November’s top shows: The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and Four Minutes Twelve Seconds

We’ve got a couple of winter warmers for you this month, in the form of Shakespearean fables. And if that has you blurting ‘bah, humbug!’ there’s also an impressive new play about sex in the internet age.

The Winter’s Tale – Garrick Theatre, 4.3-star average 

Six five-star reviews greeted what Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) called Shakespeare’s “fairy-tale-like, late play”. Acknowledging “the most violent mood-swing in the Shakespearean canon” he felt actor/director Kenneth Branagh “brilliantly shades Leontes’ descent into madness”. Some found performance or production “over-egged”, but while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) described “a lot of crazy guy acting,” Kate Kellaway (Observer) praised “a tremendous performance… unusual, brave and overwhelming”.

Mark Shenton (The Stage) was among several detecting “a tendency to over-indulge the musical underscoring” but Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage), praised “an old school director/performer… not afraid to chart Leontes’ changing mood and temper” with music or lighting. Cavendish enjoyed “a lovely set… beautifully lit” and Coveney described a “loosely Edwardian” production which “starts at Christmas and freezes over in the slowly calibrated decline”. Others found it “sublime” or “magical”.

Amid universal praise for Dame Judi Dench, Cavendish saw “undimmed” powers in her “wise, grave, lady-at-court”, and Coveney detected “all her deeply felt wisdom and humanity” in a performance others called “inspired”, “majestically authoritative” or “hypnotic”. Lukowski hailed her “twinkly-eyed busybody with hidden depths”, adding: “She speaks the verse breathtakingly well, investing it with a vibrant effortlessness.”

There was broad consensus also on what Cavendish called “as fine an ensemble as the National or RSC could muster”. Kellaway detected “No weak link”. Cavendish enjoyed Miranda Raison’s “dignified study in wronged womanhood” and Coveney described a “beautiful, perfectly sculpted performance”. Kellaway found her Hermione “blazing and cool simultaneously”. Among those highlighting Tom Bateman, she found him “delightful” while Cavendish judged him “more than promising”.

Kellaway found it “hard to imagine the play more movingly performed”. Coveney declared: “You won’t see a better version in terms of heart, bones and lucidity,” and Cavendish said “the world and his wife should see this.”

Runs to 16 Jan 2016, in rep.  Tickets available from Stagescan.

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Pericles – Shakespeare’s Globe, 3.8-star average

A reassuring four-star majority greeted what Henry Hitchings (ES) called an “episodic” tale with “a fair chunk… not by Shakespeare”. He observed “striking topicality” and Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail) saw “important themes: incest, austerity, migration and the sex trade,” given a “charmingly naive” treatment.

He found the production “allows us to enjoy the play for what it is” while bridging its “moral and spiritual absurdities” by “sending up the melodrama”. Hitchings agreed that director Dominic Dromgoole “makes a strong case for it,” praising an “inventive production” of which “the main strength… is the comedy”. Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage) admitted that “In less steady hands”, the production’s “numerous jumps in place would be impossible to keep up with” yet felt “with this cast all the way”. She praised Dromgoole’s “robust but simple production” and ability to “maximise the drama in the delicate candlelight”. Michael Billington (Guardian) thought the Wanamaker theatre “ideally suited” to “fable”.

Bowie-Sell said James Garnon starts out “endearingly uncertain” and “warms up into a sweet, commanding Pericles”. Marmion described “robust stage presence” and Hitchings felt he “richly conveys the turbulence of his journey”. Also highlighted amid what Bowie-Sell, like most, judged an “excellent ensemble,” was Sheila Reid’s “transfixing” Gower. Hitchings enjoyed her “eerie fervour”.

All praised what Billington judged “fine work” from Jessica Baglow. Hitchings observed “cool dignity” and Marmion felt she “does well to keep a straight face” during scenes with Kirsty Woodward’s “openly scornful Essex girl” and Dennis Herdman’s “scuzzy pimp, toxic with lust”. Hitchings thought these two had “the best” of the comedy, and Bowie-Sell found them “hilarious and horrendous”.

Billington praised “a production that captures the play’s joint obsession with the marine and the miraculous” and Hitchings concluded “the humorous scenes fizz and the more intimate ones are genuinely moving”. Bowie-Sell summed up “heart enriching, soul-stirring stuff”.

Runs to 26 April, tickets available from Shakespeare’s Globe.

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If those two are not quite tinselly enough for you, don’t forget Stagescan also has tickets for straight-up festive fare like Nutcracker! and The Tinderbox.

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Four minutes twelve seconds – Trafalgar Studios, 4.0-star average

A four-star consensus met the Hampstead’s production of what Fiona Mountford (ES) called “a morally terrifying drama for the age of the selfie and sexting” with a “tightly coiled script” which “dissects with unflinching honesty parents’ belief in the infallibility of their offspring”. Natasha Tripney (The Stage) found it “taut and topical” with “the moral lines continually being redrawn”. Lyn Gardner (Guardian) found it “fascinatingly slippery” and felt it “confirms” newcomer James Fritz as “a writer going places”.

Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) saw it asking “whether images can ever be anything other than ambiguous”, observing “canny design” making this point “eloquently” with “a pattern of pixel… that plays tricks on our eyes”. Mountford thought the “pared-back production” allows the audience “to focus on the mounting impact of the words” and Gardner found it “intense, claustrophobic”.

She described “a quartet of fine performances” among which Kate Maravan was “outstanding” as she went “from pithily expressed rage to incredulous silence”. Trueman felt she caught “that very particular Croydon camp”, and was “superb… desperate and desolate”. Tripney thought both Maravan and Jonathan McGuinness “excellent”, and Trueman found McGuinness “gently deceitful” and “likeable in spite of it all”. Tripney praised Ria Zmitrowicz for “a bolshie but sympathetic performance as the young woman whose trauma is sidelined” and Trueman thought her “superb… staunch, yet so vulnerable”. Mountford judged her “a name to watch”.

All agreed with Mountford that this is “a well-merited transfer”. Most acknowledged a play which, sometimes, as Tripney put it, “feels a bit too calculated”. Trueman found the “controlled release of information…at times, contrived” yet found it “compelling and complex”. Gardner described “a punchy, thoughtful evening… often shockingly funny and full of little ambiguities” and Tripney judged it “genuinely provocative”.

Runs to 05 Dec 2015, tickets available from ATG.

That’s all from us for 2015, but keep watching the site for more exciting shows opening in December.  We’ll be back in 2016 with new-style mailings highlighting the hottest shows, but until then, have a great holiday season.