Tag Archives: Ashley McGuire

“Top Girls” at the National Theatre

Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s classic play has a reverential air. With such variety in the writing – starting with a fantasy dinner party, turning into a domestic drama and becoming increasingly political – there’s no doubting the text’s importance. But in this staging, the humour in the writing stumbles, the edge is blunted and the production is luxurious to a fault.

The novel, and expensive, move is not to double up roles as most productions of the play do. So performers playing guests at the opening scene, women from different cultures and times, don’t reappear in other roles. Using actors the calibre of Amanda Lawrence, Siobhán Redmond and Ashley McGuire for just one scene seems positively wasteful and it also isolates the brilliantly bizarre prologue scene.

There can be no quibbles about the cast – or Turner’s massive investment in them. The play is capably driven by Katherine Kingsley as the highflying executive whose success we scrutinise. And there are strong performances from Liv Hill and Lucy Black as her estranged family. It’s possible these roles don’t have to have be portrayed as quite so downtrodden – Churchill’s point is still made if they are just ‘normal’ people – but the play’s themes of inequality and individuality are depressingly pertinent.

Ian MacNeil’s design is bold in its variety of spaces – restaurant, office and home are all very different – and the scene changes are impressive. And dealing so well with characters speaking over one another gets more praise for Turner. In short, the production is without question technically accomplished. But is all this sleek professionalism necessary? Or appropriate? Does a dinner party with the long dead or fictional characters need so stylish a setting? Or the shabby world of corporate recruitment have to look so lush? Turner has too much respect for Churchill’s work not to present it impeccably, but the play is strong enough for productions to take a more inventive approach with it. There’s a disappointing lack of energy, or anger, that seems inappropriate: Churchill’s message is there, but the challenge is not.

Until 20 July 2019


Photo by Johan Persson

“The Suicide” at the National Theatre

There are some interesting ideas lurking within Suhayla El-Bushra’s new version of Nikolai Erdman’s comedy. The basis is brilliant – when a man announces he will take his own life he becomes hounded by those looking to use his death for their own ends. You might guess that the production updates the action to modern-day London (doesn’t everything?). More surprisingly, the satirical target is moved from Soviet Russia, not to the greed and inequality in our own times, but to left-leaning well- meaning folk. And El-Bushra replaces the State with social media – a neat move that offers insight and great satirical potential (after all, you can’t exaggerate online excess). Unfortunately, neither of these twists actually makes the play funnier than its original premise.

Mocking a desperate group of people living on a council estate is in questionable taste, aside from coming close to sitcom or reality TV show territory. More importantly, the treatment just isn’t witty enough. The script has a few risqué jokes but hardly any big laughs and a reliance on bad language for punchlines that is offensive in being so lazy. Director Nadia Fall doesn’t help, using a great-looking set (by Ben Stones) in a cumbersome manner and adding music and dance – presumably to appeal to a young audience – that may be good, but slows things down. There are frantic scenes, which the cast are well choreographed for, but the energy is wasted as stops and starts ruin the pace.

The collection of stereotypes that come to hassle our hero Sam aren’t all badly written. There’s a café-owning ex-PR girl, a teacher-performance-poet, local councillor, mental health worker, an old friend trying to hide an affair and assorted local youths. It’s a long play. All look for Sam to take the blame for something and to make a ‘statement’. But there’s an inverse relationship between characters where the satire has real bite, such as a despicable documentary filmmaker, and disappointing performances. Jokes are wasted with one-note delivery. Then some strong comic potential (Lizzie Winkler and Ayesha Antoine) isn’t given enough to do. It’s tempting to see an element of bad luck for El-Bushra here.

My intention was attend the scheduled press night, which was then postponed due to the indisposition of the lead, Javone Prince – surely the biggest misfortune for the show. However, the poorly presented main character is reduced to little more than a foolish bore, while scenes of Sam’s home life with his wife (a hard-working Rebecca Scroggs) and mother-in-law (the always excellent Ashley McGuire) achieve little. Yet the role was a triumph for Prince’s understudy, Adrian Richards, who gave a performance that has made me want to post this review despite it being, strictly speaking, about a preview. Richards’ comic timing is among the best of the night and he managed to give Sam a lost, youthful, appeal. Richards’ valiant efforts lifted the atmosphere for the whole evening. Luck at last, but little to do with the show’s actual merits.

Until 25 June 2016


Photo by Johan Persson

“Our Country’s Good” at the National Theatre

An undisputed modern classic, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play explores politics, power and the potential of theatre. Its setting is an 18th-century Australian penal colony, its performers, newly arrived convicts who stage a play. It is a text to spend time with and Nadia Fall’s revival presents the ideas with great clarity. But it should also be a work that entertains and invigorates, and, here, this production lacks consistency.

The show looks great, with Peter McKintosh’s design a mix of Aboriginal art and Anish Kapoor, creating a sense of heat and tension. But this show is a cold affair, distinctly lacking humour and failing to exploit the text’s many ironies. Fall’s pacing slows and rushes – possibly because so much music is introduced. Cerys Matthews, making her theatrical debut as a composer, creates a diverse soundscape with snatches of songs you never hear enough of to enjoy.

There are credible performances from the lead: Jason Hughes plays the soldier tasked with directing the convicts and Caoilfhionn Dunne is the prisoner who becomes his leading lady. It’s a shame there isn’t more sexual tension between their characters – an element missing throughout the show which could have added considerable drama.

Productions often have actors doubling up roles to perform as both guard and prisoner – Fall has a larger crew but the play doesn’t benefit from bigger numbers. Disappointingly, with some of the cast, there is a sense of fighting for attention that should have been checked. The actors that do stand out give the most generous and controlled performances: Ashley McGuire’s down-to-earth Dabby Bryant and Peter Forbes’ bullish Major.

The later acts are better; the violence in the colony is bravely depicted and that raises the stakes. But what might have countered this brutality – camaraderie between the players and what little joy their common humanity affords them – isn’t given its proper place. That the show goes on and the prisoners perform doesn’t leave us as elated as it should.

Until 1 October 2015


Photo by Simon Annand

“Light Shining In Buckinghamshire” at the National Theatre

History buffs look out; Caryl Churchill’s English Civil War play is a different kind of story about past times, concerning common people and heavyweight ideas, rather than Great Men.

Lynsey Turner’s punchy direction has design supremo Es Devlin’s work as a backdrop, moving from sumptuous to stark. A community company of local residents, whose participation fits the spirit of the play, mean this an enormous cast. Turbulent history, with “men in a mist”, is evoked by scale.

Ashley McGuire

Trystan Gravelle and Nicholas Gleaves’s stand out, as two soldiers in Cromwell’s army, with increasingly divergent ideals, forming one of few traditional story arcs. Ashley McGuire and Amanda Lawrence impress by giving their roles an immediate power. Many of  the short scenes most of the play is made up of are strong but the culminating effect is underwhelming.
With politicians all around at the moment, do we need to hear canvassing from the seventeenth century? Levellers with manifestos, proto-Communist Diggers in, of all places, Weybridge and Ranters, reinforcing the period’s religious fanaticism. The ideas are radical at least. And Churchill makes these thoughts from the past live…for the most part.

When her exegesis falls it’s disastrous. A scene on the Putney Debate, where soldiers argued with Cromwell, is so boring it’s likely to be the most memorable thing about this, overall, commendable work.

Until 22 June 2015


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Henry IV” at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s all-female production of Julius Caesar was one of the theatrical highlights of last year. Now director Phyllida Lloyd returns with Henry IV, set once again in a women’s prison. An amalgam of Henry IV Parts I and II, the text is performed by the ‘inmates’, making this two plays in one in more than one sense, since we have Shakespeare and also the staging of Shakespeare. It’s layered, obviously, but what makes the production fascinating is the weight given to the prisoners’ own staging – is it the focus or just an addition? The question is open for the audience.

Henry IV is a riveting evening, not least because you want to know what has been done to the text. But it starts out dreadfully. With a nod to the trend for immersive theatre, the audience waits over the road in the Seven Dials Club, where you can use the bar and the loo (don’t forget this – there’s no interval and the show is two hours plus) before walking over the road and entering via the back stairs. Punch Drunk it ain’t. Although a few prison posters threaten punishment for those using phones – incarceration is too good for them after all – the whole effort seems feeble.

Once the acting starts, Henry IV is magnificent. Clare Dunne plays Prince Hal, the hero of both plays, with startling energy. Caught between the responsibilities inheritance brings, embodied by the superb Harriet Walter in the title role, and another father figure – Falstaff. As the rogue knight, Ashley McGuire gives a tremendous performance, fully embodying the ambiguities this production offers – it’s a great Falstaff but the sense of a disturbed woman in prison who is taking on the role is tangible. This triangle of ‘men’ is the focus of the production and the ramifications, when performed by female characters in a jail, positively outshine any episode of cult women’s prison drama Orange is the New Black.

When Shakespeare and the performance being staged by the prisoners intersect, Henry IV is electric. Some adlibbing results in an emotional break to the action, highlighting the sexism of the original text along with the cruelty of prison life. And the whole evening is abruptly cut short by the prison guards – leaving you feeling somewhat shell-shocked. The lives of the characters performing these famous roles provoke speculation; ‘Hal’ reveals she is to be released soon, and the whole cast have worked to create back stories. The prisoners’ own production is deliberately lo-fi – their props have to be improvised and costumes are minimal, adding to a sense of raw immediacy. What shines through is the strength of Shakespeare’s story, magnified by these imagined lives and made all the more powerful for it.

Until 29 November 2014


Photo by Helen Maybanks

Written 15 October 2014 for The London Magazine