Tag Archives: Duke of York’s Theatre

“The Ocean at the end of the Lane” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Neil Gaiman’s fantasy tale, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, is clever. An introduction to some metaphysics as well as the supernatural makes the story as thought-provoking as it’s entertaining. The piece is as much about childhood and parenthood as adventure, which makes it moving emotionally as well as being action-packed. If a little too attentive to its genre (which you either love or hate), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is brought to the stage with great style. 

Having a best friend, Lettie, who is some kind of witch proves a mixed blessing for our young hero. A play date results in the unnamed boy’s home being invaded by a monster who usually lives on the fringes of our reality! The creature, who transforms into Ursula (played very capably by Laura Rogers) controls a grieving father and gullible sister. Thankfully, Lettie (who isn’t really young) can magically help out. The plot is diverting enough – but solidly aimed at children.

Gaiman says his story is about memory, which doesn’t come across so much on stage. But having an adult character reminisce about the events of his childhood, and then perform as his own father, adds layers to the characters, which helps both James Bamford and Nicolas Tennant in their roles. Other characters are fun, if sketchy, such as the ‘Sis’ter, played by Grace Hogg-Robinson. But there are too many questions around Lettie’s motivation, skated over with the powerful performance from Nia Towle.

As with previous National Theatre hits for children (War HorseCoram Boy) the show isn’t scared to be dark, a little gory and sometimes funny – well done for trying on all counts. The gore is good, but the humour is unoriginal and there is too little threat. It’s really director Katy Rudd’s work that makes the show a success. Breathless and excited about adventure and magic, the piece convinces against the odds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The puppets (credited to Samuel Wyer) are as good as any I’ve seen on stage. Paule Constable has surpassed herself with lighting design. Above all, the soundtrack from Jherek Bischoff is superb – it’s no surprise it’s on sale. And Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is the key, well done (all the more welcome, since the dialogue is poor), with everyone moving props and acting all the while. Rudd has made sure the show eminently theatrical. Of course, fantasy on stage works! Imagination is the key to theatre and the genre – and the production harnesses this with great skill.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until May 2022

Photo by Manuel Harlan

"The Son" at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Playwright Florian Zeller has had phenomenal success bringing his brand of smart French panache to the British stage. But this new work, another hit and this time a transfer from the Kiln Theatre, is different. With plays like The Father, Zeller experimented with perceptions of reality, while his comedy about adultery, The Truth, used twisting perspectives and audience expectations to get grown-up laughs. For The Son, Zeller abandons any tricksy touches: he presents a stripped back, almost simple, play that is a harrowing story of mental health.

The acting is irreproachable. Taking the title role, Laurie Kynaston gives a career defining portrayal as troubled teen Nicholas. Like the text, and Michael Longhurst’s direction, Kynaston shows great control. There are outbursts of anger but bad behaviour is in the background. Nicholas’ problem is an inexplicable unhappiness he simply can’t articulate and that makes it all the more frustrating and moving.

Laurie Kinston in 'The Son'
Laurie Kynaston

The adults dealing with his illness suffer too. If Zeller hadn’t already used the title previously, this piece could easily be named after Nicholas’ father, a major role that John Light excels with. As with the mother, played by Amanda Abbington, there’s a sense of panic and fear that adds tension to the play. Both parental roles, complicated by their recent divorce, are depicted with care and attention. 

Arguably the pivotal character, who has, like the audience, a little more distance from Nicholas, is his step-mother Sofia. It’s a fantastic part for Amaka Okafor who shows a woman trying to warm to the youngster, who unexpectedly ends up living with her, but who is also scared of him. The awful moment when Nicholas overhears what she thinks of him is balanced by her steely resolve not to let him babysit his new born step-brother. 

Sofia shows how Zeller has mined the psychological complexity in his scenario. The characters’ reactions aid an uncanny ability to make the most mundane questions fraught. Longhurst’s direction compliments the technique and the tension is frequently uncomfortable. If ever a play needed a trigger warning this is it, and I suppose a plot spoiling alert is needed too…

John Light, Amanda Abbington and Laurie Kynaston
John Light, Amanda Abbington and Laurie Kynaston

This is a tale of teenage suicide and in the play the outcome comes as no surprise. Given that Zeller can cover the tracks in a plot better than most this must be deliberate. That the play is so predictable adds a sense of doom from very early on. But while it seems a trivial point in this context, that doesn’t help the play dramatically. The outcome is particularly grim and some key decisions made by the adults in Nicholas’ life are, let us hope, unrealistic. Nicholas only becomes increasingly inexplicable – a fair point but one that is truly dismal. Of course Zeller doesn’t have to sugar any pill, but he also raises hope to dash it in a final scene which comes across as cruel. There’s no doubting the power of Zeller’s writing here – all the five star reviews have recognised it – but in abandoning his usual brilliance for the sake of a brutal power, a warning about the play does need to be issued.

Until 2 November 2019

www.thesonwestend.com

Photos by  Marc Brenner

“The Girl on the Train” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Before embarking on a national tour, Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller is having a month in the West End. With considerable help from its star Samantha Womack, playing the alcoholic Rachel trying to remember what happened at the scene of a crime, it is a commendable effort to bring suspense to the stage. If you’re a fan of the novel, you might have some reservations, but the show’s journey is speedy and stylish, resulting in happy travellers.

As with a delayed departure announcement my heart sank at first. One of the more interesting things about the book is its unreliable narrator, deftly handled by Hawkins, and that’s sacrificed here for the sake of brevity. Rachel is, straight away, in a terrible state, puking up into a takeaway pizza box. Womack is a good stage drunk – her performance throughout is spot on – but Rachel is a victim from the start. It’s no plot spoiler to reveal that, unlike with the novel, you quickly dismiss the idea that she could be the villain of the piece.

The Girl on the Train is a mystery about memory, with maternity as a big theme. The suggestion fought with is that infertility has driven Rachel mad, while the victim of a crime, a babysitter called Megan, has a back story about a baby worthy of Barbara Vine. The themes are a juggling act Hawkins doesn’t quite pull off, so it’s no surprise that cramming it all into the play ends up unsubtle at times. Womack and Kirsty Oswald, who plays Megan, do well in emotional scenes, but director Anthony Banks doesn’t give them quite enough space.

You wouldn’t call the show very theatrical. Wanting to be faithful to the original source, and the film, takes precedence. Megan has some nice flashback scenes, but Oswald is oddly wooden in them. And Rachel’s tenuous grip on reality could surely have been made more of; might some of her fears be more literally shown? And maybe her ex-husband (while Adam Jackson Smith’s performance in the role is good) should be written with more ambiguity from the start?

For all these customer complaints, you wouldn’t want a refund. What the adaptation lacks in finesse it makes up for with action. The plot is précised expertly and the pace is fantastic. Banks does a keen job throughout. Jack Knowles’ work with the lighting is strong and the sound and music design from Ben and Max Ringham is up to their usual high standards. The audience is gripped and entertained at every moment, making this one train service with an eye on the clock that is a model of efficiency.

Until 17 August, then touring until 23 November 2019

www.girlonthetrainplay.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Rosmersholm” at the Duke of York Theatre

Theatre folk love to make revivals of plays relevant to current times. Now and then, the connections made seem forced, but this new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan of Ibsen’s play from 1886 resonates with the present in a way that frequently astounds. Set around an election, with a country polarised and inequality increasing, nationalism and fake news are everywhere. Meanwhile, the play’s central figure of Rosmer recognises that his privilege comes with a “moral debt” – as they say on Twitter, he is ‘woke’. A conscience examined in the finest detail and a brilliant performance by Tom Burke contribute to a superb production that fizzes with topicality.

Rosmersholm is no dry political disquisition. Giles Terera’s stage presence – as the establishment figure of Andreas Kroll – makes sure that the debate is entertaining. Rosmer’s brother-in-law and old friend, Kroll views radicalism as a threat to not just the country but the soul. And there’s more – ghosts for a start – which director Ian Rickson allows to be symbolic as well as pretty creepy. The characters and the damaged house of Rosmer, with its gorgeous set from Rae Smith, are haunted in many ways, with gradual revelations about the family’s history that make this quite the thriller. It’s all balanced expertly by Rickson and, if the evening is overpowering at times, it’s always exciting.

Tom Burke and Giles Terera

Above all, Rosmersholm is a romance – a particularly intense and tragic one. Marking out Rosmer as a “fallen man” involved with an “independent woman” could remind us too forcefully that this is a period piece. But not a jot. While Burke brings out the complexities of his role as a former pastor who has lost his faith and whose family name becomes a political football, his love interest, Rebecca West, is made the star of the show. This is a tremendous vehicle for Hayley Atwell, who gives a performance full of fantastic detail. West even seems as if she might provide a happy ending. You don’t need to have seen too much Ibsen to be suspicious of that, but Atwell and Rickson make subsequent revelations edge-of-the-seat stuff.

This is a relationship based on talking politics (that’s how our couple fell in love). The chemistry is fantastic, but the ideals discussed are also exciting and challenging. West proves an extreme figure who allows no compromise and there’s an immaturity in both her and Rosmer – take your pick blaming stunted upbringings or a narrow society – that leads to catastrophe. Rosmersholm becomes a frightening place – the talk is of sickness and sacrifice, death or change. No middle ground is allowed. It’s surely just the position, with all its dangers, that we face right now.

Until 20 July 2019

www.rosmersholmplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

This is the best production of a Tennessee Williams play I’ve seen. Director John Tiffany brings out the text’s peculiar humour and pathos while exploring its status as the author’s first ‘memory play’. A superb cast responds with style to this trilogy of achievements.

The memory play was an idea Williams explored throughout his career. This original effort, with our hero Tom recalling his life with the mother and sister he abandoned, is raw with autobiographical guilt. It is also highly poetic. Respecting this lyricism is one of the production’s fortes, mostly secured by Michael Esper’s beautiful delivery, as well as suggestions of movement, mime and dance aided by a score from Nico Muhly.

Bob Crowley’s design also complements the elegiac air: an Escher-style fire escape and pools of water might sound artsy but are understated. The set is a dreamlike, darkened bubble without walls, yet the claustrophobia of the two-by-four flat closes in on you. But there’s something comforting in that darkness as well, with a hint of masochistic pleasure in the nostalgia can.

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones

The memories are those of Esper’s Tom. Fey, often funny, his guilt makes him a tragic figure, whose outbursts are tinged with a hysteria that Esper handles especially well, convincing us that he is living in a “nailed up coffin”. As a contrast, remembering how complex Williams’ heroines are, there is a magisterial performance from Cherry Jones as his dignified mother, Amanda, whose wit brings out the play’s lighter touches. After all, these lives have their high points – joy in reflecting on the past and fantasising about the future, with realistic fears adding a degree of tension. As “a woman of action as well as words”, this Amanda is someone to respect.

As for the production being emotionally potent, it is Briton Kate O’Flynn as fragile sister Laura and Brian J Smith with a tender portrayal of her gentleman caller who deliver the goods. Smith is heart breaking not just due to her innocence but because she has a wider awareness than her family credits her with.

Tiffany’s credentials are currently high due his work on Harry Potter. Famously in The Glass Menagerie, Tom claims he is a magician, but it is the whole cast and their director who deserve that title here. Conjuring the best out of each element of this masterpiece, they make the production enchanting.

Until 29 April 2017

www.theglassmenagerie.co.uk/

Photos by Johan Persson

“Doctor Faustus” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Smartphone screens light up the auditorium before this show begins, indicating that the crowd drawn by Jamie Lloyd’s new production is young and, it’s safe to guess, here for leading man Kit Harington. Good on Lloyd for making an Elizabethan (see below) play trendy. With creepy touches, bold humour and brilliant theatricality it feels as if you’re in with the cool crowd.

Harington is, thankfully, highly credible as the scholar who sells his soul to the devil. He wears just pants for a lot of the play, and even shows his bum a couple of times, but he gives a focused performance that demands to be taken seriously. Harington works well with the ensemble, even joining the innovative dance sections. It isn’t just a physique that is eye-catching here – Polly Bennett’s movement direction adds a sense of adventure, while the lighting design from Jon Clark is stunning.

I might be one of a small number whose real draw to the show isn’t the Game of Thrones star but Jenna Russell, who plays Mephistopheles. Odd I know. Russell’s brilliant performance made my night, with an uncanny ability to be physically threatening, as well as showing the sorrowful side of this fallen angel, creating a moving, grieving quality. Lloyd even gets some songs out of a great vocalist – Kylie’s ‘Better The Devil You Know’ and Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

The eclectic mix of music filling the show brings us to its modern additions: Christopher Marlowe’s opening and concluding scenes bookend a new play by Colin Teevan. Things start well by enforcing Faustus’ desire for celebrity. Miming air guitar, the doctor is on the party scene – told to “Sin big. Sin famously” – he’s a magician, clever, with servant Wagner reimagined as a woman called Grace who he falls in love with. Teevan adds compassion as well as contemporary touches that a modern audience easily relates to.

Later satire with attempts at topicality fall flat: bankers, businessmen, Obama, Cameron, Pope Francis and a particularly nasty scene with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have parallels with Marlowe’s seven deadly sins. But the real-life characters are dealt with too crassly. Lloyd likes to shock, and this production will go too far for many, me included, but it is to his credit that he reminds us of theatre’s power to be subversive. Introducing a new audience to this force is something magical.

Until 25 June 2016

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Nether” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A welcome transfer from the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is a taut sci-fi thriller that dissects the power of the internet in the (near) future. In a parallel world of virtual reality ‘realms’, so intoxicating are the dark fantasies acted out that punters threaten to become ‘shadows’ – volunteering to give up their lives to live online instead.

One online realm, catering to paedophiles, is envisioned by Es Devlin’s remarkable design, supported by Luke Halls’ video work. Those tasked with policing the line between the sick fantasy world and reality become caught up in an uncomfortably exciting journey.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Nether is well performed, with Amanda Hale as Detective Morris, joined by David Calder, Ivanno Jeremiah and Stanley Townsend as troubled participants of the online investigation.

The Nether is a play of big ideas and important questions. What effect do online personas have? And how can fantasies online, between consenting adults, become illegal? Suspicions about technology are defined forcefully by Morris. Yet alternative arguments are presented with a conviction that makes you queasy. There’s the fascinating potential for corporate corruption, as the programming that creates the super sensory realm could prove lucrative for those that host these worlds – is our detective interested in the crime or the code?

Haley takes sci-fi seriously and, as a result, so do we. The Nether is a convincing world with minimal jargon that serves as the perfect base for difficult themes. Even better, the play is a gripping drama: a strong detective story, structured around exciting interrogations, with twists and tensions that leave you unsettled.

Until 25 April 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

“Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense” at the Duke of York’s

P.G. Wodehouse’s legendary comic characters, the nice-but-dim Jeeves and his gentlemen’s gentlemen Wooster, have been brought to the stage in an adaptation from Robert and David Goodale. In Perfect Nonsense, the strategy of dealing with Wodehouse’s elaborate plots and precise humour is to present the evening as a show that Bertie, played by Stephen Mangan, is putting on.

Matthew Macfadyen’s Jeeves and Mark Hadfield, as his fellow butler Seppings, take on all the roles and provide the scenery. The impromptu staging, which aims to be another source of humour, makes this the lightest of comedies and the show becomes that prized thing – family-friendly fun.

Pretending to improvise as they go along is a neat enough move, and it gets laughs, although it has to be said that it’s been done better before. We see Mangan’s shocked face, as the scenery appears and moves around, far too often. But it’s a perfect gurn for the part and all the cast are undoubtedly strong. Both Mangan and Macfadyen have the stage presence to make the roles work, but Hadfield steals many a scene as both an “ancestor Aunt” and the sinister Roderick Spode, who threatens to turn Bertie into jelly. But the venture into amateur dramatics makes the unflappable Jeeves, well, flappable, and getting dragged up as Madeline Bassett is surely beneath him, no matter how well Macfadyen manages.

The physical comedy is good. And gags that come from Alice Power’s sets and costumes have their appeal. It’s a shame, though, that experienced director Sean Foley, who had such a hit with The Lady Killers, hasn’t put more speed into the show. There’s so much repetition the evening feels stretched rather than exhibiting the relaxed insouciance that might be more appropriate for its characters. Some of the pacing comes dangerously close to milking the jokes. And the lack of momentum means the show toys with silliness without ever really ascending into farce. But Wodehouse’s lines are, of course, seriously funny. His devoted followers will love hearing them; even if Perfect Nonsense doesn’t convert many new ones, this is a show fans should adore.

Until 8 March 2013

Written 13 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“A Doll’s House” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

The Young Vic’s widely acclaimed production of A Doll’s House opened its West End transfer this week at the Duke of York’s theatre. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Ibsen’s classic story of Nora, a housewife and mother in 19th century Norway, and the breakdown of her seemingly perfect marriage, is tackled with great verve and features a superb spinning set by designer Ian Macneil. The show deserves all its many critics’ stars and is not to be missed – it only runs until 26 October.

The star draw is Hattie Morahan in the lead role. She picked up both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards last year, and it’s easy to see why. She plays Nora as naïve – but only because of the society she was born into. Morahan makes the limitations women experienced at the time seem normal, no matter how bitter. Nora’s flashes of brilliance, as she comes to understand and rebel against constraints, are believable and moving.

Morahan is joined by a cast that is close to faultless. Caroline Martin (pictured above with Morhan) gives depth to the role of her old school friend, whose marriage of convenience has been a more obvious failure, and Nick Fletcher gives a magnificently understated performance as the money lender who wreaks havoc on Nora’s ideal home. Hiding her debts from her bank manager husband is only one of the lies her marriage is based on. As her partner Torvald, Dominic Rowan has to tackle sexist remarks it’s to be hoped make most people blush. The commodification of his wife may seem incredible, but Rowan manages to bring Cracknell’s pointed production home – Torvald’s fantasies about his wife raise uncomfortable questions relevant to men and women today.

This marital master and his slave are fantastic creations and with Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Ibsen’s text they breath anew. Injecting a strain of ‘Englishness’ into the play makes it recognisable, and there’s a cleverly suggested Pre-War feel to much of the language. Even better, ironic touches (again praise for Morahan here – her delivery is perfection) elaborate Ibsen’s dark humour and there’s even a sexiness here that has a disturbing edge. Stephens’ script is the key to this doll’s house being such a big success.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Written 16 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Backbeat” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Thinking of Backbeat as The Beatles musical is inevitable shorthand. But it is unfortunate and misleading. This is the story of the group at their formation, when the Fab Four numbered five and played cover versions in dingy Hamburg bars. The show contains only snatches of Lennon and McCartney and is unlikely the please those joining walking tours to Abbey Road. As long as you don’t go expecting to hear a string of Beatles hits, you’ll find plenty to engage you.

Backbeat isn’t really a musical at all. It’s a play with songs. And it’s the performance of the music – from faltering beginnings to growing confidence – rather than the music itself that forms part of the drama. It takes guts to show this on a West End stage and it adds enormously to the play, whose focus is Stuart Sutcliffe who, in his tragically short life, was co-opted into his friend John Lennon’s band and then left it to pursue his own path as a painter.

We aren’t just watching Sutcliffe or The Beatles grow artistically. At the heart of Backbeat is a love triangle between Sutcliffe and Lennon, to whom he acts as some kind of muse, and Sutcliffe’s new girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. All three performances are remarkably credible. Andrew Knott provides the perfect portrait of the genius in waiting as Lennon. Nick Blood is moving as the troubled Sutcliffe, and his relationship with Astrid, played by Ruta Gedmintas who radiates 60s cool, has fantastic on stage chemistry.

What director David Leveaux and his cast deliver is an explosion of young creativity that is inspiring. Rough and ready, impassioned and precocious, these characters have a sense of destiny that (forget hindsight) is the privilege of youth – what’s important is the electric atmosphere that bounces off them. Backbeat is a bold experiment that deserves success. If its components fail to wholly satisfy, bear in mind that it is more than the sum of its parts. Its energy is infectious and it will have your reaching for your Beatles back catalogue to continue the story as soon as you get home.

Until 24 March 2012

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 7 November 2011 for The London Magazine