Tag Archives: Haydn Gwynne

“The Threepenny Opera” at the National Theatre

While the chance to see Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous work is welcome, regrettably, this production isn’t the finest hour of anyone involved. There’s nothing embarrassing – there are even good bits – but Simon Stephens’ new adaptation lacks charge, while Rufus Norris’ direction of his talented cast is low voltage.

Of course it’s fine to change the original setting (Brecht and Weill used John Gay’s earlier work themselves). Mack the Knife, aka Captain Macheath, the libidinous crook whose adventures we follow, is recast as an East End gangster. Neat enough. But not specifying a time period for this ‘updating’ diminishes its power. The dark reflections on human nature are robbed of satire, falling into a generic gloom that fails to challenge. Stephens’ lyrics are admirably clear, but they can’t shock – no matter how many expletives are crammed in – as it feels those involved would like them to.

The Brechtian staging of the work is tokenistic. There are knowing gags, including Keystone coppery and Buster Keaton, but the production feels lost or, more specifically, better suited to a smaller stage. Regular visitors to the National Theatre will know how powerful the Olivier can be – even empty – but here, Vicki Mortimer’s set of stairs and paper screens feels both slim and cumbersome. And there are a lot of signs to read – tricky from the circle. Impressive moments of staging have to be ascribed to Paule Constable’s lighting.

Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder
Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder

The biggest disappointment here is the cast. There are good performances when you’d expect great ones. Rory Kinnear takes the lead, his singing voice a pleasant surprise, but even his brilliant acting can’t hold things together. The excellent Rosalie Craig, as his young bride Polly, fails to bring her normal shine (maybe the interpretation of the role as an accountant hampers too much), while Sharon Small, as one of Mack’s many former lovers, sounds painful. The show belongs to the Peachums, Macheath’s enemies, played by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne. With this malicious Mr and Mrs, exaggerations in the piece pay off. Elsewhere, this Threepenny Opera feels deflated.

Until 1 October 2016


Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Richard III” at The Old Vic

Kevin Spacey’s Richard III has been London’s most anticipated play for a while – there just seemed something so right about the casting. And for once you can believe the hype, since Spacey is superb as Shakespeare’s villainous king.

This Richard is a spin-doctoring politician. Not a subtle one, which gives rise to plenty of humour, but the tin-pot dictator of a nation ravaged by civil war. Sounds familiar? It’s supposed to – the surtitle that welcomes us at the Old Vic proclaims the winter of our discontent to be NOW. Spacey is an actor with his eye on the news, and bringing Richard’s mad-dog qualities to the fore gives his performance plenty of bite.

Surtitles also serve to introduce scenes with the names of Richard’s numerous victims, giving each episode a focus. It’s a simple, bold device on the part of director Sam Mendes that aids comprehension and adds tension. It also allows the women in the piece to shine through. Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne, who Richard woos in such bizarre circumstances, and his nemesis Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) both give striking performances.

Mendes infuses his production with the supernatural, courtesy of Gemma Jones in the role of Margaret. Victim of a previous coup in the Wars of the Roses, she’s not just full of curses but capable of enacting them, even making an appearance on the battlefield. Mendes’ treatment adds a fascinating dimension to the play – martial drums, used so effectively, double up in a chilling ritual of revenge.

So it’s really Sam Mendes who is the star of the show. Richard III marks the culmination of the Bridge Project, and taking the lead in this last production reflects Spacey’s dedication as part of the massive touring company. Uniting together British and American talent on a global stage brings out the best in both men and has resulted in a magnificent and long overdue rematch.

Until 11 September 2011


Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 5 July 2011 for The London Magazine

“Becky Shaw” at the Almeida Theatre

It’s too early in the year to say that Becky Shaw will turn out to be the funniest play of 2011, but it’s a tempting predication to make. Suffice to say, Becky Shaw is the funniest play you will have seen in a long time.

Director Peter DuBois has travelled from America with the show. You can tell he knows the piece inside out – the direction is as sharp as the lines: clean, taut and getting the best out of this wonderfully witty script. Gina Gionfriddo’s tale of social mores and her heroine’s impact on the lives of one family is packed full of great lines. But as well as sharp social observation, Gionfriddo’s artfully unfolding plot opens up a delicious debate about love in modern times.

The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. A magisterial matriarch, played by Haydn Gwynne on fantastic form, has raised her children with an eye to the pragmatic. The ironic result is that her daughter Suzanna (Anna Madeley) spouts the kind of psychobabble we all love to laugh at and ends up married to an indie rock kid. This is an exquisite parody and Vincent Montuel’s wide-eyed approach makes his character’s earnestness hilarious: this youth’s so sensitive that “pornography makes him cry”.

Meanwhile Suzanna is also under the influence of her adopted brother Max whose maxim is that, “Love is a happy by-product of use”. Setting him up on a blind date comes with the understated warning that, “his coarse delivery belies a rich interior life”. There is much to dislike in Max and at times it’s a joy to hate him, but he’s so sharp he gains your admiration. This is a wonderful performance from David Wilson Barnes, close to perfection and a privilege to watch.

Into the family mix comes Becky. Inspired by Thackeray’s heroine in Vanity Fair, she opens a lid on the other characters’ damaged lives and throws in her own neuroses as well. Manipulative or just victimised? It’s up to you, but Daisy Haggard’s performance is so achingly funny you can’t help warm to her. For all the havoc she causes, we are grateful. We love Becky Shaw.


Until 5 March 2011

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 21 January 2011 for The London Magazine