May’s best-reviewed new shows: The Father, Death of a Salesman and Bugsy Malone

Our three best reviewed new releases for this month are all modern classics, with a couple of powerful depictions of ageing and decline and an uplifting expression of youthful talent for light relief.

The Father – Tricycle Theatre, 4.8-star average

A five-star majority greeted this new French play which almost all reviewers called “devastating”. Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) described “a beautifully crafted, if harshly upsetting piece.”

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) thought the text “crisply translated” and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) found it “spare, elegant, and perfectly aligned” with a “watchful production”. Marianka Swain (Arts Desk) felt the play’s “stark, inescapable power” is that “we experience first-hand” the “cold horror” of dementia. She explained “Familiar faces shift into a succession of carers, while furniture moves and vanishes. As Andre loses his grasp on reality, so do we.”

Bowie-Sell enjoyed “excellent turns from the leads”, particularly “superb” Kenneth Cranham’s “heart-breakingly vulnerable” Andre. Hitchings detected “craggy charm” explaining “he slips into paranoia… lurching between moments of lucidity and painful bewilderment” as he’s “gradually robbed of his dignity”. Bowie-Sell said: “He jokes and smiles at his confusion, but there’s a fierceness in his eyes” as if “waiting for someone to deliver a punchline”. Coveney judged it “the performance of his life… natural, understated, clever and finally almost unbearably moving”.

Swain noted Andre’s “casual cruelty” toward daughter Anne and Hitchings said “Claire Skinner touchingly conveys her weary affection”.

Swain found “Miriam Buether’s increasingly minimalist set… a striking visual metaphor for Andre’s loss: of everything, everyone, and finally himself”. Coveney described action “punctuated with the most astonishing black-outs …flashing up like photographic negatives, accompanied by fractured Bach keyboard music”.

Hitchings praised a “stunning play” achieving “an uncomfortably sharp sense of what it’s like inside the head of a character losing his grip on reality” and Bowie-Sell summed up “A brutal, truthful journey into some of life’s darkest places”.

Runs to 13 June

Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre, 4-star average

A four-star pro consensus greeted a play Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) said “has a quiet magnificence” and “wounded, honest humanity”, praising the RSC for a “spot-on production” that “reminds us once more” of its “greatness”. Fisun Guner (Arts Desk) described a “fluid, dream-like structure” in which” Willy’s interior and exterior worlds collapse into each other”, and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out)felt Gregory Doran’s “trad revival” made Miller’s “complicated mesh of psychodrama, memory play and still-pertinent social realism… all look effortless”, realising Willy Loman’s decline “with deft precision and a few sly flourishes – voices from the past…and a febrile live jazz score that grows more intense as Willy becomes more adrift”.

Guner reported “stunning central performances” which Theo Bosanquet (What’s on Stage) found “note-perfect”. Lukowski praised Anthony Sher’s “splendid performance” describing “a distracting mumble, a constant low-pitched whine that jars the nerves” until “it becomes apparent that this little man is, in his own way, a force of nature” with “a strange, tragic charisma that’s allowed his mess of a life to continue to move forward on fumes alone”.  Mountford said Sher “beautifully outlines” Willy’s “foolish grandiosity” and Bosanquet described “a master of physicality” portraying “a wounded animal”.

Lukowski found Harriet Walter “reliably brilliant – tired, human, compassionate”. Guner, who judged her “pitch perfect”, felt “Linda is the play’s emotionally still centre” and Walter makes the role “larger than it appears on the page”.

Mountford said Alex Hassell’s Biff “swaggers before hunching into himself with despair”, Lukowski described a “magnetically pitiful… shattered alpha male twisted with self-loathing” and Bosanquet praised a “highly-wrought performance… counterbalanced” by “the admirably understated Sam Marks” as Happy.

Lukowski described Miller’s “greatest and trickiest play, done just right”. Bosanquet enjoyed a “faithful and quietly epic production” of “a tragedy that will echo down the ages” and Mountford praised “Superb drama”.

Runs to 18 July

Bugsy Malone – Lyric Hammersmith, 4.1-star average

The production that relaunched the Lyric received four stars from most pro reviewers. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail) described “a terrific, zestful staging” of what Mark Shenton (Stage) called this “knowing yet constantly affectionate portrait of Chicago gangster turf warfare” and others judged it “joyous”, “punchy”, “feisty and subtle” “entirely winning” and “a blast”.

Andrzej Lukowski praised director Sean Holmes’s “ruthless lack of sentiment” and “gift for metatheatrical schtick”, concluding “his Bugsy is aware of its underlying absurdity, yet also played with a gleefully straight bat”.

Praising “uncluttered” design, Shenton said choreographer McOnie “populates the stage” with “kinetic movement” of “seamless clarity and sublime co-ordination”. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) reported “terrific” dancing combining “juvenile exuberance” and “drilled professionalism”.

Neil Norman (Express) enjoyed “witty one-liners” and songs marrying “sophisticated lyrics with memorable tunes”. Cavendish observed that, while the movie’s stars lip-synched, these performers “carry the whole kit and caboodle” lending it “crucial emotional substance”.

Cavendish thought the cast “the peak of razzmatazz perfection”, praising “American accents, deadpan attitudes, dance-steps and vocal strength” delivered “with knock-out force” and reporting youngsters “radiating mischief, personality and talent”. Lukowski was among those acknowledging “a couple of am dram wobbles” but thought Samantha Allison “a terrific actor” and felt Thea Lamb “surely has a big singing career ahead of her”. Shenton called Daniel Purves “a pocket-sized dynamo, fresh, funny and fabulous” and thought Max Gill “owns this stage”. Jamila Ajadi “melted” Marmion’s heart and Cavendish concluded “they’re all champs”.

Marmion thought the show “a real shot in the arm” for the Lyric, “up there with Matilda and Billy Elliot”. Lukowski praised a “glorious, glorious finale” and Cavendish judged the whole “something very special indeed”.

Runs to 5 Sept

April’s most amazing new shows: Gypsy, Oppenheimer and Carmen Disruption

We’ve picked some real treats for you from a month of well-reviewed openings, with three impressive productions, two illuminated by fine lead performances and one that intriguingly fractures its title role.

Gypsy – Savoy, 4.7 pro average

Jonathan Kent’s revival of what Dominic Maxwell (Times) called “one of the greatest Broadway musicals,” which Michael Billington (Guardian) judged “fabulous” and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) declared “simply the best”, received perfect five-star scores from most reviewers, and was lauded as “magnificently restored”, “stunning”, “thrilling” and “even better since its Chichester debut”.

Coveney described “a barnstorming, scathingly hard-edged performance” from Imelda Staunton, which Maxwell found “staggeringly good”. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) found her “hilarious, tragic, monstrous impresario Momma Rose” elevated by “the sense of irreparable damage to her soul” and Billington agreed that “Every facet of the character is caught” in “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theatre”.

Among the other players, Billington saw Lara Pulver “chart Louise’s growth from shy wallflower to coldly calculating stripper with great skill”. Coveney found Scarlet Roche’s baby June “astonishing”, and highlighted Julie Legrand in two smaller roles. Only Peter Davison, as Herbie, divided opinion: while Billington welcomed “a warmth that was missing before”, Coveney complained “he doesn’t make too hot with the singing”.

Coveney saw “efficient designs” and “gorgeous choreography” both “as good as it gets without breaking the mould,” approving “no attempt to be ‘clever’ with it”.

Quibbles aside, approval was unanimous. Billington described “the gorgeous pleasure of an evening that both celebrates showbiz and… exposes the psychotic nature of addiction to stardom”. Lukowski, who found the show as written “a splash dated”, felt Staunton “makes it timeless”. Coveney described “musical theatre heaven” and Maxwell described “the best chance of an epiphany you’ll ever get in a theatre”.

Booking to 28 Nov 2015

Oppenheimer – Vaudeville, 4.5 average 

Tom Morton-Smith’s new play was similarly hailed on its arrival from Stratford. Fiona Mountford (ES) declared it “the RSC’s best piece of new writing in years” and Kate Bassett (Times) found the comparative newcomer’s work “astonishingly assured and mature”. Sarah Hemming (FT) found it “impressive,” tracing “the path by which the human race arrived at the ability to annihilate itself”.Demetrios Matheou (Arts Desk), who declared it “exceptional”, detected “an inkling of how Oppenheimer could have been so hell-bent” and Andrzej Lukowski judged it “not formally groundbreaking, but… ambitious in the very best way”.

Hemming described “restless, intelligent and ultimately desolate drama, delivered… with fizzing energy”. Lukowski enjoyed Angus Jackson’s “jazz-soaked, somewhat Enron-tinged production” and “pacy” juxtapositions of “bright young things liquoring it up” with “zippy lecture-style sequences”. Matheou praised “dazzlingly lucid and entertaining physics” and a “winning combination of clarity and gusto”.

Most attention went to what Mountford called John Heffernan’s “towering” and “increasingly haunted” lead, which Lukowski found “quite remarkable”, declaring him “one of our best and most underrated actors”. Hemming judged him to be “superb: affable and charismatic yet slightly aloof, as the play wears on he retreats further into his core, his stare increasingly distant”.

Matheou saw his “mesmerising” performance as “the heart and soul of a fine ensemble” which Hemming also judged “excellent”. Mountford praised “strong support” from Catherine Steadman, and Hemming found Jamie Wilkes “impressive”.

Bassett applauded the RSC’s “inspired” commissioning of the play. Matheou described “an intense, and densely themed production… delivered with ebullient energy” which “rightly leaves us hanging” on how to view Oppenheimer. Hemming reported “a sobering and resonant message” and Lukowski agreed “it really delivers its payload in its final phase”. Mountford summed up “ambitious writing, stylishly directed and impeccably performed” declaring the result “Outstanding.”

Runs to 23 May 2015

Carmen Disruption – Almeida, 3.8 average

Simon Stephens’s “extraordinary” latest, explained Michael Billington, is “less a re-creation of [Bizet’s Carmen] than a deconstruction of it, reflecting on the strangeness of a singer’s vagabond life, our frantic dependence on social media and the increasing homogeneity of modern European cities.” For him, it worked: “It is a crowded work, but a totally compelling one.” The show attracted a range of positive reviews including two fives. Andrzej Lukowski praised the writing’s “harsh, chaotic beauty” and Susannah Clapp (Observer) lauded “an explosive example of fracture and rediscovery” and “a true response to a great work”.

Clapp enjoyed the “poignant precision” of Sharon Small’s star, who “finds it easier to be Carmen than herself” and Billington felt she “captures well the loneliness of the long-distance singer”. But, as Clapp explained, the other Carmen in the show is Jack Farthing’s “vamping rent boy” who “ripples with nonchalant narcissism”.

While some highlighted other performances, the focus was this “dense, intense piece” that, said Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage), feels “like a staged poem”. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph)described “commendably detailed and committed” acting within a “strange, complex, ethereal collision of personae, saturated with a forlorn sense of existential crisis”. Billington thought Stephens’s vision “beautifully realised through the fluidity of Michael Longhurst’s production” and Trueman praised “hypnotic and discomfiting” choreography.

Hitchings described a piece “haunted by the spirit of Carmen” and “eerie” pop music references, and Clapp heard “snatches of Bizet’s score, gloriously rendered”. Billington praised Viktoria Vizin’s “rich voice” and Cavendish judged it “exquisite”. Lukowski, who enjoyed the mezzo-soprano’s “malevolent allure”, found the staging of atomised modern Europeans “against a backdrop of the continent’s bloody, romantic old soul… unforgettable”.

Lukowski found the production “ravishing”, and “endlessly intriguing”. Hitchings concluded “Stephens’s writing has rarely felt sharper” praising “moments of startling intimacy”. Clapp, while agreeing the show was “elliptical, tangled, [and] sometimes in danger of suffocating itself” declared it “a depth charge to the theatre” which “will go on reverberating”.

Runs to 23 May 2015