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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Archive: COMEDIES OF 2001

For the Archive we have filed our reviews of several comedies that played in 2001 together. This makes for a long page, but scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Boston Marriage - Bouncers - Fallen Angels - Feelgood - Female Odd Couple - Jackie Mason - Life X 3 - Over the Moon - Private Lives - Star Quality - Thunderbirds FAB - Under the Doctor


Boston Marriage New Ambassadors Theatre Winter 2001-02

David Mamet, long-time chronicler of twentieth-century macho posing, turns his attention to nineteenth-century women in what proves a thoroughly delightful comedy of manners, of which Oscar Wilde himself might be envious.

A Boston marriage, we are told, was a Victorian euphemism for two women living together, possibly but, things being as discreet as they were back then, not necessarily as lovers.

There's no ambiguity in this case: Anna (Zoe Wanamaker) and Claire (Anna Chancellor) share a bed as well as a life together, an arrangement in no way inconvenienced by Anna's accepting the financial support of a male lover.

Marital peace is, however, threatened when Claire falls in lust with a younger woman and begs permission for a dalliance. About half the 90-minute play is devoted to negotiations toward this project, and the rest to coping with the repercussions of its failure.

But what carries the play on the soaring wings of high comedy is the almost uninterruptedly Wildean (or perhaps Jamesian) wit, not so much a matter of epigrams (though they abound) as elegant and clearly revelled-in euphemism.

Neither of the women will use four consecutive plain words when twenty perfectly-chosen luscious-to-the-mouth ones will do, and even brevity is multisyllabic: when one asks if her stocking seams are straight, the other replies "Euclidian."

While at times it may seem that the two central characters are constantly auditioning for roles in The Importance of Being Earnest, you quickly give yourself over to the artificiality of the language and just revel in it. And, of course, there's a special element of surprise and fun in hearing David Mamet, master of realistic obscenity, pull off this stylistic tour-de-force.

There's even a kind of Mamet in-joke in the fact that his favourite four-letter word doesn't slip out until 35 minutes into the play.

Under Phyllida Lloyd's buoyant direction, Zoe Wanamaker plays the older Anna with soignee langour that can instantly shift to deadly cattiness. She opens the play reclining in so perfect a pose of elegance on her chaise longue that few in the audience can resist the impulse to applaud the sheer bravado of the tableau.

So enamoured is Anna of language that the misapprehension that her maid is Irish is liable to send her off on a rapid-fire satiric disquisition on the causes of the potato famine or the relative merits of different kinds of mud for building hovels.

Anna Chancellor's Claire is less natural a wit, as the actress shows her working hard to keep up her half of the verbal tennis match, though she is a bit more the incipient 20th-century woman, employing occasional echoes of Diana Rigg as her character slyly slips in a zinger. Lyndsey Marshal plays the oft-befuddled maid as a droll mixture of country bumpkin and street-smart practicality.

London theatre should always have a place for comedies that revel in the wonders of language, in the tradition of Wilde and Coward. That this happy new addition to the list should come from the ultimate master of the in-your-face modern American idiom is a delightful and welcome irony.

Gerald Berkowitz


Bouncers Whitehall Theatre Spring 2001

John Godber wrote the first one-act version of Bouncers while still an undergraduate, and I saw its premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977. My old notes tell me it didn't particularly impress me at the time, which shows you how much I know.

The expanded version has been performed and won awards in a dozen countries, and Godber, churning out roughly a play a year, is perennially one of the most produced and revived playwrights in England, up there with Shakespeare and Ayckbourn.

And now comes what an introduction calls the Bouncers Remix, with a few contemporary references (Robbie Williams, The Weakest Link, the whassup commercial) pasted in, and the author himself playing one of the four bouncers outside a dance club on a cold weekend night.

My untrustworthy memory of the original says it was wholly about those four, showing how they used their little bit of artificial power to intimidate customers and one-up each other. The expansion has the four actors (along with Godber, Andrew Dunn, Zach Lee and Andrew Dennis) also playing four beer-swilling blokes out on the town and, to the particular delight of the audience, four girls out to be picked up.

Godber's observation is that they're all losers, a point spelled out in a series of overly explicit (though very well-written) speeches by Dunn's character and more subtly in the way all three quartets are shown to have nothing more in their lives than this very tawdry excuse for entertainment.

The performance mode, in both the writing and Gareth Tudor Price's direction, is a high-energy, highly choreographed stylization, very much like Steven Berkoff without the manic delight in over-the-top obscenity. (Berkoff's East appeared two years before Bouncers, and it is impossible to believe that the young Godber wasn't influenced by it; Price has directed several Berkoff plays in recent years.)

So much of the dialogue (at least the oldest section - the seams between various versions of the text sometimes show) are in clever vernacular rhymed couplets. And every single move is a kind of dance step, usually in ironic unison or counterpoint to what the other actors are doing.

And that highly artificial style, bouncing off the mundane setting and characters, is the most consistently impressive and entertaining part of the evening. In portraying the girls, for example, the actors never pretend to be anything but four hulking guys playing at being girls, but it becomes a kind of ballet, counterpointing their size and unquestionable masculinity with a conjured-up essence of femininity.

All thirteen characters (there's also the club DJ) are skilfully individualized. Among the bouncers, Dunn is the most thoughtful and therefore most belligerent; Godber is the hulking dimwit; and Dennis and Lee hint in different ways at sensitivity buried under the macho exterior.

Ultimately the play is sentimental in its pity for these small-scale losers, and that makes it soft at the core. Neither the satire nor the observation nor the performance style is quite as sharp-edged as it could be (or as Berkoff would make it), and that keeps Bouncers from being a really major work.

There is still a lot of fun to be had before it goes soggy, though, and I can recommend it without hesitation.

Gerald Berkowitz


Fallen Angels Apollo Theatre Spring 2001

There are few things that actors love more than drunk scenes, because they give the opportunity to play either high drama or low farce while acting up a storm. And when you combine two inspired comediennes, a sensitive director, and a play that is essentially one long drunk scene, you've got a sure-fire hit.

Of course, it isn't sure-fire unless all the pieces are in place. Lesser actresses than Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour, or a director with a less sure hand than Michael Rudman's could have made a hash of Noel Coward's frothy comedy. But relax and enjoy - all is as it should be.

Coward's play is about two long-married friends who both had premarital flings with the same French charmer. News that he is in town now, after more than a decade, sends both into a frenzy of lust and panic. As they try to prepare themselves for a reunion, large quantities of champagne and other spirits are drunk. (He does eventually show up, and all turns out well, but I won't give away the ending.)

The fun comes in watching these two women, so different in appearance and comic styles, playing off each other with expert ease and clearly enjoying every minute. Kendal is a too-tightly-wound up toy, her small frame shaken by every attack of fear, frustration, passion or panic, while de la Tour is long, languid and dry.

How do you prepare a comic drunk scene? Presumably the actresses improvised like crazy, and then director Rudman shaped and edited. And that's where you see his mastery, because once the champagne starts flowing, there isn't a missed step or weak moment.

Indeed, it's like watching a two-ring circus, as you don't know where to look, with Kendal doing something hilarious over here, while de la Tour is being incredibly funny over there. Watch de la Tour, trying to manage dinner, suddenly staring at a fork as if she's never seen one before, while at the other end of the table Kendal faces the insurmountable task of coping with a bit of food that has fallen on her lap. Wait 'til the phone rings, and they both try to make their way across the stage to answer it.

And, of course, the only thing that can follow a drunk scene is a hangover scene....

Michael Rudman has taken some liberties with Coward's text, which the master would have allowed (knowing the play was a star vehicle, he never complained too much when stars messed with it). The best is building up the role of the maid who is an expert on everything from French grammar to golf and who, in Tilly Tremayne's playing, drily steals her scenes until the liquor starts flowing and the stars grab the stage back from her.

I suppose that I should add the disclaimer that, like every sensible man, I have been in love with Felicity Kendal for twenty-five years. But trust me, this is an opportunity to see two stars at the top of their form, in a star vehicle worthy of them.

Gerald Berkowitz


Feelgood Garrick Theatre Summer-Autumn 2001

Alistair Beaton's new play is a political satire, a farce, and a serious rumination on political ideals, and if it only scores on two of those three counts, that's still pretty good.

The play is set in the Labour Party's annual conference (Note to non-Brits: the political parties all hold these, ostensibly to decide on policy, but mainly just to rally the troops and get some headlines).

In a hotel suite, the Prime Minister's press secretary (Henry Goodman) and chief speechwriter (Peter Capaldi) are working on the PM's keynote speech, and there's some opening-scene fun as they search for effective sound bites that actually say nothing ("A job culture, not a yob culture").

It soon becomes apparent that Goodman's character is an all-round Mr. Fix-it for the party's public image. Demonstrators outside the conference are getting rowdy, so add some law-and-order bits to the speech. The Deputy PM will be late because his train broke down (Cue knowing laughter from the audience, many of whom ran the same risk getting to the theatre), so send a car while keeping the story from the press.

Rebel party members forced through an anti-leadership vote at the conference, so feed the Deputy PM to the press, sacrificing a small embarrassment to keep the bigger one off the news. The speechwriter's daughter was in an accident and he's wanted at the hospital, so just don't deliver the message.

Goodman gives a comically chilling performance as the absolutely ruthless political operative, made all the funnier because he can't always keep his calm. Each new problem outrages him, none more so than the fact that people keep sitting in his favourite chair (Another note: the bit about the chair, like the Deputy PM in the limo, is a thinly-veiled reference to an actual politician and, like a number of other passing references, gets extra in-joke laughs from those in the know).

Goodman does some of the best slow burns since Oliver Hardy, and his increasingly desperate attempts to calm himself with instant yoga techniques are a running gag.

His calm is put to a real test by a real catastrophe. Contrary to its public statements, the government has allowed genetically modified plantings on the estate of a junior minister (Nigel Planner, who was the long-haired hippie in the BBC sitcom The Young Ones 20 years ago, playing what might be the same dimwit in middle age).

The GM crop has gotten into the food chain, there have been definite (if comic) effects on humans, a reporter has gotten hold of the story, and she's Goodman's character's ex-wife.

And here, just when the farcical complications are reaching desperate pitch, is where the play goes astray. Because instead of raising the comic temperature even higher, Alistair Beaton suddenly gets serious.

Goodman and Sian Thomas as his ex-wife debate political ideals vs. political expediency in a scene that is deadly earnest and just plain deadly. And then the speechwriter has a crisis of conscience that is soppily sentimental.

And when the PM finally gives his speech (Jonathan Cullen skilfully capturing the essence of Tony Blair without resorting to impersonation), there's a blockbuster revelation buried in it that is just too heavy-handed in its attempt at shock and irony.

See it if you are a British politics buff, for the fun of a peep behind the curtain. See it for Henry Goodman's bravura comic performance. But be prepared to tune out whenever things begin to get serious.

Gerald Berkowitz


The Female Odd Couple Apollo Theatre Spring 2001

The Odd Couple is not Neil Simon's best play (Brighton Beach Memoirs is), but it is certainly his biggest success and the one he will be remembered for. Aside from giving us two classic comic characters in sloppy Oscar Madison and prissy Felix Unger, and the delight of watching their clash of lifestyles, it has also proven an enduring vehicle for any properly matched pair of actors.

So, when Simon adapted the play for women in 1985, actresses around the world cheered.

The first thing to say about the female version of The Odd Couple is that, being by Neil Simon, it does deliver more laughs than most comedies. But the second thing to say is that it doesn't really work.

Making Olive Madison a businesswoman who is just too tired at the end of the day to keep her apartment neat simply isn't the same thing as Oscar's assertive trashing of the place. And Florence Unger, the housewife who likes a neat home, is not the cartoon Felix is; at best, she's a parody of a 1950s TV sitcom wife, at worst she's a bit pathetic.

The basic joke just isn't there anymore. When Felix serves gourmet sandwiches and requires coasters at the guys' weekly poker game, it is the essence of comic incongruity. When Florence does the same at a girls' night of playing Trivial Pursuit, it actually seems more normal than Olive's casual tossing around of Coke cans. And so on, through the whole show.

But remember my first point. This is, after all, a Neil Simon play, which means that the jokes come with (admittedly, somewhat mechanical) expertise, and there are so many of them that enough will score. It's all somewhat low key, more a matter of continual chuckling than loud laughs, about on the level of a very good TV sitcom. And that, one must admit, is more than many stage comedies can guarantee.

Jenny Seagrove and Paula Wilcox are popular British actresses, known mainly from TV (Wilcox played the Suzanne Sommers role in the sitcom that was the basis of the American Three's Company). Both are very charming onstage, and have excellent comic timing, making the most of their roles.

It is not wholly their fault (or, for that matter, director Elijah Moshinsky's) that Seagrove's Olive sometimes comes across like Shakespeare's Rosalind, a young girl trying unsuccessfully to act butch, or that Wilcox can't find more in Florence than the sitcom stereotype.

One can complain that they and the other girls of the Trivial Pursuit gang (undistinguished performances all around) all speak the kind of New York accent known only to dialect coaches, and bearing no resemblance to any sound that ever came from a real human being.

Neil Simon's one comic inspiration in the adaptation was converting the British sisters with whom the guys have a disastrous double date into two Spanish brothers. Quarie Marshall and Vincent Carmichael play them as natural gentlemen hampered hilariously by language limitations - there is, for example, a complex joke about a box of sweets that rings all the changes on nougat and no good.

It is without question the best scene in the play, and one almost wishes Simon had written a spin-off about them.

Gerald Berkowitz


Jackie Mason Queen's Theatre Autumn 2001

Jackie Mason is a very funny man. Where younger stand-ups have trouble finding 20 minutes of decent material, the veteran Jewish comedian from New York can hold a stage and keep an audience laughing for over two hours without working up a sweat. The guy is good.

After years in the night-club and borsht-belt circuit, the former rabbi discovered about a decade ago that he could do his same act in a Broadway theatre, and he's returned to Broadway every few years since then, with visits to London and other cities in between.

His current show is promoted as being very topical - "if it's in the news it's in the show!" - and he does have some material on current events, along with jokes tailored for his London audience. But actually the bulk of the show is the same mix of ethnic humour, insults and simulated outrage that have been the staples of his act for decades.

Whatever he's talking about, for example, he's bound to return with some regularity to the differences between Jews and Gentiles, with neither side escaping ridicule. And along the way there are politically incorrect potshots at African-Americans, homosexuals, women, Hispanics, Indians, Italians, Muslims and anybody else he can think of to insult, with the very scattershot nature of his ridicule sanitizing it from any real taint of prejudice or bad taste.

And, as always, a recurring trope in his act is insult of those unwary enough to sit in the front row of the stalls, who are generally divided into Nazis and idiots ("Is this on too high a level for you?"). Heaven protect anyone who comes in late, or brings a drink from the bar, or doesn't laugh fast enough.

(Indeed, just about the only criticism to make of his polished performance is that he tends to play entirely to the front stalls, and those in the circle will see more of the top of his head than his face.)

Frankly, some of the rest of his material is a bit past its sell-by date. He can't resist still making Bill Clinton jokes, partly because he hasn't quite figured out what he thinks of Bush. As a satirical target, the dance show Riverdance is surely a dead horse hardly worth the beating, and his outrage at discovering that nouvelle cuisine means small portions at high prices is at least two decades too late.

But it is a tribute to his delivery and his rapport with the audience that his lamest jokes are almost as effective as his best.

Anyone with dreams of being a stand-up comic should be in this audience night after night, taking notes. Anybody who just wants a good laugh should get there once.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Life x 3 Old Vic Theatre Winter-Spring 2001

Let me begin by saying that Life X 3 is very entertaining - clever, witty, surprising, thought-provoking, sometimes moving. Whether it adds up to anything or means anything - that I'm less sure of. But perhaps that doesn't matter.

Yasmina Reza, author of Art and The Unexpected Man, writes what are at their core radio plays. Everything happens in the words rather than the actions, and the words are good.

As translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, the talk in a Reza play is clever, witty, characterizing in an impressive quick-sketch way, sometimes quite eloquent. And in this new play, transferred to the Old Vic after a brief run at the National Theatre, there is the added gimmick of telling the same story three times.

The basic situation remains the same. Henry (Mark Rylance) is a junior scientist married to the coolly efficient Sonia (Harriet Walter). Through a mix-up in the date of an invitation, they suddenly have to entertain Hubert (Oliver Cotton), a senior scientist, and his somewhat air-headed hausfrau wife Inez (Imelda Staunton). Henry needs Hubert's support for a promotion, and Hubert rather enjoys having that power.

The first version is a delightful black farce exploiting the confusion caused by the unexpected guests, compounded by an offstage child who refuses to go to bed quietly. Henry is the personification of what shrinks call passive-aggressive, a mousy little wimp who uses his pathetic ineptitude to wring guilty concessions out of others, while Hubert is a suave sadist who delights in wringing every agony he can out of his victims.

Mark Rylance is an actor who has frequently disappointed me in the past, mainly because he has so little stage presence that he seems in constant danger of becoming invisible. But here he and director Matthew Warchus have skilfully and bravely used his lack of charisma to great effect, creating a comic monster of whingeing despair. The other three actors have somewhat less to do in this first half-hour, playing types that are easy for them to capture with smooth skill.

Once the horrors of the abortive dinner party reach their comic nadir, there's a blackout, and then we're back at the opening moments, but with small differences. While still a loser, Henry isn't quite the wimp he was, and Inez is driven to small rebellions against her husband's bullying.

What we may have guessed at in the first version - that the cool, self-controlled Sonia and the confident smoothie Hubert have a lot in common - is made explicit in an overt sexual attraction. And so, while things turn out pretty much the same as in the first version, the whole tone is changed - the black comedy is perceptibly more black and less comic.

As an acting exercise, it's fascinating. All four actors get to play small variations on the characters they've already shown us, and to demonstrate the surprising resonances those little changes create. Rylance's character becomes less cartoonish, Walter's darker, Staunton's deeper, and Cotton's less in control.

And then the night is replayed again, this time with everything going right. Henry is confident, both marriages are more balanced, even the kid is better behaved. And yet there are enough subtle echoes and reminders of what has come before to leave us uneasy about the prospects of a happy ending.

What does it all mean? Something about fate, perhaps, or about the way life turns out as it wants to, no matter how much we fiddle with the variables. Ultimately, it hardly matters. As I said earlier, the significant fact is that it is really an entertaining experience.

Gerald Berkowitz


Over The Moon Old VicTheatre Autumn 2001

Ken Ludwig is an American writer who has had a couple of comic successes in the past, most notably the mildly funny Lend Me A Tenor. This current play was on Broadway briefly a few years ago, under the title Moon Over Buffalo, as a vehicle for comedienne Carol Burnett.

It is revived now, with a title presumably less puzzling to London audiences, and proves to be a very fragile vehicle indeed, just barely strong enough to support two utterly charming star performances and some inspired farce direction.

The evening belongs entirely to its stars, Joan Collins and Frank Langella, and to director Ray Cooney, who triumph over the raw material, not because of it.

The play presents a husband-and-wife acting couple in the 1950s, reduced to touring provincial cities (like Buffalo, New York) with such tatty productions as Cyrano restaged for six performers. News suddenly comes of potential salvation in the form of famed film director Frank Capra, attending a performance with an eye to casting them in a major new movie.

But a mix of problems - hubby has gotten a starlet pregnant, wife is being tempted to run off with an old admirer, daughter wants to settle down with a local TV weatherman - has led to a fight, and the husband goes off on a roaring booze binge. The rest of the play consists entirely in trying to find him, trying to sober him up, and trying to survive a performance when he's not even sure which play he's in.

I can report that Joan Collins looks thoroughly glamorous and stylish in a succession of costumes and gowns, while subtly sending up her own image as an ageless beauty, and also that she has a delightful way with the wry put-down. Indeed, one of the biggest laughs of the evening comes as she responds with the most skilfully underplayed of grimaces when her husband, listing her roles, includes the matronly Lady Bracknell.

Frank Langella is given a grand comic actor's dream in what amounts to an hour-long drunk scene. His is a very happy drunk, to whom every stumble is a delightful adventure, and the obvious enjoyment both character and actor take in the opportunity is infectious.

The play is extremely slow starting, and the first half-hour is dreariness occasionally punctuated with weak or misfiring jokes. But director Ray Cooney is the absolute master of perfectly-timed mounting comic confusion, and once the farcical action gets going, the play flies all the way through to a chaotic destruction of the first scene of Noel Coward's Private Lives.

It's not a two-person show. Support is provided by Moira Lister as a deaf mother-in-law, Cameron Blakely as the weatherman briefly mistaken for Frank Capra, Robert Fitch as a harried stage manager, and others. But they are all given very little to work with by the script, and are unable to make much of an impression. Keep your eyes on the two stars, sit patiently through the extended set-up, and the second act will pay off.

Gerald Berkowitz


Private Lives Albery Theatre Winter 2001-02

Noel Coward's comedy is one of the best ever written, with wall-to-wall wit, the master's signature high stylishness, just enough sentiment to keep it from floating away, and two starring roles that are perfect vehicles for the right actors (and since only actors who are perfect for the roles ever attempt the play, the performances are always a delight).

And yet this revival, directed by Howard Davies and starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, never quite takes off.

Don't get me wrong. There is no such thing as a bad Private Lives. This production does many things well, and a couple of things better than I've ever seen before. But it lacks the snap, the unrelenting crispness, the sense of perfect artifice that we expect from the play.

The jokes aren't punched enough, the characters aren't defined enough, the feeling of surrendering to confident perfection isn't there. And the reasons seem to be conscious directorial decisions.

As I said, only actors perfect for the two key roles ever attempt them, and Alan Rickman's suave, drawling archness would be ideal for the super-sophisticated Elyot. But Rickman has oddly chosen (or been directed) to not be Rickman, to play down all his usual vocal and attitude mannerisms and give an almost anonymous performance for much of the time, negating the whole point of casting him in the first place.

Lindsay Duncan is somewhat better as Amanda, mixing dry delivery of the epigrams with a constant sharpness in the eyes that hints at both intellect and emotion within.

(A belated plot summary: Elyot and Amanda, members of the very idle and very rich class, are a divorced couple who have each remarried, and the two new couples have accidentally picked the same hotel for their honeymoons. The minute they spot each other from adjoining terraces, the rest of the play is inevitable: they run off together to relive both the passions and the bickering of the first time around, to our comic delight.)

To both actors' credit, they do give this revival a quality most others neglect. Beneath all the wit, Coward was writing about people so committed to their brittle and trivial masks ("You mustn't be serious, my dear one," says Elyot at one point. "It's just what they want.") that they have real difficulty facing and expressing actual emotions when they feel them.

I have seen far sharper Private Lives, and far funnier, but I have never seen one in which it was clearer how very much in love Amanda and Elyot are, and how ill-equipped they are to handle that experience. The point in Act One in which they admit that they're still in love with each other is as moving and real as anything you will see in any non-comedy in London today, and there are similar beautifully true moments later.

Many successful versions of Private Lives don't do justice to that serious element. But the play can be successful without it, and it can't really be successful when Coward's epigrams are too often swallowed or ineffectively thrown away, and that happens far too often in this - as a result - far too slack and lifeless production. Even in its first week, this has the feel of a cast at the end of a long and tiring provincial tour.

Part of the fun of the play always lies in the sets and costumes, and the stylish look of the idle rich at play. But Tim Hatley's sets, art deco hotel balconies that look like the bridge of a battleship and a Paris apartment draped in more red velvet than a Victorian brothel, are a little too proud of themselves, and contribute nothing - all the blocking in the apartment set is very clumsy. And something has been done to Alan Rickman's hair that makes him look like a middle-aged bank clerk in a bad toupee.

Gerald Berkowitz


Star Quality Apollo Theatre Winter 2001-2

Star Quality is a fascinating peep behind the curtain into the politics and personalities of the theatre. It is a sharp-eyed exposure that is none the less a love letter by one who knows all his beloved's faults but adores her still. And it is, appropriately enough, a star vehicle.

Working on translating Noel Coward's short story to the stage, adaptor-director Christopher Luscombe came upon Coward's own unproduced dramatisation, and the present text is an amalgam of the two. This is not the irrepressibly witty Coward familiar from the plays, nor the sentimental Coward of the films, but rather the astute social observer of the short stories and songs, and the result is acutely insightful of both the glories and pettiness of the actor's world.

Penelope Keith plays a theatre star whose egotism and triviality are more than counterbalanced by her brilliant talent. We watch as a fledgeling playwright (Nick Fletcher) and talented young director (Russell Boulter) woo her into appearing in their play and then cope with her demands and contributions.

The play is merciless in exposing not only the star's foibles, but the incessant backstage politicking, carried on with greater or lesser finesse by everyone.

The co-star played by Peter Cellier finds trivial ways to call attention to himself whenever he feels ignored, while the incompetent actress Keith's character insists on having around so she'll look good in contrast bustles about abjectly, in a cringe-inducing comic performance by Una Stubbs, and Keith's dresser (Marjorie Yates, in another fine comic portrayal) affects the bored superiority of the veteran.

Meanwhile, Penelope Keith, who is herself unquestionably a star, shows us all the power and magnetism of her character. Few actresses could speak a line like "I'm fundamentally a very shy person" with more conviction and be less convincing. Keith is taller than most of the men in the cast, and an inspired bit of direction has her repeatedly removing her shoes, to score points by casually demonstrating that she still towers over them.

The play is full of powerful scenes that only someone like Coward who grew up backstage could capture with such telling precision. There's a chilling little lunch at which the director oh-so-graciously destroys his star's self-confidence in order to show her who's boss; and a disarmingly casual scene in which the director's boyfriend (Nick Waring) commiserates with the inexperienced playwright over all the demands for changes in the script, and then cons him into thinking it's his own idea to deliver them.

From unabashed admiration for the qualities of a star to open-eyed acknowledgement of pettiness, from gushing luvviedom to ugly honesty, from rampant egotism to naked emotional insecurity, this play tells us more about life in the theatre than any textbook. And it does so with the absolute authority, grace, and professional gloss of Noel Coward.

Star Quality is not a flashy work - in many ways it is the sort of well-made, civilized little play that was old-fashioned even in Coward's day - but on its own merits and as a vehicle for the always-charming Penelope Keith, it is a thoroughly satisfying evening in the theatre.

Gerald Berkowitz


Thunderbirds F.A.B. Aldwych Theatre, Winter 2001-02

Things may have been a bit up in the air when Andrew Dawson and Gavin Robertson launched their proto adaptation of Gerry Anderson's cult sci-fi series in 1984. Not only was the original sixties TV show peopled (so to speak) by an epic range of puppets that bobbed about on strings and flew a variety of craft from the bottom of the oceans to outer space but all this was to be interpreted by a cast of two. Yet from its humble beginnings on an Edinburgh Festival stage, Thunderbirds F.A.B. has gone from strength to strength and it's back on the West End for the second time in as many years.

Using an impressive hi-tech array of sound and lights to set an epic feel, Dawson and Robertson run through the pick of Anderson's action characters - the lads of Thunderbirds' International Rescue who set out boldly to save where no man has saved before, the delicious agent Lady Penelope and her deadpan chauffeur Parker, who are called into action by a plot generated via the battle of the suave space warriors from the later Captain Scarlet series against the evil Mysterons from Mars.

The actors reproduce the voices, darting eyes and puppet walks with eerie detail, and they maintain an undertow of humour throughout - even when it is apparent to all concerned that the world must be saved or else... The result is an intriguing blend of slapstick and physical theatre, moulded by loving attention to the TV series's three tenets: an epic vision of the (er...) 21st century, instantly recognisable personalities, and lashings of cliffhanger situations. So be warned: you'll find your buttons pushed shamelessly on all three levels.

Despite the smooth production and acting, the plotting is obviously bitty and the various performance styles frequently clash - well to my mind at least - but in many respects that was precisely what gave Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the earlier Stingray their trademark style. And that's true even of Anderson's latest hodge-podge from the nineties, the throughly bonkers but brilliant live-action Space Precinct.

The creators are intelligent enough to reel out a show that works without any requirement of prior knowledge - but it helps! And reflecting this, the audience is a wonderfully predictable mix: regular theatregoers sandwiched between kids too young to have a clue what it's all about but utterly taken with those strange men on the stage and groups of seasonal revellers greeting every catchphrase with gleeful nostalgia.

Totally recommendable if only as a fun opportunity to catch a remarkable theatrical phenomenon in full flow.

Nick Awde


Under The Doctor Comedy Theatre Spring 2001

This new comedy by TV writer Peter Tilbury is a bedroom farce in the French manner, which means that everyone onstage is secretly having it off with everyone else, and everyone is lying through his or her teeth to avoid being caught.

To hide his affair from his wife, a doctor (Peter Davison), assisted by his loyal butler (Anton Rodgers), pretends to have spent the night with a sick patient. What patient? Grabbing the nearest guy, he says it was that guy's father.

The son goes along with it, in the spirit of male solidarity, even though it turns out that the father (an estate agent) has been having matinee sessions in deserted flats with the doctor's wife's mother. Then the doctor's doxy stops in for a quicky, followed by her husband, who makes a play for the doctor's wife, who . . . .

Are you following this? The whole point is that you shouldn't be, and that each new revelation, and the frantically-invented lies it generates, should begin to take on a mad logic of its own, so that you stop asking questions and just enjoy the confusion.

And on that level, Tilbury's plot structure is satisfactorily complex. Rodgers' butler strides calmly through the chaos as a particularly French version of Jeeves; that is, he can invent a solution to any problem, as long as he is given a sufficiently generous tip.

At one point there is a cross-purposes conversation between two men, each of whom thinks the other is giving him permission to sleep with his wife. And by the time the plot forces the one woman who isn't cheating on anyone to slap the one man who isn't cheating on anyone, it almost seems appropriate punishment for his being so unsociable.

What keeps Tilbury's play from being a success is that his inventive plot is not matched by anything resembling witty or stylish dialogue, being mainly ploddingly prosaic and depending far too much on the frequent witless repetition of the two standard four-letter words.

Let me be clear about this. I do not object to the two standard four-letter words. I do object to a playwright relying on the witless repetition of the two standard four-letter words for the knee-jerk giggle they produce, rather than bothering to write actual jokes. There is no wit or verbal cleverness in the play, and the inventiveness gap between what we see and what we hear ultimately deadens the humour.

The other serious problem is Fiona Laird's direction, which totally lacks the snowballing manic energy that farce of this sort demands. Everything is paced in far too stately a manner. Doubletakes and reactions are a beat too late, desperation is never frantic enough, and the whole thing refuses to take flight. If there is one thing that farce cannot be, it's stodgy, and Under the Doctor drags when it should gallop.

Peter Davison clearly knows that his character should be running and thinking as fast as he can, and does hint at that desperation at moments, while Anton Rodgers is dryly amusing as the calmest person around. In the large supporting cast, only Hal Fowler, as the doctor's doxy's husband, seems to realize that he's playing a cartoon, and presents him with amusing broadness.

Gerald Berkowitz

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