FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Menier, SE1

L’CHAIM – TO LIFE!    A SPECIAL NIGHT

   

      We are there, over a century ago, beyond the Caucasus.   Designer  Robert Jones  has wrapped us around in rustic planks and ramshackle cottages, with a village pump and a woodland beyond showing skies of , as the wedding song goes “Sunrise, sunset..”.   Tevye’s dairy cart,   the buckets and brooms wielded by his five daughters and weary wife all  speak of establishment,  domesticity, a homespun and  sometimes hungry community in little  Anatevka .  It breathes old Jewish faith, irony, gossip, feuds , family.  But their world is changing, and before the end the Constable  – himself under orders, reluctant, fed up –   will have given every one of them three days to sell up and clear out.  Hunched, laden shapes will fade into the dusk.   

   

 

    My companion of last night had a father who, at the age of sixteen,  fled from just such a shtetl  in rural Russia, arriving penniless and wandering to make at last a life here. Even without that connection,  in that intimate space Trevor Nunn’s marvellous production would have struck deep into the heart.  For all the characterful jokes and romantic sweetness,  when Stein, Boch and Harnick’s classic musical is well done it always takes  on the air of a ritual commemoration.  So it should.   As Tevye says, they are all,  like the fiddler on the roof ,  “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”.    Like the Highland Clearances,  like any refugee tide in the world,  it is one of the saddest stories.  

 

 

         And the beauty of the show (especially here, so close to the clattering buckets, whirling dances and  exasperated family moments )  is how fast, completely and lovingly ,  the viewer is drawn in to a community which for all its feuds, flaws and absurdities did nothing to deserve it.   Sober, kindly, ancient,  benerous knowing that even for the poor it is “a blessing to give”,  they draw us to them.   Good people in a terribly changing time.  Where,   as our hero remarks “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, makes the whole world blind and toothless”.   

 

       Andy Nyman’s stocky, practical  Tevye is a joy from the start:   grumbling to his God with headshaking informality,  proud of his mastery as Papa and   wedded to tradition,   unable to repress a certain inner joyfulness even in his attempts at sternness.  He kids himself that he is master of his five daughters and who they marry, yet always proves too soft a soul not to talk himself out attempts at correctness.     The daughters are perfect:  Molly  Osborne’s serious Tzeitel determined to avoid the matchmaker’s elderly choice and stick with shy Motl the tailor,  Harriet Bunton’s Hodel who bravely risks dancing with the revolutionary student Perchik at the wedding;  later a more serious dereliction of Jewish duty as their younger sister marries out.   All five are perfect,  catching precisely the combination of irrepressible youth and  sober-frocked traditional demeanour as around them the men drink and laugh and quarrel,  and Judy Kuhn’s equally perfect Mama Golde rolls her eyes impatiently and holds family and community together.   

 

       Close up the show’s great set-pieces are intoxicating: wildest of Cossack dancing from the Russians interleaved with Jewish traditional moves,  every brief fracas timed to perfection,  every gloriously Jewish switch of mood from sentiment to sarcasm timed to a hair.  You gasp and laugh and shiver in recognition and , yes, love.   However many times you have seen it this tight, intimate, heartfelt production sparks new life.  Mazel Tov!   

box office  0207 378 1713  to  

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

           

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TRUE WEST Vaudeville, WC1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR EMPATHISES WITH DEADLINE FEVER..
Here is a tale of two brothers. First, Kit Harrington’s serious, intelligent and moustachioed Austin, Ivy League educated and with a family ‘500 miles up north’, he’s come south to California to look after his mother’s house and water her plants whilst she’s in Alaska. Then his brother arrives, Lee, played by Johnny Flynn – a nomadic waster who has spent months living alone in the desert. The pair haven’t seen each other in years. They appear to have little in common – Austin’s calm and quiet order is completely at odds with Lee’s chaos. The stage seems to be set for a millionth take on the Odd Couple format. 
But as the two brothers battle over a script that could make them their fortune – this becomes a play that is really about the writer, the late Sam Shephard. The two conflicting personalities on show serve to make one whole person. It’s a study in the struggle of any of us who might have a desire to be free, creative and unpredictable, but thwarted by that serious, uptight, niggling side, that needs to stick to the rules and play the game. Watching the pair reminded me of working close to a deadline – feeling the desperate need to focus and deliver, but suddenly also an overwhelming urge to procrastinate and learn everything I possibly can about how submarines work. Here, the serious Austin tries to play by the rules, having regular meetings with a Hollywood producer to try and sell his script, which he is diligently working on. Lee is a chancer – he assuredly flogs the same producer his half-baked idea for a movie almost immediately, but needs the talent of his brother to deliver a script. As the play wears on, Harrington’s once sensible Austin becomes wilder, drunker and begs his brother to take him to the desert. As he’s faced with delivering something he is not capable of, Flynn’s Lee begins to dream of normality. At one point he is seen trying desperately to phone women who might be interested in settling down with him. 
Visually, this is a treat – the house is in a washed out Californian palette, all green and faded orange – with a side of dusty Levis. Set and Costume Designer, Jon Bausor has done a terrific job.  Especially when considering the late Shephard’s stage directions are so meticulous – apparently he even went so far as to specify that the house plants should be ‘mostly Boston ferns’. Credit too to Joshua Carr and Ian Dickinson for light and sound respectively. The searing California sun rises and falls on the house, the moon whispers through blinds and all the while we are enveloped by the cries of crickets and the wails of coyotes. There is a Forced perspective of sorts to the house –  the kitchen seems to stretch further and distort – making our characters taller and more imposing the further away from us they are.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable exploration of the human psyche that is owned by the charisma and energy of its two leads. Harrington and Flyyn are both superb – the further they drag themselves towards the conclusion the more enjoyable their performances become. Amidst fighting and screaming, there is some great dark and physical comedy, with Harrington stealing all of the neighbourhood’s toasters to help him prepare a small mountain of toast being especially amusing. But at two hours with interval – the whole thing feels excessive and a little dated in such a large theatre. At times it feels expansive where there is a need for intimacy, and there is only so far the raging turmoil of a struggling writer can take you. 
Until 23rd February
Box Office: 0330 333 4814
rating three3 Meece Rating

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THE BOX OF DELIGHTS Wilton’s Music Hall E1

DARK MAGIC,  REAL THEATRE

 

  Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike.   Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a  precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil.  Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia  there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer,  elegantly cold and murderously homicidal.     And well before Pullman  there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says,  in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.

 

    The poet laureate John Masefield is ancestor of  them all,  in his children’s books  picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with magic of E.Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any.   This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.   

 

  So  I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday .   Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter –  must  struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles,  unassisted  (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction)  by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”.     Kay  knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”.    She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing.    The wicked lot want not only the important Box,  but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir are kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).   

  

  My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through.  There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral,  of it being dismissed as  retro and “charming”.  And,  indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes.   But any child or inner-child   should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart  but for the sheer pleasure of  its theatricality.  The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons;   there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky.   The only high-tech is projection, very well used  to create a village, a wood, a cathedral.  Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should:  demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.   

 

 

      Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria,  who likes guns, piracy, fights,  and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of  “parties in  dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”.   It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in  knickerbockers was welcomed.  As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly  cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side;  and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.   

     So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto  but bring them here too.  And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…

 

box office  020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm)   wiltons.org.uk

to 5 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES 

 

      It is , if possible, even finer and more heartfelt and gripping, tuneable and serious and moving than last year.   My  former review, https://tinyurl.com/ya6695rs ,  describes the essential glories of Jack Thorne’s adaptation, Warchus’ glorious direction and Christopher Nightingale’s score and  the weaving-in of carols :  old words whose meaning, at each point, shines sharply new-minted.   

 

       So, revisiting it with a new cast – notably Steven Tompkinson as Scrooge – I remembered the glorious handbell-ringing,  the finale with mad potato chutes , parachuting Brussels sprouts, jokes,  its warmth, the perennial quality of its moral and the striking modernity of Thorne’s emphasis on how Scrooge’s awful childhood made him.  I had forgotten, though, the other subtlety he mines from Dickens about  the miser’s lost youth:  the way that parental debts fuelled his frantic financial ambition to become rich before approaching his beloved Belle.  I had forgotten too the poignant coda where the old man meets her again, and her acceptance of his place in her history;   forgotten the moment in Christmas Future when we see the great-hearted forgiveness of Bob Cratchit.  Despite being sacked for poor timekeeping after his son dies  he merely thanks Scrooge for “teaching him discipline”.  

 

 

     All these layers of meaning and benignly sorrowful acceptance of the shapes of life make Thorne’s version something more than a massively entertaining and original rework of Dickens for the 21c. I hope it comes back every year.  But what also needs saying is that Steven Tompkinson – who I remember most from lightish comedy, all the way Drop the Dead Donkey –  is really remarkable here, displaying great range, subtlety and heart .   He takes Scrooge from the familiar nicely ludicrous cantankerousness through unease,  tentative self-understanding,   furious defiance,  shivering fear and a compassion  which torn from him as if by savage violence when  Tiny Tim (very very  gorgeously tiny)  seems lost. 

 

     In the final moments, dark and silent around the solo carol just before redemption’s happy Christmas dawn,  he also evokes the real, unavoidable pain of redemption: how it hurts to throw off the security of  a lifetime’s mental habits and emotional lockdown.   

  

 

    Of course he then capers, as per Dickens, “light as a feather” in the morning,  and masterminds the vast dinner in Warchus’ hilarious coups de theatre (I thought the turkey on the zip-wire would deck him for good).    But there is a sobriety, an aweful seriousness to what has happened to this man,  a wrench which this production recognizes more firmly than most.    The coda makes this real;  and, in a last quiet moment after the charity appeal and bows,  so does the last handbell rendering of Silent Night.   Many Christmas shows end in pure merriment and there is greatness in Warchus’ decision to offer us instead that moment of  quiet reflection,  with Scrooge and the little child kneeling together at the centre of the bellringers,  overcome.  

        Tears.   So there should be.   Even writing it down. 

 

 

box office  0844 871  7628     to 19 Jan

rating Five.  5 Meece Rating

 

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BURKE AND HARE               Jermyn St Theatre SW1

DARK DOINGS AND DISSECTION

 

  Oyez, Oyez.   Let it be known that this suspenseful yet dreary political season has become officially the Year Of Dark Panto.  Down at The Bridge we had Martin McDonagh’s “very very very” dark –  and somewhat silly –   imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s Congolese attic-dwarf-prisoner who never was.   Now,  with fewer pretensions and a lot more laughs ,  give a hand to  Tom Wentworth’s spirited and largely true story of Burke and Hare.  Their trade in 1828 was murdering lodgers in Mrs Hare’s boarding-house and selling their bodies, for seven to ten quid apiece,  to a keen anatomist of the Edinburgh medical school.   Up from the Watermill at Newbury,  directed con brio by Abigail Pickard Price, it is an absolute blast.  It is done in the dramatic-cum-vaudeville-reduced-Shakespeare-National-Theatre-of-Brent  genre :  rapid costume changes, doubling and tripling  and deliberate undermanning.     Its two-hour merriment should keep the tiny Jermyn packed nicely from here to nearly Christmas.

 

    It’s a three-hander, with Alex Parry as Hare,  Hayden Wood as Burke and the hilariously fierce Katy Daghorn (like Wood, she has Play that Goes Wrong experience, always a good sign) .   She is both their womenfolk, and also introduces the piece as Monro,  the indignant rival surgeon who lost out by not being on the Burke and Hare customer list.    But equipped with a splendid variety of pre-Victorian lowlife costumes –  leprous tailcoats, repellent mufflers,  broken hats and disgusting bloodstained aprons –    they all play random others : locals, doctors, visitors, a large extended family : anyone,  depending on who’s needed at that moment on the tiny stage . A stage which is  – courtesy of designer Toots Butcher –  atmospherically decorated with anatomical drawings and  filthy side curtains .   The hurtling exchanges of mop-caps, fancy hats and aprons is rapid, but  you soon work out that whoever’s temporarily got the maroon tailcoat and top-hat is having to represent  Ferguson, a thick medical student and boozy habitué of the lodging-house bar and its passing tarts. 

 

    They are all three rapid, adept and funny, and when strictly necessary co-opt one of the front row as a corpse, on which the anatomists lavish repulsively descriptive insults while it shakes helplessly like the rest of us (“Och, aye…a little gas escaping from the mooth there”).     From time to time Burke and Hare, being Irishmen,   break out into choruses of “Nancy Whisky” and “Whisky in the Jar”.   

  

  There are some fine set-pieces, like the pair’s attempt to shop around Surgeons’ Square for a buyer, with windows opening and shutting to reveal various versions of Daghorn.  The pathetic  bumbling stupidity of the pair  and the brisk exasperation of  Mrs Hare endears the awful trio just enough to take our minds off their  murderousness .  And like all the best nonsenses in this genre, the play has the nerve to offer one moment of proper heart and pathos:   dropping into quieter song and a moment of very brief historical narration when a late victim –  Daft Jamie –  is disposed of .  He was a pathetic but beloved figure in the Edinburgh community and his murder caused, it is reported,  the greatest outrage . So he gets his moment ,  Parry giving him a brief, elusive moment of dignity before the next joke .  Nice. 

 

boxoffice   jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to 21 dec

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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AN HONOURABLE MAN                   White Bear, Kennington SE11

BREAKING THE MOULD….

 

 Our politics is  partisan, quarrelsome, dated in its pattern of two-parties-plus-minnows.   A nest of weary careerists,  pointless betrayals and illogical loyalties,  lined with nervous SPAD-ism and manifesto muddle.     So break the mould!  We often carelessly cry. Bring on a saner spirit of moderate co-operation.    But what happens when you break a mould?  Might you end up with a terrible mess of melting jelly, dripping in all directions?    Or in another image, a brick made ,as the Bible warns they shouldn’t be, utterly without straw?  

        

     Enough with the metaphors. Michael McManus  – writer, formerly of the Press Complaints Commission and IPSOr,  has been a  special adviser in three government departments over decades, and made valiant attempts at getting selected himself.   He knows the mould, and how mouldy it can get.  So this fascinating, timely play is steeped in bitter  experience.

 

  Not that it is embittered: indeed there’s a pleasing streak of idealism in his imagining of what might happen a year or so from now.  Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve had a hard, soft, or non-Brexit because as it makes clear we’ll still be fretting about the NHS,  transport,  crime, the borders, free speech, the EU’s attitude, all that.   Its hero is  Joe Newman, (Timothy Harker) who has been de-selected in the Corbyn age and re-elected as  independent Labour on Teesside. 

 

  Joe is a sweet, slightly shy, faintly camp voice of well-meant moderation, who once was in love with Josh (Thomas Mahy), a cross, hirsute Momentum gorilla who is now his enemy.   On his team is the forceful Anne, (Lisa Bowerman), a young thrusting intern Sam,  the older Maggie, and his sensible, kindly “failed fringe actress”  neighbour Liz:  a lovely blowzy performance by Dee Sadler.   So it begins with banter and excitement, which grows into talk of a new party.  And the new party forms fast because, as the veteran Maggie says “What voters want is to emasculate the political class”  .  Britain,  in a memorable metaphor, is like a cat which doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out, so just sits around licking its balls. 

  

    But a new party – as Shirley Williams warned  before forming one  eight years later – risks having “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”.   And poor Newman, in a series of alarming sessions with hyped-up advisers scribbling on blackboard walls,  finds himself  dragged to and fro, promising to sort out special needs, schools, hospital matrons, Scotland, knife crime, housing, banks – the lot.   Ann, a tough egg, draws lines from all of these challenges to the dread  word –  “Immigration”.  

  

  Only   Maggie quotes Mencken,  warning him against crazy populist promises :  “For every complex problem there is an answer which is simple, clear, and wrong”.    By the second half Newman hears himself sounding alternately like Farage and Blair,  Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.  They worry about his image too much: “It might help if you pretend to like football” “But I do..”  .  We watch the polls on screen (there are plenty of TV bulletins throughout, including one with Ken Clarke in it, sounding just like himself). 

   

  At one point when his  new party’s popularity is sagging poor Joe loses his temper with a heckler and lays into him physically, and to everyone’s slight dismay this raises his ratings no end.  One cannot choose one’s followers any more than one’s enemies in politics , and some will be thugs.  Or terrorists, no spoilers.  Suffice to say I enjoyed it no end, in a terrified sort of way.   All it needs to add to the frisson would be a figure in dark glasses,  an International Rescue Committee baseball-cap and heavy false moustache , ordering his fish and chips at the White Bear in a suspiciously familiar voice.  .  We all have to stare bravely into the centre-party abyss, do we not?

   

Box Office  www. whitebeartheatre.co.uk

0333 012 4963  to 8 dec

rating. four 4 Meece Rating

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SWITZERLAND Ambassadors, WC2

DEATH AND THE DIFFICULT WOMAN

 

Those who call Theresa May a ‘bloody difficult woman’ should pop in to the Ambassadors and realise that in the ranks of  of BDWs she is the merest dabbler, a tyro. Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on A Train and the Talented Mr Ripley series, was  in real life described by one publisher as  “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being”and by another who actually liked her best as “rough, very difficult”.

In Joanna Murray Smith’s  creepy, funny, transgressive, impertinent tour-de-force of a 90 minute twohander about her,  Highsmith lives up to all of this. Especially  in the first half as she comprehensively monsters a visiting young publisher who – after the previous envoy has returned needing trauma counselling – has volunteered as a fan of her Ripleys to plead with her to contact for  a final one. She is probably terminally ill , and in retirement in Switzerland with her cat, pet snails and an extreme chip on the shoulder about the “circus of literary braggadocios”, the alpha males in US literature – Mailer, Vonnegut, Woolf etc. She feels that they and their critical sycophants look down on her for writing mere crime.

 

It is directed with vigour by Lucy Bailey, never one to shrink from the dark side.   Phyllis Logan is superb as Highsmith:tough, hunched, writerly, aggressive and scornful.  Calum Finlay is the young man -perfectly preppy, with his backpack and earnestness. At first, anyway.

 

It is often very funny, and secretly satisfying to this old boot to see a mean, scruffy old female warrior running rings round the apparently naive young man with his irritating young  confidence.  As it goes on the tone changes:a rapport grows up, but a prickly one, and the play becomes a meditation on two things (apart from the sheer fascination with murder ) .

 

    One is the degree to which a public personality becomes  imprisoned by their shtick -in her case antisocial, antisemitic, outrageous racism and general contempt.  The other is the dangerous symbiosis between a beloved character and his creator. The barely spoken fact, which is also important to know if you are not a Ripley reader,  is that after the utter brilliance of the first book about the serial killer, The Talented Mr Ripley, the series became less and less good.   One tires  of him. One point of this play is to suggest that she didn’t:that the amoral, existential character skewed her perspective and undermined her talent.

 

   We move into a zone of illusion and fiction, no spoilers but that isn’t what transpired, ever. The young visitor undergoes a gradual change- which Finlay handles perfectly.  Highsmith doesn’t, but remains her sharp sad ultimately vulnerable self below the carapace . Until…well…

 

 

It was a suddenly wet London evening, the kind when you end up in desperation shoving an Evening Standard under your soaked top for sheer insulation. And somehow, in this creepy play, that clamminess sort of helped. Rather brilliant.

Ambassadorstheatre.co.uk.  To 6 Dec

Rating four. 4 Meece Rating

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