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Bean Bags and First Night Fisticuffs

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Hard on the heels of the underrated Posh and the over-lauded Clybourne Park, it looks as though the Royal Court has another hit on its hands with Richard Bean's The Heretic, which is not only funny and intelligent, but overpoweringly pertinent on matters of scientific in-fighting and intellectual trimming, student protest, climate change debate and arrogant fundamentalism.

Bean has a bag of issues, and he marshalls them expertly, with a few blunders in the farce track; but they hardly matter as he writes such good dialogue, jokes and situations: and there's the added bonus of Juliet Stevenson in coruscating form, as they say in the papers.

The opening last night came at the end of a hyperactive day even by my standards. I was checking out photographs for my upcoming Ken Campbell biography (published in April, and BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week in the first week of that month) with his former wife and life partner Prunella Gee in the morning, and at lunchtime I managed to catch Jim Broadbent in a Belsize Park coffee shop to nab a couple more iconic snaps for our picture spreads.

Jim, slightly transformed by his current Denis Thatcher sewn-on hair-do -- he's filmed two days so far with Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady, and will be working at Pinewood until April Fool's Day-- said something over the lattes that I'd never fully realised before.

He and director Mike Bradwell are unique in their generation in making the same journey, but in reverse: he from working with Ken Campbell to Mike Leigh; Bradwell, from Leigh on to Campbell. And they both have equal time for these very different maestroes.

Anyway, Jim had become suddenly alarmed that he might not be pictorially represented in the book, so he'd dug out some splendid prints of his performance as both Big Jim Baron and the sheriff of Mad Dog, Texas, in Illuminatus!, the nine-hour Campbell show that opened the National Theatre's Cottesloe auditorium way back in March 1977, with a voice-over by John Gielgud.

He also told me that he'd like to work up a one-man show based on the sketches and short plays of unjustly forgotten Lancastrian playwright Henry Livings, whom he idolises. I got the distinct impression, in fact, that he was beetling off back home, as we parted opposite the Royal Free Hospital, to resume his researches on this long-simmering project.

His photos were safely despatched to publisher Nick Hern by personal courier (me) at the Court during the interval of the Bean play. And where else could one have been (sic), in this season of clashes and frantic activity?

Well, Southampton, I suppose, where Natalie Abrahami's toruing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Headlong also opened last night, at the Nuffield. The comedy's re-imagined, apparently, as a Hollywood epic with specific reference to Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

I think the Bean feast was the wiser choice. But there are some intriguing Press night clashes on the way. Derren Brown is slated to open his Svengali show at the Shaftesbury on 13 June, the same night as Michael Grandage bids farewell to the Donmar with his revival of Luisa Miller.

Why have they done this, the managements, clash for no reason at all in a week where absolutely nothing else is so far announced? The Society of London Theatres, SOLT, is supposed to hold the ring in these matters, but obviously the communication lines are badly down.

The most risible recent example of admin cock-up came with the announcement that Trevor Nunn's production of Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, starring Sienna Miller and James Purefoy, would open at the Haymarket on 10 March.

That's the very same day as Nunn's old company, the RSC, open their long-awaited new theatre officially to the Press with a double-header of David Farr's King Lear, with Greg Hicks in the lead, and Rupert Goold's incandescent Romeo and Juliet.

Both shows have been widely reviewed already, but this is an historic day: the old theatre in a brand new guise at the start of a brand new era by the Avon.

The RSC date was announced months ago, and Flare Path has just barged in without thinking. There's now been a certain amount of back-tracking, even an absurd implied suggestion that the RSC is the Johnny-Come-Lately in this mix-up.

The upshot is that the RSC date stands firm, quite rightly, and critics are now invited to review Flare Path over the subsequent weekend (ie, on the 11th or 12th of March, with an invitation still open for the 10th) with an embargo on all reviews till Monday 14th.

Mind you, with the way things have developed over the uninvited reviews for Spiderman:Turn Off the Dark in New York -- both the President of the Critics' Circle and the chairman of the Drama Section in this country, for some reason, have filed disobliging notices way ahead of next month's (heavily delayed) official Press opening  -- I wouldn't be at all surprised to read something somewhere soon to the effect that Sienna Miller is having trouble rounding out her character, if not exactly crashing to the stage from a high-flying wire.


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