Tag Archives: Paul Hilton

“An Enemy of the People” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Schaubühne Berlin director Thomas Ostermeier’s production invigorates Ibsen’s classic. With the characters made so clearly contemporary, the story of personal morals and political hypocrisy feels fresh. A star cast responds to the energy, making the show, co-adapted with Florian Borchmeyer, bracing.

Doctor Stockmann (Matt Smith) and his friends are “hokey cookie liberals”. They are in a band, drink wine from tumblers and wear normcore. We can guess what paper they read. There’s a gentle sense of cynicism around them that skilfully develops bite. For when Stockmann discovers poison in the town’s water system, his pretty cool life becomes a hot mess.

You’d think these nice folk would rise up against the “pink-faced geriatrics” of the establishment. Such enemies are embodied by the town mayor, who Paul Hilton makes suitably slimy. But things aren’t that simple. Stockmann’s old school friends Billing and Hovstad (played by Zachary Hart and Shubham Saraf) abandon their principles. And the mayor just happens to be the doctor’s big brother.

The family relationships in the show are explored well. Hilton makes such a good politician you almost start to believe his protests about trying to help. Nigel Lindsay gets a lot from the role of a father-in-law although how he ‘helps’ is too rushed. And there’s Stockmann’s long-suffering wife, Katharina, given a strong sense of autonomy in Jessica Brown Findlay’s excellent performance.

While Ostermeier makes a big effort to open the play up, it’s hard not to see it as Stockmann’s – and therefore Smith’s –show. The character and performer are magnetic. And it’s great to see the seeds of a mania so carefully sown. But Stockmann isn’t an appealing character, even if we admire him. Even his naivety – at one point he thinks people will be grateful to him for ruining the local economy – gets laughs rather than sympathy.

Stockmann is hurt by betrayal, but his main target is identified at a public meeting. There are bigger problems than left, right or centre – as a disturbing rant reveals. The idea that all opinions are valid, that we can ignore science or the truth, is attacked. It’s a memorable scene, with the house lights raised and an invite to get the audience’s opinion. The idea startles and is sure to make the production memorable.

Anyone joining in might do well to remember that it isn’t Stockmann who wants to know what we think – his mind is made up. The delivery is excellent, and Smith really comes into his own. So does Jan Pappelbaum’s black and white set, for that matter. I don’t want to knock Ostermeier’s anger. And we’re given room to question it all – Stockmann does come across unhinged and the outcome of the action is open. But there is a big flaw to all this. The piece wants arguments to excite, ideas to thrill. And while the execution is strong, I’m not sure either are strong or new enough to really do that.

Until 13 April 2024


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Inheritance” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Inspired by EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, Matthew Lopez’s epic play, in two parts, develops the novelist’s dictum of “only connect” in almost-present-day New York. Combining important ideas with big characters and plots that pull at the heart strings, it is soon to be on every best-of-the-year list – mine included. A transfer from its sell-out run at The Young Vic means more people have the chance to see this unmissable piece. Or, if they are lucky enough to have seen it already, spot any differences the move to the West End might have brought.

Packing both parts into the same day was my (unnecessary) excuse for going again, leaving me even more in awe of the amazing cast. Paul Hilton ends up the star of the show, primarily through his skilled depiction of Forster. The Edwardian author joins a group of young men to help tell their stories, and is coaxing and commanding in turn as we learn about their lives. This premise, which is such a delight, means we miss the great author too much in Part 2. Hilton’s second role is as Walter, who uses his home as a refuge for the sick during the AIDS epidemic. This story serves as the finale to Part 1 and guarantees not a dry eye in the house.

Paul Hilton and Kyle Soller

During the second part, the story of Walter’s heir, Eric (a career-defining performance from Kyle Soller), takes over and would more than satisfy in any other play. But, despite Soller’s efforts, Eric doesn’t fascinate in the way Forster did. While his story is also moving, it’s far less entertaining. There’s a cruel irony – and a call to action – as, despite improvements in gay rights and the treatment of AIDS, as we come into the Trump era the play becomes more fraught and less joyous. Lopez struggles with the privilege many of his characters possess, while the misery that comes with the stories of Toby Darling and Leo (two more superb performances, from Andrew Burnap and Samuel H Levine) start to feel a touch overblown.

Samuel H Levine and Andrew Burnap

Some of the exaggerations may come from the show’s new location. While the leads are superb and Stephen Daldry’s direction fool-proofs the show, some smaller roles are too exaggerated. The result on the night I attended was whoops of joy from the stalls at political observations. It’s nice to hear such enthusiasm, but the sentiment seems misplaced. Surely Lopez isn’t as partisan as some of his characters? But guessing (which might be presumptuous) that the West End audience was less well acquainted with the original source material leads to a new joy. Instead of nudges at recognition with the book there was shock at revelations in the plot. A gasp from a crowd is always exciting and illustrates the story-telling craft behind the clever ideas here. It’s Lopez’s attention to detail, his rigour, alongside his ambition, that will, let’s hope, result in this play serving as an inspiration and having an inheritance in its own right.


Until 19 January 2019

Cast photo by Johan Persson. Production shots by Marc Brenner.

“The Inheritance” at the Young Vic

Here’s a little idea: in times of cultural crisis, heroes are needed, and for Liberals they don’t come bigger than EM Forster. In Matthew Lopez’s play, about America but receiving its premiere in London, the Edwardian novelist appears on stage – portrayed with extraordinary skill by Paul Hilton – mentoring a group of young gay New Yorkers as they tell their stories. The clash of cultures is fun, adding a light touch to serious content that ranges far and wide. Played over two parts, with a marathon running time of nearly seven hours, perhaps the highest praise is that not a moment is wasted or uninteresting.

The Forster classic that the play is so very consciously in dialogue with is the 1910 Howards End. Lopez has characters narrating, shaping, scripting and performing events, a method that comes close to a combination of novel and play that is formally innovative and highly engaging. Action follows the book closely as sensitive artistic types (the Schlegels for Forster) come into contact with the world of commerce. Negotiating an update is full of wit. And thought provoking, too – when parallels become too forced, characters fight against what comes next. A reservation: it’s essential to know the book well to appreciate all this. The rewards include the novel’s titular abode transformed into an informal AIDS hostel – a stroke of imaginative genius that proves particularly moving.

The house is the base from which Lopez explores the inheritance in his title: the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and its relation to the gay community. History is alive and hauntingly literal for Lopez, which results in a truly stunning ending for Part One. Arguments are laid with ferocious intelligence and passion. A sense of fear about the current political climate results in inspirational calls to action – this is a play with a mission. It’s clear director Stephen Daldry is on board, treating the text with reverence: every joke is played for all its worth, each rallying speech given space. Daldry’s staging, imbuing more grandeur than the text requests, emphasises what an event the show is. Beautiful, too, bathed in a golden light by Jon Clark.  Similarly, the conviction of the performances is humbling, as a strong ensemble creates a chorus of supportive friends, loved ones and artists.

Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey
Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey

One Eric Glass is the emotional heart of the piece (the lead Schlegel, if you will) and a hugely appealing creation that makes for a career-defining role for Kyle Soller, who is riveting throughout. Lopez retains the name of Henry Wilcox, transforming him into a billionaire property developer, giving the character great weight, and the performance from John Benjamin Hickey does this justice. Oh, and Vanessa Redgrave has a part, too – an extended version of the housekeeper Mrs Avery. Of course, it’s exciting to see her on stage (and a blissful nod to the Merchant Ivory film) but, no matter how small the role, it’s testament to the production that even Redgrave can’t overwhelm the play.

Lopez gets tricksy when it comes to the role of Forster’s clerk Leonard Bast. Some elements of his role are shared out, his famous umbrella threw me, and taking on some of his aspirational characteristic is Toby Darling, rendered vividly by Andrew Burnap. Playing a self-destructive writer, trying hard to win an award as the ultimate narcissist, there are plenty of laughs. Toby’s own inheritance, an abusive childhood, lingers over the play and, while Burnap handles the scenes well, they feel like a loose end. Meanwhile, the parts of Leo and his doppleganger – a wealthy actor called Adam – are both performed by Samuel H Levine. All actors play more than one role but the flipping between parts for Levine shouts his talents deafeningly.

Kyle Soller, Samuel H Levine and Andrew Burnap
Kyle Soller, Samuel H Levine and Andrew Burnap

In the novel, Leonard is pivotal to deflating authorial grandiosity. The character retains his dignity and questions the role of art. Abandoning this, Lopez takes on a pious tone. Leo’s life as a member of an underclass – a prostitute who gets involved with drugs – brings us the play’s darkest moments, coming close to misery porn. While Leo’s end is ultimately happier than Leonard’s, it feels unrealistic. And it gives rise to surprisingly crass points on inequality. An earnestness pervades the play – it’s a fault some find in Forster, too – that makes it all a touch High Table. The humour that seeks to compensate doesn’t have Forster’s bite or finesse. The dialogue, rooted in contemporary privilege, might sound as foreign to English ears as anything Edwardian – which is interesting in itself – but some scenes, surely destined for auditions, feel like contrived set pieces.

While the conversation with Forster’s novel is fascinating, a final assessment of Lopez’s play rests on what he does with his inspiration. Current political concerns, social injustices and Trump trauma are all thrown in, sometimes messily. The legacy of AIDS, so sensitively handled, engulfs the play. Connections to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are clear, but that’s another blog! An epilogue, which doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, is when we arrive at a fantasia and when the play becomes its most aspirational. Concerning itself with the widest of societal connections through the personal, struggling so hard to connect the prose and the poetry – in the here and now – is the biggest lesson learnt.

Until 19 May 2018


Photos by Simon Annand

“Doctor Faustus” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Thanks to the film Shakespeare in Love we think of Christopher Marlowe as more celebrated in his own day than Shakespeare. Now, of course, his work is performed far less frequently, making any production an event, especially when Shakespeare’s own Globe conjures up its first production of Doctor Faustus.

Director Matthew Dunster does his best to make the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil resonate with a contemporary audience. The emphasis is on magic rather than religion – a sound move in our agnostic times – aided admirably with a soundscape from Jules Maxwell.

But Doctor Faustus poses problems. With roots in morality plays, 16th-century concerns and seemingly impossible stage effects, several scenes are potentially odd to modern eyes. Dunster’s solutions are admirable, using wit, imagination and strong doses of broad humour to engage: Georgina Lamb’s choreography is a capable distraction when the Doctor meets the seven deadly sins, the Pope becomes a comic mafia don, and a castle in the air is a simple inflatable balloon that floats off over the South Bank.

Paul Hilton is a model of clarity in the title role. Fingers stained with ink, this scholar-turned-magus’s pride is painfully convincing and, if he lacks the sensual touch that comes to dominate a man “ravished” by desires, his relationship with Arthur Darvill’s commendably understated Mephistopheles is electric.

Dunster injects a huge amount of movement into what is potentially rather a static play, and his tautly controlled ensemble works hard, peopling the world Faustus plays in. Of particular note are Charlotte Broom and Beatriz Romilly as the angels who fight over Faustus’ soul with samurai swords. With flashy touches such as this, Dunster grapples with Marlowe’s mighty play in a magical fashion and does not sell Doctor Faustus short.

Until 2 October 2011


Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 24 June 2011 for The London Magazine