Come from Away – Phoenix Theatre – review

Come From Away, a musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Phoenix Theatre in London

(4 / 5)

9/11 was a tragic event carried out by evil people.  The musical  Come From Away is a kind of antidote, reminding us that most people are basically good and generous.

Production shot of Come From Away
The cast in Come From Away

I’d forgotten but, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, US air space was closed which meant hundreds of planes were diverted. 35 of them with 7000 people on board ended up in a small Canadian community of Gander, doubling the population. The locals could have been hostile to these unexpected immigrants. Instead they welcomed and looked after them.

In this musical, we meet a diverse number of characters, locals, passengers and crew telling us their story. We get a sense of the panic and fears of the time and we zone in on some of the individuals’ stories and how they are changed by the experience.

It is not all sugar-coated. There is some anti-Muslim behaviour and inevitably some tragedy but the overriding message is one of hope.

I was impressed by the use of an almost bare stage in David Ashley‘s production. A few chairs and tables become a plane, a bus, a café and a community hall. It puts the burden on the cast to create the scenes in our imagination but this is a talented cast who also take on many parts. This is theatre and acting at its purest.

Production shot of Mary Doherty and other members of the cast in Come From Away the musical at the Phoenix Theatre in London
Mary Doherty in Come From Away

The players are all really good but I’m going to be unfair and pick out Mary Doherty as the pilot who loves flying but has to take charge on the ground, and Cat Simmons as Hannah worried about her firefighter son.

There are a few too many characters to focus sufficiently on individual stories. There could also be more light and shade or, to be more precise, more shade. There are funny moments and there’s a love story but I would have liked to dwell a little more on the moments of sadness.

However the pace is tremendously fast and you really don’t have time to think about that. And the ending which is akin to a hoedown is hugely entertaining and uplifting.

This musical quite possibly paints too rosy a picture but I think, right now, we should treasure this positive view of humanity.

Come From Away is performing at the Phoenix Theatre London until 14 September 2019

Caroline, Or Change – Playhouse Theatre – review

Tony Kushner & Jeanine Tesori’s great musical

(4 / 5)
Click here to watch my video review of Caroline, Or Change on One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Production shot of Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

I managed to miss Caroline, Or Change when it was launched at Chichester, and again when it moved to Hampstead Theatre. Now that it’s transferred to the West End, I wasn’t going to miss it again. So how did I find it when I finally caught up?

Well, I was a little disappointed but not by the musical which is great. I’ll explain my disappointment later. First the good news.

Tony Kushner’s lyrics are poetic and witty and punchy. Jeanine Tesori’s music goes straight to your heart. Whether it’s to make you happy, sad, worried or hopeful, Tesori is masterful. She composes in a range of appropriate styles- Motown, spirituals, klezmer. And it’s sung through, which means it’s a non-stop ride of emotion.

Then there’s the magnificent Sharon D Clarke, with her deep strong voice. You feel her pain and her rage. Her solid presence is so appropriate for the character who is at the centre of what happens.

Sharon D Clarke isn’t the only great singer/actor. Abiona Omonua as her daughter and Lauren Ward as the mistress of the house are both particularly impressive in a superb cast.

Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Caroline, Or Change is set in late 1963, in the South of the USA, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s a hundred years since the Civil War ended slavery yet black people are still subject to segregation and discrimination. A new generation is rebelling. Caroline represents the pivot point between the past and the future- not content with the situation but not a revolutionary either. As one of the songs says, ‘change come fast, change come slow but change is coming Caroline Thibodeaux’.

Caroline is a maid, trapped and worn down by her job. The story, though serious, is told in a quirky way. The domestic appliances talk to Caroline, as though she identifies with them. Michael Longhurst’s direction and Fly Davis’ design are wonderfully imaginative.

To add extra interest, her employers are not predictable white racist Southerners. They are a liberal Jewish family for whom the holocaust is fresh in the memory.

In this musical pain is personal as well as communal. The husband and son are grieving for a dead wife and mother, and the boy won’t accept the new wife (symbolised by a divided set), which is why he latches on to Caroline. She is in pain because her husband has gone. There’s a lot of feeling building up and ready to burst, both in the household and in society at large.

The word ‘change’ has a double meaning because Caroline is allowed to keep the change she finds in clothes when she’s doing the washing. She is humiliated both by the fact that she really needs what is loose change to her employers and by the condescending way in which she is being given it. This humiliation lights a fuse that burns until it sets off an explosion of feeling in the second act.

Caroline, Or Change offers a microcosm of a society in flux. It acknowledges that racism runs deep in society, among all ethnic groups, but it’s ultimately a story of hope. As Caroline puts it, in the stand-out song Lot’s Wife: ‘Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.’

For all that’s good about it, I wish I’d seen Caroline, Or Change in the smaller spaces of Chichester or Hampstead. The Playhouse doesn’t show the musical at its best because the large traditional proscenium arch stage of distances the emotions displayed in this intimate family drama with its low key incidents. Having said that, so many elements work that this is a show not to be missed.

Click here to find out more about Caroline, Or Change which is performing at The Playhouse Theatre until 6 April 2019. 

Click play to watch Caroline, Or Change reviewed on One Minute Theatre Reviews 

The Cane – Royal Court – with Nicola Walker

Magnificent cast featuring Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed and Alun Armstrong

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

A much loved teacher is about retire but his home is under siege by children from his school. His estranged daughter comes to visit her parents. His regular use of the cane many years earlier has sparked the protest but when we discover that his school has been declared to be failing by Ofsted, it seems the protest may be more against the old ways of doing things- the patriarchial society in which men dominated through the use of violence.

I’m not sure how much I believed the set up or the ending but Mark Ravenhill has written a powerful script. It not only creates a tense atmosphere and powerful dialogue as the characters prowl round each other and take vicious swipes, it also provokes a lot of thought. It’s a tribute to it that the  ore you think about it, the more complex it seems.

Although this play is primarily an attack on the patriarchy, its strength is that it also asks questions about why people behave the way they do and whether today’s institutions and the people embracing them- in this case Academies and Ofsted- have more similarities than differences.

Production photo of Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Because, although the play is primarily about this teacher, it is also about any of us who work for or deal with institutions. The daughter is heavily involved in academies and describes an almost zombie like atmosphere of pupils facing front and silence in the corridors that is supposedly because the pupil comes first but actually sounds like the way the people come first in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

She talks about the way schools must conform to Ofsted’s way of looking at things and use their language. She has a rigid belief in her institution as much as her father believes in his.

Powerful script by Mark Ravenhill superbly directed by Vicky Featherstone

We gain insights into why the father, inheriting a culture of violence, continued it because it was his duty. This sounds very like the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuses of Nazi concentration camp soldiers. It’s clear he liked exercising the power. But his daughter is no angel. In fact, in many ways the play is about her because the older generation are on the way out. The question becomes, does the present generation with its controls and testing, have its own kind of cane and its own closed mindedness.

She is manipulative and coercive in trying to get her own way. She doesn’t want reconciliation, she wants revenge. We begin to suspect she has orchestrated the protest. We see her too flaring into violent language and acts of violence, not dissimilar to her father.

Production shot of Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court
Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

The action takes place in a sitting room, designed by Chloe Langford, that is almost bare of furniture and decoration, so it feels like a cage or a boxing ring. The protagonists are trapped there and nothing distracts from what the they say and do in Vicky Featherstone‘s brilliant production.

All three actors give subtle, nuanced performances. Maggie Steed as the oppressed, bullied, proudly loyal wife but also nasty when cornered.  Alun Armstrong with calm reasonableness, red faced anger and underlying weakness all somehow present whichever was being displayed at the time. And Nicola Walker so natural in the way she talks and moves, so incredibly still when she was observing the others, making her reasonable character’s unreasonable behaviour deeply disturbing.

At the end, the play is pulled back to look at the sins of the now ageing patriarchal generation but such is the intelligence of this fine play you question your own values.

The Cane continues at Royal Court Theatre London until 26 January 2019

Watch the YouTube review of The Cane starring Nicola Walker on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel below

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic – review

Stephen Tompkinson’s Scrooge is pitch perfect

(5 / 5)

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Stephen Tompkinson as Scrooge and Michael Rouse as marley in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic London
Stephen Tompkinson as Scrooge and Michael rouse as marley in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

As you’d expect from writer Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter And The Cursed Child and director Matthew Warchus who directed Matilda The Musical), their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is both magical and totally theatrical. In fact, it could only be performed in a theatre.

From the moment you walk in to the Old Vic auditorium, you are immersed in the atmospheric production, designed by Rob Howell. Members of the cast wander around offering clementines and mince pies (courtesy of Waitrose- that’s what I call sponsorship). The ceiling is filled with glowing lanterns that shine more and less brightly in synch with the narrative and that’s only one of many bewitching lighting effects designed by Hugh Vanstone.

The stage has been placed in the centre with seating all around and on stage. So characters appear from all directions and even in the circle.

Simon Baker‘s sound is all around too but particularly noticeable when it comes in a sinister crescendo from under the stage in supernatural moments, so loud that you vibrate in your seat.

A perfect Christmas entertainment

It’s a terrific idea to intersperse the performance with Christmas carols, accompanied by bell ringing, because they are about redemption and hope, just as the story is. This production certainly is, in the way Jack Thorne tells it and Stephen Tompkinson acts it.

Stephen Tompkinson in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic London
Stephen Tompkinson in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The story may be entirely familiar- the book has been around 175 years and there have been countless adaptations including one by The Muppets- but this production makes it feel as fresh as Waitrose mince pie.

Stephen Tompkinson‘s subtle Scrooge, unpleasant and misanthropic as he may be, retains a humanity that gives us hope that he can change. He has taken a wrong path and Jack Thorne’s script explores the reasons for this, primarily trying to avoid becoming like his cold, debt-ridden father. The father and Marley are both played by an excellent Michael Rouse.

We also see that Scrooge was capable of love, for his sister and for his first employer’s daughter Belle (a delightful performance from Francis MacNamee). We also see through the eyes of people like his nephew Fred (Eugene McCoy) and his employee Bob Cratchit (Peter Caulfield) who believe he has a good heart despite his treatment of them.

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic
A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The ghosts are terrific. First Marley in his chains, then Past, Present and Future (all played by women) who are both spooky and funny as they show Scrooge the effect of his life on others. The mortality of Tiny Tim is key to his conversion. The part is played by four different actors during the run. I saw Lenny Rush who was very moving in the role.

When Scrooge finally realises that he has wasted his life and ruined that of others by becoming obsessed with making money and by ignoring the effect of his business on others, the liberation is joyous. You can feel the weight lifting from Stephen Tompkinson’s shoulders as he sees the possibilities in helping others.

Food pours onto the stage, there is dancing, more singing and bell ringing, even snow. It is glorious and I, for one, didn’t want it to end. The Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is perfect Christmas entertainment.

A Christmas Carol starring Stephen Tompkinson is performing at The Old Vic until 19 January 2019

Watch below the review of A Christmas Carol on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

I’m Not Running by David Hare with Siân Brooke

David Hare’s new play is contrived, predictable & flat 

(3 / 5)
Production shot of Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell in I'm Not Running at National Theatre London
Sian Brooke & Alex Hassell in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

When the National Theatre announces a new season, it’s always a challenge to decide which events to spend one’s time and money on. But a new play by one of our greatest living playwrights David Hare starring a fine actor like Siân Brooke and directed by the renowned Neil Armfield seemed a safe bet.

So you can imagine my disappointment when confronted by a contrived plot with a weighted conflict and a predictable end, not to mention an acting performance that offered none of the charisma that the role seemed to require. To be fair to Siân Brooke, it may be the script that was lacking rather than her performance.

Click here to watch the review of I’m Not Running on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The plot concerns a clash between a doctor who has run a single issue political campaign to save a hospital and subsequently becomes an MP and a career politician with whom she has, shall we say, history. By the way, Alex Hassell as her ‘sparring partner’ gives a bravura performance ranging from tears to tantrums.

The play jumps back and forth between the present day and the events that led up to it. We see the main character developing her political understanding to the point where she is considering running- or not running- for the Labour Party leadership.

A big auditorium but not a major play

David Hare tries to help our political understanding too. So we learn how the personal and the political are connected, and how we need political parties, in this case the Labour Party, if you seriously want to change things. At Westminster, the play says, we need less towing the party line, less putting efficiency before people and less male ego, and conversely more passion, more belief, more women.

Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I'm Not Running
Sian Brooke & Liza Sadovy in I’m Not Running. Photo: Mark Douet

The play takes its time and, if you’re not interested in politics, you may find it dull- although there are some juicy confrontations between the two main characters. The problem for me is, the arguments always seem one sided, so the excitement never mounts. Far from being carried along to the climax, I had plenty of time to consider how unlikely the ending is.

Although the play is about politics, there are no big speeches. It is an intimate play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two people in small rooms. The Lyttleton stage is too big for it. Ralph Myers’ set comprises a simple triangular white room which spins round nicely to frame the action but the large auditorium seems to create performances that are a bit more shouty than they should be.

Last year I saw both Labour Of Love and This House by James Graham, both about Labour Party politics. I was far more affected by his portrayal of impassioned but flawed people who believe in their cause and understand the need to compromise and work together for change in a democratic system than by David Hare’s fantasy world.

I’m Not Running is performing at the National Theatre until 31 January. There will be an NT Live broadcast of the final performance.

Watch below to see the YouTube review of I’m Not Running on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child: The U.S. Critics’ Verdict

What did the American Critics Think About Harry Potter on Broadway?

Click here to watch onYouTube

‘all consuming enchantment’ New York Times
‘it leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied’ Time Out
‘every bit as spellbinding as promised’ The Hollywood Reporter
‘Must-see’ Chicago Tribune
‘a theatrical marvel’ Entertainment Weekly
‘a wildly theatrical and thrilling Broadway spectacle’ Daily News
‘It’s some kind of miracle’ Rolling Stone
‘Hooray!’ Variety

Cast of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy

We knew the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had entranced the British critics, the question was would the Broadway version cast the same spell over American reviewers? The answer clearly was ‘yes’.

So what was it that bewitched them?

There were five spells that the show cast. First, no matter how much we theatregoers might want to judge Harry Potter And The Cursed Child purely as a stage play, we can’t avoid the legacy of seven novels and eight films.

The Harry Potter Legacy

Cast of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo: Manuel Harlan

‘The story begins where the final novel in the Potter series… ended’ pointed out the NYT. Chicago Tribune described it as ‘an immersive coda to the most powerful literary brand of a generation’.
And many of the critics were happy with this:
‘the show has a plot that really works as an extension of the Potter saga’ said Variety.
‘an unprecedented extension of a beloved world is making something so impossible feel so much realer than it ever could be’ said Entertainment Weekly.
Some were worried that only those familiar with what had gone before would enjoy the play. The Guardian said it ‘will deeply perplex anyone who hasn’t read the delightful books or seen the so-so movies’.
But others were confident you didn’t have to be a Potterhead.
Hollywood reporter pointed out: ‘there’s … a universal dimension to the human drama here – the challenges of parenting, the conflict between fathers and teenage sons burdened by intimidating legacies, the sustaining force of love and friendship, the eternal grip of the past – that will prove poignant and meaningful even to audiences unversed in the wizarding wars.’
amNY went so far as to say, ‘a theatergoer with no prior “wizarding” experience should still be able to have a great time – and may even find the show more enthralling than would a longtime fan who already knows the “Harry Potter” universe inside and out.’

The storytelling

Photo of Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo Manuel Harlan

Secondly, there was the story, which came from JK Rowling and director John Tiffany and was scripted by one of my favourite playwrights Jack Thorne.
‘The script has more variations on father issues than the entire canon of Greek tragedy’ said the daddy of theatre critics the New York Times’ Ben Brantley.
The Hollywood Reporter was impressed by the ‘pulse-pounding storytelling vitality and … unexpected emotional richness’.
The Chicago Tribune said ‘it was a must-see, totally enveloping, thoroughly thrilling chance to experience the global power of shared storytelling at its most robust.’
Entertainment Weekly found that it ‘unlocks new points of view, particularly in the show’s climax, that are wholly unique to this play, unable to be replicated no matter how countless one’s consumption of the books or movies’.
New York Stage Review reckoned ‘they might as well send out the 2018 Best Play Tony Award for engraving already’.
Variety described it as ‘theater that shows us the true magic of great storytelling’.

It’s proper theatre

Cast of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy

And that’s another thing that the theatre critics loved about Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. It’s proper theatre. As the New York Times put it: ‘By contrast, most of the family-courting stage versions of animated films that have ruled the theater district for so long look as stiff and artificial as parades of windup toys.’

Similarly The Wrap contrasted it with ‘the stage versions of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (which) dumbed the imagination with their literal interpretations.’

Variety summed it up by saying ‘the theater has brought its own brand of wizardry to the material’.
The Hollywood Reporter loved its ‘Thrilling theatricality’.
It was, in the Chicago Tribune’s eyes, ‘a feast of epic theatricality in celebration of the imagination (that) manages to be both extraordinary and old-fashioned theatrical fun’.
The Daily News went on a similar tack: ‘What’s so wondrous is how low-tech stagecraft brings such high-definition delight.’
The Hollywood Reporter agreed: ‘The ingenuity on display, often using the simplest means, is dazzling.’
Time Out said, ‘Great care has gone into creating each moment of this state-of-the-art adventure. It leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied.’

Many critics name checked the entire creative team. Here’s The Washington Post: ‘Director John Tiffany and his longtime maestro of movement, Steven Hoggett … have created a dynamic pair of evenings replete with ahhhh-inspiring tricks and illusions overseen by the ingenious Jamie Harrison. (Christine Jones’s swirling breakapart set pieces and Neil Austin’s lighting effects are marvels, too.)’

‘Given what Cursed Child’s design team has accomplished on a technical level,’ said Entertainment Weekly, ‘Broadway will never be the same.’  And while that publication went all apocalyptic, The New York Times went all philosophical: ‘”I am paint and memory,” a talking portrait of the long-dead wizard Dumbledore says […] Well, that’s art, isn’t it? Substitute theatrical showmanship for paint, and you have this remarkable production’s elemental recipe for all-consuming enchantment.’
‘The stagecraft on display is unlike anything I’ve seen, with magical moments taking your breath away at every turn,’ said Newsday breathlessly.

Time Out joined the chorus of approval with a concise phrase surely destined for the posters: ‘A triumph of theatrical magic’

It’s magic

Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Magic. That’s the word that- inevitably you might say- comes up again and again. The Hollywood Reporter called it ‘sheer magic’.
‘It contained’, said the New York Times, ‘some of the most eye-boggling illusions you’ll ever witness’. The review goes on to say it sets ‘the new gold standard for fantasy franchise entertainment on Broadway’. (Maybe, like me, you didn’t know ‘fantasy franchise entertainment’ was a separate genre but you do now.)
Entertainment Weekly named the wizards responsible: ‘The show’s illusion and magic designer Jamie Harrison and special effects chief Jeremy Chernick are certain geniuses.’

The cast

The fifth and final spell was cast by the cast.

‘The leading actors are jolly good,’ said the Washington Post, subtly referring to the fact that many of the cast are from the original English production.

Coming in for particular praise was Anthony Boyle as Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius who, said the New York Times, gave ‘a show stealing performance’. Variety called him ‘brilliant’.
The Chicago Tribune said he was ‘fabulous’, adding that his ’emotional energy empowers the production’.
Entertainment Weekly along with many others was impressed by Jamie Parker as the grown up Harry: ‘the actor excels at showing this grown-up Gryffindor as a brave but stunted man, outwardly successful but inwardly tormented’. It was, said The Hollywood reporter, ‘A finely nuanced performance, with gravitas and heart’.
Noma Dumezweni wowed the American critics as much as she previously impressed the Brits in London. Entertainment Weekly said she ‘stuns as a Hermione who is both cold and warm, hardened by politics, softened by parenthood, a brilliant enigma dealing with the frustration of a problem she cannot solve’.

The power and limits of love

Jamie Parker and Sam Clemmetts in Harry Potter & The Curse Child at Lyric Theatre New York
Jamie Parker and Sam Clemmetts in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child at Lyric Theatre New York. Photo: Manuel Harlan

So there you have it. A show that, thanks to its story, its theatricality, its magic and its cast, transcends its literary and cinematic origins to become a classic piece of theatre in its own right, and that, in the words of the Washington Post,
‘will be inducing swoons in Times Square for years to come’.

I’d like to end with a quote from the Chicago Tribune that seems to me to get to the very heart of why this is so much more than a mere Harry Potter spinoff: ‘you’re struck by the great beauty of both the theater and the people inside, all thinking and feeling as one about the power and limits of love’.

Watch the YouTube video below

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is performing at the The Lyric Theatre in New York and will be for some time. Click here for more information about Harry Potter and The Cursed Child

5 Reasons The Critics Hated Macbeth at the National Theatre

Rory Kinnear & Anne-Marie Duff fail to save Macbeth, say theatre critics

Click here for the video 5 Reasons The Critics Hate National Theatre’s Macbeth on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Photo of Anne-Marie Duff & Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre
Anne-Marie Duff & Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff and Moegenburg

‘misjudged mess’ WhatsOnStage
‘the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade’ Time Out
‘An unfortunate failure’  Sunday Times
‘A dud’ Daily Telegraph
‘A real mess’ Variety
‘A dismaying muddle’ The Stage
‘A stinker’ Daily Mail

Macbeth at the National Theatre has garnered some of the worst reviews in a long time including a one star review from WhatsonStage. Most rated it two stars including Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Stage, Evening Standard, The Times,  The Observer,  Time Out and Broadwayworld.com.

‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ asks Macbeth. He wasn’t wrong- the daggers were out for this production. The Telegraph responded, ‘Is this a dud I see before me?’ and the Daily Mail said, ‘Is this a shambles I see before me?’

So what didn’t they like? Two words crop up more than any others: Rufus Norris. He’s the director of Macbeth and he’s the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. He must have felt like Macbeth did when Burnham Forest came to Dunsinane. The machetes were out for him. Quite a few of the forest of critics noted his lack of experience in directing Shakespeare. Given the hugely successful Shakespearean productions of his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, now wowing them with Julius Caesar down the road at the Bridge Theatre, the phrase ‘hard act to follow’ comes to mind.

The first problem was that he had, many felt,

No understanding of the play

Rufus Norris places his Macbeth in some kind of post-apocalyptic urban setting. Dominic Cavendish wrote in the Telegraph ‘if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters’.

‘Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here? It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.’ That was Natasha Tripney in The Stage

Lloyd Evans writing in the Spectator agreed ‘everything is confusing here’. ‘Childish, tokenistic, muddled, this show is laughably unmoving. They splosh round masses of Kensington gore but it manages to be bloodless. Feeble,’ spluttered Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.

Christopher Hart writing in the Sunday Times knows what he likes: ‘In the best productions, Macbeth can feel like a ferocious ride straight to hell, pausing only for some of the most haunting and desolate soliloquies in the canon: the outpourings of a human soul in the process of destroying itself.’ And he knows what he doesn’t like: ‘What it should never feel like is lacklustre, turgid, somnolent’.

‘There’s no compelling new take here on Shakespeare’s interest in questions of tyranny and masculinity,’ complained Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard.

‘Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown,’ blustered Variety.

Holly Williams in the Independent said ‘vaulting ambitious becomes more survival of the fittest’. To be fair, Holly Williams didn’t hate it: ‘I’ve seen far worse than this.’ Which is what is sometimes called damning with faint praise.

So what else did Rufus Norris do to upset the critics? Well, if he didn’t understand what Shakespeare was getting at, he also dissed the bard’s poetry.

No respect for the text

‘In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing,’ complained Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times. ‘It’s brutally truncated,’ said Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, ‘its great moral debate about the corrupting effects of evil (is) entirely lost.’

Variety referred to ‘Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer talked of ‘a slashed text that eviscerates the witches’ speeches – no hubble-bubble or eye of newt – and makes the drama blunter, more one-dimensional’.

Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail wasn’t happy with Slasher Norris from the start: ‘”When shall we three meet again?” is one of the greatest opening lines of any play. Mr Norris ditches that.’

The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, ‘While a play is not a poetry recital, this production seems indifferent to the rhythms of the language… (it) sacrifices its tonal contrasts and mysterious poetry.’

And not only did it sound bad, they thought it looked bad.

The set is ugly

‘Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings,’  said the Telegraph. That word ‘ugly’ crops up a few times. ‘It was aggressively ugly,’ shuddered The Stage. And WhatsOnStage found it ‘ugly to look at’.

The Daily Mail called it a ‘low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness’. Time Out said, ‘the setup here is essentially meaningless’. The Guardian found it ‘harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade’. The Evening Standard thought it was ‘bleak and often brutal’.

The set offended some critics so much, they couldn’t keep their eyes off it, thus subverting the Shakespeare’s classic work . Anne Treneman in The Times said, ‘the play struggles to rise above the sheer Stygian ghastliness’.  ‘These distressing visual details aren’t just nasty to look at, they undermine the story,’ said Lloyd Evans in The Spectator.

Not everyone agreed. The Sunday Times thought it had a ‘marvelous look’. David Butcher on the Radio Times website praised the ‘bold production design’. The Independent said, ‘Norris’s production excels … in atmosphere and visuals. It’s dark.’

So you have this big dark set and here’s the next problem. It’s in a big theatre.

The Olivier is too big

Now arguably this is not Rufus Norris’ fault. He’s inherited the cavernous Olivier but then again he chose to place Macbeth, a play whose themes of conspiracy and paranoia probably work best in a confined space, in the biggest space the National has to offer.

‘Rae Smith’s black pleated walls – bin-bag cliffs – engulf the action on the huge Olivier stage,’  said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. Mark Shenton at LondonTheatre.co.uk thought ‘the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama’.

You might have thought the stars would redeem it. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are two of our finest actors and in Mr Kinnear you have someone with a brilliant track record of playing great Shakespearean roles. And, to an extent, they did but, even though most critics liked their acting, quite a few didn’t like the interpretations, especially Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth.

The stars

Here’s what they said about this ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. ‘Rory Kinnear, one of our finest comic actors, never quite convinces as the driven, ambitious thane. He’s too dithering, nervy and jumpy.’  That was  the Sunday Times.

The Daily Mail thought him ‘unexceptional’. ‘Kinnear is a martial not a meditative presence, too robust to seem deeply disturbed,’  said The Observer. The Stage said, ‘In the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.’

That latter point is echoed by others. The Guardian said he ‘never takes us inside Macbeth’s head’. WhatsOnStage agreed saying he ‘does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex’. The Radio Times said, ‘There’s not enough sense of the dense geography of Macbeth’s inner life’ and continued ‘we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.’

Lloyd Evans in The Spectator had a similar thought. ‘There’s no trace of poetry, grandeur or mystery about him. But he’d be ideal casting as the tetchy manager of an Amazon warehouse.’

There’s more from Mr Evans.  ‘Rory Kinnear makes an unlikely Macbeth,’ said The Spectator. ‘His voice is dark, rich and characterful but he has few other assets. Physically he’s suburban: a bit bald, slightly stooping, with a faint beer gut and a pinched, narrow frame.’ In other contexts, this would be body shaming but we can take his point that Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is an ordinary guy.

Rosemary Waugh from Exeunt Magazine had the same impression: ‘Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth as the-bloke-down-the-pub, making some of the most famous monologues in the history of well, theatre, sound as dramatically intense as a food order.’

Not everybody was unhappy with Rory Kinnear. Marianka Swain from Broadwayworld.com said he ‘showed real existential angst’ and was ‘as clear-spoken and intelligent with verse as always’.

So what about Anne-Marie Duff? She came in for less stick than Rory Kinnear but The Observer did say, ‘Duff is precise, guarding against her own fragility – she delivers her smashing-the-baby speech tearfully – but lacks the fire that usually makes her so memorable.’

And BroadwayWorld.com thought, ‘Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth feels half-formed.’ Variety was even less impressed: ‘as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing’.

That said, many critics did like the acting of both Mr and Mrs Macbeth. Mark Shenton at londontheatre.co.uk said, ‘Neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints.’ The Radio Times enthused about the ‘clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing’.

And quite a few singled out Anne-Marie Duff. The Financial Times said ‘she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance’. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who didn’t find much else to like, said ‘she lives vividly in the moment’.

So there you have it. The critics full of sound and fury but… signifying nothing? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will tell whether sales or indeed Rufus Norris’s reputation are badly affected. I can say that when I saw it the audience reacted well. There was no polite round of applause- I heard strong clapping and some cheering. So word-of-mouth may prevail.

Did any critic give Macbeth at the National Theatre more than two stars? Yes- the Financial Times, The Independent, the Radio Times, the i and the LondonTheatre website to name but a few gave it three stars. One lone voice even gave it four stars. That was a certain One Minute Theatre Reviews.

What can I say? I liked the dystopian setting. I thought the poetry was beautifully spoken. I loved Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Macbeth as an ordinary man caught up in lawless times. I found it interesting to see the themes of Macbeth played out, not in a war for a mighty kingdom but in the kind of nasty modern war over a destroyed city, such as we’ve seen in Syria or Bosnia.

I did think it would have been better in a more confined space, and it did lack tension at the end but I really hope the massed ranks of the critics advancing on Rufus Norris’s Macbeth don’t put people off this Scottish Play for our times.

Macbeth at National Theatre with Rory Kinnear & Anne-Marie Duff

(4 / 5)

See Macbeth review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews 

Photo of Anne-Marie Duff & Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre
Anne-Marie Duff & Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff and Moegenburg

The first thing to say about Macbeth at the National Theatre is that Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderous couple do full justice to Shakespeare’s magnificent poetry and his insights into human nature.

Director Rufus Norris places Macbeth in some post-apocalyptic version of today’s world. Rei Smith’s design is a disaster but not in the way some critics meant. The striking black and broken set underlines that something terrible has happened. Society has broken down into low tech tribes fighting for turf. They exist in ruined buildings, wearing cobbled together clothes and sitting on what looks like furniture salvaged from the tip. The characters’ many different accents take the setting well away from Scotland into what could be any modern war zone.

Beautifully acted by Rory Kinnear & Anne-Marie Duff

Macbeth is an ordinary person who finds himself in this extraordinary situation- and no-one does the complexities that lie beneath ordinary people better than Rory Kinnear. You feel that in peaceful times, his Macbeth could have been the guy from accounts, so low key and sensitive and humorous is his portrayal. Yet, in this time of war, he’s become a successful soldier.

Once his ambition to become the top man is sparked by the witches and his wife, even though he clearly isn’t a leader and despite his conscience and all the horrors, he heroically follows through what he started. Unlike Anne-Marie Duff’s wonderfully agitated Lady Macbeth, who, when tested, can’t cope. Rory Kinnear’s everyman Macbeth does dreadful deeds but makes us wonder what we could be capable of in such violent, anarchic times.

The production is a little lacking in tension at times, especially at the end, which I put down to this grubby small scale war needing to be played out in more confined space than the Olivier. Then again, a smaller theatre would have meant less people getting to see this dystopian, beautifully acted production.

Here’s the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-

Macbeth plays at the National Theatre until 23 June and tours the UK from 29 September- Salford, The Lowry 29 Sep – 6 Oct, Plymouth, Theatre Royal 16 – 20 Oct, Edinburgh, Festival Theatre 23 – 27 Oct, Norwich, Theatre Royal 30 Oct – 3 Nov,  Aberdeen, His Majesty’s Theatre 7 – 10 Nov, Newcastle, Theatre Royal 13 – 17 Nov, Sheffield, Lyceum 20 – 24 Nov, Bath, Theatre Royal 27 Nov – 8 Dec, Oxford, New Theatre 8 – 12 Jan, Dublin, Bord Gais Energy Theatre 15 – 19 Jan, Nottingham, Theatre Royal 22 – 26 Jan, Hull, New Theatre 5 – 9 Feb, Canterbury, Marlowe Theatre 12 – 16, Glasgow, Theatre Royal 19 – 23 Feb, Southampton, Mayflower Theatre 26 Feb – 2 Mar, Belfast, Grand Opera House 5 – 9 Mar, Wolverhampton, Grand Theatre 12 – 16 Mar, Cardiff, Wales Millennium Centre 19 – 23 Mar.

The Shadow Factory – Nuffield Theatre

Howard Brenton’s play is an inspired choice to launch the new Nuffield

(4 / 5)

Click here to see the review of The Shadow Factory on YouTube

Production shot from The Shadow Factory y Howard Brenton at Nuffield Theatre
The Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton at Nuffield Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Howard Brenton is an inspired choice to launch the Nuffield Southampton’s new theatre. His latest play The Shadow Factory is not only about the city in the second world war, it fills the large space.

The imaginative set has been created by the group of artists called 59 Productions whose impressive pedigree includes video work on War Horse and An American In Paris. Virtually the only elements of the set are tubular lights above that bend and move to recreate brilliantly the sense of planes overhead and maps projected on the floor of the thrust stage to show not only scene locations but the targets of German bombs. Combined with amazing surround sound, the feeling of being under air attack made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

One of Luftwaffe’s targets is Woolston, Southampton, home of the main factory producing Spitfires. After this is blown up, production switches to multiple locations around the area- the shadow factory of the title.

And this is where it gets interesting. The British government, once at war, committed itself to full-on war without mercy or conscience.  In The Shadow Factory, we see them requisitioning property, specifically a local laundry business and a country house, with no care for the owners.

Anita Dobson & David Birrell lead an excellent cast

The central characters are there to give a human face to the story but, I suspect, not meant to distract us from it by tugging at the heartstrings.  Even so, the excellent cast do bring them to life. Special mention here for Anita Dobson and David Birrell playing two vivid characters each.

Dobson is both the laid back, generous aristocratic American Lady Cooper and the indefatigable, humorous grandmother Ma. Both of Birrell’s characters oppose the government in their different ways: Fred Dimmock, the rebellious laundry owner, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who is too gentlemanly for modern warfare.

The cast are uniformly good. Catherine Cusack also doubles up: Lil Dimmock is on the edge of a breakdown and Sylvia Meinster whose propriety isn’t enough to overcome a foreign name. Lorna Fitzgerald (Jackie) and Shala Nyx (Polly) played two of the numerous strong women in this play who face up to the horrors of war and make their mark. It was a pleasure to see Hilton McCrae take the part of the ruthless charmer Beaverbrook. Daniel York is splendid as the conflicted Len Gooch, likeable local factory manager and reluctant tool of the government.

A chorus of local people appear regularly and, by the device of singing together, create a strong sense of community in the face of German bombardment and government dictatorship.

Sam Hodges’ production of The Shadow Factory hits the target.

The Shadow Factory was originally performed in early 2018. It returns to Nuffield Theatre Southampton from 30 January, 2019 to 2 March, 2019

Here’s my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-

A version of this review has appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website

Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Parts One & Two

Click here for review on YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

(4 / 5)
Photo of members of the cast of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child stage play by Jack Thorne based on idea by JK Rowling Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Worthy Addition to the Harry Potter saga

I’ve read the Harry Potter books and seen the films. If you haven’t, you might be less intrigued than I was by this return to Hogwarts because the past looms heavy in this new adventure.

JK Rowling tells a good children’s story that adults can also enjoy, and she does it again with her stage play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, currently at the Palace Theatre London.

Production photo of the stage play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Her chronicle of good versus evil in the world of witchcraft continues with the sons of Harry Potter and his former enemy Draco Malfoy. Both boys suffer from being the children of well-known parents. That’s why they become friends and go an adventure together, an adventure which is as much about the excitement of problem solving as fighting evil.

Good story by JK Rowling- great play by Jack Thorne

The Cursed Child is blessed with a script by Jack Thorne which is full of humour and emotional depth, especially in the difficult relationship between the adult Harry and his adolescent son, both troubled by the past in their different ways, both feeling inadequate. It’s also fascinating to see the way Draco Malfoy is changed and challenged by becoming a parent.

The story is about the effect of the past on the present. Literally and chillingly,  we see that changing the past can change the present. More interestingly,  what the older characters have or haven’t done previously affects how they are now. It is this exploration that makes what otherwise would be a good children’s show into something of real interest to an adult audience.

Production photo of members of the cast of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are many very good characters well acted. When I saw the plays, Rayke Ayola showed a good range of emotion as Hermione Granger. I especially liked the Malfoys played with relish by James Howard and young Samuel Blenkin, who was the star of the show.

John Tiffany’s production has some excellent theatrical effects: the appearance of the Dementors is spine tingling. The illusions by Jamie Harrison that provide some real ‘wow’ moments such as the split second in which actors seem to disappear into a telephone.

The difficulty for me is that while action adventures told on a stage work well for children, for adults they can seem a little melodramatic. Despite or perhaps because of an existential threat in the story, this is no exception.

That said, this is a magical production and a worthy addition to the Harry Potter saga.

Harry Potter And The Cursed Child can be seen at the Palace Theatre London

Here’s my review from the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews