The best-reviewed plays of recent weeks have one thing in common: whether set in the 1930s, ’50s, or the present day, they take an unflinching look at an aspect of society we might rather not think about. Read on to find out which openings our London pro reviewers would have you rush out and see.
The Scottsboro Boys – Garrick Theatre, 4.4-star average
A 2013 hit at the Young Vic, Susan Stroman’s production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s final musical has received what Edward Seckerson (Arts Desk) calls its “kick-ass West End premiere”, with consistent four- and five-star pro reviews. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) observed “the feel of a milestone” in this “recognition that an intelligent musical about a notorious episode of American racial injustice has a place in our theatrical culture”.
The true story of nine young black men falsely accused of rape in ’30s Alabama is presented as a minstrel show, “inverted” as Lyn Gardner (Guardian) explained, to “unsettling and often savage satirical effect”. Patrick Marmion (Mail) found it “much angrier” than Kander and Ebb’s best-known musicals, Cabaret and Chicago – yet “without a trace of cynicism”, noting that despite “the grisly accounts” of racism, Ebb’s lyrics “brim with wit”. Sam Marlowe (Times) acknowledged “infectious ragtime tunes – you would leave the theatre humming them if you weren’t choking back tears”. Laura Barnett (Time Out) welcomed the inclusion of some “quieter, more emotive musical numbers … to leaven the tone”.
What Sarah Hemming (FT) called “dazzlingly delivered staging” and “brilliant precision” prompted Seckerson to declare Stroman “some kind of genius”, praising “visceral energy” and “choreographic razzle-dazzle that make an art of catching you off-guard”. All lauded a cast that Marmion found “well worth their standing ovations”. Barnett highlighted Brandon Victor Dixon, playing a “dignified” Haywood Patterson, as “astonishingly good”; Cavendish thought “the buffoon-like double-act” by Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon was “superb”; and many, like Hemming, praised Julian Glover’s “chillingly jovial” white Interlocutor.
Overall, the production was variously declared “immensely powerful”, “riveting”, “a triumph”, and “knockout”. Hemming thought it “audacious and troubling”; Gardner, “genuinely radical”; and Cavendish, “necessary viewing”. Marlowe summed up the consensus: “A hurtling journey into hell; I urge you to buy a ticket”.
Runs to 21 Feb
Accolade – St. James Theatre, 4.1-star average
The St. James Theatre hosts a re-revival of this 1950 play, produced three years ago at the Finborough by the same director, Blanche McIntyre. Consistent four-star reviews have greeted what Henry Hitchings (ES) called an “elegant and absorbing” production which is now receiving “the wider audience it deserves”. The plot centers on a popular writer whose transgressive night life provides fodder for his novels, and eventually, for blackmail; Paul Taylor (Independent), among others, thought it “ahead of its time”.
Sarah Hemming found the production “gripping” and “peppered with excellent and understated performances”. Michael Billington (Guardian) felt Alexander Hanson, as disgraced writer Will Trenting, “excellently conveys the hero’s literary passion and craving for lurid excitement”, while Taylor enjoyed his “intelligent, edgy” performance and Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) praised “a real stylist”.
Taylor also observed “a wonderful study of pained, robustly loving loyalty” from Abigail Cruttenden, playing Will’s wife, while Hitchings found “toe-curling amusement” in Sam Clemmett as their son. Hemming also praised Bruce Alexander’s “sleazy self-serving blackmailer” as “superb”.
Hemming felt period staging – “all leather-bound books, waistcoats and discreet staff” – made the play’s still-topical arguments about “celebrity, trial by media, salacious press, social hypocrisy and moral relativism” feel “even more striking”. Hitchings felt that “not everything convinces”, but praised “the suspenseful rigour of Williams’s writing”, detecting “real sharpness” and “moments of suave comedy” reminiscent of Noel Coward.
All in all, Coveney praised a “stunning rediscovery” and “an intriguing statement of the playwright’s dual personality”. Taylor found it “riveting and shrewdly insightful”, and Hemming judged it “a remarkable find, beautifully delivered”.
Runs to 13 Dec
Pomona – Orange Tree Theatre, 4.0-star average
Bringing our tour of the murky depths bang up to date is what Miriam Zendle (What’s on Stage) called debut playwright Alistair McDowall’s “creepy, complex thriller”. Garnering threes to fives, the young writer’s “lushly plotted, intricate piece of rings and roundabouts, unexpected turns and half-real conclusions” brings protagonist Ollie, searching for her missing sister, to Pomona, a desolate island in the heart of Manchester. This unloved, abandoned space serves here, as Henry Hitchings explained, as “a symbol of the vacuousness of the modern world – yet also of its extraordinary, mythic possibilities”.
Several reviewers noted the Orange Tree consciously pursuing a new generation of theatregoer, and Michael Billington admitted that the “unnerving mix of urban nightmare and sci-fi” was not his “particular cup of tea”. Even so, he found it “undeniably gripping”, with a “dark, compelling power” that was well served by “Ned Bennett’s brilliant production” and “a uniformly impressive cast”.
Zendle also praised the “energetic, committed” cast, citing “numerous laugh out loud moments” and highlighting Nadia Clifford’s Ollie – “just the right mix of insouciance and jitteriness”, and “utilising great movement direction from Polly Bennett”. Like most, she found Sam Swann “outstanding” as “distressingly accurate” lonely gamer Charlie. Several reviewers also praised Sean Rigby as Charlie’s opponent in a role-playing game which draws on horror writer HP Lovecraft.
Hitchings observed “the impression that everything is swirling around a drain in the centre of the stage (which designer Georgia Lowe has made resemble a grimy sink)”. Billington also remarked on the feature, noting that the recessed floor space “serves as seething city centre, bizarre bordello, subterranean hospital and dice-filled game board.”
In sum, Taylor saw a “brilliantly creepy and compelling” piece combining “dystopian angst with black playfulness”, and Hitchings found it “bruising, brilliant” and with “nightmarish allure”. Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) suggested “It’s dark, funny and you’ll be hooked all the way to the end.” Zendle agreed, warning “Don’t miss out.”
Runs to 13 Dec