StageScan Pick: Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day at the Old Vic garnered six five-star reviews from pro critics. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) found “extraordinary” the “triumphant theatrical rebirth” of what Paul Taylor (Independent) called a “well-nigh flawless” film, suggesting it “perhaps better”. Henry Hitchings (ES) described “a genuinely fresh take” with “its own dizzying brand of joy”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) hailed composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus’s “most mature and striking work yet” and Cavendish also found it “sophisticated, smart” and “in a different league” from their Matilda.

Taylor felt original screenwriter Danny Rubin’s book “retunes our sense of the black hilarity and emotional depth of the central conceit”. Hitchings noted “the same nerveless mix of fantasy and misanthropy” and Cavendish enjoyed “theatrical departure points… as clear as they are exciting”. Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage) praised “bravura confidence”.

Taylor saw Andy Karl “totally scotching the idea that Bill Murray is indispensable to this material”. Hitchings agreed he “oozes star quality… charismatic even in moments of melancholy”. Taylor praised “hilarious… jerk-you-can’t-help-but-like charm” and “devilish rhythmic cunning” and Crompton called him “a revelation”. Shenton thought this “captivating” Phil “surely his calling card to stardom”. Hitchings enjoyed Carlyss Peer’s “satisfyingly forthright” Rita, Crompton found her “gorgeously feisty and vulnerable at one and the same moment” and Cavendish judged her “sensational”. Shenton praised a “wonderful ensemble”.

Crompton enjoyed Warchus’s “deftly inspired” and “seamless” direction and Hitchings described “wit… fluency and ingenuity… superb illusions” and “nimble choreography”. Taylor hailed “a miracle of stage-craft and technical coordination”. Shenton enjoyed an “electrifying and energising parade of movement” and “amazing… sleight-of-hand” and Crompton hailed the creative team’s “brilliance” detecting “pure pleasure in the mechanisms of theatre itself”.

Shenton found Minchin’s “evocative and exhilarating” score “attention-grabbing and delightful… supremely melodic, magical, haunting and hilarious”. Cavendish saw the music “deepening the levels of irony” with “repetition and sustained notes” and Hitchings observed “half a dozen different idioms”. Taylor appreciated “a glimpse into the inner life” of Rita and found the “beautiful climactic duet… uplifting and magical”. He enjoyed “wonderful oddball humour” and Crompton found the lyrics “a constantly surprising delight” suggesting Minchin “might just be a genius”.

Hitchings praised a show which “wears its profundity lightly” and Shenton found it “adorable and funny… affecting and disturbing”. Crompton hailed “an outstanding performance at the centre of a magnificent work… a cast-iron triumph, both joyful and profound, incredibly funny and seriously moving” and Cavendish said: “It lands with the confidence of an instant classic” declaring it a “beacon of hope for new musical theatre”.

StageScan Pick: Yerma

The Young Vic‘s Yerma received almost all four and five-star pro reviews. Henry Hitchings (ES) described Simon Stone’s “bold.. radical reimagining of Lorca’s poetic tragedy” and Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage) saw “The distance between the strict morality of rural Spain in the 1930s and cosmopolitan, contemporary London… bridged in a blink”, admiring how it suggests “you don’t need societal pressures to become maddened by a longing for a baby”. Susannah Clapp (Observer) saw the central character “neither satirised nor indulged”. Paul Taylor (The Independent) felt Stone “bravely… complicates our sense of victimhood” and Crompton, who appreciated that “Yerma is not portrayed as some kind of doomed saint” nevertheless found it “impossible not to share her agony”. Hitchings also found the characters’ “anxieties … wholly plausible” and Clapp thought them “utterly contemporary”.

Most attention was paid to a “fearless” Billie Piper, whom Hitchings found “raw, ferocious, spellbinding”. Taylor reported the “gutting brilliance” and “devastating emotional force” of her depiction of a “descent from witty charmer into crazed obsessive” while repeatedly “offering aching reminders of the luminously winning young woman she once was”. Crompton praised Piper’s “immediate…access to feeling” finding her “superb” at conveying the character’s agony as she “moves from the laughingly flirtatious to the absolutely distraught in incremental and beautifully described steps” while “the light seems to die from her eyes”. Clapp found the performance “earth-quaking”.

She thought the partner’s “mixture of innocent affection and casual incomprehension… wonderfully played” by Brendan Cowell, and Taylor judged him “excellent”. Crompton hailed “terrific support” and Clapp found the “great” Maureen Beattie “perfectly acerbic”, praised “subtle and wan” Charlotte Randle and “beguiling” John McMillan and said Thalissa Teixeira “dazzles”.

She praised “extraordinary design” and Taylor reported “action… trapped within a glass box” which “increasingly makes us feel like the anguished voyeurs of some suffocating and doomed process”. Hitchings also observed “unsettling visual and acoustic effects”. Taylor described a production “both meticulous and merciless” with “grimly droll mid-sentence black-outs” and a “soundtrack of female voices whose harmonies begin to slither into dissonance” and praised “the hallucinatory panache” of rapid scene changes others called “breathless” or “miraculous”. Clapp saw “Lorca’s watery fertility images” suggested by moves from “bare house” to a “garden… first verdant, then shrivelled” and later a “mud-clogged Glastonbury”. She felt the “crucial… manoeuvres in and out of naturalism” also “loyal to Lorca” detecting “a liturgical movement” making it a “requiem for lost hope”.

Crompton felt the production “blows the dust off” Lorca’s original turning it into “a challenging play for today”. Hitchings found “the quality of the performances” rendered the whole “riveting” and Taylor found it “compelling… shatteringly powerful” and “provocative”, judging it “triumphant”.

StageScan Pick: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre are finally out, with two-thirds of pro critics awarding five stars. Neil Norman (Express) described “a wholly authentic HP experience” and Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage) typically admitted:I felt it was my critical duty to fight the hype” before acknowledging “a spectacle of epic sweep and magisterial grandeur… quite simply, magic.” Mark Shenton (The Stage) agreed it’s “charmed rather than cursed”. Michael Billington (Guardian) thought it “will make much more sense to hardened Potterheads” but Norman, who agreed, found it “so packed with incident that it barely matters”. Shenton declared it “a major work in its own right”.

Crompton praised Jack Thorne’s “sharp and masterfully structured” script and Shenton described “Dickensian sweep and momentum”. Billington observed “mythical strands”, Crompton praised its “subtle examination of… love… loneliness… loss… friendship” and Shenton found it “particularly poignant” on parenting. Billington appreciated “leavening humour” and Crompton praised “good jokes and swift insight”.

Shenton described, in the theatre “that most resembles Hogwarts”, a “stunningly-realised alternative universe” delivering “one coup de theatre after another” and joined general praise for Jamie Harrison’s “astounding illusions and magic”. Norman found it “refreshingly free of computer-generated trickery” reporting “moments when you simply cannot believe the evidence of your own eyes”. Crompton hailed John Tiffany’s “genius at using the tricks of the stage” to create both “literal magic” and “pure delight in the sense of what is possible” with “every single member of the creative and design team” contributing to creating “a place of teeming fantasy”. Billington praised “dazzling assurance”, reporting Tiffany and designer Christine Jones “have created magic out of the simplest ingredients” including “brilliant use of suitcases and portable stairways”. He highlighted “triumphant” Dementors, and Norman found them “Amazing and very, very scary”.

Crompton described “uniformly good and occasionally outstanding” performances and Shenton enjoyed  “fully rounded portraits”. He praised Jamie Parker’s “superb” Harry whom Norman found “looks exactly as you imagine”. Billington thought him “suitably distraught” and Crompton observed “just enough boyish charm”. Shenton thought young Albus Potter “beautifully played” by Sam Clemmett.

Billington enjoyed Anthony Boyle’s “wonderfully quirky” Scorpius Malfoy, Norman thought him “superb” and Crompton described “a career-making performance”. He also enjoyed Paul Thornley’s “bluntly commonsensical” Ron and Crompton felt Noma Dumezweni’s “ardent, clever Hermione… illuminates each moment she is on stage”. Shenton found the couple “finely etched” and praised “warmth, vulnerability and winning humour”.

Shenton hailed “a truly game-changing production” with “real integrity… playful and gripping, disturbing and detailed, poignant and powerful… superb” suggesting it could prove “one of the most influential and important theatre works of the century”. Crompton praised “a deeply theatrical experience, a love letter to theatre itself” concluding: ” I loved it… It is a triumph.”

StageScan Pick: Into the Woods

Fiasco Theater’s off-Broadway hit production of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods arrived at the Menier Chocolate Factory to almost unanimous four-star pro reviews.

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) described a “classic Brothers Grimm pastiche” and Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) noted it’s one of their “most frequently revived” ascribing this to “a heady mix of escapist fantasy, violence and brilliant wordplay”. Neil Norman (Express) described a “musical masterpiece… wise and cynical, funny, frightening and sad.” Even a less enthusiastic Paul Taylor (Independent) admitted: “Fiasco make a spirited case for it”.

He enjoyed a “playfully pared-down” production, “putting the emphasis firmly on performance, text and story” and Lukowski felt the usual “fancy costumes and sets” had been “stripped away: all the better for us to see” the show’s “biting undertones”.

Taylor described stage design resembling “the shattered innards of some grand piano”. Lukowski reported a “discreetly Brechtian” feel, with cast “clad mostly in brown and white” who “double as the musicians” and “look like… a tide of humanity”.

Norman saw “no weak moments in the performances” while Lukowski found the ensemble “thoroughly loveable” and Taylor described “engaging wit and heartfelt warmth”. Among many performers variously singled out for praise, most consistently highlighted was Jessie Austrian, whom Taylor found “very funny and affecting”.

Taylor observed arrangements giving “pride of place” to the “upright piano” and its “wonderful sounds”. While Hitchings missed “the intricate textures of Sondheim’s tunes”, Taylor particularly praised “the depth of emotion in the singing” of Claire Karpen and Vanessa Reseland. He was among those feeling “the relative spareness” highlighted “the knotty, strutting nature of the music and the lyrics”. Hitchings agreed “the subversiveness of the lyrics” is “palpable”.

He judged the whole “earnest but often witty… full of humour” and “eloquent”. Taylor enjoyed the “big-hearted improvisatory feel” and felt it “manages to be joyously ingenious and teasingly incongruous without seeming too pleased with itself”, declaring it “a rather delightful surprise”. Lukowski agreed “It’s utterly charming”.

StageScan Pick: Faith Healer

Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse attracted a range of positive reviews, with five critics awarding five stars.

All praised what Mark Shenton (The Stage) called “Brian Friel’s haunting memory play”. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) hailed a “lyrically written chamber-piece” and Michael Billington (Guardian) admired the way separate monologues “advance the narrative, explore shifting realities and reveal character”.

Fairly typically, Cavendish judged Lyndsey Turner’s “beautifully measured and nuanced” production “flawless”, admitting “you need to concentrate… and wait, patiently”. Henry Hitchings (ES) thought Turner “alert to its fascination with rhythms and rituals”. He joined general praise for Es Devlin’s “striking design” explaining: “A silvery curtain of rain whips down between scenes, suggests ghostliness and grief.” Shenton described “a stark platform” on which, “with the anchoring shadows of Bruno Poet’s lighting, all attention is simply on the raw naturalism of the acting”.

He saw “the poetic grace and feeling of Friel’s script… achingly inhabited in the spellbinding intensity of the narrators” and hailed Stephen Dillane’s “poetic and powerful” Frank. Cavendish enjoyed the actor’s “dryness, wit, and unsettling directness of gaze” and Hitchings admired “a performance of real potency” capturing the character’s “mix of vanity and self-doubt”.

Cavendish found Gina McKee “cool, collected, mesmerising” although “she brims with sadness”, Hitchings described “a carefully measured inner turbulence” and Shenton detected “keen intelligence” in a performance Billington found “unforgettable”.

Unanimous praise greeted Ron Cook in a role he first played in 1994. Billington felt he “plays Teddy magnificently…. perky” yet “incredibly moving”. Shenton reported him “providing the evening’s only laughs” and Cavendish found him “a joy to watch”, noting his “knocking back the beer as if to purge himself of pain”.

Among the majority impressed by the whole, Shenton hailed a “quietly but persuasively phenomenal” play which, Billington said, “more than ever… struck me as a masterpiece”. Cavendish, who found it “exceptional, spellbinding” thought “its longevity re-confirmed”, concluding: “This is something special.”

StageScan Pick: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe scored a 4.4-star average rating from pro critics, with several awarding five.

Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage) hailed “a bold statement of intent from Emma Rice” and, like almost everyone, found Caroline Byrne’s production “quite the best Shrew I have ever seen”. She felt it “intelligently embraces the contradictions” of Shakespeare’s play, creating a “thrilling hybrid of comedy and tragedy” while Alexandra Coghlan (Arts Desk) admired “its ease” and reported “pace, energy, and a real clarity”. Mark Lawson (Guardian) praised a “splendid revival” able to “redeem the text through subversive delivery and images”, and was among those enjoying “many thrilling stage pictures”.

Crompton found the “lightly worn” 1916 Irish setting “a revelation” suggesting it “fundamentally alters the tone… giving the comedy a lilt”. Lawson suggested “key Irish writers… ingeniously inflect the interpretation”. He reported “Yeats’s poem Easter 1916…  adapted into a freedom anthem” and Coghlan saw this “less sung than howled, shouted, wrenched” from Aoife Duffin’s Katherine between scenes. She felt its “angry beauty… hangs like mist” over the production, so that “we cannot forget this musical cry of pain” despite a “pulsing folk-score”.

Crompton found Bianca’s “tedious suitors… genuinely funny”. Coughlan reported “sunny… knockabout physical clowning” and saw Imogen Doel and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman “at the heart of the production’s joy and energy”. Lawson described “a first half invoking Wilde” giving way to “a second… darkly indebted to Beckett” with “nihilistic touches” turning “the problematic comedy into a feminist tragedy”.

Crompton granted Edward MacLiam’s cruel Petrucio “a kind of rough charm” while Lawson reported “swaggering laddishness graduating into brutality”.

He praised an “electrifying Kate” from “an actor of exceptional vocal and emotional elasticity” and Coghlan found her performance “charged”. Crompton found Duffin “a glory: angry, tormented, bitterly humorous” and saw the key relationship handled with “an astonishing balance between high humour and bleak despair”. She hailed the “audacious reading” of Kate’s final speech and Coghlan praised its “rare vulnerability and horror” suggesting, “This Katherine is truly broken.”

Lawson summed up “a dislikable play” in “a production to love”. Coghlan felt “honesty and energy somehow make a coherent and thought-provoking whole of it”, and Crompton declared this “thorough-going and entirely satisfactory re-reading… A triumph.”

StageScan Pick: Blue/Orange

Blue/Orange at the Young Vic received mixed positive reviews from the pros, with a 4.0-star average. Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk), among the five-star reviewers, typically declared Joe Penhall’s play “a contemporary classic” which “fizzes with ideas as well as emotions”.

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard),  among those admittingsome of the references have dated” nevertheless praised a “fierce and timely revival” retaining its “psychological acuity”.  Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out)  thought a “canny decision to amplify and exaggerate” had made it feel “less era-specific” and agreed: “It hasn’t lost its bite”. Hitchings praised “a blandly institutional set” reached by the audience via “grim corridors” which Sierz found “Kafkaesque… disorienting, and slightly dismal”. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) was among those hailing “faultless” design.

Most found all performances “tremendous” or  ”impressive”. Cavendish said: “In all the stagings I’ve seen, I haven’t encountered a better trio.”

Sierz enjoyed David Haig’s “study in power” and felt “he really comes into his own in the more passionate passages”.  Cavendish judged him needle-sharp” as a senior medic. Lukowski found the fact “he makes no effort to play Robert with a straight face” both “really funny” and “political” explaining: “Where the character originally felt like a manifestation of New Labour’s propensity for ethical doublethink, now he feels like an embodiment of Cameron’s Conservatives – paying lip service to compassion for the vulnerable while brazenly doing the opposite.”

Sierz felt Luke Norris played his junior with “quietly convincing sincerity” and Lukowski saw him become “magnificently frazzled”.  Hitchings called their “gladiatorial struggle… electrifying” and Lukowski found the “spats… often indecently entertaining.”

There was unanimous high praise for Daniel Kaluuya’s Christopher, whom Hitchings found “bracingly charismatic”. Sierz said he “buzzes” conveying “distress, but also… exasperation, and… vulnerability”. Lukowski thought him “superb”, at first “manic bordering on euphoric” then “swerving into despair with hairpin precision”.  Cavendish found him “by turns slouching, casual, charismatic, erratic, vulnerable, fierce” as “he dances on the border between bloke next door and psycho you’d cross the street to avoid,” declaring the character “a mind-game played on our own perceptions and prejudices”.

Sierz found the whole “compelling”, a “mesmerising play… here both intellectually inflammatory and emotionally satisfying”. Lukowski agreed Xia and cast had made a “sardonic comment on another time and place feel horribly and exuberantly timeless” and Cavendish judged the production “Unmissable”.

StageScan Pick: Show Boat

Show Boat arrived at the New London Theatre to a 5-star majority from pro critics.  Typically, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) saluted Kern and Hammerstein’s “1927 masterpiece” which pioneered “a unified combination of plotting, lyrics and score”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) hailed “operatic melodies of romantic yearning, gorgeous folk ballads and exhilarating ensemble numbers” while Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage) said: “Even today the sheer breadth of its concerns and the ambition and range of its score… take the breath away.”

Shenton hailed Sheffield Crucible’s “mighty new production” as “compressed and fleet of foot,” maintaining “the epic sweep of the show” yet “bringing its tender, poignant love stories into heartbreaking focus”. Crompton enjoyed an “impassioned, supple staging” that “seems to me to get everything right”. Shenton praised, as among innumerable other virtues, “Vibrant choreography” which “makes the entire stage pulse with movement” and Crompton observed “The overall grip never slackens”.

Of the boat itself, Cavendish described “opulent detail… with bunting, lighting and, upon its applauded arrival, shimmering chorus-girls” and Shenton saw it “spectacularly advancing towards the audience”. Crompton admired a setting which also “carries the action effortlessly to Chicago with the help of a flickering film and a balloon seller” and forward via “a hugely effective slide show”.

Crompton declared all actors “uniformly superb” and Shenton found the show “musically… entirely honoured” by “stunning vocal performances”. Cavendish agreed: “Song after song has a depth of feeling that surprises, delights and moves.” Emmanuel Kojo’s Ol’ Man River was generally highlighted as “exquisitely sung,” and “resonant” with, said Crompton, “just the right bite of disgust”. Shenton found Sandra Marvin’s Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’ “haunting” and Crompton reported “shivers down the spine”.

Shenton found Rebecca Trehearn “thrilling” and Crompton said she “breaks your heart” performing “the glorious Bill”. Cavendish couldn’t imagine “a more heart-rending interpretation”. Crompton enjoyed watching Gina Beck, “with her soaring lyric soprano” grow “beautifully from idealistic girl to dignified woman” while Shenton declared her voice “luscious” and “perfectly matched by the liquid warmth of Chris Peluso’s”.

Shenton hailed an “exhilarating update of a true classic” in a “magnificent staging” that “makes it feel both revolutionary and timeless”. Crompton also found it “as relevant and powerful as ever” declaring it: “Glorious”. Cavendish described a “superb revival” that “radiates not only immense talent across the board but also supreme confidence in its material” concluding: “All aboard! You won’t regret it”.

StageScan Pick: The Flick

Pulitzer winner The Flick received three- to five-star pro reviews on arrival at the National Theatre, with a 4-star average.

Sarah Crompton (What’s on Stage) suggested of its 3 ½-hours “those who ignore the acclaim and leave half-way are missing a treat”.  Stewart Pringle (The Stage) agreed Annie Baker’s depiction of “three lost souls” at work in one of the last ever pre-digital cinemas has been “rightfully vaunted” for its “simple, human truths captured in a complex interplay of nuances”. Crompton also saw, within “apparent artlessness”, themes “of performance and reality, of dream and illusion”.

She praised Sam Gold’s “clear-eyed direction” admitting “Nothing much happens” yet through its “series of short scenes, both funny and sad, we learn the story of these lives”. Even Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) who thought the production sometimes “maddeningly self-indulgent” also found “the ripening of melancholy… well served by the silences” describing a “slowness” which “becomes hypnotic” Pringle agreed” “By the second act it’s as mesmerising as it is hilarious”.

Crompton thought it “original and captivating” particularly because “form really does match content.” Pringle explained how celluloid film works by a “translation of life into a strobing of light and shadow”, creating “something beyond simple verisimilitude”,  observing a similarity in how “a rough love-triangle, carved as much out of monotony and familiarity as passion, is glimpsed in the gaps between tedious broom-work and the mopping of spilled colas”. Crompton reported “a stillness that is almost like a painting, rewarding patience, forcing you to pay attention”, judging it “A mighty achievement”.  At the same time Pringle saw “Cinematic cliché” become a “subtle stand-in for the world’s expectations… of happy marriages, sexual fluency and the sincerity of friendship”.

All hailed performances which Crompton called “staggering”. Pringle thought Louisa Krause “the stand-out” adding “with the least to say but the most to describe, she emotes considerable, gnawing depths”. Letts declared Matthew Maher “spectacularly good” and Crompton was impressed by the “apparently unselfconscious naturalism” of both.  She found “the nuance and subtlety of every glance… breathtakingly revealing” but also suggested newcomer Jaygann Ayeh “pretty much matches them”.

Pringle hailed an “Understated epic of dreams, disappointment and tenacity” and Letts enjoyed “a touching, memorable evening” with “a lovely elegiac tone”. Crompton spoke for most in describing “A play rich in humour and insight that reveals its purpose slowly but to devastating and memorable effect”.

StageScan Pick: The Man in the Woman’s Shoes

A four-star pro majority greeted The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, which Fiona Mountford (ES) found a “delightful one-man show” on its arrival at the Tricycle Theatre. Dave Fargnoli (The Stage) found writer/performer Mikel Murfi “a masterful storyteller”.

He described “a compendium of anecdotes, adages and argot, much of it collected through conversations with people around Murfi’s native Sligo”. Dave Calhoun (Time Out) said: “It’s not verbatim theatre, but it carries something of its spirit. Murfi’s vocal dexterity and physical nimbleness allow him to bear an entire town on his back.” Mountford explained of his character, Pat “the narrative he shares is playing only in his head. But what an abundantly well-stocked head it turns out to be”.

Fargnoli observed a “rare ability to switch between voices and mannerisms at speed while keeping several characters distinct”. Jane Shilling (Telegraph) saw him embody “everything from a bee to Kitsey Rainey – the ferocious football coach with a heart of marshmallow – with a supple energy” she found “entirely captivating”. As Calhoun explained “We even hear him faultlessly imitating chickens. And pigs. And dogs. And seagulls.” Mountford said he “embodies them all… with distinction” describing “an intensely vivacious face, capped by cherishably mobile eyebrows”.

She was among those observing “playful echoes” of All That Fall “in the long walk and eccentric characters”, although Shilling detected “only hints of the darkness and complexity of Beckett’s drama”. Fargnoli found this piece “both perceptive and mischievous… by turns silly, surreal and sentimental” and set in a “nostalgic, rural Ireland… full of luminous details”. He acknowledged “an ambling and somewhat aimless tale” but enjoyed “a vivid – and unmistakably Irish – turn of phrase” suggesting “it is the warmth and skill of the telling which makes it so enjoyable”.  Calhoun agreed: “the words, language and rhythms of everyday speech all carry a sharp ring of truth” adding “it helps that so much of this is very funny”.

Shilling summed up “a work of great charm and affection for rural Ireland and its people, performed with astonishing versatility”. Fargnoli described “an uplifting celebration of eccentricity” and Calhoun found it “enormously big-hearted, ridiculously energetic” with “endless compassion and verve”. Mountford said “Murfi magics up wonders from a bare stage” and hailed “A modern classic in the making”.