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Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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Barnum

In my experience, you rarely see a show at it’s best on press night – too much pressure – and this one appears to have had a bad one. Well, based on a performance two days later, even though it has its faults, I’m much more positive than the critics.

When I first heard they were going to do it at the Menier, I thought it was an unsuitable venue. I first saw it 35 years ago in the Palladium, then 4 years ago in a big top outside Chichester Festival Theatre, so this is on an entirely different scale. As it turns out, in the round, with a big floor to play on, it combines spectacle and intimacy, and there’s a certain frisson having a man juggling with knives inches away from your face!

It’s a very American story, about a real life showman and proprietor of a circus and ‘museum’, which seem to be more like ‘freak shows’, featuring as they do the world’s oldest woman and tiny Tom Thumb. He goes on to promote (and bed) Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, and later into politics, though not quite as far as President Barnum – this is the late 19th century, not the early 21st! He eventually returns to the circus in partnership with James Bailey to form the very successful Barnum & Bailey.

Cy Coleman’s score has some great tunes, with some particularly good ensemble set pieces such as One Brick at a Time, Come Follow the Band and Join the Circus. It is here we find the real strength of the show, and this production, with a terrific ensemble who can sing and dance and is full of circus skills, some of which take your breath away.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is excellent as Barnum’s wife Chairy and it’s great to see another Corrie exile, Tupele Dorgu, prove to be as good on stage as the small screen. In truth Marcus Brigstocke isn’t a good enough singer or a seasoned enough performer for the role of Barnum, but his likeability means he pulls it off, just, and he stayed on the tightrope the night we went!

I loved Paul Farnsworth’s design, and Gordon Greenberg’s staging and Rebecca Howell’s sensational choreography deliver the spectacle the show needs. There were some sightline issues; we missed a couple of key moments on what appeared to be an elevated platform in front of the band but for us behind a pillar, and a few more short ones high behind us, but overall it was a great use of the Menier space, which in this configuration seemed a lot bigger.

Better than the critics will have you believe and well worth a punt.

The Tin Drum

Kneehigh have created a large number of very successful stage adaptations from diverse sources, but I think they may have been a touch ambitious and misguided with this one, Carl Grose’s adaptation of a 500-page 1950’s German political novel by Gunter Grass.

The central character Oskar is born with adult capacity but decides not to grow up. He narrates the events happening in the world from 1924 to 1954, a rather dramatic part of the 20th century, to put it mildly, from his perspective. Family scenes and political & social events are woven together to create an epic sweep, though it often comes over as a bit if a ramble.

The problem is that the material doesn’t really suit Kneehigh’s playful style. There’s too much of Charles Hazelwood’s music, often not fully fledged songs, so it feels like more like an opera than a play, and the synthesised instrumentation jarred with me. Together with the vast space, it conspires to make quite a lot of the spoken and sung dialogue barely audible.

It’s a pity, because Naomi Dawson’s design is great (the backdrop looks uncannily like it’s the venue’s real wall), the puppetry is excellent, Mike Shepherd’s staging is full of Kneehigh inventiveness and there are some fine performances, including Nandi Bhebhe and Damon Daunno as Oskar’s mum and dad, and personal favourite Beverley Rudd shining in a number of roles, including a policeman, nurse, Satan and a baby!

It was only the second of two previews, so maybe that was part of the problem, though it has been touring for over two months. I’m more inclined to think it’s the wrong kind of story for the Kneehigh magic.

This is a breath of fresh air for the West End, full of energy and life-affirming joy, and perhaps the first musical to be inspired by a documentary?

Sixteen-year-old Jamie wants to be a drag queen, and to wear a dress to the school prom. His divorced mum Margaret, her friend Ray and his bestie Pritti support him, but his dad, his school and some of his classmates don’t approve. He’s befriended and coached by Hugo, a former drag queen, now owner of a shop supplying drag outfits, and starts developing an act for an invited audience at the local drag club where three other drag queens also provide advice and support. The showcase goes ahead, followed by the even bigger challenge of the prom.

Dan Gillespie Sells score and Tom Macrae’s book and lyrics are excellent; they bring a fresh pop sound, rather than a bog standard musicals one, the style of songs changing to match the characters. Kate Prince’s choreography is simply terrific, again fresh rather than standard musicals movement. The school scenes in particular have extraordinary authenticity and high energy. I liked Anna Fleischle’s design, with projections by Luke Halls, and it’s staged with great pace by Jonathan Butterell.

It seems like a very happy cast, visibly enthusiastic, many of them transferring from Sheffield with the show. Lucie Shorthouse is outstanding as Pritti, comfortable with both her Muslim culture and Jamie’s personal choices. The relationship between Jamie and his mum is at the heart of the show and Josie Walker invests a lot of emotional energy into Margaret, with her big second act song feeling like a big hug from your mum. Mina Anwar is lovely as the ballsy Ray, who’s love for Margaret and Jamie knows no bounds. John McRea towers over all of this with a supremely confident, passionate performance; an astonishing West End debut.

I watched the documentary after seeing the show and it proves it’s very faithful to Jamie’s story. The show’s message of tolerance, of everyone being allowed to be who they are, comes over loud and clear in what is clearly a populist and critical success. Lets hope it’s a commercial success too, so that we can get more fresh air like this into the West End.

For an island with a population of only seventy thousand, Anglesey appears to have more than it’s fair share of theatrical eccentrics. First there was Shon Dale-Jones aka Hugh Hughes, ‘emerging artist’ and storyteller, now Seiriol Davis, the composer and lead performer of this quirky show about another Anglesey eccentric, Henry Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, a cross-dressing thespian who lost a fortune and died young.

With the assistance of Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley, Davies tells the story of the Marquess, and in particular his thespian career, performing Wilde and Shakespeare amongst others, touring the UK with his shows, featuring his idiosyncratic dances, and his early death in Monte Carlo after squandering his entire annual income (£11m at today’s value).

The songs are rather good and the whole thing is a quirky camp curiosity which seems to have the spirit of the man who inspired it. It has a cheeky, playfulness about it, a permanent twinkle in its eye, one long wink. All three performances are excellent and the design is a delight. It was impossible not to smile throughout.

The Rest of November

Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

Contractions

A nine-year-old Mike Bartlett play that appears to have passed me by, revived by Deafinitely Theatre in a bi-lingual English / BSL production in the atrium of a corporate office, apparently once a trading floor!

There are four floors of hexagonal glass walls, behind which there are offices, a few still occupied, some being cleaned as we sit. We’re peering in to The Manager’s office, behind which we can see another (shared) office through glass. In a series of scenes spanning more than a year, The Manager meets one employee, Emma.

At first she’s checking her understanding of the corporate policy on relationships between employees, then questioning her on a possible relationship with her colleague Darren. As it unfolds, a relationship is confirmed, Darren is relocated, Emma becomes pregnant, Darren is transferred to another country and the company is effectively running their lives.

The Manager communicates entirely in BSL, most of which is repeated by Emma as if she were checking her understanding. She writes and draws on the glass behind and uses a projector as another tongue-in-cheek visual aid. Emma speaks and signs. Occasionally, something is said but not signed and vice versa, to simulate a deaf persons real experience. It’s extraordinary how much of the BSL the hearing can understand.

The corporate setting adds much to the authenticity and atmosphere of this satire on big brother corporations. Fifi Garfield is brilliantly deadpan and ice cold as The Manager, her expressions and movements speaking volumes in themselves. Abigail Poulton navigates Emma’s deeply emotional journey superbly. It’s sharply staged by Paula Garfield, and Paul Burgess’ design sits perfectly in the site-specific space.

Though I hadn’t seen it before, it seemed to me this deaf-led theatre company brings another dimension to another of Bartlett’s powerful miniatures.