Feb 2014: Happy Days, King Lear and The Pass

Our pick of the best for this month features three fine portrayals of tragically trapped individuals. While two are superstars in familiar, pinnacle roles, a familiar face from TV also grabs a chance to score from left field.

Happy Days – Young Vic to Mar 8 2014: 4-star average


All were impressed by what Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) called this “striking reinterpretation” of a Beckett play which presents what Sarah Hemming (FT) called one “of the greatest stage metaphors for the human condition”.


It is typical unsubtle Beckett: A woman (Winnie) and her husband (Willie) are trapped; he stuck in a cave, she buried in gravel. Amid appreciation for the innovative setting – British seaside, rather than featureless hellscape – and what Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) called “brilliantly constructed design”, Hemming explained: “It’s Winnie’s ordinariness here that makes the piece so terrifying: the terrain seems less post-apocalyptic than symbolic of the universal decline into old age.”


David Nice (Arts Desk) found David Beames “bizarrely touching” as a “mostly monosyllabic husband” but, appropriately, most attention went to Juliet Stephenson as the mostly-buried Winnie. Nice’s five-star review proclaimed “90 plus minutes of perfectly modulated near-monologue… channelled with no false note by wise young director Natalie Abrahami.”


He praised “the musicality and the poetry of Winnie’s seemingly random but devastatingly well structured observations” and Stephenson’s “astonishing vocal range and dynamics”. Coveney concurred, describing “a staccato, almost anti-lyrical, suburban chattering” and Hemming observed both “resolute breeziness and nimbleness” and “detailed comic timing”, making all the more poignant “the effort of will it takes” to block out desperate reality. Hitchings judged “extraordinary” the actor’s ability to seem mobile, making “the tiniest gestures appear balletic”.


Nice concurred, writing of a “once-in-a-generation” actress setting “the tragic-heroic benchmark” for the role. Dominic Maxwell (Times) agreed, “Juliet Stevenson imbues wit, warmth and a desperate vitality into her every unforgiving moment”, and was among those admitting “I left the theatre walking on air”.



King Lear – National Theatre to May 28 2014 (recently extended): 3.8-star average


Mixed positive responses from pro reviewers greeted Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale’s latest modern-dress classic, set in what Michael Coveney called: “a dark and cheerless Eastern European sort of place, with … a huge granite statue of the great-coated king in a bleak town square and an army of faceless supernumeraries.”


Henry Hitchings felt this “epic scale” emphasised “a drama about politics as well as a portrait of a disintegrating family”, with the production showing “collapsing relationships and morbid psychology being realised with piercing authenticity.” Coveney agreed the vast space helped create the sense “everyone is on a journey…plotted by director Sam Mendes with elegant, intelligent precision”.


But James Woodall (Arts Desk) found it “overbearingly a director’s King Lear” while otherwise enthusiastic Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) felt this “huge operatic beast” lacked intimacy. Several, including Charles Spencer (Telegraph), detected “spectacle for spectacle’s sake”.


There was broad consensus on a cast variously called “uniformly top-flight” and “beyond superlative”, with most reviewers praising each actor individually. Not all the praise of Russell Beale’s performance was unreserved, and some wondered if he looked the part. But Hitchings declared it “the best I have ever seen him” and “fascinating in its aching soulfulness”. Michael Billington (Guardian) enjoyed his “ability to explore the senselessness” in Shakespeare’s play and Paul Taylor (Independent) praised a “superb portrayal … turbulent with complexities and contradictions”.


Billington judged the production “quite exceptional … a magnetic and unorthodox Lear”. Coveney found it “the most completely satisfying version of the play in a long while, full of piercing insights in the murk” while Lukowski expressed the more measured position: “This is maximum ‘Lear’, and if it’s not faultless, it is awesome.” Taylor agreed: “Strongly recommended”.



The Pass – Royal Court Upstairs to Mar 1 2014: 3.7-star average


Amid a wide range of responses, a majority of pro reviewers gave four stars to this story of a footballer’s struggle with his sexuality over the arc of a decade. Stewart Pringle (Time Out) called it a “story of a man hollowed out by fame” whom we follow “through three stages of his career in three different hotel suites, three horrific mini-worlds of flannel slippers and room service.”


All enjoyed what Dominic Maxwell called playwright John Donnelly’s “witty, abrasive dialogue and psychological acuity” and, like Paul Taylor, approved director John Tiffany’s “dynamic, supremely assured production”. Michael Coveney appreciated that “you never feel bludgeoned with …’gay footballer’ propaganda” and “don’t have to be a fan yourself to understand exactly what’s going on”.


Matt Wolf (Arts Desk) described what he called “a star performance” and others found “commanding” “belting” or “magnificent”: Russell Tovey “at every acutely judged turn shows the cost to Jason’s own buffed but damaged self of inhabiting a lie”. Taylor enjoyed “the cockiness increasingly desperate and hollow” and Pringle agreed “rather than growing up he merely grows harder, as the toxic world he occupies prevents him from sloughing off his adolescence.”


All the performances in this four-hander were lauded: Michael Billington said Gary Carr “lends his Nigerian team-mate, Ade, exactly the right air of perplexed decency”; Lisa McGrillis was lauded as “excellent” as a power-broking table dancer, and Taylor found Nico Mirallegro “very funny as the gabby bell-hop”.


Wolf called the whole “as corrosive a study in psychic implosion and self-destruction as the London theatre has seen in an age”; Taylor found it “acerbically witty and horribly gripping”; and Pringle, while thinking it “in need of some cuts” concluded “when Donnelly moves in to strike in the final scenes, he scores in spectacular fashion.”