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Theatre Reviews

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THE LOW ROAD
Royal Court Downstairs
Rating: ****

Bruce Norris’s third play at the Royal Court is billed as ‘a fable of free market economics and cut-throat capitalism’ and is ambitious in scale: it has a cast of 19 and is set in New England in the years 1759-1776, with ‘a brief detour to the present’.

The familiar themes of race and social aspiration abound, but this time the satirical focus is squarely on the emergence of wealth and the desire to be better than your neighbour. In picaresque style we follow the fortunes of a young mathematical whizzkid, Jim Trumpett, who, despite the drawback of being an abandoned bastard child brought up in a brothel, climbs the social ladder – via a quick double murder - with a black servant who corrects him on his English.

If we don’t quite get the point about Western civilisation being built on selfishness, slavery, prostitution and greed, the second act brings us smack up to date, with a conference of financial bigwigs, smug in their own huge achievement, being challenged by anti-capitalist protesters and the withering question from the floor – which they don’t understand - of “How many houses do you have?”.

This scene, demonstrating the spread of monetarist values to Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, is beautifully pitched and shows Norris at his squirmingly satirical best. Jim Trumpett has now spawned Dick Trumpett, of TrumpettBank Global and has, in a sense, come to rule the world. The book he plugs is called, teasingly, The High Road, the low road of the title having been taken by his forebear.

This isn’t the most subtle of plays, and occasionally puts one in mind of the pioneering touring productions of the 7:84 Theatre Company in the 1970s, with all their hectoring invective and righteous passion, but Bruce Norris has the greater skill of skewering his targets with comic precision.

Despite the tales of under-rehearsal, Dominic Cooke directs a large, long pageant of a play with consummate skill, the proceedings presided over by the benign figure of Bill Paterson in the personage of the great Adam Smith. It is a splendid turn, but there are many performances to admire. With 51 listed characters there is plenty of opportunity for contrasting roles: Elizabeth Berrington, Ian Gelder and Simon Paisley Day, in particular, are superb, with Johnny Flynn persuasive and engaging as the dastardly Jim, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the servant, John Blanke, the epitome of dignity outraged at its own mistreatment.

For all its entertainment value – and there were many loud approving chortles at press night – the play does, however, have an air of being rather pleased with itself, and it sets its sights somewhat lower than one might have expected. But even if its targets are easy, it hits home with relish.

 

HANDBAGGED
Vaudeville
Rating: ***

Now that plays and films about the Queen are de rigeur, Moira Buffini’s new theatre piece, transferred from the Tricycle, boasts not one Queen but two, and a similar number of Margaret Thatchers. This is almost too much of a good thing. At the outset there is a neat juxtaposition of these four characters, where they comment on each other’s pronouncements and recollections, but this device wears thin by the second half and the older Mrs T (a bustling, embattled Stella Gonet) is almost sidelined as the younger Mrs T (a terrifyingly composed Fenella Woolgar) takes us through the highlights of her glory years up to the point where Howe and Heseltine “betray her”.

The two ladies are assisted in their recollections by two Actors (Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan) who play an array of menfolk who cross their path, including Denis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Kenneth Kaunda, Rupert Murdoch and most of the Thatcher Cabinet it seems.

There is much banter about how many parts they have to play, who gets to be Neil Kinnock, and who is compelled against his will to be Enoch Powell. The action is set “within these three walls” - a knowing theatrical joke that provides the only real framework to the piece. Who are these people and why are they being all these other people? It starts as a clever, satirical sketch, and one wonders where all these impersonations will lead as the evening develops. But sadly it just continues as more of the same, and there is no real play to speak of at all.

They keep saying “I never said that” or “that conversation never took place”, which perhaps gives some kind of imagined insight into the relationship between Her Maj and her first female PM, but two-thirds of the way through one longs for a bit more of a sustained conversation, or argument, rather than the snippets of history we are given.

As a brisk canter through the Thatcher era it has the air of an end-of-term entertainment rather than anything more pointed, or poignant, or carefully crafted. Nevertheless it is sometimes bitingly funny, and the mannerisms of the two great ladies are beautifully observed.

Jeff Rawle gives several outlandish turns, especially as Denis T, Reagan and Rupert Murdoch, but the casting of Neet Mohan as a vampish Nancy Reagan seems wilfully bizarre. Funny, in the sense that any pretty young man dressed up as an older lady can be funny, but what is the point being made?

Marion Bailey almost steals the show with her spot-on portrayal of the older Queen, and the two Thatchers are brilliantly contrasted by Woolgar and Gonet, with the coolly ambitious but beguiling younger woman turning into the imperious and doggedly determined older one who falls victim to her own self-belief.

There is much to savour in all the performances, but the piece also seems to fall victim to its own in-jokery and its constant tone of let’s-play-with-the-audience which, for all its convention-defying artfulness, becomes a little wearisome.



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