THE HUMANS Hampstead Theatre




The joy of a play like The Humans is that it can take a subject that feels as if it might have been done to death – a family gathering together for their Thanksgiving dinner –  and cause us to forget that it has ever been done before. There is a moment where Arian Moayed’s character, Richard, awkwardly tells his girlfriend’s visiting family about one of his favourite comic books, where aliens share ghost stories about the human race because they consider us to be so frightening. Humans, Richard suggests, are as likely objects of fear and fascination to the monsters as those monsters might be to us. Watching my fellow humans in this superlative performance, I can see his point… 


It is making its much-anticipated UK debut, with writer Stephen Karam and director Joe Mantello packing up their Broadway Cast, four Tony Awards and David Zinn’s glorious set to come to London.    The set, recipient of one of those Tonys, is terrific, a rusty, run-down duplex in New York city’s Chinatown, two floors of peeling paint and creaking floorboards with ancient insulation stuffed between. Noisy neighbours thump around upstairs and there is ceaseless whirr and hum of washing machines next door. This transfer has clearly been a labour of love – even the smallest minutiae ensuring that we are absolutely ensconced in modern-day New York with the Blake family for their Thanksgiving. Gifts emerge from plastic bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond, the Coca Cola bottle being poured at the table is the slightly stumpier American shape, so has clearly been imported…there is no suspension of disbelief, everything feels plausible, actual, real. 


The play introduces us to the Blakes: Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved into the run-down apartment with her boyfriend, Richard. The two are struggling to make ends meet, Richard is a mature student, Brigid is waitressing whilst trying to find work as a composer. Visiting the apartment for the first time are older sister and lawyer, Aimee (Cassie Beck), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father Erik (House of Cards’ Reed Birney) and his dementia-stricken and wheelchair bound mother, Fiona ‘Momo’ Blake (Lauren Klein). The six characters share a meal – on paper plates, with plastic cutlery – their fold-out chairs squeaking uncomfortably beneath them. All have stories to share: money problems, sickness, revelations that build and break throughout the 90 minutes. Everyone, that is, except Klein’s ‘Momo’ – whose son insists had a ‘good day yesterday’ but whose condition has clearly deteriorated/   We are left with the family to unite in sharing tales of a proud Irish matriarch, who loved a drink and who was once the life and soul of these gatherings. We, the audience, are confronted on stage with only a shell of a person, frail, confused and mumbling unintelligibly.



 The dialogue is impeccable and authentic, switching constantly and abruptly between hilarity, stubbornness, furious indignation, and complete exasperation in a way that only a family meal can accomplish. All can be forgiven, yet nothing can be forgotten. Multiple conversations take place across both rooms simultaneously and the cast deliver it superbly. There are polite disagreements over the pronunciation of ‘Carnegie’ – settled only by Aimee declaring ‘Everybody’s right, guys!’, and the traditional, tense generational impasse, with Birney’s patriarch at a loss to understand why his daughter is so anxious about money, yet insists on living in an expensive New York apartment .  He smugly asks of her superfood diet, ‘If you’re so depressed, why are you trying to live longer?!’. Over the course of the evening Brigid becomes ever more exasperated with her parents: snapping, interrupting and shutting down even the mildest of statements. The two floors of the cramped apartment work beautifully, everything is seen, everything is overheard – it feels like a real family coming together to make do and endure one another.


Karam’s mastery is in making it all so authentic. The play takes place in real time, there are no scene changes – dinner is prepared, served and eaten in the company of the audience and Karam perfectly delivers the clenched jaw and aching temples so easily brought about by a tense family reunion. When the revelations arrive, they hit hard; the Blakes are fondly reminiscing about a past that may never have existed , and reluctantly adapting in the face of merciless change. 

 Believe the hype. The Humans is exceptional.    to 13 October

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

rating five  5 Meece Rating


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THE HABIT OF ART Theatre Royal, York & touring



   Onstage is a shabby rehearsal room,  an Oxford study scruffily indicated with doorframes and signs; at the side a litter of coffee-cups and props.  Neil,  a nervy and easily offended playwright,  sits in while the Company Stage Manager Kay supervises a rehearsal of his new work:   in which WH Auden is fictionally visited in 1972 by Benjamin Britten,  while the young Radio Oxford reporter Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken for the rent-boy Auden booked.    The actors are costive and restless,  the director  has cut lines the author cherished.  They are all in the mind of Alan Bennett:  so here we have  an artist,  writing about an artist writing about artists,  while manoeuvring round the irritabilities of the performing artists who are his tools.   It is about human friction, sexuality, old age and fractured friendship and the impertinence of biography.  And above all,  about the need to go on making: the habit of art.  “Are you still writing?” asks Carpetnter.  “Am I dead?” replies Auden, surprised…



   It is nine years since Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre opened Bennett’s fascinating play: high time we had it back, and this York-led collaboration does it proud.  There are lines I had forgotten and others (memory suggests) which must have been cut by Hytner and are reinstated here in Philip Franks’ production.    Importantly,  at its heart  the two great men – fictionally meeting in Oxford in 1972, both not far from their deaths – are superbly rendered by  Matthew Kelly as the veteran “Fitz” who becomes Auden ,   and David Yelland as the more restrained Henry who is being  Britten.   Kelly’s Auden is  rubicund and scruffy, sexually and reputationally reckless but a great and open heart, pining for his ever-unfaithful partner Chester.    Yelland gives Britten all his precise, tweedy nervousness and buttoned-down, closeted  yearning for boyish beauty and innocence.   In the second act, as he agonizes over how embarrassingly close-to-home is that theme in his opera Death  In Venice,    Auden challenges him to admit and even celebrate  those adorations.   “Why are you still sending out messages in code?”. 


       If that makes anyone uncomfortable in the age of heightened awareness of paedophilia,   it is meant to.   Impossible and forbidden loves are part of many lives,   and of literature down the ages.   And as Britten says,  he plays with his adored boy sopranos only in a musical sense .   “I don’t prey on them..I attend to them.  I listen”.    The discomfort, unhappiness, confusion is all there.   Auden longs to take over writing the libretto for Britten, serving the music which will express all these yearning impossibilities.   Britten is wary,   closeted,  but also lonely for the sensible adult love of Peter Pears who is in Canada.  


           In some ways you sense Bennett – long silent about his own loves, but around this time having become  more open, partnered and happy – debating with himself which kind of gay man to be.    But that is small compared to the greater theme of creativity and its parasites:   the itch to work and make new things , the habit of art, the ruthless following of dangerous tracks and the danger of become a national treasure.  Auden is funny about being considered an “oracle” and endlessly repeating himself, rather like Larkin who complained about “pretending to be me”.  And he jeeringly asks Britten about his adoring Aldeburgh  – “do they call you Maestro?”.    

     It’s sharp, and often funny, teasing and important.    And from Bennett – who has written enough diaries  to be a biographer of his own life better than any other will ever be –  there’s a nice swipe at how biographers  simply “hitch a lift” on others’ achievement and rather look forward to the subject’s death because that will tie it all up nicely.    The play holds up, even better, ten years on.


        Just a note on the Humphrey Carpenter character:  we were colleagues years ago, indeed around th time the play is set.  It is Bennett’s fictional dramatist (Robert Mountford nicely fretful as Neil) and  not Bennett himself who traduces him:   Humf was a lot sharper, funnier and less of a blundering clown than in the play .   But  in one of those often unwise actor-interviews in the programme,  Matthew Kelly traduces him further by gaily saying that Carpenter was a “great musician” but  with shocking inaccuracy  “knows b+++ all about literature” ,  and that his Auden book looked boring  “500 pages of “tiniest print” so he didn’t  bother to read it.  O, why do  good actors do these dangerous chats?  Why do programmes print them?   But it’s a fine production.  

Box office: 01904 623568  to 8 Sept then

Then touring:   to 1 Dec

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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     My friend and comrade-in-the stalls Mr Letts of the Mail has suggested ( by means of Twitter ,review on Friday, always worth a read) that he was less than pleased by a group of grown women pretending to be children  and shouting a chorus about their pussies in a subsidized theatre.  Which is fair comment,  though wilfully unsympathetic toward Clare Barron’s spirited play about a children’s dance troupe in a fierce American competition,   directed by Bijan Sheibani ,  choreographed by Aline David and very fetchingly designed and lit by Samal Blak and Lee Curran.  


       Maybe it helps to have been a pubescent teenage girl.  And to come fresh from the more literal but equally endearing Lin-Manuel Miranda BRING IT ON at the Southwark.    As for the shouting about pussies,  fair enough.  My generation felt the term rather too coyly Mrs-Slocombe for our taste, and  it is only lately that feminists and the US President severally grabbed it back for common use.   But let the ladies shout it:   after all we ladies have put up with  years and years of literary and theatrical blokes going on and on  – and on and on  again –  about their dicks.  From Portnoy’s Complaint to  Alan Bennett’s WH Auden demanding to “suck off” a rent boy at the National  (and, review tomorrow, now in York)  the line of literary willies stretches out to the crack of doom.  Dicks have delighted us long enough.  Indeed at one point I declared a critical fatwa on any show about Young Men Discovering Their Sexuality.  


          But the aspect potentially most jarring here  – adults playing near-pubescent children – is actually no problem:  once you pass fifty  these days it is quite hard to distinguish between tallish 12-year-olds and young adult women, what with the  flicky hair, scrunchies, ballet flats and trackie-bottoms.   My own daughter at fourteen went to the Old Bailey on an education visit and got asked by an elderly clerk where she was doing her pupillage.   So Sarah Hadland, Nancy Crane, Karla Crome, Ria Zmitrowitz, Kayla Meikle,  and Manjinder Virk are perfectly convincing, in and out of the dance routines and dressing-room banter.  



     It’s the banter that makes it.  The competitive dance team – overseen by a rather thuggish Brendan Cowell as the teacher, and mystifyingly including one boy, Irfan Shamji less convincing owing to the whiskers  – provides a frame and metaphor for the turbulence of everyone’s female puberty.   You’re learning your dismaying, changing body, comparing yourself with friends and rivals,  fantasising about a future,   half-proud and half-ashamed of the glances in the street.   There are monologues,  notably a tremendous rant from Meikle about her hidden powers which include a good ass and  being good at Math,  and a nocturnal fantasy from Zmitrowitz – the most troubled of them – about how she will lose her virginity to a handsome Canadian fiancé at age 23, having just bought together a New York apartment “with hardwood floors”.   Ah, the impossible dreams of childhood… 



        Sarah Hadland is both funny and intensely touching as cheerful Sofia who is assaulted by a first period on competition day:  in a memorable triple tableau that night she rinses her pants and wards off a sympathetic Mum, while on the two sides of the stage one girl lays out her model horse collection and the other vainly attempts masturbation.   Tampons and toys, wanking and weeping,  ignorance and speculation and secret societies.  That’s puberty.  And above all, and movingly often in chorus, there’s  a hope that you might make the world  OK  by dancing through it.  



       It’s an odd, short evening (105 minutes)  but likeable.  And  dickless. Though one memorable line, never explained,  is when a girl blurts out “I saw a penis, once”.   It is never explained how.  Best not to know.

box office     to 6 oct

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN LIVE             SEC Glasgow and touringTouring Mouse wide


      Remember Royston Vasey?    The endearingly twisted TV saga with its perverse , morbid inhabitants  spoke to a Britain that secretly enjoys hopeless decay,  imagining homely shopkeepers as mass-murderers and uncles as mad buffoons.  After years of individual successes Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (sometimes with the writer Jeremy Dyson)  are back : every character was greeted by whoops of joyful recognition.   

          The first half sees them in black tie with minimal props, running through beloved jokes:  the dreadful card game Go Johnny Go Go Go Go,  the contemptuous dating agency,  the mad audition,   and a  creepy torchlit moment of Gatiss as Mick McNamara our guide to the “nexus of leylines” which make the town a gate to hell. Or at least to the poisons shelf in a late-night Aldi .    In the second half there are costumes and projections,  and a bracing a sequel to the  Great Wife Mine disaster from the Christmas special. 

          Despite the ghoulish silliness they are disciplined: nothing goes on too long, nothing is banal  (it makes you wince to think of their  imitators, the dismal Little Britain) . Gatiss plays the more mellow innocent characters –   poignant as the sad bingo caller and washed-out rocker Les –  Shearsmith is more often loud and dangerous , especially as the terrifying Papa Lazarou in a Papal mitre making us all his wives.    Pemberton specializes in the extravagantly ghastly (do not get front- row seats for fear of Herr Lipp,  or risk yourself on a row’s-end when Pauline storms through).   

         The spoofiness is occasionally cut with acid satire:    Shearsmith’s Ollie  furiously asks why his “issue-led children’s theatre”  wins no awards.  I loved the Royal Court moment – “Why are you putting bricks on my baby? Down with Thatcher’s poll tax”,  and the 10-second War Horse moment.  The Rev. Bernice roars contempt on  MeToo and self-definition,  signing  off  with “Join me next week when we decide who’s allowed to go into which toilet while western society burns down all around us” .

          It is deadpan and dirty and exhilarating,  the surreal lunacies fed by sharp, exasperated intelligence.   When the  Dentons finally inflict every – I do mean every – bodily fluid on poor Benjamin ,   they have to do it with Auntie Val playing Nellie Dean on the harmonium.  I whooped with the rest. 

rating four  4 Meece Rating



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COPENHAGEN      Minerva, Chichester

               The excitement of scientists transcends borders and forges passionate alliances and gratitudes.  But how can it,  when a devastating new power hovers at the edge of human understanding,  and warring nations might  use it?  In the 1920s and 30s nuclear science was roaring ahead:   physicists across Europe  met at conferences, talked, argued, teased out discoveries about energy and light and waves and particles, rejoiced in the new alchemy.    Then came Hitler’s war: hard to be a friend across hostile borders,  tantalizing to  wonder what progress old colleagues are making.

          Michael Frayn’s wonderful, tense,  humane play is about two such friends.   The German Werner Heisenberg had riskily supported Einstein’s theoretical work  (dismissed as “Jewish science”)  but despite being sneered at as a “White Jew” for it,  was tolerated as a valuable asset , unlike others such as Einstein himself.   But in 1941  Heisenberg visited his old friend Niels Bohr and his wife in Copenhagen.     Nobody knows why.   But both were working on nuclear fission,  the key to what became the horror of Hiroshima.    

        In a bare circle of light  we see the two men and Margrethe Bohr as ghosts in an afterlife,  talking out why he might have come, enacting three versions of that evening.  It is awkward, of course: Denmark was under harsh Nazi occupation, Bohr being watched.  But they had been friends, Heisenberg almost an extra son to the couple: they worked together,  walked, skied,  took Bohr’s children to the beach, . Warm laughter flares in reminiscence. But why did he come?  What was said on the brief walk , from which Bohr came back angry?  DId the German come to warn, to ask advice scientific or ethical,   or to fish for information the Allied nuclear programme?   Did Germany fail to make the atom Bomb and devastate London and Paris because of  a scientist’s moral scruples,  or because of his failure to make a key calculation in kilogrammes?


      Frayn cannot answer.  But round go the conversations:  Paul Jesson a peppery, patriarchal Bohr,  Charles Edwards as Heisenberg:  perfect in his fading boyishness, movingly awkward, loving his fatherland but aware of its evil.  Patricia Hodge is a devastating Margarethe,   sardonically observing the men and outspokenly aware of the horror they might unleash by taking the idea fission one step further.  They both talk complementarity, particle uncertainty,  chain reactions, critical mass, old arguments.   She says flatly,  “The shining springtime of the 1920s produced a machine to kill every man, woman and child in the world”. 

      The play, perfectly realized here, is neat in physics metaphors, profound in ethical philosophy, sharp and sometimes funny in its human insight.    But it is more than clever. When the three ghosts at last stand in the circle of  dimming light,  you shed a tear.  Not just for the horror that science unleashed on us,  but for human love,  curiosity, and  the burden which politicians place on innocent scientists who only want to know…  

to 22 sept


THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE            Park Theatre, N

We’ve just had Edward and Freddie Fox as father and son in an Ideal Husband, so now here’s a mother and daughter in Jim Cartwright’s tale of a drunken mother and her boyfriend,  who exploit a girl’s gift for singing like the divas.    Rafaella Hutchinson  is  LV – “Little Voice” –  nicknamed for her shyness.  She is grieving for her dead father, tending his previous vinyl collection and channelling the pain and yearning of the songs.     When she sings “The man who got away”, hairs rise on your neck.    But face to face with the boorish agent (Kevin McMonagle splendid in a bad brown suit),  she is a terrified, damaged rabbit, shoved at a club microphone in an exploded-custard frock, abused until she explodes.    

         Hutchinson  has a fine voice and air of inward sorrow, but it must be admitted that if anyone carries the show it is her Mum:   Sally George as Marie: a  crazy, slaggy, high-voltage menace . She enters with a shriek,  lurches round the set and summons her lover with “Coom on, let’s roll around!”  She’s  a victim too: dead-end job,   toy of careless men,  frustratedly uncomprehending of her quiet late husband, and afflicted by so much destructive unfocused energy that a few years later she’d be on Ritalin.    But she is also a classic monster.

          With Jane Horrocks as LV it became a hit film with its themes of showbiz, manipulation and family misery.   But in this small space, as the crackling house wiring becomes tacky club lights,  what you feel more intimately is the howling emotional need for beauty.  Even big slobby Sadie , the mother’s neighbour and doormat, is briefly alone with the private singing,  and Jamie-Rose Monk gets  two real, fat tears rolling down her cheeks.  Sweet young Billy the telephone engineer  (Linford Johnson) finds his beauty in light,  the Blackpool illuminations.  In the final moments amid the ashes, song and light come together to take LV over the rainbow.  Lovely. 

too 22 sept     rating four 

SWEET CHARITY              Watermill Theatre,  Nr Newbury


     It’s a hot night at the Fandango club, the dance-hostesses thrusting and beckoning, belting out “Hey big spender!”. It’s business, not love.  Except for little Charity Hope Valentine,  who soldiers on trustfully seeking true love,   armed only with a belting voice and unquenchable humour.   Gemma Sutton is a pocket phenomenon,  sweet-faced and resolutely optimistic in  contrast to her taller, mockingly comradely colleagues (flame-haired Vivien Carter is  one to watch: a sarcastic, sardonic Nickie).  Paul Hart’s cast are an ever-moving  orchestra of actor-musicians:    sexy on the  sax, , foxy on the flute , tearing  it with a trumpet.  They wheel around the tiny stage, reflecting the aggressive sexy poses of the original Bob Fosse choreography (despite its  more sentimental edge, this 1966 show by Neil Simon and Cy Coleman is a clear cousin of Chicago).  There are neat musical jokes : an instrument suddenly handed to a character in the nick of time for their solo, bad boyfriend Charlie with a piccolo as Charity follows him round the stage like one of the Pied Piper’s rats.  


        When I saw it in the West End my companion left at the interval,  saying that musicals were all very well but“Why must they make a song and dance about everything”.   She had a point. For all its brassy exuberance, the first half keeps erupting into big numbers without moving the story on,  except for an empty farcical sequence where Charity hides in a film star’s closet.  But the love story develops with the Woody-Allenish geek boyfriend Oscar,  as a neat set of mirrored walls rolls us from place to place making us a club audience or comrades in  the dressing-room.    

         In the original Fellini film the heroine was a streetwalker, who he described as “fragile, tender and unfortunate” (some chaps like their women that way).  Neil Simon’s cleverness is in making her funny and tougher,   laughing  at “the fickle finger of fate”, bobbing up like a cork in the sour swamp of  gropey men.     Although Hart has updated it to  now, it hardly needs that.  There will always be sexiness for sale  – “We don’t dance. We defend ourselves to music” says Nickie.  Girls will always get “stuck in the flypaper of life”.  Here’s to them all. 

too 18 sept    

rating three


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EMILIA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1



     The Globe has had some tremendous new-writing about history, for which it is nicely suited.  Remember Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and  Dr Scroggy’s War, or Jessica Swayle’s fine Nell Gwyn and Bluestockings.    This latest one, commissioned by Michelle Terry from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is not in that class.  Which is a great pity, because the theme is intriguing and useful:  the too-long-tolerated invisibility of women as writers and thinkers.  



       It deals with Emilia Bassano Lanier (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady  of the sonnets, unless that was a bloke, as others opine).   What we know of her is scarce:  daughter of a Italian court musician,  mistress and protegée of a Lord Chamberlain and later married for convenience, she published a religious text aimed at women – Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum – with strong and laudable attitudes to her sex.  She may conceivably have met Shakespeare.  The astrologer Simon Forman was rude about her.   And that’s about it. 


But the author, and director Nicole Charles, regard this lack of facts as freeing  and make the most of it. Their Emilia is played by three women, Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson, with Perkins a declamatory, narrating old-woman version and the others as younger selves.  Their Emilia speaks her mind from childhood onwards, defies the ludicrously caricatured capering men of the court to their faces,  as she does the more conventional, crinolined court ladies.  She meets the young Shakespeare (a spirited Charity Wakefield), becomes his lover and tells him about women.  He offers to ‘pour you into my work and immortalize your soul” and she snarls “I don ’t want your platform, I want mine”.    She  utters lines like “ I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” which he promptly nicks,  so she gets furious.  When  his Emilia-and-Desdemona scene is on stage she rampages amid the groundlings shouting for her rights of authorhood.  She berates him when he tries to “mansplain” the craft of writing (hoots and cheers from a very ‘woke’ audience at all these points). 


  She befriends the poor washerwomen and prostitutes of Bankside after they rescue her from drowning (in a still very clean bra-slip)  and decides to educate them.   She runs a risk of being burnt at a witch, and one  friend is.   She finally gets her pamphlets about women’s equality published by disguising them as religious works.  


     The play creaks beneath  its burden of feminist ideology , underlined in the programme by Shami Chakrabarti and an excitable essay by Deborah Frances-White,  who feels familiar enough with the eluxive historical Emilia to call her “a poet, a class warrior and champion of women – but she knew how to party..shagged loads of people”) .   And as if  the feminist line was not enough, as the three Emilias are women of colour  we get another theme of the plight of immigrants.  The heroine embraces modern victimhood-identification  language and complains about “not belonging” due to being Italian by ancestry.  She   demands to be judged by virtues not inheritance,  and mourns over an exotic seed-pod on the riverbank which will never grow in “a land unforgiving”.  Though in fact Elizabethan London was more than open –  to Europeans like her at least – and awash with active and successful immigrants .   The paranoia is underlined as Lady Katherine Howard tells her that her sort take jobs from English workers.  Clunking?   Very.   


     It’s an undercooked, issue-driven play.  The Emilias in particular are fine performers,   but mainly given only shouty rants as lines;  the language is banal and plodding,   veering between brief archaisms like “I care not”  and Blackadderish slang and “That’s a bit weird innit?”.   Thus whenever the odd real line from Shakespeare crops up,   it is like an unexpected orchid in an arid lawn.  Everyone is encouraged to caper cartoonishly, a la Horrible histories.  There is little light and shade,  no sense of real interaction with men except once with Shakespeare,  and just whenever you start to identify with the two younger Emilias,  the older one powers in to interrupt with another diatribe. Concluding, in the final moments, with a ranting  paean to all female anger and hostility towards men responsible for our ongoing slavery. Her final injunction is “burn the whole fucking house down!”.  


      Look, I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be good, embrace some subtlety, open doors on the past.  It is perfectly true that women have been sidelined and silenced over centuries, and  I liked stage-Emilia’s view  (in one of the few good lines) that to succeed we have needed to be “tricksters, shape-shifters,  upstream swimmers” .   But  to my real dismay,  as the evening went on all shouty and furious and improbable,   despite the first-night laughs and acclamations I felt less and less sympathetic towards the cause.    

to 1 Sept

rating two  2 meece rating


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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford upon Avon




There is a swimming-pool ladder, a rubber-ring shaped like a swan, a robotic golf cart, some decorative flamingos (one used as a weapon) , and a statue of Queen Elizabeth I. Who is heard offstage, – as tradition says she did – ordering a sleepy Shakespeare to revive the character of Sir John Falstaff. In Henry V the fat knight is only mentioned as having died, “babbling o’green fields”, after being denied in IV Pt 2 by the newly virtuous young King and ordered to “get to his prayers”. So by royal order there was this comedy prequel, and another outing for the talents of the clown Will Kemp.

Director Fiona Laird (who also composed the splendid renaissance-disco score) makes the wise decision to go for broke with every kind of lark, and to give designer Lez Brotherston free rein with neon-edged skeleton revolving houses and a loony, diversely anachronistic set of mad costumes. Rugby socks, random kilts, slashed Elizabethan pantaloons pinstriped and worn over modern trousers. Mistress Ford is poured into a multicoloured super-spangled catsuit, and a leopardprint Hostess sports an unforgettable cleavage. Laird has cast the splendidly fearless David Troughton as the fat knight and padded him to within an inch of his life. Over that immensity his costumes too, whether tennis, golf, hippie drag or bestial furs are beyond panto: indeed I notice in unsteady writing at the bottom of one page of my notebook the words BLIMEY, FALSTAFF’S CODPIECE…”.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every six years or so the RSC pretty much has to return to this merry farce, and lark around once more with fat-suit and laundry-basket. The challenge is both to make it new (in this case the laundry-basket is a wheelie-bin, with suitably artful adjustments to the original text) and to keep it moving. Last time round, despite Desmond Barritt’s glorious tweedy Falstaff, my review quoted an audience member sadly saying ““There’s an awful lot of admin, isn’t there, before you get to the jokes”. Indeed the triple-wooing of Anne Page and the cozening duel between Parson Hugh and Dr Caius can feel wordy and distancing to a modern audience.

Laird’s tactic to stop this happening is to give wild licence to everyone – and I do mean everyone – to overdo it with glee. You decide that nothing can upstage Jonathan Cullen’s comedy Frenchman Dr Caius (“quelle catastrophe ce Brexit..let me speak a word in your arrrse”) and his interchange with the busty hostess proffering “pardon croissant voulez vous coucher avec le cassoulet”. There you are, thinking that what with that , and Luke Newberry’s Fenton falling over all the time and Tim Samuels as a rather camp Shallow, this really is turning into panto, O yes it is, all we need is a singalong… Whereon along comes David Acton as Pastor Hugh , and leads us all in a couple of lines of Bread of Heaven. And then it’s time for the magnificently circular Falstaff himself to attempt a run-up at the wheelie-bin, to a drumroll, and get covered with malodorous steaming rubbish and carted off by manservants who appear to be conversing in Bulgarian , or maybe Russian, with surtitles.

A great pleasure of Laird’s production, ceaselessly funny and over-the-top, is that it reminds you that Shakespeare is the honoured ancestor of a hundred sitcoms. Caius is pure ‘Allo ‘Allo, Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page has moments of Sybil Fawlty, while her friend Ford has a definite Miss Brahms moment and another, when acting-out the trickery on Falstaff, remniscent of Eth from Take it from Here. Falstaff himself ,in drag, even offers an unShakespearian hommage to Dick Emery with “ooh you are awful, but I like you”. Again wisely, Laird appoints Toby Park of Spymonkey as physical-comedy director. This is a man who knows , to the finest detail, exactly how to trap a fat man in a codpiece under a sun-lounger.

The panto mood, however, does not extinguish proper RSC respect: the set-piece deception scenes are skilful – especially between Troughton’s fat rogue and Vince Leigh’s suspicious Ford disguised in a Russian hat, dodgy accent, and plastic nose ’n specs set. Nor do we lose that brief electric moment when the comedy slows for a brief moment and the Fords face one another: he suspicious, she denying. And for all t her skintight spangles there is a frisson, an echo of all those other chaste accused women: Desdemona, Hero, Hermione.
But only for a moment. We still have many larks to come. And are grateful for them. As Mr Punch would say (his ancestry is in there too) “That’s the way to do it!”.


box office to 5 Jan
rating five. Because being daftly funny is harder than it looks.

5 Meece Rating


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