Oct 2013: The best month in quite a while

Two well-received revivals and a bold new piece take us this month from an inescapable family history to the unreliability of history as a concept.


Best of the Month: October 2013


Ghosts, 4.5-star average: Almeida Theatre to 23 November


This is the best-reviewed show in the past several months, with five five-star reviews from the capital’s top reviewers, and the remaining six pro reviewers all giving an enthusiastic four stars. This was all the more remarkable considering that for many reviewers it was their second version of Ibsen’s examination of family shame in as many weeks. The inevitable comparisons with the production at the Rose universally favoured what Sarah Hemming (FT) called the Almeida’s “glittering, dark production.”


Paul Taylor (Independent) explained: “Using his own sharp, swift-footed adaptation, [Director] Richard Eyre’s spell-binding production builds to its shattering climax in an unbroken 90-minute arc. The play’s emotional daring and its dark humour are conveyed here with a matchless immediacy, the dialogue sounding fresh and new-minted… and the performances unfold with an extraordinary alertness and intensity.”


Taylor found Lesley Manville, (whom several judged ‘superb’), “subtle and searching … deeply affecting and unforced … with a quiet, clear-eyed courage.” Hemming celebrated her rendering of “reckless, exhilarated despair” and Michael Billington (Guardian) was among those finding “Her climactic scene with [son] Oswald, whose gradual degeneration is precisely charted by Jack Lowden, as powerful as I have seen in years.”


Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) described an “almost symphonic treatment,” with John Leonard’s sound “creating an atmosphere in which everything seems inevitable,” and all appreciated what Rachel Halliburton (Time Out) called its “mesmerising aesthetic.” As Charles Spencer (Telegraph) concluded: “Tim Hatley’s design, with translucent walls that make people in the adjoining room actually look like ghosts, and Peter Mumford’s often dramatic lighting, with the play ending in a blood-red dawn, both add greatly to the intensity of a production that does full justice to this thrilling, harrowing play.”



The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 3.9-star average: Duchess Theatre to 7 December


Eight of nine pro reviewers gave this production four stars, with most echoing Charles Spencer: “It’s too long, it’s didactic, it’s sometimes hard to follow…But in Jonathan Church’s swaggeringly confident production, with Henry Goodman giving an electrifying performance in the title role, this is a show you really should see… an evening of dark wit and creepy thrills.”


Several approved Church’s decision to leave out Brecht’s captions, which signpost echoes of Hitler’s rise in the career of a Chicago cauliflower racketeer, although, as Lyn Gardner (Guardian) pointed out, this means “it helps to know your Rohm from your Goring,” continuing “Brecht sometimes makes heavy weather of his conceit, but Jonathan Church and his superlative cast never do.”


Most praise went to Henry Goodman as Ui, with Spencer finding him “downright mesmeric. You simply cannot take your eyes off his high definition performance.” Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) went further: “Goodman’s clownish, psychotic, pitiable and terrifying title turn is the best stage performance I’ve seen this year.”


Sarah Hemming called Goodman “magnificent,” saying “His cartoon villain antics make grotesque, compelling theatre, but he also shows his character’s insecurity and paranoia… as the play rolls forward, he metamorphoses, becoming increasingly sinister.” Sounding more like a portayal of Richard III than a vegetable salesman, she concluded that “Behind Goodman’s odd spasms of movement, unpredictable vocal lurches from pianissimo to fortissimo and sudden shifts of mood, we see a darting, shrewd mind.”


She went on to praise “a slinky film noir set from Simon Higlett and great performances from Ui’s vowel-chewing henchmen.” But, as Lukowski concluded, “like Nazi Germany itself, it’s really all about one man.”



Handbagged, 3.9-star average: Tricycle Theatre to 16 November


Impressing most pros, playwright Moria Buffini’s expanded version of her piece for the Tricycle’s own ‘Women, Power & Politics’ allows an older Queen and Margaret Thatcher to sit in and comment on the private audiences between their younger selves.


Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) appreciated how “[t]heir voices mingle and clash and a near constant stream of questions draws attention to the speculative nature of Buffini’s picture.”


While none doubted Buffini’s political standpoint, most enjoyed her ‘theatrical brio’ and ‘pithy irreverence’. Paul Taylor suggested: “Handbagged manages to tackle some pretty familiar material in a genuinely fresh and irresistibly mischievous spirit,” and argued that the play’s “crackpot playfulness… licenses Buffini to push beyond soberly realistic speculation.”


There was plenty of praise for the four leads, with several highlighting the ‘uncanny’ Woolgar as early Maggie. Charles Spencer said: “Fenella Woolgar brilliantly captures the honeyed voice and terrifying certainty of the younger Mrs Thatcher, while Stella Gonet proves genuinely moving as the older woman, suddenly vulnerable and forced to confront defeat at the hands of her own colleagues.”


Sarah Hemming said: “Clare Holman plays the quietly sceptical, understated younger monarch, while Marion Bailey, as her older self, makes brilliant use of the tiniest of facial twitches to convey disapproval or doubt.”


Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk) summed up the majority response: “although the Queen comes across as more attractive, and much more fun, Buffini is scrupulously fair … and her Thatcher is no ogre. The touches of emotional pain in the playtext are beautifully highlighted in Indhu Rubasingham’s fluent and funny production.” Hemming judged the whole “a witty, thoughtful history lesson that also reflects on what history is.”