All About Eve (Noel Coward Theatre)

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Classic film fans will recall the incomparable Bette Davis hogging the screen as Margo Channing. It’s a hard act to follow and big shoes to fill.

Here, on stage, Margo is played by Gillian Anderson, much more nuanced and not half as frightening. She’s ageing, but she’s still beautiful. She’s tough, but weak too – I doubt Miss Davis would ever have consented to being displayed on a big screen with her head over a toilet pan full of vomit.

Into the world of Margo, ageing actress and icon, comes Eve Harrington, who has been in the audience at every performance. A mouse who adores her idol, and soon makes herself indispensable.

Lily James plays her, and the opening scenes, introduced by Stanley Townsend’s Addison de Witt (he’s far more frightening that the urbane George Sanders was on film), show her in close-up, smiling, duplicitous.

Gillisn Anderson and Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.
Gillisn Anderson and Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

The big screen shows what goes on off the stage and in front of the mirror. Now and then, it is a good device, but too often it wastes a cavernous stage where things could and should be happening.

Monica Dolan plays Karen Richards, the faithful friend, the writer’s wife, the enabler of both Margo and Eve’s excesses. She becomes the main narrator, confidante, gossip for the audience. It’s a remarkable performance full of subtle characterisation.

This is and should be Margo’s show, though. Gillian Anderson is marvellous, whether displaying her barbed comments or hidden neuroses, and any actress of a certain age who allows her face to be scrutinised so deeply on a video projection deserves admiration.

She is a bitch – but so too is Miss Harrington. She schemes and plays her friends, but she pays for her ambition in a development which looks shaky in these days of feminist liberation.

Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.
Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

Margo, Eve, Phoebe. This is a woman’s play, even with faithful companion Birdie (Sheila Reid, quietly marvellous) on the periphery. Yes, there’s Addison, and Bill – boyfriend to Margo and director – and Lloyd – writer and husband to Karen. They are defined by their women. Max the producer is even driven to the bicarb by them.

Ivo van Hove has done more involving work, notably Hedda Gabler and Network at the National. Here he overuses the video work and sometimes loses sight of the small moments: when they are there, and they work, this touches greatness, but it isn’t quite enough.

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Noel Coward Theatre)

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Martin McDonagh’s play is a black satire on the Irish Troubles, with the catalyst a small black cat by the name of Wee Thomas. We first meet said cat when his corpse is brought in by dumb Davey, who may or may not have ridden over him on a bicycle, caving his head in.

Trouble is, Wee Thomas doesn’t belong to Donny, but to his son, Mad Padraic, who doesn’t pause at ripping out men’s toenails or shooting them point-blank in the eye with a crossbow, but who cries like a baby to hear his cat is “off his food”, a deception Donny and Davey concoct to communicate the news of his death gently.

Farcical situations abound, from a strung-up torture victim trying to get away on his hands, a young idealist (Davey’s sister, and a girl sweet on Padriac) who shoots out cows eyes from a distance with an airgun as a protest against the meat trade, and an unfortunate cat called Sir Roger who has the indignity of being covered in shoe polish to pass for the deceased moggie.

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By the second half, guns are out, IRA ballads are sung, Padraic cuddles his cat while all around him, Donny and Davey are cutting up body parts, burning off fingerprints, and bashing out teeth.  It’s a joke-filled stream about highly-strung Irish cats, the quality of IRA bombs, splinter groups from splinter groups (anyone else think of The Life of Brian), the nutritional value of Frosties, and grudge-holding.

I first saw this play at its RSC debut in 2001, but couldn’t remember much about it.  It is absolutely hilarious and the ending is absolutely perfect, as Wee Thomas steals the show after all the carnage.

The characters are well-drawn, as Padraic wishes for a Free Ireland for men, women and cats, and appears to enjoy watching The House of Eliott, Mairead is a tough as a button but has an idealistic view of the cause, Davey becomes ever more hysterical, and Christy and his henchmen are stereotypical terrorist dolts.  Even James, in that one torture scene, makes a mark as despite his drug dealing he seems to love his cat Dominic and his ringworm.

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Charlie Murphy and Aidan Turner, rehearsal photograph

Starring Aidan Turner (Padraic), Denis Conway (Donny), Chris Walley (Davey), Charlie Murphy (Mairead), Brian Martin (James), Will Irvine (Christy), Julian Moore-Cook (Joey), and Daryl McCormack (Brendan).  All are excellent, but especially Turner (West End debut), Walley (stage debut following graduation from RADA), and Murphy (who made such an impact in the last series of Peaky Blinders).

Michael Grandage directs with a sure hand, balancing the gore and the comic – although the production slows a bit with an interval in what is just a 100 minute show – but I would have welcomed less scenes set at the front of the stage behind the tree-decorated curtain.  The play itself – written in 1993, but not staged for nine years, still has the power to shock and to intrigue, and it will most certainly make you laugh.  Even as a cat lover I could see the funny side of the whole business.

Buy the text of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from Amazon UK

Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

You may recall the jaunty film in which Tommy Steele hopped around with a gor-blimey accent, and this uses many of the songs from it, but with some new lyrics and seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  So, confusingly, this is a musical with eleven songs by the original composer and lyricist David Heneker, from a book by Beverley Cross, with a kind-of new book by Julian Fellowes … and of course based on ‘Kipps’, by HG Wells!

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Charlie Stemp is on leave, so Arthur Kipps is currently being played by Sam O’Rourke, whose infectious energy brings the draper’s apprentice who comes into money sharply to life.  His childhood sweetheart Ann, who holds the ‘half a sixpence’ of the opening song, is played by Devon-Elise Johnson, who convinces as a gawky thirteen year-old as well as a growing women fighting her jealousy and irritation as Arthur becomes sideswept by his attraction to posh Helen (Emma Williams).

The toffs are fun, especially in a new number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, and Ian Bartholomew offers good comic support as a Dickensian theatrical named Mr Chitterlow.  There is a lot of leaping, swinging and boisterousness, and this is definitely a musical in which you can just sit back and be entertained.

Others worth mentioning – John Foster is a joy as both Kipps’ stodgy employer and Lady Punnet’s butler; while Jane How is very funny indeed as Lady P.  Gerard Carey was better as the photographer in the ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number than he was as crooked James, and Vivien Parry was all decaying aristocracy as Mrs Walsingham.   Alex Hope as the idealistic socialist Sid and Bethany Huckle as lovestruck Flo were very good, too, and I enjoyed the new duet which gave insight into the feelings both Ann and Flo seem to hold for Arthur.

Running to early September, this is warmly recommended if you want an evening of fun, and if you can get to see O’Rourke have his moment in the spotlight, please do.