Dec 2013: Henry V, Mojo, and Jumpers for Goalposts

In the pick of this month we find fine direction and performances elevating two less-than-perfect plays plus one that garnered nothing but praise.

 

Best of the Month: December 2013

 

Henry V, 3.9-star average: Noel Coward Theatre, to Feb 15 2014

 

Varied positive responses greeted this last show of Grandage’s residency, with Jude Law in the title role. Most pro reviewers welcomed what Sarah Hemming (FT) called Grandage’s “trademark lucidity and fleetness of foot” in a traditionally styled production of what Paul Taylor (Independent) identified as a “deeply equivocal work”.

 

Most attention went to Law, favourably compared to past Henrys and his own recent Hamlet, with only ‘three-stars’ critics airing minor reservations. Taylor spoke for most: “Law here vividly blends the kind of natural charisma that can rouse tired troops with a brooding spiritual uneasiness that has its affinities with Hamlet.”

 

Taylor was also representative in praising “Ashley Zhangazha’s open-faced, tremendously engaging Chorus, who wears a Union Jack T-shirt and is our modern link with the action”.

 

Charles Spencer (Telegraph) pronounced the whole cast “superb”, but some struggled with Grandage’s ‘even handedness’. Kate Bassett (Arts Desk) explained: “the supporting cast do not come into … individualised, sharp focus”, admitting “At points, I hungered for more startlingly innovative directorial concepts”.

 

A measured Michael Billington (Guardian) praised Law for “getting under the skin of a character” to suggest “the ruthlessness that is the reverse side of his heroism”, completing a “complex portrait of a national hero-cum-war criminal”. Bassett detected “a trace of brawny yobbishness” in Law’s erstwhile Prince Hal, and though few resisted mentioning the actor’s age, none felt it undermined his portrayal of a young leader maturing fast.

 

Spencer, most generous, judged the whole “a production of rare distinction and dramatic depth” and few contradicted Billington’s verdict: “a fast, well-staged account of a problematic play” featuring “a fine portrait of a flawed hero”.

 

Mojo, 3.9-star average: Harold Pinter Theatre, to Feb 22 2014

 

Almost unanimous approval greeted original director Rickson’s revival of Butterworth’s debut, with most pros awarding it four or more stars.

 

Most, like Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) detected “the sting of originality and the power of voodoo” in this depiction of a 50s Soho gangland siege, and few were concerned by stylistic nods to Pinter, Mamet and Tarantino in what Sarah Hemming called “a blistering study of masculinity”.

 

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard), most bothered by this “wickedly black” comedy’s lack of ‘heart’, nevertheless described “a brutal vision of desire and treachery, laced with a strange hypnotic language that’s part wild profanity and part cryptic poetry”, and praised “brilliant performances”. Spencer similarly found it “addictive and disconcerting”.

 

All but a dismissive Quentin Letts (Mail) enjoyed the ‘superb delivery’. As Hemming assessed the A-list cast:

 

“Ben Whishaw is outstanding as Baby, giving a mesmerising, dangerously unpredictable performance. Daniel Mays makes a sweaty, motor-mouthed Potts with Rupert Grint as his panicky sidekick; Colin Morgan is a wiry, jumpy Skinny and Brendan Coyle is a brooding presence as Mickey.”

 

Almost all found Whishaw “mesmerising”, praising his “drop-dead arrogance,” “ambiguous sexual menace,” “toxic stillness” and even his singing. And even Letts acknowledged what Charles Spencercalled “a superbly comic double act” from Grint and Mays.

 

Hemming expressed the general response to the play:

 

“It’s not as good as Butterworth’s later Jerusalem, which would bring warmth to the black comedy, but it displays the same self-conscious theatricality, linguistic exuberance and joyful relish of the physical potential of actors on a stage.” Spencer agreed, concluding, “boy is it fun in its impudent panache.”

 

 

Jumpers for Goalposts, 4.1-star average: Bush Theatre to 4 January 2014

 

A Watford transfer offers an antidote to all this violent power-play, gaining fours or fives from all its West End pro reviewers.

 

There was universal praise for the play Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) called “heartwarming,” “marvellously idiosyncratic comedy” and “a loving tribute to the great tradition of British amateurism”. As Emma Watkins (What’s on Stage) put it:

 

“Tom Wells’ writing is truly exceptional, sparkling with wit and dialogue so natural that at times you forget you’re watching a scripted play and feel you’re spying on a real-life dressing room.”

 

Sarah Hemmings explained: “Wells is not afraid of appearing sentimental: he writes with a brave emotional honesty that proves very moving.” Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk) agreed: “His picture of young love is nicely balanced by the more experienced, and cynical, older members of the team. And [captain] Viv’s observations about team spirit, loyalty and finishing the job have a wider resonance.”

 

Charles Spencer adds: “Lucy Osborne’s design of the bleak municipal changing room is so authentic that you can almost smell the stale sweat and the acting in James Grieve’s beautifully judged production is outstanding.”

 

Sierz praised “a lovely cast” and Watkins found “an entirely believable set of characters”. Reviewers variously highlighted “brilliantly blunt Vivienne Gibbs,” “droll” yet “poignant” Matt Sutton, and the “almost Falstaffian relish” of “the excellent Andy Rush”. And, as Sarah Hemming told us, “halting steps towards a relationship are beautifully handled by Jamie Samuel and Philip Duguid-McQuillan”.

 

Henry Hitchings judged the piece “generous, warm-hearted and packed with telling, often very funny detail” and Watkins declared it “an utterly charming must-see”.

Nov 2013: Scottsboro Boys, Blam!, and From Here to Eternity

Masculine dancing dominates this month’s tales of human bondage, with inspired use of the form to confront the horror of racism and the minor distress of office tedium, and creative choreography evoking machismo at a US army base in the advent of Pearl Harbour.

 

Best of the Month: November 2013

 

The Scottsboro Boys, 4-star average: Young Vic to 21 Dec

 

Susan Stroman’s restaged production of the final Kander and Ebb musical gained a consistent 4 stars from all nine major pro reviewers.

 

A notorious case from the 1930s Deep South is ironically presented as a ‘minstrel show’. As the form’s racist perspective gradually turns on its head, Paul Taylor (Independent) explains, “the black performers get to create gleeful caricatures of a gallery of bigoted whites.”

 

Some aired misgivings about what Kate Bassett (Arts Desk) called this “poetic licence”. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) acknowledged: “The combination of a distasteful artform, racial intolerance and perky dance routines is guaranteed to make us squirm.” Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) outlined the most common concern: “There’s hardly a moment’s let-up in two uninterrupted hours, creating a sort of vivid kangaroo-court effect that doesn’t have the musical variety or impact of Chicago, nor the sex appeal.”

 

Most responses were on balance enthusiastic. Michael Billington (Guardian) was among those praising the “wittily inventive direction and choreography” and there was particular admiration for a song-and-tap routine about the electric chair, which even a disappointed Quentin Letts (Mail) admitted “cut into one’s heart”.

 

The cast, with a multitasking ensemble of five from Broadway, was variously hailed as “superb”, “exceptionally strong” and “phenomenal”, while everyone singled out new lead Kyle Scatliffe as “extraordinarily charismatic”, “imposing” or “profoundly affecting.”

 

Charles Spencer (Telegraph) representatively called it “passionate, original, and at times deeply moving” concluding “though this is the very antithesis of a feel-good musical, there is no mistaking its power, dark wit and indignation.”

 

 

Blam!, 4.5-star average: Peacock Theatre to 16 Nov

 

The West End average for this Edinburgh transfer is based on two new glowing reviews, building on the raft it received up north in August.

 

Creator and star Kristjan Ingimarsson, with three others, creates a stifling office atmosphere before gradually, and wordlessly, transforming petty work rivalries into a blockbuster movie-style conflict.

 

Clement Crisp (FT) described “a stunningly funny and anarchic fantasy” created through “a dazzling combination of acrobatics, mime (…funny, wildly dangerous and irresistible) and beady-eyed social comment. The office becomes a battleground, a jungle, outer space.”

 

Will Stone (What’s on Stage) described: “a high-octane series of impressive acrobatics…with Matrix-style slow motion reflexes, ninja moves, leaps, rolls, dives and even dangling from the overhead lights…almost every piece of office equipment is imaginatively used in some way.”

 

Crisp declared: “the gradual collapse of order, of proper behaviour, the fierce onslaughts of fantasy, of cinematic jokes, the prodigious physical resourcefulness of the cast and inventiveness of the staging, are blissfully, jaw-crackingly funny, and wildly true as the inner selves of these four men are revealed.”

 

The Edinburgh reviews supply a missing female perspective, with several worrying about who would clear up the resulting mess. Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) acknowledged “It’s true, the show smacks slightly of ‘boys-with-toys’, but when it’s as fun as this, who cares?”

 

Stone agreed “some may find this all a bit too laddish” but concluded: “with such death-defying acts of agility and strength, Ingimarsson… deserves high praise for blurring the lines between dance, drama and comedy in such an original way.”

 

 

 

From Here to Eternity, 3.3-star average: Shaftesbury Theatre to Apr 26 2014

 

Most pros gave an ambivalent 3 stars to this heavily advertised musical about the life and loves of three US soldiers in 1941 Hawaii.

 

More enthusiastic, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph), enjoyed its ‘pacy’ direction and ‘crafty’ design, (contrasting giant postcards with jaded reality), and praised its “potent sense of atmosphere” ascribing that to “the sight and sound of militarised machismo – Rice makes GI grunts part of the percussive furniture, while choreographer Javier de Frutos turns grinding dormitory routines and training drills into a sinuous spectacle of synchronised physicality.”

 

There were no complaints about the singing, but many found the music, as Michael Coveney put it, “more serviceable than inspired”. Edward Seckerson (Arts Desk) elaborated: “too much of this score dabbles in style rather than inhabiting it” resulting in “a kind of generalised popiness. …Tim Rice’s lyrics are generally strong. But the ballads are weak and fail to deliver the requisite emotional punch.”

 

Of the leads, all agreed with Cavendish: “Handsome, sweet-voiced Robert Lonsdale shines brightest”. Sackerson was typical in finding Ryan Sampson “sweetly tragic” with “winning appeal”, but ‘Pop Idol’ Darius’ was generally judged ‘corny’, or ‘bland’. Hitchings noted his “virile baritone” but found his acting “a little stiff”.

 

Overall verdicts ranged from “huge disappointment” through “harmless nonsense” to “a spunky effort”, and there was similar dissent about its West End chances. Cavendish judged it no classic but continued: “it dares to speak to our inner grown-up about frustrated yearning, fleeting romance and pluck.”