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FILM:December 2017 / January 2018

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (cert. 12A 2 hrs. 38 mins)

From the opening moments of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and we hear John Williams' well-known music and then see the words on a slant announcing the film, we know that we are about to witness another very special Star Wars movie. And director Rian Johnson, has ensured that this film certainly is. I won't attempt to give a full synopsis of the film as it gets quite involved at times and, in any case, you will curse me for telling you what you are waiting to see. So, hopefully, no spoilers here!

Star Wars fans will have seen the last film, The Force Awakens, which finished with a glimpse of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This film continues from that point. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been searching for Luke. She is somewhat surprised to find him living in isolation in a cave. She pleads with him to return to help his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) - now General Leia Organa and leader of the Resistance - defeat the First Order.

Meanwhile Poe (Oscar Isaac), a top pilot in the Resistance, Finn (John Boyega) originally in the First Order but he defected into the Resistance where he remains, BB8, a new little robot and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) a mechanic in the Resistance, set out secretly to disable the tracking device of the First Order.

The new characters are particularly impressive: Kelly Marie Tan seems as though her whole heart is laid bare for us to see and Laura Dern as Vice-Admiral Holdo, an officer in the Resistance, is equally impressive. Mark Hamill shows that he can act and not just look like the very attractive young man he showed us in the first film. It's sad to see Carrie Fisher in her last role. In one interview she said that she didn't know what was going on but enjoyed making the film!

Adam Driver is mesmerizing in the role of Kylo Ren, now Snoke's servant but famous for being the son of Han Solo and Leia. Snoke, is the Supreme Leader of the First Order and played in full disguise by Andy Serkis. Daisy Ridley continues to grow as an actress and she is self-assured in the part of Rey, a member of the Resistance. And I defy anyone to recognize the lovely Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata, an ally of the Resistance. Allegedly Prince Harry and Prince William play Stormtroopers in one scene but as all the Stormtroopers wear helmets that completely cover their faces it is impossible to know if the scene survives in the final cut.

Those who have followed the Star Wars saga carefully from the beginning know all the ins and outs of the characters, their back stories and what is happening in this alternative universe. For the rest of us we can sit back and appreciate the tremendous array of special effects, cute robots and beautifully staged set pieces with shiny computer-generated backdrops. Seeing it on an IMAX screen certainly enhances the scale of the movie and the music swells all around.

It's tremendously exciting to watch, particularly in a cinema full of enthusiastic Star Wars fans. Don't worry too much about the plot - sit back and enjoy!

Rating: ****

Many of the films coming out were shown first at the London Film Festival 2017.

There are lots of good things to savour in MENASHE (cert. U 1 hr 22 mins.), a film about a very ordinary man struggling to earn money and fighting to keep his son living with him in the very Jewish orthodox community where he lives in New York. One of the astonishing facts about the movie is that the star is just an ordinary person, not an actor at all. The non-professional Menashe Lustig, whose own life forms the basis of the story, had not only never appeared in a film, he had not been inside a cinema. That the film is in Yiddish which very few of us speak or understand is soon forgotten as we are caught up in this strange community.

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower whose wife died of cancer under a year ago. His Rabbi tells him that the religious order that he belongs to says that according to Hasidic tradition he must remarry so that his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), can continue to live with Menashe in a two- parent family. It is far too soon for the still grieving Menashe to consider remarriage but neither does he want his son to live with his brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and family.

Living and working in Brooklyn, Menashe struggles in his job and has difficulties living alone and bringing up his son although he desperately wants to earn a living and to look after Rieven. Lustig is almost perfect as Menashe and we feel we really know him by the end of the film. And his scenes with his son - played magnificently by young Niborski - ring so true that you can believe that they are related.

Director Joshua Weinstein knows the community well and directs his mainly non-professional Yiddish speaking actors so that we feel we are entering this hidden and - for most of us - unknown world. Giving a completely different view of bereavement, father-son relationship and loneliness, this is indeed a film which is completely unsentimental and yet very moving.

Rating ****

Although MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (cert. 12A 2 hrs. 11 mins.) is somewhat slow, and the three segments are not joined as much as they could be, the film is saved by the excellent cast and their acting skills; particularly Zhao Tao as the lead.

She plays Tao, who, in the first segment of the film set in Fenyang, Northern China, 1999, is a lively young woman who is courted by the quiet, almost silent, but strong coal miner, Liangzi (Liang Jim Dong) and by the budding entrepreneur Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). Although Tao is happy having the friendship of both young men, the young men are not content and constantly argue. But Tao decides to marry Zhang and they have a son, Dollar.

There are three separate time lines: we are next in 2014 which finds Tao divorced and still living in Fenyang while Dollar lives in Shanghai with his father and his new wife. When Dollar visits his mother in Fenyang, he is no longer close to her and doesn't fit in with her lifestyle.

Finally, the time moves to 2025 and the story focusses on Dollar (now an adult played by Dong Zijian), the son of Tao and Zhang. He no longer visits his mother, speaks little Chinese, and has become absorbed into the culture of Australia where he now lives with his father. Zhang, however does not get on well with his son, who is not sure what to do with his life. He is close to a much older woman teacher. Tao longs for her son as she spends her days alone.

The director, Jia Zhangke, gives us a good idea of life in China and the vast difference between the new culture of young people and the old ways of China. Beautifully acted by his wife, the actress Zhao Tao, who shines as Tao, particularly in the first segment of the movie, Jia Zhangke has given us a fascinating story with the background of an ever-changing China.

Rating ****

Hugh Bonneville stars in PADDINGTON 2 (cert PG. 1 hr. 44mins.), a joyous sequel to the delightful Paddington which came out in 2014. The bear is now living comfortably with the Brown family in London. Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is happy and is accepted as a popular member of the local community. Back in 'darkest Peru,' his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) is about to reach her 100th birthday.

In the local antique shop run by Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) Paddington finds an old pop-up book of London and decides that this would be the perfect present for his Aunt Lucy. The only difficulty is that the book costs a lot, so Paddington must undertake a lot of odd jobs to pay for it.

While he is looking for work he meets Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who used to be a famous actor but is now best known as the star of dog food commercials. Paddington tells Phoenix about the book. The actor knows it contains pictures which are clues to finding a great fortune. He steals it, then blames the theft on the very honest bear, who gets thrown into prison. Paddington feels very sad in jail, but makes friends with the hardened criminal, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) who is the prison cook. When Paddington helps McGinty to become popular, the cook helps the bear to escape. Meanwhile the Brown family discover that Phoenix is a master of disguise and they work hard to expose him.

The film is crammed full of lovely performances by a string of well-known British actors including Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Brown and Julie Waters as the family's eccentric housekeeper. All are delightful and Ben Whishaw is exactly right as the voice of Paddington. Strongly recommended for a family outing at any time of the year.

Rating *****

Also recommended:

A CARIBBEAN DREAM (cert. PG 1 hr. 22 mins.) is a rather strange film. It is Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream much truncated and set in Barbados. Director Shakirah Bourne has cast English and Barbadian actors - many of whom are unknown in the UK. They struggle to get any poetry into their rendering of Shakespeare's language - much of it altered to fit in with the present day Caribbean setting.

MOUNTAIN (cert. PG 1hr. 12 mins.) is a beautifully filmed documentary showing the highest mountains in the world. Narrated by Willem Dafoe with a fine lilting music score, it is lovely to look at but doesn't put across the excitement of actually climbing.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (cert.PG 1 hr. 44 mins.) stars Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in a film which explores - with much fantasy - how the author came to write the great Christmas favourite, A Christmas Carol. With many British actors in small parts including Miriam Margolies and Jonathan Price, it's a nicely made film with another worthy performance by Christopher Plummer who plays Scrooge.

LOVE IS THICKER THAN WATER (cert. 15 1 hr. 45 mins.) deals with multiple issues as it looks at the budding relationship between wealthy Jewish Vida (Lydia Wilson) and Welsh working class, Arthur (Johnny Flynn). In passing, directors and writer Emily Harris and Ate de Jong, bring in the question of different lifestyles and even colour and homophobia as Vida's brother is gay and Arthur's half-brother is black and anti-gays! This romcom is not that funny and the leads don't seem really in love. The best thing about it are the parents: Juliet Stevenson as Vida's snooty mother and Henry Goodman as Vida's rather more sympathetic-to-outsiders father. Good little cameo from Ellie Kendrick as Vida's sister.

WONDER (cert. PG 1 hr. 43 mins.) is not unusual in that it deals with someone coping with a disability; what is different is that the main character here is a child. We see not only how ten-year old Auggie (wonderfully performed by Jacob Tremblay) copes at school, particularly with bullies, but also the effect his disability has on the rest of the family. Auggie has facial disfigurement due to a genetic condition. Yes, it is rather over-sentimental at times, but the acting makes it a winner.

HAPPY END (cert. 15 1 hr. 47 mins.) is another film featuring a child in the main role. Here it is 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin, giving a very mature performance) now staying with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife and child after her mother takes an overdose and then dies. Also in the family house in Calais is Thomas’ sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and their father George (the magnificent Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Of course, being a film by the enigmatic Michael Haneke it is not just a straightforward tale. The camera tells us a lot as it moves to film events from different viewpoints. George aged 84 wants to die but is too well for any assisted suicide scheme but he is depressed and seeks other means - all of which is observed by young Eve. The refugee situation is the background, which, for most of the time, the family are unaware of. Watch the end carefully: as usual Haneke has something for us to reflect on after the film finishes.

A super cast is somewhat underused in THE DINNER (cert. 15 2 hrs.) which is a great pity. Starting promisingly with two couples meeting to discuss their children's disastrous friendship, it is lively as they spend a lot of time discussing other subjects. There is tension between Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) who is an important political man and his brother Paul (Steve Coogan in a surprising part) as the two rarely meet. Wives Rebecca Hall as Katelyn and Laura Linney as Claire don't help matters. The film then looks sideways and backwards as we see the two sons and what they have done and then the fathers when they were younger. When we finally learn about the violent crime, the shock is enormous but by then the film may well have lost many in the audience.

BINGO (cert. 15 1 hr. 46 mins.) tells how an actor working on softcore porn movies in Brazil in the 1980s decides he wants to do different films. By accident he finds himself employed as a clown on children's TV. Called Bingo (Vladimir Brichta), he becomes a great success. However, one of the conditions of his employment is that he remains anonymous. He is upset that the clown is so famous and yet nobody knows who the actor is. His son, who he has been neglecting because of his busy life and addiction to drugs and alcohol, is unhappy that his friends all laugh about and praise the clown and yet he is not allowed to reveal that Bingo is his dad. Well-directed by Daniel Rezende and energetically acted by Vladimir Brichta, it is a fascinating film, which is well worth a visit.

Although some might say that this story has been done before and it is true that there have been other films about someone overcoming a life-changing accident, this one is different. For a start it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman and then it is about this very ordinary man who becomes a hero after he is terribly injured in the Boston massacre. Waiting to meet his girlfriend at the end of her participation in the Boston Marathon in 2013 he is caught up in the bombing and loses both his legs. In STRONGER (cert 15 1 hr. 58 mins.) we see how Jeff deals with the attention of the media after he gives the police a description of the bomber who happened to pass him just before the bomb exploded. He becomes a hero with public admiration. The film is realistically directed by David Gordon Green so that the scenes where his girlfriend helps him or he tries to use the bathroom by himself are believable. Worth seeing.

     
     

 

 


 

THEATRE TIP

HAMILTON (Victoria Palace, London booking until 30 June 2018 Box office: 0844 482 5138)

Wow! And Wow again for this musical marvel. This is not just a hip-hop show. With music throughout, there are many good songs with lovely melodies using various musical styles. The songs reference Sondheim, Shakespeare and even Gilbert and Sullivan. It has, too, a cast who interpret the music perfectly.

Lyn-Manuel Miranda, author of the book, lyrics and music has composed a wonderful musical. It tells the story of one of the founding fathers of America, Alexander Hamilton, as told by Aaron Burr who acts as Narrator for much of the show. Most of us in the UK know little about Alexander Hamilton (Jamael Westman). Perhaps we identify him with the head on the $10 US bill or as one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. We see young Hamilton arriving in New York aged 19 and learn a lot about him in the opening minutes. Aaron Burr, Alexander's mentor tells us that Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean to an unmarried Scottish father and half-French, half-British mother. He was soon orphaned. He used his intelligence and charm to rise to become a leader in the 18th Century political scene, before he was killed in a dual at the age of 47 by Aaron Burr. Unusually, we are told the end of the story at the beginning.

It's how Lin-Manuel has staged it that is outstanding. Together with director Thomas Kail they present a set that works for the content, a cast who delivers and music which enhances the lyrics.

Politics and the role of immigrants in the foundation of present day America are brought to the fore. Hamilton is an immigrant who comes to America with nothing but becomes very powerful. "Immigrants - they get the job done" is applauded by the London audience while their importance and contribution to the creation of modern America is emphasised. Although the musical deals with the revolutionary politics of 18th century America, there are enough points of commonality to ensure it hits home today.

But it is the casting that gives this musical the edge. Jamael Westman develops, before our eyes, from a hesitant 19-year-old listening carefully to Burr's instructions to talk less and smile more into a self-assured leader. The young actor in his first major role shows complete control of the stage. His good-looks make women fall for him - his wife Eliza (played by Rachelle Ann Go who has a lovely pure voice), sister-in-law Angelica (given a suitably feisty interpretation by Rachel John) and his mistress Maria (Christine Allado). Westman has, too, a most pleasant singing voice. A truly charismatic performance from a new star.

Equally important is his rival and ultimate killer, Aaron Burr. Giles Terera, always believable, moves from mentor to fellow politician, then political rival. The entire, mostly non-white, cast perform well. Jason Pennycooke as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Michael Jibson as King George 111 are most amusing.

The show moves at a fast pace with the cast - led by Westman and Terera - constantly moving in an exciting and innovative show. Tickets are selling fast so book now!

Rating *****

DICK WHITTINGTON at the London Palladium, London (until 14 January 2018.) has enough stars to light up Christmas in London until well into the new year. The London Palladium has certainly struck gold - or should that be silver as most of Julian Clary's ever more flamboyant costumes have a silver sheen.

Julian Clary as Spirit of the Bells & Elaine Paige as Queen Rat

In addition to Clary who plays a character called Spirit of the Bells (you may well ask what this has to do with Dick Whittington, the panto. As I say, you may well asků) who comes to help Dick get rid of the plague of rats in London, we have Elaine Paige as the Queen of the Rats and Charlie Stemp (who was such a hit in the main role in Half a Sixpence) playing Dick. Gary Wilmot shows up as the Dame, here known as Sarah Fitzwarren, mother of Alice played by Emma Williams (Stemp's partner in Half a Sixpence). There is also Paul Zerdin (winner of Americas Got Talent 2015) as Idle Jack and the wonderful dance troupe Diversity - the leader Ashley Banjo is the Sultan. We mustn't forget to mention Nigel Havers who gets the sympathy vote. He plays Captain Nigel and sends himself up throughout the show. Now 66 the actor is made fun of by the other actors for his age and loss of status as an actor.

Holding the show together is Julian Clary who appears in many scenes, leaving the stage seemingly only to change into an ever more flamboyant costume. Although the show has a script and a chief writer, Alan McHugh, the director of the panto, Michael Harrison seems more than content to let the cast improvise as they go along. And Clary is more than happy to be himself with lots of very provocative jokes, mainly built around Whittington's name! He cracks lots of asides at the expense of the other actors who double up with laughter as they hear him. Clary's timing is pitch perfect and he knows exactly how to present a double entendre! Elaine Paige joins in with the dick humour as she sings new words to some of the well-known songs from hit musicals, including Cats, Evita, Chess and others.

Gary Wilmot can't compete with Clary in the costume department, but he is amusing in his role and sings a song naming every single one of the London Underground stations that nearly brings the House down. In fact, there are a number of London references, a couple about gays and Old Compton Street! Those who have seen Charlie Stemp perform know that he can dance as well as sing and here he does both with aplomb. Paul Zerdin is new to me but I shall remember the amazing use of his talent as a ventriloquist for some time. He manages to bring small children from the audience into his act on stage. Great, too, to see the fantastic acrobatic skills of the Diversity dancers.

The stage, with its painted backdrop, is full of bright lights, sparkly costumes, infectious music and some unusual effects such as a gigantic rat's head zooming over the audience's heads, a flying bus and a ship with Clary and Stemp singing the song from Titanic!

This show is not really for children as there are too many outrageous jokes, but adults won't find any better panto for cast, sparkly, colourful costumes, well-timed choreography, excellently directed comic business and Julian Clary!

Rating ****

BIG FISH at the Other Palace Theatre, London (until 31 December.) stars Kelsey Grammer as Edward Bloom, a father who can't stop telling tall stories to his son. He has a stroke and while visiting him in hospital his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) listens as his father repeats some of his tales. The stories are acted out by storybook versions of the characters.

While Grammer is good as Edward and all the rest of the cast sing well, the musical doesn't have a well-written book. It is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and Tom Burton's 2003 film. The musical has more than a touch of Death of a Salesman and works hard to gel together the major themes of father and son relationship with the lighter touch of the fantasy scenes and the songs.

Wanting to know more about his father and to discover which of his stories are true and which are just fantasies, Will listens carefully as his dying father shows him a witch, a mermaid and a weird kind of werewolf who runs the circus that Edward joins. We watch with fascination as young Will (Billy Barratt), and the other characters come to life and sing and dance, including Edward as a young man (played with verve by Jamie Muscato).

Nigel Harman directs with a good feel for the various elements of the musical and works hard - not always successfully - to marry the imaginative tales with the real-life Edward and family. There are some good visual effects and lively choreography. Good dancing, and singing from the whole cast with Kelsey Grammer shining in the lead. Grammer has a very good manner and really puts across the songs well.

Whilst we don't really get to know the true character of Edward, we can see - as can his son - that he has a good heart. Although he seems confident Edward actually has a lot of self-doubt.

Rating ****

What a strange show THE GRINNING MAN is. On at the Trafalgar Studio (now extended until 14 April 2018. Box office: 0844 8717632), it is based on the 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, L'Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs). It's created and directed by Tom Morris who directed War Horse.

There are puppets in this show, but it is macabre and not suitable for small children.

The show tells how a small boy, later known as Grinpayne, had his face slashed across the mouth for no real reason. It results in a permanent awful grimace. He gets close to a blind girl called Dae (Sanne den Besten) who loves him. When he is an adult (Louis Maskell) he keeps his face covered by a bloodied bandage.

Louis Maskell as Grinpayne & Sanne den Besten as Dea

Set in the late 17th century, we are in the capital - which here is Catford - of England, ruled by a somewhat dysfunctional Queen and her children. The Narrator and top villain is Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach).

The musical is like a distorted Grimm's fairy tale. The setting helps emphasise that this is a fantastical story. The wagon shows a stage and then there is another stage within in it. The musical is well sung by the cast with the lyrics clear and precise. Louis Maskell - who has to sing through his mask - portrays an emotional Grinpayne, while Sanne den Besten is sweet and waif-like as the blind girl. Julian Bleach allows full rein to his villainous characterisation of the court jester.

The puppets - manipulated by Finn Caaldwell and Toby Olie - are just wonderful, especially the child Grinpayne who has fully expressive eyes and Mojo, a grey wolf who slinks around the stage. Do try to catch this production.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES at the Jermyn Street Theatre was on over the Christmas period and made a good adult alternative to much of the Xmas fare on offer.

The little Jermyn Theatre hosted a production which was full of energy and had the three actors (Simon Kane, Shaun Chambers, Max Hutchinson) who played all 14 roles, dashing around and on and off the stage with tremendous speed. It was a highly amusing evening with the actors always making it quite clear who they were as they pulled off hats and moustaches and put on cloaks and dresses.

Simon Kane and Max Hutchin son in The Hound of Baskervilles

Good for the festive period or for any time of the year that it is on is the wonderful production of Matthew Bourne's CINDERELLA (Sadlers Wells theatre). This is certainly not the pantomime version of Cinderella and not for children. We have a female Cinderella but in a 1940 wartime setting with bombing and even a bedroom scene. In addition to great dancing, the set is exceptionally good with at one point the Cafe de Paris where the ballroom scene takes place, becoming a bombed ruin as we watch. Liam's Mower makes a striking Angel and Ashley Shaw is dramatic as well as showing her dance expertise. The ballet will be revived so keep a look out for it. Unmissable.

Another dance gift to these shores was the all too brief visit of Sergei Polunin's company in Satori (London Colosseum Theatre, London). Polunin's dance in all three ballets: alone in the First Solo, with Natalia Osipova and others in Scriabiniana, and finally Satori. The two initial prices have excellent dancing but not so interesting themes. The most interesting is the final title piece which tells a story. However, Polunin is a fascinating dancer and I could watch anything he is in.


TOP HAT at the delightful tiny theatre Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London (until 28 January) is a great musical by Irving Berlin and is performed as well as they can in a small venue. Joanne Clifton (of Strictly fame) is Dale Tremont, disturbed by the toe tapping Jerry Travers (Joshua Levy) in the hotel bedroom above hers. This begins the romantic story illustrated by some lovely songs and floating costumes. The dancing by the whole cast is impressive on the traverse stage and it is a pleasure to be so close.

Rating ****

Joanne Clifton & Joshua Levy in TOP HAT

WHITE FANG at the Park Theatre was a suitable play for older children and, in fact, had some good points to make about interracial behaviour as well as being a good tale.

THE RAMSHACKLE HOUSE which was on recently at Stratford Circus (part of a vibrant cultural area very near the Olympics site and the huge shopping area) is a lively completely non-verbal entertainment for small children. Using circus skills and movement the tiny children in the audience were mesmerised.

HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY at the Young Vic, featured Seriol Davies as the fifth Marquis of Anglesy, Henry Cyril Paget, who liked to dress as a woman. Paget was born in 1875 and died 30 years later. Davies looks super dressed as a woman. The audience at the performance I attended laughed uproariously especially when the audience participation took place. The eccentric Marquis went through all his money quickly and made some foolish purchases including buying a jewelery shop (and making his wife wear all the jewelery at the same time). Paget died in debt. Great looking costumes and some fun episodes provided an enjoyable evening.

Good to see Imogen Poots and James Norton on the London stage. Known from films, both actors give us our money's worth in BELLEVILLE (Donmar Theatre, London until 3 February Box office 020 3282 3808). The two play a couple, Abby and Zak, who are living and working in Paris. They seem to have a dream life, but they bicker. This turns into something altogether darker as the play progresses. Their landlord, Alioune (Malachi Kirby), who lives downstairs, demands payment of his rent as it seems Zak (James Norton) hasn't been paying it. Alioune is joined by his pregnant wife, Amina (Faith Alabi) who reminds both of them that, in fact, the couple owe 4 months' rent and Zak has given them his wrong work address.

It turns out that Zak has lied about a number of things and disaster looms. The set is exceptionally well designed with almost the complete apartment on view. The final scene played by the French-Senegalese neighbours, who are their landlords, is somewhat frustrating as it is all in French!

Poots brings Abby to life - showing her love for her husband and then becoming an entirely different companion for him. Norton has the more difficult task as he is a normal kind of person to start with and then reveals his inner torments. The landlords are also well written - by Amy Herzog - and the actors bring the couple to life. Lots of laughs early on and then the mood changes. Worth catching to see a good production under director Michael Longhurst.

Rating****

Following on from their production of an interesting play called Goats, where the chief attraction was the small herd of goats that wandered in and out of scenes, the Royal Court Theatre, London now has RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO (until 27 January. Box office: 020 7565 5000) in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Written in 1982, 19-year-old Andrea Dunbar's play caused controversy in the 1980s, and then again recently when the Royal Court announced that its production was cancelled after one of the early directors, Max Stafford-Clark was accused of sexual misdemeanors but later reversed their decision deeming the subject matter to be worthy of consideration today.

And so it is. The writer - who we lost all too early when she died aged just 29 - knew her subject well having lived a life like that of the two 15-year-olds in her play. Dunbar lived on a Bradford council estate in the 80s and her play is set on a housing estate in Bradford.

Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) are stuck in a dull job in a local mill as part of a Youth Training Scheme. (YTS) which offers little in the way of future employment. They search for excitement and find it in the form of Bob (James Atherton) who drives the girls home after they have baby sat for him and his wife, Michelle (Samantha Robinson). Bob himself has a job which just about meets his family's needs, but he loses that to become one of many unemployed in Thatcher's Britain.

Asking if they are virgins and receiving the (untrue) answer that they are, he offers to initiate them. One after the other, he has sex with each of the girls, uncomfortably in the front seat of Bob's car.

Andrea Dunbar was a teenage single mother in a poor household so knows the life she shows in her play. Her genius lies in the way she has drawn her characters so that they act and speak in a truly believable way. And director Kate Wasserberg gives us a fresh, lively production with the parents as well as the main characters behaving and swearing as to the manner born!

It is well cast too with Sue's mother (Sally Bankes), loud and foul-mouthed and constantly berating her equally foul-mouthed husband, while standing up for her daughter. Making her stage debut, Gemma Dobson as Sue shows us a girl who is tough on the outside yet shows her vulnerability when her best friend leaves her for Bob. Outstanding too is Taj Atwal as Rita, who finds she has to move from being a child to adulthood when she becomes pregnant. This is a production which is well-worth catching if you can.

Rating ****

Tying in with with Rita, Sue and Bob too in the Studio Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre (until 20 January) is MY MUM'S A TWAT. It's a very different setting, but about a young girl and her memories of her mother who was seduced by a cult. Here, too, the dramatist has drawn on her own background for her play. Written by Anoushka Warden (who many of us know us the head of press and publicity at the Royal Court) it is her debut play. Based on her own experiences it beautifully captures not only how she felt but what the other characters with whom she comes into contact, feel and say.

With the audience on three sides, the actress playing the Girl moves around the studio floor constantly. Patsy Ferran, directed by Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian, brings a young girl, suffering from a mother's lack of love, to life. It's a well-written play with a lively performance from the actress with a good range of music to illustrate her life. The only pity is that it's such a short run.

Rating ****

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London until 3 February then touring. Box office: 020 8741 68500) starts off as a fairly ordinary story about parents, who have worked hard to give their children a good life, and their four grown-up children. It develops into a searing story in which each of the characters gradually revels themselves as somebody quite different from our first perception of them.

Andrew Bovell's play, set in the back garden of the Price family home in Adelaide, Australia, is sometimes painful as it strips away the surface of each person to show us their true character underneath. Well directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham who use the special talents of the company, Frantic Assembly, to have physical movement to illustrate the emotions being verbalised. At one point it rains on just one character.

A series of bombshells reveals a crisis for each of the siblings and as they confess to their parents, we learn more about mother, Fran (Kate Hammer) and father Bob (Ewan Stewart). Terrific performances from Kirsty Oswald as the youngest daughter, with Seline Hizli, Matthew Barker and Arthur Wilson as the other siblings. Excellently staged, this is a show which deserves a visit.

Rating ****

EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE (Apollo Theatre, London booking until 6 October 2018. Box office: 0330 333 4809) is a most entertaining show. It's not frightening nor very sad just a lot of laughs, some good songs and one outstanding performance.

Based on the real-life story of 16-year-old Jamie, who on his 16th birthday was given by his mother what he most desired, a pair of stilettos. Jamie (John McCrea) likes to dress in girl's clothes and most of his class mates seem to accept him. He has one particular friend, Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse), who wears a hijab and is very bright. She gets called nasty names and is glad to have Jamie as her best friend as they are both seen as being 'different.' When the cast sing Everybody's talking about Jamie, the bully, Dean (Luke Baker) doesn't join in.

Although Jamie's mother, Margaret (Josie Walker) along with her best friend, Ray (Mina Anwar) is very supportive of her son, his father is a horror. Dad wants Jamie to be like him and other males - keen on football and thoroughly macho.

"You disgust me" he says to his son when he hears about Jamie in a dress and on stage in a drag show.

Jamie's intended prom dress is even more outrageous than anything he has worn before. He is told by teachers that he will not be allowed into the dance if he comes dressed in female clothes. Encouraged by his mother and Rae he turns up at the prom in his lovely dress and is barred by the staff member. The response of his class mates is astonishing.

With the band up high behind screens, the songs back up the dialogue and are part of the action not separate from it. Mum has a lovely musical voice and her solo, If I met myself again is heart-warming. There is good choreography which fits in well with the songs. Lucie Shorthouse gives Pritti full voice and is a nice little actress. John McCrea gives a very special performance as Jamie - his look, movement and voice seem absolutely correct.

In the interval of the performance I attended, I spoke to the real Jamie who is now in his early 20s and enjoys watching the show. He looked uncannily like an older version of the stage Jamie. He spoke of his close relationship with his mother and also said he hopes to do more TV!

Rating *****


Carlie Newman

   
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