StageScan Pick: No Man’s Land

The return of No Man’s Land to Wyndham’s Theatre achieved full marks from four of the pro critics. Mark Shenton (The Stage) felt Sean Mathias’ “darkly calibrated” production “presents“ Harold Pinter’s “eternally cryptic and mysterious” 1975 play “as it is”. He observed “Beckettian echoes” plus “an inevitable power struggle” in an “alternately icily restrained and ferocious account of human beings hurtling towards the void”. Marianka Swain (Arts Desk) hailed an “elusive and haunting… absurdist work” staged with “primal power” and “exquisite physical precision” in a “wonderfully witty” production “alert to Pinter’s skewering of social codes, conversational tics, performative masculinity and studied national identity”.

Paul Taylor (Independent) saw Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen “both at the top of their game” and Shenton found Stewart’s “deadly, controlled courtesy… superbly offset by the more shambling” McKellen, judging them “extraordinary” as “they convey a sense of isolation and containment” yet “find plenty of humour”. Swain said “The whole quartet, but particularly the two knights, excel”, observing “a poetic strain of philosophy in their reading”.

Taylor hailed Stewart’s “great presence” as “a splendidly disconcerting” Hirst, “ranging between imperiousness and terrified bewilderment”, and praised “his prowess at conveying the alarming memory lapses and switches of tack of the alcoholic mind”. Swain saw him, increasingly drunk, swap “taciturn resignation for raging against his frailty” while still able to “smoothly assume the part of the erudite patrician”.

Taylor described McKellen’s “hilariously tragicomic… wonderfully unsentimentalised” Spooner, observing “a predatory edge to his obsequiousness” and a “lovely disjunction” between “pretentious literariness” and “constant opportunistic cunning”. Swain found him “believable in every guise” as he “always keeps one eye on the bottle”.

She praised “superb support” from Owen Teale and Damien Molony and Shenton saw them “bring the required sense of menace to the servants”. Taylor thought “insolent possessiveness and vaguely homoerotic complicity… excellently communicated”.

He also praised “fine design” while Swain described “period-perfect but funereal interiors… eerily juxtaposed” with projections of “whispering trees conjuring dark fairy tales” and “restrained yet chilling” sound design.

Shenton summed up “a stylish and spellbinding production” which, Taylor found, “manages to be the funniest account of the play I have seen without underselling its scariness, mystery or bleak vision”. Swain described “a ghost story… suffused with melancholy” in “a production showcasing a superlative pair of actors that will long echo in the mind” and was among those declaring it: “Unmissable”.

Runs to 17 Dec 2016, with some tickets still available from the Wyndham’s box office.  And if this has inspired you to seek out other fine, seasoned British actors in classic roles, check out Branagh’s The Entertainer, Ken Stott in The Dresser or Griff Rhys Jones as The Miser, or there’s still time to catch Chichester’s superlative ensemble in the five-star Young Chekhov season.

StageScan Pick: Jess and Joe Forever

Jess and Joe Forever at the Orange Tree has received a four-star majority from the pros. Henry Hitchings (ES) saw an “unfolding relationship… over several summers in rural Norfolk” starting in “sprightly innocence”. Tim Bano (The Stage) felt playwright Zoe Cooper “captures… the trauma of adolescence… with pinpoint precision”.  Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) found the play “cleverly ushers us into assumptions” only to “slowly stir in complexities”. Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk) saw it play “delightful tricks with our expectations” to “joyous and highly emotional” effect, and felt its “theatrical form… raises this small story to sublime heights” explaining: “As Joe and Jess tell the story… they comment on it and each other, involving the audience”. He described a “comedy of manners” providing “a lot of laughs” before “dark shadows begin to fall” and “its ability to move us just grows and grows”.

Bano praised a “messy, playful” and “self conscious” production, “perfectly underscoring the self consciousness of adolescence”. Hitchings saw Derek Bond’s “sensitive direction” capture Cooper’s “unusual mix of earthy truth and lightness” and Trueman saw her “concerted naivety… cannily matched” in the “clunkiness” of a “DIY production” which “presents a child’s eye view”. Sierz found it “very funny… quietly intense.”

Sierz thought the two actors “perfectly cast… convincing at every age they play” until they “blossom” in a “wondrous transformation scene”. Bano found them “hugely endearing… capturing tween awkwardness perfectly”. Hitchings saw Nicola Coughlan bring “perky verve” to Jess as she “hints effectively at the story’s buried magic”. Sierz found her “precocious utterances…a real joy” and Bano hailed “strong comic presence”. Hitchings said Rhys Isaac-Jones “imbues Joe with an engaging earnestness” and Sierz found him “awkward, subjective and sincere”. Hitchings thought both “just as adept at portraying minor characters”.

Sierz described a “hugely enjoyable romcom… quirky, funny, moving and theatrically thrilling”. Bano said it “like its characters – transforms” and saw “lightness of touch and splashes of humour quietly, charmingly, deftly coalesce into heartrending and heartwarming beauty.” Trueman found its “power… rests in wrongfooting its audience”, suggesting this “daring… pays dividends” with an ending which made him “want to punch the air”. Hitchings summed up “a small play with a big heart… genuinely funny… unexpectedly powerful”.

Runs to 08 Oct 2016 with tickets available from the Orange Tree box office. And for more growing pains, why not check out Vanities – The Musical, the National Youth Theatre’s ’50s Romeo and Juliet or  The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time?