The political is personal in this month’s picks, with two intriguing revival and a surprising reveal of a new satire at the National Theatre. Each, in their own way, discusses the impact of politics on individuals and on their relationships with society.
Skylight – Wyndham’s Theatre, 4.5-star average
Skylight is the best-reviewed show in the past few months (since King Charles III in early April), with several five-star reviews from our pro panel. Critics were consistently impressed by what Henry Hitchings (ES) called “David Hare’s prickly, intelligent mid-Nineties play” which, explained Sarah Hemming (FT), entwines “smart debate with messy feelings”, raising social issues which “still feel agonisingly fresh”.
The play stars Carey Mulligan as an east London schoolteacher and Bill Nighy as the wealthy restauranteur she once had an affair with. Most reviewers praised what Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) called “Stephen Daldry’s savagely intense production”, and others pronounced “finely judged” or “knockout”. Hitchings said it “zeroes in on the tensions of its central relationship while also – thanks in part to Bob Crowley’s looming, bleak design – providing a strong sense of context” andCharles Spencer (Telegraph) described “a dismal council estate, brilliantly caught”.
Several praised “beautiful” central performances, as well as the actors’ natural chemistry. Matt Wolf (Arts Desk) found Nighy “panther-like” and “utterly mesmeric” and Hemming enjoyed his “raffish, twinkly charisma” and “superb” timing. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) felt he “verges on grandstanding, though enjoyably so” and Quentin Letts (Mail) agreed, finding him “astonishing, unbalancing, unforgettable”.
Spencer praised Mulligan’s “stillness and an almost feline sense of self possession” and enjoyed “beautiful moments when she seems to light up with a glow of recollected romance”. Hitchings observed “a lovely poise as she conveys a mix of elegant composure and wounded pride”, before she “erupts startlingly”, and Letts enjoyed “as good an outbreak of anger as I have seen on stage”.
Hitchings felt the production “packs real emotional punch and is often at its funniest when most angry”. Even a measured Lukowski concluded “it works – because of the performances, because of the political relevance, because of the passion in the writing, and because ultimately it’s hard not warm to the underlying suggestion that perhaps one day love will save us from our stupid squabblings.”
Runs to August 23. The production will also be broadcast live to UK cinemas on July 17 as part of National Theatre Live.
Great Britain – National Theatre, 3.6-star average
The National Theatre had an surprise unveiling of a new play just this week, set at a London tabloid with Billie Piper atthe helm. Written by Richard Bean (who adapted the NT’s hit One Man, Two Guv’nors) and directed by Nicholas Hytner, the NT’s outgoing Artistic Director, there is a sense of high ambition at play – yet the unusual lack of publicity in months before the show mean plenty of tickets remain.
Is it any good? Apparently; most reviewers have given it four stars (though none have given it five).Henry Hitchings (ES) called it a “deliberately grotesque” satire, and Michael Billington (Guardian) felt it was written “with real verve”, launching with uncommon timeliness in the wake of the phone-hacking verdicts. Billington described a “pacy and busy” production where “Giant video screens dominate Tim Hatley’s design, relaying snippets from other papers – as the images flash past we experience the fluidity of the news agenda as well as its limits”.
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) praised “terrific acting work across the board and slick direction” showing how Bean “introduces us to a gallery of vipers, weasels and leeches, caricatures all”. Cavendish went on to call a darker second half “required, conscience-pricking viewing”. Many mentioned an initial cartoonishness, and Paul Taylor (Independent) called it “farce with fangs”, noting that it “weaves between politically incorrect humour and something darker and more troubling”.
Hitchings found Billie Piper’s news editor “thrillingly persuasive”, while Cavendish called her “convincingly shallow and ruthless” and others judged her “excellent”.
Hitchings was also delighted by Aaron Neil’s “jaw-droppingly dozy police commissioner,” while Billington enjoyed Neil’s “admirable po-faced sincerity,” also praising “sharp performances” from Robert Glenister and Oliver Chris.
Several tempered their praise by saying the scope of the play was too broad, with Dominic Maxwell (Times), who alone gave it two stars, dismissing it as “bloated”.
Cavendish summed up the play as “a vitriolic, bluntly entertaining comedy that initially has the audience tickled pink with its levity, then finally blushing red with national shame” and more than one writer described the overall effect as “bracing.” Billington praised its “tabloid energy and bravura” and Taylor judged it “exhilarating and exemplary”.
Runs to August 23
Fathers and Sons – Donmar Warehouse, 4-star average
A wealth of four-star reviews met this revival of a Turgenev novel adapted by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the narrative revolves around a passionate young nihilist, Bazarov, and his disruption of life on a family estate during a visit.
The clever new adaptation, says Paul Taylor (Independent), “skilfully refocuses the material .. to make the play a true ensemble piece about Bazarov’s impact”. Charles Spencer judged Director Lyndsey Turner “superb at bringing a large cast of characters to vivid and often disputatious life” andMichael Coveney thought her “spring-heeled, beautifully acted production creates a real sense of a new Chekhov.” Sarah Hemming found “the generational conflict in Turgenev’s story …as fresh as ever”.
Most attention went to what Michael Billington called “a rich gallery of performances” in which “all the characters come alive”.
Spencer felt “Seth Numrich brilliantly captures the impatient radicalism of Bazarov” detecting “an underlying vulnerability…that is genuinely touching”. Taylor appreciated “the charisma and the smug more-radical-than-thou manner” adding “You never doubt, though, that his beliefs are painfully sincere”.
In Joshua James, playing a young friend of Bazarov, Henry Hitchings saw “a performance of extraordinary tenderness and detail” which “beautifully conveys his blend of youthful idealism and fragile self-awareness” as “a rebel, a wounded bird and the victim of a spiritual crisis” who remains nevertheless “poised and intriguing”.
Taylor found Tim McMullan’s Pavel “exquisitely funny and ineffably sad” and Billington reported “one of the best displays I’ve ever seen of the superfluous man”. Andrzej Lukowski highlighted Susan Engel, “who steals both of her brief scenes” and most agreed with him: “There are no weak links or unmemorable performances”.
Billington concluded: “Friel has reminded us that there is more to the book than Bazarov and that Turgenev, while describing a particular moment in Russian history, ultimately stands for the eternal values of love, friendship and unyielding devotion.” Hitchings found “a deeply satisfying mix of soulfulness and elegance” and Taylor likened it to “a richly interwoven chamber symphony”.
Runs to July 26