August 2014: The Crucible, Medea, and Shakespeare in Love

Gender politics ran throughout the best-reviewed London shows in recent weeks, which included two classic revenge tragedies as well as some lighter-hearted cross-dressing subterfuge from the cinema.


The Crucible – Old Vic, 4.5-star average  


Five-star reviews dominated the critics’ response to what Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) called “a granite hard, precision cut, intensely atmospheric production that transcends the original context of the play” and which others judged “mesmerising”, “astonishing”, “extraordinary” or “magnificent” and “thrilling”.


Michael Billington (Guardian) found “everything … of a piece, from the distressed walls of Soutra Gilmour’s set … to the subliminal creepiness of Richard Hammarton’s music and sound” and Paul Taylor (Independent) described “the sick dread of a horrible dream from which you are powerless to awake”.


There was praise for the movement direction and performances which, said Henry Hitchings (ES), “pulse with bruising physicality”. Samantha Colley as Abigail was judged “utterly chilling”, “remarkable” and “memorably sinister” and Spencer highlighted the girls around her, who “speak in creepy unison, and screech and howl, shaking their long hair and writhing on the floor” with “an authentic edge of collective hysteria”.


Charles Spencer (Telegraph) declared Richard Armitage “an exhilarating stage actor” and felt Proctor’s “deep guilt … is powerfully caught.” Taylor enjoyed his “powerfully imposing presence and a ferociously passionate contrarian spirit” and observed “a very moving, pained dignity” in Anna Madeley as his wife. As Hitchings said, “Their intimate moments wrench the heart.”


Most agreed with Taylor, who said “There isn’t a weak link in Farber’s 24-strong ensemble”. Spencer echoed the point in saying that “even the smallest roles come to full-blooded life”.


Taylor said: “Farber’s revival brings the nightmare madness home to us with an extraordinary physical intensity, a masterly feel for the different emotional rhythms in Miller’s scenes and a tension that is brilliantly sustained,” and Hitchings described “an absorbing and ultimately devastating experience. It taxes the mind but also spears you in the guts.”


Runs to Sep 13 2014



Medea – National Theatre, 3.9-star average


Almost all fours met what Charles Spencer called “a raw 90-minute modern-dress production that never relaxes the dramatic tension”, thanks to the “stark eloquence” of Ben Power’s new translation.


Most, like Paul Taylor, appreciated a “striking” split-level set and enjoyed a chorus, here bridesmaids, “who, as the tension mounts, register their nervousness in the involuntary judders and tics of Lucy Guerin’s disturbing choreography” while a Goldfrapp score “gets right under your skin as it eloquently intensifies the atmosphere of foreboding”.


As Medea, Helen McCrory gave what Spencer judged “the performance of her career”, with Taylor marking her “scorching emotional power and searching psychological acuity”. As Henry Hitchings saw it, “McCrory powerfully conveys Medea’s bitter destructiveness, while also suggesting the vulnerability of a woman shunned by a society where she’s seen as a cunning foreigner”. Ian Shuttleworth (FT) detected “a spirit of savage drought, as if she has run out of hope and with it tolerance” and Michael Billington described a woman “both rational and irrational”, switching “with brilliant volatility, from the manipulative to the murderous to the unpredictably humane”.


In Danny Sapani’s Jason, Billington observed “less an obvious ogre than a politician” and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) thought him “bullish” and “convincingly adventurous” – but Taylor found the performance “curiously under-energised”. On the whole, however, Taylor found the show “horribly gripping” and “unforgettable”.


As Spencer declared, “At the end of this thrilling and merciless production you leave the theatre feeling both appalled and strangely elated – the sure sign that a tragedy has hit its mark”.


Runs to Sep 4 2014



Shakespeare in Love – Noel Coward Theatre, 4.2-star average


In sunnier news, fours and fives met a piece which, as Charles Spencer commented, “in Lee Hall’s delightful stage adaptation …seems to have found its true home”. He described “a joyous celebration” which “sends up the theatre something rotten while simultaneously delighting in it”. Paul Taylor praised a production “filled with moments of sheer stage poetry as well as good-natured, effervescent fun”.


Sarah Hemming (FT) explained “All the world’s on stage here: Nick Ormerod’s timber Elizabethan theatre set comfortably accommodates both tavern and palace” and the piece “bristles with literary gags” while “Paddy Cunneen’s period-inflected live music weaves into the story and every move is watched by the ever-present crew of actors.”


Taylor found Tom Bateman “a more dashing and impetuously open-hearted Shakespeare than the sneakier Joseph Fiennes” and Spencer thought him “handsome, virile … and hilarious”. Michael Billington found Lucy Briggs-Owen “especially memorable as the shape-shifting Viola”, and Spencer found her “an enchanting, sexy delight”. Several mentioned the pair’s chemistry.


As did many, Hemming saw “a crack ensemble .. peppered with enjoyable performances”; a highlight was David Oakes’ “impish” Marlowe. Hitchings, who pointed out the expansion of the role, also found him “a twinkling charmer”.


Billington concluded: “Many of the best lines admittedly come from the famous film. But this is a play that stands on its own two feet as a heady celebration of the act of theatre.” Hitchings appreciated its “fizzy, infectious exuberance”, and Spencer judged it “the best British comedy since One Man, Two Guvnors”.


Runs to Feb 7 2015