3 Feb 2012: She Stoops to Conquer, The Bee, The House of Bernarda Alba

Weekly review roundup: 3 February 2012


London’s best-reviewed opening this week was She Stoops to Conquer at the National. All the great and good professional print critics reviewed it, as you’d expect with a premiere in the largest theatre at the National, with seven giving it a solid four stars.Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) dissented with a three-star, but Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) brought the average back with a full five-star – relatively rare for Hitchings, who has only given out six in the past twelve months.


In his four-star review, Michael Billington called the 240-year-old play “one of the great period comedies,” and said that despite its potential for mustiness, Director Jamie Lloyd’s production “is a collective success which leaves the theatre echoing with the sound of the audience’s happiness.”


The plot is typical period comedy stuff: Toffs and plebs suffer a vast misunderstanding, which has been engineered for devious social-climbing and/or romantic ends; hilarity ensues. Surely this can rub the right way or the wrong way, but the reviewers seem to almost all agree it has been pitched perfectly by an expert director and cast.


Billington implies there is some fourth-wall-breaking which helps us enjoy rather than take it too seriously, saying the production “shrewdly keeps the 18th century setting while encouraging the actors to tip us the wink that the work is an artful contrivance,” through a method which includes “exaggeration, falling just the right side of over-acting.” This sounds to us like a treacherous line to walk, but several reviewers mention specifically that the cast gets the balance right. Runs to 28 March, and given the massive 1,100-seat Olivier, there are still plenty of tickets available.


In other openings, The Bee has been heavily marketed by the Soho Theatre, and has gotten five-star reviews around the world (more in Japan than in the US), but so far only pulled a 3.3-star average here. In it, a Japanese businessman whose family have been taken hostage tracks down the hostage-taker’s family and takes *them* hostage; it is meant to be both funny and grim.


Lyn Gardner (Guardian) wrote in her three-star review that “the chief glory in an evening that is simultaneously weirdly watchable and curiously alienating is the performance of Kathryn Hunter as Ido, a little man against the world who initially wins your sympathy but who is eventually revealed in his full ruthlessness. Hunter is small and fragile and yet exudes the mesmerising, pent-up energy of a championship boxer.” And, Gardner concluded, “even if the production fails to make the shift from high comedy to grim tragedy, it’s still a visually arresting and unsettling 75 minutes.” Runs to 11 Feb.


In the last big opening of the week, The House of Bernarda Alba at the Almeida also pulled only a 3.3-star average from a passel of nine reviewers. Many felt, like Charles Spencer (Telegraph), that the production, “which relocates Lorca’s 1936 drama about a Spanish matriarch brutally repressing her five unmarried daughters to present-day Iran,” was a stretch: “I would far rather have seen an illuminating new play about the lives of women in Iran today than this misguided hijacking of Lorca’s punishing Spanish classic.”


In an update on plays we looked at last week, The Madness of George III is still the best-reviewed opening of 2012, and Pajama Men remains the highest-rated (non-period) comedy. However, Constellations at the Royal Court has seen an upswing in its reviews, including a five-star from Paul Taylor (Independent), bringing its average up to right around four stars. It remains sold out for this run, but in the increasingly likely situation that it transfers, it’s worth keeping an eye out for. (Which we will do for you.)


Finally, Noises Off will extend its 4.2-star success by transferring from the Old Vic to start a new run at the Novello on 24 March, and the 4.9-star-average One Man, Two Guvnors moves over to the Theatre Royal Haymarket later this month, where it will take on a new cast as the original cast transfers to Broadway. It may be hard to imagine OM2G without James Corden in the title role, but the actor taking over has been understudying Corden in the role for over a year and may well know what he’s doing. Might be worth a flier on preview tickets if you’ve stayed away so far.

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