Cor! monkeys…

reviews by stewart pringle, some of them anyway

Puss in Boots review



Do you know the story of Puss in Boots? I mean, do you actually know what happens? It’s the one with the cat who becomes mayor or something, isn’t it? No, that’s Dick Whittington (and the cat doesn’t become mayor, that would be mental). The one with the weird under-the-sea bit with the dancing octopi? Nope, see above. The one with the evil Rat King and his legions of rat accomplices? Na-ah, that’s DW again. So what, I ask you, the hell happens inPuss in Boots?

Loads of stuff, it turns out, loads of really strange and disconnected stuff. Despite having a very familiar panto ring to it, and having been mulched up into a fewShrek films along with everything else that was pure and good about childhood, Charles Perrault’s story of a bossy, suited-and-booted magic cat isn’t actually a very familiar one. And it’s not going to be a whole heap more familiar after a night at the Hackney Empire, that’s for sure. This is as confusing a night in the theatre as you’re likely to have this December, but it doesn’t really matter because panto-goddess Susie McKenna has pulled off another evening of pure joy and spectacle that makes the finer details of the plot (almost) irrelevant.

It’s all got something to do with an evil miller who cheats his brother Tom out of his inheritance by threatening to drown his cat, leaving Tom and pussy-cat to roam the fields of France until they run into a shoe shop, where the cat requests some boots which may or may not make him magical, because actually it’s pretty damn magical for a cat to request boots in the first place. The evil miller might look like a likely villain, but actually he never turns up again and Puss and Tom instead travel to a kingdom populated by a villainous queen, a villainous witch, an ogre and assorted rogues and unfortunates. There’s a bit where Tom gets nekkid for Reasons and a complicated wrangle over royal succession, with Puss applying his skills in sword-fighting and silver-tongueing to save the day.

It’s glorious nonsense, and McKenna makes no effort to untangle it. It means there’s plenty of room for great comic set-pieces and musical numbers, but it does also create some basic problems. With at least two villains floating around it’s not always clear who to boo and hiss and who to root for, likewise the romances get hopelessly muddled and muted, and characters such as Celestine the Good Sorceress vanish almost entirely. Panto thrives on plot twists, but its moral universe must be clear and explicable for the audience to throw themselves into. McKenna hasn’t quite managed that here, and it makes for a slightly less satisfying evening than Hackney usually pulls off.

Luckily, there’s a glowing cast, Steven Edis’ winning musical score and more good-hearted, glitter-streaked pizazz than you can shake a fibre-optic wand at. The superlative Kat B, who played a mean King Rat in last year’s whizzo Dick Whittington and his Cat, plays Puss with slinky charm and a thick Jamaican accent, sparring with the audience and putting his charms to work on the ladies in the front row. Sharon D Clarke blasts the roof off as (slightly) evil Queen Talulah, raising Edis’ gospel-inflected score to spectacular heights, while Josefina Gabrielle pulls out some classic panto villainy as (very) evil witch Evilena.

Two years after Clive Rowe hung up his wig, there’s another new dame in Hackney, with Stephen Matthews taking on the role of Nettie Knowall. Matthews is loads of fun, though perhaps a touch less engaging than either Rowe or last year’s excellent Steve Elias, and he’s unfortunately saddled with a lot of dated jokes about social media. Nevertheless, he gets a great slop scene during a bout of (inexplicable) art restoration that puts the Lyric Hammersmith’s half-hearted milk-squirting bit to shame.

The decision to cast Matt Dempsey as Tom rather than the traditional cross-casting of the male hero is something of a break from panto tradition, and unfortunately Dempsey lacks the sparkle to justify it. Compared to the high-energy performances put in by the super Amy Lennox as spoiled Princess Petunia and Darren Hart as screeching maid Amnesia and Dempsey’s hero has trouble standing out.

Stephen Edis’ music can scarcely be praised enough. Where other panto’s stump for a solid score of re-worded chart hits, Edis creates a blend of genre pastiches and original tunes that gives Hackney panto it’s own thrilling identity year on year. The highlight of Puss in Boots comes during an inspired mash-up of ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis and ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods that opens Act 2 with an uproarious hurrah. If there’s a better moment in a London panto this year I’ll eat my hat.

All things considered, it’s another winner from Hackney panto, and you’d have to be a sour-puss indeed not to fall in love with it by the final number. The problems here are bound almost inextricably with Puss in Boots itself. There was a barmy article by John Stevens in the Daily Mail earlier this month predicting the death of the pantomime dame in the face of political correctness (in a reversal on their usual perspective on men who choose to wear dresses). It bemoaned the rise of pantos such as Aladdin and Robin Hood, usurping ‘classics’ such as Puss in Boots and Mother Goose but rather than seeking some nefarious lefty plot to explain the shift, isn’t it more likely that they’ve fallen out of popularity because those Perrault stories just aren’t very engaging? That the best of their component parts have been refigured and reconstituted into ‘new’ panto scripts that also boast greater clarity and speak more coherently to a modern audience? After all, re-arrangement and cross-textual borrowings have always been at the heart of the commedia dell’arte and pantomime traditions.

But if it must be Puss in Boots, you’ve got to be thankful that it’s this one. Combining home-spun charm with great-hall razzle-dazzle and performed by a belting, brilliant cast. The Lyric Hammersmith’s side-splitting Jack and the Beanstalk may just have the edge on Puss for me this season, but it’s a close run thing, and fans of a more traditional bout of ‘It’s behind you’ would probably give it to Hackney on points. Quite seriously, McKenna and the stunning team at Hackney Empire could do a panto of Finnegan’s Wake and still have the whole family cheering in the aisles.

Written for Exeunt

Henry V review



Henry V occurs on the rim of war. It’s twice enclosed: externally by Shakespeare’s own history cycle, completing the first tetralogy and preceded by its trilogy of grim sequels; internally by the narrating chorus that stands outside of its narrative, setting the scene more literally and directly than anything in the canon.

The action takes place, as Chris Goode elucidates in his superb theatrical essay The Forest and the Field, within the great ‘O’ of the round theatre scaffold, as well as on the fringes and cool-spots of the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt. These factors, and more within the text, give it a peculiarly over-watched quality, a sense of self-inquiry and reflexivity that is unlike practically any other play. For a work with such a reputation for bombast and jingoism, its greatest success lies in its relentless contemplation of its own grimly warring internals.


That doesn’t, if it isn’t already clear, necessarily make for the most satisfying experience, but it does make Henry V a braver and more interesting choice than is immediately apparent to close the Michael Grandage Company’s first West End season. More honest than bold, more sturdy than exciting, the three out of five productions that I’ve seen have been the definition of whelming, none quite escaping the slightly snoozy orbit of those rubbish GAP-catalogue-esque posters.

There’s plenty in Grandage’s production that’s tedious. There are moments in which six or seven boring people in cloaks stand in a semicircle and talk pretty boringly about pretty boring things for interminably long periods. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, it has the virtue of tradition, but it’s the sort of Shakespeare that could put a child or a candid adult off the Bard for life. For all the trims Grandage has imposed, there’s a stubborn plainness and mannerism to the early scenes of Dukes, Earls and Archbishops that’s utterly fidgetsome.

Compare it to the Unicorn Theatre’s re-imagining ‘for kids’ earlier in the autumn and you’ll make yourself dizzy. One made an audience cry with the pricking of a balloon, one almost sent it to sleep with a dozen of the country’s finest Shakespearean actors. One trod delicately over the text but with sureness in every step, the other paces the text with great galumphing strides but almost stumbles at the first hurdle.

Then there’s Jude Law himself, who’s almost faceless until his sojourn among the camp in Act IV. There’s a sort of gravitas to his Harry (not that you could believe anyone would call him Harry, he seems like the sort of person you’d call Mr Lancaster on the rare occasions you even bothered turning up to his Geography classes) but it’s the weight and solemnity of a statue rather than the bearing of an impressive, once impetuous ruler. His Crispin’s Day speech sees the first spark of something hotter, though it’s far from a great rendition, but it’s only really in his first moment of soul-searching following his confrontation with Williams that he registers as more than a palimpsest behind the verse.

Law is best in his final scene with Katharine, when he turns on the charisma, and something of his wilder, smoother days shines through. In a way the gear-change exaggerates rather than soothes the play’s own fractured final act, where broad comedy sits uncomfortably in the seat tragedy has just vacated and then squats there for slightly too long.

The meat of Henry V comes from Cheapside, rather than royalty, and its an element that Grandage has gone a long way towards perfecting. A great comic cast, headed up by Ron Cook’s blustering Pistol, fill the Falstaff-shaped gap in this late history, and prove the apparent subplots of the play to be among Shakespeare’s most profound and integrated uses of black comedy. Through Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, we see Mr Lancaster’s war from two removes, from the sidelines of the battlefield where these rough men squabble and pontificate, and from the perspective of the common man, expected to fight, bleed and die for a dubious war.

Shakespeare passes an extremely humane eye over the parallels that emerge between the drunken squabbles of poor men and the arcane tugging and warring of polity. As foolish as Pistol may be, when he contemplates his return to Cheapside, where his Mistress Quickly (an excellent Noma Dumezweni, doubling as Katharine’s handmaid) has died and the honour Mr Lancaster promised on the field of Agincourt already feels tarnished with the taste of leek, it’s clear that the band of brothers will quickly be disbanded when the war is over.

There’s excellent work from Jason Baughan here as Bardolph, Norman Bowman as Nym and Williams and Matt Ryan as Fluellen. Their scenes relocate the apparent concerns of Henry V, they present the low and usual level of the social strata which war cuts through and so temporarily disrupts. When themes such as Mr Lancaster’s religiosity fail to carry through and resonate, Shakespeare’s political satire continues to impress.

The one nod towards the contemporary in this largely traditional staging is the presentation of the Chorus, dressed somewhat inexplicably in a T-Shirt and backpack. Luckily, the part is performed by the always-watchable Ashley Zhangazha, and his delivery is excellent. Henry V conceals some of Shakespeare’s finest writing about theatre itself and his most evocative pleas to its power. Zhangazha’s delivery of lines such as ‘O, do but think/You stand upon the ravage and behold/A city on the inconstant billows dancing’ is shiver-inducing, and fitter by far than the laughable battle scenes, where men in armour rush from one wing to the other like the inhabitants of a Star Trek skirmish.

Maybe that’s the point. Caught in its own hall of mirrors, Henry V questions rather than confirms any perspective on the righteousness of its protagonist or his occupation. The hand of God is invoked so frequently that even Henry seems to question its existence or its placement in his heart of hearts. But the play’s truest and best qualities lie in its farce, its dark and bloody farce, that comments – and comments so directly, in a moral universe of misdirection and indecision – upon the dark and bloody farce of war.

Written for Exeunt

Jack and the Beanstalk review


© Tristram Kenton


They’ve changed the guard at the Lyric panto, West London’s smart-arse alternative to Hackney’s cosy seasonal leviathan. The superb Tom Wells (who has a major hit over at the Bush right now with ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’) has taken over as writer, with longtime associate director Dan Herd stepping up to the top job. And it’s quite possibly better than ever.

Show regular Steven Webb is a flashbang of charisma as wannabe florist Sprout, while Nigel Richards swishes and swooshes his way through a highlight performance as rent collector Mr Fleshcreep. Howard Ward’s dame is a shade too pallid, and his tussle with a horrifying pantomime cow too restrained, but Herd’s rollicking direction keeps on coming on.

Wells’s script is the silver bullet, skewering more pop-culture references than a nail-bomb in the ‘Family Guy’ studio, while managing a surprisingly sweet love story and some subtle LGBTwists.

There’s a bit that sees a roomful of eight-year olds shout ‘it’s Bonnie Tyler’ to distract the villain, and then they mistake Bonnie Tyler for a giant goose – because they’re eight years old and don’t know who the hell Bonnie Tyler is. And that’s ludicrous. And that’s brilliant. Your move, Hackney.

Written for Time Out

Amygdala review



Actress Geraldine Alexander’s first play examines the synapses of an age gap, as buttoned-up lawyer Catherine loses her sense of self and eventually her mind in a relationship with a smooth-talking young musician. The amygdalae are areas of the brain that oversee emotion and memory, so think of them as a 21st century version of the heart, probed here by somewhat unlikely psychiatrist Simon after Catherine’s illicit squeeze is arrested for a terrible crime.

‘Amygdala’ feels weighed down by the familiar. The psychiatrist/ interview structure feels dated and casts an ominous pall over everything, smearing out the colour and detail with a patina of gloom and inevitability. The contrast between prim middle-aged Catherine and sensual, vital Joshua falls victim to cliché, despite strong performances from Hermione Gulliford and Alex Lanipekun.

But set against its flaws, ‘Amygdala’ contains some forceful, bone-shaking writing. Alexander (who also directs) keeps her powder dry until the final moments, and when she finally unleashes hell, it packs quite a wallop. Gulliford excels in those tense scenes, and Fran Reidy’s elongated, claustrophobic design makes the Print Room feel like an autoclave.

Written for Time Out

Halbwelt Kultur review



To Stefan Zweig, writing in his rambunctious The World of Yesterday, ‘Even the Rome of Suetonius had never known such orgies as the pervert balls of Berlin, where hundreds of men costumed as women and hundreds of women as men danced under the benevolent eyes of the police.’ It was a world where traditional categories and boundaries, between class, gender, sexuality and politics, collapsed in on one another in a hedonistic madness where ‘To be sixteen and still under suspicion of virginity would have been considered a disgrace in any school of Berlin.’ That is the dusky environment of halbwelt, a world that director Patrick Kennedy hopes to plunge us to in this evening of punchy, politically-savvy Weimar cabaret.

Originally a one-woman performance that told the story of seven of the period’s greatest sheroes, this is a full-cast production that glides through a roster of classic cabaret tunes intercut with all-too-slight narrative vignettes. The cast is sparkling, the band is satin smooth and the songs consistently impressive, but for some reason the evening never quite crackles into life and the halbwelt atmosphere fails to coalesce.

The fourteen foot-stomping and tear-jerking tunes that make up the score are contextualised through the life of one of the seven stars. We see Claire Waldoff’s relationship with Olga von Roeder flourish in the liberal glow of the party scene and teeter on the brink of the looming fascist crackdown; we’re serenaded by Marlene Dietrich and Anita Barber performs her infamous cocaine dance, ‘Morphium’ by Mischa Spoliansky.

From the chorus opening number ‘Chuck Out the Men’ the focus is defiantly feminist, with the Weimar period celebrated as a time of paradoxical liberation for the performers, despite the salacious content of their acts. Like Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Halbwelt Kultur plays the anything-goes world of the Weimar Republic squarely off against the grim and intolerant future that’s goose-stepping towards Germany. Through Alyssa Noble’s witty, often rather acid choreography, we’re never under any illusion that the good times of sexual freedom and shadowy lawless zones is about to fall beneath a jackboot.

The occasional flat note or fluffled dance-step merely adds to the evening’s rickety charm, and the cast is generally excellent. Gabrielle Schmidt brings a moving but understated pathos to Waldoff, and Sarah Bradnum’s turn as Dietrich is a clear highlight. The full-chorus numbers are the most rousing, and smaller set-pieces such as ‘Supply and Demand’ work beautifully. Another Spoliansky number, ‘Lavender Song’ becomes a bittersweet anthem for lesbian love under the threat of returning oppression.

There are sections that are less successful, however: the presentation of ‘Morphium’ lacks necessary contextualisation and juts out awkwardly and inexplicably, and things begin to drag before the show concludes. The script, by Finn D’Albert, barely has time to breathe, meaning that the exchanges that bookend musical routines often come off as rather half-baked. The meeting of Waldorf and Roeder in particular rings like a sub-par Sarah Walters clone, and hence lacks vital credibility.

It’s a real shame, as Halbwelt Kultur is scattered with gems and, at its best, is a sex-positive celebration of freedom and the power of performance to speak love’s name when all other avenues have been blocked. It’s also an unfortunate truth that, however pleasant, the Jermyn Street Theatre is about as un-Halbwelt as London venues get, and it’s difficult to feel fully engaged by the performers in such a polite black box studio. Put this promising show in a grimy cabaret bar or a gin-sodden music hall, let the wine flow freely and the performers spill out through the audience, and Halbwelt Kultur could become something truly Weimarkable.

Written for Exeunt

Once Upon a Christmas review



Well, that was mental. Like someone’s broken a panto and tried to repair it with scraps of Westworld and the off-cuts from an episode of The Avengers that the BBC refused to air because it was just so fucking odd, Once Upon a Christmas is a promenade festive adventure through various shops in Covent Garden that’s probably even stranger than it intends to be.

You and a chum (if you don’t bring a chum they’ll pair you with a chum, and it’s disconcerting enough when it’s your chum you’ve got with you so take my advice and bring one) begin at the offices of a cabal of frazzled elves. The frazzledest one, nested in a pile of presents and post-it-notes, entrusts you with the quest of reuniting Cinderella with her Prince Charming in time for Christmas. If you can’t, it’s curtains for the denizens of Panto-Land. From there it’s off into the streets, where you’re assailed by giant mice, bitchy minor royalty and the odd story-book celeb. It’s somewhere between a very easy treasure hunt and a very disturbing dream, and if you can throw yourself into it you’re in for a pleasingly barmy time.

Spreading salacious gossip about Cinders or double-crossing a bearded Ugly Sisters is fun, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons’ script staying just on the right side of saucy – sexy Christmas being something of a cringey concoction at the best of times. A stand-out moment involves an encounter with the heart-broken Buttons, played brilliantly by Toby Manley, who’s a fantastic improviser and mines genuine pathos from his situation. There are also a few pressies to add to the festive treatiness of it all: the odd tipple, a ‘carriage ride’, and I hear someone got some chocolates but I missed those. For the most part it’s relentlessly good-natured and winningly aims for an atmosphere of giddy intrigue.

The problem is that it’s just consistently a bit boggling. The set-pieces frequently take place in one of those high-end shops that make Covent Garden a sort of Diagon Alley for the demi-posh, meaning that panto vignettes are tainted and skewed by the impression that you’re sort of taking part in a monstrously complex advertisement for the gilded businesses involved. There’s no sense of either audience autonomy or influence, with the decisions you make consistently failing to alter the course of events and only the most cursory nods to the creation of a reactive experience.

It all comes together in a climax that aims for Christmassy and lands squarely on petrifying, as the aesthetic of a direct to video Barbie animation collides with the trappings of the interrogation room. Think two-way mirror glass, eyes dilated by too much butterscotch and someone singing right up in yer grill. It’s sort of brilliant, and Look Left, Look Right make sure you leave with a (nervous) smile on your face and a glass of bubbly in your shaking hands.

There are two paths through the mayhem, and in the interests of full disclosure I have to say that my companion found the show to be a very poor evening’s entertainment, so one path may well be more fleshed out than the other and it’s probably not for everyone anyway. There’s a harsh barrier to entry in immersive theatre, with a considerable distance between ‘sweep you off your feet’ and a wearying trudge through the streets, but for me Once Upon a Christmasgenerally pulled it off. There are plenty of strong performances to savour, a sharp script and a stocking-full of WTF moments to have a good goggle at.

Written for Exeunt

Satyagraha review




Philip Glass’s undulating, ecstatic opera in the key of resistance returns to ENO for a third time, and it’s an honest to the gods near-spiritual experience of sharp, hot beauty and political provocation. Director Phelim McDermott’s production well deserves the acclaim that’s been heaped upon it in the six years since its premiere: its balancing of eye-widening spectacle and delicate intimacy is unrivalled, and despite the stately ritualism of its pacing, its message cuts deep and fierce.

Glass’s opera, the second in his ‘Portrait Trilogy’, traces Mahatma Gandhi’s stand for Indian independence in those two vital decades at the beginning of the 20th century. Each act is overseen by a great figure in the orbit of Ghandi’s philosophy of satyagraha, the soul’s ability to remove opposition or alter hearts through force of truth rather than violence. Tolstoy, the father of the school of Christ-inspired ‘Tolstoyan’ philosophy which was so influential on Ghandi’s developing thoughts on passive resistance; Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali song-writer and poet; and Rev Dr Martin Luther-King, leading the thread of Ghandi’s principles and practise into the heart of the century.

Tagore’s presence extends a hand backwards to the first part of the portrait trilogy, Einstein on the Beach, and the famous conversation between the two great men, where the nature of truth and the place or non-place man takes in its creation is debated, unites the two operas as portraits of the greater century – descriptions of change in the birth of modernity and the redefinition of freedom.

Glass’s opera takes sections of the Bhagavad Gita as its libretto, and the story is framed by the meeting of Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna on the Kuru Field of Justice. The libretto is delivered in Sanskrit without the distraction of surtitles. Instead, snatches of text are projected onto the stage. As in Einstein, there is an impressionist bent to the narrative, but here there is also a more definitive chronology – a directness and even a didacticism.

McDermott is liberal with his visionary set-pieces. The warring puppet-giants of Kuru, the sky of floating lanterns as a peasant ascends to the heavens on a moon of papier-mâché, the monstrous leering ghouls of the imperial ruling classes, the bonfire of identity papers that ignites Ghandi’s gentle revolution. Julian Crouch’s set belies its initial appearance as a familiar ENO wrap-around to open, close, fracture and rise in sympathy with McDermott’s considerable visual ambition. If the scale threatens to tumble into self-parody during the closing minutes of the final act, McDermott and Crouch have comfortably secured enough credit to get away with it.

Glass’s score is spirographic, geometric repetitions peppered with sudden variations and deft tonal lunges. The beginning of Act 2, in which Ghandi faces the mockery of the European middle classes in Port Durban is a cyclone of cruel anger, as choruses of ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ twist and circle, and the impressive chorus wheel madly around the rim of Glass’s trademark aural whirlpool.

Alan Oke is a terrific Ghandi, even if his resemblance to Walter White (emphasis on the white) is initially disconcerting. The tenor’s solos tend to come at the conclusion of an explosion of onstage violence and spectacle, and by emphasising the quietness and tenderness of the music, Oke creates a Ghandi that seems appropriately powerful in his refusal to answer bombast with bombast.

What should astound, however, is the production’s ability to support smaller, cannier images of oppression in the midst of all its technical majesty. The polishing of shoes in Act One takes on a new significance when King is ushered into his suit and shined mirror bright by assistants. Newspapers and print become complex symbols of both oppression and rebellion – writhing like a nest of vipers, or plastering the faces of gargantuan and hideous puppet-overlords. There’s something of frequent Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson in its suspicion of the written word, the vehicle for so much of Gandhi’s influence, but also a weapon of his enemies, embodied in laws and libels and registration documents.

It’s a densely constructed opera, but one which asks you to approach it at a measured pace and without painful concentration. Its images build gradually and hang meditatively in the air. Its message about satyagraha feels undimmed in the thirty-odd years since Glass completed it, as does its difficult suggestion that the price of freedom will always be self-sacrifice, and that (fatal or otherwise) the condition of change is usually martyrdom.

Written for Exeunt

Eric and Little Ern review



‘There’s too much lust for money in this world and not enough fun’, remarks Eric Morecambe in one of this warm Edinburgh Fringe hit’s more on the nose moments. He’s visiting his long-time comic partner in hospital, hopping into bed, cracking jokes, wigging on Ernie’s wig and generally trying to cheer up the man he shared a stage with for more than four decades. As classic routines fire off like Christmas crackers in between bleeping heart monitors and decaying grapes, it’s as bittersweet as candied peel, but a tenderly observed and heartfelt introduction to a play that’s more than a little lopsided.

Jonty Stephens (Morecambe) and Ian Ashpitel (Wise) developed this show after mastering their impersonations in sketches for family and friends, and the atmosphere of living room knees up and achingly affectionate personal tribute has been carried over. Stephens and Ashpitel swerve away whenever a grey cloud looms, their script playing as free and easy as Eric does in his subtly spectral visit to Ern. The first act flirts with something deeper and darker, but the writers drop the scarlet back-cloth all too soon, and the second act evades stormy weather for the sunshine of an extended M&W routine, where Stephens and Ashpitel can crack out their stunning embodiment of the duo.

The act is marvellously recreated, an almost pitch-perfect rendition that bounces through the best of their front-of-curtain material. Don’t expect more than a splash of song, and there are no props more elaborate than Morecambe’s famous paper bag, which Stephens manipulates in a gleeful love-letter to the sure-fire set-piece, but it’s an hilarious forty minutes that’s over all too quickly.

If Ashpitel is just a fraction less sharp and irascible than Wise, he masters his pomposity and fragility with skill, particularly in the first act, where Little Ern looks Littler and more vulnerable than ever. Stephens is so good it’s genuinely unnerving. He’s mastered every intonation, every dip of the head and flicker of the spectacles – even the furrows on his brow look picture perfect. There are genuinely moments in the second act where Ashpitel and Stephens fall away entirely, and the illusion is absolute.

But when Ashpitel and Stephens skip dance away to “Bring Me Sunshine” and the house lights rise, there’s a palpable sense of anti-climax and incompleteness. It’s doubtlessly a conscious decision to go out with a smile and a song, but the knowledge that Simon Scullion’s pallor-green hospital set lurks behind the red velvet nags and requires an answer. By dividing the show so starkly between pathos and razzmatazz, the writing duo have left their show hanging and emotionally insufficient. There’s no need to break out the black crepe, but some acknowledgement of the dark shadings of act one to cap off act two would offer at least a glimmer of satisfaction.

It’s possible that the shadows of two previous dramas – Tim Whitnall’s one-man masterpiece Morecambe and the BBC’s 2011 superlative teleplay Eric and Ernie– have dimmed the light of a show that aims for celebration rather than weight, and if that’s the case it’s a shame. Because, even with its failings, Eric and Little Ern is a sincere and accomplished tribute to a comedy sensation that brushed up a kinder, gentler world. Not the world of the 1950’s or 60’s, which was scarcely kinder, but against that world of Saturday teatimes and Christmas Day evenings that Morcambe and Wise so sunnily illuminated.

 Written for Exeunt

Mojo review



For those of us that missed the glorious baptism in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in the summer of 1995, there’s a heavy bin-full of expectation hanging over this revival of Jez Butterworth’s first play, which director Ian Rickson has openly trumpeted as its confirmation into the great and holy church of modern classics. There’s little that’s leaden or awkward about this star-littered switchback of a production, but the humour cuts blunter than it does on the page, and the play never quite breaks free of the spectre of that rapturous reception almost twenty years ago.

It’s still a hell of a show. A comedy that’s so black it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. The courtly shenanigans of Marlowe’s Edward II exploding in a Soho dance hall in the birthing pains of rock and roll, it’s Reservoir Hound Dogs with quiff-sharp, pre-Lock Stock cockney dialogue. Silver Johnny is the latest youth sensation, part of that early generation of performers who saw coffee shops and underground bars rip out their jukeboxes and plumb in a home-grown alternative to America’s pelvisy superstars. He’s the golden boy caught up in a very British, very minor gang war between two rival promoters, and we watch the aftermath of his sudden disappearance unfold across one sticky, stale-beer and sweat afternoon.

In this first play, Butterworth’s command of language and rhythm is already on its way to truly remarkable. Cliché it may be, but there’s a beat and a flow to Mojo’s scenes that keeps sweet time with the music of the 50’s, or how that music must have sounded to untainted ears. Tight and slinky, spangled with controlled explosions. Peculiarly, just as Pinter made a cameo as Ezra in the sloppy film version (a character who remains offstage in the play…more or less), his language makes a fleeting appearance in two or three moments, where Butterworth sacrifices his own voice for a fractured lyricism that apes his idol. It’s not a problem, not the kind of problem it became by the time he sat down to unwrite himself in The Winterling, but it’s odd – it snags somehow.

There’s a sense in which Mojo is a simple, brutal siege drama, and it’s effectively witty and claustrophobic on this level. Perhaps more than any other play of the 90’s, Butterworth’s predicted the generic collapsing of television and film into theatre that can be seen equally in the storytelling and visual diction of Three Kingdoms and the unstemmable flood of silver screen classics into the musty houses of Theatreland. Mojo’s dialogue is so punchy you’ll want an ice-pack in the interval to bring the swelling down.

But it’s Mojo’s other side that really impresses, where you can see the man who would write Jerusalem start to warm to his genius. There’s that classic History-play structure, for starters, and its re-interpretation as an unchivalrous chivalry of Brylcreem and sequins. Silver Johnny’s jacket is the most obvious armour substitute, but Butterworth has caught the crucial truth at the centre of that first great youth movement. That sense of young men discovering that their beauty and their style had a currency of its own that could trump the creaking, grey rules and systems of their elders. That looks could be leveraged and drugs could be dealt and arse could be sold. That there were ways of getting ahead, and of putting a new beat to the old world, but that playing the game was dangerous, because when you grab life by the scruff of the neck you’d better be sure there aren’t razors under the collar.

Ben Whishaw’s performance as corpse-eyed, unhinged Baby dominates the production. As gorgeous as he is terrifying, he embodies that switchblade danger and pill-buzzed sensuality to perfection. He’s a character who’s so badly damaged you can hardly make him out for the jagged, mangled edges, and his scenes with Colin Morgan’s pitiable Skinny are the production’s best.

Brendan Coyle is assured as Mickey too, the older man in a younger, more desperate world. He has a bouncer’s aloof solidity, and an authoritative grip on proceedings that subtly hints at how hard he’s holding on.

It’s in the scenes between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint and Daniel Mays respectively, that the play feels weaker and thinner than it should. Mays proves himself an accomplished comic actor in the 70’s sitcom mould, but Rickson’s direction finds his quick-fire exchanges with Grint slightly try-hard and over-egged. For all of Butterworth’s firecracker dialogue, so spiky and vital on the page, they could almost be swapping cracks in that pub from Only Fools and Horses. It’s an early reminder that Mojo is at heart a comedy (and it was as a comedy that it scooped that Olivier on its debut) but it feels the wrong kind of comedy – too broad and, sad as it is to say, visibly dated.

By far the most accomplished actor in his year at Hogwarts, Rupert Grint’s first stage outing lacks focus, constantly playing catch-up with the text. When Baby half-jokingly rounds on him and accuses him of being a cunt – a hail-fellow-well-met cunt but a cunt nonetheless, a cunt deep down – it rings false because Grint has failed to tease the truth out of Baby’s assessment.

Rickson’s direction in the later scenes is fantastic, however, and things improve immeasurably when the action moves downstairs into the bar of Ultz’s evocative, unflashy set. It is, at the end of the day, Baby’s play, and Rickson and Whishaw work in quick-step synch to deliver what must surely be one of the year’s best performances.

Not quite the knife to the guts it might have been it that blistering summer of 1995 then, but you still wouldn’t want to bump into Mojo down a dark alley.

Written for Exeunt

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense review



It’s been a long and bumpy road to the West End for P G Wodehouse’s most popular characters, with only the twice-tried Lloyd Webber/Ayckbourn musical version to show for it. The prickly Wodehouse estate had flat refused to countenance any further outings for the hapless toff and his resourceful butler, until self-confessed Wodehouse nuts The Goodale Brothers managed to butter them up by acting out the scenes between them. It must have been quite the sight, and it’s one that’s been transplanted pretty much wholesale into what is essentially a two-hander with one breathlessly role-swapping supporting character. It’s almost austerity West End, with a distinctly touring-show vibe to both the design and the performances, that’s just about smart enough and just about funny enough to make a virtue of its threadbare presentation.

The shtick is that Bertie’s putting on a play, a one-man retelling of the cow-creamer, newt-bothering shenanigans found in The Code of the Woosters, and naturally Jeeves has to lend a hand. As our favourite fop flaps about and rambles through his tale, Jeeves nonchalantly produces stage sets and props of increasing complexity and ancient butler Seppings is recruited to fill in the extra roles. It leaves oodles of space for meta-theatrical japes of all colours, including some surprisingly on the nose jibes at West End convention. There’s a bit with a bicycle that should have Trevor Nunn’s ears burning.

Stephen Mangan, who looks, as ever, like a dangerously deranged horse, is a passable Bertie, with some very funny physicality and plenty of prime mugging, but somehow fails to keep us on his side. Bertie is a twit, but he shouldn’t be a twat, and whether it’s because the current climate makes the moronic ruling classes seem less loveable than they might usually be, he’s often irritating rather than endearing.

Luckily he’s partnered with the brilliant Matthew Macfadyen, who not only rolls out a Jeeves which puts even Stephen (Fry) in the shade, but also throws himself utterly into his various turns as the booming Sir Watkyn Bassett, simpering Gussie Fink-Nottle and horrendous Stiffy Bing. The contrast between his nicely starched butler and screaming caricatures gets the evening’s best laughs, and though there’s some game support from Mark Hadfield as Seppings and exceedingly tall fascist Roderick Spode, Macfadyen comfortably romps home with the show.

There are plenty of scenes of genuine hilarity, gradually escalating in the tradition of the best farce, but farce needs a powerful engine to keep it rolling past the hour mark, and unfortunately Wodehouse’s episodic plotting can’t provide it. A good Wodehouse rollicks along like a disembowelled detective story, chaotic fragments raining down until the hand of chance (or of Jeeves) plucks them from the air and guides them into perfect alignment. There is a satisfaction to them, a completeness that belies their brevity and repetitive structuring. It’s a quality that is undone here by the constant breaking of the fourth wall, the flagging up of a crap bit of set or a cracking bit of stage business that becomes grating even before the interval. It’s always a bit depressing when the audience applauds the set, but here director Sean Foley seems to actively want them to. Wodehouse is a great literary juggler, but a modest one. This production’s Achilles’ heel is its tireless insistence on the cleverness of its juggle.

Written for Exeunt