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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews


For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several dramas from 2002 together. This makes for a long page, but scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Afterplay - Benefactors - The Feast of Snails - The Glee Club - The Island - Lady Windermere's Fan - Life After George - Lobby Hero - Mrs. Warren's Profession - Mystery of Charles Dickens - Top Girls - Up for Grabs - Via Dolorosa - What the Night Is For - The York Realist

Afterplay Gielgud Theatre Autumn 2002

Brian Friel's short new play is the affectionate salute of one master dramatist to another, but its major attraction is as a vehicle for two immensely attractive actors.

Friel's conceit is to take two characters from two separate Chekhov plays and have them meet 20 years after their original adventures.. John Hurt plays Andrey, the feckless and cuckolded brother of the Three Sisters, while Penelope Wilton is Sonya, Uncle Vanya's mousy but ever-hopeful niece.

To put aside one possible fear, let me say that, while it is helpful to know the original Chekhov plays, it's not at all necessary, since during their chat they each subtly give a plot summary of their pasts. And, without giving away too much of what Freyn imagines to have happened to them since Chekhov, let me just say that, while there are a few small surprises, they remain very much the same people they were, both of them an odd but attractive mix of romantic innocence and practical acceptance of the reality they live with.

And much of the warmth we feel toward this small-scale but never defeated pair is due to the sensitive and immensely likeable personalities and performances of Wilton and Hurt. She takes us in hand from the very start of the play, when she has a two or three minute silent scene of distractedly trying to sort out a mound of official papers she has spread out before her - a scene every one of us has played and immediately identifies with.

She's come to Moscow to deal with estate matters, and has commandeered a couple of tables in a café, so when Hurt enters with a bowl of soup in his hand we get an extended but never exaggerated farcical scene of small talk until she finally realises that he needs someplace to put it down and is far too polite and self-effacing to ask. And that level of quiet humour, sensitively directed by Robin Lefevre, carries through the 70 minutes of this lovely character study.

Both characters are obviously hungry for company but too polite to be too intrusive, and much of Friel's skill lies in the clever and believable ways they develop the intimacy and openness of strangers. Hurt plays Andrey as an instinctively friendly and trusting fellow whose openness is marred only by a tendency to tell tall tales about himself and then almost immediately apologise for them, while Wilton's Sonya gradually lets us discover how much of her amiability is lubricated by vodka.

By the end, those who know the Chekhov originals will have been intrigued by Friel's version of what might have happened after the curtain fell, and even those who don't will have fallen under the spell of two charming and endearing performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Benefactors Albery Theatre Spring 2002

Michael Frayn's 1984 drama is that doubly rare thing, a play of ideas that doesn't preach and that also has an engrossing human story. So its new revival, which is first-rate, is a welcome addition to a musical-and-comedy-heavy West End.

Frayn's ostensible subject is architecture, specifically the design and social-engineering failures of council housing (Americans: think inner-city housing projects). But his real interest is something much deeper, far-ranging and still-pertinent, the limitations of liberal idealism.

His central character is an architect given the opportunity to design a liveable, human-sized housing development, and we watch sadly as economics, politics and his own ambitions gradually chip away at his vision and he compromises himself into another set of high-rise tower blocks. At the same time he and his wife have taken under their generous wing a couple of feckless neighbours, a burned-out journalist and his totally copeless spouse. And, in a parallel domestic plot, our well-meaning heroes manage to screw up their personal campaign for redevelopment as well.

All this is told in a mode of sad humour, and there are a lot of laughs in the telling and the playing, but it is the play's subtle presentation of its ideas that will stick with you. Watch, for example, as Frayn exposes the totally unconscious white-man's-burden racism hidden beneath the veneer of liberalism: the proposed development is on a fictional Basuto Street, and the well-meaning couple gradually slip into calling it Basutoland and thinking of its residents with the kind of patronizing annoyance Victorians felt toward Africans.

In the play's weakest (just because its symbolic purpose is a bit too obvious) development, the hitherto merely cynical journalist becomes actively malicious, leading a campaign to block the development solely for the pleasure of perversity. But what follows ­ the liberal's crippling inability to recognise, much less cope with, absolute evil -- makes for chilling drama.

Under Jeremy Sams' direction, the cast of four do justice to this excellent script. Aden Gillett captures and sustains the architect's innocence of spirit even as it evolves in the play from a virtue to a handicap, while Emma Chambers, by allowing us to see some hints of grit in the mousy neighbour wife, actually makes her character work better than Brenda Blethyn did 18 years ago.

If I tell you that Tim Piggot-Smith played the journalist in 1984, you will understand that I found Neil Pearson just a bit lacking in the sexual energy of pure evil this time around. And that, along with Sylvestra Le Touzel playing the architect's wife more motherly than spousely, reduces some of the undercurrents of sexual energy I remember from the original.

But those are small cavils. If you want a play that works on the level of domestic drama and also encourages you to think, you won't find much better than this.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Feast of Snails Lyric Theatre March 2002

This new play by Icelandic writer Olaf Olafsson marks David Warner's return to the London stage after an absence of more than 30 years, and for that reason alone it is welcome, though the play itself has very little else to recommend it.

Warner plays a successful, if ruthless and egotistical Icelandic businessman preparing for the very formal solitary dinner of the title (whose plot justification is too complicated and unlikely to get into), when A Mysterious Stranger appears at his door with A Dark Secret.

Rather than letting him talk, which would end the play in ten minutes, the businessman uncharacteristically invites him to dine, and the next 90 minutes are a cat-and-mouse game between the two, with the odd twist that it is the host rather than the interloper who keeps making subtle threats, gnomic allusions and hints of some dark, not-yet-to-be-mentioned-openly secret.

Among the topics of conversation, along with fine art, snails, the businessman's son, his childish feud with a neighbour, and his rather ugly racism, are enough mysteriously evasive references to his dead brother that, by a half-hour in, you'll have guessed that the visitor is that brother's secret son, come to claim his share of the riches.

You'll be wrong, as it turns out, though not a million miles from the truth. In fact, the brother (along with the snails, the art, and almost everything else alluded to in the course of the play) is a total red herring, and the secret, when it finally comes out, involves some other offstage characters about whom we have heard little and, therefore, care less. And yet, again totally out of character, the bombshell destroys Warner's character.

David Warner has unquestionable star quality, holding the stage and our attention throughout, giving authority to the poorly-conceived character and sustaining all the (as it turns out) totally bogus ambiguities and hints of menace. You may not ever really believe in the character, or even care about him, but you can't take your eyes off him.

Philip Glenister's character is never more than a plot device, stretched far longer than he can sustain it, while Sorcha Cusack and Siwan Morris, as Warner's servants, have the even less rewarding function of red herrings, their characters existing solely to hint at further secrets about their boss's past that turn out not to exist.

The play bares some resemblance to last year's vehicle for Donald Sutherland, Enigmatic Variations, not just in the basic plot structure of visit from a stranger with a secret, but in being a barely-adequate vehicle for an attractive performer too rarely seen onstage.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Glee Club Duchess Theatre Spring 2002

Richard Cameron's play, which transfers to the West End after a successful run at the fringe Bush Theatre, is a play that lives or dies on its charm, and I'm afraid its charm completely eluded me. Others evidently find something of interest here, but I spent the first act waiting for the play to start, and the second praying for it to end.

If I tell you it is about a group of Yorkshire miners who take comfort in the weekly rehearsals of their singing group, you'll immediately spot this as belonging to the same genre as the films The Full Monty and Brassed Off (or, for those with longer memories, the 1981 play One Big Blow, the one that spun off the a capella group The Flying Pickets). But those others all had plots to give them forward motion. The Glee Club has some plot events, but for all practical purposes it's a static set of character studies, of characters who never really come alive.

Each of the six members of the group lives through a soap opera story in the few months the play covers. One carries a torch for his ex-wife, one gets his girlfriend pregnant, one is exposed as a homosexual, and so on. Virtually everything to do with these stories takes place offstage, and is merely described or talked about at the rehearsals, so that all we really see are the men's reactions to the latest twists in each other's lives, with friendships being tested and sometimes failing the test. And that's about it. If any of their stories had any reality, or went anywhere (the most dramatic event is that the gay guy leaves town), there might be something to hold our interest from minute to minute. Failing that, as I said, it all hangs on the charm of the characters, the actors or, perhaps the few interludes of singing.

And for me, none of them work. The characters never rise above soap opera cliches. The performances are variable, with David Bamber, David Schofield and James Hornsby doing the most to create some reality and sympathy. And there isn't enough singing to carry the evening on that level.

What is the play about? The Full Monty is about reasserting pride and manhood. Brassed Off is about sustaining a sense of community. There are hints that Cameron intends a comment on the impossibility of hanging on to a dying past - the play is set in the 1960s (itself a danger sign - the youngest member narrates it from the perspective of the present as "the year I grew up," piling cliche on cliche) with the guys singing songs from the 40s and 50s. But that idea is left as undeveloped as any of the plot lines.

Which brings us back to the fact that either you will find it all evocative and charming or, as I did, just sit there waiting for something to happen or for the play to end.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Island Old Vic Theatre, Spring 2002

This perhaps is our last chance to catch the original cast of one of the stage phenomenons from recent years - a piece that adeptly pits groundbreaking theatre against a searing yet understated political message. We are certainly lucky enough, courtesy of Peter Brook from his self-exiled power base in Paris, to catch a re-creation of the original production.

At great personal risk actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona developed The Island with writer and fellow South African Athol Fugard deep in the dark days of their nation's struggle against apartheid and insitutionalised murder. The title itself refers to Robben Island, the high-security prison nestling in Cape Town's bay where political detainees sweated in quarries by day and languished in dingy cells by night. After improvising and rehearsing in secret in the early seventies, the team set up camp in London in 1974, and the rest as they say is dramatic and political history.

Set on a stark platform surrounded by darkness, one is reminded of Beckett's protagonists in Godot as Kani and Ntshona introduce us to "John" and "Winston", prisoners thrown into the same cell together for three years on charges that are not crimes in the nations of the free world. The first quarter hour is a memorable, silent overture of mimed hard labour, broken only by their grunts and wheezes of bonebreaking exertion. After they are shackled, strip-searched and brought back to the cells they at last find the space to speak.

What follows is a string of harrowing episodes of their everyday grind, filled with gallows humour as they bicker constantly - like a married couple over keeping the cell clean, like a comedy double act when discussing Antigone's motivation. Slapstick blends imperceptibly with satire, and like all great comedy there is the choice at every quip and revelation for pure entertainment or a deeper message about men's dehumanisation of man. Holding the plot together, and setting up a powerful finale, is John's bullying insistence on rehearsing their two-man Antigone for the prison gala and Winston's sulkiness over the false hair and breasts he's supposed to don for a part in a play he refuses to understand.

The actors frequently hit automatic pilot, which is understandable. This is not to say that they lose any feeling for the intensity of the prisoners' interactions with each other and their captivity, but a certain sloppiness creeps in. This is particularly evident in the much-lauded 15-minute intro section where, sure, they sweat and suffer but the mimed actions of quarry digging aren't quite believable. Blame for that lies firmly on Brooks' shoulders and threatens to detract from two superior performances.

Admittedly it is difficult to imagine the play having the same impact with different actors, such is the rapport and chemistry between creators Kani and Ntshona. But this is no mere museum piece, and though the original context and times of its first performances more than 25 years ago are passed, the intensity and message ring through loud and clear.

Nick Awde

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Lady Windermere's Fan Haymarket Theatre Spring 2002

There used to be a brilliant British stage director called Sir Peter Hall, who ran both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and directed such exciting productions as No Man's Land and Amadeus. In recent years, however, that name has been usurped by a considerably less talented man, whose productions are uniformly dreary and lifeless costume parades.

I'm being ironic, of course.

It is (I presume) the same man, but the fact is unmistakable that Peter Hall has in the past decade either lost all his talent or, more likely, all his interest in direction, because Lady Windermere's Fan joins Japes and The Royal Family among the most recent in a parade of directorial failures.

Oscar Wilde's play does pose a basic challenge in that it is never quite sure whether it is a social comedy or a melodrama, and a director's first obligation is to decide which element to stress. But Hall just throws them together and then homogenizes them so that epigrams like "I can resist anything, except temptation" coexist with moments of passion that would embarrass a silent film, and are delivered with exactly the same flatness.

As Lady Windermere, the priggish young wife who thinks her husband is unfaithful and is thus tempted into what would be a disastrous affair, Joely Richardson is appropriately lovely but gives - I must say it - the worst performance I have ever seen from a professional actress. Standing awkwardly, reciting lifelessly, she speaks her lines, witty or passionate, as if she had no idea what the words meant.

But the fault cannot be entirely hers, because everyone else in the cast is bad, to greater or lesser extent, in exactly the same ways. When scenes of lovemaking, of high outrage, of passionate despair and of Wildean wit are all played, by everyone, with exactly the same vitality with which they order tea, and when no scene has any drive or rhythm to its awkward exchanges, then they have all been failed by their director, who has either made them do it this way or not given them any help in moving beyond this lifelessness.

Indeed, the whole production has the air of a second or third week of rehearsals, when the cast have more-or-less learned their lines (though frequent flubs and awkward pauses suggest incomplete mastery all around), and are now too busy trying to work out their moves to have developed any sense of character, of pacing, or of the meanings of what they are saying.

Only a couple in the cast emerge with any shreds of dignity. As a wise and witty old dowager, Googie Withers throws away her epigrams with the ease and confidence of a master. And the nominal star (though her role as the Other Woman with a tragic secret is really a supporting one) Vanessa Redgrave cannot ever be less than interesting to watch. She has the one actually dramatic moment in the whole play, as she is tempted to blurt out her secret to the wrong person and then swallows it in mid-sentence, so that your heart does skip a beat; and her final scene, in which she accepts fate with grace and dignity, is strong.

But even Redgrave shares in the overall air of under-rehearsal and under-direction, acting in a style just sufficiently different from everyone else to jar, while an odd pattern of pausing before every speech makes it seem almost as if everyone else was speaking a foreign language and the only way she knew it was her cue was the expectant silence.

It is possible that later in the planned four-month run some of the cast may find their way to characterisations and performances with some reality and theatrical life. But I cannot recommend this deeply disappointing directorial and acting failure just on that faint hope.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Life After George Duchess Theatre March 2002

Two dreary plays in two consecutive nights. And you think my job is easy. The night after seeing The Feast of Snails, a poorly-structured play ultimately about nothing, along comes Life After George, an over-structured play determined to be about so much that it forgets to have a believable human story at its core.

In Hannie Rayson's play George is a 1960s-era radical who's become a Marxist history professor at an Australian university. We are meant to admire the fact that he has held on to his principles through the decades, as proven by his arguing with the Dean (his ex-wife) over the careerist turn the university's courses have taken and the fact (oh horrors!) that they accept donations from large corporations.

We are not meant to be bothered by the fact that he sleeps with every female student who enters his office, that his idealism takes the form of hippie cliches that would embarrass Abbie Hoffman, or that he is ultimately more a symbol than a created human being, and that neither director Michael Blakemore nor actor Stephen Dillane can do much to disguise that last fact.

George is dead when the play begins, and we experience him through a complex and ever-shifting series of flashbacks, from the perspectives of his three wives and his alienated daughter. They, too, are symbols rather than human: the mature, motherly one (Cheryl Campbell), the former radical who sold out to the establishment (Joanne Pearce), the sexually rejuvenating and politically committed young hope of the future (Anna Wilson-Jones), and the moping-around nobody-loves-me proof that being a failure as a father wasn't his fault (Susannah Wise).

Given only a single note each to play, the actresses fare no better in attempting to create real human beings than Dillane, though Pearce has the most showy role, jumping back and forth in time from the young radical to the anal-retentive Dean.

Indeed, just about the only fun to be had in the show lies in the complex time-shifting structure, as a character may be playing a scene with another and then suddenly, in mid-sentence, be twenty years younger and talking to someone else. The cast and director Blakemore keeps these time-shifts fluid and always clear, and there is much to admire in their technical polish.

But what is the play about? About what a great teacher/idealist/lover/inspiration/speaker-of-truth/all-around swell fella George was, I suppose, though at any university I've ever been in the students would have spotted him immediately for the sad wanker he is. There are also earnest side trips into the corruption of Newman's ideal of a university, the pains of unloved children and the perfidy of ex-wives, and a whole bunch of other things that playwright Rayson evidently feels strongly about and might profitably have written separate plays about instead of dumping them all in this one.

There's no play here. There are no characters here. There is no reality here. There are some attractive performers doing their best to keep the thing afloat anyway. But, like the two women behind me, you may find Life After George little more than the opportunity for a long after-dinner nap.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Lobby Hero New Ambassadors Theatre Summer 2002

Kenneth Lonergan's New York hit, transferred from the Donmar for a West End run, resembles his other works in being a shaggy dog story about a group of characters who at first seem not worth our attention, but who slowly worm their way into our consciousness until we really care about them. It is not as good as This Is Our Youth, and certainly not as well acted, but it will hold you, and linger with you long after you leave the theatre.

That is if you can sit through a first half hour that contains some of the worst acting I've ever seen on a professional stage. Without naming and shaming, one member of the cast descends to the level of high school acting, shouting at the back wall and reciting lines with no indication of understanding their meaning. Another gives a really bad Joe Mantegna imitation, trying to convince himself he's in a David Mamet play; and another works so hard at maintaining a thick New York accent that there's little energy left for actual acting.

It isn't until near the end of the first act that the performers settle down and get into their characters, but from then on just about everything works, so it's worth the wait. The rest of the play is built on a series of conversations in which our perception of the characters and their relationships keeps shifting, with each new surprise or revelation making us more interested and involved in their stories.

At play's centre is Jeff (David Tennant), night security guard in a New York apartment building. Without much of a life or personality, he eagerly engages any visitor in inane conversation, just to fill the air with something other than silence. His callers are William (Gary McDonald), his by-the-book supervisor; Bill (Dominic Rowan), a veteran cop; and Dawn (Charlotte Randle), Bill's rookie partner.

In the course of the action each of them faces a moral quandary, each makes decisions based as much on personal gratification as moral principles, and each betrays another for what they try to believe are the highest motives. William must decide whether to lie to give his criminal brother an alibi; Bill mentors Dawn but is also willing to blackmail his way into her pants; Jeff betrays a confidence to help one person and impress another; and Dawn is eager to do good but not above settling personal scores in the process.

The play's insights -- that theoretical moral principles always become far more complicated in real situations, that the highest motives are inevitably contaminated by human frailties, and that large and small betrayals are everyday events -- are all the more convincing and moving because, in typical Lonergan fashion, we really come to care about this group of life's losers. And the whole is coloured with enough light and dark comedy to keep it from getting too heavy.

Director Mark Brokaw must take some blame for the dreadful first half-hour, but also much credit for guiding his cast past that into sensitive and absorbing characterisations. Lobby Hero is an imperfect play, but one that rewards you for sticking with it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Mrs Warren's Profession Strand Theatre Autumn-Winter 2002

George Bernard Shaw's 1893 play is an indictment of social hypocrisy that still resonates more than a century after it was written, and an excellent example of his patented ability to make the discussion of ideas dramatically exciting. And director Peter Hall, whose non-National Theatre work has been disappointing in recent years, makes it come alive with characterisations and ambiguities that add to its richness.

Mrs. Warren is an older woman of considerable means who has had her daughter raised by others while she was abroad on business. That daughter is now the model New Woman of a century ago - university educated, free-thinking, and determined to earn her own way in the world unhampered by traditional romantic or social limitations. So (and I'm not giving anything away here), when she discovers that her mother's riches came from a life of prostitution and brothel-operating, she handles the news rather well.

But that revelation is when things actually begin to get interestingly complicated and we come to wonder who, if anyone, has really escaped social prejudices. While daughter sympathises with the poverty that drove mother into a life of sin, she's a little bit less able to handle the fact that she's continuing in her profession even though she's now rich. Daughter can handle the vulgarity of mother's country-squire friend, but is surprised to find herself offended by discovering that he's an investor in the business, and is flummoxed when it is pointed out to her that her education and lifestyle were financed from the same source. Meanwhile, mother's desire that daughter be a lady is just the beginning of the discovery that she is more conventional at heart than you might guess.

The play is full of encounters and debates between characters in which they wind up taking unexpected sides or discovering unexpected prejudices in themselves. And Peter Hall has directed the cast to compound the complexities and revelations by always keeping us uncertain when their expressions of principle are sincere, mere rote platitudes, or blatant hypocrisy. And so, in a way that is absolutely true to Shaw and yet strikingly modern, scenes of two people just sitting onstage and talking become excitingly theatrical and alive.

Brenda Blethyn finds all the contradictions and complexities in the title character, showing us a woman of the world whose commonness can't completely be hidden - she does things with rapid slips of dialect that would amaze Henry Higgins - and whose heart of gold is always just a wee bit suspect. Newcomers Rebecca Hall and Laurence Fox hold their own nicely as the daughter who may not be as liberated as she thinks and the beau who is not as much a fool as he enjoys acting. Richard Johnson shows us the bluff honesty beneath the squire's coarseness without whitewashing it, while Peter Blythe is perhaps a bit too camp, in what amounts to an Edward Petherbridge impersonation, as a family friend.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Mystery Of Charles Dickens Comedy and Albery Theatres 2001-2002, Playhouse Theatre 2012

Every actor should have a solo show that he can revive and tour in when things are slow. Since at least the 1950s, when Emlyn Williams did his Dickens in Britain and Hal Holbrook began doing Mark Twain in the US, the life-works-and-personality of the great writer has been a reliable staple.

Now Simon Callow would seem to have found his, in this genial and entertaining walk through the life of Charles Dickens, written by Peter Ackroyd and directed by Patrick Garland.

Moving smoothly from third-person narrative, to first-person quotations from Dickens' memoirs and letters, to excerpts from the novels, and back again, Callow has plenty of opportunity to display his charm, versatility and delight in playing grotesques, if only for a minute or so at a time.

The biographical structure has its limits, sometimes making the script sound like a TV talking-heads documentary without the visuals, as descriptions of landscapes or London streets cry out for film.

The story itself is familiar to most: idyllic country childhood replaced by London poverty, then the overnight superstardom of Pickwick Papers and the unprecedented career that followed. Indeed, with little but the flow of chronology to move it forward, the evening would bog down, were it not for the evident and infectious fun Callow has when given the opportunity to act out a snippet from one novel or another.

(Incidentally, there is no Mystery of Charles Dickens. The nearest the script comes to finding anything to wonder about is a brief reference to the unanswered question of whether his romance with Ellen Ternan was ever consummated.)

No, the fun comes in watching Callow create an instant Sam Weller, or milk all the pathos out of the death of Little Nell, or chew up the scenery describing the murder of Nancy Sykes, or go from the convivial Crummles to the pontificating Podsnap, and then, in each case, return instantly to his calm narrator's mode.

Only a churl would be too upset by the fact that some of these characters seem to be related, sharing the same screwed-up visage and corner-of-the-mouth speech pattern. (Decades ago Michael Green pointed out, in his Art of Coarse Acting, that Shakespearean commoners are always played like Robert Newton doing Long John Silver - "Arggh, Jim me lad" - and there's a bit of that in Callow's style.)

Still, it is a lot of fun. Long may he prosper with it.

Gerald Berkowitz

ALBERY THEATRE Autumn 2002: Simon Callow's back in town again with Peter Ackroyd's energetic and inventive romp through the great writer's life and work, and he has lost none of the energy he originally brought to this singular role and plays it with infectious freshness.

A second look-in on the show however brings the reminder that when Callow plays Dickens playing his characters, they are invariably projected with the same break-neck intensity, making it difficult to tell your Sykes from your Heeps -- a problem compacted by the fact that the classic excerpts from Dickens' novels are passed over in favour of those less easily recognised except by the learned few.

One feels also that despite the inclusion of new material, Ackroyd all too often sidesteps humour for his own personal identification with his subject's own struggle to make his voice heard. That said, this is a welcome and much appreciated reprise.

Nick Awde

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Top Girls Aldwych Theatre January 2000 and tour

First performed in 1982 and adapted seven years later for TV, Caryl Churchill's triptych eavesdrops on the different lives of Marlene, a highflier everywoman carving out her niche in late seventies Britain. It helps to bear in mind that the setting was the tail end of an uneasy decade that saw the election of Margaret Thatcher's Tory party as the Pied Piper saviour that was to rid the crumbling nation of union battles, imploding industry and civil unrest and replace them with a classless society, rampant consumerism, yuppies and overdrafts for all.

Laid across three acts, we first meet Marlene hosting a dream dinner party with women of note from the past, such as the real life female Pope Joan and the fictional Patient Griselda (from Chaucer's Clerk's Tale). At a revolving table, the guests' tales of the struggle in following their chosen paths are over-stylised yet, to Marlene's ears, deliciously intellectual, establishing a resonance with her own aspirations.

A move to daytime and the office environment where Marlene and her female cohorts at the Top Girls employment agency fight for their place in a man's world. Marlene has just been promoted to management level, boosted by her expertise in placing women in secretarial positions. The appearance of her niece from her hometown Ipswich barely ruffles her routine, even though the niece - slow-witted, provincial and impressionable - has clearly come to stay. The final act cuts to the domestic insularity of her niece's mother's home where, stripped of her office armour, Marlene finds she has less back-up.

Clearly aimed at a smaller stage, Thea Sharrock's direction has not made the transition fully and the weaker actors suffer. There are also some unforgiveable violations of sightlines from the front rows for certain key scenes. Still, the multi-roles give each cast member to chance to shine at least once - notably Hattie Ladbury's hard-nosed, soft-centred Marlene, Sophie Shaw's overqualified, oversexed agency whizzkid Win, and Helen Anderson's abandoned housewife Joyce.

There's a strange dynamic across the three parts. The dinner party of Act I is irritatingly unfocused until the arrival halfway through of Griselda turns the table chatter from independent women to dependent (she was patient because she never complained each time her husband took away her children). Now focused but offering little hint as to plot direction, this shift in gear is maintained throughout Act II's employment agency (the interview sequences are mini-masterpieces of satire) and into Act III's provincial hell when, again halfway through, things move onto a higher level when a revelation pops out of nowhere. Without giving too much away, this completes the circle - everything falls into place and what seemed a quaint string of themed sketches is revealed to be an emotional chart of the compromises made to better oneself.

As a play it has weathered well although the broadsides on the class system and Thatcherism may prove a little too tub-thumping for the audience of today. But Top Girls is no museum piece - indeed, it's a refreshingly witty slice of political and personal subversion.

Nick Awde

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Up For Grabs Wyndhams Theatre Spring 2002

This is a modest little play that probably never would have found its way to the West End had not pop singer Madonna chosen it for her once-a-decade foray into theatre acting. The attractions of its star aside - and they have made it a sell-out, with ticket touts asking £160 outside the theatre and reportedly up to £500 elsewhere - there is little here of interest. David Williamson has written a number of small-but-interesting plays before, but this one is strictly by-the-numbers.

Madonna plays the trophy wife of a remarkably rich psychiatrist (originally Australian, but Americanised for the star), who dabbles in art dealing. Desperate to make a big score, she guarantees a seller a price several millions over the painting's worth, and then must cajole, massage and beg prospective buyers into bidding up beyond their original intentions.

In the process she learns how far she is willing to go (which includes some moderately kinky sex) and is sobered by the realisation, while the three buyers - a couple of dot-com yuppies, a vulgar self-made millionaire and a dried-out academic advising a faceless corporation - make self-discoveries of their own. The play ends with a whimper, all the rich or would-be-rich characters being punished for the sins of affluence or avarice.

As for the star, she proves adequate in some ways and inadequate in other surprising ways. She can play scenes with the other characters, though she has been directed by Laurence Boswell to emphasise her character's frailty and desperation, making her come across as victim rather than as active agent, and giving little sense of the hard-edged ambition that got her into this pickle (and that you would think would be easy for her to play).

But the script requires her to address the audience directly a lot, and in those moments she virtually disappears, having - amazingly for a rock star - no stage presence whatsoever. Her voice is weak, and she has not been taught to project it, and she is visibly uncomfortable in the nakedness of the stage.

We can only conclude that the "Madonna" of the live concerts and music videos is a created character, and that without that mask Mrs. Ritchie herself is at a loss onstage. Minimally able to create the character who interacts with the others, she has been unable to build the one who talks to us.

Her inexperience and discomfort onstage show in other ways. At the performance I saw, a botched lighting cue left her in the shadows for one scene, and she stayed frozen there until the actor she was playing against ad-libbed a move that led her toward the lit half of the stage. Another reviewer reported a different moment of panic at another performance.

The supporting roles have all been written with hints of their own dramas and complexities, but Laurence Boswell has directed all the actors to play them as two-dimensional cartoons. Only Michael Lerner as the gross businessman generates any theatrical energy, though Sian Thomas as the academic deserves some recognition for a modestly funny Maggie Smith impersonation.

Madonna doesn't forget her lines or bump into the furniture, and she does convey a fragile desperation that is at least part of the character she is playing. As a supporting actress in a play about someone else, she would be unremarkable. But hers is neither a star performance nor a star presence, and the play's own thinness is thus exposed.

And be warned - the audience every night includes the sorts of idiots who whoop and whistle and shout "Go Madge!" every time the star has a line that refers, however obliquely, to her public image, or makes a brief dance move, or says something sexual, or just glances in their direction.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Via Dolorosa Duchess Theatre, Summer 2002

In 1997 David Hare spent three weeks in Israel and on his return wrote this solo play, which he has performed on-and-off since then. If images enter your head of the presumptuous tourist who becomes an instant expert, let me say that Hare is almost completely innocent of that charge, generally suppressing his own opinions in favour of reporting on and quoting the people he met there.

Hare listens to a pretty good cross-section of Israelis and Palestinians -- politicians, intellectuals, and committed citizens -- and hears almost as many different judgments and opinions as there are speakers. And that ultimately is the message of his play.

Everyone he speaks to is highly knowledgeable, everyone has a very clear position, everyone can articulate it with logic, eloquence and conviction. Any one of them, if heard alone, would be thoroughly convincing. But the tragedy is that they all -- all of these honourable, well-intentioned, committed people -- live side by side, and their reasonable and convincing positions are absolutely incompatible, not just between Israelis and Palestinians, but between any two Israelis or any two Palestinians.

Summary is pointless. What stands out is a string of individual characters or epiphanies. The Israeli civilian who segues almost imperceptibly from a heart-breaking expression of what it feels like to be convinced that your neighbour wants to murder you, into the wildest paranoid conspiracy theories about her own government. The visit to a West Bank settlement that looks like the all-American suburb in Spielberg's ET, inexplicably stuck in the middle of the desert. The fact that the most vitriolic attacks on the Israeli government come from Jews, while Palestinians are Arafat's strongest critics. The sense you get, after a while, that he's cheating by selecting his speakers as he does, and by making them all such good, earthy, colourful characters -- everyone he meets, male or female, Jew or Arab, is a mensch.

Despite guidance from director Stephen Daldry, Hare is not much of a performer. All his characters sound the same, and in reconstructing conversations, he occasionally forgets who's supposed to be facing which way. For the most part, he just stands there and recites in the semi-monotone of a TV newsman reading from an autocue. The script has the rhythms of written, rather than spoken English, adding to a slight dislocation. In fact, though their accents are different, he sounds very like Alan Bennett reading his memoirs for radio or TV.

The nearest Hare allows himself to direct editorialising is giving special prominence to an Israeli who argues that historically the Jews have always lived more in the realm of ideas than the physical world, so that land -- mere sand and rocks -- never mattered. So, he says, if mere land means so much to the Palestinians, why not give it to them? You may or may not be convinced, but you'll leave the theatre with (if this makes sense) a clearer sense of how unclear the issues are.

Gerald Berkowitz

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What The Night Is For Comedy Theatre Winter 2002-03

Michael Weller's new play is a moving, humorous and psychologically convincing love story, directed by John Caird and performed by Gillian Anderson and Roger Allam with a sensitivity and believability that are beautiful to watch and share.

Anderson (she of TV's X Files) and RSC veteran Allam play two former lovers who had a hot and heavy affair ten years ago before going off to separate marriages. Now they meet again for dinner, and emotional subtexts hang thick in the air around their small talk. What does each of them have in mind - an innocent dinner? A quickie for old time's sake? The renewal of the affair? Something more?

Each of them is fully committed, perhaps for unexpected reasons, to their marriages, each has reasons to want to escape, each knows such escape would come at an unacceptable price. Each, for their own legitimate reasons, is hesitant to open up, and each is hesitant to trust the other's tentative steps toward emotional nakedness. Layers of armour are peeled away voluntarily, through urging, and at a couple of key moments, through outside intervention.

Much of this could be played for comedy (and some is), and much could easily tip over into the bathos of soap opera. But director Caird and the two actors choose the risky but ultimately most satisfying path of playing it all for absolute emotional honesty, and it works. From minute to minute you cannot guess what will happen next, what choices each character will make; and from minute to minute what does happen is believable and moving.

Anderson has the difficult task of playing a character whose true emotional state is withheld from us by the plot until very late in the play, so that some of her early behaviour - refusing to make eye contact with him, being super-sensitive to signals he is unconsciously sending - may seem odd, and it is very much to her credit that she makes us believe in her character even while we are straining to understand her.

Allam's stage persona has always been a cool and smooth one - at the RSC he was known as the best verse speaker, in the musical Gielgud sense, of his generation. Here he uses that with great subtlety, letting us see the cool exterior as both a mask for inner uncertainties and as the evidence of a core of strength the character himself may not realise he has.

In less skilled and sensitive hands this powerful play could have gone sour in so many different ways that it is an added source of theatrical excitement to watch this production manoeuver through all the dangers so beautifully. Anyone who has ever been in love and wondered about the what-ifs will be enthralled.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The York Realist Strand Theatre Spring 2002

Some of the newspaper critics have admired Peter Gill's new play, a production of the English Touring Theatre now transferred from the Royal Court, but for the life of me, I can't see why. Indeed, I'm moved to apologise formally to the authors of The Feast of Snails and Life after George for so slating their plays recently, since they look like Pulitzer Prize winners compared to this dead fish.

Your heart sinks even before the play begins, when you see the set, a Yorkshire farm cottage that looks like a theatre museum exhibit of a 1950s "kitchen sink" drama. (There actually is a kitchen sink, to which our attention is repeatedly directed as the cottage's only indoor plumbing.) And when the inhabitants and neighbours eventually arrive, the false folksiness and local colour are as thick and soppy as a saturated Yorkshire pudding.

Improbably, the farmer is an amateur actor, performing in the York Mystery Play up the road. Improbably, he's homosexual. Less improbably, perhaps, so is the play's assistant director, up from London. Improbably, they have an affair, with (and this is the play's one and only surprise) the Yorkshireman the more confident aggressor. Inevitably, it ends. And that's the play.

If either one of the two characters were female, you'd be embarrassed to be in the theatre, so hackneyed is the situation, unreal the characters, cliche-ridden the dialogue; and the gay element does not salvage it in the slightest, only briefly disguise the total lack of originality or believability.

It is painful to sit through, and is not helped by a direction so sluggish and filled with would-be-Pinteresque pauses that the dialogue sounds like earth-to-moon radio signals with their four-second delay. Peter Gill was one of the celebrated trio from 40 years ago when the joke was that every great British director was named Peter (Brook, Hall, Gill), but on the evidence of this play he, like the others, seems to have lost the plot. The actors are all clearly doing as they were told, and thus shouldn't be blamed for the almost total absence of reality or believability.

Along the way, there are plenty of small things to annoy you. The otherwise intelligent-enough Yorkshire characters are briefly turned into country bumpkins for the scene following their attendance at the Mystery Play, so we can laugh patronizingly at their naive wonder. We're also invited to laugh at a mother's unconscious double entendres when she doesn't seem to notice anything odd about the Londoner sharing her son's bed ("He's been so much happier since you took him in hand" - that sort of thing). Secondary characters are one-dimensional to the point of being nearly allegorical, and might as well be wearing signs around their necks saying "Doomed to a Spinster's Life" and the like.

The whole thing is written and performed with the by-the-numbers deadness of bad TV sitcom or soap opera, and clearly pitched at an audience trained by those genres to react mechanically when their buttons are pushed. If you can turn off all your intelligence, critical faculties, and memory of ever having been in a theatre before (as you do when watching sitcoms and soap operas), you might actually imagine that this is a bearable way of killing a couple of hours.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Afterplay - Gielgud 2002, Review - Benefactors - Albery 2002, Review - The Feast of Snails - Lyric 2002, Review - The Glee Club - Duchess 2002, Review - The Island - Old Vic 2002, Review - Lady Windermere's Fan - Haymarket 2002, Review - Life After George - Duchess 2002, Review - Lobby Hero - Ambassadors 2002, Review - Mrs. Warren's Profession - Strand 2002, Review - The Mystery of Charles Dickens - Comedy / Albery 2002, Review - Top Girls - Aldwych 2000, Review - Up For Grabs - Wyndhams 2002, Review - Via Dolorosa - Duchess 2002, Review - What The Night Is For - Comedy 2002, Review - The York Realist - Strand 2002