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THEATRE TIP January 2017

If you have never visited the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London, then now is your chance to see a classic play, brilliantly performed.

MARY STUART (Almeida Theatre, until 21 January 2017. Box office: 020 7359 404)

The two actresses play the different Queens according to a toss of a coin at the beginning of the plays. Then one is Queen Elizabeth and the other Mary. At the performance I went to Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth and Lia Williams Mary (as in the picture here). The actresses start in identical costumes and have hairstyles which are almost the same. The play, though, as directed by Robert Icke, who has adapted the play by Schiller, is performed in modern dress until the end. The two actresses often circle each other and are played here as two sides of the same person.

Lia Williams as Mary Stuart and Juliet Stevenson as Elizabeth I

It's an exciting play which tells how Mary has been kept in prison for 18 years by Elizabeth who won't commit to the final act of sending her cousin (once removed) to her death. Although Schiller wrote his play in 1800 and it is set in 1587, there are modern dilemmas which the audience recognises. Here we have a head of the Government who is torn between different religious, legal and political views. She is forced one way and then the other and talked at by all sides - the country is divided and she isn't sure about what the people really want - Brexit anyone?

There is much intrigue within the court. Elizabeth is surrounded by men who tell her to execute the Catholic Queen while others say save her life. We have Mortimer (an excellent Rudi Dharmalingam) who is a fervent supporter of the Catholic Mary and Leicester (John Light) who is basically on the Protestant Elizabeth's side but also attracts Mary. It's good to see a now older Carmen Munroe as Mary's elderly maid.

In Schiller's play he has the two Queens meeting at Fotheringay (an entirely fictional meeting as in real life they never met) and in the Icke version they hiss at each other and when Mary calls Elizabeth a " bastard Queen" the two are truly at loggerheads and end up fighting on the floor. This is the death knell for Mary and an angry Elizabeth signs her death warrant. Even having signed Elizabeth is distraught with worry over whether she has done the right thing and at times wants to change her verdict.

The Queens mirror each other often in dress as well as actions until the end which is magnificently staged. We see Mary dressed in a white simple tunic dress going to be hanged while Elizabeth is dressed in the bodice, hoops for her farthingale and extravagant dress and wig, with a white face as in the picture we know of her.

The music is exactly right for this play. Laura Marling has composed new music which includes a lovely song played as Mary goes to her execution.

While the play is made up of speeches and what could be just talking is never static in this production - there is constant movement and tangible emotions from the two actresses who equally deserve praise.

Although it might well transfer to the West End, go now and catch this play in the more intimate setting of the Almeda Theatre.

Rating: *****

The pantomime season is still on and here are reviews of two pantos, both away from the centre of London. One sounds as though it was very worthwhile and is reviewed by TOFF TIPS contributor SHARON MICHAELS, the other was not quite the success we hoped for.

Here is Sharon's:

SLEEPING BEAUTY (Richmond Theatre just finished)

This is a very jolly evening of complete escapism and it is great fun to indulge in this fairy-tale world of Sleeping Beauty. The traditional story was hardly altered which makes this Pantomime even more enjoyable and easily accessible for the younger members of the audience. The costumes and scenery are glorious, lavish and indeed truly magical which more than compensates for the script that is, at times, somewhat sedentary in the first half of the show. However, the second half of the show bounces into top Panto gear and provides a great deal of surprises and laughter. A special mention to the sound and lighting at the back - the effects are brilliant.

The cast are all good in their pantomime roles; the Dame, Nursey Molley Coddle (Matt Rixon) is outrageous, the Prince ( Dan Partridge ) and Princess Beauty (Lauren Hood) are sweet and pretty, with lovely singing voices. Chester the Jester ( Chris Javis, who also directs the show) holds the plot together well - and he is also very good at managing the children called on stage at the end, who (the night I went) included delightful little Solomon, who star - jumped through the whole of his stage experience, whilst telling us he did Hanukkah and not Christmas. He was a picture of seasonal happiness.

Maureen Lipman looks fabulous as the evil Bad Fairy, Carabosse, and plays it extremely well in her dark green, brightly sparkling costume, but her most unexpected, and thereby funniest moment is her change of character into Teresa May. Perfect!

There are jokes from Maureen Lipman's advert days which would have completely passed-by little ones and hardly any double entendre funnies but the comedy timing is snappy and romps along. There are many clever political references apposite to the Richmond audience.

The dancing is beautifully choreographed.

There is certainly something to enjoy for everyone with many audiences surprises. Thus it is a good show and well worth seeing with or without being escorted by a young person!

Rating: ****

The New Wimbledon Theatre's DICK WHITTINGTON (until 15 January 2017) doesn't match up to the pantomime above. Drawn to it by the lure of Arlene Phillips as Bowbells, the Good Fairy, my companion and I found her performance sadly lacking acting ability and surprisingly her dancing is very minimal. She acts out her rhyming couplets in a doggerel kind of way with no real emotion behind the words. I'm not sure if she has some injury or condition which renders her unable to move smoothly or with verve - if so it is a great pity as she is known for her terrific choreography. Sadly she didn't choreograph this production. There was very little choreography of note here.

On the plus side Tim Vine makes a wonderfully lively Idle Jack and Matthew Kelly as the Cook, Jack's mother, makes an exuberant Dame. The two work well together. Vine very obviously ad-libs much of the time and provides most of the laughs in the pantomime while Kelly looks super in a variety of colourful costumes.

Also the young couple in the show - Sam Hamilton and Grace Chapman - sing and act charmingly.

I was surprised that director Ian Talbot, who directed so many superb productions in his time at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, didn't manage to get a more meaningful performance out of Phillips. He even allows her to invite the audience to join in songs after the interval - she manages this but in a most unexciting manner.

It is no use just getting a well-known TV personality and putting them in a show where acting is the chief component if they can't perform this well. Come on Ian and Richmond - do better next year!

Rating ***

Unfortunately this will probably have closed by the time you read the review, but the stupendous THE CHILDREN at the Royal Court Theatre, London is so suited to the older audience and so good that you need to see it. I am sure it will transfer to the West End in the near future. Apart from the excellence of the writing by Lucy Kirkwood, it has a very fine cast.

A married couple of nuclear scientists are living in a cottage just outside the danger area caused by a terrible meltdown. Living in an isolated state near the sea they are settled in their post-retirement life, putting up with power-cuts and tap water unfit to drink following a nuclear disaster. Then Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) are unexpectedly joined by their friend, Rose (who had an affair with Robin many years before). Rose (Francesca Annis) feels guilty at the thought of leaving behind an unliveable future for young people.

Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay and Francesca Annis in The Children at the Royal Court

She suggests that the three of them go back to the nuclear plant to clear it up. Hazel points out that Rose has no children or grandchildren and she and Robin have. But faced with this request from Rose, who believes that over 65s should sacrifice themselves for the younger generation, what will they decide?

Beautifully acted: the women come from different ends and Ron Cook as Robin shows that he knows them both. At one point they do come together when they perform a dance to a record which they used to do together in their youth. A joyful moment within an intelligent and thoughtful play, which has humour built in to a somewhat terrifying scenario.

Rating: ****

Matthew Bourne's ballet, THE RED SHOES (Sadlers Wells Theatre, London until 29 January 2017, Box office: 020 7359 404 then touring *), ticks all the boxes.

Ashley Shaw as Victoria & Sam Archer as Lermontov in The Red Shoes

A ballet about the ballet - its dancers on stage and off are in constant conflict between their personal life and their professional life as an artist. Following the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger acclaimed film Red Shoes pretty much, it differs in that here the music, orchestrated by Terry Davies, has been taken from Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hollywood films, in particular Citizen Kane and Farenheit 451. And wonderful music it is too, absolutely suited to the story and the dancing.

The story remains the same as in the film: Victoria Paige (Ashley Shaw) dances before the renowned director of the Lermontov ballet company. Recognising her talent, Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer) takes her into his company. He also takes on Julian Craster (Dominic North), a young composer. Victoria becomes a star and Julien is also successful until Lermontov realises they are in love. He too is in love with Victoria, but in a different kind of way, he wants her to work for him professionally and believes she should have no life but the one on stage. The ballet which makes her a star is The Red Shoes in which a young girl is forced to keep dancing until she dies once she has put on red dancing shoes. This ties in with Victoria's own story and the love triangle can only result in tragedy.

The set and lighting and costumes all enhance the story and dancing. Les Brotherstone has given us a set which turns to reveal backstage or in front or a scene set in the Riviera or in a grand house. The dancing is outstanding with the three leads acting their parts as well as dancing. I would have liked to see more of Liam Mower (who was in the original cast of Billy Elliot), who plays one of the members of the Lermontov company, Ivan Boleslawsky. But the beauty of this ballet is that is so beautifully directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne and the music is so superb that the production will stand on its own whichever of Bourne's excellent dancers plays the leads.

Rating: *****

*London Sadler's Wells 6 December-29 January 2017 020 7863 8000
Woking New Victoria 31 January-4th February 0844 871 7645
Birmingham Hippodrome 7-11 February 0844 338 5000
Milton Keynes Theatre 14-18 February 0844 871 7652
Norwich Theatre Royal 21-25 February 01603 630000
Nottingham Theatre Royal 7-11 March 0115 989 5555
Cardiff Millennium Centre 14-18 March 029 2063 6464
Southampton Mayflower 21-25 March 02380 711811
Bradford Alhambra 28 March-1 April 01274 432 000
Bristol Hippodrome 4-9 April 0844 871 3012
Wimbledon Theatre 11-15 April 0844 871 7646
Canterbury Marlowe 25-29 April 01227 7877 87
Newcastle Theatre Royal 2-6 May 0844 811 2121
Edinburgh Festival Theatre 9-14 May 0131 529 6000
Leicester Curve 16-20 May 0116 242 3595
Sheffield Lyceum 30 May-3 June 0114 249 6000
Glasgow King's 6-10 June 0844 871 7648 Wycombe Swan 13-17 June 01494 512 000
Liverpool Empire 27 June-1 July 0844 871 3017
Salford Lowry 11-15 July 0843 208 6000
Birmingham Hippodrome 19-22 July 0844 338 5000

Two new plays at the lovely little Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London: In the main theatre we have RAISING MARTHA (until 11 February. Box Office: 020 7870 6876). This is a delightful, very funny farce in the Joe Orton vein with a touch of Harold Pinter. Detective Clout (Jeff Rawle) narrates and plays a main part as he tells how animal rights protestors have dug up the bones of Martha who has been dead for five years. Detective Clout is soon on the track of Marc (Tom Bennett) and Jago (Joel Fry). When the detective reports back to the owners of a frog and toad farm, Gerry (Stephen Boxer) and Roger (Julian Bleach) they are upset that not all the bones have been recovered. Soon they are being given an ultimatum that means they need to sell their farm. Surprisingly Roger's daughter Caro (Gwyneth Keyworth) sides with the animal rights lads and demands the brothers sell the farm. Not only have the brothers not seen each other for years, but neither really liked their mother, Martha. Matters are complicated by the fact that Gerry has been growing and selling cannabis combined with toad extract.

The comedy escalates as the two lads bungle their scheme, Roger gets drunk and the detective is something of a clottish Detective Clout. Jeff Rale (of TV's Drop the Dead Donkey) puts across witty lines in a deadpan manner and the rest of the cast act up to the hilt going full blast at the physical and verbal inter-action. It is splendidly written by David Spence and directed with a sure touch by Michael Fentiman, with well-directed action. There is lovely comic timing from all five performers. It's laugh aloud throughout with lots of physical action. Do go and have a real enjoyable evening out.

Rating ****

And in the Studio theatre at the Park, not so many laughs in what is billed as a comedy,

THE ALBATROSS 3RD AND MAIN (until 4 February. Box Office: 020 7870 6876)

What could have been an exciting story by writer, director and scene designer (!) Simon David Eden is performed in a rather mundane fashion. It's not that the actors are bad, it's just that the material doesn't really add up to much.

L to R Charlie Allen (Spider), Andrew St Clair-James (Lullaby) & Hamish Clark (Gene)

In a realistic set of a shop which also sells coffee, the two running the store, Gene (Hamish Clark) and Lullaby (Andrew St Clair) are forced to listen to Spider tell them about how he found an eagle which was splattered on his windscreen. It's worth a lot of money he says, but Lullaby quotes Samuel Taylor's Coleridge's poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and says the bird is an albatross and will bring them bad luck.

Although the play is a bit brisker in the second half, it is not very exciting. Simon David Eden has to take full responsibility and I hope he does better with his next effort.

Rating ***

One of our top British actors stars in NICE FISH (Harold Pinter Theatre, London until 11 February 2017, Box office: 0844 871 7627), a lovely play written by Mark Rylance with Louis Jenkins, using the American poet Jenkins' own prose poems. It starts beautifully with an expanse of frozen ice and snow with a miniature train in the background, a small wooden hut and a tiny figure. Gradually the stage opens up to show a frozen lake in Minnesota and two men fishing through a hole in the ice.

The men are Ron (Mark Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl), with a family originally from Sweden. All they do is chat in very short scenes - about their families, the cold, food allergies - and sometimes they are silent. Although they are joined by an official and later by a young girl, nothing much happens. But even though the play is virtually plotless, it is so charmingly directed (by Claire Van Kampen, Rylance's wife) that we are fascinated by the men and their chatter, quiet times and the beauty of the setting.

Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtsheidl in Nice Fish

In addition the two men are just about perfect. While Lichtscheidl is somewhat taciturn and slow moving, Rylance is full of physical activity and very lively. Do go and see this!

Rating ****

Some you may have missed:

The Print Room now occupies the Old Coronet cinema in Notting Hill, London. A lovely large venue, which, when I saw THE TEMPEST before Christmas, was extremely cold. It was a somewhat average production. Director Simon Usher had chosen to do a very full version. At times it was difficult to make out the words, particularly in the storm scene at the beginning. There was black gravel all over the floor of the stage; when the actors were down on the ground it got all over their clothes and bodies - nasty! But the building is great and the bar particularly attractive.

Antony Sher as KING LEAR at the Barbican Theatre, London was a real treat. He seems made for the part. The production originated at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon and the cast were all superb, not only performing with the confidence of good actors under an expert director (Gregory Doran) but relating so well that all come across as believable. Very different from the Glenda Jackson version at the Old Vic, the men are all men and the women all women here. Sher really is magnificent; he never over-acts but is so moving in many of the scenes, that, even though we may know he has, to a certain extent, brought his downfall on himself through hubris, we still feel for him. There is a real heart beating fiercely behind his cry of "Howl!"

The tiny Tristan Bates Theatre, London was host to SCENES FROM THE END, a one woman singer who performs with percussive music, using mainly her own body to beat upon. All the sounds come from the singer. Dealing with the universe and planets in part one, Heloise Werner went on to do a lament to the end of humanity. She has a sweet chirping voice and it was certainly an unusual evening!

For a very short time we were able to meet with actor Mark Lockyer at the Young Vic in LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON. Under the direction of Ramin Gray, we see Mark tell us about his mental breakdown which started when he was playing Mercutio in an RSC production. Mark invites us in and offers people tea before the start of his narration. Covering himself by saying he is an unreliable narrator, he gives a moving account of his breakdown and, hopefully, recovery.

Highly recommended:

THIS HOUSE (Garrick Theatre, London until 25 February 2017 Box office: 0330 333 4811), a very political play about the Labour party's minority government in the '70s written by James Graham, is on again in London.

It was first seen at the National Theatre in 2012. As then, but in a different way, the play has relevance to today. It is set in the Whips Office in the House of Commons. Both Labour and Conservatives struggle to be in power. During the years 1974-1979 the Labour Government had such a slim majority that they had to get all their MPs in to vote especially when the Tories withdrew from pairing so that everyone had to actually be in the House and attend in order to vote. We see very ill and dying Members being brought in, some still attached to machines.

The Bills they vote on are often not very exciting but it remains crucial to win the vote and the writer makes it all very dramatic and fascinating to watch. A realistic set inside the offices in the House of Commons and a range of music including David Bowie songs bring the play to life. There is even some stylised dancing.

Unfortunately seeing the Labour Members arguing amongst themselves brings to mind Labour's current squabbles. But overall it shows that the traditions of Parliament are loved and revered by most working inside the House.

A great cast, directed sensitively by Jeremy Herrin bring real characters to life. A lovely performance by Nathanial Parker as Tory Deputy Chief Whip, Jack Weatherill is matched by Steffan Rhodri as Walter Harrison. Kevin Doyle is the chief whip Michael Cocks and Malcolm Sinclair is his opposite - both carefully delineated. Worth seeing, particularly if you are interested in the politics of yesteryear or of today.

Rating ****

What a gorgeous musical! Of course SHE LOVES ME is on at the very user friendly Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London (until 4 March 2017 Box office: 020 7378 1713). This is a production that is beautifully presented with great dancing and singing from a bunch of actors who really can act as well as dance and sing. The tuneful music is by Jerry Bock, and simple yet attractive choreography by Rebecca Howell. Matthew White directs.

It's a revival of the 1963 musical which was based on the original film The Shop Around the Corner and the modern version You've Got Mail.

Set in a parfumerie in Budapest in 1930s - a very pretty and practical set - it deals with the romantic affairs of the staff. In particular, Amalia (Scarlett Strallen) who is writing anonymously to an unknown man and Georg (Mark Umbers) who is doing the same with a young woman. When the two find out that they are writing to each other they are not best pleased.

Mark Umbers & Scarlett Strallen in She Loves Me at the Menier

It is interesting to see another one of the Strallen sisters back on the stage. All are good and Scarlett puts on a very mature performance here. Both she and Umbers sing and interact charmingly.

Another couple, actors Katherine Kingsley and Douglas Tighe have a tempestuous relationship and sizzle in their parts. Make an effort to get a ticket - you won't be disappointed.

Rating *****

SAINT JOAN (Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London until 18 February 2017 Box office: 0844 871 7624)

In a dramatic production by Josie Rourke, Gemma Arterton excels as the French soldier who became a saint after her death by being burnt alive.

What jars a bit is that we see Joan in full armour as in the picture here, but the rest of the time she and the bankers and warmongers she has to report to wear modern clothes, have television screens and other very modern aids. The cast are all excellent and Arterton as the Maid of Orleans in George Bernard Shaw's play is to be praised for virtually turning her back on a lucrative film career to appear on stage.

A worthwhile play given an intelligent interpretation by director and cast, it is highly recommended.

Rating ****


Carlie Newman

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