September’s best-reviewed new shows: Hangmen, Jane Eyre, and Casa Valentina

Great ensemble performances and strongly evoked historical context unite our pick of the best new shows to open this month.

(And, don’t forget – Stagescan now sells tickets! Through our partnership with See Tickets, you can buy by clicking the ‘Check Availability’ button on most show pages, or visiting http://stagescan.seetickets.com.)

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Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre, 4.1-star average 

Martin McDonagh’s new play received seven five-star pro reviews amid a range of responses. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) described a “look back in sharp-eyed wonder at the grimmer side of the swinging Sixties” which “takes you brilliantly, without any crude coercion, to the heart of serious questions about justice and punishment”.

Paul Taylor (Independent) thought his plot “a thing of wonder” and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) found the piece “brilliantly macabre and exhilaratingly un-PC”. Michael Billington (Guardian) admired McDonagh’s “talent for eclectic playfulness” and Coveney detected a “constant desire to subvert an audience’s expectations while tickling their fickle fancy like any good cheap thriller writer”.

Among the less dazzled, Natasha Tripney (The Stage), thought the plot “formulaic” and was uncomfortable with its “underlying misogyny” and “casual racism” but found Matthew Dunster’s production “gripping nonetheless”. Taylor thought it “consummately well-cast and performed” and Tripney described “superb ensemble playing”.

Taylor called David Morrissey’s hangman-turned-landlord, Harry, “sublimely tinpot-but-touchy” and Coveney found him “mesmeric, chilling”. Tripney enjoyed Reece Shearsmith’s “distinctly creepy if officious” Syd, and Taylor thought him “hapless, pervy” and “spot-on”. Cavendish praised Johnny Flynn’s “pitch-perfect insolence” and Taylor found his Moody “disquietingly charismatic”. Tripney was among several suggesting he “really stands out” – she found his performance “wonderfully odd and wrong and jarring”.

Anna Fleischle’s set was generally praised. Tripney admired “a rich thing” describing an “eerie cream brick death cell” which rises “slowly and dramatically” revealing “an immaculate recreation of a 1960s boozer, all brass and etched glass, the wood brown as ale, the air like an ashtray”. Billington detected “just the right smoky fug”.

He hailed “a savagely black comedy” summing up “a compelling evening that confirms McDonaghs’s prodigal, pluralist talent”. Taylor described “A flawless treat” and Coveney anticipated “a big hit”.

Runs to 10 Oct 2015

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Jane Eyre – National Theatre, 4.1-star average

Several reviewers also gave five stars to a production Fiona Mountford (ES) found “endlessly inventive, admirably kinetic” remaking the classic “as something fresh and exciting”. She declared director Sally Cookson “a new name… to watch out for”. Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) reported a version which “trades in feeling and mood and images: all the things that make theatre theatre”. Natasha Tripney said it “feels like a thing fuelled by love” for both novel and character.

Mountford called Madeleine Worrall’s Jane “quietly magnificent, morphing from an honest, stubborn, fiery little person into an independent, questing young woman”. Tripney found her “captivating” and thought Felix Hayes “everything you want in a Rochester: brusque, difficult, prickly” yet “massively charismatic” but added “this is very much an ensemble piece”. Trueman praised “fluid movement direction” and Mountford saw the whole cast “work their 19th-century socks off”.

Tripney found the devised staging “full of inventive touches”. Trueman described “a white-curtained stage that fills up with colour: red for confinement, cool blue for freedom”. Mountford found the minimal set, “comprising a wooden platform and planks surrounded by ladders” proved “the ideal means of transporting us fluidly from Gateshead Hall to Lowood to Thornfield Hall”.

Trueman detected “a deep, brooding, downbeat melancholy” which he thought “brilliantly drawn out” as a folk three-piece “fill the story with mournful, minor-key music, all sighing strings, wistful piano runs and itchy percussion”. Mountford praised the “inspired” decision to allow Bertha Mason to “haunt the action in song” adding “Melanie Marshall excels in this striking, plaintive role”.

Trueman described “a show that both takes its time and goes at a clip” finding it “thrilling and utterly theatrical”. Tripney thought it nevertheless “faithful” to the novel’s “boldness and romance, its feminism, its enduring power”.

Runs to 16 Nov 2015

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Casa Valentina – Southwark Playhouse, 4.0-star average 

Harvey Fierstein’s picture of a transvestite retreat scored unanimous fours. This, explained Mark Shenton (The Stage) is “the one without songs”. He described a “group portrait … alternately witty and gritty, warm-hearted and tough” in a “loving, detailed production” which “cleverly avoids caricature”.  Jo Caird (What’s on Stage) found it “delightfully camp and high spirited” adding “Moments of tenderness and truth regularly pierce the hilarity”. David Clack (Time Out) said “it’s the context of 1960s America that truly brings ‘Casa Valentina’ to life” adding that homosexuality, illegal at the time, “quickly becomes a great big pink elephant in the room”.

Caird felt Luke Sheppard “teased wonderfully subtle performances from his entire cast… never losing sight” of the characters’ “humanity”. Shenton praised “deeply felt, unsentimental performances” from “a fine ensemble”. Caird elaborated: “As ‘girls’, the cross dressers achieve varying levels of success, but the actors behind them are never less than expert” at “navigating… performance within performance”. She highlighted Ashley Robinson’s Gloria/Michael, while Clack found Ben Deery’s transformation from newcomer Jonathan into Miranda “adorably anxious” and detected a “Pacino-like ferocity” in Gareth Snook’s older Charlotte.

Shenton found the host couple “sympathetically played” by Tamsin Carroll and Edward Wolstenholme (the eponymous Valentina) and Caird thought Carroll “excellent”.

Clack summed up “a smart, superbly funny take on queer politics”. Caird said: “Beneath the drunken sing-alongs and joyful makeovers are ideas of identity, politics, persecution and the lies we tell ourselves for love.”  Shenton found the whole “poignant and deeply compassionate”.

Runs to 10 Oct 2015

Thanks for reading,

Cabe at Stagescan HQ

September’s roundup: People, Places and Things, My Eyes Went Dark, and Hamlet

Before we get to this month’s post, we have some news: Stagescan now sells theatre tickets. Thanks to our new partnership with See Tickets, we can offer tickets to most West End shows and some Off West End as well, at the same prices you’d pay at other retailers.

To buy from any show page, just click the ‘Check availability’ button to buy. Needless to say, buying your tickets through Stagescan will help us keep the site running – which we would greatly appreciate, since we love doing it.

And now to the blog. We took a break in August since it’s Fringe season – now London is back at the heart of things. Below, we’ve got three shows with strong central performances, each in its way conveying psychological turmoil through its staging. (Bet you can’t guess which Barbican show made the cut.)

People, Places and Things – National Theatre, 3.9– star average

Five- to three-star reviews met Duncan Macmillan’s new play, with most awarding four. Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) described a “diligent portrait of addiction, shown from within and without” and Michael Billington (Guardian) felt it gained “exceptional vibrancy” from “parallels between rehab and theatrical process”. Paul Taylor (Independent) observed: “it refuses to proffer any crisp, cultural diagnoses” instead presenting – through “hallucinatory sequences…. the tormented subjective experience of its protagonist”. He found the result “generous-spirited, with a strong streak of irreverent, darkly humane humour”.

Natasha Tripney (The Stage) was representative in finding Denise Gough’s “magnetic” and “extraordinary” performance “off-the-scale astonishing”. Henry Hitchings (ES) hailed “a brilliant performer” here “as good as she’s ever been – fierce and fearless” and praised “an emotionally shattering performance that’s also exemplary in its rigour”. Billington agreed she “breathtakingly captures Emma’s mix of dependency, delusion and scepticism” yet “never judges the character” and Taylor found the performance “magnificently unsparing”.

Tripney detected “times when it feels as though Jeremy Herrin is throwing all his directorial tricks at the production” but acknowledged “fittingly uncanny” detox scenes. Hitchings reported “a barrage of light and sound to convey Emma’s delusions” but also “moments of finely controlled stillness”.

Tripney praised “a strong ensemble” and Taylor was among those highlighting Nathaniel Martello-White’s “beautifully played” fellow-patient and a “gloriously persuasive” Barbara Marten in multiple roles.

Taylor enjoyed “a thoughtful, shifting ambivalence that suits the problem” and Hitchings praised an “absorbing production” which was “above all a triumph for Denise Gough”.

Runs to 30 Oct 2015

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My Eyes Went Dark – Finborough Theatre, 3.8-star average

A four-star majority also greeted “Matthew Wilkinson’s thrilling new play” which Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) called “visceral, realistic” and “practically Greek on the tragedy scale”. Michael Billington reported “an extremely powerful play about justice, revenge and forgiveness” and praised an “uncanny ability to get inside the skin of a man tormented by grief”. Bowie-Sell enjoyed “realistic and sparse” dialogue and scenes which “move fluidly into each other, slowly revealing Nikolai’s story”. Aleks Sierz (The Stage) also found it “compellingly written” and praised “great pace and fascinating detail”.

Sierz enjoyed “excellent performances” from the two actors, whom Billington judged “first-rate”. Bowie-Sell expanded: “Cal MacAninch’s Nikolai has an inner turmoil: externally he is a pillar of composure” yet he “manages to subtly betray the pain that is enveloping him”.  Billington, recalling the actor’s recent Hamlet, detected “a man similarly hovering on the border of insanity”. He said “Thusitha Jayasundera plays all the other characters with supreme technical finesse” and Bowie-Sell found her “excellent, providing both humanity and a harsh calculated bureaucracy”.

Billington reported “minimalist staging” by Wilkinson, which Bowie-Sell found “effective… builds up the tension and the story so it slowly heightens into a searing intensity”. She thought Max Pappenheim’s sound design “superb, reflecting the inner-noise of Nikolai’s mind”.

Billington concluded it “provides no easy answers but poses a series of compelling questions about the nature of moral responsibility”. Bowie-Sell summed up “an affecting, impressive new play which makes a strong case for forgiveness” and Sierz found it “intense, thought-provoking and intelligent”.

Runs to 19 Sep 2015

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Hamlet – Barbican, 3.3-star average

A range from 4 to 2 stars greeted Lyndsey Turner’s controversial production on its official opening.

Sarah Hemming (FT) thought it “marred” by “rough cuts and strange bits of rewriting” but praised a “lithe, restlessly intelligent and believable” Hamlet in Benedict Cumberbatch‘s “vivid” performance. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) agreed he “justifies the hysteria”, describing “unshowy physical confidence” and “warmth of feeling that puts you on his side”. Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) saw soliloquies delivered “superbly, urgently, intelligently” and found him “compelling and charismatic”.

Coveney described “glorious design” with “staircases, family portraits, tangled skeins of artificial flowers, and a toy theatre”. Hemming reported “almost… an expressionist thriller” where for soliloquies “a complete switch of lighting” takes us into Hamlet’s “haunted head”. She found the one “vast, ornate room” containing the action “increasingly symbolic of the oppressive weight of the past” and detected a “palpable” sense of “a younger generation being alienated and infantilised” by family secrets. But Cavendish detected “a strained conceit of childish regression” and, like many, thought it “full of hit-and-miss ideas”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) was most enthusiastic, approving “frequent directorial flourishes” and a production that “straddles the naturalistic and the heavily stylised with fluid ease”.

He also praised “brittle and brilliant” Anastasia Hille and “imposing” Ciaran Hinds, although Cavendish, among others, found Hinds “among those fated to sound muted… on such a vast stage”.

Cavendish declared “a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show” yet “greater than the sum of its inchoate parts” with Cumberbatch “gluing it… powerfully together”.  But Hemming reported “a fresh, dynamic staging” admittedly “a bumpy affair” but also “an epic, restless engagement with the text” featuring “a charismatic and intelligent Hamlet”.

Runs to 31 Oct 2015

Thanks for reading,

Cabe at Stagescan HQ