Review – The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th September 2017

The LieIt doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Truth, translated by Christopher Hampton. It was a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one couple was having an affair with the wife in the other couple, and vice versa. Here we are again at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Lie, translated by Christopher Hampton. It’s a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one…. Oh, I think I’d better stop there.

Samantha BondIt’s true though; this does feel like very familiar territory. Even more so than watching a sequence of Ayckbourns or Pinters, because even if those redoubtable playwrights deal with many recurring themes, at least they place them in different locations and have a variety of character-types. With M. Zeller, we’re again back in a luxury Paris flat, with four characters called Paul, Alice, Michel and Laurence – although to be fair, this time Mr Hanson is playing Paul, not Michel. They can’t actually be the very same characters, because I doubt whether those in The Truth would still be talking together long enough to engage in intrigues as they do in The Lie. I guess M. Zeller just feels he’s on to a winning formula so why waste time changing names and locations?

Alexander HansonPaul and Alice are expecting Michel and Laurence to join them for a dinner party, but Alice is on edge. She was in a taxi driving by the Galeries Lafayette (well not the Galeries Lafayette exactly, but a road to the side) and she saw a man they know kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. There are of course several perfectly innocent explanations for this, but not in the way that Alice says she saw it. As Paul questions her further, he realises the guilty party is closer to home than he thought; but could his best friend really have an affair without Paul knowing about it? And should Alice tell her best friend that she knows her husband is having an affair, or should she tell a lie?

Tony GardnerBoth The Truth and The Lie are actually very similar plays – both written for the same lead actor, so perhaps it’s not surprising – although structurally there’s a very enjoyable difference. In The Truth, the individual scenes were labelled (with just a hint of Brecht) so that you could count down the stages of deception. In The Lie, we just have a one-act play, with no hints from the programme if there are any surprises in store. However, as I am beginning to realise, M. Zeller is most definitely a man of surprises, so let’s just say it isn’t over until it’s over. He must have the most deceitful imagination going, because over the course of ninety minutes he pulls the characters every way but loose through a series of lies and fantasies so that you really don’t know who or what to believe. It’s incredibly clever and inventive, and everything hangs together perfectly at the end, so the audience does get the satisfaction of a full explanation. Oh, and it’s excruciatingly funny.

Alexandra GilbreathOriginally the role of Paul was to be played by James Dreyfus, but he had to pull out at the last minute due to medical reasons. Enter Alexander Hanson like a knight in shining armour rescuing the production from disaster. We saw last Sunday’s preview, at which point Mr Hanson had only been rehearsing for a week, so he still had to have the book with him for some scenes; but to be honest we barely noticed it. Given his lack of rehearsal time, he’s absolutely brilliant. What a trouper! He really conveys the character’s intricate blend of honest outrage and feigned innocence, sometimes looking like butter wouldn’t melt, at others, as guilty as sin. And of course he has immaculate comic delivery, making the most of M. Zeller’s and Mr Hampton’s hilarious script.

Samantha Bond and Tony GardnerSamantha Bond is also superb as Alice; constantly on the lookout for signs of deception, seeking reassurance, and throwing herself whole-heartedly into the grand gesture of locking herself in the bedroom overnight. One can only imagine that the Hanson-Bond household can be a lively place if they ever have an argument. Being a thrusting woman on the business front, Mrs Chrisparkle wants to know why Alice would go to an important presentation in the morning dressed in the same outfit that she was wearing for a dinner party the night before? When she spent the night locked in her own bedroom? You just wouldn’t do that. There’s excellent support from Tony Gardner as the extremely laid-back Michel – you get the feeling nothing would ever faze him; and from Alexandra Gilbreath as the bubbly Laurence, confidently assured of Michel’s devoted fidelity.

Samantha Bond and Alexander HansonIf you saw The Truth, you’ll want to see The Lie as a companion piece. Even if you didn’t, I’d really recommend it as one of those laugh a minute plays where you sometimes watch the stage through your fingers through sheer embarrassment. As with The Truth, this is NOT a play to take your other half if you’ve been playing away from home. It’s on till 18th November and you should go and see it – not a word of a lie.

Alexander Hanson and Tony GardnerP. S. Next year at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Alexander Hanson in The Half-Truth; a one-act play by Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton, where Paul and Michel have a homosexual affair but it’s fine because unknown to them so do Alice and Laurence. No, I made that up. Or did I…?

Review – Lettice and Lovage, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st May 2017

Lettice and LovagePeter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage first hit the stage way back in 1987 as a star vehicle for Maggie Smith. I knew that we had seen the play before but I was darned if I could remember seeing la grande dame in the role – I am sure I would have remembered. I can just imagine how she would have grasped it with – well everything you can grasp with.

LAL guidingMove forward another twenty years and none other than Sir Trevor Nunn has directed a spanking new production in the intimate charm of the Menier Chocolate Factory and cast two theatrical favourites – Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman. Perfect for this almost two-hander, theatrically genteel boxing match between the guide who embellishes the history of the dullest Stately Home in the country to make it remotely interesting, and the battleaxe from the Preservation Trust who sacks her.

LAL being firedTo be honest, it’s a very slight play and I’m surprised that both Sir Trev and the Menier were that interested in reviving it. It doesn’t do much to illuminate the human condition, although it does appeal to the YOLO generation, as Lettice and Lottie cast care to the wind and become the least likely pals since Margaret Thatcher and Eric Heffer. The play did remind me of the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle who for several years post-retirement was a room warden at the National Trust’s property at Waddesdon Manor, and who took great delight in finding out as much about the treasures on display as possible – but there’s nothing more challenging than being asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, and having a fertile imagination can make the experience even more enjoyable!

Lettice and LottieFortunately, this production benefits from two totally delightful performances which make the two and a half hours plus absolutely fly by. No linguistic contortion is too strained for Felicity Kendal’s Lettice, as she recollects the dear old days of supporting her mother and father on the stage, an eccentric Bohemienne to her fingertips, concocting potent jugs of 16th century punch distilled from lovage and eye of bat. Similarly, Maureen Lipman wallows in her opportunity to be the frosty frowsy bossy boss, ridiculing her underlings, putting up with no nonsense, but just wondering if it is time to (nearly literally) let her hair down. Maybe the excellence of the two main performances highlights the patchiness of some of the supporting ensemble, not that that spoils your enjoyment of the play.

LetticeSlight, but funny; you won’t talk about the characters’ motivations or the thematic structure of the play on the way home, but you might well crack up reminiscing about Miss Lipman’s wonderful drunk act or Miss Kendal’s heartier-than-thou ham-Shakespearean verbal dexterity. If ever they cast Women Behaving Badly, they need look no further. The entire run is now sold out, but I doubt if this production, unlike some of the Menier’s other recent successes, would warrant a transfer. Sorry guys, if you’re not already booked, you’ve missed it.

LottieP. S. We didn’t see the original production. I remember now – we saw a production in 1997 with two other Dear Ladies who gave it an equally good grasp – yes, Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket. And if you can remember what Hinge and Bracket were like in their prime – I can confirm they were really very funny.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th April 2017

Love in IdlenessYou may think you know your Terence Rattigan, but have you ever come across Love in Idleness before? I bet you haven’t. This is, in fact, the first London production of the play since it originally graced the boards of the Lyric in 1944, two years after Flare Path and two years before The Winslow Boy. It’s easy to forget Rattigan’s status in the first half of the 20th century; but to give you some context, Love in Idleness was one of three plays he had on at the same time in Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1940s, and he is the only playwright to have notched more than 1000 performances for two separate plays – French Without Tears and While The Sun Shines. That’s some feat. No wonder a few years later John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous.

LII1Love in Idleness is actually a rewrite of Rattigan’s unpublished play Less Than Kind, created at the behest of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as the perfect vehicle for that darling American stage couple (although, to add to the confusion, it was called O Mistress Mine on Broadway). For this new Menier production, that seasoned expert of the stage Trevor Nunn has created a new piece by placing Less Than Kind and Love in Idleness side by side and synthesising the two. The result is a fine creation that blends the comedy of Lunt and Fontanne, heavily sprinkled with Rattigan wit, with a story of political argument highlighting progressive versus reactionary, youth versus experience. Ironically, the character of Michael Brown preceded that of Jimmy Porter to vie for the status of Angry Young Man by a good twelve years. No wonder John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous. That’s twice I’ve had to say that.

Lii2Back in 1944, children who had been evacuated during the war were just starting to come home. Olivia Brown last saw her son Michael almost four years ago; and since then her life has changed more than somewhat. No longer living in a dingy bedsit in Baron’s Court, she’s become the lover and co-habitor of none other than Cabinet Minister for New Tanks, Sir John Fletcher, in his swish pad in Westminster. When Michael, now nearly 18 and something of a lefty, returns home, he is taken aback by the change in his mother’s status, appearance and behaviour. Something’s gotta give, but who, or what, will it be?

Lii3I came to this show with no prior knowledge of what it was about and no particular expectation, aside from the fact that a) it’s the Menier so it’s bound to be good and b) it’s already secured its West End transfer and that speaks for itself. Nevertheless, I still don’t think I was expecting too much from this production. Well that just shows how wrong I can be. This is an absolute corker (as Michael might say) of a production, immaculately performed throughout, at times blisteringly funny, at others superbly moving, and really, one must ask, why has this little nugget been hiding from us for all these years?

Lii8Trevor Nunn has coaxed his brilliant cast to get the maximum laughter, tension and pathos out of Rattigan’s characters whilst always remaining natural, unforced and very character-driven. That delightful opening scene, where Eve Best’s Olivia is draped over her couch arranging guests for dinner by telephone, tells you so much about her character with such simplicity, clarity and humour. In fact, it’s those physical moments in the play that really communicate what the characters are all about, from Olivia’s tender and ever-so-slightly sexual undoing of John’s jacket and giving his feet a gentle massage, to Michael’s continuously flinging himself face down on his bed in grand gestures of teenage harrumph.

Lii7Visually it’s charming, with perfect costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis, from Olivia’s trouser-suit to Diana’s Ascot chic and even Miss Wentworth’s artily dotty creation; I appreciated the use of the attractive but commonplace Susie Cooper crockery – perfect for the era; and the Pathe newsreels, projected onto the translucent curtain, that divide the scenes, and add an informative background. Although, beware when the curtain forcefully swishes open past you; I was sat, legs outstretched, on the corner of Row A where it takes a 90 degree turn and the curtain very nearly took me with it.

Lii5About three minutes in to the play, I completely understood what it is Sir John would have seen in Olivia. Eve Best gives a most scintillating, enticing, and endearing performance as the Baron’s Court wife lured into the high life of Tory politics; adoring the surroundings and accoutrements of Dorchester dinners and tittle-tattle, relishing the demands of being a society hostess. She really would spark up an older man’s life and no mistake. Where it comes to uniting her new life with her old, she shows her struggle of understanding the demands of youth and upholding her familial commitments: as the poet once said, I thought that you’d want what I’d want, sorry my dear. Her changed appearance in the final scene provides a stark contrast to the glamour that preceded it, and shows how she is the only character to have made a genuine change in an attempt to help those around her. Ms Best is one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off. A stunning performance.

Vivienne RochesterAnthony Head’s Sir John is a distinguished, largely mellow, extraordinarily patient man, unless his routine is interrupted or he is pushed just that one inch too far. Unlike Olivia, he is totally used to the trappings of wealth, so his disdainful contemplation of catching a sequence of three buses in order to get to the café at Puffins Corner is absolutely hilarious. Radiating power, but through nobility rather than mere strength, he completely captures the essence of Sir John, which includes his unconventional handling of his wife. Mrs C thought he really knew how to carry off a Tuxedo. I’ll say no more.

Nicola SloaneEdward Bluemel, as young Michael, is new to me but is definitely a candidate for One To Watch. Perfectly expressing that awkward age between boy and man, his Michael is both feistily uncooperative and easily malleable at the same time. I loved his scene with Mr Head, as they prowl either side of the sofa like two caged tigers ready to rip each other to shreds but far too well brought up to do so. Idealistic and petulant, but also knowing when he’s beat, this is a gem of a role for a young actor and Mr Bluemel really handles it with aplomb.

Lii4I’ve only seen Helen George before on TV following her Strictly journey so didn’t know what to expect from her as the wronged (maybe) Lady Fletcher. Certainly her unexpected appearance just before the interval lifts the whole play and adds a new dynamism as the audience can’t quite work out whether she is more sinned against or sinning; simply incompatible to her husband is probably the closest you’ll get. It’s a lovely, assertive, slightly strident, beautifully composed performance; again, her interaction with Mr Bluemel is hilarious, ridiculing his use of archaic words, as is the cringingly excruciating scene where she meets Olivia, in a delightfully underplayed exercise of oneupwomanship. There’s excellent support from Vivienne Rochester as Sir John’s remarkably humourless assistant Miss Dell, and from Nicola Sloane as the respectable and loyal parlourmaid Polton, and the arty yet insubstantial Miss Wentworth.

I found myself absolutely glued to this play, and when the final scene fitted all the pieces together so nicely and with an amusingly happy ending, I found myself saying out loud “what a beautiful production!” as the lights dimmed but lingered on its protagonists. No surprise at all that this sold-out show warrants its West End transfer, intertwining as it does its rather beautiful depiction of 1940s elegance with its very relevant undercurrent of political anger. I thought it was magic! And if you missed it at the Menier you can catch it at the Apollo in May and June – but you’d better be quick, tickets are getting scarce.

Review – Into The Woods, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th September 2016

Into The WoodsAs a theatregoer of more years than you’ve had hot dinners, one of my pet hates is those rare occasions when, for whatever reason, you don’t get a programme. Alas, the Menier’s printers have let them down and they ran out of programmes for Into The Woods on Saturday afternoon, and don’t expect another delivery until Wednesday. Lack of a programme makes it so much harder to review a show, so forgive me in advance, gentle reader, if I offer up any factual inaccuracies!

Harry HeppleIn case you didn’t know – and I’m sure you did – Into The Woods, rather like the film Shrek (which appeared 15 years later), takes fairy-tale characters and jumbles them up into a preposterous interweaving of all their tales, culminating with the fine achievement of Happy Ever After status at the interval; and then the second act undoes all that good work by showing how Happy Ever After is an unattainable myth. Relationships fall apart; the land is beset by terror; people die.

Laura TebbuttDespite the fact that it’s had a number of revivals over the years, we’d never seen the stage show live before. We’d seen a DVD recording of the New York stage production starring Bernadette Peters; and we saw and enjoyed the film adaptation last year. But it’s never been a show that I have ever felt I’ve properly understood or appreciated. Just as Shakespeare has his Problem Plays, Sondheim has his Difficult Musicals and I think this a prime example of the genre. It’s a show that doesn’t give you a moment to stop and stare, to think and reflect. From the start to the finish you’re constantly processing data, from the variety of its characters to the relentlessness of its music. The lyrics alone are enough to do your head in. You remember the young Mozart being criticised by the establishment in Amadeus for writing “too many notes”? Here Sondheim gives us “too many words”. It’s exhausting. I honestly don’t know how the cast cope with it all (which they do, brilliantly, by the way).

Claire KarpenAs another indication of how good a production this is, yesterday was the first time I’ve seen it and not felt it was way too long. Structurally there is a problem; because the end of Act One ties everything up so perfectly, and everyone lives happily ever after, that you feel there is no need for an Act Two. That’s why it sometimes feels too long, because deep down inside you feel everything is already all done and dusted. No wonder the opening announcement from Prince Charming reminded us that there was an interval and that they hoped we would return afterwards. So many people must just get up and leave at the interval thinking it was one of these new-fangled, 90 minutes, no interval, short, sharp shows. A third indication of the strength of the production comes with the fact that not only is the Baker’s Wife in tears at the end of the show, Mrs Chrisparkle damn nearly was too, and it’s a rare show indeed that can stir such emotion in her.

Steffan Lloyd-EvansThis production comes courtesy of New York’s Fiasco Theater, and is the 2015 Off-Broadway production that has been parachuted into the Menier, with its pared-down, informal, and intimate approach to presentation. The proscenium arch is decorated from top to bottom with piano strings and keyboards; a backdrop of tightly fitting ropes suggest the dense woods that many of the cast will Into at some point; a few chairs are placed around the edges of the set where the actors can sit whilst they’re not engaged in the action (and from where they can make musical and/or vocal interpolations); and on a floating island, moving around the stage, is one central piano for Evan Rees, the musical director, to pound for the best part of two and three quarter hours. Andy GrotelueschenTo add to the informality and intimacy, the cast idle on to the stage in dribs and drabs, some taking up conversation with the people in the front row; we had a nice chat with Steffan Lloyd-Evans about lunch at Wagamama; he assured us not to be scared, he wasn’t going to bring us up onto the stage or anything like that – which I must say makes a nice change for me after my recent Edinburgh experiences. I even looked after his horse for a short while in the first act (no, really). As the second act opened, Liz Hayes (Jack’s mum) spoke to the ladies to our right and declared them to be #TeamBassoon, as that was the corner of the stage where her instrument was kept when not in use – and a mighty fine bassoonist she is too.

Emily YoungThe whole cast give a fantastic ensemble performance as they take on the myriad roles in the piece, swapping musical and sound-effect activities with each other; those sitting to the side largely observing the show dispassionately. Although that was distinctly not the case when Steffan Lloyd-Evans and Andy Grotelueschen as the two princes started teasing each other with silly voices, creating an uncontrollable wave of hilarity that reached our not only to the audience but also to their fellow cast members. I really enjoyed Laura Tebbutt as the Baker’s wife; she completely inhabited the character and emphasised the reality of her predicaments even though she’s surrounded by this fairy-tale world; she also has a great stage presence and beautiful singing voice. Similarly, we both thought Claire Karpen as Cinderella was terrific, performing endless pratfalls because of those awkward crystal slippers, really bringing out the emotion of the realities of how Happiness isn’t necessarily Ever After even in post fairy-tale marriage. National-treasure-in-waiting Harry Hepple (whom we loved in both Privates on Parade and Pippin) is on great form as the rather bewildered Baker, Vanessa Reselandcapturing the nice comedy moments in his understated way but also giving it large with the emotion of the songs. The aforementioned Mr Lloyd-Evans, who had already got me on his side with our initial conversation before the show started, was a brilliant Prince Charming, and made a great double act with Mr Grotelueschen as the two princes expressed their Agony in song. The latter also showed how emotionally you can portray the plight of a cow with just a plaintive moo. I also loved how Vanessa Reseland’s harridan of a witch turns into, quite frankly, a sex goddess. But the whole cast give it everything and it’s immensely watchable and enjoyable all the way through.

Unsurprisingly, the whole season is now sold out, and it chalks up another winner for the Menier – and this is definitely the most entertaining, expressive and emotional presentation of Into The Woods that we have seen. Now I just hope they’ll sell me a programme and send it by post to keep my collection up!

Review – The Truth, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th April 2016

The TruthAs a result of The Father, Florian Zeller has become something of a star name in the world of dramatists, but I confess this is the first time I’ve seen anything he’s written. As La Vérité, this play was written in 2011 and has been performed not only in France but also Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain. As The Truth it has been translated by Christopher Hampton and now appears for the first time in the UK.

Alexander HansonWhat is the truth? Sometimes, as this hilarious and cringe-making play shows, it’s not always that easy to tell. You may be lying to your partner if you are having an affair, and presumably your co-affairee (is that a word? If not, it should be) is also lying to their partner. But is that the end of it? Are there further untruths out there? With terrific dexterity, the play shows the tangled web we weave when first we practise…well you know the rest. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving the entire game away, and that would be greatly to reduce the play’s impact; you need to come fresh to its little shocks and surprises right until the bitter end. So that’s all the plot you’re getting from me.

Frances O’ConnorAs a teaser, though, the programme gives you the play’s tight structure: seven scenes take you through the Rendezvous, Tightrope Walking, The Lie, Friendship, The Break-Up, An Explanation, and the Truth. When it’s precisely mapped out like this in advance, your mind can follow the clear route from start to finish even though you’ve no idea exactly what’s in store. This helps give the play an inexorable drive and pace, and somehow makes its final conclusion seem even more inevitable. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were thinking afterwards that this would be a most uncomfortable play to watch as a couple if either of you had had an affair. And whatever you do, don’t book this show as part of a let’s forgive and forget process; you might as well hand over the keys your house and move out straight away.

Tanya FranksLizzie Clachan’s stark and sterile set provides an excellent background for this deceptively unemotional play; no place for sentiment here. Instead all the attention is focussed on Michel getting further and further into trouble and trying to extricate himself from the mess. The text delivers cliffhanger after cliffhanger, punchline after punchline, always keeping you on your toes waiting for the next squirm; and Lindsay Posner’s clear and pacey direction helps keep the fast and furious plot development as the topmost priority.

Robert PortalWeaving its way through the web of deceit is a superb performance by Alexander Hanson as Michel. Hardly ever off stage, he self-degenerates from urbane, rather smarmy and selfish lover to quivering wreck. As he starts to realise that he is just as sinned against as sinning, his retaliations and defences become more and more ludicrous, so that he comes across as a self-pitying spoilt git without the slightest degree of empathy. It’s a beautifully funny performance, full of fantastic timing and great energy. It’s not often you see Captain von Trapp with his pants around his ankles – don’t worry, it’s all done in the best possible taste.

Alice and MichelFor the plot development and reveals to work fully, it’s necessary for the motivations of the other characters to be not quite so obvious. Frances O’Connor’s Alice, carrying on the affair with Michel behind her husband’s back, is delightfully aloof at times, providing just enough sexual allure to keep Michel coming back for more but holding back too so that we can’t quite see where she’s going. Their phone call scene where Michel has to pretend to be Alice’s aunt is a Laugh Out Loud Riot. Tanya Franks gives a great performance as Laurence, Michel’s wife, pointedly asking him difficult questions, slowly revealing she knows more than he thinks she knows, making him dig deeper to get out of his already substantial hole. And anything she might be hiding comes to the surface with subtle brilliance. Perhaps it’s only Robert Portal who slightly underplays the role of Paul, Michel’s best friend and Alice’s husband; he successfully keeps his cards close to his chest but at the same time you slightly wonder why Michel would have him as his best friend, because not quite enough of the “best friendliness” comes out in his performance. Still, maybe Paul knows something we don’t know…

Laurence and PaulBut this is a minor quibble. It’s a fascinating and hilarious play, perfectly structured, and with a marvellous central performance. One hour 25 minutes at a push; for some people that is music to their ears, so they can get on and do other things; for others (myself included) you can’t quite help the feeling of being slightly short-changed. Back in the day, that would have constituted one half of a double bill of two one-act plays. But better a short performance of this play than none. There is talk of a transfer; why not? It’s enormously entertaining and really deserves it.

Review – Dinner With Saddam, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th October 2015

Dinner with SaddamBack in 2003, in the face of international criticism, overseas sanctions and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, apparently Saddam Hussein regularly took to paying surprise visits to the homes of ordinary people for dinner and to stay the night, in an outward attempt to show solidarity with his people – and to try to stay hidden from overseas forces, of course. Can you imagine answering a knock at the door only to discover Saddam Hussein had come for a sleepover? I think it might throw your plans for the evening into disarray, as indeed it does for the Alawai family, as Feydeau meets Fallujah in this brilliant new farce by Anthony Horowitz.

Sanjeev BhaskarNot that life was flowing particularly smoothly for them in the first place. Ahmed and Samira have a bickering relationship – she’s unhappy with him because he’s lazy; he’s unhappy with her because she never stops arguing; I was going to say that underneath it all, they love each other, but actually I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Ahmed insists that his forward-looking free-thinking daughter Rana will marry the horrendous Jammal, a bullying traffic cop who’s in it for the bribes and the blackmail; whereas Rana is in love with Sayid, an out-of-work actor, but, even worse than that, he’s Shia and they’re Sunni, so it’s a complete no-no. Sayid poses as a plumber to fix the Alawai’s rather distressing toilet issue, in an attempt to whisk Rana away from under their noses. Into this dyspeptic combination comes the knock on the door, first by Colonel Farouk of Saddam’s personal security services to make sure the home and family are suitable, and then by the great dictator himself. I’m not going to tell you what happens next; suffice to say murder, mayhem and mixed spice are all on the menu. For some, things end well; for others, not so well; for a couple, things end completely. And who knows what happens to them all at final curtain?

Steven BerkoffYou know how, at his best, Alan Ayckbourn can present you with a painfully funny situation that makes you burst into uncontrollable laughter, which then catches in your throat as you realise the genuine personal tragedy that you’re laughing at? Well, in Dinner with Saddam, Anthony Horowitz has the same ability– setting up brilliantly funny scenes and conversations that make you laugh hard and long until you remember you’re laughing at or with a mass murderer, or at the destruction of a state and its people. Thus you pause and you reflect, and it’s very, very uncomfortable – but it’s also very, very funny. This play contains some of the blackest humour I’ve ever encountered and my advice is to go with the flow, accept it as comedy, and allow it to take you where it wants to go. If you need to question why you’re laughing at genuine terror, wait till after the play. Comedy can be savage; and even in the darkest worlds humour exists and keeps people going. Laughing at this play is a testament to human spirit and endurance.

Rebecca GrantIt’s actually fascinating to observe a domestic situation in an ordinary house in Baghdad and to compare it with the Home Counties we know and love. It’s stating the obvious, but it’s somehow strangely rewarding to be shown just how like every other slightly errant family the Alawais are. The old-fashioned, faintly useless father figure. The hard-working, grumpy mother. The rebellious child. The bullying cousin. The wheedling wannabe son-in-law. The notion of braving the bad side of town to get the shopping you want. The over-ordering of tiles for the new mosque so that all the friends and family have lovely new bathroom and kitchen surfaces. A side terrace with climbing roses and a herb garden, screaming out for a makeover by a true horticulturalist. The fact that all this is so recognisable emphasises the horror of when ordinary people get caught up in tyranny, war and bombardment. The next time you hear about deaths from suicide bombers in the Middle East, the victims are probably just like this family – and by extension, just like yours. So it’s a real strength of this play that it brings home the reality of the situation for these people, yet retains its ability to be superbly funny at the same time.

Shobu KapoorIt’s always a pleasure to return to the Menier because they rarely show a dud, and it’s eye-opening to see how they will have re-invented the auditorium to fit each new production. For Dinner with Saddam, they’ve got it as a traditional proscenium arch in front of the bench seats, with the stage extended very wide, so there may be areas of the stage you can’t see if you’re too far to the front; still, I love being in the front row of the Menier, because you can almost touch what’s going on. Tim Shortall’s set suggests a very respectable house, with some lovely Islamic blues and archways mixed in with common day-to-day functional designs. His costumes go a good way to playing a part in the comedy too, with Ahmed’s too-small pinstripe suit and Jammal’s explosive faecal disaster pants. As Mrs Chrisparkle so delicately put it, it’s probably not the first time someone had shat themselves in Saddam’s presence. As an aside, I’m not normally one to be impressed by jokes about farts and turds, but for some reason they really integrated well into the rest of the play and I surprised myself by finding them really funny.

Ilan GoodmanAnthony Horowitz’s gleefully drawn characters have encouraged a genuinely sparkling cast to give some tremendous performances. It’s always a delight to see Sanjeev Bhaskar (we last saw him in Art back in 2002) and here he can really get to grips with handling the farcical downfall of the complacent and lazy Ahmed. Whether it be with his verbal duels with authority figures, engaging in sarcastic banter with his goodladywife, anxiously covering up his little corruptions or dragging corpses around the kitchen, it’s a brilliantly funny portrayal of a man out of his depth and scrambling to survive. And how inventive the casting to have him up against Steven Berkoff as Saddam – an actor and playwright I have long admired but never seen live. Mr Berkoff has blended Saddam with a little bit of Mafioso Godfather to create a genuinely threatening (would you expect anything else?) quietly ruthless ogre whose every word you would distrust. And jutting out of this characterisation at odd angles are brilliantly funny looks, asides, gestures; even the playful teases you might expect from an endearing uncle. Just his enunciating every letter in every Arabic name he mentions sends a slight shiver of fear down your spine. It’s a marvellous creation and a spellbinding performance.

Nathan AmziThe supporting cast are also excellent. There’s a wonderfully funny performance from Shobu Kapoor as Samira, hectoring her inadequate husband whenever she can, then transformed into a scared little girl when Saddam comes to call. Rebecca Grant plays Rana with just the right balance of gutsiness and compliance that you might expect from a daughter wishing to make her own way in life but also not wanting to upset her parents. Ilan Goodman brings out all the pantomime villain in Colonel Farouk, and the hamminess of the well-meaning Sayid; and there’s a terrifically greasy performance from Nathan Amzi as the ghastly Jammal, portraying him both as a vicious bully and a pathetic victim. Bally Gill and Zed Josef don’t have to say anything as the two soldiers, but they do it with authority.

We both absolutely loved this play; it’s beautifully and challengingly written, and features some brilliant comic performances. It’s not always a comfortable watch, but that’s what I love in the theatre: something to show me life from a different angle, and make me come out of the theatre a different person from the one that went in. This achieves that brilliantly. A must see!

Review – What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2nd August 2015

What's it all about?Everyone knows the songs of Burt Bacharach. They are as much the standards of classy twentieth century popular music as are those of Lennon and McCartney. Unlike that latter couple though, Bacharach’s songs are drawn from many sources – with some from stage shows and films as well as those simply written for the top recording artists of the day. Plenty of performers continue to cover Lennon/McCartney songs but rarely do they capture that classic, original sweet and sour Beatles sound. Bacharach’s songs, on the other hand, lend themselves splendidly to wider re-interpretation, as What’s It All About? so deftly shows.

Kyle Riabko and Burt BacharachSo what’s What’s It All About about I hear you ask? The clue is in the subtitle – Bacharach Reimagined. The programme tells us how five years ago Kyle Riabko met Burt Bacharach in a Santa Monica recording studio to sing some demos of new Bacharach material. What happened to the new material isn’t stated, but what definitely did happen was that on a second meeting, Riabko and friends performed some of Bacharach’s classics in front of the man himself, but rearranged in a way that the songs had never been publicly heard before. Rocked up; pared back; songs usually sung by a man sung by a woman, and vice versa. After months of trying different styles and songs, Bacharach and his late lyricist partner Hal David approved Riabko’s venture and a year and a half ago What’s It All About opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, chalking up a significant Off-Broadway success.

Greg CoulsonAnd there’s nowhere better for an Off-Broadway success to hit the UK than the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the new production of the show is a revelation in so many ways. As always with the Menier, when you enter the auditorium, you never know how they will have configured the seating and the staging. From memory, it’s most similar to how they staged Candide, with a wide but relatively shallow bank of seats in front of the stage, and some seating to the sides. Amusingly, a few of the audience sit in armchairs and sofas actually on the stage, at the side, which I would imagine would give them a very vivid sensation of being part of the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were perfectly happy with our regular middle of Row A slot.

Daniel BailenThe stage is a mess – but a brilliant one. Christine Jones and Brett J Banakis have created a melange of musical instruments and scattered them on every available surface; up walls, on shelves, up pillars, suspended in the air. The floor is bedecked with a pattern of mismatched rugs, cleverly assembled together so as not to get in the way of the very effective revolving stage effects – not only a centre stage revolves, but an outer one too – you may need sea-sickness tablets at times. Above all, the stage is littered with lamps. Big standard lamps, little bulbs and all manner of individual lighting in between.Anastacia McCleskey It looks absolutely magical. There are even two sofas suspended against the back wall, high in the air, which at first Mrs C and I thought were where some of the more intrepid audience members were perched (particularly as their occupants were sneakily taking a look at the programme before the show started). But no, it’s all part of the performance. The whole effect is to give you a really dynamic staging that suggests the intimacy of your own living room as well as the showbizzyness of a live stage with live musicians, and a range of instruments and microphone stands. It really draws you in. I was already enjoying the show immensely even before it started.

Stephanie McKeonKyle Riabko has assembled a group of seven relatively unknown musicians (including himself) to sing the songs of Burt Bacharach. No story; no narrative thread. This is not one of those shows where the music accompanies a lookback at the artist’s career; it’s the nearest thing I’ve seen as a musical that is like a traditional concert. This is not Side by Side by Bacharach; if anything, it’s more Burt Bacharach is Alive and Well and Living in New York, except that there is no attempt to act out the meanings of any of his songs, other than the sheer vocal interpretation of the performers.

James WilliamsOne does have a tendency to associate Bacharach songs with their original artistes. This Guy’s in Love with You is inextricably linked to Herb Alpert. I Say a Little Prayer is distinctively Aretha Franklin. What’s New Pussycat couldn’t be anyone other than Tom Jones. And to be fair, those three crowd-pleasers were performed not too unlike those original well-loved recordings. Virtually everything else they did, however, was completely reinvented. You know how irritating it is when musicians cover a favourite song of yours and they hardly change the original – what’s the point of that? None of that here – these reinterpretations will really get you reconsidering the meanings of these old songs. Moreover, you won’t find any of that “cover version and it’s nothing like as good as the original” syndrome (yes, Madonna, I’m looking at you [American Pie] and you can’t afford to be smug either Westlife [Father and Son]). These new arrangments really wake you up and shake you up.

Renato ParisIt was a poignant coincidence that we saw this show on the same day that Cilla Black died. In the UK Cilla is unbreakably linked with Anyone Who Had a Heart (in the US I believe it’s linked with Dionne Warwick). For us, those are the standard performances of that song and anything else is just a pretender. Cue Kyle Riabko, opening the show with a stunning version – high on drama, minimalistic on instrumentation, and, above all, sung by a man. The rest of the cast all join in, creating an astonishing and heartfelt start to the show. Later on, Mr Riabko again takes on Cilla with Alfie, another quiet, deliberately under-orchestrated, incredibly plaintive version, that stops you in your tracks and makes you think again about what the song means; indeed, what’s it all about.

Kyle RiabkoBut there really is so much to enjoy in this show. Parts of songs get chopped and changed around; lyrics from one song might appear in another, the chorus of one song gets integrated into another, all bringing a smile to your face and genuine laughter as you realise what they’re doing and how effectively it all works together. And then you have that absolute pleasure of hearing an old favourite, maybe for the first time in a while, out of context and totally shaken up. Like Message to Michael (which I always think of as Adam Faith’s Message to Martha) performed as a real hard rock anthem, or two guys together singing I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, musically consoling each other regarding their bad luck with women.

Rehearsal sit downAnd the performers are really fantastic. Kyle Riabko is definitely at the heart of it all; a tall, imposing, likeable, rocky guy who welcomes us all in to the show and encourages us to enjoy it in whatever way we want. And boy, does he love a guitar solo! There is a brilliant drummer and percussionist in the form of James Williams, creating momentous rhythms out of old wooden boxes and other ephemera, just as much as from proper instruments. Greg Coulson is another guitarist who exudes enjoyment and virtuosity, and really feeds off the audience reaction. Anastacia McCleskey has a fantastic voice and great stage presence, bringing both power and delicacy to her performance, and Stephanie McKeon also has stunning vocals with something of the young Stevie Nicks about her. There was great “bad boy” guitar work from Daniel Bailen and fantastic contributions from keyboard whizzkid Renato Paris who seemed to be loving every minute. I thought his Trains and Boats and Planes was almost painfully exquisite.

Rehearsal rockingThis is a show that makes you think twice on so many levels. Not only about the songs of Bacharach and David, of course, but also about what further possibilities there are in the genre of musical theatre. Not only about how you can form a group of lesser known musicians and create a sensational sound, but also about how you can devise a show without a narrative that nevertheless keeps you on tenterhooks for the next section. I’ll be honest with you, gentle reader; when I heard that this was to be the Menier’s summer offering, I pretty much decided to give it a miss. Something about it didn’t appeal. It was only the excited tweets that appeared after its first preview that made me change my mind. I’m so glad I did.

Kyle and StephanieA word of warning though. If you were thinking of taking your elderly granny to see it – as she might well be of the generation that were amongst the original Bacharach fans – make sure she’s the type that doesn’t mind a bit of raucous rock too. There were some elderly ladies leaving the theatre after it was all over who were complaining that it really wasn’t their cup of tea – they were obviously hoping for a more refined and genteel experience. This show isn’t genteel or refined. It’s raw, it’s heartfelt, it’s emotional. It has rough edges. It strips back earlier, prettier versions of these songs and exposes their vulnerable core. If you’re up for that challenge, you’ll love it.