January’s best new shows: The Changeling, Bull, and Tree

Our first three recommendations for 2015 – a classic, some fine new writing, and a promising West End debut – take us on morally challenging journey through ugly interpersonal power play to wry acceptance.

The Changeling – Shakespeare’s Globe (Sam Wanamaker), 3.9-star average

All but two pro reviewers gave four stars to Dominic Dromgoole’s period revival of a Jacobean classic which Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) thought “vicious, horrific and grotesquely amusing”. Henry Hitchings (ES) found “the gorgeous confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse” perfect for this “always claustrophobic play”.

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) enjoyed a “frequently laugh-out-loud” production of “gothicky camp” and “rich comic nuance”, and Susannah Clapp (Observer) described “lines… landed with a precision that time and again whips them into new life”.

Hattie Morahan’s Beatrice was variously praised as “expert”, “first-rate”, “extraordinary” and “golden”. Holly Williams (Independent) observed “giddiness and selfishness, lust and irritation, terror and brute survival”. Lukowski found “her voice flitting excitedly through the octaves… disarmingly light-hearted” and Cavendish praised her “wonder-eyed detachment”. Williams noted: “you can see the cogs turning behind her eyes”, adding “Morahan makes us complicit” as we enjoy watching her “play dumb, play dirty, play false.”

Dominic Maxwell (Times) saw her “go to enormous extremes without appearing to work too hard” suggesting when she “turns to the audience to narrate her thoughts… it feels as if we are locked in her head with her”. Billington detected a “weirdly compulsive… obsession” with servant De Flores, which Williams saw “powerfully drive the play”.

Cavendish found Trystan Gravelle’s “downbeat bloke-next-door” De Flores to be “particularly creepy”. Hitchings said: “He locates all the dark humour in his lines” until “when the stakes are raised, malignity oozes from him thrillingly”.

Among other performances highlighted, most enjoyed Pearce Quigley’s asylum warden. Hitchings thought him “inspired” and “scene-stealingly ghastly”.

Cavendish judged the production “incandescent”, making “the darkness and shadow, the murk and mayhem… more palpable, more unforgettably primal”. Hitchings felt “trapped inside a murky, volatile world with two main characters who are undeniably monstrous but both able to seduce us.”

Runs to 1 Mar

Bull – Young Vic, 3.8-star average

Garnering similar ratings, Mike Bartlett’s “tense, muscular little play”, as Laura Barnett (Telegraph) described it, plots the psychological destruction of an executive “with the studied, elegant technique of a matador haunting a bull”.

Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk) hailed a “superb production… based on the strong visual metaphor of the boxing ring, with the audience cast as complicit”. Henry Hitchings explained: “The audience sits or stands on all four sides of Soutra Gilmour’s sparse set (in which a water cooler looms)” able to “observe other people’s shocked, bewildered or amused reactions”.

He found this “sharp look at the combative rituals, degrading attitudes and political mind games” of corporate culture “absorbing, nasty and at times sourly amusing”.  Sierz agreed: “Bartlett not only satirises the bully-boy attitudes… but also the corporate language… red in tooth and nail”. Andrzej Lukowski acknowledged “elegantly icy language” and “Bartlett’s exquisitely excruciating ear for the logic of the bully”.

Sierz praised director Clare Lizzimore’s “sharp eye”, Paul Taylor (Independent) reported a “high-precision production… splendidly acted” and Michael Billington found it “immaculately timed”.

Susannah Clapp described “a career-making performance” from Sam Troughton, variously judged “brilliant”, “excellent” or “stunning”. Hitchings, declaring the actor “underrated”, described a journey “from diffidence and defensiveness via panic and paralysis to flailing insanity”, and Billington saw his “thickset body and solid features seem to crumble and dissolve”.

Of his two tormentors, Hitchings found Adam James “suavely unpleasant” and praised Eleanor Matsuura’s “brittle poise”, while Lukowski felt their nastiness assumed “allegorical dimensions”.

Lukowski, who witnessed audience fainting, judged the whole “Not a pleasant experience, but a riveting one”. Billington found it “gripping” but “chilling” and Sierz concluded: “Unflinching, unsentimental and very powerfully staged, this is a really thrilling piece of new writing.”

Runs to 14 Feb

Tree – Old Vic, 4-star average

In the fresher air of the Old Vic, which standup comic Daniel Kitson has made “feel like home” for “his first ‘proper’ play” (says Andrzej Lukowski), we find unanimous four-star verdicts.

As Fiona Mountford (ES) explained: “An astonishingly leafy arboreal model stretches up to the lofty Old Vic ceiling” adding that “only a performer as idiosyncratic as Kitson would see fit to spend 90 minutes virtually concealed in its branches.”

Michael Billington (Guardian) praised Kitson’s “natural dramatic gift” and Dominic Cavendish judged his scenario “simple, but inspired”. Lukowski found this two-hander “suffused with a warmth and genuine fondness for the characters that recalls his earliest forays into storytelling”.

What follows after the play’s second character, played by fellow comic Tim Key, arrives was widely compared to Beckett. But, said Matt Trueman (What’s on Stage), “where Beckett sees the existential horror of hanging around, Kitson finds the good”.

Lukowski found Kitson’s character “sweet and childlike” with “something unfailingly winning about the way his voice sails absurdly down from the foliage”, and Key’s “loud, agitated and on edge, stomping, sweating and fannying around with an elaborate picnic, less comfortable on the ground than Kitson is in the air”, concluding: “Their wildly contrasting energies combine brilliantly.”

Mountford described a “classic Kitson style” narrative, “stuffed full of glorious observations about… seeming mundanities”, each “lovingly polished” into “a small, sparkling gem”. Trueman found “their small-talk… second to none”. “The gags” agreed Cavendish, “keep coming and you sense Kitson’s delight in his powers of invention, and choice turns of phrase”.

Cavendish detected “budding promise” and Susanna Clapp described “sturdy theatrical roots, illuminating what it is to tell stories”. Billington who found it “funny, thought-provoking” agreed it “plays highly sophisticated games with audience credulity”. Lukowski judged the whole “a pure delight, root and branch”.

Original run to 31 January; new dates added from 16-22 February

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