Sunday, 28 March 2010


25/3/10, National (Lyttelton)

Missed it. Had to work. D said it was excellent. The Guardian gave it five stars. Pooh.


24/3/10, Royal Opera House

Three short Kenneth Macmillan ballets (including his last, The Judas Tree, created in 1992) revived as part of the Royal Ballet's season devoted to the man.

I missed the first, Concerto.

The Judas Tree was second: a dark work, in which a bunch of building workers disport (if that's the word) with a young woman, carried on under a sheet apparently dead, who then comes to life and flirts with them, teases them, is attacked by them, gang-raped by them and has her neck broken by the foreman.

Dark, disturbing and rather disturbed. Also muddled. The doll-like girl's neck is apparently broken twice by the foreman; the second time she comes to life, under the ministrations of one of the foreman's assistants, who movingly and cleverly picks her up, tosses her around like a ragdoll until she acquires a life of her own.

Much posturing and dramatic leaping by the men: I think you're meant to be able to smell the testosterone. Dramatic, dissonant music by Brian Elias, of whom we had never heard.

Leanne Benjamin danced the woman, brilliantly (to my untutored eye), though I thought I spotted a mistake early on when the three principal men were dancing together in a circle and she was trying to break in: she's supposed to lean forward, grasping for their hands with one of hers, while her back leg extends out behind her; she did this twice, successfully, but at the first attempt she seemed to misjudge it, they collided with her and knocked her off balance. Or maybe that was meant to happen.

Carlos Acosta danced the foreman (who hangs himself from a handy piece of scaffolding at the end). He got some applause when he came on and unlike the other men, dressed in various shades of workmen,s blue, he stood out in a white T-shirt; but it seemed to me that he had if anything even less to do than the other two leading men, and S (who knows about ballet) said afterwards that the applause was silly and that he was past his best.

The applause at the end seemed to reflect that judgement, with loads for her and not much for him and he graciously stood aside to let her take the spotlight. (But Lord, they do milk their curtain calls at Covent Garden).

The third work was Elite Syncopations, created in the 1970s to the music of Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, when Joplin was all the rage in the wake of The Sting, and which I remember seeing with the parents when first unveiled. I loved it.

It's showing its age. Lots of dancers in brightly-coloured catsuits being variously cute, coy, outrageous; lots of striped waistcoats and bowler hats; the band on stage at the back conducted by the pianist and playing this most engaging of music with absolutely no sense of swing whatever -- it sounded like tuneful sludge.

Some spectacular dancing but I kept thinking of Cats, which was presumably a populsit rip-off of what was already, to be fair, a pretty crowd-pleasing kind of show.

Chiefly remarkable for some staggering dancing by Sarah Lamb, who can do things with her legs which ought to be impossible.


23/3/10, Barbican

In Polish. The last play Sarah Kane wrote before her suicide, translated and apparently reimagined by a Polish company, TR Warszawa. Well-reviewed at Edinburgh a couple of years ago.

We never saw the original in English, so it's hard to tell how true this version is. Here's an illuminating review on The Arts Desk, from which I gather that the original is potentially a much richer text, in which every line can be spoken by any of the characters, and that this version limited the play's potential by turning it into a detailed investigation of female breakdown.

Here's what I wrote before reading the Arts Desk review.

It's a cry of anguish, a suicide note, a near-monologue, a glimpse into the ghastliness of mental illness and of a rational (indeed, highly talented) mind plunged into the perpetual nightmare of deep, deep depression.
The first words are "I am sad". The last words are "Watch me vanish".
The central character, presumably a Kane self-portrait, has a desperate craving for love, and an irresistible urge to attack and vilvify those who offer it. There is a contempt for doctors and their patronising, incomprehending comprehension; a series of tirades aimed at anyone who tries to offer compassion or help (the doctors are pretty dry sticks and may deserve it, but the fellow-inmate who says "I want to be your friend", the lesbian lover scarcely seem to though they are in their ways as needy as the central figure).
Not very dramatic, then, and D went to sleep. The text is clearly a gift to a certain sort of East European theatre director. I thought ti was moving and absorbing, but that was down to the staging and the central performance, not to the disjointed, collage-like text.
There was a large cast, though most had nothing to do but walk on for a few minutes and a few lines, while the central character railed at them. There were long silences.
The set represented some kind of institution, a hospital clearly, with a row of basins and a lavatory against the back wall. There was a table, brought on and off as needed, and some chairs. From time to time a portenouts male voice-over intoned numbers, counting down from 100 to near zero, which were also projected against the back wall of the set. And at one climactic moment loads of numbers were projected onto the back wall, falling in cascades, as two doctors prescribed what seemed like random doses of drugs to which the numbers related. The heroine, if we can call her that, was caught in the projections too and there was loud music (what?). The 4.48 of the title refers, apparently, to the time of day when suicides are most vulnerable.
There were downright mysterious elements to the staging -- like a wall, vertical to the audience, which moved in stages across the stage from stage left to right, and through which characters occasionally walked.
Pills were a constant motif: held in the hands, scattered (bouncing across the stage), being crunched by the actors. There were frequent blackouts: a theatrical technique of course, but also a psychological condition (I wonder if the term has the same double meanings in Polish?).
The coup de theatre came near the end when our heroine, who has progressively disrobed during the performance, is seen with her back to us against the rear wall, looking into a mirror and speaking (clearly amplified). Blackout. The lights come up and she is still there but curiously changed: old, bent, wrinkled. She turns and sits on the loo, sideways to the audience, chin resting on her hand in a pose like Rodin's Thinker; a light comes on downstage to reveal our heroine on a chair in a similar pose, sideways to the audience.

Monday, 22 March 2010



A new Haitian feature film, watched on tape for work, directed by Raoul Peck who has spent most of his life in exile in Congo, France, Germany, the United States but was briefly minister of culture in the mid-1990s under the current president, Rene Preval.

A thinly-disguised portrait of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the "slum priest" who was elected Haiti's president in 1991, deposed within a year, exiled, returned to power in 1993 with American muscle, and then stood down at the end of his term in 1996 (Preval, who'd been his prime minister, was elected his successor). In 2000 he was re-elected, but again deposed in 2004.

Like Aristide the film's protagonist, Jean de Dieu, has succumbed to megalomania and an inability to grasp that, despite his democratic mandate, he has lost the support of the people. He presides over an incorrigibly corrupt and violent regime (and society) like all of Haiti's previous rulers.

Shot in the Citadelle Laferriere, a magnificent cloud-shrouded mountain-top fortress built by an early 19th century Haitian dictator, Henri Christophe, and now by the look of it a luxury hotel. Our hero (Zinedine Soualem, convincingly mad, self-pitying and megalomaniac by turns) is about to be deposed. He has a little daughter and a beautiful trophy wife (Sonia Rolland, a former Miss France). Down in the city the television shows scenes of rioting. It is independence day and he has prepared a lunatic speech ("Shalom", "Haiti uber alles", "I love you all"). Foreign dignitaries are ringing up one by one to cancel their attendance at the ceremony.

In the morning he gets out of bed and steps on a broken glass, so spends the entire film limping. In one of the castle's dungeons he keeps fierce dogs, and an opposition journalist who is tortured and ultimately taken out and necklaced, but not before he's been dressed in one of the leader's suits (and daubed with TV make-up) and brought up to have lunch at a table for two with our hero.

Based, I gather, on a Russian film about Hitler's last hours called Moloch. Well-shot, well-enough acted, full of really black humour, a nightmare picture of personal and political collapse, but shot in an increasingly disjointed and impressionistic style.


17/3/10, Donmar

2 hrs 15 mns. A rare dud from the Donmar. Well-acted, intelligently directed, but in the end an awkward mixture of too much talk with a sudden and brutal ending. Oh, and the characters are deeply unsympathetic.

Suburban Chicago, c 1970. A suburban living room, furnished in the latest style, which doubles as the (clearly identical) living room of two affluent couples. One is a lawyer, Carl (or was it Alex?), driven, stressed out, unable any longer to talk to his wife; she sits at home all day longing for a child or goes out shopping; the other, Alex (or was it Carl?) is an alcoholic property developer whose wife (Geraldine Somerville, v good) is having an affair with one of Alex/Carl's nerdish colleagues.

The boys were at college together and spend some time reminiscing. There are oblique references to Vietnam, to long-haired trouble-makers, to drugs (which the lawyer seems readily able to score) etc etc. All the characters seem overwhelmed by suburban ennui and bitterness (even the driven lawyer), about which they talk a lot. A great deal of drinking goes on and a lot of smoking. At one point towards the end the lawyer, having packed his wife off to bed, takes a pipe out of a drawer and puffs on it.

It emerges that the lawyer has been mooning around (almost certainly not actually having an affair) with a 17 year old. And at the end the property developer shoots his wife, his daughter and himself (off stage). Charles Spencer in his Telegraph review of Eigengrau called the eye-gouging scene towards the end "dramatically unearned", and I know what he meant: this shooting, too, was dramatically unearned.

S say it was a cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Alan Ayckbourn without the jokes.

But Somerville was excellent as a world-weary cynic, contemptuous of her husband and with a nice line in put-downs (none of which I can now remember); and the A-line mini-dresses were lovely.

Jason O'Mara, who played the alcoholic, was in the US version of Life on Mars; Jason Butler Harner too is a gen-you-wine American, so at least the accents were authentic.

Written by Lanford Wilson, a much-admired American playwright of the late 20th century whose work we have never seen before and which, on this showing, has not aged well.

The title remains a complete mystery. Who was Louie? Who was serenading him? And how? Or with what? And why? Who knows? Who cares?


15/3/10, Cock Tavern, Kilburn

The famous opera performed in a room above a pub (and, in the case of the second act, set in a cafe, in the pub bar itself). It was a somewhat truncated version (I seem to recall a marching band appears in Act 2 of full-scale productions) but compelling if flawed.

I got there late and they wouldn't let me upstairs for Act 1. Later I understood why since there was barely room to squeeze between the piano and the seating on the way in, and I'd have had to walk across the front of the stage to find a seat.

The set-up had both pluses and minuses. The big plus was that, with young singers, on a stage the size of a typical bedsit and in modern dress, the drama itself was more convincing than I've ever seen it. Watch it at ENO with more than 2,000 other people performed on a stage the size of an aircraft carrier and, however good the production and the acting, it's hard to find these freezing, poverty-stricken youngsters convincing. Here there was no difficulty.

As a result it was genuinely moving; D appeared after Act 1 with red eyes demanding my handkerchief; Mimi's death left me choked. Too often in operas you know how you should be reacting, but the responses, if there at all, are deliberately engineered rather than spontaneous.

The minuses included the incredibly cramped seating and the fact that, at full blast, the singers' voices were just too loud for such a confined space. They were much better (ie more convincing and less painful to listen to) when singing more quietly. The exception was down in the noisy bar, with ageing Irish pool players down the far end making a racket, where the volume helped.

The singing was good except for a very windy Musetta.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


12/3/10, Bush

A memorable evening, not least because it features what must be the longest blow-job currently on the London stage. Another preview (after London Assurance on Monday). But maybe previews aren't so bad? This one was pretty slick (like London Ass), marred only by one moment of corpsing and another in which the actress's hair got tangled up with the actor's jacket button after that blow job.

Four young people, sharing flats and casual sex. Mark, the amazing Geoffrey Streatfeild who we saw as Henry V and in The Pains of Youth, is in marketing, owns his own place, is a serial seducer. He's a shit really, but Streatfeild makes him believable and even likeable to start with, despite his pink shirts, pale grey suit and thick pink tie.

Tim Muffin (John Cummins) is his overweight slob of a university friend, working in a burger bar since no-one will give him the job he craves as a "carer", a role he clearly fulfilled for his Nan, now dead of lung cancer, whose ashes he keeps in an urn shaped like a cartoon cat and which he can't bring himself to throw away. Mark keeps him around largely it seems to fetch his beers from the fridge when he gets home in the evening.

Rose (Sinead Matthews -- we saw her as Cassandra in Women of Troy at the National and as the child in The Wild Duck at the Donmar) is a dippy back-combed blonde wastrel with a husky voice, a string of creditors, silly spectacles and a belief in numerology and similar new agre nonsense. She and Mark have a brief fling, after which she becomes a bunny-boiler obsessive when he dumps her.

Cassie (Alison O'Donnell) is Rose's flatmate and landlady (Rose answered an ad on Gumtree, but never pays the rent), a feminist activist with a secret longing to be dominated by a man, something Mark discovers when he seduces her by pretending to be a feminist (even buying a T-shirt with the slogan, "This is what a feminist looks like".

The blow-job comes when Rose, desperate to get her man back and wearing a ridiculous flouncy strapless dress and a pair of enormous stilettoes bought with money the besotted Tim has stolen from the burger bar, persuades Tim to let her into their flat to "surprise" Mark, who is too weak or self-centred to resist and succumbs to temptation.

It all ends in bloody tears when the evidently unhinged Rose pokes her eyes out with one of the stilettoes, but she and Tim find true love in a scene in which Mark and Cassie also meet up again and he discovers she's pregnant.

All very modern, with lots of references to Facebook and Google as well as Gumtree, but then it's by Penelope Skinner, whose Fucked we saw in Edinburgh and who has a wonderfully acute eye and ear for the random, rootless, deeply unsatisfactory lives that some young folk live today.

S, whose observations are usually very acute on these occasions, said it had a very traditional structure and wonderfully conventional plot devices like secrets kept from one or some of the characters, unexpected arrivals etc. And it had an opening and closing monologue by Tim as he prepared finally to scatter his Nan's ashes on Eastbourne beach. At the end he asks for a sign from his Nan that she can hear him: we fade to black on his triumphant laugh when he discovers Cassie's cigarette butts in the urn (she's been told by Mark it's Tim's "ash tray"). S also claimed to hear Shakespearian echoes in much of the dialogue, though I only caught "a Rose by any other name" (Rose asks: "What would a rose by any other name smell of?").

Played on a traverse stage with four plastic chairs and minimal props; we came in to see Mark and Cassie sitting in the chairs as in a waiting room, with the distorted sounds of a busy hospital playing over the PA.

Streatfeild was a late casting. According to the web the part was to have been played by Laurence Fox, son of James, nephew of Edward and Mr Billie Piper, who now has a flourishing TV career (he was Kevin Whateley's sidekick in ITV's Lewis). Why did he drop out? Perhaps he thought the blow job scene wouldn't be good for his reputation.

Directed by Polly Findlay.

Eigengrau is defined as "the the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness". I'm none the wiser.

We went with the Tall Physicist and M, his missis, who are charming people and seemed to enjoy it, though he professed to considerable embarrassment during the prolonged blowjob.


10/3/10, Royal Court (Theatre Upstairs)

1 hr 20 mins straight through. A call centre in Chennai, where young Indians called Roshan, Vidya and Giri pretend to be Americans (called Ross, Vicky and Gary) hounding credit card debtors in Illinois to pay up.

The heat is on in the windowless office where a new supervisor (Paul Bhattacharjee, looking even more hangdog than usual) has been sent by a nervous young manager after being relieved of command in New York because his staff rebelled.

The contract is up for renewal, the pressure is on. But the new man is old school: a stickler for rules and regulations, a fashion victim in striped shirt and tie ("my grandfather used to wear that stuff," says one of the trendily T-shirted youngsters), a speaker of very precise but heavily Indian-accented English.

His staff dream of America, drink coffee, adopt American accents, hold American-themed parties (cowboys. Snow White in a ghastly white mask for Vidya-Vicky, who wishes she were paler-skinned). Their exposure to the downside of the American consumerist dream doesn't seem to have shattered their illusions.

Ross, the most Americanised of the three (Nikesh Patel, fresh out of the Guidlhall School, with flawless American accent), is supporting his brother who's about to depart for college in the promised land, Chicago. He falls for one of the marks, fiddles the books for her to write off a debt of $23,000, then discovers she's dropped him. His constant calls provoke a suit for harrassment. He's fired, goes off the rails, can't bear to leave, hides out in the building. The Bhattarchajee character and his boss (Hasina Haque beautiful but disappointing as a nervous young executive) are fired. Giri-Gary (Neet Mohan, fresh out of the Central School) gets a new job. Only Vidya-Vicky (Ayesha Dharker, quite well-known in India apparently) is left.

All the performances, with the exception of Hasina Haque (who like Neet Mohan was in England People Very Nice at the National), were spot on. The set was by John Napier (A knows him) who'd created a three-sided windowless box papered with credit card bills stamped "overdue", with a door in each wall, on one of which hung a whiteboard tallying up what each collector had raised that day. There were three desks for the workers and one behind for the boss, which moved around between scenes so we saw the set-up from different angles. The collectors had headsets and keyboards (though screens were dispensed with) and spent much of the time on the phone, their conversations with their marks cleverly interwoven as they faced straight out at the audience.

I was convinced by a picture if a mind-numbingly repetitive job in which nonetheless there is considerable scope for applied psychology, and of young Indians in a dependent, second-class relationship with the West. There is only one window on their floor which looks out on a giant rubbish dump, which they can't really see anyway because the time difference means it's always night when they're at work. The Bhattacharjee character laments the fact that he never sees his wife, who works during the day: "Sometimes we leave post-it notes on the bedpost".

Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, who is based in Chennai. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, whose memorable Ramayana we saw years ago at the National.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


8/3/10, National (Olivier)

2 hrs 40 mins. Simon Russell-Beale camping it up splendidly in Dion Boucicault's 1841 comedy. Not a great play but funny when done as well as this. Parts of it I thought were strikingly modern and then realised that someone must have rewritten some scenes, or added additional dialogue. It turns out to have been Richard Bean, who wrote England People Very Nice, and who is credited in small type with the "textual revisions".

We saw it in preview. The others withheld this information until the interval, knowing my dislike of previews, but I'd deduced that it hadn't yet properly opened because of a few minor flaws: a door in the first scene that didn't shut properly, the odd fluffed line. And one or two of the supporting cast had yet to find the laughs. But it was pretty much complete and I laughed a lot.

Here's Michael Billington's review:

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


7/3/10, Channing School, Highgate

A reprise of last year's fundraiser for the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute. Robert Lloyd, celebrating his 70th birthday (we sang Happy Brithday at the end with a lack of vigour and tunelessness which would not have disgraced a Church of England congregation), and four young singers from the Jette Parker scheme at Covent Garden, once again accompanied by Steven Moore.

They were better actors than last time. The little soprano, Eri Nakamura from Japan, who is cast as Susannah in Covent Garden's forthcoming Marriage of Figaro, had a wonderfully animated face though she hasn't yet learnt how to use it. The baritone, Dawid Kimberg from South Africa, I thought a little stolid though D was very impressed. The tenor, Robert Anthony Gardiner, English, with dark floppy hair, imperial and 'tache, certainly looked the part, but alas came adrift in his first solo aria (Almaviva's Ecco ridente from the Barber of Seville) and took a while to recover his confidence. The mezzo, Kai Ruutel from Estonia, was large and blonde and statuesque and looked initially as if she might be rather wooden but turned out to be very expressive, and very good at using her eyes (she also wore not one but two splendid strapless numbers).

But Lloyd once again acted them off the stage. There's nothing subtle about his acting, no doubt designed to impress the most distant balcony in the world's biggest opera houses, but he is brilliant at telegraphing emotion, and throws himself into the thing with wonderful abandon. Once again I was struck too by what hard work this kind of singing is, especially for a man of his age: it leaves him quite breathless.

His presentation wasn't quite as sparkling as last year, when I fear he used up all his best jokes, but he was still charming.

The programming was a bit shaky. Lots of jolly Donizetti and Rossini in the first half (no fewer than four areas and a trio from the Barber of Seville), but then in the second half of the second half Lensky's very sombre "Kuda, kuda" sung by the tenor before the duel in Eugene Onegin followed by a splendidly dramatic duet by Kimberg as the Marquis of Posa and Lloyd as the King from Don Carlos which required more concentration to appreciate than I had left after more than two hours and a good lunch (supplied beforehand by S). We agreed those two should have come at the end of the first half.

But they sang some jolly encores. The tenor's was "You are my heart's delight" in the original German, which pleased me greatly: he sang it more mellifluously than Tauber.

Saturday, 6 March 2010


5/3/10, Coliseum

2 hrs 25 min. Jonathan Miller's production for ENO, his first in a very long time. It originated in 2006 in New York, and revisits some of the motifs from his ENO Rigoletto, which must be 30 years old by now. This isn't set among the New York mafiosi of the 1950s, but in the American mid-West. There is however a diner and a man (actually several men) in uniform. There's also a shiny American convertible for the quack Dr Dulcamara to arrive in and a pair of petrol pumps which slide on when the diner turns on the revolve to show us its exterior rather than the inside.

Our hearts sank at the outset when ENO's casting director came on to tell us that David Kempster, the Belcore, was ill but would be performing nonetheless (if he's this good when he's ill, what's he like when he's on top form? we wondered) and furthermore that John Tessier, the Canadian star of the show as Nemorino, had a virus and couldn't sing. And nor could his understudy. Since the translation is a new one and they couldn't expect anyone to learn it from scratch, they'd decided to get a substitute who could sing it in Italian instead, a Lithuanian called Edgaras Montvidas. Uncertain laughter from the audience.

We needn't have worried. Edgaras could certainly sing. Una Furtiva Lagrima in Act 2 had the house spellbound and the audience applauding wildly. The fact that he was singing in Italian and his beloved singing in English with a dodgy American accent didn't matter at all, indicating how few of the words are audible in opera anyway (thank god for surtitles).

And the situation presented unexpected comic possibilities for Andrew Shore, who is probably very funyn as Dulcamara anyway but here excelled himself. He sang in English until his first encounter with Nemorino, when he switched to Italian (big laugh), and then in Act 2 when he explains to Nemorino (who really is exceptionally dim) that all the girls suddenly fancy him because his rich uncle has died leaving him all his dosh he sang "il morto, Uncle Joe" (really, really big laugh) (I may not have the Italian quite right there). In the programme I read afterwards an interview with Shore (who we've also seen as a mesmerising Alberich in Rhinegold) in which he said: "I've always wanted to spark a genuine laugh from the audience rather than an acknowledged titter from people who know something's supposed to be funny." I'm not sure what Donizetti and his librettist would have made of it, but on this occasion he certainly succeeded.

There was a pretty Adina in Sarah Tynan and a rather cramped set, the diner, designed by Isabella Bywater. When it revolved in Act 2 Miller had the girls queuing for the outside loo round the back after the party as they talked about Nemorino's uncle.

The plot of L'Elisir is as baffling as most operas. Why do we discover that Adina really loves Nemorino only after she's agreed to marry the sergeant purely (as she tells us) to wind Nemorino up? Why, since he's such a hopeless case, does she fancy him anyway? Isn't the sergeant going it a bit, even by the standards of the military, in proposing to Adina within minutes of their first meeting? Why does taking the elixir oneself cause the other party to fall in love with you: if they're the one whose behaviour needs to change, surely they should be the one drinking the tipple?

The music, however, is of course gloriously tuneful with tremendous drive and verve, the whole thing is over comfortably in under two and a half hours and there are some great songs.

And this translation (by Kelley Rourke) was a cracker, with Dulcamara's patter song worthy of Gilbert. I was hoping to paste a few excerpts in here, because the programme says the translations's available on the ENO website, but I can't find it.

A jolly evening made even jollier by coincidental encounters with all sorts beforehand and during the interval. A colleague, Kim, who'd come with a friend who lives at the end of our street and had one been to our house for an NCT mums' get-together; and John and Faisal, who we met on holiday in Turkey last summer. And Michael Frayn was in the audience too.

Friday, 5 March 2010



A real discovery. A fine building constructed between 1994 (when the foundation stone was layed) and 1999 (when it was opened by the Queen -- according to the plaques) to one side of Guildhall Yard, a vast improvement on the grey 1960s brutalist Corporation offices on the other side. (Are they a case, I wonder, as with the Royal College of Art, of a modern building's colour reflecting the colour of the adjacent buildings before they were cleaned?)

It took so long to build because they discovered the foundations of the Roman amphitheatre during construction and had to excavate and then redesign to display them in the basement. You can see one end of the oval arena, with a wide entry way and a wooden drain running down the middle.

The collection itself contain several huge portraits of kings and lord mayors and an absolutely vast Copley of some obscure 18th century battle off Gibraltar, complete with dramatically pointing officers, drowing sailors, swirling smoke and fluttering flags.

There's a fine selection of paintings of London, as you might expect: we particularly liked a collection of William Nicholson watercolours of St Paul's from a distance, during and after World War Two; a picture of a 17th century frost fair on the frozen Thames; lots of fine pictures of bridges, especially various iterations of London Bridge; and a great many Lord Mayor's parades both on land an on water (he used to go down to Westminster by barge).

There was also a small but high quality collection of Victorian paintings, mainly academic but including the odd pre-Raphaelite. They included a lovely pair of sentimental Millais: one entitled My First Sermon, showed his five year old daughter resplendent in red coat and hat and muff, sitting bolt upright in an old-fashioned high-backed pew at Kingston church; the other, entitled My Second Sermon, showed the same chil, in the same kit in the same location, but this time fast asleep.

There was a great full-length portrait of the actor Kemble, with spectacularly flashing eyes. There was a lifesize marble statue of a seated Henry Irving as Hamlet (too heavy to deliver to his rooms, apparently, which is why it ended up here). There was a smallish Alma-Tadema and a painting by one of his pupils with spookily realistic marble. And there was a picture of Edwardian young lovers taking a turn around the park in autumn weather, he with a rolled umbrella, she looking up into his face adoringly; the caption explained the moderls were a young friend or relative of the artist and her fiance, and they had to be closelychaperoned throughout the sittings.

I'm very glad to have been, though once was probably enough.


3/3/10, Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue

An absolute barn-stormer of a performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, gypsy, former motorcycle daredevil, storyteller, drug dealer, Lord of Misrule and mesmeric figure. D claimed she recognised at least half a dozen actors in the audience, no doubt there to pay homage. Rylance deserves a knighthood.

D saw it before when it debuted at the Royal Court. I had to miss it. This time we went with G and J and sat three rows back, from where Rylance was overwhelming.

The set is Byron's ageing Airstream caravan, surrounded by battered furniture and assorted junk, in a Wiltshire wood 400 yards across the fields from a new housing estate. It's the day of the annual village fair. We see the local authority officials who have come to evict Byron, the teenagers (and ex-teenagers -- a touching performance by Mackenzie Crook) who congregate at Rooster's to do drink and drugs, party wildly and generally misbehave and grow up, and assorted townsfolk including the landlord of a local pub, dressed for Morris dancing, a vicious young man called Troy who is himself a graduate of Rooster's academy and now stepfather to the 15-year old Phaedra, May Queen, who has gone missing, and Rooster's ex, Dawn, with their little boy.

And there is Rooster. We seem him emerge from the caravan after a heavy night. His face is rigid. His leg is rigid. He upends himself head first into a water trough and then drinks a pint of milk with a raw egg and alka seltzer. He holds himself stiffly throughout: the stiffness of the cripple and of the drunk, though his mind seems far too quick for a drunk's. He has enormous muscles, tattoos, a dark unshaven face, and a pitch-perfect Wiltshire accent. He is (sometimes literally) hypnotic -- we're asked to believe that he can reduce people to trembling helplessness just by staring into their eyes, and we see him do it with Dawn and Troy. He knows all the answers in Trivial Pursuit. One of the high points comes when he tells a story about meeting the giant who built Stonehenge: at its culmination Rooster (as the giant) draws himself up to his full height and bends down to tickle a Zippo lighter (as Rooster) under the chin. Brilliant.

The mixing of the mythic and the modern reminded my of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns. I'm not sure it entirely works here. Jez Butterworth is clearly interested in the way the mundane and the magical intersect, and there was some of that in Parlour Song with Toby Jones, which we saw at the Almeida last year (and which is set on a new housing estate like the off-stage one in Jerusalem). There are lots of references to annual rituals, some meaningful (the 15-year old Phaedra is the May queen, complete with fairy wings, and transformed by the experience: she comes on at the start of each act and sings a song, Blake's Jerusalem at the very beginning), some mocked (Morris dancing).

The first act is very funny. Parts of the second and third are funny too. There's a big laugh for a routine in which some of the kids device a complicated scheme for lending, relending and eventually repaying a fiver with which to buy some "whizz", ending with Rooster's observation: "That's what got this country into such a mess in the first place." There's another big laugh towards the end when one of the council officials is reading out the list of names on the petition to evict Rooster, to some of which Rooster appends explanatory (and dismissive) observations, until to one name he simply says: "Jack X is a cunt". Now why is that so funny? (The language is terrible throughout: loads of C-words and F-words. I wonder what G and J thought?)

But the tone darkens as the play goes on, and the price of Rooster's devil-may-care approach to life becomes clearer. He is a lonely man who cannot form conventional relationships. Troy suspects him of having it away with the 15-year old Phaedra; he probably hasn't, because he has an appreciation of innocence which perhaps comes from being an innocent in some ways himself, but you can't rule it out. He is badly beaten up by Troy's heavies. Apparently his young son is watching because when the boy comes on shortly afterwards Rooster gives him some advice, which culminates in the observation: "Girls are wondrous. No man ever went to his barrow wishing he'd had less sex."

Structurally it's a bit baggy. There's a large cast, some of whom don't appear until after the interval (a sign, I sometimes think, of a playwright who doesn't quite know where he's going). But it's a fine script, a brilliantly-written part, well-directed by Ian Rickson and just brilliantly performed by Rylance.


1/3/10, Royal Court

1hr 50 min, no interval. By Bola Agbaje, whose Detaining Justice S and A saw at the Tricycle last year and liked very much. A said this was more uneven in the writing, but it had an energy and drive that carried it along nicely and some good performances.

The Endz is some ghastly housing estate. David was brought up there. He comes out of prison and pitches up in the flat of his old friends Sharon and Kojo, now an item and expecting their first child. They want out and are planning to buy a house. But their middle-class lifestyle turns out to be built on a mountain of credit card debt: they can't pay their bills.

David is feckless, irresponsible, sexist, a wastrel, lazy, a perpetual adolescent who thinks the world owes him a living and when it won't give him one plays the race card (with dubious success since everyone we see, including officialdom as represented by the woman in the Job Centre, is black).

Sharon is sensible, straight-talking, a nurse -- but an incorrigible spendthrift.

Kojo is weak, unwilling to diss either his wife or his old friend, unable to bring himself to confront his wife about her spending or tackle their huge debts, even when he loses his office job when the company goes into administration thanks to the recession (he doesn't tell her). He tamely goes along with David's plans to make a living as a "small businessman" (drug dealer) on the estate -- and then is shot in a case of mistaken identity by the ten year olds who now control the neighbourhood and whom David refuses to take seriously.

The first half had tremendous energy, and the large black contingent in the audience loved the scenes in which David berates the young receptionist at Kojo's office, and the middle-aged Job Centre lady who gives him sound advice about the need to get a job. There was raucous laughter at every exchange (and a lot of crisp packet rustling from the row behind us which drove the ladies wild, though for once it didn't bother me too much).

Energy flagged in the scene outside a police station when David summons Kojo to give him a lift home (not realising Kojo doesn't have his car with him) and the two sit on the front of the stage while David outlines his plans to go into business.

At the end Kojo and Sharon appear reconciled, having fallen out, both to one another and to the need to start again; David is left alone ranting and shouting centre stage with less and less conviction.

Nice set: the odd desk or hospital bed wheeled on diagonally across the stage as required, a basket ball hoop to signify the open spaces of the Endz; a sofa slid forward from behind the back wall, initially with its back to the audience and facing a huge plasma screen and Sky Plus box which descend from above, later facing the audience with the swish kitchen fitments of Sharon and Kojo's flat slid on from the wings.