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

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

 

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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

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