February’s noteworthy new shows – The Ruling Class, Di and Viv and Rose, and The Hard Problem

This month’s pick of new productions tackles some weighty perennial issues, with new plays about friendship and consciousness and an intriguing revival looking at privilege.
The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, 3.8-star average

The West End revival of what Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) called “Peter Barnes’s riotously funny-peculiar assault on the English upper class and their deranged tendencies” garnered reviews ranging from three to five stars, with most pros awarding it four.

Neil Norman (Express) was enthusiastic: “One foot in music hall and the other in agitprop theatre, Barnes takes no prisoners… and his aim is true”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) acknowledged “the boldness of this bonkers play” judging it “alternately outrageous and courageous”. But Henry Hitchings (ES) was among those finding “a lot of the satire… heavy-handed or shrill”.

Paul Taylor (Independent) detected “a strong whiff of Joan Littlewood-meets-Joe-Orton” but if Michael Billington (Guardian) noted “times when Barnes’s play betrays its age”, Norman congratulated Lloyd for “resisting the temptation to manipulate” the sixties satire to reflect current “posh politics”. Taylor praised a “full-blast production” of “terrific, going-for-broke gusto” and Hitchings felt he gave the “madness room to unfurl”, capturing its “hallucinatory spirit”.

Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) described “a performance of almost overwhelming savagery and brio” from James McAvoy, which Cavendish declared “one of the year’s must-sees”. Taylor praised “a stellar portrayal of derangement” and Shenton judged McAvoy to be “at the top of his considerable game”. Cavendish explained: “Eyes glinting with mischief, smiling beatifically, he takes Barnes’s luxuriantly freewheeling speeches at often breath-taking speed so that even when they jump the rails of sense, we’re still hooked”.

Most praised what Coveney called “a great cast of enthusiastic vagabonds” presenting “delightful helter-skelter stuff” and several highlighted “hilarious” Anthony O’Donnell and “especially funny” Forbes Masson.

Coveney described “a skein of lunacy, artifice, misguided passion and satirical point-scoring” which “McAvoy’s fizzing performance just about holds… together”. Cavendish found “the atmospheric insanity, rather than any Cameron-era topicality… most arresting”. Shenton judged the whole “dangerous, surprising, and wildly entertaining”.

Runs to 11 Apr

Di and Viv and Rose – Vaudeville Theatre, 3.8-star average

The Hampstead Theatre’s transfer of what Patrick Marmion (Mail) called “a bittersweet lesson in friendship” received almost all four-star pro reviews.

Marianka Swain (Arts Desk) described two acts reflecting “the trajectory” of a three-way friendship “lingering on the student years and then dashing through decades – effective thematically, but creating some jagged transitions and the odd unsatisfying snapshot.” Yet while Natasha Tripney (The Stage) enjoyed “the heady intensity of their flat-sharing days, the silliness and optimism, the rows”, Michael Billington found playwright Amelia Bullmore “best in exploring the problems [of] post-student life” and enjoyed “seeing the actors adjust to the ravages of time”.

Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) found “Bullmore’s light-touch dialogue… witty and smart” and Billington saw “three meaty roles”. Anna Mackmin’s production was variously called “sprightly” “energetic” or “easy-going”.

Swain praised “the authenticity of its created family” whose “chemistry” Marmion found “palpable”. Even Bowie-Sell, who found the characters “likeable” but not “complex”, enjoyed “three really lovely, watchable performances” which “make the relationships feel real”.

Of Tamzin Outhwaite, Ian Shuttleworth (FT) said “one expects her sporty lesbian Di to be the most predictable of the characters, but little by little she becomes the most rounded”. Swain agreed she “beautifully reveals the uncertainty beneath Di’s swagger”.

Shuttleworth found Jenna Russell’s sweet, boy-hungry Rose… easy to like”, and Swain felt Russell “relishes Rose’s charmingly blithe dippiness” yet “deftly avoids caricature”. Shuttleworth found Samantha Spiro’s Viv “a joy to watch”.

Swain judged Bullmore’s “rare portrait of women in all their complexity” as a “wise and witty gem”. Even Tripney, who missed the Hampstead cast, acknowledged a “genuinely funny and moving… celebration of female friendship” which, felt Billington “wittily explores its ongoing consolations”. Shuttleworth summed up: “Though not at all obtrusively sentimental” it “makes you want to give it a hug”.

Runs to 14 March

The Hard Problem – National Theatre, 3.1-star average

More varied five- to two-star reviews met Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the nature of consciousness, with a 3-star pro majority.

Henry Hitchings welcomed an “intellectually charged piece that delights in the slippery nature of language and pulses with interesting ideas” while acknowledging “characters who prefer discussing life to living it”, and was among many appreciating Hyntner’s “elegant” production.

Quentin Letts (Mail) found “spectacle, stimulation and preppy wryness” amid the “words, words, words” enjoying “cerebral chutzpah, slyly staged”. Michael Billington thought the arguments “almost too much to take in” but detected “strong emotional underpinning”.

Paul Taylor, among others, admitted to “disappointment” arguing it “never quite exerts a strong enough grip as drama” and finding it emotionally “under-nourished”. Mark Shenton agreed: “He makes light work of difficult philosophical concepts” but his characters “adopt their positions in ways that are frequently unconvincing.” Sarah Hemming (FT) detected “heart” and found “the dazzling cut and thrust of ideas… often thrilling”, but agreed “some conversations feel pretty stilted”.

Most enjoyed a lead several judged “excellent”. Billington described “a vibrant central character” about whom “we are made to care” and felt Olivia Vinall “brings out every facet of a woman who is altruistic, questing and vulnerable”. Taylor found her character’s “luminous integrity and private sadness… excellently conveyed” and Letts described “a significant talent”. Billington praised “strong support,” but Hemming suggested the “fine assembly of actors… need more to go on”.

Hemming concluded: “Flecked with Stoppard’s wry, ironic humour and luminous intelligence” it “movingly, wrestles with deep questions about what makes us who we are and with the implications of materialism” but thought it “more a play about a great subject than a great play”. But Billington described “a rich, ideas-packed work that offers a defence of goodness whatever its ultimate source”.

Runs to 27 May

Don’t forget also the transfers of A View From The Bridge (4.5 star average, Young Vic to Wyndham’s) and My Night With Reg (4.1 stars, Donmar to Apollo) and the return of the Young Vic’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days (4.4 stars), all of which impressed critics last year.