Sept 2013: Social issues to the fore

Best of the month in September, according to the critics:


The Pride, Trafalgar Studios, 3.9-star average


This revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2008 debut – cheekily dedicated “To Russia, with love” – gained a consistent response from the pros. While most found minor aspects dated or didactic, there was overwhelming appreciation for what Michael Billington (Guardian) called “more than propaganda … a work of art that juxtaposes scenes from the repressive 1950s with others from the more liberated, but still imperfect, present.” Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) called this structure “both original and faultless,” and Sarah Hemming (FT) agreed: “Campbell crosses back and forth … ingeniously interweaving attitudes to freedom, fidelity and candour to create a rich and subtle texture that examines the sources of identity.”


Even Patrick Marmion (Mail), who found the play “shallow,” found Jamie Lloyd’s latest, recast production of it “suave and tightly controlled.” Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) felt the 1950s scenes were “a little overwrought,” but Charles Spencer (Telegraph) judged them “more original than their 21st-century counterparts.” Billington observed “more than a touch of Terence Rattigan about the way polite encounters are suffused with sexual tension,” and welcomed the “subliminal connection between the past and present.”


Coveney judged all the acting “absolutely first rate, allowing all of Campbell’s subtlety and humour.” Paul Taylor (Independent) declared Hayley Atwell’s Sylvia “Best of all … a feisty, faithful but not supinely supportive friend in the modern scenes and absolutely piercing as the sensitive wife who has to wake up to the bleak barrenness of a marriage based on a lie.” Spencer enjoyed Mathew Horne’s “three sharply drawn cameos.”


Hemming summed up: “Lovely performances from the central three actors, who change character and mood in an instant, bringing out the emotional depths and cross-currents of this wise, searching play.”


Runs to 9 November



West Side Story, Sadler’s Wells, 3.9-star average


Consistent approval but a variety of responses greeted this latest London visit from Joey McKneely’s touring production of the groundbreaking musical.


Theo Bosanquet (What’s on Stage), like most reviewers, found it “better on the dance than the vocal front” and Charles Spencer praised “Jerome Robbins’s wonderfully lithe, sexy and acrobatic choreography which McKneely, who danced for Robbins early in his career, reproduces with panache.”


Daisy Bowie-Sell expanded: “[I]t is superbly danced by an excellent young cast… The dance moves, which are occasionally heavily expressionist, really do help to tell the story, and there’s a raw emotion and intensity bubbling away under the surface that sends chills down the spine.”


The leads are played by alternating pairs. Those who saw her agreed with Paul Taylor: “Elena Sancho-Pereg is a well-nigh ideal Maria with her beauty, sensitivity, touching playfulness and the yearning soar of her soprano.” Bowie-Sell was typical on Liam Tobin’s Tony “…a strong voice, but lacked the subtlety needed to soar as the star-crossed lover.”


Taylor found Penelope Armstead-Williams “terrific as Anita dancing up a wittily sexy storm in ‘America’ and giving ‘A Boy Like That’ a bleakly eloquent vehemence.” Bosanquet felt Mark MacKillop, variously praised and panned, “makes up for his singing shortcomings with a step-perfect rendition of Jets leader Riff.”


While Taylor experienced “a genuine edge of spontaneity and danger to Robbins’ testosterone-charged dance treatment of the gang warfare,” Bosanquet asked “Where’s the menace?” and William Moore (Evening Standard) was among those finding their costumes “now more ‘London hipster’ than ‘Manhattan street gang’.”


Several hankered for a more contemporary take, but Bowie-Sell judged the production, “still as gloriously fresh, relevant and thrilling as ever” and Michael Billington summed up the overall response: “It simply reminds you all over again of the extraordinary fusion of music, movement and story that makes this a great musical.”


At Sadler’s Wells through 22 September; at New Wimbledon Theatre 19-30 November



Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe, 3.5-star average


Attracting responses from five to two stars, Jessica Swale’s “promising playwriting debut” about the first female students at Cambridge was described as “lively and eye-opening,” “thoughtful,” and “a funny, feisty show” with some “truly shocking moments.”


But Sarah Hemming saw “too many issues and characters to develop them all properly.” Others felt it was underwritten, and disappointed Caroline Crampton (The Arts Desk) found most characters “little more than cardboard cutouts.”


John Dove’s production was called “nimble” and “elegant”, and Paul Taylor felt he did “handsome justice … to the play’s various virtues” but several thought, with Hemming, the Globe’s “big open space” prevented “subtlety and nuance”.


Taylor found Ellie Piercy “a splendid blend of mettlesome spark and vulnerability” as the central student, and Henry Hitchings said: “Among [her fellows] Tala Gouveia shines, while Sarah MacRae gives austere lecturer Miss Blake a steely rigidity.”


Gabrielle Lloyd’s performance as the mistress of the women’s college drew broad praise, with Michael Coveney noting her “heart-warming generosity of spirit”; Taylor finding her “movingly honourable”; and Charles Spencer enjoying her “lovely mixture of wisdom and wit”.


Coveney found “the gallery of rogues – trapped in their late Victorian period rather than brimming with misogyny … dotted with neat, well-skewered performances,” and Michael Billington highlighted a “shining” performance by Fergal McElherron as a sympathetic lecturer.


Billington praised “Swale’s ability to capture both the intellectual excitement of being part of a new student generation and the dilemmas it produced” and Taylor appreciated how she “lets you hear the fear and defensiveness behind [chauvinistic] aggression and how this is still a live issue.” The play is dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist shot by the Taliban.


Hitchings judged it “feminist and political yet hardly tub-thumping, [with] the power to absorb as it probes issues that remain pertinent.”


Runs to 11 October