a  comedy of manners does turn gradually into true farce,:  wrong people behind doors,  disastrous  revelations of affairs, panic.   And in this area director Sean Foley is wholly reliable: a master when it comes to sofa-bounces,  painful handshakes (an excellent joke here near the end),  and the possibilities of soda-siphons and spilled drinks.   So the second half is properly full-on funny.   And the curtain call is a full-cast rendering of “Why do the wrong people travel?” and a dance. So we all leave happy.  

 

box office 01243 781312   to 12 May

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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ABSOLUTE HELL Lyttelton, SE1

A WAR OVER, A WORLD ADRIFT

 

It’s a great tapestry of a play: Rodney Ackland’s portrait of a Soho nightclub as WW2 ended. Socialites and slobs, black-marketeers and failing artists, unaccepted homosexuals, decrepit elders , a lonely streetwalker patrolling outside. It is louche and honest, funny and sad, just what the National Theatre should be doing. Not least because few others can: a cast and ensemble of thirty, a multi-storey set by Lizzie Clachan with the ability to send clouds and lumps of plaster down. And all the way through, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ cast populating that big stage: milling and surging, scattering, mobbing, gathering.

 

All honour to the programme for acknowledging that it was the little Orange Tree theatre which rediscovered this classic, rewritten by an ageing and impoverished Ackland in 1987. For its first outing in 1952 – backed by Rattigan, who lost money over it – was too soon and too strong. Britain wanted a rosier view of the “spirit of ’45’ and the postwar Labour victory. Binkie Beaumont, the great producer, called the play “a libel on the British people”, and that was only the cautious version under the Lord Chamberlain. By the 1980s the elderly Ackland could be more frank about homosexuality. But in real life people knew about that nocturnal underworld, gay or straight: the programme quotes Betjeman’s 1954 poem about an old night-club proprietress -“I’m dying now and done for, What on earth was all the fun for? For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight”.

Yet the play is not depressing, though after three hours of intricate storytelling the hostess – Kate Fleetwood’s brittle Christine – does sit unwillingly alone with a broken gramophone. Honesty, realism and wonderful comic lines keep it going, Hill-Gibbins’ direction and brilliant cast ensure that all the characters – even the most loathsome – are fascinating. At its heart is another marvellous performance from Charles Edwards as Hugh, a failing writer supposedly working at a Ministry but haunting the club every night, promiscuously assenting to GIs who’ll take any “tail” going, and cadging loans. Perhaps off Danny Webb’s prim Austrian Siegfried, who is losing his party-girl Elizabeth (Sinead Matthews, memorable as usual) to a GI. Or from the loathsome, predatorily camp film fixer Maurice , who is stringing him along and leaves reading scripts to his bullied, flouncing secretary Cyril…

 

The core of both pain and comedy is in Edwards’ babbling, intelligent, fretful desperation, at once Wodehousishly funny and as tragic as anything in Chekhov. After the interval we meet his defecting life- partner Nigel (Prusanna Puwanarajah) who is trying to get married to a rich woman. His neat pinstriped exasperation confronts Edwards’ shambolic shabbiness , in a riveting scene of impossible love. A generation’s pain is in Nigel’s stark reluctant condemnation of “the whole idea of queerness, the whole ambience of boring camp and squalid promiscuity, , nostalgie de la boue and hysterical emotionalism”.

 

Yet that is only one strand; right across it runs a mood of the time, magnified in this loose-living microcosm. These are WW1 babies, battered by inter-war fast-living and then a second war which came horrifyingly soon. They are rationing their very hope, escaping, doubting the future. Aged Julia in layers of dirty lace looks at the patrolling Fifi and says “if the Socialists get in , we shall all be hounded into Piccadilly to lurk about offering our charms, and all that we are allowed to keep will be five and a half percent. My dear, they’re going to nationalize women”. Hugh has one drunken rant about how the Soviets at least value artists, but doesn’t believe that either. Violent drunk Michael (Lloyd Hutchinson) rants that true artists like him and Hugh shouldn’t have to “expose themselves in canvas or print” because their beauty lies in their own heads ; but in his sleep he dreams he is using a dead man’s hand as a paintbrush.

 

There are cartoonish moments, but even the crazed Belfast bible-basher Madge has a whiff of deathly darkness . The news of “the horror camps” across the North Sea comes close to the revellers in shocking moments, and the invasion of GIs in animal masks from a party creates a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet odd harbingers of normality strike in: Hugh’s innocently fussing mother, Doris the housekeeper, decent GI Sam, a neat British officer bringing news of Elizabeth’s German friend. I wish I could name every character and all the cast: there’s not one false note in writing or performance. It is very, very good.

 
box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
to 16 June
rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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