30 July 2011: Beauty Queen of Leenane, Journey’s End, Mongrel Island

Weekly review roundup: 24-30 July 2011

The best-reviewed new show of the week: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic)

This show got three four-star review and two five-stars – the same haul as Journey’s End, featured below – but takes the crown due to slightly broader kudos in the text of the reviews.Dominic Cavendish of the Telegraph went all in, saying “Joe Hill-Gibbins’s gloriously funny, near-flawless revival” of Martin McDonagh’s debut play, which premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1996, “confirms what many felt about the play back then – that here, breathtakingly, from an unknown youth of 25, was a modern classic.” Set in a small town in Ireland “barely altered since the Fifties”, the play shows a daughter trying to break free from her mother’s grasp with the aid of a suitor who may or may not vanish into thin air.

It is bleak stuff, but funny and with some heft, Cavendish continues, saying the “wickedly amusing, sometimes gasp-out-loud cruelty of McDonagh’s scenario runs alongside precocious insights into the ageing process, family dysfunction and psychological instability.” Dominic Maxwell of the Times seemed slightly more exhausted by his self-posed question, “How black do you take your comedy?”, deciding in the end that “it’s not painfully funny so much as funnily painful. You’ll wince as much as you laugh.” Paul Taylor of the Independent also seemed to feel more enmeshed than entranced, calling it “an almost diabolically effective piece of theatre.” Fiona Mountford followed Cavendish in giving five stars to the “pitch-perfect, pitch-black comedy”, going beyond the script to say there was “not an aspect of this four-actor production” that wasn’t “superlative”. Many critics remarked on the set design by the singly-named Ultz, which Michael Coveney of What’s On Stage pronounced “wonderful” by virtue of its being “both satirical and hyper-realist.”

Runs to 3 September

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/285

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The runner-up of the week, or another show you should know about: Journey’s End (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Also averaging 4.4 stars from five reviewers, this 1928 exploration of life in the trenches of World War 1 first sold out the West End in 2004, and has been successfully touring since then (capturing a Tony in the process). It now stops back in for a brief London run, through to 3 September. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph called the return “powerful, moving and emotionally devastating as ever,” and Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out deemed it “thunderously powerful stuff.” Spencer found the blend of “humour, tension and old-fashioned English decency and understatement” to be “beautifully caught” in a production that was “continuously gripping”, with performances which are “superb right through the ranks.” A scene in which two soldiers trade small talk before a raid in which they both know they are likely to die is, says Spencer, “as moving as anything on the London stage.” Lukowski confessed that it took him some time to warm to “these moustachioed young men with their stiff upper lips and talk of ‘rugger’ and public school.” In the end, though, “as a non judgemental depiction of humanity and masculinity under unbearable pressure, both text and [Director David] Grindley’s scrupulous production are devastating, with a nerve-shredding clarity that belies the play’s age.”

Runs to 3 September

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/917

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Mongrel Island (Soho Theatre)

This new comedy from Ed Harris got more attention than either of the above shows, but only averaged 2.9 stars, with seven reviewers giving three stars and one giving only two. This is one of those odd shows where the text suggests the reviewer loved it, but the stars give it away; the reviewers seemed to be saying “we like you and we see what you were trying to do, and we want you to keep trying, although but it didn’t quite work this time.” As such you’ll likely see glowing quotes from the reviews splashed all over publicity posters, but be warned.

Ian Shuttleworth of the FT said “Harris and director Steve Marmion pack a lot into 90 minutes, and the result is never less than entertaining and intriguing. I am unsure, however, whether there is anything more to it.” In a common sentiment, Shuttleworth noted that Harris, who here gets his first large London production, “shows that he merits this higher-profile exposure and is a writer worth watching.” Paul Taylor of the Independent was uncharacteristically high-end in his commentary, noting that as an office-based comedy which pushes “the madness of mind-numbing routine towards a deranged surrealism” this was “more reminiscent of Anything for a Quiet Life, an early Complicite show” than of any Slough-based comedies one might compare it to. While enjoying the riffs and some of the visual spectaculars, Taylor agrees that the show “lack[s] any strong sense of where it is heading and ends up feeling like a mordant, pitch-black miscellany that neglects to add up to more than the sum of its parts.” Dominic Maxwell of the Times praised aspects of Harris’s script, but said in the whole that the show’s “mordant sensibility is laid on too thick and he needs to ration his absurdity to stop it from turning wilfully eccentric.” Despite Maxwell’s excitement for what this portends more broadly – the show is “a hugely promising piece of work” and “another sign of the Soho Theatre’s renewed sense of ambition and showmanship” – in viewing this particular show, in the present day, he was “always diverted, sometimes dazzled, never moved.”

Runs to 6 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/705

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