Don’t Look Now, Lyric Hammersmith

(Written for Culture Wars)

So, here’s a quandary: how do you adapt something that has already been definitively adapted? Lucy Bailey and Nell Leyshon’s reversion of “Don’t Look Now” takes the bold step of eschewing changes made by Nicolas Roeg in his highly-thought-of 1973 film adaptation, and returning to Daphne du Maurier’s original short story.

The slow-burning first half is moodily effective and genuinely entertaining. John and Laura return to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon, to get over the death of their daughter Christine. Leyshon’s script reinstates Christine’s death being caused by meningitis, and not the shocking drowning of Roeg’s film. Set by Bailey in a gigantic copper box, with gorgeous lighting by Chris Davey, it’s a creepy, atmospheric world, with tables and other settings sliding queasily from one side of the stage to the other.

It isn’t, however, Venice. Of course, having large amounts of water on stage is a bloody hard thing to achieve. Here we have some lovely rippling reflections on the walls, and some undeniably pretty theatre rain. (Man, I love theatre rain. If you’re making a play that I’m going to review, add some theatre rain. I guarantee you a whole extra star on your star rating.) But without the constant eerie presence of the waterways, everything feels a little dry and safe. It becomes apparent why Roeg made his alteration to the way Christine died ? to recover from your child’s drowning by visiting a city built on waterways is a pleasing dramatic irony; how could John and Laura be so stupid to think that going there was a good idea? Next time, dudes, go to the Gobi Desert! The creeping dread of water for the characters is absent, and so the location, something utterly key to both original text and cinema adaptation, cannot be delivered.

The first half contains a brilliant performance by Susie Trayling as Laura, trying desperately hard to remain upbeat, whilst occasionally letting the facade break, particularly after meeting the weird psychic sisters who let her know of the ominous warnings of her dead child. Trayling’s Laura clings desperately, optimistically, to any thread of hope, and the second half misses her, as she returns to Britain to attend to the appendicitis of her son.

Simon Paisley Day, as John, has a trickier time. Stoic and stiff-upper-lipped in the first half, the cracking of his facade in the second half, as scripted, is more melodramatic and explicit. He is haunted by a child in a red coat, perhaps the ghost of his dead daughter, and beset by any number of Italian buffoons who occasionally slip into oblique pronouncements from the underworld. Day’s performance is a little fussy, and never quite manages to achieve either the sensitive breakdown of Trayling or the large-scale grandstanding that must surely have been a temptation. The second half suffers because John isn’t really the one we’re interested in in the first half. He’s a petty Englishman, more interested in saving face and being frustrated that none of the Italians will humour his stilted attempts to master their language, and as such the emotional core of the second half is absent.

Joanna McCallum and Susan Woolridge are quietly effective as the twin psychics, but don’t have a huge amount to do. The locals of Venice are very broadly drawn, with fun little sketches of a hotel butler and a rambunctious restauranteur seeming out of place when set against the moodiness of the main story. John’s psychic tormenting by the sinister Italians in his head late on in Act Two, however, feels a little xenophobic, and exposes the datedness of du Maurier’s text. This is compounded by the giggling, demonic little person, psychotically pleased with her hobby of murdering tourists, which raised my 21st Century political correctness hackles.

An interesting experiment, then. In the programme, it is stated that Bailey was looking to devise an original ghost story, but eventually settled on “Don’t Look Now”. Part of me wishes that Bailey and Leyshon’s obvious talents had been employed on that original story, if only to avoid the pitfalls of the burden of the film, the tinges of datedness and the difficulty of getting Venice across on stage.

On The Third Day, New Ambassadors Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

On the first day, God made the light and the dark, and saw that it was good. On the second day, a camera crew turned up at God’s house. ‘What’s going on here?’ said God. ‘And who’s that guy?’ ‘Him?’ said the producer, ‘That’s Graham. He’s from Kent. We’re here to film a reality show called “Can You Make The Light And The Dark Better Than God?” It’s reality, but – you know – highbrow.’

For avoidance of all doubt, that’s not the play. That’s my silly little joke. On The Third Day is, of course, the winning play from Channel 4’s theatrical reality TV show The Play’s The Thing. I was sent to see this play because Culture Wars knows that I am simple-minded, that I appreciate the lowbrow, and that I love tacky gimmicks and TV tie-ins. I had some time free before the show and I ate hamburgers! From Burger King! I couldn’t be more suited to watch this play! I entered the theatre expecting (hoping! praying!) for the theatrical equivalent of Steve Brookstein! Or Gareth Gates!

Anyway, here’s the plot of the actual play. Claire is a presenter at Greenwich Planetarium, who goes to a bar one night and brings back Mike, with whom she wants to lose her virginity. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Jesus. Whoops! I don’t think He’s putting out on the first date! Mike’s presence forces her to confront the death of her parents, her troubled relationship with her brother, and, like, whether the Jesus dude is crazy or not.

It’s important to get this out of the way: the play is not a disaster. (Oh, you can smell the disappointment from the bitchy elements of the audience! It’s almost worth going just for that.) It’s a mess, but it’s not a disaster. The main problem with On The Third Day is – predictably – the immaturity of the playwright. Betts is wildly ambitious in the way first-time playwrights can be, chucking ideas at the stage without ever knowing quite how to make them pay off. Divinity, delusion, insanity, self-harm, incest, guilt, suicide, ghost rape, potholing, Elvis – it’s a busy, restless piece which never achieves the cohesion it needs.

The first half almost – almost! – works, mainly because it is built around the relationship of the central characters, Claire and Mike. Maxine Peake gives a very nice performance of the timid side of Claire, drunkenly attempting to seduce Mike (Paul Hilton) after dragging him home from a bar. Kate Betts writes a nice line in snappy dialogue, which Peake and Hilton have fun with. In particular, Betts is a fan of coy one-liners alluding to Mike’s past life as Jesus. There’s a lot of these. In fact, you could probably play ‘Jesus Joke Bingo’, just by sitting there with a copy of the New Testament and ticking them off as they came out. When Mike referred to some overcooked fish being ‘a burnt offering’, I think I got my full house.

The flashbacks to Claire and her brother Robbie as children interested me much less than the present day, domestic business. I don’t think I need to tell you, oh intelligent reader, that there are subtler ways to impart exposition than the flashback. One episode of The Play’s The Thing I saw involved the playwright Stephen Jeffreys telling the finalist writers about the three unities of time, place and action. I wish he’d pressed his case a little more firmly, as the second half takes much of the nice domestic stuff that I liked a lot and trashes it, in favour of massive caves, food fights, singing, and some more rape. It’s scrappy stuff, and unsatisfying. Like Russell T Davies’ 2003 ITV drama The Second Coming, Betts has the problem that she has brought Jesus into a modern world and now doesn’t know what she’s going to do with him.

Davies had the temerity to kill off Our Lord (how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice, right?), but Betts opts for that old classic: he just wanders off. Probably to Heaven. The performers find it difficult to attain the dramatic peaks that the histrionics in the text demand, because of dizzying leaps in the text from high drama to subtle comedy and back. In the climactic restaurant scene there’s some horrible stage direction, and the mere presence of Elvis at the dinner table turns it into exactly the sort of cheaply absurd play that I imagine producer Sonia Friedman set out to avoid. Revelations happen at a pace that suggests the characters are eager to get to the end of the play. How meta-theatrical! It’s such a shame. The occasional glimmers of promise in the first half are all squandered.

Thematically, there’s no real sense that Betts is engaging with her subject matter. She’s assembling An Important And Symbolic Play from a list of variables; writing not what she feels, but what she thinks theatre is. I have no idea what Betts actually thinks about God, or Jesus, or even Christianity. I have no idea what she wants us to think about these things. In fact, I think the moral of the story, to paraphrase Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, is ‘Be Excellent To Each Other’. The other strands of the story are somehow even less clearly defined. Claire’s self-harm is gratuitous and a cheap device to show that she is, like, really upset. Claire’s brother Robbie is so unsympathetic, I was left hoping Jesus committed murder by snipping his potholing ropes with scissors, which would have been out-of-character for Christ to say the least.

Theatrically, we get vaulting ambition. Throughout the series of The Play’s The Thing, Sonia Friedman fretted that the final chosen play wouldn’t be big enough for the West End. She disparaged plays for only being suitable for the Royal Court and encouraged her writers to think boldly to escape the deadly trap of… shudder as you say it… fringe theatre. The net result is a play punching above its weight. The design of the play is all huge projections and sofas floating onto stage mysteriously pushed by no-one; the sound design is big whooshy noises and Holst; and the script is more, more, more! It’s a lie, anyway, this notion that the West End can only cope with big plays. The last play I saw on the stage of the New Ambassadors was Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, and that’s just three blokes chained to radiators.

It just saddens me. Given a proper dramaturgical going-over, this would probably be quite a good play, if shorn of flashbacks and given a tighter, claustrophobic focus. Because of the time constraints of the programme, the play has been rushed onto a stage, publicly, painfully, and I don’t believe it’s ready. There are glaring things in the play that could have been sorted out really easily by a skilled dramaturg – like Young Claire having a bossy character that diametrically opposes her timid older counterpart. The characters need a lot of psychological fleshing-out, and factual definition – the writer is dealing with huge, complicated human issues, and has no real idea of how to make a subject like incest both dramatically viable and psychologically ‘real’.

The point of this project was to offer someone a chance to put their play on in the West End, but the script selection process used by theatres and literary agents is there for a purpose. It guarantees a play is stage-worthy by the time a paying audience sees it. The Play’s The Thing promised support for a new writer, but it has actually given the writer less support, and placed more pressure on her to make something extraordinary. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize.

I really hope Kate Betts gets another play put on soon, and is not crushed by this ludicrous, unreal pressure upon her as a first-time writer. As it is, the whole project seems like an immense effort for scant reward. Too silly to be appreciated by sniffy regular theatregoers, with too much incest for people who watched The Play’s The Thing while waiting for Big Brother to come on, On The Third Day is a bit of a curio; a play that manages to miss every target market. This play isn’t the thing – it’s not good, but it’s not a pleasingly-trashy disaster, and it’s all a bit upsetting, really.

Masha & The Bear, White Bear Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

One of the most justifiably despised genres for new plays is the Unofficial Sequel. Do you think I care what happened to Beatrice and Benedick after they got married? Or where Godot has actually been all this time? No. Stoppard has a lot to answer for.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I approached Pitch Dark Theatre’s Masha and the Bear; a look at Chekhov’s Three Sisters before and after the events of his play. One of the pitfalls of the Unofficial Sequel is the presupposition that the audience knows the minutiae of the play you are riffing on. Masha and the Bear is admirably restrained in its use of the original text. Yes, the references and in-jokes are still there, but writer/director Abbey Wright focuses wisely on the characters of the sisters – Olga, prim and maternal; Irina, young and clearly in awe of her sisters; and the titular Masha, bold and imaginative, and suffocated by loveless marriage.

Rather than concentrating immediately after or before the time of the play, Wright pieces together a story flip-flopping between past and present – offering scraps of the lives of the three girls in reality and memory. Having done away with the intimacy and claustrophobia afforded by Chekhov’s adherence to a single setting, Wright instead mines the intimacy of moments shared by sisters -a boring dinner, folding a sheet – with Chekhovian subtext shimmering across snatched glances.

The four performers – there is a brief role for Melissa Charlton as Masha’s maidservant Sophia – are uniformly strong. Kathryn Daw plays the balance between stern and sisterly to a tee, with a tut rarely far from her lips. Her gravitas is particularly well used in returning to Masha’s empty house, playing the unspoken feelings of loss, whilst distracting herself with busying herself over tidying, or fussing with spindly fingers over a box of receipts. She also gets given a perfectly weighted Chekhovian line – ‘I’m not sure this is fun’ – which she uses to drolly puncture the hyperactive tendencies of her sisters. Sparking effectively off Daw’s Olga, Josie Daxter makes her Irina childlike and wide-eyed, with her maturity late in the play subtle and poignant. As Masha, Rosie Mason marries the emotional weight of her desperate situation with the manic energy of someone driven to reclaim her vitality from those that would take it away.

Masha and the Bear is a subtle and suitably restrained affair that can prove challenging narratively – much is left for an audience to assume or work out in their own time, but the ambiguities are rarely frustrating or impede one’s understanding of the characters themselves. The sisters are key; they invite the audience into the sisterly clique, aiming to reveal nothing, but revealing everything. Pitch Dark Theatre’s attention to detail and specificity in the subdued and subtextual moments should be commended, as should the focus and restraint of the writing of the piece. It is a fringe show of genuine quality, and exudes an intelligence rarely seen in London’s smaller theatres.

Alice Trilogy, Royal Court

(Written for Culture Wars)

There’s a thing I’ve just made up called ‘The Posh Lady Royal Court Gasp’. Writers on commission at the Royal Court are contractually obliged to include moments within their scripts that will provoke this elusive noise. (Please bear in mind, this is a different noise from ‘The Posh Lady Reads a Particularly Saucy Bit of a Jackie Collins Novel Gasp’.)

I mention this, not only because Tom Murphy’s Alice Trilogy provides a corker of such a moment – the sudden tension of the gasp tonight made every pearl round every neck of every Posh Lady in the audience quiver in unison – but also because the play concerns itself with the conversion of the eponymous Alice from a young dreamer into a weary, defeated, yet sympathetic, woman, who I imagine would gasp at things in the Royal Court.

Alice Trilogy is unsurprisingly three connected short plays about Alice, a grudgingly self-professed ‘boring housewife’. We meet her at twenty five, married to the uninspiring bank manager and budgie-breeder Bill, already with three kids, teetering on the edge of alcoholism, toying with escape, perhaps suicide, and conversing with voices in her head. We then see her encounter, some ten years later, with an old flame, a TV newsreader, and then again, ten years after that, as a defeated woman, sitting awkwardly eating dinner with her husband in an airport. The play chronicles the squeezing of all hope from Alice. She begins with ideas of escape from her mundane housewife existence, sees her ideas of a more glamorous life with a man from her past crushed because, well, he’s deeply sinister, and ends hollow-cheeked and bony with age and sadness, all the fight sucked out of her, sympathetic but irredeemable.

In the quotation I guess they would put in the Royal Court programme if they wanted to encapsulate why we should invest in the character, Alice says ‘There’s a strange, savage, beautiful and mysterious country inside me’. That’s at the beginning of the play. At the end, this is coupled with ‘There was a time when she felt that inside her there was something mysterious that she thought of as herself […] It is conceivable that the worst has happened and the reality of it leaves a lot to be desired’. That’s the journey. Perhaps I’m being a little unfair; Murphy sprinkles the journey with a lot of humour – that humour through bleakness that Irish playwrights are rightly renowned for – and the subtlety and juxtaposition of this raises the game of the play.

Or rather ‘plays’, as Murphy takes the trilogy aspect of the play rather seriously. Play one, ‘In The Apiary’, is a stuttery exercise in self-reflection, Alice conversing with a character waggishly named ‘Al’ in her attic, getting drunk and wondering where it all went wrong. Play two, ‘By The Gasworks Wall’, is a noirish, sinister conversation piece, complete with mysterious drifters and men in trilbies emerging from the shadows. Play three, ‘At The Airport’, is Happy Days-in-an-airport, as Alice’s increasingly fractured thought processes cascade out of her mouth, and her situation is worsened by dramatic events and increasing solitude. There’s a stylistic jump between each playlet, which causes a question of cohesion. What does this all add up to?

Juliet Stevenson’s performance in is, of course, staggeringly good. She has the ability to underplay moments in a mesmerising way – stuttering; implying; her brain racing, her eyes flashing mania, whilst remaining physically calm; subtext being thrown around like rice at a wedding. She does ‘rabbit in the headlights’ better than anyone I’ve seen on stage, and may well be in possession of the greatest ‘manic laugh in the throes of desperate misery’ in history. She works her socks off through this play, and at the curtain call looks positively frazzled with the exertion of it all. It is fascinating, and rare, to see someone being so effortlessly spectacular on a stage so close to you.

Why, then, is this a less than spectacular evening? Perhaps because the splintered glance at Alice’s life makes such leaps over vital history that one is only just keying into Alice’s predicament when it changes into a newer one, further entrenched in her desperate marital situation. Perhaps the play suffers through comparison to A Doll’s House, with the opening episode’s birdcage allusions and attic/coop set, and the fact that Stevenson played Nora in a definitive televised production of Ibsen’s play, which ratcheted up the focus and claustrophobia that the larger timescale of Alice Trilogy lacks. The episodic structure aims for epic sweep, but instead suggests slightness, and this is a shame. Perhaps it is that the play’s structure, despite being split into three, adheres to ‘Royal Court Gasp’ syndrome, throwing in unexpected horror exactly where one would expect it.

Alice Trilogy emerges as a piece of theatre only a madman would turn down a ticket to, yet one that the madman might well come out of a little disappointed. Madmen are, of course, notoriously difficult audience members. It’s a chilly play, not just because of the Royal Court’s overzealous air conditioning, but because our involvement with Alice is sketchy, skittish and fleeting. It’s awkward to relate to her, rather than uncomfortable; like someone cautiously trying to tell you her life story without giving any of her secrets away.

"Pericles: Prince Of Tyre", Shakespeare’s Globe

(Written for Culture Wars)

“Pericles” is a bit of a bastard of a play. Fragmented, epic, implausible, and without many stand-out moments, it’s a huge odd old thing. It’s therefore heartening that the Globe production of it, through some natty dramaturgy, infectious energy, and several standout performances, many from the wonderful Marcello Magni, is an amiable summer romp that I can heartily recommend.

The big directorial gimmick is to split the character of Pericles into two for the first half – the old Pericles (Corin Redgrave) looking upon his younger self (Robert Luckay) as he makes his youthful mistakes, and gets shipwrecked about fourteen times. “That’s you! That’s you!” taunts Gower (Patrice Naiambana), the narrator of the piece, fondly. This dramaturgical dealing with the text works well – it makes the whole thing into a fun storytelling exercise, which helps into the second half, as the story splits into three strands separated by an ocean, allowing Gower to jolly the whole business along with a fun irreverance (“You were expecting art?” he booms, “This is LIFE!”).

Kathryn Hunter’s direction – sorry, play mastery – is very good; the text, although there are some dodgy tennis metaphors, is made zingy and light, with some excellent verse-speaking from, among others, Jude Akuwudike, Laura Rees and Matilda Layser (who has particular fun as a fisherman’s apprentice). The design uses the whole theatre, with actor/aerialists literally bouncing off the walls, climbing ropes, making a boat from two sticks and running around like lunatics, making “wooooooaaaaah” noises. It’s highly entertaining.

And then there’s Marcello Magni. Stealing the show every time he comes on in one of his many guises, he lulls us into a false sense of security in his bearded role as Pericles’ wise custodian of Tyre, Helicanus, before pulling out the stops for his frankly barking turn as Simonides, constantly pulling his odd white wig out of his eyes, struggling to strip for a clown duel with the young Pericles, and eventually kissing Pericles and his daughter repeatedly and maniacally after he has approved their marriage. And he’s only just warming up – his Italian pimp character Boult, complete with bizarre door-bolting affectation, manages to be very funny and quite, quite sinister. Magni’s conviction, energy and invention is startling and infectious. It’s worth a fiver just to see him.

With so many disparate parts to the production – clowning, aerial work, a gunshot, multi-cultural casts, improvised audience banter, a mix of realistic and suggested props, and the nature of playing the Globe space – there’s a danger that “Pericles” could be an awkward mish-mash, but it sticks so closely to the storytelling/actor-audience relationship ethos of the Globe that you’re left with a highly enjoyable production, which tells its difficult story entertainingly and enthusiastically.

And at £5 for tickets, it’s good value for money! Unless you get free tickets, like I did, in which case, it’s better than good value. It’s excellent value.

"Kingfisher Blue", Bush Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

Failure should be an option in off-West End theatres like the Bush, particularly in ones in which such a large emphasis is placed on new writing. Here, that option is taken.

“Kingfisher Blue” comes on like a gritty, urban, issues-based play – all dodgy plumbers and East End London council estates – yet it soon becomes apparent that the writer Lin Coghlan doesn’t have a clue which issue she’s confronting. is it working class drug abuse, or escaping the social stratum into which you’re born, or is it paedophilia, or suicide, or predatory homosexuals? Themes are touched on, then ignored, making the whole experience rather cheap and draining. Above all, though, there’s a sense of complete hopelessness that is impossible to shake. It’s sure difficult to sympathise with the guy with his head on the block, because you know it’ll soon be over. In a similar way, the grimey situations that the four male characters find themselves in almost dare the audience to sympathise with them. You know as soon as a little glimmer of hope is offered to them, the rug will be pulled from under their feet.

For example, Ally is given £270 to escape his abusive father, his ecstacy habit, the prowling paedophiles to whom he has sold pornographic pictures of himself, and the gangs of council estate vigilantes trying to defeat the paedophiles. He plans to use the £270 to meet his mother in Majorca, where she now lives, but at the eleventh hour, she writes to him to tell him he can’t come over as she’s remarried, sending Ally on an ecstacy and vodka binge, which culminates in him trying to kill himself in a suicide pact with his best friend. Bummer.

Compounding this sense of crushing hopelessness is the mawkish text, which never lets an opportunity for a hearty East End anecdote go by unanswered.

Character: “Remember that old telly?”
Audience: Oh yes? A telly? Brilliant! Tell us more!
Character: “We used to poke it with a stick.”
Audience: You used to poke a telly with a stick?
Character: “A big stick. They kept it behind the bar.”
Audience: What? Why? Why would you poke a telly with a big stick?

How “urban”! How “gritty”! At one point, a character comes in with a tray of whelks. Whelks. Which “Bumper Book Of East End Cliches” has the author been reading, I wonder?

Character: “Those jumpers… it were a bit like yer mum… holdin’ you.”
Audience: Not really. It was like you were wearing a jumper.

The actors struggle against this text, but they don’t struggle that hard. Josef Altin at least brings pace and humour to the role of Ally, but both Toby Alexander and Doug Allen drag the play sluggishly along with little spark, enthusiasm or creativity. Paul Moriarty has the worst of the script’s anecdotage, and he looks faintly embarrassed to be involved. The direction, by Paul Miller, is also bad – moments of urgency are dismissed flippantly, jokes are underplayed, or just badly played, and the whole thing is theatrical and overly dramatic, where it should be played naturalistically and restrained. The play also relies on gimmicky stage business – Doug Allen fits a bath live on-stage, including using a blowtorch; naked photos are taken of a 14-year old boy – but the reality of these moments of action are undermined by, respectively, the fact that Doug Allen does not look like a natural plumber, and the fact that that Josef Altin is very obviously not fourteen.

Ultimately, for a play concerned with dealing with an urban, deprived situation, both script and production come across as bizarrely patronising. What reality is this based in? The playwright confuses “urban” with “depressing”, and so even when the two boys are saved from their suicide pact, one of them is still abducted and murdered. And then talks to the other. From heaven. With a lot of reverb on his voice. While the other tearfully stands over his grave. Monologuing. About how great he was, and how unfair life is. Really, by the end of it, I couldn’t care two tosses about anyone involved, and I don’t think that’s what theatre should be doing.

Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre

This play in a single moment: The first kiss of a father on his 12-year-old daughter’s forehead.

Criticising this play is like battering an already wounded squirrel on a tray to death. The fact is that Mary Poppins will be a box-office draw whether it is any good or not, as people love a covers band. This is Mary Poppins given a weird shine-over by the 21st Century, with elements of it still locked in the Victorian era the original books portrayed. This is a world where chimney-sweeps do achingly inevitable Stomp-style breakdowns in the middle of traditional dance routines, beating on chimney-stacks like bongos; where there is a Jamaican woman selling words in a tent; but where jubilation is still felt at a German bank being fucked over and where Southerners are happy because those factories they bought in the North are making them a lot of money.

And yet, Mary Poppins is still interesting because of that disgusting element that musical theatre would die without – enthusiasm. There are a lot of teeth on display here, many of which belong to Gavin Lee, very good as Bert without ever being Dick Van Dyke.

The film hangs heavy over the play. When a scene from the film is replicated, you compare it to the scene from the film. When one of the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, so handily-asterisked in the programme, appears, you note that “Ah, this is a new song, which wasn’t in the film. This is probably why it is a little wordier.” To reuse a comparison, watching the play is a bit like watching a Beatles covers band who are all playing Gibson Flying V guitars. You’re probably having a good time, but it’s just different.

And then there’s the problem of the plot. In that there isn’t one. I just challenged my housemate and her boyfriend to remember the plot of Mary Poppins, and she admitted that she could only remember the first half-hour, and he mumbled “something about the kid’s dad, isn’t it?” Yes, incidentally, it is. It’s about George Banks leaving aside his old ways and discovering the love of his family. In my view, the rest of the narrative amounts to subplots. The show’s new book and songs attempt to give George Banks more to do, and David Haig is pretty good (although he isn’t as good as the AWESOME David Tomlinson), but the play still seems to happen sort of incidentally to the famous songs and the flying effects. I guess that’s quite “musical theatre”, innit?

Ah yes, but that’s what we go to musicals for! Shit moving about the stage in an impressive way! Here we have an entire house, a nursery, Bert climbing the walls, Mary flying all over the place, some rather natty spangly jackets, and the constant fear of an actor falling from a great height. This is, of course, all amazing fun. Even the fear of an actor falling from a great height. All of this is done with lovely panache, and is quite pleasant to watch. If I say Laura Michelle Kelly is excellent when suspended from the ceiling, I mean it as a compliment. The choreography picked up, as well… Matthew Bourne (for it is he, the slag) taking his time in the first half with some weird little dance bits, before going for it a bit more in the second half, convincingly redoing the sweeps dance without it being too much of a retarded copy of the film. Apart from the Stomp bit. Which was retarded.

Fundamentally, though, people will go to this play, paying shitloads of money, so they can recognise the famous songs, wistfully reminisce about the first time they saw the film, take the kids, and wallow in plebjoy. Therefore, the question is: Can simple nostalgia keep the run of this show alive?

The answer is: Yes.

"Earth Angel", Southwark Playhouse

Together, me and Alex form a rather harsh critical team, much like those unfair moments in WWF tag team wrestling where both members of one tag team are allowed in the ring to totally fuck over some guy, whilst the guy’s tag partner has to hang out in his corner, holding that little bit of string. The general idea is that he cleans up all of the wrong and bad ideas in the highbrow, tolerant, experimental theatre realm, whilst I relentlessly mock a production for its desperate, clawing attempts at everyman relevance, pointless nudity and blatant avoidance of fundamental theatre constructs.

Okay, that might all be bollocks. Nevertheless, “Earth Angel” had plenty to whet our collective critical whistle.

Ostensibly a meditation on birth, death and – y’know – being a woman and shit, the posters proclaimed “Delving into the depths of a woman subverted”. Whilst we were unsure at the start what “a woman subverted” was, we were keen, if a little trepidatious, to delve within those depths. And delve we did.

The plot: In a series of video projected sequences, a blindfolded woman walks backwards to a bed, covered in earth, full of flowers, burying some objects (or uncovering them… my brain gets screwed with backwards film). Meanwhile, on an identical bed, the same woman does some crazy stuff, unblindfolded, before disappearing into the bed, winding up on a video projection naked, where she turns into a germinated seed.

Oh god, what is one supposed to do whilst confronted by experimental theatre? (Other than howl like a wolf and eat the actor?)

Provoking guffaws of derision at lines such as “Dead! All dead! How long is this going to go on for?! Shit!”, poncing about with a pillow on her head, playing with a dictaphone, sticking cotton wool up her nose, sneezing out earth, the sole performer Catherine Hoffmann caused both me and Alex to worry about her actual mental health. Certainly, as I suggested to Alex, “Dude has a womb thing”, and boy, did we know it. Big points for pulling a GENUINE MEAT HEART out of a pocket on her dress and burying it in the earth, for screeching like a baby, and for the aforementioned bravura nakedness-turning-into-a-germinated-seed performance.

Additional mentions must go to the guy playing guitar to the left of us. Dude got a delay pedal for his birthday, and he used it with aplomb. Cathedrals of delayed guitar formed an altogether predictable ambient wash over the action, enlivened only when Alex tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the guitarist, who was playing his guitar with a tiny plastic fan. Brilliant.

Oh, and there were THREE people in the audience. And two of them were me and Alex. And people say fringe theatre is in trouble, pah!