BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS

 

This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.

 

In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up)  to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school .  His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a  (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun,   and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.

 

It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness,  to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.

 

But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame)  is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.

 

As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.

 

There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.

 

Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also  give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.

 

So, all in all,  smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions.   But not in a Big way.

 

box office 0844 847 1775.  to  2 Nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Guest reviewer Ben Dowell wishes an important story was better told…

 

The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company,  is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling  the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however  in the form of a 2 hr 35-minute play .

 

It’s certainly  cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s pay. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and  sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den) ,who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrongand gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities. 

 

The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability.  Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Pebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.

 

Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of  trucks in order to win compensation . And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue , in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.

 

Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative.  This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle,  and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story,  factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.

hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October

 

2 meece rating

Rating. Two

Comments Off on THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

HEDDA TESMAN Minerva, Chichester

THIRTY YEARS LATER AND STILL FURIOUS: HEDDA’S BACK

 

     Last night, while Parliament spiralled into disorderly, resentful confusion and Mr Bercow dramatically put an end to himself after a lot of furious shouting because other people didn’t accept his “re-alli-tee!” I was having a parallel experience at Cordelia Lynn’s new updating of Ibsen’s most troubling heroine.  Who, significantly, the original author called by her maiden name Hedda Gabler:  perhaps to indicate that the most toxic influence in her life is her father the General, whose huge portrait dominates her married home and whose pistols she fiddles with in preparation for her final suicide.   This updating author  calls her by her married name:   poor affable dull academic George Tesman , who is here given almost too much likeability by Anthony Calf.     She,  on the other hand remains Ibsen’s sarcastic, prickly figure,  an intelligent  woman trapped in an 1890s patriarchal society.   The other men in her life , according to Ibsen , were the volatile Lovborg, another academic writing a “brilliant” paper despite being  drunk, brilliant and doomed ,  and  the patriarchally controlling  Judge Brack.    As everyone knows, it ends with a gunshot.  

 

       Cordelia Lynn,  for this version   has imagined that it’s thirty years later (but, a bit problematically, actually 115 years later, and therefore right now).  Her Hedda didn’t shoot herself in the head when pregnant but lived on, had the baby, called her Thea, didn’t like motherhood and spent decades feeling under-used, degraded by wifehood, intellectually frustrated and bored stiff of George’s enthusiastic research into “Domestic crafts in medieval Brabant”.    They’re back from two years at Harvard,  starting to unpack (the box with the pistols in first, obviously)  Thea is deep in therapy,  moved out to live with Aunt Julie,  then walked out of a brief marriage , and hasn’t spoken to herparents for five years .  But she bursts in,  mardy and cross, full of shrill demands (in the interval I looked at Parliament channel online and the echoes were remarkable).    She says they must invite Elijah (a version of Ibsen’s Lovborg) with whom she has been collaborating on a handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future”.    She also says that Elijah is off the booze, but we all know how long that’s likely to last. What with the moody twangling of a piano dimly seen overhead,  a sinister spotlight on old Gabler’s portrait,  and the temperament of Hedda herself hanging over the household like a rancid thundercloud.  

 

   Lynn keeps close to the shape of the original play,  but mercifully expands the tiny role of the maid Bertha to be a cheerful, normal agency cleaner who speaks merrily  to the un-mothered Thea about how much she enjoys being a Mum, with all the worry and laughs.  That’s touching.  So, in a way, are the scenes between Hedda and the daughter she resents; and there are some good, weird sparks between Hedda  and Irfan Shamji’s ’s louche Elijah while she prepares a celeriac and expresses her frustration to him.  

     

      She, of course, is the main reason to go and see this play:  for Hedda 2019 is Haydn Gwynne. And from the moment she descends the stairs – to be no help at all with the unpacking –  the woman is mesmerizing:  a tall pale streak of vivid resentment,   every turn of her head dangerous,  every smile faintly deranged even when her wit is sharpest.  She shines,  demanding our partisanship even in her most bonkers statements about self-destruction being “beautiful, brave, brilliant”  or her self-absorbed refusal to join her husband at his aunt’s deathbed.    “You know I can’t have anything to do with hospitals or death” she says haughtily,   milking away at her thirty-year-old experience of her father’s death. 

        She’s immensely watchable, and utterly awful, and it takes all Gwynne’s finesse, and the directorial devices of Holly Race Roughan,  to make us see deep enough into her pain to sympathize.  Well, a bit. . Even though she is living in 2019 , with a pussycat of a husband, no parental responsibilities and a cleaner to look after the house , so  any frustration she has is self-inflicted. 

 

       But more and more, there’s a sense that what you are seeing is some damn fine acting in a rather ho-hum play.    Jonathan Hyde’s Brack is suitably saturnine and finally satanic;   Natalie Simpson  as  the daughterThea is fascinating, and there is a bat-squeak suggestion – – due to their similar colouring and the intensity of their collaboration – that perhaps Elijah, not poor old George,  was actually her father. But that may not be intended.  What jars most is the sense that the stark despairs  of Ibsen’s heroines are not the despairs of our own times,  and his social  injustices are not ours.  Nor is it easy to accept the idea that the most terrible thing n the world is the loss of Lovborg-Elijah’s handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future” . It sounds  hell. 

       But Haydn Gwynne  in full snarling Hedda mode  is something to see.   It suited the evening.  As I staggered out to watch the news online,  I could only reflect that only she could make the resigning John Bercow look mild and resigned.   

www.cft.org.uk    to 28  September

rating three   3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on HEDDA TESMAN Minerva, Chichester

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON Old Vic, SE1

IN  PLAYFUL  ANGER,   A TALE FOR OUR TIMES

     

  On his deathbed in 2006  the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed , to make public what had been done to him.  The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble.   He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before-  and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest.   Police work at last pretty much proved this,     but governments of both colours  explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity” .  There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers  Lugovoi and Kovtun,  or to remonstrate with Putin.

 

     But in their teeth,  his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers  fought for a public inquiry,  and ten years later it reported damningly.   She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this  extraordinary evening.   At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A & E,  is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself:  gangling, earnest, decent,  a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB)  who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it,   refused the “wet job”  of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky,  and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts.    He couple believed in British justice ,  but it failed him after his death.   And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”. 

 

     The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience,  meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning.    Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony. The two absurdly incompetent murderers  – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls .   Between the domestic stories of the LItvinenkos and  the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs., one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky  about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs. There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily  patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play,  and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus.    But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real –  based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko.    It is satisfying that Prebble,  who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning,  should do it again with even more fury,   using theatre to entertain and appal  in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might  “go down in flames” .

 

     It won’t.  The very absurdity of the killers  (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral,  and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders .  Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella;  have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide.  There is nothing tasteless about anger  being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it.  And the human reality is held constantly before us  in the  shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko. 

 

     Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city  will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her  and shame at our shabbiness.  It needed telling.  

box office   oldvictheatre.com    to 5 Oct.    It deserves to transfer.

principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

     

.

Comments Off on A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON Old Vic, SE1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

OLD TIMES,  OLD  SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW

 

With Parliament in uproar upriver ,  the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a  “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”.  Just the night to hurl  some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session.  It’s  a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all. 

 

      It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right,   brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with  that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.     For younger readers who may naively imagine  a binary political split on the question,  it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming:  only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage.  Time moved on.  Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.

 

But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury.    Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am,  stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.    But subtly,  beneath it lies  a more personal  anger whose cause only gradually emerges.    Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty,  and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal  theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.  

 

     .  There are many laughs.  But Robin  is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery.  The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties  unearthed uncomfortably by human reality.    Vulnerabilities widen in both,  in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple  had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened  Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day.  She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it . 

 

        Best not to reveal all,  but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory,  Toynbee ’n Tebbitt,  Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all.    Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression.  Oh, and  the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago  when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise  quite decent people dreaded encountering it.   Regrettable, wrong, cruel,   but true.

 

BOX OFFICE  nationaltheatre.org.uk       to  25  nov

 In cinemas 7 November    www.ntlive.com

Rating   four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

CABILDO Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SWOONS OVER SWASHBUCKLING  AT GRIMEBORN

Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.

Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on CABILDO Arcola, E8

Filed under Four Mice, Opera

THE ENTERTAINER             Curve, Leicester & touring 

BITTERLY BRITISH

 

   It was  a good mix of ages in the Curve audience,  so perhaps a  public service to remind the rising generation, awash in Brexindignation,  that Utterly-Despairing-Of Britain-Especially-Tories is not new.  It’s been a tradition ever since 18c cartoonists mocked John Bull.   John Osborne”s disgusted play about a washed-up, alcoholic  comedian whose son is at war dates from 1957 – Suez & Macmillan –   but Sean O’Connor    has hauled it forwards to the 1980s  – Thatcher and the Falklands.   Though to be honest,  if you’re going to move it on  three decades  you might as well go further and drag it right up to Blair and Iraq, and make the vaudevillian into a game show host…

  

      The story of Archie Rice,   his downtrodden wife Phoebe ,  old school Dad Billy,  son at war and stepdaughter seeing through him has been hailed as a masterpiece from Tynan to Billington and beyond.    It’s last big outing was in Kenneth Branagh’s London season,  and I have to admit I found that one  flat and dated,  and unkindly snarled about  the “ long and tedious line of male ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision.”     Partly the problem there was that Branagh is no Ken Dodd:  the stage-interludes should convince that this was at least once a comedy pro.    In O”Connor’s production Shane Richie (famed from  EastEnders, TV hosting and tabloid gossip)  is a lot better:  in a spangly purple jacket  he evokes all the horrid hectic desperation of shiny-floor show hosts.  He’s as nasty as Bernard Manning,  as knowing as Howerd, as scampering as Forsyth but without the smile.    

       

           The director-adaptor has a brilliant eye for newer songs:  Rice’s  rendering of  the Eurovision “I was born with a smile on my face” positively chills the blood,  as does his final “Those were the days” .  We also get a storming second half opening – against Sun and Mirror headlines about the Falklands War, riots and unemployment – as Richie in a Thatcher costume does Noel Coward’s “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”.   A song which Coward, of course, wrote in gaiety to mock the post-war gloomsters of 1952.   Here,   Osborne’s Archie Rice means every word of it   as he snarls “It’s as clear as crystal From Bridlington to Bristol That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care”.  That got a laugh, on Proroguement Day.  The other notable response from the stalls was gasps at the heavy-duty sexism, misogyny and racism of our hero.  “Owwwww!!” cried a young girl next to me.

   

            It’s cleverly done,   if sour-tasting.   Richie is also good in the offstage scenes, in the claustrophobic family home with old Billy –  Pip Donaghy giving it the full  Alf Garnett but showing an older decency behind it –  and Sara Crowe is an excellent Phoebe,  the eternal demonstration that  behind every grumpy bastard you’ll find  a woman trying to make things nice again.   It is a bit one-note – hectic, angry,  drunken, hopeless – but that’s Osborne for you.  

      O’Connor ramps up the hatred of pointless wars and deaths for the Union flag,  relishing that Osbornian question “Why do we just lap it all up?  Is it just for a hand waving at you from a golden coach?”     Richie has genuine depth when he steps forward for that terrifying admission of how dead he is behind the eyes. And I had forgotten the best line of all, which is his explanation of how the great comedians work, as his former hero Eddie did, in a denser version of the commonplace,   seeming  “to be like the general run of people,  but more like them than they are”.    So not sorry I went.  And it’s a bit of theatre archaeology everyone should know.   But I needed a drink afterwards, and I still don’t think it’s that great a play.    

 

 

Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next

dates & box office   www.theentertainerplay.co.uk  

rating three

Comments Off on THE ENTERTAINER             Curve, Leicester & touring 

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

TREEMONISHA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS JOPLIN TROUBLINGLY FUN

Scott Joplin was rightly proud of Treemonisha, an opera for which he wrote both libretto and score; it was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime, much to his pain, but its eventual premiere in 1972 led to Joplin being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Musically, Treemonisha is a rare and precious artefact, preserving the sounds and rhythms of slave songs in the cotton fields which Joplin would have known from childhood, something few other composers have ever been in a position to do from known experience – and then bring to an opera stage. It’s a gorgeous score, always easy on the ear and rich with dense umami harmonies throughout, especially in Joplin’s gifted choral writing, with several animated numbers recalling Joplin’s prowess in ragtime. The opera is surprisingly light, given that it depicts life on a plantation eighteen years after the abolition of slavery: a community of freed slaves struggles to shape their new society, besieged by the various temptations of alcoholism, religious fervour, superstition and greed. When the educated young girl Treemonisha is stolen by some “conjurors”, part way between pedlars and witch doctors, the village rise up in fury to avenge her: but Treemonisha herself pleads for mercy for her captors, reminding everyone that to return bad deeds for bad leaves us no better than those who tried to hurt us in the first place. Persuaded to choose the better moral path, the village leave off their vigilante justice, and proclaim Treemonisha leader. The opera closes with a joyous dance celebrating the fact that happiness is restored to all: “The Slow Drag”.

Spectra Ensemble’s production for Grimeborn is as accomplished an account of Treemonisha as you could ever hope to see. The cast is excellent, with wonderful singing across the board. Grace Nyandoro’s cutesy Treemonisha doesn’t have much dramatic depth, though Nyandoro’s soprano is startlingly pretty; Samantha Houston’s tired, bluesy Monisha is much more sophisticated. Caroline Modiba’s Lucy is beautifully drawn, Modiba’s smooth, appealing voice making you wish Lucy had a bigger part. Rodney Earl Clarke takes a brilliant double role as the gruff, sceptical alcoholic Ned and the intoxicatingly enthusiastic Parson Alltalk, an early operatic version of Bishop Michael Curry. Edwin Cotton’s charming Remus bounces around the stage after Treemonisha like a gleeful puppy, his warm tenor thrilling at times, tender at others. Njabulo Madlala feels like true luxury casting for Zodzetrick, the conjuror whose spurious trade in “bags o’ luck” earns him Treemonisha’s displeasure at the outset, Madlala’s well-rounded baritone effortlessly filling the Arcola. The chorus of Aivale Cole, Deborah Aloba, Devon Harrison and Andrew Clarke (also bringing noticeable charisma to the smaller role of Andy) are all stunning. Director Cecilia Stinton has worked hard, with choreographer Ester Rudhart, to foment action and tension on stage, keeping the audience’s attention focused through the numbers: all the characters feel as real as they can, and seem to inhabit a real world, thanks to Raphaé Memon’s elegantly restrained design, using packing crates, a washing line and a rather troubling tree (which opens festooned with manacles and a noose) to suggest the lost world of a plantation, and people, abandoned by the ‘white folks’.

A thoroughly accomplished account, and musically delicious: but it is hard to ignore the fact that Treemonisha is a troublingly naïve piece to view from a post-colonial standpoint today. One exhilaratingly dark moment comes when Treemonisha, finding her captors bound, furiously orders the village to “set them free”: it only takes seconds for the penny to drop, across the stage, that every single one of them knows what it is like not to be free. Their subsequent choice of the moral high ground is noble; their election of Treemonisha, laudable and groundbreaking in its time. But Joplin – perhaps understandably – shies away from driving his point home, and “The Slow Drag” feels like an intellectually flat end, fun though it is musically. Treemonisha has been educated, but her first act as leader is just to get everyone dancing again; this can’t help but feel frustrating. The earlier part of the opera only refers to their situation in the most glancing terms; the noose and the manacles are helpful visual reminders of the full context of the piece, because you don’t hear it very loudly from Joplin. Stinton wisely lets Joplin’s vision be, rather than writing the subtext large: the very fact he didn’t feel he could say more about slavery and its legacy in this opera speaks volumes, and troubles you for days afterwards.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on TREEMONISHA Arcola, E8

Filed under Four Mice, Opera

HOTSPUR /PIERROT LUNAIRE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT THE OPERATIC POTENTIAL OF SIGNDANCE

The double bill of Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s great Modernist Pierrot Lunaire is the first outing for innovative opera company formidAbility, which seeks to bring disabled and non-disabled professional artists together on (and off) the opera stage. Accessibility is at the heart of the project, building features which will make opera intelligible to disabled audiences into the very fabric of every performance, rather than bolting an interpreter onto the stage for a night or two (usual practice in most opera houses). This is a noble aim: and the outcome can benefit any audience, as was clear on their opening night, when formidAbility gave us the privilege of seeing the first ever opera production to include Signdance, a highly aestheticised form of sign language created for the theatre stage, at Grimeborn.

If this all sounds a bit experimental – it is. But, like most really useful scientific breakthroughs, it seems obvious in retrospect. Opera and dance have long been friends, and using a dancer to express a singer’s inner feelings, doppelgänger style, is not a new concept. The flowing physical lyricism of sign language, meanwhile, is a dance-like performance of meaning. formidAbility showed convincingly that Signdance can work brilliantly in opera: dancers Isolte Avila and David Bower added beauty and emotional resonance to Hotspur and Pierrot Lunaire respectively, in minimalist, intense settings directed and designed by Sara Brodie. However, like most early experiments, the formula is far from perfect yet.

Hotspur is a short series of five tiny monodramas depicting the inner monologue of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur” Percy, as he campaigns his way around 14th century Northumberland. Fleur Adcock’s poems are glorious: superb lines like “The field of battle is a ravening flood,” and “A heavy price he paid /For juggling with thrones” are interleaved with the repeating refrain, “There is no safety, there is no shelter,” as Hotspur’s lust for political warfare thrusts Elizabeth into ever greater danger at home. With poetry of this quality, the meaning of each passage extends far beyond the sum of its words, and Isolte Avila’s elegant, expressive Signdancing feels like a natural development of the libretto. Joanne Roughton-Arnold’s clear, forensic and cool soprano is spellbinding, as is her mix of wifely anxiety and queenly composure, confessed with appealing frankness. Whitehead’s score is limpidly clear, distinctive, and feels led by texture: we hear the sounds of nature, battle, and fear. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s certainly an evocative one. So, plenty to capture us on stage: but frustratingly, Whitehead is not immune to the perennial pitfalls of setting English to music, and so with great irony, given the production’s fundamental commitment to accessibility, Hotspur didn’t land as a plot. We needed surtitles, or at least Adcock’s poems printed in the programme, to get to the bottom of what Elizabeth was facing. The twirling dynamism of the signdancing could also be hard for deaf audience members to follow, with spectators on three sides of the open stage.

Pierrot Lunaire is rather more of an acquired taste, perhaps to be acquired by eating a hearty breakfast of nails, or bashing your ears with iced rocks daily. Joanne Roughton-Arnold proved to be a brilliant exponent of the sprechstimme style demanded by Schoenberg of his performer, using her spoken voice rhythmically to reach the myriad range of pitches and tones of this severely challenging piece. Conductor Scott Wilson navigated his way calmly through the seeming chaos, his ensemble slick and responsive at every bar. David Bower’s mischievous, devious and often desperate Pierrot was full of pathos, Bower’s lithe, dynamic performance recalling the rich tradition of Pierrot as a mime. But Giraud’s poems have a demented nastiness at their core which makes them difficult to stage convincingly, even with this much skill to hand: with surtitles provided, we were clearer on meaning, but meaning is often meaningless in this surreal, formless piece. Meanwhile, the flapping cuffs of Bower’s soft, dark Pierrot suit could obscure his signing for deaf spectators, and the decision to send him up onto a platform blocked by a huge pillar from a third of the audience for much of the latter part of the piece was a serious problem.

This experiment has only just started: formidAbility has already unearthed something of great promise for opera’s future. It has also created new problems of stagecraft to solve. But musical and visual quality are already there, along with a remarkable ensemble feel. Exciting.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 1 September)

A formidAbility production in collaboration with Sign Dance Collective, the Rationale Method, Golden Chord Braille Music Transcription Service, Wycombe Arts Centre and 73, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

Comments Off on HOTSPUR /PIERROT LUNAIRE Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Three Mice

EDITH IN THE BEGINNING Sutton Hoo

A STRANGE RESURRECTION, BETWEEN WARS

 

    A red sun was setting beyond the trees as we gathered around a square, isolated house in the golden-hour splendour.    Here the land rises above the river Deben,  and with medieval man’s arrival artificially rose higher  into grassy mounds.  In the greatest of these barrows slept, for a thousand years,  Raedwald the king:    coffined in the long ship dragged up from the water and  surrounded by treasure.  From this quiet earth in the 1930s rose  gold and jewels,  a sword and helmet, intricate brooches and pins, platters and drinking-horns.   This is Sutton Hoo, which  was called  “England’s Little Egypt”. 

 

      The story of its finding feels as domestic and workaday as the burial was extravagant and splendid.   The house belonged to Mrs Edith Pretty, a Colonel’s widow, former suffragist and WW1 nurse with one small son born late in her life.  Perhaps because her father had been interested in archeology,  perhaps (so legend says) because one night she dreamed of Anglo-Saxon warriors rising from the mounds,  in 1938 she recruited Basil Brown : a former farmworker and self-taught archaeologist from Ipswich museum ,.  In 1939 the first ship rivet was found.   The British museum moved in , and Brown was  sidelined.  By the end of 1939 the massive treasure was up;  Mrs Pretty donated it to the British Museum, the largest ever private gift.    As  war approached, the trench was backfilled and the army used the site .  Mrs Pretty was offered a CBE by Churchill, and refused. She died in 1942.  

      

          There is meat here for tremendous drama and personal interaction:  the moment of discovery, the class-awkward relationship flowering between the rich lady and the meticulous, spiky Basil Brown,   the long grief of widowhood assuaged by the marvel.  There’s  the sidelining of Brown by the London experts,  and overarching it all the simple wonder of a king who slept in his treasure-ship  thousand years below the Suffolk grass.  To put on a play  on the very site  – as Stuff of Dreams  has done – was always going to be special.   

       This is not quite a review, because it only had three nights’ run and is over,  and also because, to be honest,  what Karen Forbes has done feels like a work in progress: albeit one whose progress I would love to follow and see.   The construction is odd: some things work very well, like the book-ending of it by Brown bringing flowers to her grave,  and a rather marvellous dream sequence  where  Dawn Brindle as Queen Raedwald wanders in,  pinches an apple,  remarks that she never quite “got” Christianity,  drops her brooch obligingly into the latest seed-tray or rubble which Basil is going to look in next,   and  vogues off bringing shivers to the spine with  a folk ballad affirming, as the light fades,   “He shall not dwell in darkness” .

       Other aspects are sometimes frustrating.  Forbes burdens her cast with overlong  monologues, sometimes rhymed;  when Kiara Hawker as Edith reads her late husband’s wartime letters it is useful in pinning down the period, the uneasy 30’s. and works well, but when he appears as a ghost in a monologue about the horse he took to war,  the play grinds to a halt.  Especially as we are by now interested in tantalizing details: as Ivan Wilkinson’s excellent, gruffly Suffolk Basil Brown explains  how the soil changes as grains of bone or iron dilute it.  We just long for a catharsis,  for him to find something as he shakes out fragments in his seed-tray.  Indeed the moments of first discoveries are almost prudishly ignored or underplayed:  the great sword is simply mentioned in Brown’s presentation at the drinks party.  

     

   And so is the difficulty, which still rankles in Suffolk,   of the local expert’s job being taken over by haughty Londoners.   At one point Edith says how tactlessly she spoke to him,  and how she regrets it,  but we never see a moment of that, or know why,   and remain a touch puzzled. 

    I wanted it to be better. But it may yet be.  Wilkinson is good as Brown,  and Hawker catches a mournful, determined, ladylike tone,  suggesting depths in Edith it would be good to explore.  And anyway it is a marvellous thing to have sat in the sunset on that hill above the river,   thinking of Raedwald’s strange resurrection.  I hope this is not its only outing as a theatre.    

Comments Off on EDITH IN THE BEGINNING Sutton Hoo

Filed under Theatre

AURORA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DIMNESS RATHER THAN DAWN AT GRIMEBORN

If Aylin Bozok is directing anything at Grimeborn, I always try to go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her past productions: her powerfully considered, exquisitely poised approach is always rich in symbolism, intensely crafted in detail, and beautifully acted. Grimeborn has seen some wonderful opera from Bozok in recent years: her Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther there remain some of the most hauntingly memorable accounts of those works I’ve seen on any stage. Noah Mosley’s Aurora channels several themes at which Bozok excels: it’s a fairytale full of brutal characters, playing with questions of destiny, fate and love, human greed versus nature, and the timeless opposition of male and female. Taking a monochrome palette for Holly Piggott’s design, characters appear on a plain stage in pale, softly sculptural versions of eighteenth-century dress, with a gloriously billowing many-caped cloak for the King of Loreda that any Georgette Heyer hero would strangle his valet for. Bozok’s visual language is characteristically controlled and resonant: characters who are in sympathy with nature, for example, ‘bleed’ earth on stage, explained in a programme note which carefully delineates her overall vision for the piece.

So Aurora, thanks to Bozok and Piggott, looks gorgeous. It also has a great cast, headed up by Andrew Tipple as the grief-stricken King who, having lost his wife to suicide, is desperate to prevent his deeply depressed daughter going the same way. Tipple gives a mesmerising and sophisticated performance full of natural drama, trembling with unresolved anguish at one moment, prickling with uncontrollable fury at the next, as his ever more forceful attempts to save his daughter only serve to drive her further from him. Tipple’s honeyed, yet accurate bass and subtle, expressive acting are a joy. Katherine Aitken is a delight as the dynamic Wild Woman to whom he turns for help, her body language sparky and semi-animalistic, her soprano full, clear and warm. Isolde Roxby has a harder task with the eponymous heroine Aurora, an unlikeably bitter, selfish princess, but skilfully brings her on an emotionally believable journey, finding an adolescent, selfish inner truth in her defiance against the world (as symbolised by her father). Dominic Bowe’s winsome Prince doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself; Magid El Bushra has much more fun with two smaller parts, a catty, camp suitor for Aurora and a marvellous owl (also the best costume, a pillar of dark cloth with a resplendent headdress of feathers). The chorus are slick and effective when on stage, less convincing off. Jean-Max Lattemann’s vocally piercing, stentorian Mountain Witch was a difficult listen, and an awkward presence in the piece; but that wasn’t Lattemann’s fault.

The trouble is that, despite excellent design and direction, and a committed cast, Aurora is let down by two key things: libretto and score. Elisabetta Campeti’s plot begins with a couple of interesting ideas (nature as a reciprocal power relationship in which we must participate responsibly; the lasting family impact of suicide), but these are unfortunately mixed in with many boring old tropes: feisty princess constrained by angry father, rich elite sneering at nature… Worst of all, it culminates in a princess being chained to a rock, and when liberated (more by accident than design), what should she do but fall in love with a passing prince, who is charmed not by her personality, or her abilities, but by? Her appearance. This was when I completely lost patience with Aurora: we need to go forward, not backward, and perpetrating harmful stereotypes in which women need to be “saved” or defined by their interactions with men is just demented on a modern stage. Campeti chickens out of saying anything profound, which leaves Bozok with a mess to clear up that is hard to disguise. The libretto itself is dire, verging on Pearl Fishers levels of banality (we even get “every cloud has a silver lining” – without irony). Noah Mosley’s schizophrenic score lurches across a myriad of styles, often delivering a musical mood directly at odds with the action on stage, which I found irritating rather than interesting. The occasional moments of jazz could have been used in a fascinating way, but in fact, felt like Mosley had run out of ideas and was throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, or was just irresponsibly making musical mischief – neither helps form a coherent or compelling narrative act. Mosley is just as callous with his good ideas as his bad ones: one brilliant melody, a lilting Middle Eastern aria for the Owl, created temporary magic on stage, only to be summarily destroyed moments later as the score rocketed off in yet another direction. The whole evening felt rather like being stuck inside a musical expression of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, or watching a child juggle with the entire contents of a bedroom. Noah Mosley, conducting, seemed to be getting what he wanted from his orchestra, who played with joyful aplomb, but this score sat stubbornly between us and the opera, rather than carrying us into it.

Bozok’s directorial skill ironically highlights these flaws, her instinct for inner meaning coming up empty-handed against the eventual floundering of the opera as a piece of meaningful drama, though she put as much emotional gloss on the disappointing ending as she dared. I can see why the piece initially tempted her: but ultimately, this superb director can achieve far more with a meatier, better reasoned piece.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (22-25 August only)

A Bury Court Opera production, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

Comments Off on AURORA Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Three Mice

ORIGAMI SOUNDSCAPES /THE CRANE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS NOT MUCH UNFOLDING AT GRIMEBORN

I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a bit of rarefied Japanese elegance on stage in almost any context: the very mention of Noh theatre always makes my ears prick up. So, when Grimeborn proffered Verity Lane’s double bill of bilingual English/Japanese pieces inspired by Lane’s time in Japan, drawing on ancient Japanese folklore, I knew instantly what I was doing with my Friday night. Or, at least, I thought I did.

This performance proved very difficult to get hold of, in more ways than one. The first part opened with a messy stage strewn with crumpled paper, bowls of various sizes, drums, and two small fishtanks filled with water, with Japanese graffiti scrawled on many objects in neon paint. Onto the stage arrived Coco Sato, our live origamist, accompanied by Kiku Day to provide an atmospheric accompaniment on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute whose breathy, breathless and occasionally shrieking whistle will be familiar to you if you’ve ever curled up with a good (old) samurai film. The ‘Soundscapes’ began in earnest with narration by Tomoko Komura: although loud and clear, her English was so rapid I found it hard to cotton on to most of the poems, which seemed to be aiming at mystical beauty (the nightingale, the owl, and the crane) but generally erred on the side of incomprehensible kitsch. Into this by now slightly scrappy arrangement, with remarkable calmness, danced percussionist Beibei Wang. Wang was the undoubted highlight of the night: her intense, focused musicality was simply extraordinary, part percussion, part theatre, part dance. There seemed to be nothing on stage Wang couldn’t turn into an interesting sound: her fingers flashed and flew as she splashed and paddled water, scrumpled brown paper, and kept on rhythmically drumming on anything and everything she could find. Now, the other elements (origami, flute, spoken poetry) became distractions from Wang’s sinuous, agile brilliance; despite sincerity and commitment on all sides, there were several moments when it all felt dangerously on the edge of being silly. Perhaps less might have achieved more.

As the final Soundscape culminated in a large paper origami crane flapping off the stage, the interval came as a surprise: given that we had seen a crane, had we now seen everything? With no more than a bare cast list to go on, it was difficult to know what more there could be; but ‘The Crane’ proper began in the second half, and here the wheels sadly came off altogether. Some elegant animations by Rowan O’Brien of cranes flying over snowy mountains created lovely visual tone, but the narrative impact of whatever was supposed to be going on was thoroughly deadened by the absence of translation provided (unusual for Grimeborn), the extensive portions in Japanese proving frankly impenetrable, rather than intriguingly mysterious. Again, Beibei Wang was a virtuoso spectacle, the best drumming I have ever seen on any stage, opera or rock, but if you were not already familiar with the folktale of the crane, you really were none the wiser as to its plot, or its lesson. I came away frustrated, rather than mystified.

Grimeborn is an ideal platform for experimental pieces: this was a well-intentioned creative act on the very edge of opera, which showcased some remarkable talent, but ultimately failed to fly. However, innovation is always disorientating: Verity Lane should be commended for trying something new. With a little more refinement, and clearer narrative guiding for an English audience, she might really be onto something.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (23-24 August only)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

Comments Off on ORIGAMI SOUNDSCAPES /THE CRANE Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Two Mice

THE WEATHERMAN Park Theatre

GUEST REVIEWER  BEN DOWELL SEES A GOOD SUBJECT NOT QUITE GETTING THERE…

 

The trafficking of human beings – 7,000 identified in the UK in 2018 – is a disgusting blight on our country. The  fledgling playwright Eugene O’Hare is among many earnest contemporary writers (working in theatre, film and stage) seeking to shine a light on the problem.

 

Two drifters, Beezer (Mark Hadfield) and O’Rourke (Alec Newman), are heavy drinkers who have been lured by the brutal Cypriot gangster Dollar (David Schaal) into his grotty north London digs to hold the fort and do his bidding. Only by the time the action starts, Dollar’s bidding includes looking after a 12-year-old Roma girl who has been smuggled into England.

 

Beezer and O’Rourke are a vulnerable pair but not without a conscience; they will themselves into accepting assurances that Mara has been recruited to do photography work. Nothing “core” they are told, just a few saucy snaps. She’s nearly 13, they muse. And what’s worse? A life on the streets in Romania or a slightly better existence in the UK? After all, they have a bad life too.

 

This kind of moral reflecting – and constantly seeking of justification – is a strong and not always welcome feature of this drama,  where the characters spend a lot of time earnestly explaining themselves away while poor Mara (Niamh James) sits in the corner, hunched, often scratching at her crotch.

 

It’s hard not to feel that she is merely a cipher to enable these men to wang on in a vaguely Pinteresque way,  and when they do it doesn’t always ring true. The real world of people trafficking, I would suggest, involves sharp business transactions and not much self-reflection. And it is probably not run these days by a figure like Dollar, an East End gangster of yore complete with a suit, camel overcoat and threatening manner that sometimes feel straight out of a 1960s caper, or (worse) EastEnders.

 

There’s no doubting that this is a play which comes from a good and worthy place and O’Hare’s well-constructed text is very good at evoking the sheer awfulness of the world it embraces. James Perkins’ set  also evokes superbly the grotty down-at-heel flat brilliantly.   My problem is it all feels a bit on the nose. Cyril Nri’s Turkey, Dollar’s bagman who drives Mara to her “work”, clearly loves his own two daughters who are the same age as Mara. Is he too wrestling with his conscience? Or is his selfish, blinkered hypocrisy just that – one of the many morally failed people in the play . In the end, he’s just a vile git.

 

Likewise, as a drama, it doesn’t really go anywhere, a point epitomised in the title. This refers to Beezer’s nickname – his ability of always knowing tomorrow’s weather outlook. By the end we’re told it doesn’t matter – the forecast will always be gloomy. So a bleak start leads to a bleak end and there isn’t much we audiences can do except shake our heads sorrowfully.

box office 0207 870 6876    to 14 Sept

rating three  3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE WEATHERMAN Park Theatre

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

8 HOTELS Minerva, Chichester

A GRIPPING PIECE OF HISTORY     

 

      In 1944  the adventurous British director Peggy Webster cast the first black Othello in the USA,  where for a white woman even to walk with a black man still attracted spitting hostility. Her Moor was Paul Robeson, already  a star  for his singing, acting and eloquent civil rights rallies.    After a Broadway run the  four toured as far south as they dared  to mixed audiences, finding hotels often reluctant to accommodate a “negro”.   Nicholas Wright’s sharp play imagines that tour, and its aftermath in the uneasy years of the McCarthyite search for Communist sympathizers.  For Robeson was not only a black civil rights hero, but passionately  pro-Soviet , believing it better than the racist USA.   

     

  American Tory Kittles is Robeson,  showing a man vividly irresistible in his energy and – at first – his dangerously high self- confidence.     Uta Hagen (the playwright worked with her, fifty years later)  was Desdemona;   her husband Joe Ferrer was Iago.  But on tour  Uta was sleeping with Robeson, Joe himself straying, and the director uneasily keeping an eye on them.     As they  progress between hotels the tangle becomes not only sexual but racial, political and professional.    Robeson is too stubborn, angry and stiffly himself to be either a good actor or a fair lover.  Uta and Joe both have the quality of great actors, both a brilliance and a flaw,  as they seek out their own emotional extremes and use them on stage.    By the end all three have, despite basic decency, both betrayed and been betrayed.  

  

      Under Richard Eyre’s taut direction we get a chain of  brief scenes:  some funny,  some moving, some cracklingly  tense (a chess match between the men, black Paul and Puerto-Rican Joe,  reveals envies and social insecurities almost too painfully).  One night in Seattle Robeson,  charged with his own promiscuity,  turns blame round and vents  violent fury on Uta.   Emma Paetz gives  a vivid, flaming performance as his lover. As Joe,  Ben Cura  elegantly changes from  an eager young actor irritably outshone by Robeson to reaching the top himself and showing that he’ll play dirty to stay there.   Despite the intimacy and speed of the play – a tight 105 minutes – you feel you have seen an epic.   

 

only another few days:  cft.org.uk  to 24 August

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on 8 HOTELS Minerva, Chichester

Filed under Theatre

THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…

   

  The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly    to our own.  

 

      The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents,  hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

 

      Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from  above the bare stage,  into the combative craziness of the modern world .  The row, alas,  will be all too recognizable to a 21c  medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).  He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters.  Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward.   I am not sure why this works, but it does.  It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics. 

        

          Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism,  religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’,  Icke hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.     As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into  separate identity groups we know where that led.  To tattoos on people’s wrists”.    Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

         

          But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.         

    

    As a show it is pure essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving.  In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping.  Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both  concerned with faith and hope.  

     

  The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag  will only be noticed by Catholics,  because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was  – as “Extreme Unction”for  deathbeds only.  Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed.   But that’s a quibble.  You won’t regret the ticket.    

box office  020 7359 4404    to  28 september      www.almeida.co.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

COUNT ORY Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS INTO THE BLITZ SPIRIT WITH OPERA ALEGRIA AT GRIMEBORN
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a flirtatious farce in which a naughty young Count drives everyone demented with his relentless erotic enthusiasms: and it glitters, musically and dramatically, with madcap Rossinian flair all the way through. For Grimeborn, Opera Alegria have moved the setting from the Crusades to the Second World War, with Count Ory as a feckless young aristocrat who hasn’t joined up, instead running rings around his exasperated tutor, the redoubtable air-raid warden and the hapless Home Guard as he searches for a way to seduce the delectable Adele. Lindsay Bramley’s brilliant translation-adaptation romps home joyfully with the goods: the wartime update lands the tone somewhere between a (very) cheeky Gilbert & Sullivan and a slightly sweary Carry On film, especially once the lads get the nun costumes out (oh, yes, they do). But while the tone is refreshingly light and firmly tongue in cheek, the music making is unrepentantly good stuff. We get an hypnotically elegant piano accompaniment arranged and played by Bramley, and a team of superb singers who attack both dramatic and comic moments with lyrical gusto. This strong ensemble boasts several eyecatching talents: Alistair Sutherland’s richly sonorous bass never fails to impress as Hopkins the tutor, a poised and sassy Caroline Carragher excels as a gorgeously bossy Venetia Trumpington-Hewitt, and Naomi Kilby’s luminous soprano (which has developed exciting depth and strength in recent years) is both engaging and affecting as the innocent heroine Adele. The combined comic skill of Ian Massa-Harris, Christopher Killerby and James Schouten make the Home Guard a well-rehearsed delight, while smaller roles are capably presented by Fae Evelyn as a pleasing Alice and Alicia Gurney as Nathaniel, a plucky little farmer who’s caught Adele’s eye.
Jokes abound in the text, in the score and on the stage: this production fizzes with taut energy all the way to its unusual bedroom climax, which here culminates in a rather joyous (and mercifully unsquirmy) threesome, rather than the usual red-faced mistaken gender reveal. Artistic director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith keeps his fine cast on their toes with slick choreography and continuously well-observed dramatic detail, exploring the piece with care; from the priapic possibilities of carrots to the real tension of an air raid during the storm scene (complete with siren), Newhouse-Smith is unfailingly on the case. Vegetables crop up regularly in Christopher Killerby’s design, which is cleverly simple, using wartime posters to set the scene, while Churchill’s announcement of war opens the piece with admirable tension, the radio extract movingly played over a steadily darkening stage.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 17 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on COUNT ORY Arcola, E8

Filed under Four Mice, Opera

GO BANG YOUR TAMBOURINE Finborough, SE10

A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH

 

       ANother fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough,  buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour .    As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community.   The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger.  The one he accepts,  to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber ,  is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion.   The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one:  the quartet  work through  a counterpoint of innocence and experience,  old resentments,  father-son rivalry,  religious devotion and simple friendship .        

      

        David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21c,  loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising  and utterly containing a character from another age.   Calver emerges from the sophistication of  London’s E15 Acting School  to become with utter commitment  a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire.  Here’s a boy grieving his mother,  living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off  years before with a Doris.     Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness  – and a struggling stubbornness  – which show the man he might become.      Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…   

          

       It’s a fine performance.  So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath  her  neat  bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of  the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour.  John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy,  is the father;  and there’s a really lovely,  explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess. 

    

  In one fine   scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine  into his daily life.   That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists,  whose band echoes briefly between scenes,  is obvious, but King is not sending them up.   Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable,   and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father.   Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco. 

    

        Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly.   Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set,  build a past  world without caricature and with understanding,  reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness.   It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders.  It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?

 

boxoffice   finboroughtheatre.co.uk   to  31 August .  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

Comments Off on GO BANG YOUR TAMBOURINE Finborough, SE10

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

DIE FLEDERMAUS Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES BATS FOR BASELESS FABRIC’S SOCIAL MEDIA TAKE ON STRAUSS

“I’m not saying I’m Batman. I’m just saying nobody has ever seen me and Batman in a room together,” reads the slogan on trendy Falke’s ironic t-shirt. Furious at a recent drinking prank played on him by his pal Eisenstein, in which photos of a blind-drunk Falke dressed as Batman went viral on social media,  Falke now wants to get his own back – with the aid of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde  and Adele, their family nanny, though only Falke knows where it’s all headed. Baseless Fabric Theatre’s contemporary interpretation of Strauss’ operetta brings it to where it has always, to some extent, lived: the world of social media, of rife gossip, giggling humiliation of others , and schadenfreude. Even though Strauss didn’t have an app for it in the 18th century, he perceived our egotism and vulnerability when it comes to what others think of us with an unerring eye in this tightly-drawn, fast paced farce.

It’s rather a treat to be allowed to sit still for Joanna Turner’s lean, entertaining production for Grimeborn: Baseless Fabric are known for their promenade opera, often on high streets (I last chased their excellent mobile Così round the streets of Merton, including in and out of Morrison’s). Marina Hadjilouca designs with simplicity and economy for the Arcola’s petite Studio 2, using a handful of large balloons, some white boxes, sculptural lighting, and not much else beyond a strong sense of contemporary urban chic to place the action squarely in London today. Costumes are brilliantly on point: Falke and Eisenstein are designer-label yuppies, Rosalinde an immaculately dressed but overwrought mother to Eisenstein’s twin boys, and Adele defiantly casual in denim, trainers and braids. With so little visual fuss, yet so much trouble quietly taken, Hadjilouca’s design stands back and lets the piece flow, the ideal backdrop for Joanna Turner’s skilfully choreographed, high-energy direction. Compressing a cast of eleven into four characters comes off remarkably well: Falke absorbs Prince Orlov quite naturally. Eisenstein is facing, not prison, but community service as a punishment for previous drunken behaviour, and in the most delicious comic moment he shuffles grimly across the stage in silence in a COMMUNITY PAYBACK tabard, sourly using a grabber to pick up the shards of golden foil left over from Falke’s fateful party, which he attended in the guise of a footballer, and flirted with his own wife, disguised as a model – all of which is, of course, filmed on iPhones for viral distribution in Falke’s revenge.

The laughs come thick and fast; the score is cleverly conveyed by bassoon, violin and accordion (arranged by bassoonist Leo Geyer); and the singing is glorious. The exceptional Claire Wild is on top form as Rosalinde, her passionate, agile soprano bringing real dramatic verve to the whole, acting with true panache. Wild is well matched by a memorably sassy, smooth and melodious Abigail Kelly as Adele, whose control during musically-annotated laughter is breathtaking. James McOran-Campbell’s honeyed tones make Falke rather lush, which is no bad thing: McOran-Campbell inhabits the world of the piece throughout with joyful intensity, even waltzing a little with the boxes as he rearranges the stage between scenes. David Horton’s lovable lager-lout Eisenstein perfectly hits the grey area between objectionable oaf and endearing Peter Pan, sometimes sweet with winning charm, occasionally vile and unreconstructed, in a clever and appealing performance from this talented young tenor.

Turner may not dig deep into the blacker bits of this operetta, but she mines its surface for fresh, light and coruscating comedy gold: and comes up trumps.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (6-7 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on DIE FLEDERMAUS Arcola, E8

Filed under Four Mice, One Mouse

DAS RHEINGOLD Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF GRIMEBORN’S GLITTERING TREASURE

The Ring Cycle is opera’s biggest box set: a sixteen-hour binge of dwarves, nymphs, dragons, gods, heroes and monsters, all suspended inside one of the greatest philosophical conundrums expressed by the human mind – and set to glorious, extraordinary music. Technically, Das Rheingold is a ‘preparatory evening’: it’s the story of why the whole story began (or in Netflix, “Previously on The Ring Cycle…”). Accordingly, it’s got lots of characters, lots of plot; after all, it’s setting up three more huge music dramas, culminating in the death of the gods, the end of everything and the burning down of the entire world (in order for love and virtue to be restored to a purified universe: well, Wagner never did anything by halves).

It therefore may surprise some people that it’s possible to find a Rheingold which takes only 100 minutes to perform (that’s a whole hour shorter than usual), but this year’s Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre offers just that: Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove’s controversially slimmed version in a brilliantly minimalist, tightly honed production directed by the eagle-eyed Julia Burbach. Dove often cuts and joins on the same chord, allowing the piece to flow seamlessly ahead, and if you know it really well, you’ll know where the joins are, and even notice (shock horror) where Dove has interpolated the odd passage to fill the cracks. But, for the rest of us: this Rheingold is a revelation. The only shortcuts taken are in the score itself, which is played with surprising richness (given the confined space) by the 18-strong Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted with care and precision by Peter Selwyn: meanwhile, the singing is top notch, the acting forensic, the staging ingenious. Bettina John’s design uses cardboard boxes as giant building blocks, decorated with hand-drawn graffiti summoning all the iconography of the Ring, as well as Valhalla itself, which can be built and rebuilt at will while Wotan argues with his giant builders about their fee. John’s creativity is literally brilliant: just watch how Alberich steals the gold from the Rhine by snatching all light from the stage in his mirrored palm (my jaw dropped).

Burbach’s direction makes this Rheingold very much Alberich’s story, played with tantalising humanity by Seth Carico: from the first moment he saunters on stage, picks up cardboard headphones and begins to imagine the world into musical and literal being, Carico’s Alberich is a dreamer disillusioned by rejection and stung into bitter vengefulness, soon scared but also intoxicated by the power of his Ring – I’ve never seen a more fascinating Alberich, quite apart from Carico’s crystal-clear tenor. Kiandra Howarth produces a stunning dual performance as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and goddess Freia, her creamy soprano glowing with energy; meanwhile, Claire Barnett-Jones and the stunning Marianne Vidal alternate nightly between Fricka and Wellgunde, which is luxury casting whichever way round you get them, with Angharad Lyddon completing the nymph trio as a vivid, passionate Flosshilde. Barnett-Jones’ Fricka exudes emotional intelligence, yet remains vulnerable in her permanent suspicion of Wotan, marvellously depicted by Paul Carey Jones, who gives us a masterful account of a god of many layers, from ruthless corporate master of the universe to a penetrating world soul, troubled and intrigued by the warnings of Erda (the magnificent Harriet Williams). Andrew Tipple’s huggably innocent craftsman Fasolt is a resonant treat, while Dingle Yandell is spot on with the acquisitive callousness of Fafner, Yandell’s rich bass deep enough for a Rhinemaiden to dive in. Philip Sheffield’s dapper, weaselly Loge is memorably acted, voiced with a distinctive metallic edge which rather suits this sharp dealer in spin. Gareth Brynmor John’s ebullient Donner, complete with immaculate trainers, baseball bat and braggadocio attitude, brings weight to the family dynamic throughout, finishing with the most sumptuous of storm-summoning arias… The world may not be on fire yet, but this cast definitely are, many of them making role debuts. [And meanwhile, guess who’s already booked to be Longborough’s Wotan next year? Paul Carey Jones.]

If you’re a Wagner fan, you’re likely to go one of two ways. One I’d characterise as the “Granny’s china” route: “How dare Jonathan Dove make cuts to the genius of Wagner? How dare anyone mess with my best, most precious Rheingold, which must only be brought out in full on special occasions and handled with the very best dramatic care at all times?” The other way, however, I’d call the “gateway drug” route: “This may be shortened, but it’s musically breathtaking, emotionally gripping, and dramatically convincing, and is a better advert for the genius of Wagner to a new audience than I’ve seen for ages: if they see this, it’s good enough to get them wanting more.”

My vote: if there any tickets left at all, swap your immortal apple-growing sister for one immediately. And don’t take a jumper – the Arcola gets hotter than a Nibelheim mineshaft. But it’s so, so worth it.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 10 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Five

5 Meece Rating

 

Comments Off on DAS RHEINGOLD Arcola, E8

Filed under Five Mice, Opera

ROMEO AND JULIET           Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead Suffolk

   ROCK ’N ROLL N’ ROMEO 

 

    Deep under the trees, beyond Jimmy’s meerkat and camel enclosures lies a 1960’s beach: shelter, deckchairs and lounging teens,  Mods and Rockers,  Montague and Capulet.   Shakespeare speaks the famous prologue:  “Two households, both alike in dignity…” as a puppet in the Punch-and-Judy booth, interrupted by the crocodile before finishing his appeal to our patience for the “two hours’ traffic of the stage” .   No need for patience: Red Rose Chain’s outdoor production, under Joanna Carrick,   is a blast, a treat,  a serious kind of joy. 

 

         Of course the rock ’n roll setting  suits the play’s youthful vigour,    with blasts of  wickedly appropriate classics from Jerry Lee or Elvis :what better than “Fools rush in”?. There’s a swaggering rock-star Paris,  and Juliet in a  swirling polka-dot jiving  petticoat.   There’s  running,  climbing, larking comedy:  Darren Latham (doubling as Paris and a grumpy  behatted Lady Montague) receives my rarely given  award for a Not Annoying Mercutio.  Not least because Carrick has him deliver that problematic Queen Mab speech as a terrible guitar number,  and the most impenetrable banter is sauced with laddish brawls.  So Mercutio’s death – a boy still valiantly, angrily joking – is a proper shock, as it should be. 

 

           Ailis Duff is the nurse,  all middle-aged raunchy inappropriateness in gingham pedal-pushers, never missing a laugh;    Luke Wilson’s Friar Laurence  – again doubling,  as dangerous Tybalt – is a streak of raw Jamaican mischief, a mentor-mate who can sort you with a potion.   It all fits, and it’s all fun.  

     

     

     And the tragedy?   Oh yes, we feel it, as the light fades in the darker second half.   Jack Heydon’s daftly innocent Romeo and Emmy Rose’s frolicking Juliet are as beguiling as they must be to make us weep for them,   and Carrick knows exactly which scenes to leave absolutely alone,  beautifully delivered without interruption.   The balcony scenes (from a lifeguard tower) are tense and endearing,  and there is clever chopping (smartly lit) between Juliet’s terror learning of the deaths and Romeo’s collapse in the Friar’s cell.   Also frighteningly straight is a rendering of old Capulet’s patriarchal bullying of   the disobedient Juliet :   Soroosh Lavasan,  who has spent most of the play affably being Benvolio in a ridiculous motorbike helmet,  suddenly hauls out a properly horrible, unnerving power,  a father not fully in control of his own darkness.  

  

    Indeed they’re a classy cast:  worth noting mentioning that  although it’s a substantial arena nobody is miked and amped  and the discipline,  despite some fine front-row larks by the nurse,  is impeccable.   Never think that  community-based theatre is just socially useful and virtuously sweet: that several of the young cast wander amiably about greeting visitors and selling programmes does not dilute Red Rose’s professional standards.   Maybe it feeds them:    Carrick hauled up every single member  and helper of every ability to join the curtain call,   and raised a cheer for her fight-choreographers Darren and Alex.  They weren’t there to take a bow:  both are inmates in HMP Warren Hill where she runs a drama programme.  

       

          It could be too, I suppose, that  the group’s social swoop and sense of life’s absurd variety feeds its fearlessness over contrasts in tone.   For just as the growing darkness and impending grief are properly weighing on us,  and the Friar’s vital letter to Romeo has gone amiss, the fatal error  is celebrated.   With a dancing letterbox and a GPO-uniformed chorus line doing adapted words to  “Please Mr Postman”

       .  I am telling you, it works.    On both levels. 

box office 01473 603388    redrosechain.com    to 25 August.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on ROMEO AND JULIET           Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead Suffolk

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

MISS HAVISHAM’S WEDDING NIGHT /12 POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES MAD FOR AMERICAN MONODRAMA

A pairing of two American music dramas promised plenty of angsty feminist fun for a Friday night at Grimeborn; and I admit, in less accomplished hands, the angst might have overwhelmed the fun. But thanks to a tour de force solo performance from talented soprano Sarah Minns, directed with exceptional care and detail by Ralph Bridle, we were treated to a spellbinding trip inside two extraordinary brains: one real, the other imaginary, both fantasists par excellence. Miss Havisham and Emily Dickinson are icons of deserted womanhood who compel our curiosity alongside compassion, victims of their own time and of themselves. Yet, despite their outer frailty, each is marked by tenacious stubbornness, a determination to bring the world to heel by sheer force of imagination: each makes a sustained creative protest against their reality. Composer Dominick Argento (who died this February) took more than one attempt to realise Miss Havisham’s story as an opera, finally deciding on a monodrama as absorbing as it is unnerving. To soften us up for Argento’s final attack, Aaron Copland’s setting of a dozen Emily Dickinson poems, each dedicated to a different composer friend, is a powerful, elegant exploration of the poet’s extraordinary, tidal emotions, swaying ever further away from sanity. David Eaton’s lustrous piano accompaniment delivers each score with warm, resonant flourish.

Designer Amy Watts sets the stage with a large dining table, surrounded by chairs shrouded in dust sheets, one clearly hiding an inanimate seated figure. A washing line is pegged with letters which will turn out to be from the deceitful Compeyson. Minns enters in a black 1950s dress with a crisp floral apron (perhaps a nod to Dickinson’s legendary gift for baking?) and purrs into the Copland, discovering a Dickinson who is playful, paranoid, divinely inspired and desperate by turns; a glorious human conundrum revealing herself with disarming frankness and fragility through music. Copland’s lieder-like approach endows each poem with its own private world of melody, while Dickinson’s skill with assonance and inner rhyme proves a gift for song: these poems are not so much expressed as emblazoned in Copland’s forensically poised score, and Minns’ gorgeous soprano presses every button in an intense, lyrical performance gently leavened with conspiratorial charm. Director Ralph Bridle adds a toy toucan, which allows Dickinson a friend, pet and confidant, and Minns merrily invites us, toucan and all, on a wild adventure into Emily’s bewildered mind. It is Emily who carries in the wedding cake, adorned with dead flowers and sporting a theatrically-stabbed-in knife, which is vital for the second, darker piece, where we find Miss Aurelia Havisham reliving and re-enacting her fateful jilting. To roll from one piece to another in minutes tests both acting and singing, and the Arcola’s smaller space allows no room to hide, but Minns simply relishes this: her confidence and focus carry all before her, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand as she traces Miss Havisham from her memories as an excited ingénue in cream silk to a haggard, trembling alcoholic, warped by bitter disappointment, alienated, feral, haunting herself rather than living. John Olon-Scrymgeour’s libretto brims with pathos: “It is now, now, always the eternal NOW,” Miss Havisham cries, falling on her knees in anguish before the stopped clock, crushing Compeyson’s last letter of rejection to a ball. By the end, shaking with emotion, smeared with lipstick and blood, Minns can purr, sneer or howl – we are equally mesmerised.

This is what Grimeborn is all about, for me: vibrantly powerful, high quality opera at near-terrifying close quarters, tough but intriguing, with a few surprises tucked in for good measure. Guts, brains and, above all, beauty.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (1-3 August only, run now finished)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on MISS HAVISHAM’S WEDDING NIGHT /12 POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON Arcola, E8

Filed under Four Mice, Opera

SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER Jermyn St, SW1

HEROIC ENDURANCE  

    

    In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless,  finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island,   and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men.  It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter,  Harry McNish,  who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.

  

  He is.   On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat,  raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts.  Derelict, delusional,  defiant but near to death,  he addresses Shackleton,  himself already a ghost,  and other shipmates.   Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle,  Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery,   survival in grim Antarctic beauty,  pride ,  trauma and not least,  fury.

   

    He has never  forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat,  Mrs Chippy  (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups .  (Of course he  would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done:  the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death.  The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that  dark cold Antarctic winter.  But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance.  And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy,  who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…). 

      

      Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels.   He was denied  the Polar medal for his defiance,  and also – it seems to him – for having been  right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes.   A brilliant workman,  he had other ideas for escape when the  great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes.  Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services.  But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum,  twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality.  Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night.  “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”. 

    

    Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death,  This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory.   If you catch it, you won’t forget it.  

 

Box office  0207 387 2875   www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to August 17  

tour dates uk & Ireland :    shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com

rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER Jermyn St, SW1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

VIOLETTA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WATCHES VERDI’S MASTERPIECE WILT LIKE A CRUSHED CAMELLIA 

Violetta is a reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, using only three characters: the doomed courtesan Violetta, her idealistic yet immature lover Alfredo, and – surprise! Alfredo’s mother. Yes, Germont père is exchanged by Opera Allegra for Germont mère; an eyecatching decision with a potential cascade of interesting effects on the all-important gender dynamics of this piece at Grimeborn. I set off to the Arcola full of excitement. What new things would I see? I was a little confused when I saw the librettist was still Piave – so, we weren’t getting any new words. Well, what would they do, then, to bring out those fresh and fascinating nuances from the inclusion of Alfredo’s mother?

The answer was: nothing. The part was unchanged (“Giorgio” simply became “Giorgia”), sadly miscast, and kept on stage pointlessly for most of the action. Our gruff, proud Provençal gent who learns humanity the hard way was transmuted into a weak, querulous irritating-mother-in-law figure with no influence over proceedings, and no presence to match her fellow principals. In La traviata, the clashing pressures of public versus private life should pound our protagonists towards misery and emotional enlightenment, via lust, gambling and consumption, but as this chamber version only shows three characters, we completely miss the glittering whirl of the convivial, cruel world which exploits and abandons Violetta. We are left with a rather flat story of an unwise love affair, paused briefly by the interference of a small-minded mother. If you know this opera well, you’ll enjoy Ben Leonard’s clean, springy tenor as Alfredo, but you will be amazed how poorly the opera functions as a dramatic piece when cut so savagely. If the opera is new to you, you get barely a sniff of the real thing, and if you find it long, boring and confusing, I’d sympathise: please don’t judge Verdi on this, as it’s not his fault. Worst of all, the much-vaunted ‘contemporary twist’ of the production never lands – the work simply hasn’t gone in to back it up.

Ashley Pearson’s revival direction feels remarkably outdated: characters sing in lumpen stillness, often without making eye contact with one another when confessing deep emotion, with only faint glimmers of natural expression occasionally breaking through their patchy acting, because his singers are left stranded by Pearson’s lack of ideas. Compounding the problem, Martin Berry’s staging is heavy-handed Merchant Ivory, with elaborate Alphonse Mucha-esque costumes, and no distinction made between gracious apartment, country hideaway or death scene garret. The narrative, already maimed, thus has no way left to express itself on stage. Opera Allegra only get away with it at all thanks to Verdi’s superb writing, which does all the hard work for them whenever they let it. Still, it is astonishing to find La traviata – the world’s most-performed opera – not functioning dramatically, or moving us emotionally. Uneven casting adds a brutal congé; Leonard’s pleasingly agile Alfredo doesn’t pair well with Loretta Hopkins’ vocally unwieldy Violetta, while Alison Thorman is completely, and unfairly, out of her depth on all fronts. As she approached “Di Provenza il mar,” I crossed my fingers – meanwhile, my toes curled.

I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to watch Violetta’s interview with Germont without crying; but, with such poor direction, it definitely is.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (29-31 July only, run now finished)

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

2 meece rating

Comments Off on VIOLETTA Arcola, E8

Filed under Opera, Two Mice

OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS

   

    I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser,   the bit that sticks, and stimulates,  is that troublesome  “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.  

        Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand  they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife,  and in the scuffle is killed.   And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral,  the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork.  So off go the happy couple in a jalopy,  and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.   

 

\    Everyone white, that is.  For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast.   He was indeed  drunk and threatening,  but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey    she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover  to hang himself,   in the weirdly compelling  “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events  the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy. 

  

    Edgy and interesting;  just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans).    Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey,  and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait.   Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not?   The result is that for all the merriment,   the production has uneasy overtones.  These come  to a head in the  extraordinary sexual  ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography)   as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys,   and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence.   Until  the real Jed,  anxious and spruced-up for courtship,  wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.  

  

    All this adds astringency,  and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong.    Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it,  the political-racial unease helps.   Not least because the early scenes felt oddly  conventionally, almost disappointingly so.    We have enjoyed the  musical-theatre lollipops:   the Surrey with a Fringe On Top  and the lively nonsense of  Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having  excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish  pedlar.   But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.  

   

      Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is  a perfect Laurey:   the finest voice of the year,   soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness.    If the overall effect is more of  a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better.    Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.     

 

box office cft.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating four      4 Meece Rating  

Comments Off on OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA       Noel Coward, WC2

FALLEN ANGELS ENDURING THE STORM 

  

    You can feel the heat in Rae Smith’s design,  Mexican sun on the rock overhead, and the corrugated iron roofs of the rundown hotel. Somewhere below the cliffside verandah an  invisible tour-bus hoots impatiently for its leader,   as the disgraced Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon yells down to  his rebellious Baptist ladies that they are staying on here  and to hell with the schedule as per brochure. 

 

      Clive Owen is Shannon,   returning to the London stage with no inconsiderable triumph, a masterfully crumpled white suit and a positively demonic level of energy.   This pastor, fresh out of the Casa Locos asylum with a breakdown,   struggles to reconcile life’s brochure -schedules (and conventional theology and behaviour)  with the vague truth of something beyond.  Unfortunately the something has most recently materialised  as statutory rape of a very eager 16-year- old.    His altercation with a magnificently harsh and furious Finty Williams as the girl’s duenna  is watched with lustful amusement by Anna Gunn as Maxine,   the exuberantly décolletée newly-widowed  scruff who runs the hotel.

  

      Into the mix appear more strangers:   the travelling watercolourist and sketch peddler Hannah, and her 97 year old grandfather Nonno  “the world’s oldest  practising poet”.   In the play’s last moments he will at last speak his final poem, evoking the fall and rot of fruit, “the earth’s obscene, corrupting love”. 

 

My hard-hearted young colleague Luke Jones has observed that you know you’re watching Tennessee Williams if “everyone talks like a teenage poet”. But then, Williams himself quoted an accusation that he had only “ the uncontrolled emotionalism of a minor lyric talent totally unsuited to the stage of life as well as the theatre”.    But if you love him no emotional overkill or slo-mo breakdown will be too much.    I think this is a  tremendous   play,   perhaps without the explosive excitements of Streetcar or the simpler poignancy of the Glass Menagerie,   but distilled Williams, groping for meaning.  Nor does director  James Macdonald jib at letting it tip gruellingly over the three hour mark. I staggered out ,properly overwhelmed but thrilled to have been there.   Williams  has much to say about degradation, breakdown, innocence, guilt, God, sex, pain , wild nature and loneliness.  

 

       His gift is as ever  to say it all through  characters who are  flawed to the point of being reprehensible,   yet inspire irresistible love and empathy.  Indeed the only atypical thing about this play is the intermittent and very funny invasions of the verandah by four rowdy Germans in naff beachwear,  singing Nazi Marching songs and jeering that London is burning. They do not inspire love at all, but are chucked in there simply because the author is remembering his own   depressed exile in 1940,   in just such a tropical flophouse where triumphalist German revellers were indeed part of the scenery.     Life’s patchwork absurdity need not always be simplified for a tidy stage.

 

The central  performances are judged to a hair:  Gunn’s Maxine is endearingly managerial and sometimes on the edge of cruelty,  but emotionally and sexually needy and seeing Shannon’s loneliness through his terrible behaviour.   He  is God-hungry and  sinful,  ranting at the deity as a “senile delinquent”,  struggling back into his clerical collar or ripping off his gold cross and chain. Guilty, mother-haunted, fleeing and needing women and haunted by his  “spook” depression he stands in the tradition of  Greene’s whisky-priest or Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. 

     

    Owen gives a wonderfully physical performance , crazedly vigorous in the crackup which has him literally tied down to the hammock,   but  stilling gradually under the influence of the other key to the play’s troubled heart:  the  straight-backed Lia Williams as the oddball artist,  “a New England spinster and not young”. With her gold choirboy crop and precise calm endurance she is a still cool flame of  generous chastity.  Both do justice to the wild lush text,  rich in wonder  and filth, corruption and beauty.  It tells us only to endure,  and grow as old as  Nonno so we can speak our poem before we go.

 

box office  0844 482 5151     delfontmackintosh.co.uk   to 28 Sept

rating four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA       Noel Coward, WC2

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

   JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT                London Palladium W1

  IT’S BACK,  YOUNGER THAN EVER…

 

  We love a starry debut, especially on opening night in a huge theatre:   a 21-year-old not yet through drama school making a stonking, belting first professional appearance in a title role.  We get on our feet:  can’t help it.  Cynicism melts, especially in musical theatre where the energy, the leaping and twirling and singing-while-dancing and sheer bodily skill brings a lump to your throat at even the blandest show.  

     

  So Laurence Connor   knew what he was doing when he cast young  Jac Yarrow in the role more often awarded to existing celebrities:   Joseph is a story about youthful dash , innocence and courage,  its school-play origins in are still at its core and deliberately underlined in this zippy new production.    Giving it such a young star underlines its freshness and fun,   and Yarrow does not let his director  down.  When he comes to the end of his big number behind bars, affirming “Children of Israel are never alone!”  we cheer.  And it’s all the cleverer an effect for Connor’s staging it  – in contrast to the previous relentless cheerfulness of the show –  with one of the few moments of sharp contemporary anxiety:  real children trapped behind him, on the iron bars.

 

         MInd you, you need troupers as well:   the Elvis Pharaoh who bursts on us deafeningly in the second half  is Jason Donovan,  and  the peerless Sheridan Smith is the narrator,    frolicking and clowning  and gagging,   whipping a false beard on and off to be Jacob,  every inch the manic primary-school cheerleader as she encourages and leads a wonderfully child-heavy cast (there are 32 of them in rep:   on press night little Potiphar stole his moment, as well he should).  

        As I say, it began as a school musical about the biblical story of Joseph, his jealous brother’s and the prophetic dreams that saved Egypt from famine. It belongs  in the playful youth of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a stage of life when pastiche is mischievous fun, energy raw and you can get away with lines like “All those things you saw in your pyjamas /  Were a long range forecast for your farmers”.    Lloyd Webber’s inalienable romanticism could already soar easy as a bird into  songs like Any Dream Will Do,  and his sense of parody in the developing show include styles  from Country & Western to Maurice Chevalier (“Ah, zose Canaan days..”),  bubblegum pop and retro tap numbers to that gold-plated Elvis moment here awarded to Pharaoh Jason Donovan.  Of the latter,  the only snag is that unlike the excellent verbal clarity of the rest, it is entirely impossible to follow his growly-rock account of his dreams.  But if you bring a child not yet familiar with the Bible stories of the seven years harvests,  shame on you anyway.

        

    So it’s pure pleasure,  in energy and design (Morgan Large has more fun than is decent, what with Egyptian slavers on tricycle-powered camels, a 15ft gold Anubis statue that mimes with a guitar, and hieroglyphs including beefburgers.  The coat itself is magnificent,  with echoes of Edina Monsoon’s taste in OTT Lacroix).   Sheridan Smith frolics with lunatic competence,  a windmill of energy (see her give the Pharaoh a shoulder rub!  Observe  herself wildly flinging herself at poor Joseph  as Mrs Potiphar in a leopardshkin rug, head and all).  Dance styles draw from Riverdance to Breakdance and most stops in between.   Fun is had. 

box office  lwtheatres.co.uk   to 8 September

rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on    JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT                London Palladium W1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

PETER GYNT Olivier, SE1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS CAPTIVATED BY LIFE’S FUTILE MISSION…

 

Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s almost unperformable meandering 1867 epic, –  written as a poem and not really designed for the stage –   has been a problem for directors for more than a century. In Willy Russell’s 1983 film Educating Rita, Julie Walter’s aspiring graduate answered her first essay question about the problem of staging it with the words “do it on the radio”. She could just as well have said “get David Hare”.

 

Because what the veteran playwright has done is nothing short of marvellous – bringing the saga bang up to date, he has made it a searching inquisition into today’s online, self-obsessed world, a place where, as Peter tells us, “people don’t have lives any more, they have stories”. Hare has made as much sense of Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece as seems possible.

 

Peter’s futile mission to discover a sense of his self throughout his story (never mind the human cost of those he encounters) is so redolent of the narrative-making of narcissistic Instagrammers the world over it’s almost eerie. Added to that the prefiguring of Freud in Peter’s dreaming, his egotism and his problems with his mother accentuate a sense that this is an astonishingly prophetic piece of work.

 

James McCardle’s Peter is living on a remote Scottish island in this telling, just back from a war somewhere in the Middle East and full of mendacious claims of his heroism. This obviously allows Hare to scratch all his itches about Tony Blair and Weapons of Mass destruction, which feels a bit overdone.

The moment mid-way though his story when Peter makes his fortune, becoming a reckless Florida gold club-owning businessman and head of Gynt Enterprises is also rather blunt in its satire of You-Know-Who in the White House.  But the play’s Fake Noos-ish assertion that “if people believe you did something then you did it” certainly makes this feel more justified in Hare’s retelling.

 

But he certainly goes a bit far at the close,  when David Cameron pops up to bemoan his failure to understand the wishes of voters who weren’t as privileged as him. It’s a fair point to make, but it didn’t add much dramatically,  and felt more like the kind of jokey insertion you’d expect at the Hackney Empire panto than the National. It also prompted that most irritating of National Theatre traditions – the knowing, liberal guffaw.

 

Still, it’s bonkers in a wonderful way, and you’ll be thinking of it long after the curtain comes down. Not just of our own age and problems but the stories and traditions it emanates from – the story of Job,, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  And director Jonathan Kent’s staging is quite breathtaking at times. Designer Richard Hudson’s clutter-free stage evokes the majesty and grandeur of this epic story with fabulous evocations of a Troll dinner party with a skewed table, the Egyptian desert, and Peter’s sea-voyage complete with enormous ship.

 

But in the end it all comes back to Peter, and his sudden sense at the close that most of our lives, however much we want to be at the centre of the world, are mediocre and hollow.  McArdle is more than up to the job, coping with a hugely demanding night with intelligence and verve; his Peter is infuriating  for most of the play,  and its testament to our lead’s skill  is that we continue to root for him.  And we are left with some hard and painful questions of our own.

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 October

rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on PETER GYNT Olivier, SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

MEASURE FOR MEASURE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DEVOTION , DISGUISE,  DECADENCE  

  What a strange and stirring play this is!    Set in convent, court and condemned-cell,  it is spiked with moral ambiguities and fuelled equally by sexual desire and sexual distaste,   as Isabella refuses to yield her chastity for a brother’s life.  There’s a Winters-Tale resurrection moment, several powerful emotional cliffhangers,  questions about corrupt power ,   necessary  disguises  and defiances.  Dark villainy is given a curious reprieve and purity questioned.    Last time the RSC did Measure for Measure was in the Swan, with whips, nipple clamps, spiked leather collars, and Mariana hanging out  sullenly in the Moated Grange in a filmy negligée and studded biker belt.  I enjoyed it.   It had ‘élan.   But this production strikes deeper. 

 

       Set in Vienna 1900 under Gregory Doran’s thoughtful, clear and gripping direction,  this time there is not a fetish in sight,   though plenty of stocking-tops and bustiers and no small pleasure –  as Angelo cracks down on the brothelkeepers – in seeing Graeme Brookes’  huge-frocked Mistress Overdone swing both her arresting officers around by their chains .  More pleasure indeed when the said Brookes reappears as Barnadine,  the belching, farting,  degenerate murderer who refuses to be executed because he’s having a kip, and in the end whoops along the walkway to freedom. Pompey the pimp is given full rein by David Ajao, and as for Joseph Arkley poncing around in spats and a malacca cane as Lucio,  and interrupting the final judgement, words fail me.  There are malapropisms from Constable Elbow and a particularly creepy weirdness in Abhorson the executioner, and it’s all done superbly.  

 

        But what Doran frames most brilliantly is the central confusion of morality.  The Duke-Friar is the anchor of   it (if sometimes an unreliable one, Anthony Byrne showing him both determined and troubled).     As  for his better behaved henchmen,  the director’s decision to cast Claire Price as Escalus and  Amanda Harris as a really excellent, watchfully troubled Provost is a gender-switch  used with great intelligence.  Here are  two grown, completed women are drawn into the play’s conflicted atmosphere of sexual sin:   not buying it,  aware that Angelo is wrong,  quietly maternal towards poor Claudio. As indeed we all were:   James Cooney’s delivery of the speech about the terror of death was heart-stopping.   Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a puzzle,   but then Angelo always is:  his smooth-pated suaveness chiefly makes you reflect that the worst villains are often weak characters.  

    

      As for Lucy Phelps’ Isabella,   she is simply tremendous and will be   memorable for years.  She  is credible both in her eager devoutness and solid defiance,   and in the breathtaking moment of despair when her whole body becomes a terrible Munch scream.   The scenes between her and  Mariana are womanly, intense and real;      that Doran leaves us uncertain that this woman will agree to marry the Duke creates an final moment which most excellently serves the play’s problematic quality.  Wonderful. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 4th April 

rating five 5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on MEASURE FOR MEASURE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

     Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany,  are the Harry Potter team.  They know how not to bore.   But they’ve been here before too in a  Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood,   and they can make that just as gripping.  HOPE was a wonderful,  unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man ““It’s possible I will have a better life than you.  The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”.    And this play picks up that theme  of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better. 

 

A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents:  children of the spirit of ‘68, protest marchers, idealists.  He is immersed,  over his newspaper,  in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education.  She is lively, dryly funny,  a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran,    disappointed in  Tony Blair.  The children were all named after socialist icons.

 

As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s  Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash.  The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family,   and Carl needs his pro-choice  liberal parents to fund her abortion.   Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave.    Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife  in  the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter,  irritable warmth and familiar  allusions of the host family.

 

Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.

 

An important achievement  is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family,  as firmly as in EM Forster’s  Schlegels (to whom they may well  owe a debt: certainly  Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So  we follow them,  engrossed by the way that  the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as  the 21c world  of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit.    Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ;  Carl disappointed, thwarted,  drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out.  But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson  gives up,   in every glance and gesture,  a vulnerability that stops your heart.

 

      However,  caringly and  without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!”  used to be in melodrama.  I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom .  Beat, beat,  pause  – family look at one another aghast –  someone runs off    there’s a shot or a horrified scream.     It’s too easy.  Mike Leigh has done it,  the  normally subtler  Florian Zeller has just done it.  Now Thorne.  Enough already!  it’s becoming  emotionally cheap.   And some of us can see it coming minutes early.    Capeesh?

 

Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 boxoffice@royalcourttheatre.com

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

FARCE AS LIFE, LIFE AS FARCE, FRAYN AGAIN TRIUMPHANS

  

    It felt like a pilgrimage,  homage to pay.   37 years ago Michael Frayn’s greatest of comedies, a wicked love-song to the great age of touring rep,   premiered in this very theatre.  Since then it has taken London and Broadway crowns and swept the world in  – as the author muses –  often some pretty ramshackle versions.  “In Prague they performed the play for some ten years without Act 3 and no one noticed until I arrived…One Christmas Eve in Sicily two different touring productions turned up in Catania at the same time”.   

 

         I am glad that before various grander outings I saw it first,  in the late 80’s,  in one of those potentially ramshackle versions.  It was Jill Freud’s Southwold rep, and rather good,  but to this day I cannot understand how they managed to rig up the full front-view set and then, after the interval,   its backstage reverse.  Because St Edmunds Hall is a venue so small that sometimes the only way for an actor  to re-enter stage right is to dart out through the churchyard in the rain. But they did it. 

 

I mention this – though I’ve seen it twice since on grander stages – to emphasise the sheer love this play sparks.  Frayn shows us a theatre company in chaotic dress rehearsal of a banal farce, with doors and sardine-plate props and panicking couples,  deftly  sketching the cast’s cross-currents of personality, relationships and practical difficulties.   After an interval he reverses the scenery  so we see them a month into the tour, from backstage.  As the show is half-heard behind the curtain the players,  tired and mutely furious,   flare into personal conflict.    Then for the brief last act we are out front again watching their total dissolution at the end of the tour.      In doing this Frayn  lays open human life’s compromises, inadequacies and instabilities , and reminds us that much of our existence tends to be a desperate attempt to put on a show and keep our end up in public.   In relieved joy, we recognize it and  laugh. 

 

    We laugh very hard.   Around me in the second act last night several people seeing it for the first time were actually rendered helpless.     It was press night  and therefore,  because the gods of farce are very thorough in their ways,   on that very night Jeremy Herrin’s  faultless production  suffered  a brief  – and real    unscheduled blackout near the end of the backstage act.   The  audience could hardly contain its glee.   It’s rarely that an electrical cock-up actually enhances a show, but it did.     Either it could be called tautology – a theatre-breakdown  in the depiction of a theatre-breakdown –  but I prefer to think of it as an oxymoron:  because here was the most tightly disciplined and controlled of productions being cruelly deprived of control. …

 

  All the cast are bang on the nail, though I must single out Meera Syal as Dotty, playing the old housekeeper, for her physical deftness in moving.   In character she does the shuffling stage-crone thing,   but when pausing over a sardine plate confusion and shouting to the director in the house  (who, blissfully, was striding around right next to my seat) she  uncoils like a serpent to become the magisterial old diva she is.    As the show goes on,  more and more conflicted,   her Dotty sometimes  forgets to shuffle and then suddenly remembers and we choke laughing.

 

    Jonathan Cullen too is is very fine too as poor Freddie,  struggling with his personal life and nosebleeds,  and Debra Gillett catches the cooing, caring, reconciling infuriatingness of Belinda to a T.    And good old Jeremy Herrin makes sure to milk the final moments before and after the third act with some wicked curtain-jokes.   

   And even when it’s over,  you can – as always in this show – take away and cherish the insert in the programme with a spoof- intellectual analysis of the nature of farce (bit to be be reproduced in any Almeida or NT programme without exciting comment) and the company biographies.    I cherish in particular Belinda’s stage CV beginning aged 4 in “Miss Toni Tanner’s Ten Tapping Tots”  and  the claim that Garry Lejeune while stil at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman medal for violence”.   Joy.   

 

box office  lyric.co.uk   to 27 July

rating five 5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE GED 13 3/4 THE MUSICAL Ambassadors, WC2

GROWING PAINS IN THATCHER-TIME…

 

It is almost eerie to plunge back into the 1980s for early teens of our hero,  especially if you have been listening to the latest R4 reading of his adult life,  long post- Thatcher, deep in Brexit with Pandora in Parliament and his love life still a  slo-mo disaster..  But this little musical, developed in Leicester (where else!) is the result of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary  badgering the late sue Townsend to be allowed to do it,  and with poppy tunes and a high-spirited cast under Luke Sheppard,  it works surprisingly well.

    

    Its charm is partly retro – boy-nature is perennial, and all of us, of both sexes,   who were once teenage poets and dreamers of intellectual grandeur can relate to poor Adrian’s travails.   Even if our parents were less ghastly than his.    But young Mole predates our age of social media, smartphones and the problems of wiredly connected anxious FOMO-victims. Today one could wistfully hope that teenage intellectual ambition would find a tribe.   And, with luck, his mother Pauline’s feminism would have lost its recklessly selfish 1980’s élan and taken his emotional welfare too seriously to dump him with a boozy Dad and run off with Mr Lucas. 

 

    Shouldn’t be nursing these reflections during what is a stompingly funny, pleasantly daft and relentlessly energetic musical,  but the sadness of Adrian Mole always did rather get to me. And the poignant performance of the boy himself (on press night Michael Hawkins) serves that very honestly.    His timing, and sense of bathos, is magnificent:  underlining the perennial problem of any child looking up at the terrible absurdities and unpredictable behaviours of the adult world (not just his parents  – Andrew Langtree and a willowy Amy Ellen Richardson –   but Ian Talbot’s old Baxter with his views on women (“whip ‘em, slap ‘em, ride ‘em”) and the fierce grandmother (Rosemary Ashe).    The adults double as schoolchildren, which is simple but frankly hilarious;  though in the ensemble of real children the palm must go to the diminutive Charlie Stripp as Barry the Bully,  whose macho posing, gritted jaw and squared shoulders elicited barks of delight.   He works the delightfully patched, ragged family dog puppet beautifully as well. 

 

  So it’s good fun, irresistible really, and should cheer up the school holidays no end while reminding parents of their own awful 80’s childhood.   The Nativity play is well over the top and down the other side.   But at its core is the sadness that Adrian will never quite, even in his own inflated opinion, fulfil his chant of “I’ll be great, I’ll be strong, I’ll be friends with Elton John!”.  

 

Box Office: 0843 904 0061  to 12 October

rating four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE GED 13 3/4 THE MUSICAL Ambassadors, WC2

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

PRESENT LAUGHTER Old Vic SE1

COMEDY SHADING TO MELANCHOLY: WHAT’S TO COME IS STILL UNSURE…

   

First of all  let’s say that  Andrew Scott is a marvel, a 21st century Ur-Coward hero,  who manages to do it without either the matey crassness lately inflicted on the part by Rufus Hound,  or that retro, clipped Cowardspeak which echoes the Master too much.  When a chap can say “there’s something awfully sad about happiness” without reminding you of all those Round the Horne parodies,  he’s winning. And Scott certainly does:    windmilling or striking poses,  he acts the compulsive theatricality of the spoilt matinee idol Garry Essendine while – with uncanny delicacy –  revealing how much or how little of it is, at any given moment, fake and how much a genuine revelation of loneliness and panic. He’s superb. Every critic has said so.

 

       So, late to the party after a holiday, I have a chance to add to rather than initiate  notes on Matthew Warchus’ superb production of  Coward’s self-revealing comedy.  It is  set in a gloriously deco studio living room which nicely echoes the curve of the Old Vic’s ceiling rose.  It emphasises the close circle of  Essendine,  invaded by the “latch key loser” Daphne and the infuriating arty fan Maule.  He can only exist, until he disrupts it himself, in a safe entourage of  dryly resigned  secretary (a broad, bonkers depiction by Sophie Thompson, who also manages at the end to give it a poignant edge),  plus a brisk ex wife, raffish employees,  manager Morris and, vitally, his producer Henry.   The latter,  in Warchus’ gender-flipped production,  becomes Helen:   thus the actor’s disruptive seduction by the producer’s partner  is by a man,  Joe.  

 

Fair enough:  it reminds us of how Coward’s own sexuality was encoded in his plays as straight,  and a modern audience can watch a same-sex seduction with a shrug.   The script is the same,  from Joe’s challenge to Essendine’s always wavering sense of control right down to the final moments where they try to keep discussing the Queen’s Hall versus Hiawatha at the RAH.    Yet  this male duel gives the scene an even greater edge.   Enzo Cilenti, though rather more low-rent gigolo than credible seducer,  deploys masculine dominance not female allure, and his height and threatening moustache set off Essendine’s emotional fragility very nicely.  Scott’s plaintive theatrical drawl wavers between temptation and panic.   

    So it works.  And as the pace hots up, the farce is tremendous (Luke Thallon is a nicely horrifying Maule, and Liza Sadovy suitably bizarre as the spiritualist Swedish housekeeper before gamelly becoming a hypergeriatric Lady Saltburn wheeled in on a drip).   Warchus also tweaks the end a little,  but fair enough:  within the production, with its edge of melancholy,  it suits better.  

 

box office oldvictheatre.com   to 10 August  

RATING four 4 Meece Rating

 

Comments Off on PRESENT LAUGHTER Old Vic SE1

Filed under Theatre

AFTER DARK – A DRAMA OF LONDON LIFE Finborough, SW10

A SHILLING SHOCKER IS A JOY FOREVER

 

  To come clean:  one reason I dashed to catch this fresh back from holiday is  not only that the Finborough is always interesting,   but that  family tradition tells us that Dion Boucicault’s 1868 play,  a confection of dastardly deeds and heroic redemption,   is one in which my great-grandfather (an actor of no great fame) appeared on tour. Possibly even with my great-grandmother as a harridan or heroine.    It may be that a taste for melodramatic romance runs in the family.    That was certainly satisfied in a roisteringly absurd two-hour tale of London life,  directed with furious vigour by Phil Willmott .  

 

A cast of twelve, including three musicians,  featly trundles around a set of two ragged brick arches on castors  ,  and shows a joyful relish in correctly overdoing the significant glances and gestures of despair,  not to mention lines like “You fiend in human shape!”   “I am your Father!”   and “Stand aside, Chumley, I’ll interrogate the baggage!”.     There is a particular pleasure in having such grand shouty melodrama right in your face in this teeny auditorium.    It roars along,  from the opening moment when a strapping Queen Victoria  and a statue of Britannia (it talks, later…) welcome the first steam-train to run in the new London Underground District Line  (piquantly, the last one just has last week, marking the 150th anniversary).     Amid cries of alarm and stage-fog a figure they descry a figure on the rails silhouetted against the lights – aaaghhh….  and we’re only 30 seconds in.  

 

Then the plot begins,  involving, just as one would wish,  a raddled scheming nightclub hostess whose criminality is matched only by her gift for Malapropisms, a decadent aristocratic heir,  a tricky will, star-crossed love, betrayal,  pregnancies, a drowning achieved with shiny mirrors,  a mysterious tramp, a  Salvation Army lady called Aviona Crumpet, a dastardly lawyer  and mistaken identity under a veil.   Oh, and apart from the traditional music-hall scene (sing along, do!),  later we get a three-lady chorus of Russian tarts in ginger wigs and fur hats singing “Kalinka!”  and chasing a policeman, while still playing fiddle and accordion.  

   

   The plot is pleasingly ridiculous,  tying everything up in a proper happy ending for even the worst, and  the performances vigorous .  Victoria Jeffrey is a splendid Dicey Morris (I am proud to have had her crinoline sweep over my feet in the front row) and   Jonathan le Billon as the hapless aristocratic hero deploys a deadpan helpless stare I particularly enjoyed.    Jemima Watling as the one poignant character Eliza wisely keeps a lid on it and is actually rather touching,   and Toby Wynn-Davies, frankly, was born to play an evil, conniving lawyer and should now be first call for all Dickens adaptations.   Talking of Dickens, there’s even a cheeky  Magwitchian rip-off in  the plot – it was seven years after Great Expectations.    

  

    What the hell more do you want of a night out over a pub?  Only eight more performances.  Hurry.  Get round there. It’ll take your mind off Boris…

box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk    to 6 July

rating four 4 Meece Rating

 

Comments Off on AFTER DARK – A DRAMA OF LONDON LIFE Finborough, SW10

Filed under Theatre

EUROPE Donmar, WC1

GUEST CRITIC  LUKE JONES REMAINS UNIMPRESSED

 

“A dirty nothing place” is what the Donmar is dressed up as this summer. It’s a chilly, lightly filthy train station in a forgotten part of Europe. “A place people pass to get somewhere.” Even the interval drinks are wheeled round in carriage trolleys.

 

This 25th anniversary revival of David Greig’s play is, for the most part, a long chin scratch about home, belonging and division. What in this wide continent unites us and what forces are agitating against it? That kind of thing. Apt during the years of the Yugoslav war. Apt now during our never ending Brexit debate. But nonetheless a sinfully tedious drama on a Thursday evening in June.   The station is closing, refugees have arrived, racism is bubbling and many want out. The town is literally being cut off from the rest of the continent. WHOOSH, there goes clunking metaphor No.1.

 

Ron Cook as the put-out station master is entertainingly straight; a man of broom, tannoy and timetable. His daughter Adele (the forever charming and and charismatic Faye Marsay) is a far more romantic breed of train fancier. She wants to break free from the small town so is naturally obsessed with the trains that leave the station. CLANG, metaphor Nr.2.

Onto this concourse arrive two weary refugees, Adele’s husband and his increasingly racist friends. Wolves from the forest, we’re told, newly emboldened, often decent into the town. CLUNK –   keeping up?

 

Onto this it  heaps wooden dialogue ,  and a preference for the kind of strained, ethereal conversations people only have in (small p) political plays. Shane Zaza (returning to the town after making it big abroad) has a maddening melodic delivery and Natalia Tena (as the refugee Katia) barely shifts an eyebrow or tone. It’s packed with these strange dehumanising decisions: but thankfully a gently thrilling love story and a couple of genuinely shocking violent moments perk you up.

 

But the only genuinely impressive aspect of the evening was Tom Visser’s juicy lighting. The rumble and rattle of passing trains is beautifully expressed. We get a flock of rattling ceiling tubes, flashing streaks across the floor, slutty neon, warm sunrise. If only the text had such dramatic grammar:  if this is what we can expect from new Artistic Director Michael Longhurst, I’ll be changing at the next station.

 

Box Office: 020 3282 3808  to 10 August

rating   two 2 meece rating

LUKE JONES

Comments Off on EUROPE Donmar, WC1

Filed under Theatre

THE HUNT Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL SHIVERS – ADMIRINGLY – AT A TROUBLED TALE

 

In this hypersensitive age of MeToo accusations, anxieties about online pornography and even deeper-seated disquiet about questions of childhood innocence, it’s a brave move to tell a story where a child is an unreliable accuser claiming to be a victim of sexual abuse.

 

Adapted by David Farr from the screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (and made into an acclaimed  2013 movie starring the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen), our focus is Danish primary school teacher called Lucas (played with quiet authority by Tobias Menzies), a loner who lives in the middle of nowhere in his already isolated community. He  has found himself teaching much younger children after the secondary school closed down.

 

The opening moments feel eerily innocuous – two six-year olds, Peter and Clara, are forced to stay late because their parents have failed to get their act together; and as Lucas looks forward to a lonely Friday night in his remote cottage, he gets them to help with clearing up the classroom before the folks arrive. Only young Clara has other things on her mind when she is alone with Lucas – she wants to give him a lollipop and she touches him in a way which makes him uneasy.

 

Of course Lucas tells Clara gently that this is the way Mummys and Daddys can touch children, but not teachers. But quite why young Clara wants to be close to him is apparent when the parents arrive – frazzled mother Mikala and alcoholic father Theo, both of whom happen to be old friends of Lucas’.

 

Seemingly hurt by Lucas’ rebuff Clara accuses him of doing something devastatingly inappropriate which sets off a train of nightmarish accusations, suspensions, police involvement  and the kind of vigilantism that is a particular preserve of this kind of small community.

 

It’s a deeply involving story told with power and clarity in Rupert Goold’s production. Menzies’ Lucas is a rock of inscrutability and stubbornness who fails to flatly deny the accusation. He also inhabits a world of manly ruggedness where he and his friends, most of whom seem to have children in the school, frequent a lodge where they go hunting (there is more than one type of pursuit here), take saunas and dip in icy water while shouting a lot. Thanks to typically effective work by designer Es Devlin, a simple house design serves as the lodge, Lucas’ home and the children’s Wendy house, the place where the crimes supposedly took place. In a final reckoning, it becomes the town’s church. All places of safety and bonding (and, weirdly, love), all in their way, assaulted.

 

Farr’s taut and powerful script manages to convey the ambiguity of ruptures – both on a societal level and within the mind of a little girl and the surrounding adults. Is the problem the online porn which Clara seems to have seen on the phone of her friend Peter (who has stolen it form his father)? Or is the demolition of childhood innocence down to the fecklessness of her parents who have driven Clara to seek love and comfort form an inappropriate source, a quiet, kind and well-meaning teacher? The lack of answers speaks of the play’s intelligent sense of the enormity of the questions it is asking.

 

Lucas’s  innocence is never in doubt, however, and his strange reluctance to  proclaim his innocence means he is at the mercy of events around him, which can feel frustrating.

 

But Goold gives his production enough thriller-like pacing and intensity to keep us hooked. And what resonates at the close is a portrait of mind and a wider world in torment and an idyllic society, very sure of its values, and seemingly incapable of having its complacent perfection questioned. A troubled play for our troubled times.

 

box office almeida.co.uk  to 3 Aug

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE HUNT Almeida, N1

Filed under Theatre

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

  All the little Jermyn needs to complete this reimagination of Wildean epigrammatic decadence is to scent the auditorium overwhelmingly with lilies and light joss sticks round the tiny stage.  Oscar Wilde’s aim after all is to overpower us until we faint with forbidden aesthetic passion.    The  deathless tale of Dorian Gray, who stayed beautiful while his portrait in the attic betrayed his hideous moral corruption,   is one of Wilde’s most flutingly swoonsome hymns to art and beauty,  and warning against their innate decadence.  

 

Its a loose impressionistic take by Lucy Shaw, and Tom Littler’s handsomely staged production is a joint enterprise with the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, where it knocked them out (Ayckbourn it ain’t).   There are two vast frames,  mirrored or translucent:  we never see the portrait, wisely, but there’s a Narcissus-pool in which Dorian can gaze in admiration and later in horror.  Four actors switch round in versions day by day:  mine was Picture B, with Stanton Wright as Dorian,  Helen Reuben as Basil the painter and Augustina Seymour as Henry Wotton, while Richard Keightley does others or hangs about the edge of the stage speaking Wildean epigrammatica to fit the moment.

 

  It’s intriguing, and offers chances to see the parts played differently,  but there are inevitable losses.  The heaving gay subtext in Wilde’s book cannot simmer quite perilously enough if Sybil Vane is explicitly and verbally a bloke  (as in versions B and D).     A female Wootton and Basil work fine though,  Seymour is splendidly smart-louche as the tempting friend,  and Reuben as worried Basil. As to Dorian, the trouble is that it always helps if you look as if Aubrey Beardsley had drawn you in a fug of opium.    Stanton Wright’s handsomeness is a bit more in modern stubbly style than is ideal  . But on nights  C and D  I imagine Reuben is ideal:   ever so ethereal and soulfully androgynous.  Must make it all the more shocking to hear him/her being accused of “creeping at dawn from dreadful houses”.

  

  The style is broken,  witticisms and profundities about art and beauty dropped in whenever it fits;  the story is familiar, with the betrayal of Sibyl,  the brother’s vengeance and the horror and fate of the artist.   Sadly, Shaw leaves out what in my brooding teens I thought was the real kicker:   the irony when the final murderous degradation of Dorian shows in the picture and appals him.   He decides to be good and spare a flowerlike  maiden but it doesn’t work.  In the book he just looks into the portrait and finds it just as hideous  but with a taint of hypocrisy…  Put that back, I say!

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

  This is a dream of a Dream.  One expected fun from the  combination of Nicholas Hytner,  a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit  and a Bunny Christie design which  makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks.  Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals:   beds fly and travel,  pits open, platforms appear,  gymnastic fairies  somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!”  exit move.   

 

     But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things.  He   pursues, as most modern interpreters do,   the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream” , releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court.  That psychological captivity includes Duke  Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.  This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally,  sweetly, awake confused , four in a bed which was once a grassy bank,  looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear,  wakened from his Oberon dream.   

    

    But it’s the other thing that had us whooping,  even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time:  I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes,  went twice,  but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee).    The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines,  so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child.  It is Oberon.  This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince,  everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).    

      

     Making Oberon the patsy,  enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing).     Oliver Chris, on the other hand,  gives the comic performance of a lifetime.  He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun  in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight.    The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile.   Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does:  the immortal Weaver is, in any situation,   a miracle of happy self-flattery.   

    

    The flying fairies are gorgeously  sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of  the young lovers.  I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches.  But not a single thing went wrong.   

 

 And  there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy  king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after ,  decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta.   I always wondered why:  here we know.    It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind.    There’s a quizzical look from his bride,  who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won.   Theseus is humanized.     Thus, bingo!  the reversal serves  both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.  

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse.  It was right to include them in the curtain call… 

Stage Management Mouse resized

Comments Off on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – a note Southwark, SE1

A NOTE ON A TREAT,  MOUSELESS BUT MELLOW 

 

The film based on Scott Fitzgerald’s story of a life lived backwards, born old and ending in babyhood,  was pretty awful.  So I did not leap at the news that Jethro Compton  and composer Darren Clarke had made a musical of it – transporting the action to Cornwall 1918, the war years and after.  But curiosity gripped,  Southwark doesn’t often programme anything dull,  and I bought an impulse matinee ticket.  Even though I knew guiltily  that owing to the annoying late slot (matinee ending at 6+) I might have to skip at the interval and miss the last 45-minute act.  

 

Which  I did.   So I can’t mouse-rate it.   But after 75 enchanted minutes I fervently hope this lovely quirky show goes on and upward, and especially on tour.  Take it to the  seaside, and to places beyond the London bubble.  It had me from the first Cornish  gull-cry, buoy bell, storm sounds, and folktale -vigourous storytelling.   It kept me all the way,  the modern-Celtic songs and dances driven by five actor-musicians reeling and stamping and ever in motion on the tiny stage below the fishing-nets.

 

The sincerity of the piece makes a whimsically impossible tale into something that drills rapidly into real feeling, real wondering compassion for all of us who whirl through our brief lifespans in the normal direction. The birth of the old, old man in a bathchair wanting his pipe is met by the parents with all the dismay of any grotesque abnormality:   his confinement in an attic with only a tiny window to see the moon is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current exposure of how some deeply autistic children are kept.  In those first scenes Ben is a life size puppet, gloriously devised by In The Bellows  from driftwood and wicker creel.  It – he!-is handled with intense  sensitivity. We see him breathing asleep, and his song of longing  “All I want is to live a little life, feel a little freedom, see a little sea”  seems to come from the ragged wooden mouth.

 

The  mother’s song before her clifftop suicide is equally  wrenching and real.  When released from the room as his age becomes more fiftyish,  he is played by the real James Marlowe:   meek and diffident and sweetly childlike .  As he sets eyes on his life’s love, he is any older man struck hopeless  by a young girl.  When, now young enough for the WW2 Navy he meets her again more equal it is any love story.  Love, loss, war, disappointment, hope are so real, so musically deft and honestly rendered that the whimsy is irrelevant. Button has his unique and difficult life  problem, but so do we all..

 

The tight  cast –  Marlowe and Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – tell the story in turn, sing harmony, and play fiddle, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and occasionally drums. The move wonderfully well and radiate sincerity and a sense of an urgent tale to tell . I suspect that if I had been able to stay I would have shed a tear at his infant ending. Hope to go back    

 

box office   0207 407 0234    southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

To 8 June

Comments Off on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – a note Southwark, SE1

Filed under Theatre

THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

  Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim.  This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching.   I loved that.  I wish more was made of it in  Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse,  deliberately low-powered play.  Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set.  Such ideas matter to them.  

 

It is about a mid-life crisis.  In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky.   These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best.  Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed.   His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated” , pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.  

 

  But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!).   She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar.  A sort of affair ensues.   The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid:  but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.    Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton)  and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews).    And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feele entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.  

   

    Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are.  There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.  

  

      But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace,   it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark.   There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him,  a wistful unfulfilment.    Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play.    But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and  the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..   

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying.     At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin:  “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade . . . never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy”.  Actually it is more like Ibsen:   a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society.  Not just the submission of women but the class structure:   all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus  marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them. 

 

    Sowerby knew the turf:  old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks:  she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace  and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers ).

 

But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment,  almost rueful sometimes in its even=handedness.  Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable:  his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman,   and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.  The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off.  The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness.   Richard , the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a  fool”.    And as for the workingman Martin, his  piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet.   Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he  is depicted with both contempt and compassion.

   

I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production  is subtler still.  Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety.  He rises to the roaring bullying tone  at the few times it is necessary,   and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”.    But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because  folk will  do what he wants,  end of.  So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant”  Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter. 

 

  Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit  period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world.  Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary .    Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class,  but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”.   Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution.   Psychology,  social rage,  human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it. 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

Comments Off on RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on ANNA Dorfman SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

Comments Off on DIDO Unicorn, SE1

Filed under Theatre, Two Mice

WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

  WHY BE WHITER?

 

  It is useful, if dismaying ,  to be reminded that skin-based racism is not exclusive to Western European bigots.   In Small Island  (scroll below) Andrea Levy pinpointed the depressing belief among traditional West Indians that a lighter skin in ‘better’.  Now in this mischievous satirical 85-minute blast by Anchuli Felicia King –   she’s Australian-Thai, as is the director Nana Dakin  – we see a corporate  crisis in a Singaporean cosmetics firm marketing a skin-whitening cream.  We also plunge into tensions between different Asian communities and attitudes. 

     

  Someone, we discover after a panicky exchange between the assertive MD Priya and the press officer Sunny,  has OK’d a new commercial for the cream.  It is snortingly racist . A girl is jilted for a whiter-skinned one,  uses the cream and gets him back ;  her rival becomes suddenly black,with an Afro and hip-hop soundtrack. Slogan –  “Only works on  inner beauty”.  

       Someone – we find out who, and very funny it is too – has leaked the video online,   and the hits and criticisms are mounting tens of thousands at a time on screens upstage.   Two other staffers are seen overhead in the Ladies’ lavatory:   Chinese Xiao, youngest and most vulnerable, is sobbing in fear of the sack.  “This is not a joke for me. In China people disappear”.  

 

    The  row uncovers not only more corporate dodginess but, blisteringly,   the unspoken differences between the six women  (the only man is a troublemaking boyfriend,  Arty Froushan hilarious as French Marcel).   Boss Priya is of Indian heritage but thoroughly Anglicized;  Sunny is Americanized Chinese, her dude-bro language when excited shading back to Singlish/Hokkien.   Also Americanized is Built,  Thai-Californian.   The company’s chemist is Soo-Jin, who is South Korean;  the other less-westernized “homelanders” are  Chinese Xiao and  Japanese Ruki.    In a brief flashback we see them discussing how all women want to be whiter : “South Asians got the whole caste thing..Thai women wanna look like Korean women..Korean women wanna look like dolls..”.

    

    But Ruki brilliantly point out that while women want whiteness they are a bit ashamed of wanting it,    so instead they should claim “Makes your skin clear and bright”.   As a universal, hilarious swipe at female insecurity and pretences,  it is superb.  Hoots from the audience.   More shocked ones when they discuss the Western outrage at the ad , and Soo-Jin blithely points out that “negroes” are not their customers .    “We do not want to be seen as saying yes to American PC culture..where we sell, Thailand, China, Philippines…ordinary Asians, they still think that blacks are dirty, smell bad, are criminals… so we do not want to be siding with the blacks..In America you have Beyonce, Oprah, Obama. In Asia the blacks are poor, immigrant, they are homeless, they commit many crimes – ”

          Priya and Sunny wince – we all do –  but the Korean blithely continues that “Indians and Middle Easterns” smell bad too,  which freaks out Priya,   until the  Korean chemist reassures her that it’s OK,  “You wear a lot of deodorant and do not eat spices” .   It is shocking, it is funny, it is the best exchange of  insulting mutual incomprehension and tactlessness since Clybourne Park.

   

    It is also useful.  We need reminding that our sensitivities about race are new, and made of historic guilt as much as any real decency.  When Korean Soo-Jin  is comforting the weeping Chinese Xiao in the privacy of the  lav,  they covertly agree that the ad is OK with them.  “Why they take it so serious? It is like they cannot understand when joke is joke. It is not some big politics whatever. It is just fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy…”  ”Asia will not go crazy. We’ll be fine” . 

 

       The relationships are as beautifully worked out as the business manoeuvrings,  embracing  both hostility and affections. The finale is glorious, and taught me Asian insults in several languages.   The author warns us that it is a hellish difficult play to cast,  but the Court triumphs:  here’s to Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe,  Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung.   Five mice,   because it’s different and clever and useful, and horribly good fun. 

box office  020 7565 5000            to 15 June 

rating five   5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

    Savagely observed  absurdity, blinding flashes of insight,  profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel  swamp of humanity.  This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges .  Though  wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling;   and intelligently,   rather than clutter the set realistically, she  uses the striking , noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions .  The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening. 

      

  The play  starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes:  religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice,   and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere:   a superb Jemima Rooper ,  voguing around in shabby leopardprint.  She  is doubly disreputable  for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”.  She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken.  In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus  she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night –  and what they say is “Live!  live!”.  Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.  

        

  This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things:  that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation,  that his wife Lady has run and improved the business , and  that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals.  BUt who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to blacks,  was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames.  This left Lady destitute  so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – ‘Jabe Torrance bought that woman,  and he bought her cheap”. 

          Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis,    Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”.  Lady is efficient but not fond,  brisk and chilly and cleverer  than the rest, standing apart.   Into this little world descends the Orphean Val,    with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith,  wanting to  to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life.   After some sparring,  and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches,  he gets a job in Lady’s store.  

     

  From that moment   Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage,  control the tension,  drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,.    The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval .  Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later).   She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” .   Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter  – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”,  and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven.  When the moment comes that they finally kiss,   movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.  

      

      Too deep involved,  too sorrowful for the trapped lives,  you  long for this pair to make a break for it,  assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully).     You are rapt until  the last terrible moments.  Uncle Pleasant looks on,  steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world,   and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way.   Stunning, strange, unforgettable.  

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

    SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING  EMPIRE 

 

Hard to overstate what an absolute treat this is , and on how many levels. It is a terrific yarn,  both romantic and tough, about history and Empire and sex and frustration, escape and hope and love and racism:  about promises turned to dross and the great seas of misunderstanding that roll between people.  It reminds us how  distant Commonwealth citizens dreamed of a magical Westminster castle of welcome and prosperity, and how a mean tired grey nation did not know yet how to treasure them.

 

   Andrea Levy’s novel of four families – here concentrated on  three in Helen Edmundson’s admirably clear adaptation – is staged by director Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay in surges, silhouettes, still-life freezes and fluent eloquent interactions on both sides of the Atlantic.  The fast-moving, elegant ensemble-work keeps it arresting,  and Lindsay and the movement and projection teams fill the Olivier as few productions manage :  without clutter , agoraphobia or overstatement. Entertaining pop-ups are doors and windows and furniture,  but also neat tiny cameos of  the sweet shop , the cinema,  and a pig-slaughtering shed complete with carcass  exuberantly  eviscerated as poor Queenie, daughter of the Lincolnshire soil,  flinches in bored disgust and plans escape.  The odd pop-down too:Aunt Dot’s  demise is splendid.

         In Jamaica, equally bored Hortense too dreams of escape, evoking her childhood as a blessedly “golden”-coloured child  (O that terrible hierarchy of skin shade, still troubling)  and remembering her calf-love for her cousin: the war brings the two communities into contact,  interweaving then recoiling.    Sometimes there is a diorama breadth of  projected sea , hurricane or shimmering postwar  Piccadilly glamour, sometimes narrower clips of film. Dramatically,  wartime newsreel is a  counterpoint to  a  squalid cinema  brawl between the famously racist American GIs and RAF sergeant  Gilbert from Jamaica who stands his ground with  “No Jim Crow here!”.  Most beautifully, the vast  Empire Windrush itself ends act 1 not projected on solidity like the rest,  but onto a vast white sheet, which billows and shimmers  like the mirage it proved, for many, to be.

 

You may know the Andrea Levy novel, and the dramatic events which bring together Leah Harvey’s splendidly prim, correct Jamaican Hortense and Aisling Loftus’  freer but frustrated white Queenie in Earl’s Court who woos,  tolerates then grieves -mistakenly – her stick of a husband (Andrew Rothney) who returns from policing the Partition of India with a horror of dark skins.  If you don’t know the book it doesn’t matter, indeed  it might be even better to come to the story fresh.  Because it is such a fine one, and one which we need to be re-told as the Windrush generation grow old and lately are so misused.  Gerschwyn Eustache Jnr as a cheerful Gilbert, making the most of his squalid bedsit, is a particular delight,  But so are they all.  Pure and thoughtful pleasure.  

 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 13 August

and will be almost as damn good on screen – NT LIVE –  27 June. 

rating five  5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on     SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON                Park Theatre N4

CRIKEY!  IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN!

 

    Jonathan Maitland wrote two stunning political plays for the Park: tightly researched, thoughtful,  shimmering with moral understanding.   His DEAD SHEEP,  about Geoffrey Howe’s fallout with Margaret Thatcher, starred Steve Nallon as the Lady herself:   not as caricature but, so one of her former close colleagues observed, rather fairly.    His largely verbatim play about Jimmy Savile – which of course touched on politics in the widest sense,   as he deceived an establishment –  was equally excellent. 

      

       So hopes for this new one couldn’t be higher:   it is again built  around truth -a 2016 dinner party where Boris and Marina Johnson entertained the Goves and Yevgeny Lebedev,   starstruck owner of the London Standard.    That event,  with Gove a passionate Leaver and Boris tormenting himself about which way to jump  – is the first half,   and culminates in the Govian treachery.  Act 2 takes us to 2029,   and a future Boris tempted once more by power in a nation reeling after the “Corbyn-Sinn-Fein Coalition” and a Tory party led by Mr“Two A’s and a B” Raab.    

 

           It should be a blast, given that the last two years have made us all tend to perceive our politicians as a bunch of incompetently self-serving sock puppets. Our hero  too is  eminently performable (Will Barton  is a pitch-perfect Boris, from the deliberate hair-mussing for the TV cameras to the oratorical high jinks and the studied helpless harrumphing designed to make us mother him).    Sometimes it works.   The dinner party is nicely vicious, with a plummily pompous Gove, (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who I last admired being David Cameron in Three Lions) , a ludicrous namedropping Lebedev   and a sharp contrast in wives.  The cool clever lawyer Marina Johnson (Davina Moon)   flinches a little as Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine delivers shallow, smart-alecky insensitivities and marvels at  her own wit.    Boris,  meanwhile, is inside his own head, hearing voices: Steve Nallon sails through as Mrs T,  Weir less convincingly as a grumpy Churchill,  and Tim Wallers  (who is also  Lebedev and Huw Edwards )   as Tony Blair:   waving matily  at the gallery and urging Boris to Remain.  The others can’t see the hallucinations, so there is some crosstalk, Blithe-Spirit style, which sometimes  but not always works comically. The best moment is when Boris performs,  for his three nagging voices,  a version of his Telegraph Leave rant.  Infuriatingly, we don’t get the Remain version which he also famously wrote.   

The second act, despite one good final coup de theatre (Lotte Wakeham directs, Louie Whitemore designs)   is lamer.   Ragged and hasty,   it tries to become a meditation on the business of wanting power for its own sake and the desirability or otherwise of U-turns.   But it feels half-baked,  and it is almost unforgivable to trot out that old Soames-related joke about the wardrobe and the key, as if it was new,  and even to reiterate it. 

 

        The highest spots – as in the first half  – are supplied by Mr Nallon’s stumping Thatcher:  ‘her’ facial expression when learning of the “Tony Blair Institute for Global Change” is alone worth the ticket price.   I don’t think Mr Maitland was intending to make us long to have the Iron Lady back, but… in an age of vain sock puppets…there was something decisive there that….   aaaghhh.

        Anyway, everyone proves true to form in the ten-years-on section, and I will not spoil the very fine joke of what becomes of the Govester.   Politics moves on, albeit bloody slowly right now, and with a bit of luck the very gifted Mr Maitland will write a better version in the updates… 

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to  8 june

rating three 3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON                Park Theatre N4

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

 

 

 

      There’s something special about fin-de-siecle anger in any century: this is from 1697,  years later than Wycherley and the mellower Sheridan,  and  best described as a furious sex-comedy wrapped around real tragedy. 

        A vicious, drunken rich husband, Brute, eloquently hates his wife and resents the whole entrapment of matrimony  – “If I were married to a hogshead of claret I would hate it!”.   Poor Lady Brute  once “thought I had charms enough to govern him..” but didn’t.  Their bickering (sharp, funny, this is the author John Vanburgh at the top of his game) is so poisonous that with her niece Belinda she plots to cuckold him with a handy gallant,   just for vengeance.   In a playfully daring argument, very much of the period ,  she explains that the scriptural ban on infidelity”might be a mistake in the translation”. 

        There are  two available men –  John Hodgkinson’s aquiline, grey-suited cynic Heartfree, who against his will eventually falls for Belinda,  and the more naive and gilded Constant (Rufus Hound) who fancies Lady Brute.  Meanwhile Caroline Quentin,  in crazy rouged-clown makeup,  foot-high ginger wig and patisserie-frilled crinoline,  is Lady Fancifull.  She is teased by Heartfree , sets her cap at him and adds to the chaos..  

           It is the usual Restoration affair of masks, ruses, meetings,  and razor-sharp mutual insults between the sexes. Cheeky assaults are made on the fourth wall,  and the laughs keep coming.   Jonathan Slinger’s dissipated Brute ends up, for no very good reason, being arrested drunk in a woman’s dress:  he puts on a bravura display of shrill camp violence as he wipes out the  watch and insults the Justice.  Quentin’s Fancifull  too is all one could ask  this side of an actual pantomime dame, as she pirouettes surrounded by looking-glasses on sticks.  

   

    The comedy is excellent,  the Restoration wordiness enlivened by some terrific movement  direction by Ayse Tashkiran – Fancifull’s obedient household rarely move at less than a fast scuttle .  There are a couple of rather lovely songs ,  and Sarah Twomey as a bravura bilingual French maid.    Incidentally,  this and next week’s Venice Preserved mark the RSC debut of Les Dennis:  possibly the first time someone gets both a Stratford debut and an award for Best Ugly Sister in the same month.  He’s not too busy in this – just a bit of fine drunken collapsing, and a spry participation in the scuttling entourage. But very welcome.   

         The tragedy, though, is real and angry:   it is the living death  of Lady Brute,  and the horribly well-evoked depressive nastiness and cowardly despair of her husband.   Alexandra Gilbreath is stunning:  she moves from an initial playfulness, coyly carnal as she plots her  affair,   into later moments of intense and queenly stillness as Brute grows filthier and more violent.   We are told Vanbrugh wrote the part , darker than in his first play,   for Elizabeth Barry,   an experienced  tragedienne.  It shows.  When the sodden and bloodstained Brute  violently kisses then tries to rape her –   smearing her , glorying in making her  filthy as him –  it is one of the nastiest scenes of the year,  for all the frills and furbelows.   Her face, and dutiful shuddering curtsey  afterwards , tell all.   The central tragedy is  simply that she is stuck with him.  And his power. 

       Vanbrugh  was a phenomenon: shipping agent commented for bravery under fire, four years a prisoner in France,  he came home and wrote two comedies – this being the second – before turning into an architect and designing Castle Howard.  Historically, he is credited by director Philip Breen with influences on both Tennessee Williams (is Blanche Dubois just Lady Fancifull, with added pathos?) and Pinter; his trio of men – lover, husband, sceptic – he links to the three in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.     But few other writers simultaneously evoke  quite the savage cynicism,  torrential verbal wit  and real anger  of this slightly alarming and ceaselessly entertaining piece about men, women, and social hypocrisies.   When Heartfree – who has fallen genuinely in love –  and the yearning Constant have a rare moment of insight together,  they define with sudden odd beauty what is lost in libertinism:  “To be capable of loving one is better than to possess a thousand”.  

box office rsc.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE PROVOKED WIFE             Swan, Stratford upon Avon

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

FEAST FROM THE EAST              Tristan Bates Theatre WC2

SMALL IS  BEAUTIFUL, SHORT CAN BE SHARP

 

     There is something stimulating about ultra-short plays:  five to twenty minutes  but directed and performed with all the care and concentration of any full-length drama.   They can aim to be hardly more than sketches,  but that too is a useful craft to hone –  in an age when TV companies have forgotten the golden days of Victoria Wood, Armstrong and Miller etc,  and given up on the expensive business of sketch-comedy because it’s just cheaper to do personality- panel shows and sitcoms.  Saves on the set and costume budgets…

  

      But beyond the enjoyable sketch-jokes,  some of the collection assembled annually by the remarkable little INK festival in Suffolk are real, serious, heartfelt miniature dramas.  Some could grow – and will – to full-length plays.  Others are just right as they are.  And when a set of them are assembled, as in this collection visiting London,  they certainly make for an entertaining evening.

       WIth pure sketch-mischief we have Richard Curtis’ contribution, first seen in Suffolk last year as the savvy artistic director Julia Sowerbutts and her team call in a few “names” for the sake of the buzz.   Amber Muldoon, one of Ink’s favourite stars,  plays a singer trying to get through “Another Suitcase” under a barrage of directorial vanities and interruptions. It’s very funny.    His daughter Scarlett’s sketch of three generations of women watching a Royal Wedding is endearing too.  

     

    But the real meat of the evening comes in darker, emotionally subtle pieces.   Shaun Kitchener’s THAT’S GREAT has two friends in a flat , a supportive Will Howard discussing Ed Jones’  shy crush, until a betrayal  is revealed: all three are young gay men  but the story is universal, hovering betwen bedroom-farce and potential tragedy.     Ed Jones as Rory is particularly fine.  His own PIng Pong Club is on the programme too, as author.

 

           Also not-ok romantically is Shappi Khorsandi’s character Nina –  again Amber Muldoon –  remembering a bad night out and a treacherous boyfriend with all the shame and defiance of the Fleabag generation.   Will Howard, in Mixed Up by James McDermott,   is also fascinating,  in a play approaching the age of Trans with thoughtful subtlety.   Martha Loader’s curious After Prospero baffled me a bit, but hit home  at times on the subject of sisterliness and the wearing-out of old ways.   And, back in sketchland,  Ann Bryson  in Invisible Irene delivers with defiant brio the battlecry of female middle-age.  

      

       There are others on the London programme: I   can’t star-rate it because I have not seen a couple of them, or not yet,  but as a display of what can be done in small spaces of time,  sometimes by as yet unperformed writers,  if you put the work in the hands of good directors and intelligent actors.  It will at the very least make you want to submit a playlet of your own for next year’s INK.  It’s the seed-corn of theatrical creativity.  

 

box office  0203 8416611   tristanbatestheatre.co.uk

Comments Off on FEAST FROM THE EAST              Tristan Bates Theatre WC2

Filed under Theatre

SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

LOVE  AND LOSS AND ‘THAT’S THE DEAL’

 

 

   Jack is a middle-aged Oxford English don of the ’50’s , a bachelor and apologist for Christianity.  Graceful, witty books and lectures justify such theological puzzles as “the problem of pain”.   Within him, carefully protected by theology and cautious habit,  is still a desolate 8-year-old grieving his mother:  retreats into  childlike imagination have fuelled the children’s books which have made him famous round the world, and (naturally)  regarded with a slight envious suspicion in the senior Common Room.   He corresponds across the Atlantic, with a mouthy , witty American woman with a bad marriage who admires his religious writing and children’s books alike.    She visits. His friends in the Common-room are pretty appalled, but the friendship deepens enough for them to go through  a civil marriage so she can legally live here.   Her cancer diagnosis makes him  see that they are in love;   real marriage  and remission give Jack and Joy three years of great happiness before he meets the  great unanswerable pain.

 

 

  Jack of course is C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books;   William Nicholson’s  play a modern classic.  I had seen it several times, most recently Alistair Whatley’s marvellous touring production with Stephen Boxer ( https://theatrecat.com/2016/03/28/shadowlands-touring/   ) .   Frankly,    I had qualms about Hugh Bonneville in the role:  too handsome, too familiar in his evocations of dullish  decent steadiness in  both Downton  and his hapless W1A role.  

 

        But before many minutes in the chaffing common-room scenes which open the play,  I could see the point.  It’s a different Lewis, but a valid one.   Bonneville points up Lewis’ essential goodwill, contrasted with the nicely viperish Christopher Riley (Timothy Watson).   It also brings out the touching tolerant sweetness of his relationship with his bufferish alcoholic brother Warnie:   no intellectual and initially more than wary of  Liz White’s noisy, assertive Joy,  but possessed of more emotional commonsense than his brother.    Andrew Havill is a joy, both in his alarmed early evasions and the grandfatherish warmth he shows in the crisiS, towards the interloper’s young son (the night I saw it,  a fine Ruari Finnegan).  

 

          All the jokes and little British uneasinesses are there ,  pointed and sharp and elegant under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction.  I wondered at first if the vast stage would drown the play’s intimacy,  but filmically fast-changing scenes on the revolve work brilliantly while in street scenes characters  walk past a lamp-post (nice touch, we readers remember both its origins in The Magician’s Nephew and its appearance beyond the Wardrobe).    Joy’s hospital bed stands in the second half as  a small,  pathetic focus in the centre while  the irrelevances of the outside world  circling distant around it:   there’s emotional truth in that .  The yawning black gap between two vast library shelves has its symbolism too, in Lewis’ heart, but  also enables the child’s glimpses of Narnian divinity.    The moment in the hotel when the boy rings the bell and a woman rises is magic. 

 

      One companion worried that Bonneville’s natural, possibly incurable,  suavity would damage belief in his newfound ardour and the  immense wrecking shock of his bereavement, as he has to accept that giving your whole heart means having it broken: ‘that’s the deal’.    I didn’t find any problem with the Bonneville version:  he  did it his way.     There is one gloriously telling moment when he and Joy are not just intellectual friends but physically married,  and he lauds the ordinary, domestic happiness of it.  For the only time in the play we see Lewis not at a desk or lecturing or poised in company, but lounging:  feet up on a stool,  relaxed,  contented.  A man made new.  Strangely, that was the moment a tear pricked.

 

box office  cft.org.uk  to  25 may

rating four  

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on SHADOWLANDS               Chichester Festival Theatre

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

JUDE Hampstead, NW1

ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY ,  FRESHNESS OF YOUTH

    

    It’s a storming performance. Young  Isabella Nefar  as Judith erupts upon us:   adolescent, exuberant,  afire with defiance and poetry,  language and sexual vigour and contempt and high ancient longings.  She is a Syrian-Christian  refugee, without settled status,  a teenage cleaner ,an autodidact drawn like a moth to the great Greek classics.   Her nightmares are about border crossings, Turkish back-streets,a father horribly dead.  Her dream is to read Classics at Oxford.   Found reading a volume of Euripides  – “stealing makes it better!” – by her academic employer  she speaks the great lines and translates with eloquent beauty,  ordering the sacred rivers to run backwards and start the world anew. 

 

      Howard Brenton’s new play is a deliberate echo of Thomas Hardy’s darkest work, Jude the Obscure:  an updated riff on his angry theme of how passionate genius in humble people is stifled and thwarted by society.   Hardy’s is a famously grim book  (especially the bit I slightly despise him for when the stonemason’s three children die in a murder-suicide  with a note saying “done because we are too meny”.)     Brenton does not go so far,  though at one point one feels the temptation rising;  the important thing is that he picks up and flies with the idea of how underprivileged genius  today can “fall through the rotten floorboards”  of Britain,  what with tightening asylum rules callously applied, MI5 witch-hunts,  snobbery, and middle-England’s distaste for  stroppy, ungrateful foreigners however brilliant they are.  There’s even, in a final lavish twist, a reference to a trade deal about American pork post-Brexit.. 

   

If this sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, fear not.  Nefar is a marvellously engaging Judith: infuriating,  elevated, never passive but hopeful and joyful and furious: she burns before us on the fuel of poetry, wild intelligence and terrifying ancient sensibility.  Euripides himself turns up – Paul Brennen in a brilliant, blank mask by Vicki Hallam,    haunting her dreams and visions,  sometimes awe-inspiring, deeply other, yet finally with an unsettling edge of Geordie -accented camp.

   

    Jude is bent on A levels, cleaning by night and living with rough Jack (Luke MacGregor) a rustic pig thief.  This enables some very Greek throat- cutting as,  drunk with words , memories and vodka,  the wild girl bathes herself sonorously in blood on the soaking sand.  The Oxford scenes are both funny and satirically sharp, as  Caroline Loncq’s  matchless Professor Deirdre – a sort of drunker Mary Beard –  is captivated by her passion, fixes her a scholarship and cannily lists the advantages: “Arab – single mother – female – from a persecuted religious minority –  I can see those boxes ticking themselves!”.   But she is then intimidated out of it, not wholly credibly to be honest,   by a security service warning and the risk to the University’s reputation.    

        It grips constantly and sometimes, especially with the great shiver of Homeric or Euripidean words,  shakes you. The last scenes move in a satisfying way between surrealism, sharp practicality from Jude’s rather fine aunt (Anna Savva)  and exasperated drunken ranting from the pig man. There are streaks of  over-Hampsteady paranoia about the present government,  logical holes which don’t matter  and one psychological one which does pull you up a bit :  Judith piously proclaims  that Syrians respect family more than our lot ,  while having apparently forgotten that she walked out on Jack and her infant son to lay siege to Oxford and seduce her reluctant, religiously intense cousin.  

         But “ poets are only echoes” says Euripides, and so are playwrights.  Distortions, crumples and ragged edges make them all the more beguiling, and Howard Brenton never lets you down in the end.   All in all, it’s a rather fabulous swansong for Ed Hall’s Hampstead years.  

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 1 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on JUDE Hampstead, NW1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre