The poems which inspired the mysterious song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared first appeared anonymously published in a newspaper in May 1916. They immediately caught the eye of composer Leos Janáček, who completed this song cycle by 1920. The poems, eventually attributed to Ozef Kalda, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a gipsy girl, and decides to abandon his family and village in order to follow her, and their child. Or, less romantically, it actually tells the story of a man who is consumed by a sexual passion for a gipsy girl, which she encourages him to gratify; when pregnancy inevitably results, he is horrified, and actively considers putting her aside before finally realising he has created a responsibility which he now needs to fulfil, and leaves the shelter of his family on the basis that he feels so socially blighted by his association with her that to marry her, and bring her into his community, would be unthinkable, so departure – or disappearance – is the only option.

The way he repeatedly castigates his supposed “love”, thanks to her race, makes it hard to believe there’s any true love in this sordid story: though the poetry (here sung in a very fine English translation by Seamus Heaney) is coated with sensuality, obsessing constantly about the girl’s physical beauty, and the extent of his desire for her, there’s no sense of any deeper or more profound personal connection. Janáček’s score is disorientatingly beautiful, and Shadwell Opera produce a gorgeous musical account, with a passionate piano accompaniment from Matthew Fletcher, and fine singing from our two principals (tenor Sam Furness and mezzo Angharad Lyddon) and chorus.

Director Jack Furness’ asylum-centre setting plays with our preconceptions from the start: although those girls seeking asylum from their former countries (all listed, with photos, on a large whiteboard) may be said to have already “disappeared” from their families and friends at home, it is Sam Furness’ character, an employee in the asylum centre, who is due to disappear. The gipsy Zefka (played with poise and charm by honey-voiced mezzo Angharad Lyddon) is one of his clients, creating a modern taboo against their subsequent love, but inadvertently throwing his patent hatred of gipsies into ever more confusing relief: we wonder how he ever got this job. Sam Furness, his strong tenor often feeling too large for this small space, sings with dewy-eyed intensity into a camera over his laptop screen, which projects his “video diary entries” onto the whiteboard behind; we wonder who else is watching, as his confessions steadily amount to professional suicide.

In fact, Jack Furness’s directoral concept, though visually arresting (diary projections are occasionally interspersed with shots of wild woods, or the gipsy girl’s eyes), creates more barriers than narrative aids for the audience: a sexist, racist story of objectification doesn’t survive well in a modern context (and for a modern audience) which, in real terms, wouldn’t tolerate any of those positions. The impressionistic majesty of the score makes this song cycle, indubitably, a piece worth hearing; but its unappetising core would be better hidden than highlighted, not least because it no longer makes human sense to us.


Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 5 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating


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I must admit I yearned towards this production – for 4 years old upwards, though there were some younger infants having a hell of a good time, even without booster seats (Vaudeville, please note that need). It is a favourite Lewis Carroll poem, and I did rather hope for a few of the boldly scanned rumbustious quartets and images, especially the bowsprit getting “mixed with the rudder sometimes” and the Bellman landing his crew with care, with a finger entwined in their hair.. But despite one final softly-and-silently-vanished-away, Alice House Theatre merely take the notion as an inspiration for a song-studded adventure of their own.




One day I want the poem itself, possibly rendered by McKellen, Russell Beale and Olivia Coleman. But hey, no complaints about this interpretation. Annabel Wigoder’s take is framing it with a schoolboy stowing away on the adventure funded by his negligent, money-obsessed Mr-Banks type father (Simon Turner) , and led by a splendid Bellman explorer in full 1920s RGS outfit of breeches, leather jerkin and mad gadgets. Gareth Cooper’s songs are fun, sometimes nicely startling (especially the father’s one about how money is all anyone can ever need).



There are Carroll snark-hunters in it: the Beaver is an enchanting puppet, knitting furiously, the dim-witted Baker is Will Bryant, who is also (there are other Carroll characters introduced) a quite magnificently camp Bandersnatch in Madame Jojo ruffles and shiny lurex tights, and the villainous butcher is Polly Smith (I do like a scary woman). I am not sure which of them plays the Jub-Jub bird, stealing the Banker’s trousers so the Beaver has to knit him a skirt, but I have to say its moment was the highlight for me on Snark Island, being pleasingly reminiscent of the time Rod Hull and Emu assaulted Michael Parkinson.


Around me very small children gasped and oohed from the moment the theatre darkened, especially in the very noisy shipwreck; deep concentration met the silliness, and real sympathy the marooning of the boy and beaver, unsure (as per The Tempest) whether anyone else was alive. It felt like a proper introduction to theatre, which is the important thing. Though the small boy in front who demanded to see it through again – a true child of the video age – will have to go home, get some ruffles and feathers and soft toys, and re-enact it for himself. Hope he does.



box office 0330 333 4814 to 2 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating


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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ Menier, SE1




Before The Inbetweeners, the most accurate reflection of the total embarrassment of teenage life in Britain was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. Nearly 35 years on from publication, Adrian, who recently turned 50, has featured in 7 further books and stage radio and TV adaptations. Now Sue Townsend’s aspiring intellectual makes his way to the Menier Chocolate Factor with a musical rendition of his journey into adolescence by composer Pippa Cleary and lyricist Jake Brunger.




It’s set in 1981 . Adrian, played on this particular evening with some wonderful facial expressions by Benjamin Lewis, is a touch more confident and self aware than his literary template. He doesn’t need his grandmother to stand up to the school bully for him and his famous red socks are made to be much more of a deliberate act of political defiance. We are also given a greater insight into the adult relationships than our oblivious protagonist was able to share in his diary. Pauline Mole, played by Kelly Price, is at first quite troubled by the advances of John Hopkins’s suave Mr Lucas who slithers into the family kitchen, his booming baritone backed by a sultry clarinet. It is, however, in these moments of tenderness that the show loses its way. The ballads and flashes of poignancy are instead drowned out by rousing ensemble pieces and swooping moments of nostalgia and fun. We see a school disco complete with dry ice and utterly euphoric synth pop , and an amusing dream sequence where Adrian melodramatically foresees his own death from a bout of tonsillitis whilst accompanied by jiving doctors, funky basslines and an appearance from God himself.




The source material is lovingly adhered to, with many of the book’s most memorable lines given plenty of breathing space and still raising laughs and audible smirks of recognition. Sue Townsend’s sense of mischief is all too apparent in Barry James’s Bert Baxter, who is seen waving a lone Soviet flag amidst a sea of Union Jacks at the wedding of Prince Charles and ‘a virgin named Diana’. The knowing social satire at the heart of Townsend’s work remains, with the outstanding Asha Banks, playing 13 year old feminist Pandora Braithwaite declaring to her classmates ‘Inequality ends from today! We’ll get equal pay!’




The set by Tom Rogers is reminiscent of a 1980s toy advertisement. Cast members stream out of cupboards and wardrobes, manipulating the furniture like a game of Jenga, we see tattered editions of classic board games, a poster of Princess Leia, and Orville the duck amidst the various clutter. Patches of damp cover the walls of the cramped family home and the colour palette is both spectacularly naff and remarkably stylish.




In a world of reboots, relaunches and remasters, the return of Adrian Mole is entirely welcome. It’s a funny and enjoyable show, fresh and relevant and perfectly placed to take advantage of today’s market for nostalgia. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its whip-smart peer Matilda, sometimes the singing sounded strained and the more serious scenes felt incidental – but it perfectly captures the spirit of a cult figure. One we can all relate to, probably more than we’d care to admit.



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RATING    3 ¾   3 Meece Rating1 Meece Rating

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Bob Dylan songs – from each of six decades – woven into a musical by Conor McPherson? At Dylan’s own suggestion? What? But here it is: moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep.




It is actually an inspired match, for Dylan’s songs share the playwright’s Irish sensibility. Apart from the obvious folk and hymn roots there is a particular melancholy, a dry regret, a sense of poverty knowing itself impotent but maintaining an irony, the consolation of a dance step or a late-night lock-in. Dylan and Irish song both tend to a melodic, poetic yearning which taps at the heart’s door with emotional authority and transcends time and circumstance. You can listen alone to It Ain’t Me, Babe even twenty years into a happy marriage; or weep in exile for The Old Bog Road even if you are at home.


Wisely, Matthew Warchus of the Old Vic left it to the writer to direct, and Rae Smith’s setting is sparse, unpretending, with microphones and onstage instruments as if the story was being told by buskers , as well as lived before us. Simon Hale’s arrangements and musical direction allow for a slight roughness, an air of spontaneity. The setting is a cheap lodging-house in Duluth, in 1934. The players are a community living on the edge. Ironically, just as the sunny Annie is playing just across the river with its orphan chirruping advice to the President, this is the second musical play about FDR’s Depression America to open this summer. But there is no New Deal for Duluth here. As its hero says, “We ain’t go no nets to catch us”.


In early film style, the local doctor (Ron Cook) narrates posthumously at beginning and end, adding to the sense of distance.   Nick (Ciaran Hinds) is the solid, striving host , on he last three weeks before  foreclosure on his house. One hope is his mistress and  lodger, widowed Mrs Neilson, with whom he has a fragile plan to start another hotel. His care for his wife continues, through the hopelessness of her dementia: there is a basic decency in the big beaten man, understated,  sometimes immensely moving, feeding her chicken stew as she berates him.  Their foundling negro daughter Marianne (a magnificent, dignified Shiela Atim, towering over her tiny adoptive mother) is pregnant: Nick hopes to marry her off to the only affluent man they know, a widower thrice  her age.




In from the Minnesota storm come two more to drive and aggravate the plot: Michael Shaeffer as a smoothly nasty Bible salesman, Arinze Kene as as an ex-convict boxer. Whose first welcome , in that racist age, is being called “Boy” and taunted by the son of the house, a drunken would-be writer Gene (Sam Reid). In the house too are the Burkes, failed in business, and their feebleminded, threateningly strong son Elias who is growing beyond safe control.




It is a big cast to manage, each with depths of hurt and failure and disappointment; but the songs knit them together in a poetic weave as powerful as the stormbound austerity itself. All the actor- musicians sing, superbly, resonantly, from depths of feeling,  with a particularly astonishing, mould-breaking performance by Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth. Every line of her slight, skinny body is expressive of dementia, disinhibition and disillusion. Sometimes she is cowering like a scared animal, coaxed towards food or restrained from violence  by Nick and Marianne: sometimes dancing, unsettlingly wild, a mad Maenad parting her legs at any man, speaking inappropriate truths. But sometimes she comes to a stillness, and in an immense bluesy voice sings the wisdoms , sorrows and strangeness of some half-forgotten Dylan song.




I say forgotten, because drawn from fifteen different albums, only two or three are familiar anthems like Slow Train. Under McPherson’s guidance they simply grow almost miraculously from the unfolding story, from the desires and despairing secrets of these people on their various edges. Here is lost love, compromised love, failure, weakness, loneliness, endurance. Solos become duets, lines are handed from one to another, sometimes choruses form: women group round a microphone in 1930s radio-hour style, or echo the gospel roots with tambourines.  Some solos are beyond electrifying: Elizabeth’s Like a Rolling Stone, or her final, heartshaking Forever Young, an anthem of hope in the dark, a hand held to humanity. Which comes right out of one of the bleakest speeches on any stage. Duquesne Whistle makes your hair stand on end; Is Your Love In Vain, from the Burkes in their darkest moments, stuns.



Dylan and McPherson are both poets. Here they meld, mesh, converse. The roughness is necessary. It’s a privilege to watch.



box office 0844 871 7628 to 7 oct
Principal partner: ROyal Bank of Canada
rating four   4 Meece Rating




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Ah, now this is what the National Theatre is for1 A great reckless sprawl of a brand-new play, with spectacular technology, extraordinary design (Katrina Lindsay!) and the very best of actors: all thrown at it, and directed with wit, clarity and humanity by Rufus Norris . It’s not perfect, but it’s not afraid of anything. That is to love. That wins the fifth mouse.


For Lucy Kirkwood’s latest is a Catherine-wheel run amok, hurling out ideas and themes , questions and feelings and paradoxes and jokes. It is about cutting-edge physics, cosmology, grief, adolescence, pregnancy, sisterhood, sexting, psychosis, exasperation, the limitations of intelligence , and sad physical decay. It is set amid scientists on the Great Hadron Collider , with added Toblerone and three very funny jokes about Switzerland.

Possibly there are too many themes in it, streaming out and colliding like the proton chaos far below, sometimes threatening that there won’t be enough gravity to hold the play’s atoms together, or creating a Black Hole too dense to comprehend (see how dizzy atomic physics makes us laymen, and that indeed is part of the point). But Kirkwood it fetches you back, generally with a snort of laughter. Not least from Amanda Boxer as Granny Karen, mother of the two ill-assorted sisters at its heart, who steals every scene she stumps into. She isn’t quite its centre, but has a doll of a part as the matriarch who once nearly won a Nobel prize and has no illusions left. “Love! Everyone thinks love is the greatest force i the cosmos and it isn’t, you know. The greatesr force in the cosmos is the Nuclear Strong Force. Love’s about twelve things down the list, after gravity and superglue..”



At its heart, though, displaying the complexities and infuriations of family love with pitiless admiration, are two tremendous performances: Olivia Williams as Alice, a brilliant atomic physicist working on the Great Hadron Collider at Cern, and her sister – the matchlessly funny, subtle, nuanced Olivia Colman as her dimmer but sparkier sister Jenny. In the opening scene clever Alice is on a flying visit to her sister, who after eleven years and IVF is pregnant and anxious, Googling too much and refusing an ultrasound because she read it causes dyslexia (in rats!) she provokes Alice’s cry of “Just because you have access to information doesn’t mean you’re equipped to use it!” . Ah, that speaks for many exasperated experts in the age of the Internet.

Then we are in Geneva, where the physicist’s son Luke, a wonderful portrayal by Joseph Quinn as a mass of teenage hormones, anxiety and goodwill, is online with a minx called Natalie. Overbright, underconfident, lonely at his international school, at odds with his mother, infuriated by the merry illogicality of his aunt Jenny, he careers towards a tiny personal collision which, in the moment, is cosmic to him. His father by the way has disappeared, becoming a strange wandering narrator and scientific expatiator who wanders throughout around the edge or occasionally takes the centre of the round stage in a whirl of projected atoms to explain the beginning and end of all matter: in the cast list he is”The Boson” (Paul Hilton) but the part has is a human resonance and importance to the others which is intensely moving.




The family dynamic, driven by a real and ordinary sadness, is as unpredictable and potentially disastrous as the rumours about the great machine beneath them. The GHC is switched on with fabulous sounds and lights, on the very day that Jenny and the troublesome old mother Karen turn up on a visit to a too-small apartment. No spoilers, but as particles collide so do sisters, parents and children. A black hole of despair is swallowing Jenny. The perils and glories of ignorance are nicely counterbalanced by those attached to intense, brain-frying intelligence. It is an intimate family story and a chalice of familiar bitterness , capable in its fearless author’s hands of lurching into a sci-fi-future and back into a messy redemption. Love it.



At the Dorfman to 28 September
rating five atomic mice  5 Meece Rating

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DESSERT Southwark Playhouse SE1



Piquant idea, to open Oliver Cotton’s play about financial inequality in BBC Salary Embarrassment Week.  While the inequity between multi-million popinjays and mere 149k losers in the weird world of showbiz is perhaps not especially  worth angsting about, there were nice resonances.


For it’s a good subject: Cotton is having a spirited pop at the Philip Green fatcat amassers of money, and especially the asset-strippers who leave investors broke like the antihero Hugh – who is Michael Simkins, always a treat. Trevor Nunn’s production (so soon after his latest Rattigan) wins another lovely drawing-room-play design – all Farrow& Ballish with old masters which are part of the plot tastefully framed in elegant white mouldings against fashionably duckshit-green walls. At a selfconsciously posh dinner table we meet two couples – Hugh and lady Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) entertaining American friends, who are played by Stuart Milligan and Teresa Banham with a nice annoying edge. They are contacts in the murky world of enormous investments . Milligan has less to do, but as the trophy-wife Meredith, Ms Banham navigates hilariously from being a defiant ignorama droning on about some ridiculous Blairish spiritual healing in South America, through a brief hysteria to display in the crisis an unexpected rather likeable solidity. Which is more than can be said for Graham Turner, who does a splendid turn as a burnt-out City maths genius turned herb-cookery nut and butler. He has become Hugh’s loyal factotum and has, as it turns out, a remarkable gift for making disasters even worse.




For a disaster is what the evening rapidly becomes. One hesitates to offer spoilers, but you should at least know that “Dessert” is a joke: they never get to the pudding because a young man in camo gear breaks in with a gun to lecture them on the evils of undeserved wealth (desert, geddit?) .  He has come make threats and demands which fatcat Hugh (Simkins rather splendidly drawing a tiny bit of sympathy from some of us) won’t meet.




It certainly keeps you watching, Nunn’s direction is sharp, and gunshots and other surprises come just when you aren’t quite expecting them. But Cotton’s play has one serious flaw: it puts an unreasonable weight on the tough young intruder Eddie, played as well as he could be by Stephen Hagan. It is an unusual, if not incredible, portrait of a self-educated, art-fancying, justice-seeking young soldier; but it is plain unfair to bestow such immense, Guardian-leader sprawls of angry egalitarian and ethical argument on one character. There is – certainly at first – far too little interruption and dialogue with the others to sharpen it. Eddie, frankly, goes on and on in a way few characters have been allowed since the days of George Bernard Shaw. It slows the play and detaches you.




With some cuts, it could be sharp indeed. And is certainly topical. And Eddie is morally quite right. But it’s not good being right if you’re boring, and even a Rylance would be hard put to make some of the character’s scenes anything else. Cotton has done this ranting before, in DAYTONA: looking back, I notice I wrote about “long, emotionally charged narrative monologues demanding from the other [cast members] the equally difficult art of listening and reacting.” But I did enjoy the dénouement. I hope for more Cotton, because he’s a great plot-maker. All it needs is a bit less of the GBS speechifying .



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

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INK – more thoughts

With the news of its West End transfer in autumn – well deserved –  I  finally caught up with INK (reviewed here on opening night by Luke.


I agree with his rating of five, and am as ever dazzled by James Graham’s remarkable ability to recreate a past world and a half-forgotten crisis which still matters, and above all to do it  without tiresome message-signalling or caricature.

It is a remarkably humane and thoughtful piece. And Goold and designer Bunny Christie make marvellous dramatic use both of newspaper office mess and hot-metal drama, now almost forgotten as the grey screens flip silently before dazed eyes in quiet offices or the bedrooms and cafes of freelancers.

A few fresh observations:
– Carvel’s body language as Murdoch is clever: shoulders round, somehow both slouching and looming. I like the the gentle upscale Aussie accent, so far from the cruder “Aussie hooligan” caricatures of satirists. Graham’s script also catches the chip on the shoulder and the underreported but well-attested Murdoch primness: an instinctive recoil at the more knickery end of pop journalism.

– I wondered whether the story – though true – of Muriel MacKay’s horrible fate would feel bolted-on, but Graham has used it to make the darkening of the play a Faustus legend, a story of fun turning to decay as Larry Lamb chases the chimera of beating his old paper, the Mirror, with any weapons to hand.

– The fun itself, the defiant Fleet Street romance and cheek, quite brilliantly done. I had forgotten about the tinned knickers and the Southend werewolf…

– In this age of stripped red carpet celebs waving their sideboobs, and innumerable online and lad-mag titshows , it hard to believe now that a nipple could cause such outrage and panic. Even from Cardinals and Downing Street and Mary Whitehouse. And the first page 3 girl disgraced,  told not to come back to her drama school..today she’d be summa cum laude.

– But above all, it was mesmerising to find so much of our own age foreshadowed – The understaffed new Sun was getting readers to supply stories ,long before citizen journalism was coined and social media dreamed of.   And beyond that there’s the populism, exuberantly crass, so dismaying to the sober Cudlipp and the broadsheets. A sense of angry insouciant mass feeling and reckless appetite prefigures both   Brexit and Momentum.

Or, at least, the  chinstroking liberal establishment reaction to them…plenty of Cudlipps out there..


So, still five enthusiastic press mice.    No point battering down the doors of the Almeida now, it will transfer quite beautifully to the Duke of York’s…


5 Meece Rating



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