It’s grim up North, but the South’s no better. The pick of this month features three well-loved visions of bleak urban Britain, all given an extra dimension by hindsight and two gaining new perspectives from a shift to theatre.
1984, Almeida Theatre: 4.5-star average
The Almeida continues its run of hits under new Artistic Director Rupert Goold. Impressive four- and five-star reviews greeted this new adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, with the production hailed as “brilliantly imaginative”, “disturbing”, “thrilling”, “stunning” and “extraordinary”.
Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) explained: “[Director Robert] Icke and [Writer Duncan] Macmillan’s chief innovation is to set events…around 2050…the time of the novel’s appendix. Mark Arends’s Winston is part of a group studying Winston Smith’s 1984 diary, which instils terrible flashbacks.”
While video surveillance also filters audience perceptions, Michael Billington (Guardian) found “Orwell’s core dystopian narrative” distilled “with great skill”. Charles Spencer (Telegraph) explained: “We are both watching the events of the novel and invited to consider possible reactions to it… making this perhaps over-familiar text seem both daring and unpredictable.”
Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) highlighted Chloe Lamford’s design, “which at first looks drab and retro, yet explodes into an onslaught of fierce light and buzzing energy”, and identifying it as the show’s “heart”. Lukowski declared, “It’s the medium that’s most powerful” praising “trippy enhancements from Tom Gibbons’s roaring sound design, Tim Reid’s projections and Natasha Chivers’s blinding washes of light”.
Similar plaudits greeted performances Spencer judged “outstanding”. Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) found Arends’ Winston “beautifully characterised,” Sarah Hemming (FT) admired his “pale, nervy intensity” and Kate Bassett (Arts Desk) judged him “superb… skinny, fraught yet determined”. Spencer admired how Hara Yannas “powerfully captures Julia” who, in Bassett’s words, “treads a suspense-inducing, fine line between potential treachery and devotion”. Tim Dutton’s O’Brien was described as “terrifying” and “deeply chilling”.
Hemming said of the whole: it “strips away complacency and plays on [our] creeping anxieties about trust, manipulation and freedom.” Lukowski agreed, judging it “crushingly powerful stuff”, while Spencer described “a production of sharp ingenuity and jolting dramatic clout. It nags away in the memory like a toothache or a troubled dream.”
The production is sold out, but look out for day tickets and returns; it then transfers to the Playhouse Theatre in the West End from April 28. At the Almeida until 29 March.
A Taste of Honey, National Theatre: 3.8-star average
The only original play of this month’s three, a debut written almost sixty years ago, ironically suffered comparisons with its 1961 film adaptation. Even so, it garnered mostly four-star pro reviews.
Michael Billington praised “a revival that exactly catches [then-19-year-old playwright Shelagh] Delaney’s mix of sharply observed reality and self-conscious theatricality”. But while Michael Coveney detected “the smell of living in 1958”, both Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk) and Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail) took issue with what Sierz called the production’s “high-definition grimness”. And while Paul Taylor (Independent) enjoyed “good-humoured mischievousness” and an “admirable refusal to succumb to po-faced piety or self-pity” others detected cartoonishness.
Lesley Sharp, as Salford schoolgirl Jo’s tarty single mother, was universally praised as “wonderful”, “superb”, “brilliant” “memorable” and “dazzling”. Henry Hitchings enjoyed “a performance of pointed physicality and explosive feeling” as “a monster, yet one who is hilarious and never truly hateful”.
There was appreciation too for Kate O’Flynn’s “excellent” “splendid” or “magnetic” Jo. Sarah Hemming (FT)found her “truculent, defiant and vulnerable” and Charles Spencer praised her “touchingly bruised quality” and heroic “resilience and wit”.
Both performances were called “stellar”, and Taylor enjoyed the “abrasive music hall double-act quality in the funny, painful slanging matches”. The men were praised for “fine work” and Billington described Harry Hepple’s portrayal of “poignant solitude”, Dean Lennox Kelly’s “spivvy bravura” and Eric Kofi Abrefa’s “itinerant charm”.
Among the approving, Billington found it “a tough, tenacious play with an emotional bite”. Marmion called it “as real and vital as Salford on Saturday night”, and Dominic Maxwell (Times) declared that “this amusing, touching revival makes you marvel at quite how much [Delaney] achieved”. Runs to 5 April.
The Full Monty, Noel Coward Theatre: 3.7-star average
This new staging of a now-familiar tale earned a solid four stars from several pro reviewers.
Michael Coveney found Simon Beaufoy’s script, based on his 1997 screenplay, “vividly unsubtle” creating “a full-on blast of crude popular theatre in the great Northern tradition”. Patrick Marmion noted “Being live, it’s that bit edgier for the six lads” and Paul Taylor felt “The comic paradox” of men discovering self-worth through striptease “loses some of its double-edged quality” when “the audience become whooping co-conspirators”.
Suzi Feay (FT) suggested it’s “almost a period piece now” and Marmion felt some of it “hackneyed”. But Henry Hitchings judged it “a thoughtful reworking” which “for all its verve, [is] also a poignant vision of Britain’s industrial decline and the modern male’s increasing anxieties about body image”.
Feay was among those praising a set evoking “the vast open spaces of the derelict factory” while “a glorious cityscape of streetlit Sheffield glows in the distance”, Taylor spotted “some of the most despondent Y-fronts ever seen on a stage” and Marmion enjoyed the choreography’s “finely organised chaos”.
All echoed Taylor’s praise of a “fine quirky cast”, and his assertion that divorced father and son Kenny Doughty and Jack Hollington “snag the heart”. Feay found Beaufoy’s “basic types” nevertheless “written and portrayed with individuality, gusto and charm”, highlighting “notable moments of poignancy” between older Simon Rouse and tubby Roger Morlidge and praising a “slow-tempo” Craig Gazey, while Marmion proclaimed Sydney Cole “a humdinger of a Horse”.
Hitchings judged the whole “crowdpleasing theatre — but with guts, wit and soul”, Feay found it “impossible to dislike” despite playing with our discomfort, and Taylor agreed it’s “destined to be as wildly popular as the celluloid original” admitting “By the riotous finale, everything is off – including the roof”. Runs to 14 June (at least).