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.

October’s most dazzling shows: In The Heights, Showstopper! and Barbarians

We’re welcoming autumn this month with three shows that have just come impressively into their own after ripening for some time.

In The Heights – Kings Cross Theatre, 4.1-star average

A four-star majority greeted this remounted production of “Hamilton” author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 debut. Mark Shenton (The Stage), detected “lots of echoes” of Miranda’s latest in its “dense overlaying of musical themes” and “heavy use of rap influences”.

Bella Todd (Time Out) detected “a palpable sense of curvaceous Latin spirit straining against narrow urban confines” on approaching the show’s new home in Kings Cross, formerly host to “The Railway Children”, and Shenton felt “a new kind of thrilling energy… released in the traverse arrangement.” Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) reported “immeasurably” improved sound from the production’s 2014 home at the Southwark Playhouse.

Most gave strong reviews despite a book seen as “weak” or “formulaic”. Coveney found it “very simple… brash on the outside, soft in the centre” while Todd observed “immigration, heritage and gentrification” playing “second sax to hope, home and young love”. But Lyn Gardner (Guardian) saw a “hugely talented” cast “throw themselves at the material” as if “something is genuinely at stake” and Shenton described “such energy… you are utterly swept away”.

Most agreed with Gardner, who felt that Miranda’s score and “witty and sharp” lyrics made ”singing and dancing” seem a “natural form of expression”, and most hailed what Shenton called “the genius” of choreographer Drew McOnie. Gardner found McOnie’s work “electrifying”, Shenton thought “the fluidity of movement… simply amazing”, and Coveney enjoyed “ravishing ensemble numbers of carnival and celebration”.

Although all, like Shenton, saw “various characters brought to compelling life”, Todd was among those highlighting Sam Mackay’s Usnavi for “chatty raps” that “take sudden flight in the syncopated slipstream of the Latin numbers”. Coveney found him “compelling and technically brilliant” and also praised “triumphant” Josie Benson and “delightful” Lily Frazer.

Shenton reported “giddy musical and dance pleasures” from a piece that “wears its heart on its sleeve, and its feet”. Gardner found it “utterly huggable… thrillingly exuberant” and “brilliantly enjoyable”, and Todd hailed “musical theatre bursting with new life”.

Runs to 3 Jan 2016, with tickets available via Stagescan.

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Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – Apollo Shaftesbury Ave, 4.2-star average.

This crowd-funded transfer received four- and five-star reviews, most from those who entered as improv sceptics. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) fairly typically compared the prospect of the show to “a summons to purgatory”, before describing “top-dollar amusement… so polished, it defies belief” and awarding five stars. Neil Norman (Express) agreed it “confounds all expectations'”.

Libby Purves (TheatreCat), acknowledging a similar aversion, attributed its charm to “long-trained skill giving itself to the service of pure frivol” as, having “devised and perfected” their concept over eight years, the “tight” company are now “so well-accustomed to picking up off one another… that a crazy, patchwork, but oddly satisfying musical results. Norman saw the “fearless cast” produce characters “in seconds” concluding: “The entire cast is operating by pure telepathy, like veteran jazz musicians”. Cavendish, who saw them “thinking on their feet, never missing a beat” concluded: “Incredible feats of live-wire invention can be achieved when well-honed talent is placed under the spotlight”.

Most felt the show they saw created from audience suggestions, as Purves put it, “beats a lot of full-fledged musicals”. She saw “sudden chorus lines appear, devising appropriate dances” and “whole new musical genres… created on the hoof”. Norman reported: “They even create and sustain an emotional core with feelings of love and loss,”  and Cavendish found the show he saw “satisfyingly satirical yet oddly stirring”. Purves said: “Each time I have seen it , the nonsense builds into huge, harmonic choruses which remind you why even quite lousy musicals jerk the heartstrings.”

Cavendish said: “You had to be there, really you did. But not to worry, there’ll be another one along in a minute.” Purves suggested: “You could acquire a full education in the styles and abilities of musical theatre by going every night,” adding “One is tempted.”  Norman judged it: “Astounding” and Cavendish concluded: “Go.”

Runs to 29 Nov 2015, with tickets available via Stagescan. And if it gives you a taste for superlatively executed silliness, we also have tickets for The Play That Goes Wrong and that team’s latest offering, Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

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Barbarians – Found111 / former Central St Martin’s, 3.8-star average 

A new central theatre space for Tooting Arts Club was discovered for this revived 2012 production, which received four stars from most reviewers. Mark Valencia, (What’s on Stage) described a “devastating trilogy”, which, said Susannah Clapp (Observer), “punches from 1977 and lands today”.

Fiona Mountford (ES) highlighted the building’s history as a punk venue, praising “another high-quality evening of site-responsive theatre” from the “breath-of-fresh-air” company. Valencia summed up: “Three hours, three plays, three venues, three lost souls.” and Clapp felt the venue “becomes a sounding box for rage”.

Mountford found Bill Buckhurst’s production of Barrie Keeffe’s “punchy” trilogy “wonderfully vivid” and Valencia described a “howl into the wind” rendered “immediate”. Clapp felt Keeffe gave the trio “eloquence and fire without losing the sense that self-expression is a struggle” and Valencia thought his “compassion” was “an essence that Buckhurst brings tellingly to the surface”.

Clapp described a production which “makes the audience part of these men’s world, sometimes an oppressive part” describing how, in the first, set “as if in a cafe where the food has died” even the audience “prevent the characters from moving freely”.

Mountford praised “three terrific performances, whose energy levels never falter” and although Valencia agreed, he was among those highlighting Thomas Coombes, the only returner from 2012, as “the most remarkable” as “he grips the attention: angry, pathetic, desperate”. Clapp found him “outstanding…wounded, roaring, never sentimental”.

Mountford acknowledged “a demanding evening” but found it “richly repays all effort”. Clapp was among those suggesting the Young Vic’s forthcoming production “will find it tough to match” its “pummelling force”. Valencia described “a timely reminder of the little our society cares for its disenfranchised youth” with a “shattering” finale, concluding “its power remains extraordinary and its message depressingly relevant”.

Runs to 07 Nov 2015, tickets available from Soho Theatre.

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Finally, a reminder that you can now buy your tickets for many shows direct through Stagescan, at no extra cost.  We currently have a range extending from classics like War Horse, and The Woman in Black to treats like the eagerly-anticipated Pig Farm or heartwarming hit Close To You.

Don’t forget to check as we’re adding new ones all the time.

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

July’s best-reviewed new shows: The Car Man, The Gathered Leaves, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

We’re looking to the past with our latest pick of the best reviewed London shows, which includes­ impressive versions of two dance classics and a new piece that reinvents the old-fashioned family-gathering play.

The Car Man – Sadler’s Wells, 4.3-star average


Back and scoring fives from multiple pro reviewers is what Siobhan Murphy (Time Out) called Matthew Bourne’s “dirty mash-up” of Carmen and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Luke Jennings (Observer) enjoyed “a noirish tale of sex and betrayal” which “hurtles towards its denouement with unimprovably entertaining velocity”.


Jeffery Taylor (Express) described an “angular, almost brutal dance language” executed by a “superb” company.  Jennings described dancing “low-slung, loose-hipped and fast, with a singing neo-balletic line” which “impels the story with thrilling force and economy”. Murphy agreed Bourne “shapes his narrative with crystal clarity through scintillating choreography… You never doubt an intention… never wonder what on earth is going on.” She detected “an explosive energy (and a sly humour) throughout” with “moments of cinematic stillness”. Jennings said Bourne “ratchets up the sexual tension with practised skill” and Taylor found “Davey’s bathing the stage in a vivid crimson at peak moments of desire… unsettling, but powerful”.


Reviewers saw different leads. Jennings found Jonathan Ollivier’s Luca “wholly believable” while Murphy felt Chris Trenfield had “just the right touch of menace”. Judith Mackrell (Guardian) judged Trenfield “especially fine: his sexual charisma all concentrated in the restraint of his swagger”. Taylor praised Ashley Shaw’s Lana for “cool flow and tight technique” while Murphy enjoyed Zizi Strallen’s “whirlwind of pouty carnal passions”.

As Angelo, Mackrell saw Liam Mower move “from vulnerable sensibility to panicked violence with moving conviction” and Taylor found Dominic North’s “ability to express misery and confusion without a hint of bathos… impressive”. Murphy declared the piece “so tuned to perfection it will be a great ride whoever’s in the driving seats”.


Mackrell praised “vintage Bourne… a supremely and inventively slick entertainment” with “a hard core of emotional truth”. Jennings concluded “The Car Man delivers everything it promises. See it.”


Runs to 09 Aug 2015


The Gathered Leaves – Park Theatre, 3.9-star average


Fairly consistent four-star pro reviews greeted what Henry Hitchings (ES) called “meaty family drama”. Honour Bayes (Time Out) said: “Close your eyes and you could be in the 1930s West End” and Michael Billington (Guardian) felt Andrew Keatley “breathes new life into an old form” having “crafted a humane, deliberately old-fashioned play”. Neil Norman (Express) praised his “fine ear for dialogue” and “deft characterisation”.


The cast was hailed as “excellent”, “strong” and “on top form”. Bayes highlighted Jane Asher as “excellent” and Norman found her “very good” in “an underwritten role”. Most agreed with Billington: “The casting of two sets of real-life parents and children lends an instant plausibility to the family relationships.” He observed “an intuitive mutual understanding” between Asher and daughter Katie Scarfe and also thought William “superbly played” by Clive Francis.


Nick Sampson was highlighted by most. Billington praised his “extraordinary observant compassion”, finding his autistic character “compelling” as “the one figure who tells the truth in a family of secrets and lies”. Norman found the performance “wholly authentic”.


Hitchings praised a “sensitive production” which found the play’s “emotional truthfulness”. Bayes appreciated the modern use of the thrust stage, which “brings the action right to you; sometimes as painful revelations pour salt on old wounds it feels too intrusive, but it… keeps you gripped”.


Billington felt “Keatley accurately pins down the tensions within family life and records a moment of social transition”, and Bayes praised “an empathic portrait of the undulating and continuous nature of clan conflicts”. Norman concluded: “Solid craftsmanship and a real feeling for his characters suggest Keatley’s idols are closer to Turgenev and Chekov than the more fashionable role models of Beckett and Pinter. There’s nowt wrong with that. Fine work all round.”


Runs to 15 Aug 2015

 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 3.7-star average


Another four-star majority greeted what Fiona Mountford (ES) called “the stage version of the daft classic 1954 film”, despite “some of the most dubious gender politics in musical theatre”. Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) also found this “totally un-PC hoe-down re-write” of Plutarch’s Rape of the Sabine Women “thoroughly likeable”.


Mark Shenton (The Stage) agreed, “It doesn’t really bear too close scrutiny” but praised Rachel Kavanaugh’s “easy-going, light-as-a-feather” treatment which “takes the story on its own terms”. Tom Wicker (Time Out) described a “cannily self-aware, Golden Age-evoking Technicolor-hued production, which steers into the skid of all the potential appallingness and emerges with a Looney Tunes sensibility”.


Coveney enjoyed “stunning, balletic choreography” and “constant flurries of movement and colour”. He highlighted “spectacular… axe-jumping, cartwheeling, trestle table-assembling, polka prancing, plank bashing and fist fighting” in the barn scene. Billington agreed: “If ever dance made a musical, it is here”.
Mountford praised “beautiful songs” and Coveney enjoyed the “breezy melodiousness… wit and literacy” of the original movie numbers, but was less fond of the 1970s additions’ “sententiousness, drabness and mediocrity”. Billington felt Kavanaugh made A Woman Ought to Know Her Place seem “less like a crude manifesto than the cry of a man in crisis”.


Mountford declared Laura Pitt-Pulford as “an increasingly notable musical theatre performer”. Shenton found her Milly “radiant, ravishing … combining brassy toughness with vulnerability” and Billington observed “the right dogged determination”.


Shenton thought Alex Gaumond “superbly cast” as Adam, describing “an old-fashioned leading man” with “great voice” and “a commanding presence” which makes Milly’s “immediate infatuation… plausible”. Coveney agreed he’s “too damned nice to dislike”.


Mountford thought this “playful, confident production” was “triumphant”.  Wicker praised “a hyper-realised feel and a strong sense of the show’s bonkers brand of naivety and snigger” summing up “a stunningly well-choreographed sugar rush”.

Runs to 29 Aug 2015

June’s best new shows: The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Oresteia and Bend it like Beckham

Our picks of London openings from June include a new American hit, Gurinder Chadha’s musical from her own movie, and Robert Icke’s latest reinvention of an ancient classic. All impressed critics with eyecatching stagecraft and fine performances.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat – National Theatre, 4-star average

What Fiona Mountford (ES) called a “blast of a play”, featuring a “roller-coaster of colourful, bubbling language”, received three- to five-star reviews, with most giving it four. Susannah Clapp (Observer) enjoyed “the most expressive cursing since Shakespeare” and Michael Billington (Guardian) described a piece “combining sex-farce and high seriousness” with “exhilarating dash”.

Clapp praised “New York interiors” that “zoom on rails” so that “each scene slides out of darkness, is rowdily animated, then slips back into the night”. Cavendish detected in this “imposing design”, the “bleak overarching suggestion that adulthood is a form of damnation, rehab a passing illusion”.

Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) was impressed by Indu Rubasingham’s success in making “such a New York event… fit snugly in” to the National. Mountford praised a “momentum-packed production” which, Sarah Hemming (FT) found, “delivers both the giddying, verbal virtuosity of the play and the undertow of pain”. Clapp enjoyed “unusually believable” fights.

Almost all judged the cast as “strong” or “first-rate”. Clapp felt lead Ricardo Chavira’s “calm confidence… underpins the evening” declaring him “marvellous… collapsible and incendiary” while Billington detected “exactly the right muscular bewilderment”. Cavendish said Flor De Liz Perez “packs a formidable punch” and Hemming felt Alec Newman “deftly picks his way through” the AA sponsor’s “specious moral relativism”.

Most loved what Clapp called “a knockout cameo” from Yul Vázquez, retained from Broadway. Hemming found him “wonderfully eccentric”, Cavendish warmed to “camp wit and wisdom” and Billington felt his “real peach of a performance… exactly expresses the contradictions at the heart of Guirgis’s astonishing play”.

Billington thought the piece “both funny and profound.” Hemming found it “fizzing, beautifully acted” and Mountford declared “a triumph for the National”.

Runs to 07 Jul 2015

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Bend it like Beckham – Phoenix Theatre, 4.2-star average

Even more reviewers gave full marks to what <strong”>Paul Taylor (Independent) hailed an “irresistibly joyous musical-theatre make-over” which “reinvents rather than recycles”. Quentin Letts (Mail) found it “wonderfully, life-affirmingly, 21st-century British”, describing “feisty shimmers and heart-stopping melodrama”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) thought it “bends the musical” in a vivaciously fresh and welcome new direction”.

Taylor, as did many, praised Natalie Dew’s “wonderfully winning and pure-voiced” Jess and Lauren Samuels’s “attractively headstrong” Jules. Shenton enjoyed a “glorious” 30-plus cast and a “scene-stealing comic turn” from Sophie-Louise Dann, and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) declared Tony Jayawardena “a natural comic actor of the first rank”.

Taylor was among the majority praising “Goodall’s gorgeous score”. Michael Billington found it “delightfully eclectic”, using Punjabi rhythms “to great effect”, Shenton saw “instantly memorable pop tunes” and Coveney enjoyed choruses of “flat-out Bollywood exuberance”. Like most, Taylor also hailed “witty, well-turned lyrics” from Charles Hart, whom Coveney found “very good at conveying honest emotion” in his “vibrant, lyrical, irresistible set of songs”.

There was similar enthusiasm for what Taylor called Aletta Collins’s “exhilarating choreography”, which, he felt, enabled the production to bring “opposed sides of Jess’s life into phantasmagoric collision”. Coveney praised “brilliant dance footie” and also found the “colourful” and “curvilinear” designs “reinforce the feel-good factor”.

Letts, like most, felt “The plot may never win trophies for sophistication… But the sheer fun of it is irresistible”. Billington thought it “a wish-fulfilling fairytale”, and while Coveney found its culture clash “somewhat cosy” he agreed: “Above all, the show has charm.” Taylor said “As an uplifting celebration of multi-cultural Britain” it “plays a blinder”, and Shenton summed up an “explosion of colour, community and creativity, shot through with exhilarating energy and genuine heart… a pulsating joy”.

Runs to 24 Oct 2015

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OresteiaAlmeida, 4.1-star average

The first of a ‘Greeks’ season received broadly similar ratings. Paul Taylor felt Robert Icke “tackles the questions raised by Aeschylus’s great trilogy in a fiercely fresh manner” and Andrjez Lukowski (Time Out) praised his “root-and-branch transformation” of “language, morality and much of the storytelling”. Michael Billington missed the traditional “formal calm” but acknowledged a “stirring production” which Natasha Tripney (The Stage) found “bold, accessible, resonant and occasionally thrilling”. Susannah Clapp declared: “You can almost see the dust flying off the old master.”

She thought viewing the story via an investigation contributed “a penumbra of uncertainty”. Lukowski found the addition of the “cruelly plausible drama” of Iphigenia’s murder “shattering”, and Taylor praised the resulting “atmosphere of doomed domesticity“.

While Dominic Cavendish saw “Poetry… on the back-burner”, Tripney, more typically, found Icke’s text “modern and open, straightforward yet elegant”.

Taylor described “sliding screens that creepily shift between translucent and opaque” yielding what Billington found “astonishing, deep-focus images”. Tripney reported “horror film imagery” and “sudden, startling blackouts” and Lukowski described “a waking dream”.

Billington admired Lia Williams’s “visceral rage and artful duplicity”, while Cavendish found her Klytemnestra “formidable but far from monstrous”. Taylor described a “towering performance” others thought “astonishing”, “magnificent” and “razor-sharp”.

Tripney detected “great reservoirs of pain” in Angus Wright’s Agamemnon and Taylor “felt the agony of his dilemma”. Cavendish credited Jessica Brown Findlay with one of few “thrilling moments of back-to-basics, heart-on-sleeve acting”.

Tripney summed up “living vital theatre – discoursing both on the nature of justice and the nature of stories”. Billington acknowledged “wit and ingenuity” and others found it “exhilarating”, “tremendous”, or “terrific”. Lukowski praised “Icke’s searingly modern script and superlative cast” and said “What a piece of theatre… remarkable”.

Runs to 18 Jul 2015

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

March’s most exceptional shows: Sweeney Todd, The Royale, and A Breakfast Of Eels

The standard of new releases has been impressive this month, with each of our three picks pushing the boundaries of the theatrical experience in its own way.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – “Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop” (Shaftesbury Ave popup), 4.5-star average

The unusual transfer of what Sarah Hemming (FT) called a “hair-raising chamber version of Sondheim’s gory musical chiller” to a purpose-built replica venue received four- and five-star reviews. Dominic Maxwell (Times) declared “You’ve never seen his Sweeney Todd served up quite like this”.

Mark Shenton (The Stage), who saw the original in a real Tooting pie-and-mash shop, was “gobsmacked” by “a museum-worthy recreation” adding “there’s nothing fake at all about its astonishing power to insinuate and implicate its audience in the mass-murder”. Paul Taylor (Independent) agreed: “claustrophobic proximity heightens both the black farce and the tragic horror.” Hemming explained: “you don’t just watch as Sweeney lathers up his victims, you feel the flecks of shaving foam land on your own cheeks”. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) found its joys “cheeky and up close”, saying “little touches that would fall flat in a bigger space sparkle”.

Fiona Mountford (ES) delighted in “the thought and confidence with which the actors possess every inch of the space,” said Siobhan McCarthy “shines”, and found Jeremy Secomb “magnificently brooding”. Hemming enjoyed a the contrast between a “haunted” Sweeney and a “chirpy, but increasingly desperate” Mrs Lovett.

Most agreed with Shenton’s praise for “full-blooded performances” from the six supporting actors, and director Bill Buckhurst’s “amazing feat of never making it feel (still less sound) threadbare.” Music comes courtesy of “a superb trio… with rumbling piano [and] gnawing strings.” Hemming enjoyed experiencing Sondheim’s “razor-sharp lyrics and intricate score” up close and Taylor found it “sung with terrific commitment”.

Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) summed up a “fleet-footed, stylishly lit affair” which “delivers the essentials: finely sung, suitably eerie ensemble story-telling with two hair-raising turns at its centre”. Maxwell judged the whole “grimly funny, gripping, unnerving”, Shenton found it “shattering, unmissable” and Taylor described “A close shave of alarming distinction”.

Run extended to 30 May

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The Royale – Bush Theatre, 4.1-star average

Glowing reviews also greeted Marco Ramirez’s new play which, explained Michael Billington (Guardian), “uses the outline of [Jack] Johnson’s story to explore both the fighter’s pride and the ferocious prejudice he provoked”.

Patrick Marmion (Mail) praised “a lean, mean script that bobs and weaves beautifully”, and others described “taut”, “gripping” and “startling” writing. Jane Martin (What’s On Stage) observed “a healthy portion of the scathing wit and featherlight dance moves made famous by Muhammad Ali”.

Billington described a “stirringly expressionist vision” of “the dilemma faced by a mythic black American hero”, while Marmion found it “intriguingly dreamlike”. Only Fiona Mountford (ES) thought the piece “too slight to support such a hefty topic”. Andrzej Lukowski declared the story “complex and bittersweet enough to avoid Rocky levels of sentiment”.

Mountford joined the praise of Madani Younis’s “constantly stylish production”. Lukowski saw Younis “really flex his directorial muscles” and highlighted the show’s “physicality”. Ben Lawrence (Telegraph) found “The taut discipline of jabs, hooks and rabbit punches… simultaneously hypnotic and nerve-jangling”.

Lukowski called Nicholas Pinnock’s Jay “excellent – funny, moody, menacing”, Mountford found him “brooding and kinetic”, and Martin “extraordinary and intensely committed”. Lawrence observed “balletic grace and physical confidence”, declaring that Pinnock “spits Ramirez’s short, sharp dialogue with a curtness that is emotionally piercing.”

Billington praised “fine support” and Marmion enjoyed “the ensemble of five delivering lines in jabs, flurries and hooks as they jig, swerve and ghost about the ring”. Lawrence highlighted Frances Ashman’s portrayal of Jay’s sister, and Martin observed her “cool conviction” and “simmering menace”.

Martin felt the whole “pulses with emotion” and detected “a lasting, chilling resonance”. Lukowski found it “as heart-in-mouth thrilling as anything you’ll see in London at the moment, stage or ring”.

Runs to 18 April

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A Breakfast of Eels – The Print Room, 3.9-star average

Predominantly four-star reviews greeted Robert Holman’s latest, the story of two orphaned brothers, which Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) thought “right up there with [Holman’s] best”.

Henry Hitchings (ES) explained: Holman’s script “portrays the slippery bond between two men and offers tender musings about inheritance and codependency, inequality and influence”. Michael Billington admired the “great finesse” with which he “unravels” their “complex interdependence”. Natasha Tripney (The Stage) enjoyed writing that was “full of ache and beauty” and Stewart Pringle (Time Out) found Holman “literate without being laboured” using “music and song with the same sure and deft touch he uses to swat away melodrama”.

Billington praised “first rate” performances which Hitchings thought “perfectly aligned”. Trueman explained: “Both parts were written, tailor-made, for their actors and it totally shows”, observing “uncanny similarity” and a “gorgeous, easy chemistry.” Pringle found both actors “immensely talented” adding that “their empathy with the writing creates moments of unforgettable power”.

Tripney found Andrew Sheridan “brilliantly contained” and Billington thought he “exactly catches Francis’s guarded watchfulness and… depression.” He enjoyed Matthew Tennyson’s “pitch-perfect” portrayal of “arrested emotional development” while Tripney reported a “clear, bright singing voice” and “a gentle, childlike nature” that “grows in resilience”.

All appreciated what Pringle judged “great work” from director Robert Hastie. Trueman described an “exquisite production – unhurried and precise, credible and poetic” and Hitchings praised “admirable lack of hurry, allowing Holman’s dreamlike writing to breathe”.

Billington, who gave it three stars, concluded “Holman is very good at exploring the waywardness of passion” but admitted he “sometimes wished his characters would come clean”.

But Pringle, who said it “swells, pregnant with meaning and guarded, overcast silences, before breaking into beautiful, painful torrents” found it “immensely satisfying”. Trueman praised “a study of brotherhood – as profound as I’ve encountered” and Hitchings detected “a beautifully fragile lyricism” which Tripney found “incredibly moving”.

Runs to 11 April

Remember to check our front page’s Top Ten for the many more theatrical treats currently on offer.

February’s noteworthy new shows – The Ruling Class, Di and Viv and Rose, and The Hard Problem

This month’s pick of new productions tackles some weighty perennial issues, with new plays about friendship and consciousness and an intriguing revival looking at privilege.
The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, 3.8-star average

The West End revival of what Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) called “Peter Barnes’s riotously funny-peculiar assault on the English upper class and their deranged tendencies” garnered reviews ranging from three to five stars, with most pros awarding it four.

Neil Norman (Express) was enthusiastic: “One foot in music hall and the other in agitprop theatre, Barnes takes no prisoners… and his aim is true”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) acknowledged “the boldness of this bonkers play” judging it “alternately outrageous and courageous”. But Henry Hitchings (ES) was among those finding “a lot of the satire… heavy-handed or shrill”.

Paul Taylor (Independent) detected “a strong whiff of Joan Littlewood-meets-Joe-Orton” but if Michael Billington (Guardian) noted “times when Barnes’s play betrays its age”, Norman congratulated Lloyd for “resisting the temptation to manipulate” the sixties satire to reflect current “posh politics”. Taylor praised a “full-blast production” of “terrific, going-for-broke gusto” and Hitchings felt he gave the “madness room to unfurl”, capturing its “hallucinatory spirit”.

Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) described “a performance of almost overwhelming savagery and brio” from James McAvoy, which Cavendish declared “one of the year’s must-sees”. Taylor praised “a stellar portrayal of derangement” and Shenton judged McAvoy to be “at the top of his considerable game”. Cavendish explained: “Eyes glinting with mischief, smiling beatifically, he takes Barnes’s luxuriantly freewheeling speeches at often breath-taking speed so that even when they jump the rails of sense, we’re still hooked”.

Most praised what Coveney called “a great cast of enthusiastic vagabonds” presenting “delightful helter-skelter stuff” and several highlighted “hilarious” Anthony O’Donnell and “especially funny” Forbes Masson.

Coveney described “a skein of lunacy, artifice, misguided passion and satirical point-scoring” which “McAvoy’s fizzing performance just about holds… together”. Cavendish found “the atmospheric insanity, rather than any Cameron-era topicality… most arresting”. Shenton judged the whole “dangerous, surprising, and wildly entertaining”.

Runs to 11 Apr

Di and Viv and Rose – Vaudeville Theatre, 3.8-star average

The Hampstead Theatre’s transfer of what Patrick Marmion (Mail) called “a bittersweet lesson in friendship” received almost all four-star pro reviews.

Marianka Swain (Arts Desk) described two acts reflecting “the trajectory” of a three-way friendship “lingering on the student years and then dashing through decades – effective thematically, but creating some jagged transitions and the odd unsatisfying snapshot.” Yet while Natasha Tripney (The Stage) enjoyed “the heady intensity of their flat-sharing days, the silliness and optimism, the rows”, Michael Billington found playwright Amelia Bullmore “best in exploring the problems [of] post-student life” and enjoyed “seeing the actors adjust to the ravages of time”.

Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) found “Bullmore’s light-touch dialogue… witty and smart” and Billington saw “three meaty roles”. Anna Mackmin’s production was variously called “sprightly” “energetic” or “easy-going”.

Swain praised “the authenticity of its created family” whose “chemistry” Marmion found “palpable”. Even Bowie-Sell, who found the characters “likeable” but not “complex”, enjoyed “three really lovely, watchable performances” which “make the relationships feel real”.

Of Tamzin Outhwaite, Ian Shuttleworth (FT) said “one expects her sporty lesbian Di to be the most predictable of the characters, but little by little she becomes the most rounded”. Swain agreed she “beautifully reveals the uncertainty beneath Di’s swagger”.

Shuttleworth found Jenna Russell’s sweet, boy-hungry Rose… easy to like”, and Swain felt Russell “relishes Rose’s charmingly blithe dippiness” yet “deftly avoids caricature”. Shuttleworth found Samantha Spiro’s Viv “a joy to watch”.

Swain judged Bullmore’s “rare portrait of women in all their complexity” as a “wise and witty gem”. Even Tripney, who missed the Hampstead cast, acknowledged a “genuinely funny and moving… celebration of female friendship” which, felt Billington “wittily explores its ongoing consolations”. Shuttleworth summed up: “Though not at all obtrusively sentimental” it “makes you want to give it a hug”.

Runs to 14 March

The Hard Problem – National Theatre, 3.1-star average

More varied five- to two-star reviews met Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the nature of consciousness, with a 3-star pro majority.

Henry Hitchings welcomed an “intellectually charged piece that delights in the slippery nature of language and pulses with interesting ideas” while acknowledging “characters who prefer discussing life to living it”, and was among many appreciating Hyntner’s “elegant” production.

Quentin Letts (Mail) found “spectacle, stimulation and preppy wryness” amid the “words, words, words” enjoying “cerebral chutzpah, slyly staged”. Michael Billington thought the arguments “almost too much to take in” but detected “strong emotional underpinning”.

Paul Taylor, among others, admitted to “disappointment” arguing it “never quite exerts a strong enough grip as drama” and finding it emotionally “under-nourished”. Mark Shenton agreed: “He makes light work of difficult philosophical concepts” but his characters “adopt their positions in ways that are frequently unconvincing.” Sarah Hemming (FT) detected “heart” and found “the dazzling cut and thrust of ideas… often thrilling”, but agreed “some conversations feel pretty stilted”.

Most enjoyed a lead several judged “excellent”. Billington described “a vibrant central character” about whom “we are made to care” and felt Olivia Vinall “brings out every facet of a woman who is altruistic, questing and vulnerable”. Taylor found her character’s “luminous integrity and private sadness… excellently conveyed” and Letts described “a significant talent”. Billington praised “strong support,” but Hemming suggested the “fine assembly of actors… need more to go on”.

Hemming concluded: “Flecked with Stoppard’s wry, ironic humour and luminous intelligence” it “movingly, wrestles with deep questions about what makes us who we are and with the implications of materialism” but thought it “more a play about a great subject than a great play”. But Billington described “a rich, ideas-packed work that offers a defence of goodness whatever its ultimate source”.

Runs to 27 May

Don’t forget also the transfers of A View From The Bridge (4.5 star average, Young Vic to Wyndham’s) and My Night With Reg (4.1 stars, Donmar to Apollo) and the return of the Young Vic’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days (4.4 stars), all of which impressed critics last year.