Review: Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre - less talk more feeling, please
Review: Ulster American, Riverside Studios - lacks subtlety to give it real punch

Review: The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre - sharp, funny and delicious to watch

Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet
Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre 2023. © Mark Douet

There's a scene in Jack Thorne's play The Motive and the Cue when Johnny Flynn is playing Richard Burton, doing an impression of Sir John Gielgud's Hamlet.

Set around the rehearsal for the Gielgud-directed production of Hamlet on Broadway starring Burton, there are plenty of delicious moments like this.

When it opened at the National Theatre in May, The Motive and the Cue garnered stunning reviews and is now enjoying a much-deserved transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre.

And, having seen it at the National, it was an opportunity to reflect on it anew because, as that Burton-Gielgud-Hamlet impression highlights, there are a lot of layers to this play.

To recap the plot, Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) finds his star status waning and directing this production of Hamlet on Broadway is the best offer he's had for a while.

It's an opportunity to reinvigorate his career, working with Burton on an edgy, modern, stripped-back version of the play. The idea is to present it as if in rehearsal, wearing ordinary clothes.

Burton is a big-screen star who is newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and wants to return to his stage roots.

Gielgud represents the past and Burton the future, and it's an unlikely pairing, as the tensions in the rehearsal room illustrate. 

But this is more than a clash of creatives, this is about two men trying to prove themselves. Can a great actor be a great director? Can Burton pull off Hamlet on Broadway?

How, when they are so different, do they find a way to help each other and themselves?

The cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet
The cast of The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre 2023. © Mark Douet

While not in the rehearsal room, Elizabeth Taylor is nonetheless a powerful presence. Aside from hosting parties for the cast, she probes and gets the measure of the problem between the two men and proves to be an expert in diplomacy.

Tuppence Middleton and Johnny Flynn charge the Taylor-Burton relationship with sex and sassiness and are a joy to watch.

But the real fireworks display is Gielgud and Burton in their verbal thrust and parry as they navigate the rehearsal process with emotional baggage in tow.

Thorne's script is stuffed full of brilliant lines, which are elevated to new heights in Gatiss's performance as he layers them with subtext. He can be supportive and scathing, soft and sharp, funny and sad in the same tone.

I've not seen much of Burton's real performances, although I've watched a bit of his Broadway Hamlet, which is available on YouTube.

But Flynn is breathtaking in his own right. He is Burton the married man and drunk, the combative actor in rehearsal, and Burton the actor exploring Hamlet. And, of course, Burton doing Gielgud's Hamlet and a number of other impressions.

He exudes Hollywood star charisma and charm and is a husband at home sitting around in his pants. He is belligerent and sensitive, confident and full of doubt. He can be nasty and funny and butt of jokes.

In The Motive and the Cue, Thorne gives us two plays: Hamlet and the rehearsals. The tension and plot explosions of both are cleverly mirrored.

The 'To be or not to be' speech is arguably Hamlet's most contemplative and exposing moment, and it comes at a similarly contemplative and exposing moment in the Gielgud and Burton relationship.

You could hear a pin drop in the theatre when, seated alone in the rehearsal with Gielgud, Burton takes his first stab at the famous speech.

This play is funny, poignant and intriguing, and I fell in love with it all over again.

It's getting ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre

Written by  Jack Thorne

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton

Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including an interval

Booking until 23 March for more details, visit the National Theatre website