When we started this month’s writeup, there was a nice thematic link between the three best-reviewed new plays: each was a reworking of a familiar script, with its own perspective on the male-female dynamic. We’ve now got a late-breaking fourth play at the top of the table – with three reviews in, and all three of them five stars, this could be one to pay attention to quickly (even if it has broken our newsletter theme).
First up: All eyes were on the Donmar last week for Josie Rourke’s revival of Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Contemporary when it was first staged in 1997, this production now provides a glimpse back to a time when the Irish economic bubble had yet to burst, and smoking in bars was almost obligatory. Generally pronounced a modern classic, it garnered a solid 4.2-star average from nine of our pro reviewers.
Most enthusiastic were Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) and Charles Spencer (Telegraph), who both gave five stars. Spencer described Rourke’s direction as “pitch-perfect” and highlighted a “natural and understated” performance from Dervla Kirwan as the Dubliner seeking distraction among the broken dreams in a lonely Sligo pub.
Many reviewers noted that this is an ensemble piece in which nothing much happens. Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) neatly pinpoints a “… peculiar Irish balancing act between breathtaking oddity and numbing normality that makes The Weir so utterly absorbing and beguiling”.
McPherson veteran Brian Cox’s elderly bachelor Jack won broad praise, with Paul Taylor (Independent) deeming him “magnificent”. Tom Scott’s detailed set design was also generally celebrated, with almost everyone claiming to be able to smell or even taste the booze.
Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) summed up the production: “This is a play more concerned with atmosphere than action, and director Josie Rourke ensures it is packed with eloquent gestures. There are golden comic moments, flashes of poetry and dense silences. The result is delicate and haunting, a bittersweet pleasure.”
It also seems to have generated extra interest (as if that were needed) in McPherson’s new play The Night Alive, which he’ll premiere (and direct) at the Donmar in June. The Weir runs to June 8 – click here to add to your Playlist.
Nicholas Hytner began his reign at the National Theatre with a modern-dress Henry V starring Adrian Lester. Ten years later, Hytner and Lester are reunited in a contemporary staging of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of politics and jealousy, which also achieved a 4.2-star consensus from the pros.
Libby Purves (Times) and Charles Spencer both gave five stars, with Spencer finding this modern-day interpretation a “gripping” and “intensely painful psychological thriller”, praising both Lester’s Othello and Rory Kinnear’s Iago, and declaring newcomer Olivia Vinall “almost unbearably poignant as Desdemona, a little girl lost in a world where innocence cannot survive”.
Lester has a history with Othello, having won the Critic’s Circle best actor award for portraying Ira Aldridge, a real-life actor who was cast as Othello amid 19th-century assumptions about the Moor’s ‘essential nature’. Here, Henry Hitchings calls Lester a “charismatic, dignified Othello” who “brings a delicate grace to the role”. Hitchings seemed to be voicing the popular view when speaking of the ‘fizz’ between the two male leads.
Quentin Letts joined the general praise for Lester, but felt Iago wasn’t vile enough, while Michael Billington (Guardian) felt that Iago was too pivotal in this contemporary retelling. Paul Taylor was impressed by Kinnear’s “balding, faintly Cockney bar-room-bigot type, masquerading as a blokey you-get-what-it-says-on-the-tin merchant” with his thinly rationalised “inchoate nihilism”. As Maxwell Cooter (What’s On Stage) noted: “This Iago is no stereotypical pantomime villain but a man who has no moral compass whatsoever”.
There was general enthusiasm for Vicki Mortimer’s stark set, which switches from mess-hall to the gents’ to a shared barracks bedroom, laying out what is very much a man’s world. In this context, Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) found Othello’s tragedy now rooted not in his race, but in his inability to understand his incongruously carefree wife.
As with many of the bard’s classics, the challenge with Othello is to overcome its inherent weaknesses; for many theatregoers, it can be hard to know when to revisit a story you already know. With that in mind we close by noting that Ian Shuttleworth (FT) declared this production to be “the strongest and most coherent” Othello he had ever reviewed. Runs to August 18 – click here to add to your Playlist.
Of other recent releases, Mies Julie, at Riverside Studios, Yael Farber’s own production of her new South African version of Strindberg’s classic of sex and class, stands out for almost universal rave reviews and an impressive 4.5 star average from nine pros. The Times declared it “shorter, sexier – and better” than most other adadptations. Henry Hitchings, the most conspicuous dissenter, praised its rawness and energy, but complained of repetitive, heavy-handed dialogue and political symbolism. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail) called it “a visceral, harrowing and steamy rendition of the play” that “sets a new benchmark”, and Charles Spencer agreed it’s “something very special indeed… by a mile the most thrilling and explosively sexual production of the play I have ever seen.” Runs to May 19 – click here to add to your Playlist.
Finally, Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter, following a successful run at the Menier last November. It has taken the reviews table by storm, coming in at the top with 100% five-star rating thanks to raves from Paul Taylor, Dominic Maxwell and Michael Coveney. We’re pressed for time so will quote at length from Paul Taylor’s review: “This revival lays out – with a more biting (yet compassionate) clarity than any I have seen hitherto – the tricky narrative and emotional logic of an anti-clockwise story that follows three friends (a male composer/lyricist duo and their female writer-friend) as they travel backwards in the time from the cynicism of a corrupt trashy drinks party in Hollywood in the mid-1970s to (eventually) a New York City rooftop in 1957 and a tingling sense of limitless youthful possibility on the night that Sputnik was sighted.” The review closes on the drumbeat: “The show is a rare combination of the thoughtful and the thrilling. Go.” Runs to July 27 – click here to add to your Playlist.
By the way, if you like our reviews hub approach to plays, you might like the same approach to restaurants. We recently met the team behind a site which has a lot of the same features we have, but in the food arena: it’s FoodVerdicts.co.uk. We mention here as a public service and to support a fellow believer in this way of doing things – give it a look!
It’s been a busy few months for the team at StageScan, what with the Olympics, some travel for our other jobs, and a June wedding. This newsletter marks our return to publishing a regular review roundup, though we’re planning on a monthly rhythm rather than a weekly one.
This newsletter also concludes with a reminder of the shows on your personal Playlist (which you can create yourself, to keep track of shows you want to see) and your Recommendations (which we create, by searching the current listings for people you like).
Let’s get right to it then:
Best of the Month
This week alone, there are 109 different plays or musicals being performed in London; in these roundups, we try to alert you to some of the best-received ones. On our website, you can filter down by things like genre, review score, ticket price, date and postcode to find the perfect show for you.
A theme worth noting is that it’s becoming increasingly common for initial runs of shows to be fairly short. Then, if it’s successful, the run may be extended, or moved to a bigger stage. This approach helps theatres stay flexible so they can give more space to hits, while minimising their exposure if they’ve got a dud on their hands – but it can be disheartening for theatregoers who find the first runs of good shows selling out more quickly than usual.
For example: the most popular new play this month is The Effect at the National Theatre. It’s the latest in a crop of popular plays about love and neuroscience, following this spring’s Constellations at the Royal Court and Going Dark at the Young Vic. Initial runs of all three did very well; both The Effect and Constellations sold out before they had even opened, and Going Dark was a short run but one of the year’s top 20 shows in terms of review strength.
But this is not just a list of shows you might have missed: all three of them are now back for second stints. The Effect has already extended its run, on the strength of a 4.1-star average from nine reviewers, including five-stars from Charles Spencer (Telegraph) and Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard). The play was written by Lucy Prebble and directed by Rupert Goold, the duo behind 2009′s popular Enron: The Musical. In The Effect, Hitchings says,” Goold’s thoughtful production is lit up by scintillating performances,” and Prebble has written a”profound and stirring” play. “The material is complex but always accessible,” he continues, “the drama serious and informative yet deeply human, with the odd jolt of piercing humour. The Effect confirms her as one of the most intelligent voices in British theatre.” It runs to 23 Feb 2013.
The two other most popular recent openings are This House, about Parliament in the 1970s and also at the National Theatre, and The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, about the poet Edward Thomas, and at the Almeida.
This House opened in September and pulled a four-star average from eight pro reviewers, and on the strength of that, has extended to April 2013 and will move onto a larger stage at the National. Sarah Hemmings (FT) called the behind-the-scenes look at the minority Labour government of 1974 an “astute, funny and hugely enjoyable new play” which, though “hampered in places by stereotype,” remains entertaining “and becomes, as 1979 approaches, increasingly moving.”
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, at the Almeida, also garnered universally strong four-star reviews. Written by Nick Dear, who most recently adapted Frankenstein for the National, this is the story of a Hampshire poet who decides, in 1916, that if he loves the English countryside as much as he says he does in his poetry, he should be willing to fight to defend it. He then joins up to fight in the Great War, with tragic results. Paul Taylor (Independent) calls it a “sensitive, insightful new play”; it runs until 12 Jan 2013.
The Ads have it
Heavy advertising has a way of sparking curiosity, so here we provide the public service of highlighting the review scores of plays you might be tempted to look into given their omnipresence.
A Chorus of Disapproval, by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Rob Brydon at the Pinter Theatre: 3.25 stars
Uncle Vanya, starring Anna Friel and directed by Lindsay Posner: 3 stars
Loserville, a new musical at the Garrick: 2.5 stars
Book of Mormon, TBD, but seems a safer bet, given its 9 Tony Awards in 2011. (Those seeking a less-advertised Tony winner need not despair: Once, which won 8 Tony Awards in 2012, also opens here in March 2013, within a week of Mormon.)
Looking ahead: This issue’s early bet for next season
We’ve taken a chance and booked in already for Chimerica, at the Almeida Theatre, which runs 17 May – 29 June 2013. Writer Lucy Kirkwood (NSFW at the Royal Court) and director Lyndsey Turner (Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Donmar; Posh at the Royal Court; My Romantic History at the Bush) make their Almeida debuts with a new play which examines the changing fortunes of two countries whose futures will come to define our own. In collaboration with Headlong.
Another catching-up-on-the-past few weeks blog post from all of us at StageScan, after an outing to New York. Back in London, there’s something in the air, and it’s not comedy; the top-rated shows over the past few weeks have had a lot of revival and/or war about them.
First up is Antigone at the National Theatre, which pulled a four-star average across nine publications’ reviewers – recently a very hard thing to do as a straight play.
Ian Shuttleworth of the FT gave a rare-for-him five stars. The production is set in a modern government office, and yet, he says, “There is no modishness to the staging or to the interpretation. This is a simple, clear, modern-dress production which is both faithful to Sophocles’s original (in Don Taylor’s unadorned 1980s translation, neither florid nor blunt) and speaks vividly to our contemporary experience. It shows admirably why such classics are cherished for their timelessness and paradoxically also for their continuing urgency.”
Why so contemporary? Speaking of Christopher Eccleston as Creon – the king who won’t allow a his niece’s rebel husband a proper burial – Shuttleworth lays it out: “There is no diplomatic way of putting this: he is Tony Blair. This is nothing so crass as an impersonation, with all those strange, rigid hand gestures. But Eccleston’s Creon is driven, like Blair, by a conviction that personal certainty can and should override any amount of popular opposition,” and that parallel makes the play resonate even two millennia after it was written.
Though raving over her production, surprisingly few reviewers noted that this was the Olivier debut of the director, Polly Findlay, and that she achieved this at the ripe old age of 29. Runs to July 21, but close to selling out.
The other big play of note over the past few weeks was The Witness, upstairs at the Royal Court, by Vivienne Franzmann. The witness in the title is Danny Webb‘s war photographer Joseph, who rescued a baby girl while shooting in Rwanda; that girl grew up to be Pippa Bennett-Warner‘s Alex, who has dropped out of Cambridge at the start of the play but not told Joseph. Pippa wants to learn more about Rwanda and Joseph’s work there; Joseph, with good but not noble reason, wants her not to ask.
Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) gave five stars, saying “It’s audacious to make such a prediction in mid-June but I’ll go for it anyway: if there is a finer new play than The Witness this year, I’ll be astonished,” calling Franzmann “a master handler of both mood and tension, as she worries thrillingly at ideas of family and belonging” and Bennett-Warner “one of our best young acting talents.” The eight publications that reviewed it gave an overall average of about four stars, with Libby Purves (Times) also giving five. However Michael Billington (Guardian) gave two, seemingly because he felt the war photographer’s job is a necessarily unpretty one and that Joseph is here set up to fail.
To break the tie in sentiment we looked to Quentin Letts (Daily Mail), who is generally quick to castigate any Royal Court playwright whose perceived liberalism colours their view of what he (or the Mail) take to be life’s essential grimness. Sloppy plays which say society is going down the tubes often get four stars, while sloppy plays which lay the blame for this at the foot of any white man often get told to stop whinging. And yet Letts gives this one four stars, which to us suggests the quality of Franzmann’s play trumped the Mail’s house style. Runs to June 30.
The other recent openings with strong 4-star averages are Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, running to 26 Aug and starring Jamie Parker, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, running to 5 Sept and directed by Timothy Sheader. Both achieved their score by getting four stars from all reviewers, but no fives, suggesting they would be solid if not spectacular choices for your theatregoing pound.
On top of this roundup, we can give personal recommendations for the quirky Operation Greenfield, at BAC until 23 June, and the groundbreaking Gatz at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 July – but only if you very much enjoyed the book.
Enjoy your shows below,
-Your StageScan Team
PS: As an aside, in New York we caught the big-time Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role was good as expected, but the big surprise was, as elder son Biff, Brit Andrew Garfield – rounding out a remarkable two-year run which has seen Garfield play Facebook co-founder Eduardo Savarin in The Social Network, and next month sees him take over the role of Spider-Man in next month’s big-budget film. He was nominated but did not take home a Tony Award this week (the way James Corden did), but still, one to watch – and nice to see a proven big-screen star electing to continue to hone his stage chops.
We’ve been away for several weeks – sorry for going silent on you for a moment there. Here, a quick recap of the best-reviewed shows that premiered while we were out:
The best-reviewed show of the month was the pair of one-acts at the Pinter Theatre: Terrence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (written in 1948) and David Hare’s South Downs, newly written as a companion piece to the first. Six reviewers gave an average of 4.5 stars. Both plays are set in a school and “cleverly revolve around unexpected acts of kindness, one seen from the perspective of a pupil and the other from that of a teacher, says Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) in her five-star review. Hare’s “dryly witty” story of a pupil who doesn’t fit in “perfectly captures the posturing, questioning and awkwardness of adolescence, and we only wish the piece could go on longer.” Like most reviewers, she praised the young actor who played the student, Alex Lawther. After the interval, Harrigan’s play tells the story of a wronged professor, and “packs more truths about the human condition into 70 minutes than most other dramas could manage in a month.” Runs to 21 July.
More recently, Mike Bartlett (13; Cock)’s Love Love Love opened at the Royal Court and pulled a 4.25-star average from 8 reviewers, including a relatively rare five-star from Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) as well as one from Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) which was slightly predictable given the subject matter, but no less heartfelt. The play indicts the Baby Boomer generation by spending each of its three acts on the same couple, visiting them in the flower of youth in the 60s, the me decade of the 80s, and early retirement in the present day. Sarah Hemming (FT), in her four-star review, called it a “scorching comedy”, both”ambitious and hugely amusing”. Whether or not you come to loathe or chuckle at the couple, “they are sensationally well played in [Director] James Grieve’s acerbically funny production.” All reviewers called out Victoria Hamilton, as the female half, as exceptional. (Coveney’s review included a line that made me laugh, calling the script “an act of revenge by one generation on another. As such, it’s a classic Court play.”) Runs to 2 June.
A third strong showing came from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which averaged at just over four stars while garnering three five-stars (and a two-star from Quentin Letts, showing his range). O’Neill wrote the play, which tells the story of addiction’s impact on a family, in 1940, but requested that it not be performed until after his death. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) said in his four-star review that even though “it’s about as far away as you can imagine from a perky night out in the West End”, “anyone who admires great acting will savour the performances of David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf in this potent revival” of O’Neill’s “shattering tragedy.” Caroline McGinn (Time Out) gave a very rare five-star, saying O’Neill’s “scorchingly honest portrait of [the family] seems compelled by love as much as despair, which is why the experience of watching it is never depressing”, but rather “sends you into the night elated, with the sense of something understood.” Runs to 18 August.
Finally, Noises Off was not a truly new opening, moving the hit production from the Old Vic to the Novello (as the Old Vic’s first ever West End transfer.) Only four reviewers went to re-review it in its new home, and pronounced the transplant a success, giving it a 4.5 star average. Runs to 30 June.
At the other end of the spectrum, the worst show of the month (and the year to date) is Babel, which garnered a straight two-star average from six reviewers (getting two stars from every single one). The site-specific outdoor production involves hundreds of volunteers in Caledonia Park, and was organised by WildWorks, the theatre company which wrangled over a thousand volunteers and Michael Sheen in staging the Passion in Port Talbot, which received huge critical acclaim. Unfortunately, says Lyn Gardner (Guardian), in this case “all those people, all that effort and all that talent” is “squandered on an evening that is too thin on a narrative level, never giving its audience characters to care about or despise. It is lacking in both spectacle and mythic resonance.” Despite its aspirations “It is too politically naive, too lacking in complexity and texture; it never connects the stories of the city in a meaningful way. Runs to 20 May.
|Weekly review roundup: 30 March 2012
|Bit of an odd one this week, with the best-reviewed shows only attracting a handful of reviews, and the most-reviewed shows generally hovering around a three-star average.
The King’s Speech at Wyndham’s Theatre has only collected three reviews so far – but with two four-stars and a five-star, its 4.3 average wins the week. All three reviewers said essentially “it’s much better than it could have been”, with strong praise for Charles Edwards in the title role. Two reviewers even said they preferred Edwards to Colin Firth, feeling that Edwards was a more credible flawed stammerer where Firth had been too robust to be believed. David Seidler’s script, which predated and inspired the film, also gives more space to Lionel Logue as a character independent of his relationship with the future monarch, and Jonathan Hyde uses the time well to create a richer impression.
The five-star was from Quentin Letts, who concluded by saying “I cannot say I liked this more than the film. But I liked it equally. Result.” Runs to 21 July.
The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic had six reviews, ranging from two stars (Quentin Letts, showing his range) to Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) giving the full five. The average was about 3.7; while everyone said Eve Best was wonderful in the title role, for some reviewers, the production felt stately rather than smouldering, a traditional remounting rather than a reinvention. The play itself, like so many this season, is a centuries-old story of a woman pursuing an inappropriate relationship and suffering the consequences of society’s approbation; in this case, a 17-century play about a widow in love with a man below her station.
Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) said Best “combines serenity with great power and passion,” in a “warm performance” which is “lucid and moving.” However, “moments of gravity are signaled a little clumsily” both by the script and by director Jamie Lloyd, who, “in getting his cast to pay so much attention to the density of Webster’s language, loses a sense of intrigue.” (full review) Runs to 9 June.
Finally, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, at Battersea gem Theatre503, got a 3.5-star average for its two-hander about a cross-cultural attraction blossoming during language lessons. Runs to 14 April.
Falling much closer to a 3-star average were Vera Vera Vera at the Royal Court – the debut of playwright Hayley Squires, about a fallen soldier’s family squabbling over his funeral in Kent – and Filumena at the Almeida, starring Samantha Spiro as a prostitute-turned-mistress-turned wife in a new English translation of an Italian comedy. With 13 reviews between them, and 11 of them three-stars, these should probably be approached with caution or at least low expectations.
For our part, we are off to Collaborators at the National in a few hours, to catch its last day in the Cottlesloe before it moves over to the Olivier next month; otherwise, a quiet week this week after the hugely engrossing Can We Talk About This? last weekend.
|Weekly review roundup: 23 March 2012
|it was the second week in a row with three openings at close to four stars, which gives us a full six new shows at the top of the rankings and available this month (with some running much longer).
The overall winner was another macabre revival, though of more recent vintage than the last. Just a few weeks after the bloody ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore dazzled at the Barbican, Sweeney Todd, the dark Sondheim musical comedy about a Victorian barber-turned-serial-killer, opened with the strongest reviews since Matilda back in December.
The show pulled a straight 4.5-star average from eight reviewers, including five-stars from Michael Billington (Guardian, review), Sarah Hemming (FT, review), Dominic Maxwell (Times, review), as well as our hard-to-please reps from the blogging side of things, the West End Whingers (review).
Everyone began their reviews by stating that Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in the lead roles give career performances, making this a Sweeney Todd for the ages. Almost everyone agreed that the direction, by Jonathan Kent, was superb, getting the tricky balance of comedy and horror just right – except for Quentin Letts (Daily Mail), who may have been more queasy about the script itself than about any of Kent’s choices. Those who only gave four stars consistently flagged the same imperfections – a dropoff in pace in the second act, and a lack of depth in secondary characters who are given too much stage time (this is a cast of 30). But even those reviewers came down on the side of saying this version needed to be seen, thanks to Ball and Staunton. Runs to 22 Sept.
The Master and Margarita comes to the Barbican courtesy of Complicite and Simon McBurney – the team behind such powerhouse productions as A Disappearing Number, Shun-kin and A Dog’s Heart – as another projection-heavy, magical-realism-tinged show. This has pulled a straight four-star average so far, with five stars from the fairly cerebral Michael Coveney, but also fours from Libby Purves (Times) and Charles Spencer (Telegraph), and a three from Ian Shuttleworth (FT).
Using striking projections from their own in-house team, the adaptation of the Mikhail Bulgakov novel transforms the Barbican first into 1920s or 30s Moscow, then into a host of other worldly and otherworldly settings. Purves gave four stars, in what feels like a surprisingly unique formulation of ‘I loved it, but many might not’, saying “This is a wild, strange evening. I can imagine some losing patience with its first 100-minute section: starkly monochrome, philosophically and theologically unattuned to the 21st-century Western mind, and frankly confusing to anyone turning up with no idea of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel. Yet as the kaleidoscope of ideas, dreams and emotions resolves, it yields great riches.” (full review, Times sub required)
Shuttleworth, though, was impressed but not convinced, saying the production “cogently persuades you of the novel’s peculiar, compelling power, but ultimately does not convey it.” (full review) Runs to April 17.
Finally, the Young Vic’s After Miss Julie pulled very close to a four-star average, with several heavy hitters giving four stars, including Lyn Gardner (Guardian) from whom it is a rare accolade. The 1888 Strindberg script Miss Julie, about a sexual power play perpetrated by a rich man’s daughter upon the family chauffeur, has been updated by writer Patrick Marber to the night of Labour’s election landslide in 1945, in an adaptation that premiered at the Donmar nine years ago. Gardner called this production “compulsively watchable”; “class war played out in the bedroom with “just the right balance of voyeurism and dissection.” Acting by the full cast of three – Kieran Bew (Reasons to be Pretty), Natalie Dormer as Julie and Polly Frame as the chauffeur’s cast-aside girlfriend – was “spot-on”. (full review) Runs to April 7.
|Weekly review roundup: 16 March 2012
|One Man, Two Guv’nors gave a resounding Yes to the question of “will it still be as remarkably funny with a new cast?”, with a 4.7-star average from the five pro critics who have reviewed it so far. Though the original cast has gone to Broadway, the new production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket is built around several understudies who’ve had months to perfect their efforts, and apparently the chemistry was there right from opening night.
Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) said “Nicholas Hytner’s impeccable production fizzes along on waves of joy and slapstick,” and as for Owain Arthur, the new big man in the big plaid suit, “Whisper it softly, but I found the show even better this time around, without Corden’s occasionally distracting presence. The laughs come more easily courtesy of a wonderfully calibrated ensemble” – and “[Richard] Bean’s writing reaches that rare and dizzying pinnacle where we can’t tell if the script is smart enough to include its own ‘impromptu’ gags or whether these actors are simply the best ad-libbers ever.” (full review) Runs to 15 Sept
Going Dark at the Young Vic also picked up two five-star reviews, and a 4.3-star average overall. The immersive show, from company Sound&Fury and part of the Fuel festival, concerns an astronomer who is going blind – a conceit which worried Paul Taylor (Independent) as “all too susceptible to cliche.” But not here, in this “quite wonderful piece of theatre,” which “manages to marry the best aspects of such dazzling text-based plays as Stoppard’s Arcadia and Frayn’s Copenhagen - which make profound use of science as metaphor – with state-of-the art deployment of theatre-as-atmosphere techniques.”
The immersiveness comes from a combination of projections and soundscapes, which take place “in a spectral environment where the lighting ranges from semi-darkness to black so dense it is like being wrapped in weightless fur.” These physical aspects are combined with a script which poses questions on the nature of reality and the future of the universe, which “turn this magnificent evening into a pulse-quickening poem.” (full review) Runs to 24 March
Finally, two shows at the National Theatre came through with straight four-star averages, but with different distributions. Can We Talk About This?, in which dance company DV8 explores attitudes towards radical Islam, was reviewed very broadly and got two 3-stars, four 4-stars, and two 5-stars: where some saw didactic lecturing from the Ministry of Silly Walks, others saw bold questions and creative physicality. Still, strong reactions and a four-star average make it an intriguing choice for anyone who likes to take a risk in their theatregoing. Sarah Hemming (FT) said the piece takes on “a huge, significant and real problem and does so in a style that is in itself restless and challenging. It is also beautiful and occasionally surprisingly droll” – in all, “a daring, serious piece of theatre.” (full review) Runs to 28 Mar
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl took the safer route to a four-star average, simply getting four stars from everyone who saw it. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) called the 1958 play about tangled relationships in a Trinidad neighbourhood “an intriguing mix of kitchen sink drama and tragicomedy – poignant, yet dense with slang and warm humanity,” and Michael Billington (Guardian) said the play “amply justifies revival since, in its vivid portrait of life in a Trinidadian backyard in the immediate postwar period, it explains much about Caribbean history.” (full HH review) (full MB review). Runs to Mar 27
|Weekly review roundup: 9 March 2012
|This week’s best-reviewed show was Abigail’s Party, written by Mike Leigh and directed by Lindsay Posner at the Menier. So far, it has pulled reviews from five top critics, and all of them four stars.
In addition to the wealth of Jacobean drama this year, another kind of historical drama is now taking over the scene: like Absent Friends and In Basildon, Abigail’s Party is a meditation on the fragility of human relationships, class, and the 1970s. The reviews all have a tone of relief to them, both for the deft handling of a play which people have such a strong notion of (due to its BBC broadcast decades ago), and for the Menier being back on form after a string of poorly-received shows.
Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage; full review) says “Leigh’s best-loved play shows the undercurrents of misogyny and material aspiration swirling beneath the era’s gauche surface,” with strong performances from the entire cast. Trueman credits this in part to Posner, who “controls fraying tempers and momentary outbursts with a conductor’s sensitivity.” (Posner is busy this month, with his heralded production of Noises Off also moving from the Old Vic to the West End.) Runs to 21 April.
There weren’t any other big new winners this week; the median review score was three stars.
A potential strong performer to watch for next week is Can We Talk About This?, which got a five-star from Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) late last year in Coventry, and starts a three-week run at the National tonight. In the show, dance company DV8 interprets snippets of interviews about Islamic extremism; Cavendish found it “commendable”, “compelling” and “brave” (full review).
Also, We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?), an edgy two-hander about passivity in the face of bad things happening to good people, got an early four-star from What’s On Stage (read review). It’s on at Battersea Arts Centre and runs to 24 March.
It’s been a busy week for your StageScan reviewer, who saw The King’s Speech (3.5 stars) on the eve of its West End opening, and The Summer House (4 stars) at the Gate earlier this week, and has got In Basildon tonight and Snookered tomorrow. He will not rest until we find you another five-star. (If you find one first, please come back and post a review to let the rest of us know.)
|Weekly review roundup: 3 March 2012|
|Most reviewers saw the debut play by 26-year-old actor-turned-playwright Luke Norris, Goodbye to All That at the Royal Court Upstairs, as a sign of a rising talent. His 3.7-star average (from six reviewers) was enough to get best new opening of the week, and he got four-stars from big names such as Michael Billington (Guardian), who said Norris wrote “with rare perception” about his chosen subject: “not just the right of old folk to an emotional life, but also the fact that love can take contradictory forms.”
In the play, a grandson discovers his grandfather has fallen in love with another woman, and tries to get him to go back to being the grandfather he always imagined. Beyond the script, Billington also called the production “beautifully acted” and said Simon Godwin directed “with deft economy.” (full Guardian review) Runs to 17 March.
The Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta Patience, on at the much-loved Union Theatre, also pulled a 3.7-star average from four reviewers. The G&S satire of Oscar-Wildean frippery is delivered by an all-male cast, who “infuse the nonsensical story with camp flourish,” says Sam Marlowe in her four-star Time Out review. “The falsetto singing soars effortlessly, and every performance is endowed with idiosyncratic detail.”(full Time Out review) Runs to 10 March.
The Bush Theatre hosts a touring production by Ishy Din, inevitably described by reviewers as an “Oldham cab-driver-turned-playwright,” called Snookered. The play tells the story of five Muslim men who come together on the anniversary of their friend’s death for a bit of pool and lots of drinking. It garnered only three stars from everyone who saw it, and while none of the five reviewers expressed any real vitriol, neither were they terribly engaged, unfortunately for those of us who love to see everything the Bush puts on do well. Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) said “In many ways it’s a fairly conventional dramatic construct, and not all of the dialogue is consistently sharp.” (full What’s On Stage review) Runs to 24 March.
The heavily-advertised Zach Braff play, All New People, is apparently dreadful, pulling a two-star average from seven reviewers. Libby Purves (Times) pulled no punches in her one-star review, calling it “the most aimless, pointless, immature play I have ever seen” while Ian Shuttleworth (FT) also gave one star to a “spectacularly misjudged drama” marked by “extreme lackadaisicality, as if on the assumption that critics and punters alike will jump through hoops to accommodate Braff” – and advises we do no such thing. (Full Times review; Full FT review). Booked to 28 April, but watch this space.
|Weekly review roundup: 24 February 2012
|This week’s 44 reviews saw yet another play from hundreds of years ago top the list. It’s an odd season so far, with knowing, modern-minded revivals of She Stoops to Conquer (1773, National); The Changeling (1622, Young Vic), and The Recruiting Officer(1706, Donmar) all opening within weeks of each other, and all among the best-reviewed plays of the young year. (The Recruiting Officer, which we wrote about last week, is so far the best opening of 2012.)
The next in this parade is this week’s winner, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Barbican, until 10 March). This 1633 play, about a doomed incestuous affair and given a modern-dress take by widely-respected company Cheek by Jowl, got a straight four-star average from five reviewers, with a five-star by Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) balancing a three-star by Michael Billington (Guardian). Coveney called the play “sordid, modern, upsetting and totally compelling” and said “the bravery, and headlong intensity of the performances, is remarkable,” especially calling out the young lead Lydia Wilson (last seen in The Acid Test at the Royal Court). Billington, on the other hand, respected elements of the effort, but felt it compared poorly to a production he saw in 2005.
Just edging up to four stars is The Bomb – A Partial History, a set of ten short plays which runs in two halves at the Tricycle Theatre. Commissioned by the Tricycle as the closing act of Nicolas Kent, who is departing as Artistic Director after 28 years, the vignettes trace the history of the nuclear bomb, from its development to the present day. Sarah Hemming (FT) said the decision to commission many short plays is “a great way of coming at such taxing material: the range of voices, styles and subjects injects energy and pace. And while each of the plays is very different in tone, common themes ripple through them, as the characters struggle to find a moral footing in this strange new world. This is not so much a history of the bomb as a history of our relationship with the implications of its existence.” Taken together, the plays are about five hours long; they can be seen as independent halves on consecutive nights, or in one long sitting on the weekends. Runs to 1 April.
In Basildon is the first major opening of 2012 at the Royal Court, which had a string of more intimate hits over the past few months in the upstairs space and through its Theatre Local programme. This play about working-class life Essex, by David Eldridge and directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director Dominic Cooke, is given an in-the-round performance, unusual for the main house there. The reviews suggest it has fallen short of greatness but is still a worthwhile evening, with a 3.75-star average (eight reviews but no five-stars, and two three-stars).
Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) said that in contrast to Essex’s portrayal in TOWIE and its ilk, “Eldridge serves up something closer to Chekhov”: a play about “inheritance and domestic disharmony, at times deeply poignant yet replete with references to West Ham and Walthamstow’s defunct dog track.” Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) called it “like Ayckbourn, with jellied eels and F-words.” In conclusion, Hitchings voiced a common mix of praise and complaint, saying that in “a tepid final act,” the drama “loses some of its momentum and fizz. Still, In Basildon is scrupulously observed, and the acting is first-rate.”
Finally, a word to the wise regarding an especially low score for Bingo, at the Young Vic, starring Patrick Stewart. The play, written by Edward Bond (Saved) in 1974, has so far averaged two stars (though from only two reviewers). Libby Purves (The Times) said “Here are huge moral and philosophical themes: pity and terror, which Stewart is supremely capable of expressing and Jackson of directing. The problem is that Bond utterly lacks the human depth those themes require. In the prolonged final scene, where the mad wife and distraught daughter scrabble at the locked bedchamber door while our hero opts for suicide and a malicious will, you get an uncomfortable sense of a lesser spirit trying to claw down a greater one.”
Let’s end on a more positive note: We notice that two of the ten most-Playlisted plays on StageScan open next week: Snookered at the Bush and The Summer House at the Gate. Overall, your most anticipated play (as measured by Playlist adds) is Love Love Love at the Royal Court, by Mike Bartlett (13) which opens 27 April.
- May 2013: The Weir, Othello, Mies Julie, and Merrily We Roll Along
- November 2012: The Effect, This House, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky
- June 14, 2012: Antigone, The Witness, Henry V, Gatz, Operation Greenfield, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- May 13, 2012 – The Browning Version and South Downs; Love, Love, Love; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Babel
- 30 March 2012: The King’s Speech, The Duchess of Malfi, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, Vera Vera Vera, Filumena