Comedy gold from Noël Coward, Matthew Warchus and Andrew Scott
(5 / 5)
Present Laughter at The Old Vic is not only the best show I’ve seen this year, it is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.
Why? Let me quickly pay credit to Noël Coward. That man knew how to put together a stage play and he wrote fabulous dialogue. But it’s got to be directed and acted well. Well, director Matthew Warchus proves once again he is a genius and, after this and his previous Hamlet, Andrew Scott is now the leading contender for the best actor of his generation.
Present Laughter is about a famous comic actor called Garry Essendine. He can’t stop acting even when he’s being serious. He’s surrounded by a team of people who rely on him and upon whom he relies. Everyone- his team and his fans- needs him and reacts to him but he needs them to maintain his celebrity. The achievement of this production is to bring out this neediness.
How does Andrew Scott do it? Not with the suave coolness or the drawling delivery we might expect from Noël Coward or any old fashioned actor but by behaving like a spoilt child. He is a lost boy in Peter Pan, as Kenneth Tynan famously described Coward. This seems to perfectly capture the nature of celebrity.
Garry is always performing and, from the moment Andrew Scott appears, about ten minutes in, he dominates the stage. Even when he’s not speaking his face is a constant picture of reactions. When he is speaking, his face continues to express shock, anger, amusement, the whole range of emotions. That might sound like it’s superficial or dumbshow, however the great achievement is that we are always aware that there are feelings inside that he is choosing to convey or hide through his acting. His reaction when accused of overacting is comedy gold- because of course his reaction is overacted. Scott is on stage nearly the whole time and the centre of attention for nearly all that time which means he keeps up this constantly changing expressions and cascade of lines for over two hours.
His comic timing is superb. For example, there is a moment near the end when he is slapped by someone who then makes a big exit. Garry simply resumes the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. That much is in the script but Mr Scott makes us wait for his reaction, holds that anticipation how he will respond to the slap, so that when he carries on about a contract which is much more important to him, it says so much about his attitude to sex versus his career. And of course there are those deep eyes that can twinkle, pierce or panic.
In the programme, Mr Warchus points out that Essendine is an anagram of ‘neediness’. The character seems shallow but hints, as he reaches middle age, at depths of self doubt and loneliness . Notably at the beginning of the final act, he is alone and, without can audience to bounce off, touchingly desperate.
To heap all this praise on Andrew Scott is not to forget the other actors. They all support fantastically well- their comic timing also excellent. In particular Indira Varma as Garry’s separated wife Liz and Sophie Thompson as his secretary Monica provide touching performances as Gary’s calm support contrasting with his frenetic energy. They are not deceived by him and they care for him deeply, both managing to bring tears to their eyes at certain poignant moments.
Luke Thallon gives a bravura performance as the passionate aspiring playwright Roland Maule. Enzo Cilenti charms as the disruptive Joe who threatens to break up the team. Joshua Hill is the down-to-earth valet Fred. Liza Sadovy as Miss Erikson, Suzie Toase as Helen and Abdul Salis as Morris all contribute to the fun.
Congratulations to Rob Howell for designing beautiful costumes and an art deco set that seemed to radiate from and swirl round our central character. He also neatly accommodated doors left right and dead centre for the French farce elements of the play.
I loved this production of Present Laughter with Andrew Scott. I recommend you do all you can to get a ticket and if you can’t, then watch the film of a live show later in the year in the cinema.
Present Laughter runs at The Old Vic until 10 August 2019. For details of cinema screenings of the film of the live show go to NT Live
Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate is a gift to performers. It has a great story- a play Taming Of The Shrew within a play in which the lead actors in conflict on stage are at loggerheads behind the scenes. It has tuneful songs with clever lyrics. It has strong characters. It is a perfect musical comedy. Changing it would destroy it. Like putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa. You’d think.
Paul Hart, The Watermill’s artistic director, has decided to take the risk and adds more comedy in the form of farce by making it a kind of Kiss Me Kate Goes Wrong plus a dose of sexual politics.
Most of the time he pulls it off. But not always. Petruchio famously spanks Kate but having her spank him as well, in the cause of sexual equality, takes the edge off the subsequent joke that she can’t sit down. That’s one bum note.
Another is making so many things go wrong from the start because this takes away from Lily’s belligerence being the factor that brings down the previous order of the theatrical production. If it falls apart without her help, that removes one of the golden threads that is woven into the cloth of this glorious musical.
In a similar way, if the actor manager Fred is a loveable idiot from the start, his descent from a big headed authoritarian to broken fool is lost.
And yet, there’s no denying the added farce is very funny. The chorus has to improvise an encore when the curtain fails to rise. Actors leave the stage on the wrong side and have to scurry across in the background. The witty lyrics are still given full weight, so this an evening in which the laughter rarely stops.
It helps that there are some terrific performances. Rebecca Trehearn and David Riccardo-Pearce as the lead actors Fred and Lilli have strong, pure voices that both soar and express pathos. They are engaging performers. Fred running round the auditorium buttonholing members of the audience as he asks Where Is The Life That Late I Led? had the audience in stitches.
The highly talented Kimmy Edwards as Lois/Bianca does justice to both her big numbers- Tom, Dick Or Harry and the showstopper Always True To You In My Fashion. The latter climaxes with her skirt ripped off and Edwards high kicking in true showbiz style, using drumsticks like majorette batons.
Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson make amusing gangsters who become enchanted by the theatre, eventually exhorting us to Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Jay Perry is a charming Bill and Andre Fabian Francis is a stupendous dancer.
Talking of the dancing, Oti Mabuse does an excellent job as choreographer. Given the small space at The Watermill, there’s no opportunity for big chorus line numbers but there are quite a few energetic ensemble numbers that are all the more thrilling for squeezing flamboyant movements into the limited room.
Finally, the piece de resistance: all the actors play instruments which gives the show an added sense of excitement and makes the music seem like an extension of the acting.
So, while I may have small reservations about this production, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey provide laughter and emotion in Jack Thorne’s family drama
(5 / 5)
It’s a world away from Jack Thorne and John Tiffany‘s last collaboration- Harry Potter And The Curse Child– but the end of history is another moving drama about parent child relationships.
The title may refer to a book by Francis Fukuyama which around 1990 declared that, with the fall of communism in eastern Europe, liberal democracy had triumphed and its flag would fly forever and a day.
It’s 1997 and we meet Sal and David, two lifetime left wing socialists who perhaps can longer expect radical change. A clue is they’re not happy that Blair, leader of their party, has become prime minister. It may even be significant that they came from hard Manchester and now live in soft Berkshire.
Their three kids are in their late teens and early twenties. The oldest Carl is bringing his new girlfriend Harriet to dinner. She is the daughter of a rich father who owns hotels and service stations. Sal is as fascinated by the privileged as she hates the liberals. She talks too much and in a very frank way. In fact Lesley Sharp’s unfiltered talking when she’s nervous is hilarious. ‘No talent when it comes to cooking, she says of herself, but when it comes to pissing off my children – immense talent – Olympian talent.’
Her children are indeed embarrassed by her but they expect to be. But it’s the red parents who seem red faced because their children are not turning out to be radical socialists. A bust up ensues.
We move on ten years. The parents, true to their socialist ideals, take a decision that makes their children feel they have been judged to have betrayed the cause. Leading to another bust up.
All the children are much more their own people now. In fact, one of the joys of this play is how the children mature but are recognisably the same characters. Kate O’Flynn is the hard-edged Polly with a surly bottom lip like a snow plough. Always the best at winning arguments, she has become a cynical corporate lawyer. The less confident Carl, played by Sam Swainsbury, is married to Harriet (Zoe Ball), but not that happily. He has joined the family business. The highly strung youngest Tom, played by Laurie Davidson, remains a misfit with an inferiority complex and is yet to find his way. None of the children have the certainties that characterise their parents.
By the end of act two, having experienced a wonderfully funny performance from Lesley Sharp as the mother, I was wondering why an actor of the quality of David Morrissey had been employed to provide a fairly standard dour northern dad. Then came the third act, ten more years on, and he delivered the most moving emotional monologue that explained so much of what formed the parents’ characters and relationship. ‘I thought she was astonishing, she thought I’d do,’ he says.
And the children at something like the halfway stage in their lives see their parents with a new perspective. Not the familiar ‘we just wanted you to be happy’ but something more appropriate to their intellectual rigour.
I don’t want to make this sound too political or philosophical because it is ultimately the story of a family, a believable family. They are loving but they’re not tactile and they’re not sentimental- and neither is Jack Thorne’s script. His dialogue conveys the relaxed banter and the rows of people who love and know one another. The children’s attachment to their parents and its effect on their lives is tangible.
John Tiffany directs with precision. The beautiful design by Grace Smart presents us with a simple family kitchen but with holes in the walls, perhaps suggesting the uncertainties of their lives.
A word of warning. In the middle of one argument, Sal says, ‘I’m going to the toilet. It’s an a political act.’ This is a particularly cruel thing to say in front of an audience who have to sit with their legs crossed through one hour fifty minutes without an interval.
Bitter reviews for David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat at The Garrick
Even recruiting John Malkovich, one of the finest stage actors of his generation to make a rare West End appearance couldn’t sweeten the critics’ reactions to David Mamet‘s Bitter Wheat:
“a flabby, cynical and pointless effort” cried Tim Bano in The Stage
“lazy, crude and empty” railed Henry Hitchins in the Evening Standard
Michael Billington of The Guardian called it “ineffectual” which is quite restrained compared with “a hot mess of gauche plotting, unfinished ideas and sheer wrongheadedness… It might just be the most pointless play of the year” That from Alice Jones writing in The i
“Politically, it’s tiresome; theatrically, it’s loopy” said Holly Williams in Time Out
“(It) manages to spend two hours saying very little at all” moaned Greg Stewart in Theatre Weekly.
“as flaccid as a deflated balloon” lamented Matt Trueman in Variety
“Implausible, daft and irritating” said Aleks Sierz on The Arts Desk, sounding a little irritated.
For Debbie Gilpin on the BroadwayWorld website, it “lacks clarity and intent”
Dominic Maxwell of The Times called it “a wonky piece of theatre”
“Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment” said Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph. (You see what he did there?)
Distasteful and misjudged don’t begin to describe it,” said Mark Shenton in londontheatre.co.uk. Okay, Mark, so what would describe it? “stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive.” Well I did ask.
The star ratings tell it all.
(1 / 5) The Stage (1 / 5) WhatsOnStage (1 / 5) londontheatre.co.uk (1 / 5)The Arts Desk (2 / 5) The Daily Telegraph (2 / 5) The Guardian (2 / 5)The Times (2 / 5) Time Out (2 / 5) The i (2 / 5) Evening Standard (2 / 5) Theatre Weekly (2 / 5) Broadway World
I’ve only found one of the overnight reviews that gave more than two stars. That was a 3 star review from David Lister in The Independent and even he said: “Malkovich deserved a more rounded and thought-provoking play”.
So what was it that they were bitter about? Five themes emerge from the reviews.
Not much in the way of plot
First there was the thin to non-existent story. The character is Barney Fein which sounds like Harvey Weinstein. And that’s because it’s a satire about a movie mogul who abuses his position.
“It feels like a first draft, its silly and unsatisfactory second half needs rewriting,” said The Times bluntly, and went on: “Can you make high comedy about something so blatantly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein story? Not without a more evolved storyline than Mamet manages here.”
“Mamet’s play lurches from set piece to set piece and tone to tone in search of a good-enough counterpoint to its awful antihero…” complained WhatsOnStage, continuing “(it) is not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger”
“a classic of lazy playwriting” said the Arts Desk, explaining: “Mamet follows a simple recipe, writing by numbers. And you could do this too. Here’s how: 1) Select a current controversy; 2) Read a couple of Sunday supplement articles about it; 3) Dredge your memory for some Tinseltown anecdotes; 3) Write a monologue. Add jokes.”
The New York Times weighed in with “‘Bitter Wheat’, bilious to a fault, also feels scattershot and lazy”.
Time Out seemed to enjoy the first act but not the second: “typical Mamet fast-paced, sarcastic exchanges with some zinging insults, revealing the hollow nature of Hollywood and ultimately pitting a smart young woman against the sleazy older man” but “the extremely brief and sketchy second half is just bizarre”
It sounds like it might be a good idea to leave at the interval. Here’s Variety: “the plot creaks with convenient fire alarms and useful idiots. It’s lazy and that’s before Mamet gives up on a short second half that piles on a bonfire of improbabilities.” And that’s the fourth time the word ‘lazy’ has been used.
“Mamet doesn’t even bother to give his play a proper ending” gasped The i.
The play clearly has its moments. The Times describes a scene that “depicts a moment of sexual threat with such horrible ordinariness that you feel as if you are locked in the room with its characters yourself. It’s an unforgettable, unhysterical scene.”
Secondly, there’s the disappointing dialogue.
“Given Mamet’s expertise and the sensitivity of the subject-matter, what’s surprising is just how dashed-off the dialogue seems” said the Daily Telegraph, continuing: “Where once Mamet’s lines zinged, too often they wheeze on Zimmers; there’s more chaff than wheat here.” Dominic Cavendish’s previous “bitter disappointment” inspiring another pun on the title. “Some jokes land. Others go thud.” said The Times, not referring to his fellow critic.
The Stage quite liked the “Entertaining dialogue” but found it “empty of revelation”. For Theatre Weekly, “It’s not the story being told, or even the person telling the story that’s the issue, it’s that it lacks any kind of challenge to the audience, and the instances of clever writing are drowned out.”
No depth to the main character
The critics found the main character just as lacking in depth as the plot.
“this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character” said The Stage. The Evening Standard made the same point: “The role lacks psychological depth: Fein is a profane, abusive, creepy figure, but essentially he’s just a conduit for Mamet’s vitriolic lines.”
“Bitter Wheatnever fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character” agreed The Independent. “The sorry fact is that Fein never deepens or darkens” said the New York Times. “the hero is unrelievedly vicious” cried The Guardian. For WhatsOnStage “Fein is a pantomime villain, a buffoon rather than a real threat”
Other characters thinly drawn
Did the other characters make up for the failure to create a believable central character? I’m afraid not.
“The rest of the cast are merely decoration around him, treated in various shades of contempt and dismissal” said Theatre Weekly.
“none of his characters are psychologically credible” noted Variety. They were, said WhatsOnStage: “virtually unplayable and criminally under-written roles”.
“at least put a teeny bit of effort into any of the other characters” pleaded The Stage.
Damning with faint praise, Time Out declared: “the best things about ‘Bitter Wheat’ really are the women, even though their parts are thin”.
The male viewpoint
Finally the critics didn’t like the viewpoint. Where angels fear to tread in the aftermath of #MeToo, Mamet appears to have jumped in with both hobnail booted feet.
“we really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective. The whole thing leaves you feeling… grubby” shuddered Time Out.
Variety summed up: “he ends up exploiting the experiences of assault survivors for entertainment”. BroadwayWorld felt the same: “It does ask that we re-hash all those harrowing #MeToo revelations for entertainment… but hardly shedding any new light” Furthermore “women’s voices are once again being drowned out by that of a man”
The i got the same impression: “the victim is relegated to literally watching men talk to each other from the sidelines.” The i continues: “It’s as if he wants to write about anything except the effects of sexual assault and what should happen to the perpetrators”
What about John Malkovich?
So those are five major reasons the critics didn’t like Bitter Wheat. But what about John Malkovich? Surely he offered some compensation? Not according to The Stage: “Malkovich – obviously a brilliant actor – isn’t brilliant here. He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone is doing some drilling next door”
Time Out found “he plays Fein as wholly unpleasant, he’s not nuanced.” WhatsOnStage starts by describing Malkovich as “one of the most charismatic and dangerous actors of his generation” before saying “even his light seems dulled.”
“Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims ‘people are animals’ with any light and shade” said The Guardian. “At times his performance is fun; at times it’s funny; over time, it’s a bore” concluded The Arts Desk.
“A passable performance from Malkovich cannot save this play, or make it into something it’s not” said BroadwayWorld. It’s hard to believe that a word like ‘passable’ is being used about the great John Malkovich but I guess you can’t make bricks without straw.
Others were more impressed by him.
The Daily Telegraph praised: “Malkovich’s ability to hold our attention” continuing “Malkovich re-affirms his idiosyncratic charm and nonchalant aura. It’s great to see him” before concluding on a downbeat note: “he’s not enough to tip the balance fully in the evening’s favour”
The Independent had no doubts about his quality- and perhaps this was what swung the three star review: “John Malkovich, prowling the stage like a bloated, warped colossus,… is present on stage throughout and dominates it with a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Weinstein.”
One word noticeably crops up twice in the reviews.
It was, said The i: “The theatrical equivalent of clickbait.” The Evening Standard suspected the same: “instead of prompting nuanced discussion, it has the rancid smell of clickbait.”
Personally I think it might be going a bit far to suggest that somehow Bitter Wheat was written purely with ticket sales in mind. But certainly we can conclude from the reviews that while much was promised in this comedy by David Mamet starring John Malkovich about one of today’s important issues, little was delivered.
Not everyone who’s seen it agreed. An actual movie star Rupert Grint, who should know whereof he speaks, said it showed the reality of behind the scenes in the entertainment world. And, even if this is not Mamet’s finest hour, it is still a rare opportunity to see John Malkovich on stage. You can see Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre in London until 21 September 2019.
Reviews that arrived later weren’t much kinder. Susannah Clapp awarded Bitter wheat one star in her Observer review, calling it “a feeble fizzle”. Ben Croll in Vanity Fair called it “a tired play on autopilot, courting scandal by inertia and grabbing whatever low-hanging fruit it can.”
Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post used a quote from the play against it: “Bitter Wheat begins … when a young screenwriter pitches his script to Fein. “Your script is a piece of s–t,” he says. If only someone had told Mamet the same.”
There were exceptions. Two positive reviews came from Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times and Lloyd Evans in The Spectator- both are often contrarians. Mr Letts gave Bitter Wheat 4 stars but unfortunately his review is trapped behind a paywall. And Mr Evans “could have watched this captivating freak-show until midnight and beyond. It’s a fine play, rather creakily structured…”
(5 / 5) Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.
Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.
Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless.He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.
It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.
Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors
It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.
Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.
Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.
News added June 2019
Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019:
Much is being made by the National Theatre of how this play and its author Githa Sowerby are not that well known and that if she had been a man, it would have been a different story. She would have stood alongside Bernard Shaw or even Ibsen in whose footsteps she followed with this realist drama of ideas. Well, I would have to say, on the strength of this production, there’s another reason that this play is not well known and that is that it ‘s dull. Worthy but dull.
Before I go into detail, let me say that the acting is excellent. Roger Allam dominates as an actor much the same as his character dominates. It’s a powerful performance as the bullying father who is more committed to his family glassmaking business than to his family. His beard deserves a star dressing room of its own. It says to all the other characters, I can grow bigger thicker beard than any of you.
Admittedly I saw a preview, so it may get better. Maybe it’s Polly Findlay’s heavy handed production that doesn’t do Sowerby’s work justice. I’ve no doubt part of the problem is the perennial one of the size of the Lyttelton stage. This is an intimate family drama intended for a stage the size of a drawing room, not one made for spectacle. I’ve seen The Cherry Orchard chopped down by this auditorium so Rutherford And Son is in good company.
Even so, I was not convinced that this play has aged well since its premiere in 1912. The story tells how Rutherford’s grown up children rebel against the repressive businessman. It was revolutionary in its time for its depiction of women as people who could think for themselves and lead lives of their own, not to mention its exposé of the patriarchy, class prejudice and the evils of capitalism.
Well, I’m all for exposing the patriarchy but I found the outcome of their family quarrels too predictable, mainly because nearly all the characters were caricatures of weak men. They just bounced off Rutherford who was the polar opposite, powerful and with depth.
The women were stronger and their engagement with Rutherford more interesting. Anjana Vasan is the working class daughter-in-law Mary, who realises she needs to be as ruthless as Rutherford. Justine Mitchell is the put-upon daughter who learns she can’t rely on men.
The characters may be weak but, as I said, the cast is strong. It includes Joe Armstrong as the blindly loyal worker Martin and Sam Troughton as Rutherford’s ineffectual, overwrought son John who has been alienated from the business.
Lizzie Clachan‘s set is naturalistic and full of detail as befits a realist drama. It suggests the draughty, high maintenance nature of homes in those days and the bleakness of life with Rutherford.
I recommend that if you want to experience a strong female character and a critique of society in the genre of realist drama, you give this a miss and go across the river to see the wonderful production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm at the Duke Of York’s.
Note: More about Roger Allam’s performance added on 6 June 2019. YouTube review re-recorded with better sound quality on 13 June 2019.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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
‘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.’
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
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’
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 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
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’.
‘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.
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.
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-