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”.