Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity – Donmar – Review

Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.

Production shot of Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson
Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.

Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.

Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.

Production shot of Anne-MarieDuff and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity at The Donmar Wrehouse in London. Photo: Johan Persson
Anne-MarieDuff (left) and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

But it’s not a one woman show.

Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.

Production shot of Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity at The Donmar in London. Photo by Johan Persson
Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.

What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.

Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019

Here’s the link to the YouTube review of Sweet Charity

Review revised on 18 April to add further description of design.

Handbagged – Regional production – Review

Handbagged by Moira Buffini in a new production directed by Jo Newman

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Handbagged takes us through the major events of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as British prime minister. I use the word ‘reign’ deliberately because the story is told through a series of meetings between an increasingly regal Thatcher (Eve Matheson) and the actual Queen Elizabeth (Caroline Hacker).

Handbags multiply as those two are overseen by older versions of themselves, played by Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon. Much of the humour stems from the characters commenting to the audience on what is said. Typically: ‘I never said that’.

Production shot of Handbagged at Salisbury Playhouse
Handbagged at Salisbury Playhouse Photo: Helen Murray

Because the play is speculation, no-one knows for sure what was said and the characters are aware that they are performing this version of events for an audience.  ‘Whatever we say, it must stay within these three walls,’ says the Queen. What we are presented with is a conflict between the ideological, deaf-to-compromise, humourless Thatcher (‘No’ being her favourite word) and a more compassionate, ethical and wryly amusing Queen. It’s no surprise who ends up the winner in this handbagging contest.

The author Moira Buffini clearly thinks Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was bad news. If you agree, you’ll get a lot of pleasure in hearing the Queen being upset by the effects of her government’s policies- dividing the nation, creating a greater gap between rich and poor, encouraging greed. ‘We lost the feeling that had persisted since the war,’ she says, ‘That we are all in this together.’ ‘Is she a socialist?’ asks Mrs T.

I never really felt I got beneath the skin of the two women in power, despite the poignant moments of shared sadness at the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.

I found the history lesson got a bit boring at times but there is plenty of fun to be had in the conflict between these two women in power. All the women do good impressions of the protagonists but Susan Penhaligon is uncannilly believable as the older Queen and- perhaps because we nearly all have this well of affection for the real queen- she gets the most laughs.

Supporting the four women, two men play actors who have been hired to play all the other parts- Denis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Hesletine, and so on- and who also address the audience with their ‘own’ left wing views, in case we found the Queen’s opinions a little oblique. Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall provide a lot of knockabout comedy and almost steal the show.

On the whole the performance I saw seemed a little hesitant which, for me, dampened the laughs. I expect, after a few more outings, it will be much sharper.

Handbagged can be seen at Salisbury Playhouse until until 20 April 2019 then tours to York Theatre Royal (24 April – 11 May) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (14 May – 1 June)

Click here to watch the review of Handbagged on YouTube

Agatha Christie: The Mirror Crack’d – Touring production – review

Rachel Wagstaff’s triumphant adaptation of classic Christie whodunit

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Watch the YouTube review of The Mirror Crack’d-

The Wales Millennium Centre and Wiltshire Creative touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff,  received its premiere at Salisbury Playhouse.

Production photo showing Katherine Manners in The Mirror Crack'd Photo Credit: Helen Murray
Katherine Manners in The Mirror Crack’d
Photo Credit: Helen Murray

This could have a standard Agatha Christie whodunit but this production is far above standard. Rachel Wagstaff has provided an adaptation that is faithful to the plot and characters, necessarily simplified for a two hour stage show, but with unexpected depth added.

It’s still a story of Miss Marple investigating the death of a villager who expires after drinking a famous film star’s daiquiri.The original shows  Miss Marple concerned that she’s being marginalised by her old age and the changing times (it’s set in the early Sixties). In this story, she is also temporarily disabled to add to her feeling of being ignored.

Production photo showing Susie Blake in The Mirror Crack'd
Susie Blake in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Apart from putting a contemplation of the invisibility of old age centre stage, this play concerns itself with the loneliness of older people.  It also dwells on memory- both the way in which memories affect who we are but also, integral to the plot, the unreliability of memory.

We see the same scene re-enacted on numerous occasions, each time slightly different depending on who is telling the story. Melly Still‘s pared back production with a simple, appropriately dark set by Richard Kent keeps the story moving between flashbacks and changes of scene.

Rachel Wagstaff’s dialogue is also more dynamic than Agatha Christie’s and more robust, by which I mean there’s some swearing.

Production photo showing Susie Blake and Simon Shepherd in The Mirror Crack'd.
Susie Blake & Simon Shepherd in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Susie Blake has some big acts to follow in the role of Miss Marple but she more than holds her own with a mix of quiet determination and sly humour. The rest of the cast, and there are eleven altogether, provide humour and weight. Simon Shepherd is amusing as the pompous, patronising Chief inspector Craddock. Suzanna Hamilton is the fragile film star and Julia Hills is amusing and slightly sad as Miss Marple’s snobbish but empathetic friend Dolly.

The Mirror Crack’d has an entertaining plot with some welcome depth, like biting on a soft chocolate and finding a chewy centre.

The Mirror Crack’d continues at Salisbury Playhouse until 9 March 2019 then visits The Gaiety Theatre Dublin (12-16 March), the Arts Theatre Cambridge (19-23 March) and New Theatre Cardiff (26 March-6 April).

All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson & Lily James

All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at the Noel Coward Theatre London

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Watch the YouTube review of All About Eve here

You may well know the story. After all, the film All About Eve is a classic. Scripted by Joseph L Mankiewicz, it tells of a young would-be actor who ingratiates herself into the inner circle of an ageing stage star in order to further her career. If you’re not familiar with the story, be ready for surprises and twists.

Production shot of Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by ivo van Hove at Noel Coward theatre London
Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All about Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The first thing to say is the two leads are mesmerising. It’s worth the ticket price just for their performances. Gillian Anderson as the established and talented Margo Channing conveys the insecurity behind her diva facade that eventually brings out awful behaviour. Lily James as Eve turns on a penny from disingenuous devotion to cold eyed viciousness.


At which theatre can I see All About Eve?

Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0JP until 11 May 2019. Booking line: 0844 871 7629    Website: https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/phoenix-theatre

Who directed All About Eve?

Ivo Van Hove

Who stars in All About Eve?

Gillian Anderson and Lily James


Add to that, a performance of great subtlety from Monica Dolan as Margo’s kindly but naïve friend Karen. Her hysterical laughter during a dinner is hilarious.

Also outstanding in a great cast are Julian Ovenden as Margo’s egocentric but loving partner Bill, Sheila Reid as Margo’s devoted but worldly wise Birdie and Stanley Townsend as the monstrous power-abusing critic Addison DeWitt.

Production shot of Julian Ovenden and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Julian Ovenden & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The production cleverly puts Margo dead centre, because, although the title is All About Eve, the play is much more about Margo, her coming to terms with getting older, her considering her position as a woman in society, and her fears about losing her younger partner. So Margo herself, the great star, is the centre of attention. Anything that happens that doesn’t involve her nearly always takes place off or to the side of the stage.

In this respect the set by Jan Versweyveld does a great job. Her room is the main set and her dressing table is right in the middle. Beyond the main set, we can see the backstage and wings.  Above there are giant video screens that convey live what is happening in these areas.  

Production shot of Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson and Monica Dolan in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson & Monica Dolan in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I didn’t like so much was seeing close ups of the people off stage. For me, the joy of theatre is its human scale. I saw no reason why these scenes shown on the screens shouldn’t be acted on the stage, maybe off centre.

There are occasions when the screens add to our understanding. There’s a camera in the mirror so we can see her face with all its middle aged details that the theatre audience can’t see. And there’s a great moment when the reflection of her face ages before our eyes.

A View From The Bridge at Young Vic was one of the best nights of pure theatre I’ve ever had, so I will always think of Ivo Van Hove as a great theatre director but sadly I have to say that, if he likes big screens so much, it’s time he went to Hollywood.

All About Eve is performing at the Noel Coward theatre until 11 May 2019

Come from Away – Phoenix Theatre – review

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

4 out of 5 stars (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 Rachel Tucker and other members of the cast in Come From Away the musical at the Phoenix Theatre in London
Rachel Tucker in Come From Away

The players are all really good but I’m going to be unfair and pick out Rachel Tucker as the pilot who loves flying but has to take charge on the ground, Clive Carter as the welcoming Mayor 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

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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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