Tag Archives: National Theatre

“Hex” at the National Theatre

This ambitious new musical, an updated Sleeping Beauty, is a triumph for its designers. The Gothic-cartoonish costumes by Katrina Lindsay are superb. The lighting design by Paul Anderson is sublime. And the staging, from director Rufus Norris, is big and bold. If the show as a whole is underwhelming, it succeeds as a treat for the eyes.

Alas, how Hex looks is the best bit. Jim Fortune’s music is interesting and adventurous, but the show lacks big numbers and all the songs are poorly served by Norris’ lyrics. Tanya Ronder’s book has its moments, but twists on the tale either tire or aren’t explored. The motif of interior and exterior beauty is worthy but feels tacked on. And Ronder seems determined that we shouldn’t like the characters!

A fairy who loses her power is a great idea. But we aren’t given much reason to sympathise with this leading role. Of course, it’s great to see Rosalie Craig, who takes the part, on a stage. But her schizophrenic fairy doesn’t develop and – no matter how forcefully Craig sings – this can’t be disguised.

There’s a similar problem with our Sleeping Beauty (Kat Ronney) who is too much the spoiled brat and belts out every note. I had high hopes for her parents (I’d love to hear more from both Daisy Maywood and Shaq Taylor), but these roles desperately need another number.

An ogress as a mother is another idea with potential. And Tamsin Carroll’s performance is tremendous. But a song about coming to terms with eating your grandchildren – a kind of cannibal La Cage aux Folles – is simply a puzzle.

Throughout, there are moments that please. Having the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty come to life is great. As is a collection of Princes, who wake up and wonder what to do with their lives – these two groups have the best chorography and bring some fun.

It’s unfortunate for Hex that London has had another new fairy tale, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, so recently (and that Lloyd Webber got in first). Hex is smart and funny, too – but nothing new. Irreverent twists, strong female characters, and masculinity to laugh at are great, but we can see it all coming. So, the only real magic emerges from the strong design work. And that isn’t magic enough.

Until 22 January 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photo by Brinkoff-Möegenburg

“Trouble In Mind” at the National Theatre

Alice Childress’ 1955 play takes us behind the scenes of a Broadway show about racism in the American South. Focusing on the theatre, Trouble In Mind gets to the heart of issues about representation that are topical and important. And it does so with passion, intelligence and wit.

Childress’ anger isn’t hard to spot. There are difficult moments as the cast explores the play it is rehearsing. The story of one actor, who witnessed a lynching as a child, is incredibly powerful (Cyril Nri does this pivotal scene justice). Frustration with the play within the play – its skewered view of African American life – is compounded by the aggressions the performers face as they work with white colleagues, for a white audience.

The debate is nuanced even if Childress’ opinions are clear. Care is taken to make sure the show’s director character is no straw man. Objectionable, insufferable even, and a figure of fun, the performance from Rory Keenan makes sure we still take what he has to say seriously. Arguments about the compromises supposedly needed to get the show on stage are given space.

It is the humour in the show that makes it memorable. Trouble in Mind is a very funny play. All the hypocrisy could be painful but is brilliantly handled by both Childress and the production’s director Nancy Medina. Asides, verbal and physical, get laughs as well as provoking thought and showing tension. Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s performance as the formidable Millie is magnificent – a great character, superbly rendered.

Tanya Moodie’s performance in the lead role of Wiletta deserves the greatest praise. Having excelled in the role before, Moodie lives as much as performs the part. That’s an amazing achievement, given how the character flips from being a duplicitous old theatre hand to an exposed novice who wants to really act and do “something grand”.

The relationship with old and new colleagues (strong performances from Gary Lilburn and Daniel Adeosun, pictured) is a joy to watch. Wiletta is warm but steely, open yet suspicious, from one moment to the next. Moodie’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen – anytime and anywhere – and is a five-star experience that is not to be missed. 

Until 29 January 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“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 Normal Heart” at the National Theatre

Several theatrical responses to the AIDS crisis might be labelled ‘ground-breaking’. Epics by Tony Kushner, or the recent marathon effort from Matthew Lopez, as well as William H Hoffman’s As Is, could all make the claim. Larry Kramer’s play from 1985 deserves the label, too. But, as this excellent revival inadvertently demonstrates, breaking ground doesn’t always age well.

There’s no doubt you will be moved by the central love story between characters Ned Weeks and Felix Turner, played by Ben Daniels and Dino Fetchser with such tenderness. The usher who told me to get some tissues ready knew what she was talking about. Fetchser is brilliant at showing romance alongside his character’s illness, while The Normal Heart marks a career high for Daniels – it’s an extraordinarily demanding role that he delivers with conviction.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels

As Weeks starts to campaign for research into the then new disease his partner suffers from, Daniels makes the urgency and desperation palpable. The history of neglect in the early years of the AIDS crisis is still shocking. With the help of Liz Carr’s Dr Brookner, the advocacy organisation Weeks helps found makes the play a microcosm for the topic of activism. Almost incidentally, there are strong characters for Daniel Monks, Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris, who show different personalities – and arguments – within the campaign.

Weeks’ anger and energy are phenomenal (the role must be exhausting) and driven by a fierce intellect. The play addresses issues of identity and community, reflecting political tensions through energising polemic. The ideas are interesting, although Kramer’s handling of them is far from even. And there’s another strong role when it comes to Weeks’ calls for acceptance: scenes with his brother, played so well by Robert Bowman, could be explored further.

For all director Dominic Cooke’s efforts to emphasis activism and Weeks’ abstract thinking, neither is what the play is about. The piece has such a definite purpose that a tension within the revival becomes increasingly clear.

The Normal Heart was political in a very direct way. With its statistics and documentation, Kramer wanted to educate and hold others to account. He wanted to incite action and inflame emotion. Debates are detailed. The pressing question was how to best get results. No matter how skilfully conveyed, that question is no longer relevant. Even the staging in the grand Olivier Theatre feels incongruous, despite Vicki Mortimer’s cleverly stripped-back design. A show with the capacity to tour smaller venues feels like the intention.

Written as a call to action for an event now thankfully past, both play and production command respect but feel lost in the present.

Until 6 November 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Rockets and Blue Lights” at the National Theatre

Winsome Pinnock’s play tackles the subjects of race and history with ambition and ability. Splitting the action between the 19th century and the present day, we see JMW Turner painting and contemporary creatives at work on a film about him. As both sets of artists engage with the issue of slavery, Pinnock’s dialogue with history becomes vivid and urgent.

There’s trouble among the filmmakers as a director and his star, Lou – a particularly grand role for Kiza Deen – argue over artistic integrity. Meanwhile, the story of a young artist and his inspiring teacher (characters you immediately get behind, carefully portrayed by Anthony Aje and Rochelle Rose) brings another level to the debate about the role of art and education. The commentary on creativity and society is intelligent and provocative.

Such vivid questioning of whether art can only “bear witness” or whether it can do more make the historical part of the play pale slightly. It’s a shame. The plot is strong: an adventure for Turner and a tragedy for a black sailor called Thomas make compelling stories. The latter includes a love story especially well portrayed by Karl Collins and Rose. But the politics Pinnock wants to explore sound hollow in her well-drawn characters’ mouths.

It isn’t that people didn’t question slavery or race during this period – it’s just the effort to state these debates in our terms. Maybe how the 19th century would phrase the argument is too unpalatable or, more likely, incomprehensible. Pinnock makes the debate smart and relatable. It’s good to credit the past with intelligence while interrogating it. But we can’t pretend that the dialogue doesn’t jar now and again.

Any reservations disappear after the interval as Rockets and Blue Lights really takes off: increasingly ambitious, full of surprises and even more political. Bringing together periods in time is well done – with dance and ghostly visitations. The use of music, composed and directed by Femi Temowo, is inspired. Arguments about the legacy of slavery, and injustices both past and present, lead to strong imagery from Pinnock.

Having the cast double up between the historical periods ensures impressive performances – and suggests connections between characters that make the mind boggle. Director Miranda Cromwell’s staging is strong, switching effortlessly between the time periods and handling distressing scenes with power and tact. This fine balance is particularly impressive – there is none of the “torture porn” that Lou fears might appear in the film she is working on. Considerable sophistication is the undercurrent for the whole show.

Until 9 October 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Brinkoff / Moegenburg

“Under Milk Wood” at the National Theatre

Poetry on stage is never easy. And when Dylan Thomas’s text comes with the legacy of a famous reading (Richard Burton, no less) a new production becomes even trickier. Lyndsey Turner’s brave attempt benefits from a star draw and strong performances from a large cast, but struggles to deliver anything new or to please old fans.

The big idea is to start the play within a care home. Additional material is provided by Siân Owen. Our narrator (Michael Sheen) jogs the memory of his dementia-suffering father (Karl Johnson). Thomas’s themes of memory and mortality are clear. But this preface (how could it be considered anything else?) makes the show longer than needed. And an hour and three quarters without an interval and wearing a mask feels very long indeed.

Maybe you have the patience. But while the show feels lengthy, the delivery – undoubtedly impressive – is too often rushed. And this is not an easy text to follow. Turner, with the help of movement director Imogen Knight, has taken the challenge of bringing a ‘play for voices’ to the stage vigorously. The lives of those living in Milk Wood come and go with alarming speed.

It’s easy to enjoy the cast, who take on the roles of villagers as “one spring day” goes by. I’d single out Alan David as making me laugh the most, while Siân Phillips manages to convey different ages of characters quite magically. There are nice touches with minimal props and excellent costume changes (bravo, set and costume designer Merle Hensel). Emotional moments between father and son are highlighted by the issue of alcoholism, and the “always open” Sailors Arms pub is a vivid presence within the play.

Thomas was not nostalgic. You can imagine the temptation… all those simple lives in an easier past. There is charm and humour here but, admirably, Turner avoids rose tints. A call to observe the balance between seeing the best and worst sides of people has weight as a result.

Sheen can command a stage. And he sounds fantastic. But with a show this dark – literally – and often pin-drop-quiet, it’s all too easy to slip from the level of concentration he brings to the role. The “noise of the hush” is an exquisite phrase to describe the life of this community… the trouble is that I heard a snore above it more than once. This production is an achievement on the part of its cast. Unfortunately, it requires a feat of endurance for an audience.

Until 24 July 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Phèdre” from NTathome

After its generous offering of shows for donations during the first lockdown (thanks again) the National Theatre now has a streaming service. It’s a great deal: choose a monthly subscription, with exclusive content, or rent shows individually. And the broadcasts are those for cinemas, so of the highest quality. Joining up sounds like a good New Year’s Resolution to me.

The first show

There’s plenty of choice – more will be added each month – but I’ve started at the beginning, with the first NTLive broadcast dating from 2009. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Jean Racine’s version of the Phèdre myth, with Theseus’ wife in love with his son, is a show I’ve long regretted missing.

The first triumph for the production is Ted Hughes’ text. The script is packed with memorable lines. This is glorious poetry. The story is clear and the telling captivates the ear, no matter how complex the psychology.

Hytner’s direction matches Hughes’ direct appeal. There’s nothing fancy here – it’s not needed. Nothing distracts from the characters’ passion and turmoil, with their flaws and the “inexorable Gods” balanced as explanations of why tragic events unfold.

Famous faces

Helen Mirren takes the lead role and gives a performance that deserves to be described as mythic. Phèdre is “the monster in this riddle”, a “diabolical” woman, who can be truly scary. But it’s Phèdre’s agony that Mirren makes palpable. The “constellations of torment” over love for her stepson Hippolytus are various. There’s guilt aplenty and it’s plenty moving. At first, Phèdre is a “dying woman wanting only to die”, and Mirren conveys this exquisitely. But there’s also anger – an address to Venus is magnificent. As Phèdre becomes a “woman in a frenzy”, speculation escalates as to what will come next.

Ruth Negga and Chipo Chung in Phedre credit Catherine Ashmore
Ruth Negga and Chipo Chung

Phèdre is Mirren’s show. But there’s a superb supporting cast here. The play’s love triangle, with Hippolytus enamoured by enemy of the state Aricia, is not to the fore but makes a strong role for Ruth Negga. Aricia’s “thrill” at conquering the chaste Hippolytus gives her character an edge. While Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus has presence (his chemistry with Negga is great and he’s generally good with torment!) there are some shortcomings. A description of him as “the most loveable of men” doesn’t match Cooper’s performance and even the character’s oft-repeated flaw of pride isn’t conveyed.

Back to the best bits. A trio of attendants populate the play, commenting on or contributing to psychology or action, and all three performances are fantastic. Margaret Tyzack is remarkable as Phèdre’s nurse Oenone, her complete dedication rendered utterly convincing. Both John Shrapnel and Chipo Chung, attendants of the younger lovers respectively, admire and admonish by turns. These roles are effective in making us question how much Phèdre is really “the cause of everything”.

Dominic Cooper and Stanley Townsend in Phedre credit Catherine Ashmore
Dominic Cooper and Stanley Townsend

Gods aside, there are moments when each of those in power seems easily played. And nobody appears more manipulated than the ‘hero’, in classical terms, of the piece – the legendary Theseus. Stanley Townsend manages to make the king successfully human. Cursing his son, and calling in a handy favour from Poseidon, is an electric moment that reflects the dichotomy surrounding personal motivations and divine interventions perfectly.

Up next…

Shows missed and much-loved productions that can be watched again have a place on NTathome. Olivia Williams’ play Mosquitoes was tricky to get a ticket for (it stars Olivia Colman), so is next on my list. Dara, Othello and The Cherry Orchard are all excellent shows I’m tempted to revisit. Once again, the National Theatre is going to be a huge help during lockdown.

www.ntathome.com 

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“The Death of England: Delroy” at the National Theatre

While its back catalogue of broadcasts from NTLive was a blessing during lockdown, being back on the South Bank for a show in real life is the real deal. For those lucky enough to have caught the brief window of performances, before a second closure, this new play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams was a very special occasion.

An introduction from creative director Rufus Norris, justifiably proud of his theatre getting back into action, added to the atmosphere. The caution shown around protecting customers is clear: there are allocated tables before being taken to seats and – beware – last orders for pre-show drinks is in the afternoon.

What of the play selected to welcome theatre devotees back? As well as the important subject matter of racism, Death of England: Delroy is topical. After seeing shows years old, it’s good to be reminded of how quickly theatre can respond to current concerns.

A sort of sequel to their show last year, Dyer and Williams develop a character mentioned in their previous monologue, Death of England. Recounting a “very bad day” Delroy has had – quite randomly – this likeable character runs into trouble with the police. Serious consequences include estranging him from partner and new-born child.

The show provides a starring role for Michael Balogun who is superb. It’s amazing to learn he was drafted into the project last minute. A rapid-fire delivery shows remarkable confidence with the script. And his level of energy over 90 minutes is astounding.

Welcome as the show is, it would be wrong to say it’s perfect. The Olivier is an unforgiving space at the best of times and the Covid-reduced seating feels particularly detrimental. All the more credit to Balogun for creating an atmosphere that ranges from convivial to confrontational.

The unusual conditions can’t be avoided. But Dyer’s direction creates problems too. It’s understandable that all aspects of design (the set by Ultz, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Pete Malkin) want to show off what the National is capable off. Like us, the team is thrilled to be back in the theatre. But does this show need any extras? Loud, dazzling, effects and some pretty naff props (including an explosion of confetti) are not needed with such a strong script.

Because the text itself really is excellent. The bravura language, which Delroy aptly describes as a “riot in my mouth” is provocative and funny. The ease with which ideas are raised is impressive, including arguments both enlightening and far-fetched (a motivation for voting to leave Europe is worth a raised eyebrow). There’s anger alongside a cool recognition of “colour class bullshit” that pervades all aspects of Delroy’s life. Putting the spotlight on privilege couldn’t be more timely; Dyer and Williams are experts at it.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Normski Photography

“Amadeus” from NTLive

Although mediocrity is mentioned many times in Peter Schaffer’s play, it is not a word to describe the playwright’s masterpiece. The battle between the average composer Antonio Salieri and the divinely gifted Mozart makes for a great combination of drama and history with big ideas around posterity and religion.

This production, energetically directed by Michael Longhurst, dates from 2017. It is notable for the inclusion of the Southbank Sinfonia (which you can also donate to). The musicians move around the stage and interact with the cast as a sense of theatrical complicity – an intelligent response to the text – is carefully nurtured. 

There’s a superb leading performance from Lucian Msamati as Salieri, who conveys the character’s sense of arrogance and pain, always keeping the audience on side. Msamati makes the play’s theoretical (and theological) questions emotive. And he has an easy comic touch. There are also strong turns from his ‘Venticelli’ – servants who bring him gossip – played by Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun. As an aside, the latter has been a lockdown revelation for me, having revisited, or caught up with, shows he has consistently excelled in.

Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner
Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner

That Longhurst’s achievements aren’t fully conveyed on the screen is something we should be getting used too. It is hard to appreciate just how well he uses the Olivier stage. Close-up filming has a tendency to make the show look chaotic rather than choreographed. And it is a disappointment that Adam Gillen’s performance as Mozart comes across as shrill and oddly accented: I remember being impressed when I saw him on stage. Again, he is playing for an auditorium and not a camera. 

Any quibbles reinforce what theatregoers love and miss about a life experience. With Amadeus being the final show in the season offered by the National Theatre because of Covid-19 shutting its doors, all those involved can be proud. Seeing a body of work, as the whole world has been able to do, of such diversity and quality has been awe-inspiring. NTLive has been more than welcome – it has been a real light during lockdown.

Until 22 July 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

"The Deep Blue Sea" from NTLive

This week the National Theatre’s fund-raising offering is sheer class. Carrie Cracknell’s 2016 production of Terence Rattigan’s play is a traditional affair that oozes quality, with a solid script, stunning set and stellar performances.

The Deep Blue Sea is far from easy sailing. It starts with its heroine, Hester, having just attempted suicide, as the affair that broke her marriage is coming to an end. Concern over mental health has progressed since Rattigan was writing in 1952 but the playwright’s insight into depression offers much to learn from.

Rattigan’s preoccupation, however, is Hester’s passion. Her love for her husband, eclipsed by that for RAF pilot Freddie Paige, is fascinating. The romance is dangerous – this sea is stormy. Hester sees no chance of escaping a love that will not work: she and Freddie are “death to each other”. The production’s first triumph is to make sure Rattigan’s piece doesn’t descend into melodrama.

Tom Burke in The Deep Blue Sea. Image by Richard Hubert Smith
Tom Burke

The love triangle provides strong roles for Peter Sullivan and Tom Burke, who are excellent. Their chemistry with their leading lady is astonishing. Burke is especially strong in making the occasionally odious Freddie convincingly alluring as an “homme fatale”. But the show belongs to Helen McCrory whose performance as Hester is flawless. Sharp and wry, the mix of “anger, hatred, shame” is conveyed in every move.

There’s a sense of British reserve behind all the action, darkly adding to the potency, but McCrory and Cracknell keep this as under control as Hester’s emotions. Moments when Hester is alone and can let go – holding her face to the light or crawling on the floor in desperation – are awe-inspiring in their emotional power.

The Deep Blue Sea image by Richard Hubert Smith
Tom Schutt’s impressive set

Focusing on a sense of community within the boarding house setting, aided by Tom Schutt’s impressive set full of solicitous neighbours, means Cracknell adds to the play. A brilliant scene where Hester is joined by the women in the piece (played by Marion Bailey and Yolanda Kettle) alters our focus. It’s a move all the more remarkable given that the play, through Rattigan’s biography, is often discussed for its gay subtext.

If interested, try to track down a copy of Mike Poulton’s play Kenny Morgan, about the suicide of Rattigan’s lover (and a fascinating work in its own right). There is a danger that The Deep Blue Sea can be overpowered by this biographical note. But Cracknell has provided a space for the play to exist independently; an achievement for any revival that makes Rattigan’s script and his legacy stronger.

Until 16 July 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith