StageScan PIck: Nell Gwynn

Five-, four- and three-star pro reviews greeted the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn on transfer to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue. Miriam Gillinson (Time Out)  acknowledged “plenty of gags… a lot of love for the theatre” and a “strong feminist angle” and Holly Williams (Independent) found it “ripe and juicy… broad and bawdy”.

Gillinson described, “Globe trademarks” like “heaps of live music” and “countless sly winks to the audience” but thought its “persistent jolliness… slightly grates in the closer confines.” But Libby Purves (TheatreCat) felt it “works better here… it feels more intimate” with the whole audience “able to enjoy the glances, grins, flounces and double-takes”. She described “a Restoration riot… gorgeously set in courtly gold tassels, velvet and…tacky backstage paraphernalia.” Fiona Mountford (ES) found it “still larger than life… rumbustious, jokey and joyous with great running gags,” said Christopher Luscombe’s “ebullient production… sweeps us up from the start in a blissful whirl of theatricals” and was among those enjoying “some ripe comic ditties from Nigel Hess”.

Williams, who initially found new lead Gemma Arterton’s “simpering Cockney accent can grate” warmed to a “lovely Nell” with a “softness” that makes “filthy ditties and practical jokes seem cutely cheeky”. Gillinson found her “luminously lascivious” performance “charming as hell” and the scene in which she first tries acting “a proper joy”.  Purves thought it “her best stage role yet” finding her “sexy and mischievous, light as a feather and nonpareil at delivering a truly dirty song” yet also able to “expose vulnerability and seriousness”.

Mountford praised “sterling support” from Michele Dotrice as Nell’s “stout and doughty” dresser-cum-understudy. Williams reported “comic timing” which “reliably slays the audience” and Purves found her performance “pure delight”. Williams enjoyed David Sturzaker’s reprise of his “saucy” Charles II. Purves observed “a nice edge of vulnerability” and Williams noted: “They’re shown as properly in love”. Purves was among those welcoming back Greg Haiste’s “queeny Kynaston, jealously guarding the female lead roles”. Gillinson called his “flouncing” performance “a treat” and Mountford declared him “wonderful”.

She found the whole “jolly-making… gently tongue-in-cheek” and concluded “How pleasing to see the ladies, from Swale to Ms Gwynn herself, leading the way”. Purves declared its “froth and bracing feminism” combined with “happy sentimental references to theatre itself… pure essence of fun”. Williams hailed “a populist, fluffy, but big-hearted show” directed “with extreme silliness” and Gillinson found it “goes down a treat”.

StageScan Pick: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre achieved a 4.2-star average from the pro critics, with four giving it full marks. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) hailed an “exemplary and revelatory revival” which, he suggested, reaffirms playwright August Wilson’s “talent and significance”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) found it “extraordinarily detailed and dramatically thrilling” although suggesting Wilson’s plots are “merely a resonant background onto which to layer a superbly orchestrated and vividly realised set of characters”.

He saw the play use music “naturally… intricately and intimately” to bring its themes and tensions to the fore, while Cavendish observed: “Wilson uses idle conversation to create a mood as rich, textured and heart-stopping as any blues standard.”  Susannah Clapp (Observer),who also thought Dominic Cooke’s production “terrific”, felt the play “plays jazz-like variations on more than one theme” and praised “Whip-sharp plotting”.

Among what Clapp called a “superb cast,” all praised Sharon D Clarke. Clapp enjoyed her Ma Rainey’s “imperious splendor” and Cavendish thought her “terrific” finding “the understated way she shows the character’s fighting spirit, with eye-rolls of boredom and clenched-jawed contempt… transfixing”. Shenton found Clarke’s “powerhouse delivery… exhilarating”. Clapp acknowledged “Her golden delivery of the title song” as “a high point” which, Cavendish reported, “thrills the whole auditorium”.

The real focus of the play, however, is her band. Cavendish described Lucian Msamati, O-T Fagbenle, Clint Dyer and Giles Terera as as “a pitch-perfect quartet; performances to die for”. Shenton found them “remarkable” and several highlighted Fagbenle and Msamati. Cavendish observed “a teasing jocularity” through which “Wilson floats a potent contrast between a fatalistic idea of the African-American as a self-aware underdog versus a defiant spirit of self-determination”, a tension which attests “in an unforced way to the bitter legacy and barely buried traumas of slavery”.

Shenton suggested the supporting actors are “equally brilliant”.  Clapp highlighted “a sharp and alluring professional debut” from Tamara Lawrance, and Cavendish detected “not a weak link”, summing up, “an evening of ensemble pleasure”. Taylor found “their generosity to each other beautiful to watch” suggesting “The richly detailed ensemble acting… does glowing justice” to Wilson’s “masterly mix of hurt and humour”.  Shenton, while voicing common reservations about an “industrial” design with “a clunky reveal of the band’s downstairs rehearsal rooms” declared this “a minor glitch in an otherwise fantastic production” which he found “immensely powerful”.

StageScan Pick: Iphigenia in Splott

Gary Owen’s latest for Sherman Cymru has dazzled the London critics.  Iphigenia in Splott at the NT achieved a 4.6-star average from the pros, with most giving it full marks.

Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage) hailed a “searing, blind-siding monologue about the welfare state” which “demonstrates the way in which we let those most vulnerable down”. Henry Hitchings (ES) identified “a droll link to the modern high street” in this tale of a contemporary “princess of Argos” which he found “a chastening audit of the grimmer details of 21st-century Britain”.

Bowie-Sell described “a raw, real, gut-punching wake-up call” in which “Owen’s fluid text mixes street slang into an intense poetry”. Lyn Gardner (Guardian) enjoyed “the way it subtly changes our perception of Effie and gradually, almost lazily, builds to an explosive finish” and Hitchings said “we come to see Effie as heroic”.

Gardner praised a “brawling, big-hearted, raging monologue” through which Effie reveals her story with “the fleetness of a Greek messenger delivering exceptionally bad news”. She saw Owen’s plotting “brilliantly handled in Rachel O’Riordan’s tightly controlled production”. Hitchings agreed: “It’s easy to see why” it “arrives… garlanded with plaudits.”

All focused on what Hitchings called Sophie Melville’s “sensational” performance, “caustic, but also flecked with seductive and vulnerable moments — teasing, touching, profound”. Bowie-Sell described a “blunt and provocative” stare and “reckless, fractious, violent energy” in “a performance that crackles” provoking “both disgust and empathy”. Gardner found Melville’s Effie “blistering” as “the words pour out of her mouth – an open wound – like a torrent of vomit” describing “a tiny fireball of sneering booze-filled aggression and self-hatred disguised with a swagger”.

Hitchings saw the actor savour ”the intelligence and political anger of Owen’s writing” which he found “painfully vivid and sometimes devastatingly funny”. Gardner was reminded “that resilience is a sticking plaster, and what is required is revolution”. Bowie-Sell summed up “A superb turn in a devastating play that will shake even the most sure-footed of us” suggesting it “will linger with you, like a strange dream, for days”.