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

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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

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