Tag Archives: National Theatre

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

 

 

“Angels in America” at the National Theatre

Any production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is a cause for celebration. Presented in two parts, totalling nearly seven hours, and combining the AIDS crisis with speculation on America’s history and its future, epic is an apt word. Add the stellar cast and it’s hard to be inured to the hype surrounding this revival on the Southbank. The difficulty of getting tickets, plus ecstatic reviews and a sense of responsibility towards the play, whose premiere at the National Theatre in 1992 is fondly remembered, create palpable anticipation. And the production is superb – a theatrical event – even if it struggles under the weight of expectation.

James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)
James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)

For unmitigated praise we can begin with the cast. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, who reveals his HIV status at the start of the play to his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), who promptly deserts him. Both grippingly portray their relationship breakdown – McArdle does a great job creating sympathy for his unlikeable character. As Prior’s health deteriorates, Garfield takes the lead with a combination of dignity and no-nonsense that perfectly reflects the text. When it comes to Prior’s encounter with angels – and in this play they are real – the juggling of fear, amazement and humour is superb.

Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)
Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)

Another couple in trouble are the Pitts, two Mormons living in a sham marriage. Russell Tovey plays Joseph, tortured by his sexuality, with sensitivity. An affair with Louis comes as a revelation to him and fills the theatre with tenderness, while the betrayal of his wife, Harper, is moving and complex. It’s another triumph for Denise Gough, as the pill-popping spouse whose religious background and secretive husband are driving her insane. There’s that Kushner combination again – of humour and self-awareness – that Gough reveals expertly. Someone should save us all time and hand her another Olivier award now.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)
Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)

A final duo deserves a mention: Broadway legend Nathan Lane, who brings a startling humour to the role of closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as his nurse Belize. Their sparring matches, as Cohn lies dying of AIDS, are a highlight. Stewart-Jarrett impresses throughout, excelling as a foil to Prior and Louis, and deftly carrying the weight of Kushner’s concerns over racism.

Angels in America is hard work, especially if you are lucky enough to see both plays on the same day. It isn’t trying to be easy, of course: the emotional journey taken by its many characters is harrowing, but the scale and scope of ideas needs controlling and the fear is that director Marianne Elliot has herself become overawed. There’s not enough “mangled guts” here – the play’s visceral text, so full of struggle, is sanitised as a ‘classic’.

Connections between the characters, clear enough in the script, become laboured. There are few light touches, literally so when it comes to Paule Constable’s lighting design, which dominates Part One in particular. A claustrophobic feel, pinpointing scenes in spotlight, is presumably to create focus, but the result is soporific.

It’s not the play’s length that is the problem – the plotting is impeccable – but the pacing, which flags. The main culprit is a cumbersome set by Ian McNeil, with props moved around by a collection of ‘Angel Shadows’ who become distracting. This choreographed troupe does stronger work as skilled puppeteers with the arrival of The Angel (the always superb Amanda Lawrence). But even here their scenes feel protracted. Elliot’s reverential air brings us down to earth, even if most of her production is heavenly.

Until 19 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Helen Maybanks

“The Drag” at the National Theatre

A series of rehearsed readings over a long weekend, timed to coincide with London Pride, selected five gay-themed works, each a one-off event. I was lucky enough to catch the last: a play by Mae West that was once considered so controversial it landed its famous author in prison.

Horribly dated on one hand and then astonishingly fresh on the other, the play is an odd mix of drawing-room drama – with a doctor and a judge discussing the issue of homosexuality (little realising how it affects their own family) – and scenes within the gay community born from West’s own experience that are an absolute hoot. It seems incredible that West wrote the play and got it on stage, albeit briefly, in 1927.

In the present day, there’s plenty of praise for a talented cast who illustrate the power of West’s dialogue. It’s unfair under the conditions of just two afternoon rehearsals to judge performances here. Yet, Malcolm Sinclair’s skill was astounding, delivering lines hampered by West explaining the very idea of homosexuality to her audience with convincing compassion. Meanwhile the crew of drag queens (there’s fun to be had working out a collective noun here but I am not brave enough to make suggestions) easily showed how strong the comedy is.

An after-show discussion with the director, Polly Stenham, revealed her admiration for West as a feminist and campaigner as well as an artist. Stenham’s enthusiasm for the piece could dispel many a doubt about its traditional structure. I’d love to see what could be done with more time – maybe with the addition of her own writing skills – to a play that deserves to be known by many.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Common” at the National Theatre

With big subjects, a huge cast, and the Olivier stage to play with, DC Moore’s new play aims at being epic – and, up to its interval, it feels as if it might be. The twisting plot, following the story of Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an interesting mix of melodrama and the supernatural. The language, combining old and new vocabulary, odd syntax and lots of swearing, makes the text original, satisfyingly dense and a great deal of fun.

Set in the early 18th century, the play’s first topic is the enclosure of common land and one community’s struggle to prevent this devastating policy. The dramatic potential and importance are clear – a description of enclosure as “a dry word with a sharp end” is great – but the play seems embarrassed by its subject matter. Painful metatheatricality is thrown in with an overt disavowal of “dry historical accuracy”. But facts are fine, really – a bit of history won’t hurt a play.

Common is more interested in the superstition that filled agricultural communities. Director Jeremy Herrin goes to town with some Wicker Man horror that makes one gory scene especially good. The costumes and lighting, by Richard Hudson and Paule Constable, fit well. But there’s little sense of anything else – despite a subplot about incest that… well, I guess must have some point to it. As the action boils over, interest cools: the plot is abbreviated and the sign off comes across as trite. There’s too little concern for anyone apart from Mary, who overpowers the play. Cush Jumbo as a former lover and Tim McMullan as the local landowner have a go, but Duff is left to propel all.

However uneven, Mary is a brilliant creation that Duff makes a joy to watch. A romantic rogue (her self-description is a good deal more colourful) returning to the country after a debauched life in London, Mary’s psychic abilities and supernatural invincibility batter credulity – even before a crow starts talking to her. But like all devils Mary gets great lines – Moore’s expletive-ridden insults are quite something. It’s a shame the “jigsaw” of Mary’s story isn’t solved satisfactorily. Too quickly moving from the people’s saviour into a “blight” ruining their lives, the role is overburdened – and since Mary is the only thing rooted in the play, the overall harvest is poor.

Until 5 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A big hit on the Edinburgh Fringe and at the National’s Dorfman auditorium last year, this coming-of-age show is now out on the town in the West End. Following the day-long misadventures of convent schoolgirls from Oban, let loose in the Scottish capital for a choir competition, it’s raucous fun, peppered with thought-provoking moments and fantastic singing.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s book (The Sopranos) is adventurous and tackled at suitable speed by director Vicky Featherstone. Partly a concert – and the singing deserves a second mention – and then a collection of character studies, the six performers all do a terrific job. Frances Mayli McCann’s voice is particularly strong and supremely versatile, while Dawn Sievewright and Isis Hainsworth do well with the strongest story lines, as a young lesbian and a cancer survivor, respectively. There’s plenty of drama in these teenage lives, but a spirit of humour presides. Caroline Deyga delivers insults with enviable skill while Kirsty MacLaren and Karen Fishwick are especially good when taking on male roles. There’s a pretty shaming view of masculinity here, but I am not going to argue with it – I wouldn’t dare take these girls on.

“Really, really rude” language is the warning all over the theatre foyer. And they aren’t joking. The swearing is enough to make a submariner blush – let alone what else they might have to say about him. The discussions of sex are… frank. Impressively, the drink- and drug-filled binge is fun but not glamorised. For all the crudity, Hall and Featherstone want this to be a play that respects its characters. The girls know they aren’t angels but they aren’t hypocrites either. Telling teenage life as it is, even if it makes some squirm, makes this a mature show about youth.

Until 2 September 2017

www.ourladiestheplay.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Ugly Lies The Bone” at the National Theatre

Lindsey Ferrentino’s plays have received plenty of awards and, having worked for the Roundabout Theatre Company and The Public Theatre in New York, she is no stranger to prestigious venues. Still, it must still be an exciting coup to have your UK premiere on the South Bank, and surely her work has much to commend it, but it’s a shame this lacklustre piece doesn’t live up to the honour.

The scenario is powerful, a wounded war veteran returning home. The treatment includes artificial reality – the idea is to shock the system into forgetting horrific burns – so reaching for designer Es Devlin’s number, given her work on The Nether, was a sensible move. Devlin has delivered the goods, with projections on to an impressive set that’s part infinity cove and part model town.

Kate Fleetwood

Ferrentino’s characterisation isn’t bad, either. There’s the strong lead role of Jess for Kate Fleetwood – a flawless performance – whose indomitable spirit is saved from cliché by an edge to her humour that could have been pushed further. The men in her life seem pretty scrappy by comparison, but the roles allow Ralf Little and Kris Marshall to show some good comedy skills. Yet so overpowering is Jess’s part that, along with the character of her sister (another superb performance, from Olivia Darnley), the play feels as if it should focus on them, yet doesn’t quite manage to do so.

There are too many false starts around. The medical advances used to treat Jess are interesting, but explored superficially. Hearing but not seeing the scientist pioneering the treatment (Buffy Davis) is novel but alienating and starts to become dull. The time and location of the play – the end of the space shuttle programme in the midst of war in Afghanistan – could give us more pauses for thought but any claims or insight about either are lost. We fall back on a solid human-interest story that ticks along too slowly. Director Indhu Rubasingham does little to add pace, resulting in a disappointingly pedestrian evening.

Until 6 June 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“Amadeus” at the National Theatre

One of several artistic greats to die in 2016, Peter Shaffer’s association with the National Theatre serves as a reminder of the institution’s nurturing role. Away from the West End, the playwright’s vision, creating ambitious works filled with myth and history, flourished. Returning to the Olivier stage for the first time since a legendary premiere in 1979, this new production of one of his best works, directed by Michael Longhurst, has the energy and originality to qualify as a fitting tribute.

There are plenty of big ideas to be voiced, about art and religion, arising from court composer Antonio Salieri’s battle against the God-given genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Longhurst’s particular skill is to make sure the play’s entertainment value is clearly heard: balancing the drama and humour. Music too, obviously, and also movement, both coming from the onstage presence of the Southbank Sinfonia. The 21 musicians’ interaction with the cast forms a commentary that is visual as well as auditory.

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Excellent smaller roles provide a lot of laughs: praise for Tom Edden and Hugh Sachs as, respectively, the emperor Joseph II and the imperious head of the Viennese Opera. But most of the fun comes from an exuberant performance by Adam Gillen in the title role. Joined by Karla Crome as his wife Constanze, who also gives a powerful performance, Gillen has charisma and a clear connection with the audience. Mozart is presented as a spoilt rock star, complete with “vulgar” clothes including pink Dr Marten boots – just one element of Chloe Lamford’s excellent design. This Amadeus is so exaggerated he occasionally irritates, but the portrayal is consistent and makes sense.

If Gillen tips the balance of sympathies from Amadeus to the real lead of Salieri, well, those scales are weighted from the start, affording Lucian Msamati star status. From the opening scene, where he invokes a future audience and the lights in the auditorium rise, he commands attention. A deadpan tone shows comic skills while the awe and grief felt at Mozart’s achievements are convincingly passionate. Msamati has a clear control of Shaffer’s themes and plays them perfectly. Salieri may claim to be the patron saint of mediocrity, but Msamati’s performance is the antonym of that.

Until 18 March 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“This House” at the Garrick Theatre

James Graham’s play isn’t your regular political drama. Based on the flailing minority Labour government of the late 1970s, it looks at the mechanics of Parliament – the back-room antics of the whips, who make sure MPs vote. There are few names or issues that people will remember. And, instead of Machiavellian power brokers, the characters are misfit eccentrics, working hard in grubby anterooms. So the play’s transfer from the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, to the larger Olivier, and now, after a long wait, the West End, is a triumph for the young playwright, and his intelligent funny writing, which has warmed the critics’ hearts.

Honours are shared with director Jeremy Herrin, who handles the large cast impeccably. Nearly all the actors play more than one MP, each larger than life, and the sense of a building at work is conveyed with infectious energy. Counting the ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ becomes nail-biting, while efforts to bribe or cajole coalitions are gripping. Add Rae Smith’s replica House of Commons set, with its onstage seating and bar, and you have a sense of fun that complements Graham’s great jokes.

Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker

This House is a brilliantly ambitious ensemble piece. Phil Daniels and Malcolm Sinclair are the chief whips, giving blissfully effortless performances. I probably don’t need to tell you they represent the Labour and Conservative parties, respectively. Praise, too, for Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri, playing their deputies, each with their own agenda and sombre moments that add humanity to the comedy. Much is made of the differences between the parties, with Labour louts calling their opponents the “aristotwats’, which seems to have struck Graham as particularly fascinating. If some jokes land heavily, relying on hindsight, they are still funny.

The research undertaken for the play is impressive, informative and conveys Parliament’s peculiar charm. Even better, Graham has a good stab at being impartial. How far he succeeds possibly depends on your own voting habits – but the stance of making a play about politics apolitical is dealt with well. That those in charge act like children is a point itself, although Graham is too good to fall for simplicity, showing passion and conviction from MPs of both parties. But the propensity to treat government like a game is clear and used to make brilliant drama.

Until 25 February 2017

www.thishouseplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Love” at the National Theatre

Christmas theatre offerings on the South Bank are a good mix. There’s family fun from Peter Pan, a tense thriller with The Red Barn, and then there’s this new ‘think piece’ written and directed by Alexander Zeldin. A story of those living on benefits, housed by their unspecified council in emergency accommodation, it’s a timely look at Britain today. Emotional, quietly confrontational and hugely powerful, this is one of those plays you feel everyone should see.

The focus is on a couple with two children, and another on the way, roles that Janet Etuk and Luke Clarke tackle commendably. The play relies heavily on performances from their character’s children and on the press night both youngsters were utterly convincing. We only glimpse the lives of some neighbours, while in the next room are a mother and son, whose vulnerability mounts to an almost unbearable degree.

Love is not for the squeamish. Anna Calder-Marshall’s brave performance as the elderly Barbara is disturbing (causing at least two audience members to break down). And, as her struggling, well meaning son, Nick Holder taps into raw emotion that comes close to overpowering. With tension all around – candidly portrayed – we still see the better sides of those in such dire situations. The title tells it all and saves the play from being entirely bleak.

Theatrically, this is a work of remarkable economy – yes, austerity even. So much has been stripped away that there’s little back story, hardly any action, and no pontificating commentary. Without sensationalism, Zeldin is not about presenting an exploration of how people end up on benefits or why the system is failing. Instead, the play is an eye- opening appeal, a stark insight that leaves judgement aside and calls for action.

Until 10 January 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Sarah Lee

 

“The Red Barn” at the National Theatre

I am happily reading Penguin’s reissue of George Simenon’s Maigret novels, so David Hare’s adaptation of a stand-alone novel from the great author offers the chance to branch out from brilliant detective stories into a psychological thriller of a different kind. Hare’s adaptation is accomplished. Moving away from the book’s first-person narration, which details the mental breakdown of a successful lawyer, here we have a superb ménage à trois of lawyer, wife and mistress that’s better suited to the stage.

As for the production’s dressing – it is truly impeccable. Given that Simenon was concerned more with clarity than any modishness, the 1960s nostalgia goes possibly too far here. Robert Icke directs with a strong cinematic feel, creating cool that isn’t out of place… but feels almost fetishised. The stage curtains slide – up and down, left and right – creating apertures for us. With astonishing rapidity, we are taken to the different scenes of Bunny Christie’s meticulous set – homey farm, glam penthouse – and it’s a real technical achievement. Icke feels the need for a camera’s speed, which is a slight shame with a story this good, but there’s no doubt the show is gripping and the ending a real shock. No quibbles either with the soundtrack, a subtle masterpiece by Tom Gibbons that gets you slowly sliding to the edge of your seat.

The cast is stellar. Mark Strong leads, convincing us that his character, Donald Dodd, was once a decent man. It’s a single event, almost whimsical – when no effort is made to save a friend lost in a blizzard – that changes everything. The subsequent turmoil feels real and, impressively, is never overplayed. And Dodd’s pent-up frustration is more than sexual, an important point that Icke preserves throughout. By the by, Strong’s wig is superb.

Hope Davis plays Ingrid, the “serene” wife, whose husband’s paranoia makes her all-seeing. Davis skilfully brings out Ingrid’s intelligence without making her seem too cold, portraying the occasional moment of frankness with subtlety. Donald’s affair is with his former friend’s wife, Mona, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who also gets the chance to reveal layers of a character that comes to fascinate. Determined not to play the “weeping widows”, at a couple of points it’s Ingrid and Mona’s relationship that excites most. It’s with the two women in the piece that Hare makes his mark, doing justice to Simenon’s skills and creating a theatrical piece worthy of his name.

Until 17 January 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan