16 Sept 2011: Top Girls, South Pacific, The Tempest, The Kitchen, Decade, The Faith Machine, No Naughty Bits, The Wild Bride, The God of Soho

Weekly review roundup: 16 September 2011
The best-reviewed new show of the week: Top Girls (Trafalgar Studios)

The 4.7 star average here is only on the back of three reviews, but the show’s two five-star reviews are two are more than almost any other show has gotten in the past month. And the paucity of reviews is only down to the fact that most reviewers gave their four-and-five star reviews when the show premiered in Chichester a few months ago. Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) sums up the plot: “Marlene (Suranne Jones) has just been appointed MD of the Top Girls employment agency and to celebrate has thrown the dinner party of one’s intellectual dreams. Her guests, all notable women from history, include Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, the 13th-century courtesan of a Japanese emperor and Pope Joan, thought to have held the papacy disguised as a man in the ninth century. These women had a lot, but they didn’t have it all, particularly in the sphere of family life.” From this, writer Caryl Churchill fashions a “theatrically audacious, unmistakably heartfelt drama” which “takes the pulse of the sisterhood in the age of Thatcher and is forced to conclude that some sisters are considerably more equal than others.”

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out), who hasn’t given out a five-star review in at least three months, gives one here, saying Top Girls, written in 1982, “remains British theatre’s most potent and original broadside against Thatcherism.” Although “the direct parallels between Marlene and Maggie resonate less strongly in 2011,” the embrace of the 1980’s setting reflects a point consciously made: “Instead of coming over as ’80s kitsch, [this] production suggests that ‘Top Girls’ pinpoints the exact moment success overtook compassion as the cardinal social virtue.” Don’t expect a heavy-handed harangue though; Max Stafford-Clark (who directed the original production at the Royal Court in 1982) “directs with an almost kitchen-sink naturalism, as these women, culturally poles apart, attempt chit chat. It is very funny.” Michael Coveney (Independent) also appreciated both the content and the style, also giving five stars to “one of the outstandingly resonant and prophetic plays of the late 20th century”, and adding approvingly that “it is written so lightly and fleetly that you enjoy it before you start thinking about it.”

Runs to 29 October

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/914

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The muddled middle

Among the nine publications and twenty reviewers we cover, for the seven major shows below (about 45 reviews in all), there was only a single five-star review, from Libby Purves of The Times for Ralph Fiennes in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Tempest. All review averages came in between 3.0 and 3.7 stars. I hate to come off as negative or snarky about these shows, and am just summing up the written reviews to date – you may well be in the mood for exactly the kind of thing one or more of these productions is going for. Otherwise, you may elect to save your money for a surer bet.

The expensive Broadway transfer: South Pacific at the Barbican, 3.25 stars average. Sarah Hemming (FT) said this production of the musical set during World War II, which won seven Tonys on Broadway, has lost a bit in the transatlantic crossing: “it has all the right moves yet doesn’t seem spontaneous enough” and as such “is not quite as enchanting an evening as it promised to be.” Runs to 1 October

The movie star showing his stage chops: The Tempest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3.4 stars. Though others thought the production could have used some livening up (while appreciating Ralph Fiennes’s performance), Libby Purves (Times) gave all five stars, saying “Without gimmick or self-conscious anachronism, Trevor Nunn drills to the heart of the play and to the moral grandeur of late Shakespeare.” Runs to 29 October

The lovingly detailed revival of a midcentury piece: The Kitchen at the National Theatre, 3.7 stars. Caroline McGinn (Time Out) gave four stars to the story of a 1950s restaurant kitchen and its multicultural staff: “[Playwright] Arnold Wesker’s doleful and authentic portion of working-class life is impressively spiced up by director Bijan Sheibani and his movement director Aline David” into “a ballet of stress and stainless steel” that in the second half becomes a “highly crafted expression of the rhythm of working life.”Runs to 6 November

The celebrated director tackling a big topic: Decade at St Katherine’s Docks (produced by the National Theatre), 3.7 stars. Charles Spencer (Telegraph) found director Rupert Goold’s set of reflections on September 11, 2001, from multiple perspectives and multiple writers, “a consistently ambitious and inventive production. Unavoidably, this is often a sad and harrowing evening, but it is also illuminated by humour and a strong sense of human resilience.” Runs to 15 October

The celebrated young writer tackling a big topic: The Faith Machine at the Royal Court, 3.2 stars. Caroline McGinn enjoyed the previous work of writer Alexi Kaye Campbell, but finds his first commission for a major stage – the story of a young couple who fight over whether he should take on a work project which offends her ideals, as an entree into an exploration of the shrinking role of religion in Western life – to be a slight disappointment: “Intelligent slides into preachy and compassionate becomes hideously mawkish en wandering route to a finale that liberally perfumes [the lead actress] with the odour of sanctity.” Runs to 14 October

The “now the story can be told” recounting: No Naughty Bits at the Hampstead, 3.0 stars. Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) wanted more from this account of the difficulties Michael Palin and others faced in getting Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired, uncut, on US television in the 1970s: “The play is all right so far as it goes, but its consideration of television’s responsibilities is shallow… A play which examined those questions might have been more interesting, and braver.” Runs to 15 October

The historically edgy company reapplies its winning formula: The Wild Bride at the Lyric Hammersmith, 3.25 stars. Ian Shuttleworth (FT) is a fan of Kneehigh shows, which apply inventive theatre techniques and magical realism to classic myths and tales, but admits he may have seen one too many of them to continue to be surprised and delighted by the approach: This is a “feminist folk tale” that is “by turns grotesque and majestic, which repeatedly cartoons itself yet finds a deeper truth in that caricaturing. It bears the Kneehigh trademark on all moving parts.” Runs to 24 September

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): The God of Soho (Shakespeare’s Globe)

The Globe has had an excellent year already, with its Much Ado About Nothing and Anne Boleyn charming both audiences and critics. This production seems to have lost the majority of the critics. Charles Spencer(Telegraph) declared that “Chris Hannan appears to have written the play while tripping on acid and experiencing a terrifying attack of logorrhoea. Throughout big issues are raised only to be smothered in a manic verbosity that veers between the obscene and the dodgily poetic.” Given this assault, “one leaves the theatre feeling drained, rather than enlightened or entertained.” Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) was more even-handed, but was still clear which hand won: “Hannan’s writing is now and then inventively salacious. He has the knack of coining disturbingly odd images: one character’s conscience is a “moving carpet of cockroaches”, while another is condemned for having “the soul of a cocktail pianist”. But mostly this is baffling fare.” Stepping back from the level of individual phrases, “the characterisation is paper-thin, and it isn’t coherent. Instead it presents a succession of half-developed ideas and asks a huge amount of the committed cast.” Nina Caplan (Time Out) gave four stars after being able to engage with, and even revel in, the aesthetic to see a point to it all, saying Hannan “dresses a serious question – how to break age-old patterns of belief or behaviour yet retain our sense of self – in sharp suits, salty language and carnival chaos” and furthermore that “The God of Soho’ is that rarity, new writing that actually works well in the Globe (in fact, some of its digs at Shakespeare won’t be as funny anywhere else).”

Runs to 30 September

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/39

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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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23 July 2011: Anne Boleyn, Betty Blue Eyes, Loyalty

Weekly review roundup: 16-23 July 2011

The best-reviewed new show of the week: Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Howard Brenton’s new play debuted at the Globe last year and promptly sold out; it returns this year to solid acclaim, reeling off a perfect set of five four-star reviews. Sam Marloweof the Times calls it a “friskily absorbing drama,” and then, perhaps worried he has been too subtle, “a ripe, salty congress of sexual and theological politics.” Like almost every critic, he heaped praise on Miranda Raison’s performance as Anne, which he found “clever, sexy and warm”, and later “brilliant, courageous, fervently religious and sensual”; in short, “a heroine to lose your head over.” Michael Coveney of What’s On Stage was glad to see the return of this “richly enjoyable epic” which “avoids the pitfalls of costume drama, thanks to [Director John] Dove’s staging and Brenton’s characteristically punchy and vivid dialogue.” (For his part he found Raison’s Anne “both devilish and delightful.”) Caroline McGinn of Time Out called it “an audacious and at times tongue-in-cheek historical rewrite, which gleefully exceeds the numerous facts at its disposal.” In addition to Raison bringing Anne to life as a “wholly seductive being with the passion of Joan of Arc, the willpower of Margaret Thatcher and the disputatious dazzle of a young Germaine Greer” McGinn also praises the “excellent ensemble” who make the most of a script which is “sharp enough to hit every intellectual and emotional target in its sights, and broad enough to embrace every last groundling.”

Runs to 21 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/269

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Special section: Musicals

While we don’t exclude musicals from the regular weekly roundups (or the website), the fact is they generally average out at about three and a half stars, and so are rarely in the running for either best or worst new show. Here we call out some of the debuts of the last few months; all are still running. (Note that while we only give one quote per show, we pick this quote by reading all the reviews and then picking a line which seems to sum up the sentiment of the group.)

Betty Blue Eyes (8 reviewers, avg 4.0 stars)
Novello Theatre
Plot: Musical adaptation of Alan Bennett’s1984 film A Private Function, in which a small town raises a pig to eat at a celebration of the royal wedding; set in an austerity Britain in 1947.
Libby Purves, The Times: “A new smash musical is born: witty, rude, lovable, warm, dramatic, hilarious.”

Runs to 28 Jan 2012; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/85

Road Show (8 reviewers, avg 3.6 stars)
Menier Chocolate Factory
Plot: A “new” “Sondheim” musical following two hucksters around America – first introduced in New York in 1999, and reworked through several iterations (and titles) since then.
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph: “The show now has a focus and flair that commands admiration even if it doesn’t inspire complete devotion.”

Runs to 17 September; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/632

Ghost: The Musical (9 reviewers, 3.3 stars) 
Piccadilly Theatre
Plot: It’s the movie Ghost, but as a stage musical.
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard: “Although its fidelity to the visuals of the original is at times spectacular, the music adds no great poignancy, and its sentimentality feels exaggerated and synthetic.” (Note: If you’re considering it, don’t miss the point about the visuals being spectacular; almost every reviewer called this out.)

Runs to 28 Jan 2012; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/101

Shrek: The Musical (10 reviewers, 3.2 stars)
Plot: It’s the movie Shrek, but as a stage musical.
Michael Billington, The Guardian: “It’s an amiable, well-crafted show that puts you in a pleasant frame of mind and that will fill a gap in the family market. But I was still left pining for that moment of ecstasy that is the musical’s chief justification.”

Runs to 19 Feb 2012; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/212

Lend me a Tenor (8 reviewers, 3.0 stars) 
Gielgud Theatre
Plot: Musical farce based around mistaken identity and opera stars.
Sarah Hemmings, FT: “The plot is a bit rickety and the musical itself is not quite charming, witty or sharp enough to produce gold.”

Runs to 19 November; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/569

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Loyalty (Hampstead)

This play, which tells the story of a couple who disagree on whether Britain should support the Iraq war but must go along to get along, garnered only a 2.7 average from eight reviewers. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph went into it steeled for “yet another piece about how and why Tony Blair’s government went into the Iraq war”, albeit one with a “unique selling point”: the playwright making her debut here is Sarah Helm, a “respected journalist and writer” who also happens to be married to Tony Blair’s former chief of staff. Although the play promises a combination of insider revelations and thoughtful reflection on the intersection of political and personal life, Spencer reports that “one’s principal feeling watching Loyalty is profound gratitude that one isn’t married to Sarah Helm”, whom he left considering “the kind of self-righteous anti-war harridan one would run a mile from.” The promised mix of personal and political “feels decidedly strained, and the attempts at humour are usually leaden.”

Henry Hitchings at the Evening Standard also found the lead character (whom he was charitable enough to refer to as Laura, given that that is her name in the play) a “tormentingly sanctimonious presence.” His criticism was broader, with too many scenes which “strain plausibility or lack vitality”; despite the momentous subject matter, “not much seems urgently at stake”, and the audience leaves “with little sense of having got closer to the truth.” Lyn Gardner was less negative, finding the “the first half at least” to be “compulsively watchable” based on Helm’s (one assumes) firsthand knowledge of the details and peculiarities of world leaders’ conversations. Though the attempt to make a larger point about government duplicity falls short, “it is in the bedroom or the kitchen, as it charts the inner workings of a marriage under immense strain because of outside forces, that the play feels most true.”

Runs to 13 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/516

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15 July 2011: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Railway Children, Yes, Prime Minister

Weekly review roundup: 9-15 July

The best-reviewed new show of the week: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

This is Tom Stoppard’s first major play, which imagines two minor characters from Hamlet watching the action unfold around them and realising that they are bit players in someone else’s drama. Summing up the views of most reviewers, the West End Whingers said the playwright’s “too-clever-by-half and slightly over-extended mash-up of Beckett and Shakespeare is made highly palatable thanks to a delightful production and a fine cast.” The show reunites Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, who “recreate the easy rapport they exhibited in The History Boys” says the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings. Still, he says, “while lots of Stoppard’s jokes still have bite, much of the humour that once struck audiences as dazzlingly original hasn’t aged well” and the writing “lacks the depth of humanity one finds in his mature works such as Arcadia.” Caroline McGinn of Time Out adroitly calls it “a student classic” with “more rhetoric than wit” but notes that it succeeds because director Trevor Nunn “never forgets this is a comedy.” In an inspired bit of research McGinn also notes that Nunn “would have directed the play’s premiere in 1965, had the RSC’s new-writing budget not fallen through.”

Runs to 20 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/579

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Theatre for the whole family: The Railway Children; The Tiger Who Came to Tea; Pericles

The Railway Children at Waterloo Station
This widely-reviewed show (six major 4-star reviews and one 5-star) employs a sterling cast, including comedian Marcus Brigstocke and a 60-tonne steam locomotive, to bring to life a well-loved children’s book and film. The show is staged at the former Eurostar terminal in Waterloo Station, where a 1,000 seat venue has been built around the railway tracks. Libby Purves at the Times noted that, while based on a children’s book, “It’s a real play and asks its audience for real theatre imagination: the characters as adults are relating a strange, charmed summer at the same time as they play their romping younger selves.” She concludes her review with the declaration “Lovely.”, while Fiona Mountford at the Evening Standard ended her five-star review with the simple declarative “Unbeatable.”

Runs to 4 September; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/173

The Tiger Who Came to Tea (Vaudeville). 
Unlike the Railway Children, this lightly but well-reviewed show (one 4-star, one 5-star), is “first and foremost for children” says What’s On Stage. However, it delivers, even with the most mercurial of crowds; “judging by the shouts and laughter of the mostly pre-school audience, they were entertained for the full duration.”

Runs to 4 September; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/165

Pericles (Regents Park Open Air Theatre)
Reviewed more widely but less positively than Tiger, with three 4-star reviews and one 3-star. Michael Bilington of the Guardian said “Natalie Abrahami’s production does exactly what it says on the tin. Billed as ‘Pericles reimagined for everyone aged six and over’, what we get is a vivid theatrical experience that combines pirates, panto and the best bits of this relatively unfamiliar late romance.”

Runs to 23 July; see the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/92

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Yes, Prime Minister (Apollo)

Based on a seminal BBC sitcom, this show was well-reviewed in its first West End incarnation in 2009, but the return with a new cast and the same script has left critics unimpressed. Charles Spencer at the Telegraph said the show, which he has seen three times, “suddenly seemed alarmingly out of touch.” Although it provides “a highly entertaining evening that tells us far more about the way we are governed than a dozen more earnest Left-wing, state-of-the-nation plays”, events have overtaken it; “more than a year after its premiere, the authors really must address the issue of topical content.” Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out agreed that “not enough has been done to update this script since it was written. Its preoccupations – a BBC in crisis, an internally unpopular PM – feel very 2009; it would probably have worked better as either an ’80s period piece or with some topical updates.” What’s On Stage had more criticism in its one-star review, noting that while “the elements are all in place for brilliant farce and biting satire,” the show instead descends “into a brash, hysterical and rather grimy pantomime.” All of the best jokes are taken from the old TV scripts, while the new ones “rely on tired platitudes (‘murder and prayer’ is the American way) and cringe-worthy concessions to modernity (eg Twitter exists).” All in all, “a disappointing coda to TV’s smartest half-hour.”

Runs to 17 September

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/581

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9 July 2011: The Village Bike, One Man Two Guv’nors, Park Avenue Cat

Weekly review roundup: 2-9 July

The most polarising show of the week: The Village Bike (Royal Court)

The show was both sold out and extended before it opened, on the combined reputations of the Royal Court, young playwright Penelope Skinner, and actress Romola Garai; possibly also on the erotic tone it promises, of which more shortly. We spotlight it here because the show received three glowing ones and four cutting reviews; as such, it provides a bit of an (ahem) acid test as to how much you might agree with a particular reviewer.

The plot is simple; Garai’s pregnant protagonist wants sex, but her husband is too limply focused on being the world’s most sensitive birthing partner to realise his wife is still the same carnal creature she was a few months ago. Thus she takes up with a variety of men in the village to which they’ve just moved.

All reviewers praise Garai’s strong performance, as well as Joe Hill-Gibbins’s clever direction, so the difference all comes down to each reviewer’s opinion of the script. Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard said the play “brilliantly captures what few dramas even bother to deal with: that liminal time in a woman’s life when she stands poised between two very different states of being”, while Sarah Hemming of the FT lauded it as “a daring play about sex and the confusing impact of pornography on intimacy” that “revels in erotic cliches.” Sam Marlowe of the Times rather breathlessly pronounced it “a hurtling ride through gender politics, sexual powerplay and the highs and hazards of desire”, and later “a wickedly wise, furiously funny play that freewheels among the mess and indignities behind the many myths about sex”, calling its humour “impishly astute” and its intelligence “impeccable.”

However, other reviewers wanted more bite. Michael Billington at the Guardian said that while the play “is both observant and funny, it has a strangely conventional core”, and that Skinner’s “vague cop-out” on what happens when the headiness wears off gives you “a good night out without quite having the courage of its initial convictions.” Michael Coveney of What’s On Stage also expected the play to eventually pick a direction and go with it; “farce, for instance, or a really dark tragedy with some grim, chaotic consequences.” Regrettably, “Skinner pulls back from any hard decision on this”, resulting in “a steep loss of intensity even as the situation gathers”. Paul Taylor of The Independent breaks a remarkable string of eight consecutive 4-star reviews to note his disappointment that “the play, which seemed to promise that it would unsettle conventions, turns into a pretty standard cautionary tale.”

(EES aside: astute readers who note that there seems to be some correlation between a reviewer’s attitude towards a sexually charged wife with a wandering eye and that reviewer’s gender will receive extra credit.)

Runs to 30 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/123

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The close runner-up for best (or another show you should know about): One Man, Two Guv’nors
This winner has been open for weeks, and surely would have been featured in the top slot had we been doing the review roundup when it opened; it garnered several five-star reviews and an average above four. Since it has now been extended to 19 Sept, and also has one of the highest “Peer review” scores on our site, we bring it up this week, since it’s on the verge of selling all the way out. (One of our Pro reviewer friends also said recently it was one of only two shows this year he wished he could go back and give five stars to, which helped overcome our own feeling that it was perhaps a bit insubstantial.)

Charles Spencer of the Telegraph called it “an evening of riotous delight”, highlighting performances from actors James Corden, Daniel Craig, and Oliver Chris, and Henry Hitchings at the Evening Standard said Richard Bean’s adaptation “luxuriates in the copiousness of comic tradition and honours the possibilities of improvisation, but is also packed with brilliantly original lines.” The best of these go to Chris, whose performance as a posh, dim killer is “sublime”. Not surprisingly, “it is Corden who has to sell the trickiest moments of physical comedy, and he does a delightful job of it.” Only Ian Shuttleworth at the FT went below four stars on the performance, enjoying the overall quality but saying that “what Nicholas Hytner’s production lacks throughout is pace and crispness of action.” “There is never a dull moment in the evening,” he admits, “it’s just that there’s too damn much of it.”

Runs to 19 Sept; Sold out except for the afternoon show on Tues 6th Sept, but with the giant Lyttleton theatre there are always bound to be a couple returns.
UPDATE: This production will transfer to the Adelphi Theatre, running from 8 November to 25 Feb 2012.

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/553

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Park Avenue Cat (Arts)

This show has only received one review from the sites we typically watch, but its suddenly omnipresent advertising might have led an average mass-transit-using theatregoer to wonder if there was something they had missed, or if they were supposed to know who Frank Strausser was.

As The Stage is keen to point out, Strausser is the “Los Angeles-based” writer behind this show which features a women who can’t choose between two men, those two men, and their therapist.What’s On Stage sees where this is going, saying the romcom/sitcom setup “make Park Avenue Cat reminiscent of programmes like Sex and the City, but there the similarity ends, as the show lacks not just the necessary humour, but also any sense of dramatic tension or narrative arc.” Stausser’s characters, “each of them as unsympathetic as the next,” don’t respond to each other like real people, despite the fact that the cast is “clearly doing their best with terrible material.” The Stage also credits the cast’s attempt “to inject variation into their one-dimensional characters,” but claims it impossible to overome “Strausser’s tendency to define women as baby-obsessed, insecure narcissists and men as top-achieving Neanderthals who can’t resist a fist fight over a ‘high-maintenance’ female.” London Theatre Guide pulled no punches on “this insipid, lacklustre play”, and were not the only ones to criticise Glen Walford for what they called his “limp, uninspiring direction”. Aside from the cast gamely trying their best, LTG also applauded “Mark Walters’ clever and ingenious design”, but aside from that, “the saving grace of Park Avenue Cat is that it is mercifully short”; a “bland, moribund, damp squib of a play.” So, in short: no, you haven’t missed anything; the ads are there to try to help the investors overcome the fact that the reviews are not good.

Runs to 20 August

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/690

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1 July 2011: Richard III, The Beggar’s Opera, Lullaby

Weekly review roundup: 25 June – 1 July

The best-reviewed new show of the week: Richard III (Old Vic)

The blockbuster show of the week is Kevin Spacey as the hunchbacked Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes at the Old Vic. Libby Purves of the Times found it a five-star visceral experience; “a proper, gruelling piece of live theatre.” The reunion of Spacey with director Sam Mendes is “a thrilling display of both men’s dual expertise”; for example, Spacey’s nudge of an unseen severed head with a crutch, only to “moments later thoughtfully wipe the tip” is “just one of a hundred small memorable moments that make you gulp.” At the end “it was a relief to breathe out again, and stand in salute.” Michael Billington of the Guardian gave four stars to Sam Mendes’s “beautifully clear, coherent modern-dress production in which the protagonist becomes an autocratic archetype”, noting that Spacey’s “powerful central performance” does not radically redefine the character but “offers us is his own subtle variations on it: a Richard in whom instinctive comic brio is matched by a power-lust born of intense self-hatred.” Like Purves, he vividly recalls aspects of Spacey’s performance: “As he reaches angrily for the zapper, you get an instant sense of exclusion: Richard as the misanthropic outsider who will use a veneer of quick-witted charm as a ladder to the throne.” This is Spacey acting “with every fibre of his being” adding a “rougher, darker edge” to his voice and “ferocious energy” to his movements even with his leg encased in a splint. In contrast, while Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail appreciated the “spectacle” of the “strikingly theatrical” production, he would have appreciated a defter touch, saying “Mr Spacey, normally so good, does not quite nail the part.” Though clearly committed to the role, he “is ultimately undone by a surfeit of sarcasm and campness.” Unlike Purves, he felt the little touches possibly overblown; “there for all to see, but maybe not to feel.” Still, he found it in his heart to give Spacey and Mendes four stars: “The sheer showmanship is remarkable.” Runs to 11 September

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/88

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The close runner-up for best (or another show you should know about): The Beggar’s Opera (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)
The Beggar’s Opera only averaged four stars, but the text was so effusive in places (in contrast to some of the more dutiful ones for Spacey and Mendes) that it earns the second slot of the week. The show was written in 1728, and Michael Coveney of What’s On Stage calls it “a uniquely important and remarkable piece of British theatre: the first of a new genre, the ballad opera”. Director Lucy Bailey has bucked trend by not updating it even a bit, to the extent that the supporting music remains the folk hits of 1728, played on period instruments. Coveney rounded off his five-star review saying the music is “an archival treasure trove brought to quivering, affectionate life”, with songs that “often seem like extensions of a conversation, or an argument, which lends another compelling dimension to a remarkable evening.” Ian Shuttleworth of the FT harks back to last month’s production of Lord of the Flies, set in a smoking plane fuselage under the stately boughs of the park, noting that artistic director Timothy Sheader “enjoys programming work in Regent’s Park which is not merely adventurous but seems intended to test how incongruous things can get before imploding.” This is the work of an experienced team who are “unafraid to tackle open-air spaces head-on with audaciously tone-changing visual concepts, and once again their chutzpah pays off.”Charles Spencer of the Telegraph gave only three stars, based on the Hogarthian darkness of the original script, though he praised several elements of a production that “bustles along at a cracking pace,” with “great set pieces” and “fine comic turns”, finally admitting that “The Beggar’s Opera proves a darkly entertaining night in the park and Lucy Bailey’s production is the most persuasive account of this perplexing classic I have seen.” Runs to 23 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/91

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Lullaby (Barbican)

The trend towards immersive theatre (Punchdrunk, BAC 1:1 Festival) started well, and theatregoers might be forgiven for wondering if reviewers were raving about these things based purely on the novelty factor. Along comes “Lullaby” at the Barbican to prove that reviewers will in fact give two stars to something new and novel if it fails to deliver. The premise of the show, from the collective Duckie, is that you sleep over in the studio space at the Barbican; whimsical theatrical things happen around you before and while you sleep. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian (3 stars) found it “fun, although not quite as fun as it might be,” due to its “straining for a magical back-to-childhood bedtime experience that it never quite delivers.” Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard (2 stars) found the “sleepover with a hypnotic side order of lectures and projections” to be “initially winsome,” then “surreal” as “narratives dawdle, and the imagery becomes more elusive.” Though “the spirit of Lullaby is generous and gentle,” the production “seems exaggeratedly naive and under-rehearsed”, and “the novel charm of being serenaded by an octopus can’t obscure the fact that the music and storytelling are twee.” In contrast, Terri Paddock of What’s On Stage gave five stars, mostly for the fact she got a full night’s sleep. The last thing she remembers, “some time after midnight, was a cello and an interplanetary lecture”; then, waking up at 7.30, “the first time I haven’t risen at least three times in the night in months.” The grateful Paddock “raise[s] a pillow and a happy yawn to the Duckie team” for their show that’s “cheaper than a hotel – and far, far cheaper than the insomnia doctor I consulted last year.” Runs to 24 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/209

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24 June 2011: Luise Miller, Realism, Emporer and Galilean

Weekly review roundup: 17-24 June 2011
The best-reviewed new show of the week: Luise Miller

With six four-star reviews and two five-stars, this nudged out Realism (below) as this week’s top winner. Frederick Schiller’s Romeo-and-Juliet-meets-Machievelli-in-Germany, about an ill-fated romance between a violinist’s daughter and a politician’s son, impressed all reviewers with its performances and its staging, although some found the script too melodramatic by the end. Caroline McGinn of Time Out seemed to revel in almost every aspect of “Mike Poulton’s electrifying new version,” including “gorgeous, richly cynical scenes of court politicking”, Felicity Jones as a “steel rose” as the title character, “breathtakingly good” performances by Ben Daniels and John Light, and David Dawson’s “equally superb” turn as a “camp courtier”. She was equally thrilled with Paula Constable’s lighting (and not the only reviewer to mention it positively) asserting that nine years at the Donmar “have taught departing director Michael Grandage and his design team to play this intimate building like the fine instrument it is.” Even if Schiller’s script has “youthful flaws,” Grandage and his team “leave you chastened, moved and profoundly impressed.” Michael Billington of The Guardian observed the same strengths and weaknesses but felt a different net impact, noting that “though the acting and production carry a tremendous visceral charge, they cannot disguise the fact that the 24-year-old Schiller was still learning his craft.” What begins as a study of class conflict “ends in contrived disaster,” albeit one where the staging is “magnificent” and “the acting, as always at this address, is richly textured.” “Even if Schiller’s play finally lapses into melodrama,” he concludes, “it is hard to imagine it being better done.” Runs to 30 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/27

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The close runner-up for best (or another show you should know about): Realism (Soho Theatre)With the same average score as Luise Miller (4.25 stars), only the fact that fewer reviewers saw Realism kept out of the top spot, because the text of the reviews was almost universally over-the-top positive. Dominic Maxwell of The Times said that “If Waiting for Godot is a play in which, as one critic had it, ‘nothing happens, twice’, Realism is a play in which nothing happens, spectacularly.” Anthony Neilson’s comedy, in which a man doing not much of anything in his flat on a Saturday morning sees his subconscious thoughts come to life around him, “is wildly inventive, always entertaining, and ultimately rather moving too.” Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard sees Realism as a “heartening” event, boding well for the arrival of the Soho’s new artistic director Steve Marmion. With a new late night license and multiple stages, the redone Soho “has a pleasing buzz about it, and if Marmion’s zippy opening production in the main house is anything to go by, there’s going to be some punchy new writing to savour.” Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s critic whose average review in our database is 2.9 stars, gives four stars to Neilson’s “surprisingly moving musings on mundanity,” and Brian Logan of Time Out wheels out his full five stars, pronouncing the experience “a wild cavalcade of fantasies, memories and imaginative non-sequiturs” and finding it “absurd, outrageous and tender.” Runs to 9 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/144

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): Emperor and Galilean (National Theatre)This signal production was widely reviewed, but managed to gather only an average review score of a flat three stars, which is hard to do among London’s sometimes-too-forgiving review corps. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph was certainly not in the mood, saying that despite “lavish designs and an epic cast,” the show is “an almost unendurable bore.” The story is of Emperor Julian of Constantinople who, in the 4th century AD, struggled to reconcile his Christian teachings with his pagan leanings. Despite its originally being written by Henrik Ibsen for the Barbican, the play has never been staged in the UK, perhaps because it runs about eight hours as written on the page. Adapting it for the National, Ben Power has cut it to less than half that, but despite the play’s aspiration to address “great themes – faith, power, free-will and predestination among them”, says Spencer, it “has almost nothing of interest to say about any of them.” Ian Shuttleworth of the FT suggests the play “resembles [Ibsen’s] Peer Gynt without the levity,” and that “like Peer Gynt, it was written to be read rather than staged”. He was more open to the play’s existence, but only barely, admitting in the end that he was “glad to have seen this play, but rather less glad to have spent three and a half hours seeing it.” Patrick Marmion of the Daily Mail was most up for it, terming Power’s excision of two thirds of the text “a strident distillation” which results in “an extraordinary procession of poker-faced melodrama of stadium proportions.” Runs to 31 July

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/552

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17 June 2011: London Road, Chicken Soup With Barley, American Trade

Weekly review roundup: 10-17 June

The best-reviewed new show of the week: Chicken Soup with Barley (Royal Court).

The best-reviewed new show of the week: Of our 18 reviewers, ten reviewed it and all gave it a solid four stars, and Michael Billington of the Guardian gave it the full five. The play, which traces two decades of an East End family’s disillusionment with Communism, “reminds us of Wesker’s rare gift for generating strong emotion while encompassing big ideas”, said Billington. Caroline McGinn of Time Out praised several of the performances while noting that the while allegory could get in the way of characterisation, “it’s the analysis which is Wesker’s great weakness and strength.” Sarah Hemming of the FT agreed, noting that while “it is pretty stiff in places and the political points often elbow their way into conversation, it has a deep vein of humanity running through it. Dominic Cooke’s authentic revival, on meticulous sets by theatre designer Ultz, draws this out and is driven by some tremendous performances.”

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/121

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The close runner-up for best (or another show you should know about): London Road (National Theatre)

This very well-reviewed show had been due to close this month, but has now been extended to August 27th, meaning those who were shut out by its very quick sellout now have another shot. In his five-star review, Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out praised the “raw humanity captured in music” by the “outstanding” ensemble, who conjure a “vivid, bustling world.” The “real brilliance” of the show, however, was the presence of a bit of darkness in some of the characters, and in the group as a whole: “something very new for the musical form, a powerful, beautiful and unsettling articulation of the ambivalence that underpins all communities.” Although there are actors, a script, a set, and songs, Lukowski said, “this is as far away from chorus lines and jazz hands as it gets.” Although the show has more five-star reviews than any other in our database, Libby Purves of the Times didn’t see it that way: in giving it three stars, she called it “Clever, absorbing, artistic. And nasty,” allowing that she “hated it! I know Ipswich” she said, and she felt that the town she knew was being condescended to by “a suave South Bank audience laughing at real ordinary people’s remarks”.

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/73

The clunker of the week (a word to the wise): American Trade (Hampstead Theatre)

This garnered rare two-star reviews from three of our pro reviewers, and a one-star from Charles Spencer in the Telegraph, who said that the show was like watching your maiden aunt try to act cool: “you cringe, cover your eyes and long for it to stop. But for 90 minutes that feel like several hundred, the show goes on and on and on.” In trying to show that the RSC is “down with the kids”, the show “has a cartoon-like quality that makes the Carry On films seem like something by Chekhov, is almost spookily unfunny, and the cast give over-the-top performances of palpable desperation.” Henry Hitchings at the Evening Standard was more measured, saying “[Director Jamie] Lloyd, making his RSC debut, oversees a strident, colourful and overemphatic production” where “the drama suffers from a lack of bite, and there’s never the lightness of touch needed to vitalise its farcical elements.” Only Paul Taylor of the Independent had more patience for Lloyd’s “wonderfully frenetic, day-glo production, with a crack cast whizzing around on wheeled chairs”, saying “[Writer Tarell Alvin] McCraney’s hilarious modern London…is the work of a sharp-eyed outsider who has turned the sordid truth into a sunny, scabrous cartoon that yammers with chutzpah and cheeky resilience.”

See the full list of reviews at
http://stagescan.com/show-details/50

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