Earthbound life after death links our three otherwise disparate picks of this month, with the imagined passing of HM the Queen plunging Britain into a fantasy future at the Almeida, while ghosts and vampires lurk in the West End.
King Charles III – Almeida Theatre, 4.5-star average
Consistently enthusiastic professional reviews greeted Rupert Goold’s latest production, with most attention going to what Sarah Hemming (FT) called “Mike Bartlett’s scintillating and highly audacious new play”, which is, Charles Spencer (Telegraph) declared, “often wittily in debt to Shakespeare”.
Hemming felt Bartlett’s blend of “contemporary jargon with verse, archaic expression and iambic pentameter” cleverly highlighted “a playful drama – a ‘what if?'” that sets our current monarchy up for a transition to rank dramatically with the Bard’s best. Some, like Henry Hitchings (Standard), detected “a few moments when the gears grind awkwardly” amid the “perfectly balanced poetry.” Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) thought verse elevated “Royal soap opera into something sublime and serious” with characters “more rooted in public perception than biographical fact”. Hitchings, among others, praised Bartlett’s “impressive” sense of characters’ “inner lives” and most acknowledged what Paul Taylor (Independent) called “a very clever dramatic hook”.
Goold’s production, variously described as “pitch-perfect” and “ingenious” with “incredible momentum” was, said Spencer, “blessed with wit, clarity and moments of deeper feeling”, and Tom Scutt’s “discreetly handsome” yet “sinister” set was praised.
Several judged Tim Piggott-Smith’s Charles as “excellent”. Hemming enjoyed his “fine portrayal: ruminative, perplexed, likeable, conscientious and stubborn”. Spencer found the whole cast “outstanding”, describing Richard Goulding’s “hilarious, touching and hugely likeable” Harry, Oliver Chris’s “wit”, “steel”, and “diffident charm” as William and a “tremendous” Lydia Wilson as Kate.
Lukowski judged it “a meaty, hilarious, dizzyingly audacious state of the nation political thriller”. Spencer went further, calling it “the most spectacular, gripping and wickedly entertaining piece of lèse-majesté that British theatre has ever seen” and Dominic Maxwell (Times) called it “Bold, brilliant and unstoppably entertaining” concluding “theatre doesn’t get much better than this.” Runs to May 31, but look out for a West End transfer.
Let The Right One In – Apollo Theatre, 4.0 star average
This Royal Court transfer to the newly re-opened Apollo seems to have benefited from the move, with pro reviews reaching new 5-star heights.
Lyn Gardner (Guardian) praised “Christine Jones’s eerie, atmospheric design” and Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) explained: “You check the Apollo ceiling for holes and see instead a deep blue sky with trees and stars stretched across the upper circle: onstage, the forest of tall silver birches proclaims Chekhov, until you spot the orange sodium glow of a street lamp.”
John Tiffany’s production, featuring silent dances choreographed by Simon Hoggett and an ambient score, was hailed as “gorgeous” and “strangely surreal” while Gardner found it “exquisitely beautiful and heartbreakingly sad”. There was praise, too, for what Fiona Mountford (Standard) called “Jack Thorne’s spare yet engaging script”.
With several reviews mentioning fairytales, Sarah Hemming explained “All sorts of disturbing sexual and psychological issues rumble around in the background, but Tiffany leaves them as sinister hints and concentrates on the curious relationship”. She found Martin Quinn “very touching as the awkward, troubled Oskar”, a performance Stewart Pringle (Time Out) declared “stunning”.
Mountford called Rebecca Benson, elsewhere judged “outstanding” and “riveting” as Eli, “sensationally good, conveying just enough of an idea of otherworldliness and planting a note of carefully quelled confusion into every sentence”. Charles Spencer found the tenderness between the two “beautifully caught”, enjoyed “a particularly dark and striking performance from Clive Mendus” and appreciated the “horribly persuasive” bullies.
Sam Marlowe (Arts Desk) judged the whole “quite captivating: an unforgettable, bittersweet enchantment”, Pringle described “a full-blooded, gorgeously realised love story that’s retains its humanity even in its most feral moments” and Spencer, who found it “remarkable”, praised “genuine artistry and depth of feeling”. Runs to Sep 27.
Blithe Spirit – Gielgud Theatre, 4.0 star average
Michael Blakemore’s restaging of what Charles Spencer called “one of Noël Coward’s most inventive comedies” but that Andrzej Lukowski wasn’t alone in judging “a creaky old farce” received predominantly 4-star pro reviews.
There was little to counter Spencer’s assessment: “Blakemore’s production, elegantly designed by Simon Higlett with spookily billowing curtains, splendidly captures the bracing heartlessness of the comedy.”
Henry Hitchings described Lansbury’s “charm, balance and precision” as she presented “a happy mix of substance and scene-stealing” capturing “the character’s self-importance but also her frivolity” and Sarah Hemming described “an absolute joy, beautifully pitched on the border between eccentric and earnest”. Paul Taylor explained: “it’s the way she emphasises the medium’s batty and strangely admirable self-belief that makes her portrayal so funny and endearing.”
Michael Billington (Guardian) was among those pointing to Charles Edwards as “the real star” and called him “one of the best comic actors on the British stage”. Hitchings, who found him “perennially underrated” described his Condomine as “both suave and petulant, an urbane master of the cocktail cabinet who’s nevertheless forever on the brink of panic,” and Hemming hailed “a brilliantly detailed comic turn”.
Kate Bassett (Arts Desk), among others, thought the cast “top-notch”. Of the leading ladies, Hitchings found Jemima Rooper “impeccably irritating as Elvira, the most seductive of ghosts” and Janie Dee’s Ruth “a perfect blend of refinement and shrewish nagging”. Several highlighted what Spencer called “a little gem of a performance” from newcomer Patsy Ferran as the maid.
Spencer judged the whole a “richly enjoyable revival” featuring “a tour de force that will glow warmly in the memory of all who see it”. Taylor agreed the “cold-blooded, arguably misogynistic comedy” was “warmed by the presence of Lansbury” while Bassett proclaimed it all “Batty fun.” Runs to Jun 7.