July 2013 top shows – Three dark comedies

Once again, the sun came just as the world’s eyes turned to London for a sporting event; once again, Andy Murray came out on top. This revival of a year-old tradition is mirrored in our theatres, where this month we welcomed three very well-received revivals, each blending comedy with darker truths. Read on to learn which three shows were the best of the month in the eyes of the capital’s reviewers.

 

Best of the Month: July 2013

 

The Amen Corner, National Theatre (4.2 star average)

 

First up is Rufus Norris’s National Theatre revival of The Amen Corner, which won a 4.2-star average from 11 pro reviewers.

 

Despite reservations about James Baldwin’s 1950s play, almost all were impressed. Sarah Hemmings (FT) explained: “The play, Baldwin’s first, is stiff-legged in places, goes for a couple of contrived showdowns and under-writes several characters. But Norris’s joyous, music-soaked production shrugs this off, and he and his fine cast, let by a superb Marianne Jean-Baptiste, find the pain, joy and humanity in this heartfelt work.”

 

Jean-Baptiste’s moralistic Harlem pastor in crisis was enthusiastically received; Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) called her “tremendous, tragic and deeply moving.” While all actors were praised, several reviewers highlighted Cecilia Noble as a gossipy, mutinous church elder; Michael Billington (Guardian), for example, found her funny, moving and ‘unforgettable’.

 

Most liked Ian MacNeil’s split-level set, which keeps pastor Margaret’s walk-up church visibly (and audibly) above her as she struggles with emotionally messy, poverty-stricken life at home.

 

On the gospel and jazz music underpinning the whole piece, Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) was typical: “The Reverend Bazil Meade’s London Community Gospel Choir is fluent and rousing. With Tim Sutton’s effective three-piece band, they evoke the power of music to provide a sense of togetherness and antidote to human suffering.”

 

Billington called it “a breathtakingly fine production that achieves pure theatrical poetry in its fluid blend of song and speech” and Charles Spencer (Telegraph) concluded: “It’s a thrilling evening in which joy, pain, laughter and glorious singing are inextricably intertwined.”

 

Runs to August 14. Click here to save to your Playlist.

 

 

Fences, Duchess Theatre (4 star average)

 

Sticking with the 1950s African-American experience, we turn to August Wilson’s multi-award-winning Fences at the Duchess, which won an average 4 stars from the pros.

 

All focused on Lenny Henry’s portrayal of Troy Maxson, a role Quentin Letts (Mail) called “as rich a part…as you’ll find in 20th-century American drama”, Hitchings described as “perhaps the most towering of all Wilson’s creations” and many compared to King Lear.

 

Paul Taylor (Independent) described the performance: “Henry brings a strong personal warmth to the part but also forcefully exposes Troy’s discomfiting and unlovely contradictions… Authentically inhabiting the character’s body language as well as his speech habits, he swings with compelling conviction between robust playful humour, dogged emotional denial, eruptive fury and…defiance.”

 

Both Letts and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out), queried Henry’s ability to carry Troy’s darker moments, but even Lukowski, the most critical, admitted “Henry indubitably pulls it off”. Others praised his “truly great performance”, “massive presence and emotional power” and “undeniable gravitas” and Libby Purves (Times) declared: “Henry joins the ranks of great stage actors.”

 

Some found the Wilson’s 1980s play ‘clunky’, and ‘wordy’ but Paulette Randall’s production was generally praised, Taylor calling it “a beautifully judged and bruisingly powerful revival”. Letts declared the supporting cast “almost flawless”. Lukowski wrote of “a terrific ensemble… with Tanya Moodie particularly wonderful as Troy’s wife Rose, a woman whose radiant decency shines a light into Troy’s deep flaws” – others called her ‘magnificent’ or ‘excellent’.

 

But it’s Henry’s moment – as Coveney concluded, his is “the must-see performance in town.”

 

Runs to September 14. Click here to save to your Playlist.

 

 

Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre (4 star average)

 

Over at the Gielgud, we find spoiled, white, 1930s bohemian Brits. Jonathan Kent’s Private Lives for the Chichester Festival, the third West End version in four years, gained a similar 4-star average from 10 pros. Most felt this production outshone previous incarnations, due to what Paul Taylor described as the leads’ “almost indecently natural and combustible chemistry” and Charles Spencer called the “sense of unbuttoned intimacy and desire” between leads Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens.

 

Taylor calls Kent’s production “dazzling, razor-sharp” and its freshness, inventiveness and pace were praised, but while there were also plaudits for supporting cast and set design, it was the central performances that won over most critics. Henry Hitchings explained: “Coward’s barbed masterpiece calls for actors who can express themselves in a rich variety of ways, and Chancellor serves up a mix of imperious elegance and bohemian weariness, with more than the odd touch of slinky danger. Stephens switches deftly from villainous virility to a clown’s extravagance, and from petulance to a suave drawl… I can’t recall having seen him give a better performance.”

 

Even Lyn Barber (Guardian), who complained of missing chemistry and sparkle, found “Anna Chancellor’s rangy thoroughbred Amanda…thrilling, exuding the mixture of jagged sophistication and nervy restlessness that the role demands, along with an intense neediness beneath the insouciant exterior.”

 

Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage), outlined the production’s appeal: “What Coward called the lightest of light comedies is actually a charade of chauvinism; a steely, stylish battle of egotism and sexual attraction…And of course it’s so brilliantly funny you hardly have time to catch your breath as Jonathan Kent’s production batters at your twin reactions of delight and disapproval.”

 

Runs to September 21. Click here to save to your Playlist.

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