You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It’s 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
If that title sounds ominous, Shechter told me in interview: “I wanted to capture a sense of our time…that out-of-control feeling that things are coming to an end. And how can this have a happy ending?” * Plus, in a programme note on what he does – or does not – expect of his audience: “It’s about what is happening to them in their head, how they feel, [not about getting] it right in some way.”
Welcome to Weismann’s Follies. Dmitri Weismann himself presides and the old gang of gorgeous gals are back for one last reunion in the theatre where they showed a leg and sang their hearts out between the wars, before it’s pulled down. It’s time to reminisce (cue for a song-list of glorious pastiches) and take stock of the ravages of the years – physical and emotional. So it’s equally the cue for a range of mould-breaking Sondheim numbers that excavate the regrets and neuroses eating away at the two couples centre-stage, former showgirls Sally and Phyllis and the stage-door johnnies, Buddy and Benjamin, whom they married. The genius of Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman is to intertwine and meld these two strands, building to a climax of ‘follies’ point numbers which become the expression of all that angst and heartache, one for each of the four, surprising, distinctive, appropriate and devastatingly revealing. The haunting of all the returnees by their younger selves, the girls in their gorgeous costumes and their stage door johnnies, acting out the past and observing their future, is another stroke of genius, another layer to this rich, complex show.
Chief examiner Mr Burgess, played with thrilling comic cruelty by Steven Pacey, sets his latest cohort of four would-be London Taxi drivers the task of committing to memory all 320 routes, 15,842 streets and all places of interest on the way within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “No taxi driver in no other city in no other country in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither.” The late Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 play for TV exploring the impact of this almost impossible challenge (70% drop-out rate then and some 25,000 streets now) is adapted for the stage by Simon Block and directed with comic verve by Rosenthal’s wife for 30 years Maureen Lipman, who appeared in the TV drama.
“Time it was, oh what a time it was” – as the lights went down, the poignant notes of what is for me one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most persistent earworms played in my head – and then echoed on stage to open a show that reminded me just how many earworms the pair gifted us.
Sam O’Hanlon and Charles Blyth work subtly together and with their stonking backing band to conjure the sound and look of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel without slavishly aiming to be look- and sound-alikes. Their role as narrators is important too, for this is billed as the folk duo’s story. We learn how these two Jewish boys met at their Queens, NY, elementary school, appearing together in the school production of Alice in Wonderland – Paul as the White Rabbit and Art the Cheshire Cat. The animal theme continued as they made their musical debut as Tom and Jerry, before using their own rather more memorable surnames.