Tag Archives: Elizabeth McGovern

“The Starry Messenger” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Reprising his mammoth role in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play proves an undoubted triumph for Matthew Broderick. As Mark, a “pedestrian” teacher of astronomy classes, Broderick delivers the text’s wit perfectly and sparse moments of emotion are superbly handled. But consider what an odd creation Mark is, being notable for dead-pan defeatism, extraordinary patience and unbelievable politeness. It’s a bizarre idea for a play to revel in how boring the main role is. Broderick meets the challenge with winning appeal and remarkable control. Yet nothing can make time with this character and his mid-life crisis stellar.

Lonergan’s odd strategies are clear in his dialogue, too. Ruthlessly pursuing a mundane realism means that long conversations go nowhere and are filled with pointless details. It’s an achievement of sorts but hard work for an audience. And, in case you’re wondering, we’re not talking metaphors here – Mark is insistent about that! As for the play’s plots, to have so many stories covering so many themes – death, divorce, family, faith and education – then not to develop them must be deliberate. The quirkiness has a certain charm, which director Sam Yates does an expert job in delivering. And yet… Presenting us with the cosmos and dry cleaning – big themes and minutiae – may take us close to everyday life, but it makes for pretty dull theatre.

There’s plenty to appreciate as Lonergan downplays the various dramas he sets up. Yates garners superb performances from a talented cast that form a collection of scenes with memorable moments. Elizabeth McGovern does well as Mark’s long-suffering wife, while Jim Norton gives a strong performance as a man at the end of his life. Even Mark’s pupils are well delineated (Jenny Galloway and Sid Sagar) although far too much time is spent in these scenes. And Rosalind Eleazar nearly steals the show as a nurse in training who starts an affair with Mark. Managing to make her passion for the man believable is no small achievement.

There’s a warm glow from all the characters – more or less reasonable, articulate and well-motivated – which indicates Lonergan is making a point, again. It’s another way to stifle drama. Most of us walking in on an illicit kiss would surely react a little more pointedly than we see here. For The Starry Messenger it all seems to be something to shrug at. That life has no meaning is a little too clear, and religion and spirituality are dismissed too repeatedly – at least to make good drama. But, like it or not, most of us search for insights from a play. What this one has to say about morality and mortality ends up slim. Three hours is a long time to point out that people are insignificant specks in the universe. Such a message is hardly out of this world.

Until 10 August 2019


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Sunset at the Villa Thalia” at the National Theatre

You can take the playwright out of Sloane Square and yet, it appears from Alexis Kaye Campbell’s new play, London is never far away. The subject here is the history of modern Greece, the coup in 1967 and its aftermath in the writer’s mother’s home country. But when an arty English couple snap up a second home at a bargain price, it feels as if the London housing crisis is giving rise to debates about politics and intervention.

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern

Simon Godwin’s tight direction and a superb cast are the best things here. Theo and Charlotte, brilliantly performed by Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon, are a playwright and actress. Yes, the self-referentiality is tiresome, but it’s in keeping with the theme of personal responsibility in the play. Contrasts with an American couple, holiday friends, are fun and Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey is a revelation as the drunken June, who likes her fruit punch without the fruit. It’s June’s husband, a shady American official called Harvey, that Kaye Campbell does best with: he’s a dark figure who claims his dirty dealings secure freedom and enable democracy (with its ‘twin’ the theatre) to flourish. Balancing charisma, intelligence and danger, Ben Miles excels in the role.

Sam Crane and Ben Miles
Sam Crane and Ben Miles

The laudable, openly declared question of ‘What would you do?’ is fair game. Cramming politics into a play is never easy, being blatant is fine. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to dismiss many arguments here as naïve – left or right – even though Miles and Nixon are riveting. The effort is thorough, the play hard working and this surprisingly traditional piece is an entertaining, erudite affair. The playwright within the play is demoralised that his work is “quietly political”. Applying the same assessment to Kaye Campbell might not please him, but the passion often feels contrived, the arguments too easy, and so that label fits.

Until 4 August 2016


Photos by Manuel Harlan