RULES FOR LIVING Royal, Northampton & Touring

A FAMILY SITCOM UPS ITS GAME…

 

I didn’t much rate its premiere at the National in 2015, despite the achingly chic set I felt was “a kitchen-diner so huge and smart it makes David Cameron’s look poky”. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas, culminating in a very fine food-fight , never quite took off for me: never felt credible despite a top cast. To the extent that I got grumbly about one or two overly obvious gags, like the hyperactive son’s-girlfriend Carrie breaking a precious ornament to a cry of “It was my father’s!”.

 

 

But here’s a thing. In this new English Touring Theatre version directed by Simon Godwin and set in a less futuristic, more cosily domestic scene and in a proscenium theatre, it comes to life and moves closer to Ayckbournian quality. Holcroft’s idea is that people work by a set of rules, colourfully projected overhead, as in some nightmarish devised card game (one takes place in the second act). Thus Matthew can’t lie unless he’s sitting down and eating, his girlfriend Carrie has to dance around when joking until someone laughs, and Edith must self-medicate and clean things to keep herself calm, and so forth.

 

 

Sometimes this feels unnecessary and even intrusive, but at other times gets excellent laughs in its own right. The background to the idea is about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which discusses the use and misuse of rules which may be unachievable: Adam’s daughter Emma is upstairs refusing to get up for family dinner and suffering from fatigue syndrome, and early on there is anguished conversation about the psychological element which may be part of it. Though the fact that her mother Nicole has banished her ineffective husband to the Travelodge might be not unconnected to, as might uncle Matthew’s mawkish emotional dependence on his sister-in-law…

 

 

 

And so forth. But this time (maybe there were tweaks to the script as well?) the play feels unforced and rather touching. Jane Booker is quite wonderful as Edith the compulsively-cleaning, make-it-all-lovely mother, her comic timing fabulous. There’s great work from Carlyss Peer as the hyper Carrie and from  the infuriating Adam who uses accents and impersonations to disguise his sense of  not being wholly himself : both are very annoying characters who pull off the difficult trick of just managing not to alienate the actual audience. And Paul Shelley as the dreadful, monosyllabic, strokebound old wretch of a father does some high-quality scowling beneath his paper hat and – during the worst mayhem – sits eating a sprout on a fork with a magnificent satyr leer I cannot forget.

 

So it works. And the food fight is just as good as the one at the NT. Kev McCurdy as Fight Director , take a bow.

 

 

royalandderngate.co.uk until Sat 30 Sept but then TOURING  Touring Mouse widehttp://www.ett.org.uk
Cambridge next!

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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INK up West Duke of York’s WC1

ON SEEING IT AGAIN…THE LATE EDITION IS BETTER STILL…

 

 

Nipping late into the Almedia after the opening,   I concurred with every word of Luke Jones’ review on theatrecat.com (still up, scroll down).

“Solid stunner of a play…sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, morals and ideas of Britain and of the press…snappy and dramatic condensation…director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous…whip through like a snappy TV drama..”

 

Bang right. But having seen it again up West – with the cast solidly settled, never a duff moment – there are other praiseful reflections I would want to add. Carvel’s Murdoch is remarkable, adopting a forward-pressing, tense keen hunch (almost his Trunchbull hunch) denoting a young(ish) man in a hurry, and in a temper with the hidebound old country which has snubbed him often enough. The rendering of his TV interviewer with a scornful snob is beautifully imagined. This is a hater of establishments, a newspaper professional with ink in his blood who impatiently says he could reconfigure the presses for tabloid with his own hands, and bloody well will if there’s any lip from print unions (at whose old power one shudders). It is no simplistic portrait: here’s a populist and a man of power, yet a shy one who dislikes the limelight; a ruthless man but one who when horror approaches his actual friends, is struck with proper pain. He kicks scornfully aside old shibboleths like not covering TV – because “its our rival!’ as the old guard say. Cudlipp’s speech about how populism leads to fascism resonates today all right, strongly enough (Graham makes sure of that) but so does the rising Sun’s desire to acknowledge that the chin-stroking bien-pensant establishment can’t have it all its own way. “What do people want?” asks Richard Coyle’s driven, tense Larry Lamb, and his hilariously ramshackle staff answer one by one and arrive at booze, fags, gossip, telly, free stuff, jokes. The portrait of Joyce Hopkirk by Sophie Stanton is irresistible: one forgets how dreary “women’s” pages were until then.

 

 

 

There is real understanding here, a real kick of freedom, and when the figures rise gradually towards the Mirror’s, it is impossible not to share the triumph. But by the time they top it, the scene has darkened. In the interval, after a first half of almost solid laughter punctuated only by sly enjoyment and caricature, a veteran journalist friend told me that he had covered something terrible at the time, the case of the horrible murder of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy, in a bungled kidnap attempt meant for his own wife. The implication was that this merry comedy was airbrushign it. What he – a newcomer to the play who hadn’t read reviews – did not know was that in the second half, the murder happens.

 

 

Graham uses this piece of history – startlingly intwerwoven with the birth of Page 3 and the pain of its first model – with delicate, shocking skill. It darkens a comedy into a play of real depth; Coyle’s Lamb stands before us scarred by the moral cost of victory, Murdoch by real human pain of his loss. Comedy has edged to tragedy; the black tide of ink falls across Bunny Christie’s evocative, nostalgic hot-metal set. It is top, top storytelling.: moral history, on a par with This House. Don’t miss it.

 

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 6 Jan
rating still five!   5 Meece Rating

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DIDO, QUEEN OF CARTHAGE RSC, Stratford Upon Avon

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS HERE, TOO, ARE TEARS FOR THE MISFORTUNES OF TROY

While there are many excellent reasons to read Virgil’s Aeneid from cover to cover, more than once, the fourth book of the great Roman epic (Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide) has perhaps inspired more artistic reactions than the whole of the rest of the poem put together in art, music, and literature. Christopher Marlowe’s beautifully detailed, erudite retelling of Dido’s fatal passion draws on Aeneid Book 1 as well as the seminal Book 4, plus Ovid’s moving and often witty Heroides, to produce a sensitive, rounded love story powered throughout by original classical sources, all gleaming with the fresh, lyrically romantic firepower of Marlowe’s verse. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, where his mother Venus decides it would be terribly helpful if Dido were to fall in love with him, just so she can get his ships mended in order to convey the hero on to Italy, where fate requires his presence. However, these self-serving immortal wiles provoke a storm of raw human emotions which, when finally thwarted by an unmoved destiny, ensures no one survives intact (and many don’t survive at all: we end up with a positive heap of bodies on stage).

Director Kimberley Sykes opens proceedings with a cruel party on Olympus, the gods behaving (or misbehaving) with callous disregard for themselves and one another to brash music which veers between deconstructed jazz and rock guitar. While we get off to a literally jarring note, one lovely touch is that the gods can conjure, adjust or extinguish music throughout with a swirl of their fingers, and can manipulate light in the same way. The stage is filled with grey sand, projecting far out into the audience, while a recessed section at the back soon shows us, through sheets of lashing rain, Aeneas’ sailors lit by flashes of lightning as they cling to ropes. Ti Green’s elegant, functional design thus provides plenty of open playing space, as well as opportunities for magically beautiful effects with light (sometimes combined with water) by Ciaran Bagnall. While the gods are in contemporary evening gear (Venus gets sparkly purple trainers and a leopardskin coat for her Tyrian huntress disguise), mortal costumes look generally classical, with the Carthaginians in loose, flowing gowns with large African prints, which they lend to the ragged Trojans as an early sign of friendship.

The cast are not smooth, but we see truly impressive central performances from Sandy Grierson as a thrillingly emotional, endlessly pessimistic Aeneas and Chipo Chung as a poised, noble and yet fragile Dido, whose descent into desperate, doubt-riven passion is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Tom McCall is nicely brisk and determined as Achates, Aeneas’ trusted (and ever practical) companion at arms, and Amber James is a poignantly cheerful Anna, whose heartwarming smile becomes more fixed as her own dreams and plans fall by the wayside. Bridgitta Roy’s sashaying, vengeful Juno and Ellie Beaven’s manipulative, needy Venus balance each other nicely. Sykes requires incessant striding around the stage and lots of blokeishly tactile physicality from her cast, which can irritate after a while, but energy levels stay generously high. When her characters are allowed to employ stillness, particularly in the tragic final scenes, a new intensity is achieved. Still, I found my tears came at the beginning: Aeneas’ cry of anguish to his disguised mother as she leaves him once again, a line I can’t read in Latin without crying either.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

At the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01789 403 493

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CORIOLANUS RSC, Stratford Upon Avon

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS CLASS CIVIL WAR AT THE RSC

Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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OSLO Lytellton, SE1

PEACE IN THEIR TIME…HOW TO DO IT

 

This is a three-hour historical political play about Middle East negotiations in the 1990s: and it is absolutely thrilling. Pins you to your seat with tension, breaks an audience into sudden barks of laughter – either of relaxation or relief – and in its dénouement wins a tear. It tells the story of back-channel negotiations between two enemies of forty bitter years: the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli government under Rabin and Shimon Peres. Over nine months in 92-93, a Norwegian academic called Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now ambassador here) decided that since their country was perceivedly neutral, it might be possible to set up private, secret talks before – and outside of – the official Washington conference.

 

 

With oblique, minimal official agreement from Mona’s ministers, fixing their own hire cars and secret venue, the pair juggled telephone calls and bluffs, called in favours (“Norway is a very small country”) and got it started. The inspiration was idealistic: they had visited Israel, he blown away by how “fantastically not Norwegian!” it was, and both shaken by the grief and waste of bombings and shootings. They knew it would be fraught. “You don’t make peace with people you’d have dinner parties with. You make peace with people who shoot you and bomb your buses”. They also had to accept that the first participants had to be diplomatic, if not positively secretive, with their own superiors back home.

 

 

But they did it. The optimistic dilettante non-diplomat Larsen felt that the “grip of history was loosening’ as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell, and that informality beat cards-on-the-table negotiations . He plunged into it in a feet-first spirit (Toby Stephens is often very funny in the part) while his wife, a junior diplomat played by Lydia Leonard with a marvellous quiet grace, took a more professional, exasperated but always hopeful approach. They got far closer to peace than anything dreamed of before: Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed in Washington on 23 September, 1993:later, when the Israeli premier was assassinated by an extremist of his own nation, Arafat wept.

 

 
J.T.Rogers’ play won a Tony, and deserves it for a perfectly paced, intensely clear structure combining direct documentary-style explanation with fast-sparking dramatic dialogue. Bartlett Sher’s direction is equally clear and fast, and the performances remarkable. Indeed very seldom do you remember you are watching performances. You think you’re seeing, with the hopeful young Larsens, the pairs of real adversaries matching and fighting their inherited hatreds. There is a degree of comedy (not least in Paul Herzberg iand Thomas Arnold as economics professors in scruffy raincoats, the nearest Israel would come at first to deliberately unofficial envoys) and moments of tenser astonishment . One comes when Philip Arditti , as the senior Israeli negotiator who eventually in a moment of extreme détente does an impression of a rather camp is Yasser Arafat, and doesn’t get shot down for it by the PLO men . Another memorable scene sees Arditti and Peter Polycarpou as the PLO man persuaded after a nasty scene to take a late night walk in the woods together, when they find that both their daughters have the same name: Maya. That semitic closeness of Arab and Jew…

 

At these moments, holding your breath, you do pay mental tribute to the actors. But you are looking through them , as you should be, marvelling at history and hope. And danger. As the communist PLO man Hassan, Nabil Elouahabi is tremendous, a tense ball of fury from his first refusal to be jovial (“the petit-bourgeois concept of family does not interest me”) who moves through sullenness and anger to acceptance.

 

 

It is a story which should be told. And which, at a time when not only is the West wondering if it can ever talk to ISIS, but when our own little shenanigan finds Britain and Europe less than inspiring as negotiators. One dreams of such a back-channel for Brexit. In the lighter moments of this play Geraldine Alexander , as Tori the kindly Norwegian housekeeper wound in folksy plaits, plies the smouldering negotiatiors with vanilla waffles. We could do with her in Brussels.

 

 

box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

 

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THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM John Peel Arts Centre, IP14

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DREAMS COMING TRUE IN MEDIEVAL NORFOLK

In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.

However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.

Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and calm honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Touring: 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130) and 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham (joan-h@live.co.uk – charity performance) 

Rating: Three (and a rural outing for the Musicals Mouse)3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE Marble Arch Theatre, W1

MICHAEL ADAIR GETS IN THE GROOVE

Sometimes the theatre can feel a little bit behind the times. The plots, the casts, the creatives and everything in between have yet to cease to amaze – but this is the age of Netflix, of ‘immersive cinema’, of a man selling a £1000 phone by telling us that ‘augmented reality’ is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. Indeed, when contrasted with all of these innovations in entertainment, stuffing yourself into a heavily carpeted space, with limited legroom and maybe a plastic cup of wine, makes a trip to the theatre, no matter how stunning the show, suddenly feel awfully old fashioned in its formality.

Step forward Five Guys Named Moe at the purpose-built Marble Arch theatre. Here, the venue in itself is an experience, intended as a homage to a 1940s jazz bar. Pre-show, a live band plays above a busy cocktail bar, where sharply dressed staff shake up typical New Orleans classics, Hurricanes and Whiskey Sours aplenty. The show is performed in the round – our cast sing and dance and move around the audience from a spinning circular platform, with the luckiest of ticket holders sitting at cabaret-club style tables in the very centre of proceedings.

The story, written by Clarke Peters, who also directs, is a simple one: Nomax, a borderline alcoholic who is having relationships troubles, is alternately comforted and challenged by a medley of Moes emerging from his radio to sing him the toe-tapping works of Louis Jordan. It’s a fast-paced, funny and stylish cabaret performance from an impressively talented cast, all of whom are terrific, and  bringing a different style and flavour to a  lesser- known back catalogue than you might find at Motown the Musical. Particularly noteworthy is the six-piece band, who are often present on stage alongside the performers – walking basslines, rumbling drums, wailing brass – it’s euphoric and perfectly matches the soft jazz-club lighting and smokey ambience.

The emphasis here is on fun – the plot is incidental to the sheer brilliance and dynamism of the performances, which  help ease the audience into some truly special shared moments – this was quite possibly the first time that I have participated in a cast-led, audience-wide conga line to the bar for the interval.  Long may this concept continue.

Some traditionalists might take issue with the thought of touching a fellow theatre-goer’s shoulders, or, God forbid, running the risk of making direct eye contact – but ignore them. Five Guys Named Moe is an absolute blast. Go on a Saturday night, bring some friends, order a drink (or several); it’s the about the only trace of Old Fashioned you’ll find at this theatre.

~ MICHAEL ADAIR

Until 17th February

Box Office – 03333 444 167
https://tickets.fiveguysmusical.com/london

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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