StageScan Pick: Les Blancs

Les Blancs at the National Theatre achieved a 4-star average rating from pro reviewers, with almost unanimous fours. Tim Bano (The Stage), giving it full marks, hailed the “breathtaking scope, clarity and insight” of Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play in a “tightly wrought version”.  Michael Billington (The Guardian) praised “a text that explores both the divided individual soul and the bitterness of the colonial legacy”. Bano enjoyed “poetry that soars” and “lines that cut to the bone” and described “precise lyricism” combined with “flights of expressionism”. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail), acknowledging its “bleak… assessment of African history” found in Yael Farber’s “ritualistic production”, a “parable of post-colonial malaise” which “teems with semi-mythological characters”. Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) thought “some of the arguments still remain unclear” and Billington suggested the play was “a product of its time” but found “intellectual doubts… overcome by the sensuous sweep” of Farber’s “epic production”.

Bano described a “skeletal set, like the bare bones of a country ravaged” and scenes which “begin and end with threatening tableaux, lit like faded photographs” while Billington noted a “minatory hum”. Bano felt “Farber allows the play to hit resounding notes of anger and pain, but excels in minute details too” and Marmion saw the lives of indigenous Africans “vividly and harrowingly brought to life”.

From many of what Billington called “impressive performances”, all singled out Danny Sapani’s “superbly played” lead. Henry Hitchings (ES) found this “mighty performance… anchors the production” adding “At first he has a pensive dignity, but gradually his underlying anger is exposed.” Coveney felt he “provides a centrifugal force of feeling that irradiates the whole evening”.

Most also highlighted several supporting actors. Coveney enjoyed a “wonderfully dyspeptic” Clive Francis, Hitchings praised his “snarling precision” and Bano hailed a character of “chilling, unrelenting callousness” who is “still recognisably and believably human”. Among the other “fine, alert contributions” praised by Coveney (among others) were “razor-edged” Gary Beadle and “glorious” Sian Phillips. Bano was among those hailing Sheila Atim as “its most potent character” a gaunt, silent, almost naked woman who “haunts the stage”.

Bano declared the whole a “stunning piece of theatre” and Billington felt, “An imperfect play… has been given a near-perfect production”. Hitchings agreed “Farber’s skilful revival makes a powerful case for its importance” and Coveney felt “the brilliant South African director … has unleashed its tragic power”.

StageScan Pick: The Truth

A range of positive pro responses averaging 4 stars, greeted Florian Zeller’s The Truth at Menier Chocolate Factory.

”Like The Father and The Mother,” observed Michael Billington (Guardian), it “plays games with reality”. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) praised “a lean, deft piece of writing”, also observing a similar “taut, twisting structure” with “seven rapid-fire scenes, each radically altering our impression of what exactly is going on”. Paul Taylor (Independent) was among several noting “its overt and perhaps excessive indebtedness to Pinter’s Betrayal” but Libby Purves (TheatreCat), one of the five-star reviewers, described ”a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate, whip-smart ninety-minute treat” which she found “halfway to farce” but without “farce’s crassness”.

Taylor found it “wittily translated” by Christopher Hampton and, like most, enjoyed Lindsay Posner’s “elegantly astringent” production. Billington observed in the design “a chic austerity that seems peculiarly Parisian”.

All agreed with Lukowski that it’s “well-acted”. Purves enjoyed “a particularly fine depiction of alpha-male pride and panic by Alexander Hanson” who “rattles in increasing unease”. Billington hailed “an outstanding performance” which Taylor found “hilariously squirm-making”.

Billington praised “staunch support” from the other three actors. Purves enjoyed Robert Portal’s “unnerving deadpan” and Taylor found him “excellent” as the best friend playing “lethally sly power games” with Hanson’s Michel.

Taylor summed up “a sophisticated dissection of marital hypocrisies and a comic, coolly knowing challenge to the credo that honesty is the best policy”. Billington thought the play “civilised, witty and sophisticated… about the mechanics of adultery, the viral nature of deception and deep-seated male hypocrisy” but found it “slightly airless” failing to “match the pain or passion of Pinter”.

But Lukowski enjoyed a “Tart, zingy and cheerily amoral… satire on the male ego” examining how “lies and denial can form a (not always unhealthy) bedrock to our realities” yet “also very funny and totally unafraid of silliness” and Purves hailed “a virtuoso display of zinging lines” and “laughingly cruel perceptions” nevertheless “never far from… real pain: real love, real betrayal” and judged its blend of comedy and tragedy “very classy”.

StageScan Pick: The Maids

Almost all pro reviewers gave Jamie Lloyd’s new production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studios positive reviews, with more than half awarding four stars.

Alice Saville (Time Out)
hailed an “ultra-cool, and deeply nasty… sadomasochistic shocker” and Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) described a “feverish vision of the desire to shrug off tyranny”.

Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) felt Genet’s “writing, rather than his scenarios, makes his visions hum” and shared Hitchings’ concerns about “an unsubtle translation” which “robs the play of some of its wit”. Michael Billington (The Guardian) enjoyed “the brutal, coarse, even comic language” but missed “the religious element” in a production “very much about racial and economic servitude”.

Saville, however, praised this “strikingly modern” version, an “intensely stylish tale” set among “the twenty-first-century super-rich”. She described an opening scene in which “two women contorting to synth music in a beam of light” are “showered with drifts of rose petals” with “all the high drama of an Alexander McQueen fashion show”.  Coveney described the stage as “a playground,” less stark than in earlier productions, but concluded “while watching the Trafalgar version, you wouldn’t swap it”, and adding “I love the way we are cast as voyeurs”.

There was general enthusiasm for what Hitchings judged Lloyd’s “bold casting” and three “memorably intense” performances.

Billington found Uzo Aduba’s Solange “lends the play a ferocity I had never quite glimpsed before” describing a “big climactic speech” in which “she unleashes the rage of oppressed people everywhere”. Coveney thought her “tremendous” and Saville praised “an appropriate degree of eye-rolling sass and blind fury”.

Billington thought Zawe Ashton’s Claire “more sinuously seductive, less openly murderous” and Hitchings saw her switch “from flamboyant escapism to a suffocating anxiety”. Saville found the actor “mesmerising… vulnerable, unpredictable and utterly in control” and said “The text becomes a dressing-up box full of styles for her to try on”.

Coveney thought their Mistress “played, beautifully and hoity-toitily, as a Park Avenue glamour queen, by Laura Carmichael”. Billington described “exactly the right quality of heedless, narcissistic condescension” and Saville saw her switch “effortlessly between patronising kindliness and… sadistic cruelty”.

Hitchings felt “Lloyd’s decision to make this… about racial tensions… smart, and locating the action in America… equally shrewd” but found the result “essentially one-note”.  But Billington hailed “a highly impressive, deeply political production of a lost landmark”.

StageScan PIck: Nell Gwynn

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

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

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

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

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

StageScan Pick: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

StageScan Pick: Iphigenia in Splott

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

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

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

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

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

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

StageScan Pick: The Rolling Stone

Consistent 4- and 5-star reviews from the pro critics have greeted the Royal Exchange’s co-production of Chris Urch’s latest, The Rolling Stone at the Orange Tree.

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) described a “scorching play” written with “rare passion” and portraying “an explosive clash between religious dogma, personal loyalties and the frenzy of a media witch-hunt”. Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage) praised the writer’s “delicacy and intelligence” and “a meaty, believable storyline with some beautifully drawn characters”. Miriam Gillinson (Time Out), who gave it full marks, thought it “hugely powerful” because “made up of deeply personal moments”. She explained: “Urch paints every scene with great compassion” resulting in “lines that sing, slaps that sting and scenes that will break your heart”.

Hitchings praised a “simple, lucid production” and Gillinson said Ellen McDougall ”directs with the lightest of touches, gently underscoring scenes with stretched strains of music”. She found Joanna Scotcher’s “simple blue set suggests the shadow of the Church” describing “velvet curtains and white lights” which “gradually fade as Dembe’s spirit is crushed”.

Bowie-Sell was impressed by “a superb cast” and thought Fiston Barek “brilliant” as Dembe, a lead character “teetering between childhood and adulthood” in a world “viciously hostile to who he is”. Hitchings hailed a “memorably volatile” performance, and Gillinson called him “the gentle heartbeat of this show” adding “his eyes sparkle with a strange sort of naïve wisdom”.

Also highlighted was Faith Omole as Dembe’s sister. Hitchings observed “a striking gravity” and Gillinson called her “stunning” adding that their “fraught encounters… tingle with shared history and understanding”. Hitching also found Sule Rimi “excellent” as their pastor brother “especially when his preaching becomes fiery and militant”.  Bowie-Sell agreed, concluding “it is the entire bunch who define this as a remarkable and deeply troubling production”.

She found the play “says some timeless things about family, religion and responsibility” and Gillinson thought it “combines the political and personal to phenomenal effect”. Bowie-Sell was typical in observing “Urch is already becoming one of British theatre’s major talents”.

StageScan Pick: Fear and Misery of The Third Reich

The first show to really stand out for us in 2016 is Fear and Misery of The Third Reich at the Union Theatre, which achieved a reassuring four-star consensus among four pro reviewers.

Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) said “Brecht writes brilliantly” praising a “fascinating piece” in which “the best of the sketches are outstanding models of skilful, slippery writing and dramatic pressure”. Paul Vale (The Stage) noted “a naturalistic, often comic style” and Michael Billington (The Guardian) said: “Brecht is often thought to be arid, preachy and simplistic. As these plays prove, he was lively, ironic and complex.”

Coveney, offering “kudos to Phil Willmott” noted his choice of a “fine translation”. Billington felt the director “has fashioned a chilling evening” and Vale praised the re-ordering of selected pieces into “a well-balanced production… highlighting a deepening sense of terror without stifling the power of each individual scene”.

While Coveney found “the overall aesthetic rudimentary” Vale enjoyed “chaotic set design” which “mirrors the uncertainty of the period” adding “the Hitler masks are a touch of genius”.

He also praised “a talented, cohesive ensemble” who “capture the subtleties of humour and pathos in each scene”. Billington enjoyed “some astute cross-casting”.

There was general praise for Clara Francis, and Billington felt she played The Jewish Wife “hauntingly”. Coveney enjoyed Phil Willmott’s own “panicky tangle” as a judge, and Billington thought their shared scene as paranoid parents “superb” observing “macabre wit”. Vale also highlighted a “frankly terrifying” Felix Mathur and the “remarkable focus and urgency” of Joe Dowling’s rhyming narration.

Billington summed up “a memorable montage of life in Nazi Germany” showing “that opposition, however unavailing, was possible”. Coveney, despite some quibbles, hailed “a salutary reminder of Brecht’s power and influence”. Vale, who found the production ‘”resonant” said: “Brecht’s words ring out like a warning from history that couldn’t be more prescient in today’s political climate”.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our new-style update.