193 posts categorized "National Theatre" Feed

2023 theatre round up - top 10 favourite plays (and 4 least favourite)

Best of theatre 2023 montage

It feels like theatre returned with a splash in 2023 after the dark days of Covid. I saw 62 and a half plays (64 and a half, including second viewings) across London's plethora of theatres, from tiny pubs to big West End stages.

Here are my favourite 10 plays - in no particular order (links are to the full review).

1. No One, Omnibus Theatre

This was a fun, lively and inventive storytelling, with brilliant fight scenes.

2. Linck and Mulhahn, Hampstead Theatre

Based on a real same-sex couple living in the 18th Century Prussia, this was a witty, effervescent and heartbreaking play.

Mediocre white male king's head theatre

3. Mediocre White Male, King's Head Theatre

Subtle shifts and throwaway remarks build to make a powerful point.

4. A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre (and Savoy Theatre)

A harrowing and compelling play that utterly flawed me and I had to go back and see it again.

5. The Motive and the Cue, National Theatre and Noel Coward Theatre

Superb performances in this sharp, funny and interesting play. So good, I had to see it twice.

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Review: The Effect, National Theatre, starring Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell - oozes with chemistry

The Effect National Theatre signage
The first production of The Effect had its premiere in 2012, so it is a departure for director Jamie Lloyd who more typically gives older material such as The Seagull and Cyrano de Bergerac a fresh contemporary feel. (Does this mark a new chapter?)

Lucy Prebble's play is set around the clinical trial for a new anti-depressant drug. Connie (Taylor Russell) and Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) are taking part to earn some money - Connie is a student, and Tristan wants to travel.

Dr Toby Sealy (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is running the trial and has brought in depression-sufferer Dr Lorna James (Michelle Austin) to help.

An attraction quickly forms between Connie and Tristan but are their feelings a side effect of the drugs they are taking? Is love simply chemical or something to which the cause can not be clearly attributed?

Similar questions about chemical responses are raised about depression and the drugs used to treat it. James, ironically given the trial she is working on, doesn't believe it is something solved by medicine.

Despite warnings, Connie and Tristan's blossoming romance threatens the integrity of the trial, and the trial causes friction in the relationship between Sealy and James.

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Review: Dear England, National Theatre - I'm not a football fan but...

Dear England National Theatre June 23
I'm not a football fan, but I am a James Graham fan, so I had to see his new play Dear England at the National Theatre, based on Gareth Southgate's management of the England team.

It starts with Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) being offered the job and bringing in psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) to help find out what is missing from the team's performance.

Naturally, a training program that incorporates talking about feelings, as well as skills and tactics, gets pushback from the team and the coaches.

The first half of the play focuses on that dive into the psychological blocks and trying to win the players over to the different approach as they prepare for the first World Cup under Southgate's management.

There is a particular focus on penalty shootouts which have long been the England team's Achilles heel.

Once the story reaches the World Cup, the games are recreated with just the England team, their movement 'on the pitch' and the sound effects of the ball being kicked and the crowd. It is evocative. 

And having highlighted the behind-the-scenes drama of the penalty shootouts, the tension is successfully recreated despite knowing the overall outcome.

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Review: The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre - abuse of power in the spotlight

Milly Alcock as Abigail Williams  Brian Gleeson as John Proctor and the cast of The Crucible west end. Credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Milly Alcock as Abigail Williams, Brian Gleeson as John Proctor and the cast of The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre 2023. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

What struck me most about the National Theatre's production of The Crucible, which has transferred to the Gielgud Theatre, is the focus on the abuse of power.

Arthur Miller's play is set around the Salem witch trials but was written as an allegory for the McCarthy purge of communists in the 1950s. I've seen productions which highlighted 'otherness' and suspicion of strangers, but here it's about the power imbalance and the misuse of that power.

The Salem community at the centre of the story is a theocracy with little scope for individual freedom. It's a point emphasised in the first church-set scene where Abigail Williams (Milly Alcock) is roughly pulled out of the congregation for 'messing about'.

We then move to the home of Reverend Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher), where his daughter Betty (Amy Snudden) is in a cold faint, having been 'startled' by her father, who discovered her and her friends dancing in the woods.

The girls have little agency; they are shouted at, ordered around, shaken, pulled and pushed - mostly by men.

Parris' sermons, we learn, focus on fire and brimstone, and so you get a devastating combination of self-preservation and desire.

Rumours and suspicion of witchcraft are rife in the extended community. To protect herself and her friends and cover up what they were really doing, Abigail claims witches made them dance.

The spark of suspicion quickly takes hold, fanned by a community burdened by grudges and petty squabbles.

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Review: The Motive and The Cue, National Theatre - a joy to watch

The Motive and the cue national theatre april 2023
In Jack Thorne's The Motive and the Cue, we are given not one but two plays. Set around the rehearsal period for the famed Broadway production of Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and starring Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn), you go behind the scenes as they get ready for opening night, and you get snippets of Hamlet as they rehearse.

Gielgud's star is waning, and working with Burton, while an unlikely pairing, is a calculated move to boost his career. Burton is looking to add credibility to his starry career by working with Gielgud.

He starts the play by apologising to the rest of the cast for the crowd of fans outside the rehearsal room. He's recently married Elizabeth Taylor  (Tuppence Middleton), which has elevated his star status further.

The plan is for an unconventional production of Shakespeare's classic play (unconventional for the time). Gielgud wants a stripped-back set akin to the rehearsal room and for the actors to wear their rehearsal attire rather than costumes. (Yes, it's meta.)

Simple ideas and complications

Naturally, the 'relaxed' simplicity causes complications with the choices of rehearsal outfits becoming more considered and tailored. 

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Review: Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre

Dancing at Lughnasa National Theatre
Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre, April 2023

Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play told from the perspective of Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), nephew to five sisters living in a cottage near the fictional town of Ballybeg. 

He recalls a particular childhood Summer which shaped the future of the family.

His narrative isn't always linear, sometimes he tells you what is coming before it happens, injecting a layer of melancholy and foreboding underneath the laughter, hope and dancing that breaks out when the wireless decides to work. 

Kate (Justine Mitchell) is the 'matriarch' and breadwinner, a teacher and a strict follower of social and religious values. Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney) is the homemaker and fun-bringer who loves riddles.

Chris (Alison Oliver) is the unmarried mother of Michael, a romantic prone to depression after the fleeting and unplanned visits of Gerry (Tom Riley), Michael's father.

Agnes (Louisa Harland) and Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann) knit gloves to sell in the town earning very little, and the latter has a simple, child-like naiveté despite her age.

The sisters are a tight affectionate unit, each with their particular chores. Teasing, jokes, gossip - and the dancing - cement the narrow landscape of their lives. 

It is pertinent that the central narrative drivers are the arrival of men into the story. There are Gerry's sporadic visits and the return home of Jack (Ardal O'Hanlon), the sisters' brother.

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Review: Phaedra, National Theatre - superb performances and distracting staging

Phaedra National Theatre 2023
Phaedra, National Theatre, February 2023, starring Janet McTeer and Assaad Bouab

Phaedra at the National Theatre started with writer/director Simon Stone making a speech about this being the first run-through. He asked for our indulgence if things didn't quite go smoothly, blaming himself for any issues.

During the opening scene, there was nothing noticeable, the problems came when there were scene changes and subtitles later on - but I'll come back to that because, at its core, this version of the Phaedra story and the performances are superb.

All the action takes place in a glass cube, similar to Yerma at the Young Vic, which Stone also directed. The story is transferred to modern Britain; Phaedra becomes 'Helen' (Janet McTeer), a politician and Oxford graduate from an affluent background.

Her husband Hugo (Paul Chihadi) is a diplomat of Iranian descent - he chose the name Hugo because no one could pronounce his Iranian name.

Helen and Hugo have a grown-up married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), and a 14-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes).

Family dynamics

We find the family at home, along with Isolde's husband Eric (John Macmillan), teasing and bickering while preparing for the arrival of a guest for dinner. They talk rapidly, interrupting each other or having several conversations at once. It feels relaxed and uninhibited.

When their guest Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), arrives, the atmosphere changes; there is excitement, awkwardness, and curiosity. Sofiane is the son of a Moroccan man Helen had an intense holiday romance with when travelling with Oxford chums as a student. 

Sofiane is the spit of his father, who died in a car crash while he was having his affair with Helen.

While not technically a stepson as in the original story, Stone instead has created a more complex dynamic.

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Review: Giles Terera in Othello, National Theatre

The National Theatre's Lyttelton stage has been transformed with steps and terraces around the performance space, creating a look that is a cross between an ancient greek theatre and a fighting pit.

Othello National Theatre Nov 2022
Othello, National Theatre, Nov 2022

Before the play starts, images of past productions of Othello and the year they were performed are projected onto the steps and back wall as a reminder of the story's timelessness.

When the play begins an angry mob confronts Othello (Giles Terera) about his marriage to Desdemona (Rosy McEwan), and one of them holds a rope tied into a noose. It's a startling reminder of the lynch mobs of the not-too-distant past.

The production is consciously white, with Terera the only person of colour in the cast. It serves to emphasise the racism and jealousy that fuels the tragedy and Othello's isolation.

A sort of chorus - called 'system' on the cast list - is almost permanently present on stage, either seated or standing on the steps. They are like the personification of an infection, the sickness of emotions that grows in Othello's mind synchronising their jagged and exaggerated movements.

And there is something that is part creepy, part peaceful in how they gather and sit with Othello as he dies. 

Paul Hilton's Iago is played with the chill and wit of a good comic book villain. The system moves and are animated by what he says and does; sometimes, there is something grotesquely comic in how they respond.

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Review: Manor, National Theatre - unsatisfying hodgepodge

As the stage was plunged into darkness at the end of Manor on the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage, I was thinking: What was the point?  

The applause died down and the actors left the stage, I turned to my friend who said what I was thinking before I had the chance.

National Theatre at night
Manor is on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre

Manor is an odd play and one that will divide given the mixed response from those sitting around us.

Set in a crumbling restoration-era manor house, on a stormy day with floodwaters rising, Lady Diana Stuckley (Nancy Carroll) is arguing with her husband Pete (Owen McDonnell).

He's off his tits on drugs (to put it bluntly), but the row whiffs of a marriage long past its sell-by date.

When daughter Isis (Liádan Dunlea) appears, there is no cessation of hostilities, and the mood doesn't get any better when strangers start arriving seeking shelter from the storm.

There's Ripley (Michele Austin), a nurse training to be a doctor and moody teenage daughter (Dora) Shaniqua Okwok, who were staying at a nearby holiday cottage.

And the charismatic-as-a-snake, Ted Farrier (Shaun Evans), who is the leader of a far-right group, accompanied by his blind girlfriend Amy (Ruth Forrest) and loyal recruit Anton (Peter Bray) in tow.

Local vicar Fiske (David Hargreaves) and unemployed youth Perry (Edward Judge), who lives in a caravan nearby, make up the group.

Remind you of something?

The set-up immediately reminded me of The Mousetrap, but while Manor is described as darkly comic on the National Theatre website, there isn't a great deal to laugh at unless you find fat-shaming funny.

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Review: The Normal Heart, National Theatre - from anger to heart-wrenching

The Normal Heart is a play of fights. Set in the early 80s, in New York, gay men are dying, but gay activist Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels) is struggling to get anyone to do anything.

Only Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), who is trying to treat the increasing numbers of sick men, shares his concern and sense of urgency. 


The Normal Heart pre performance National Theatre
The Normal Heart is staged in the round at the National Theatre. Photo: Rev Stan


While Ned and Dr Brookner agree something needs to be done, they don't see eye to eye on what and how.

As the death toll rises in New York and beyond, Ned gathers a growing group of volunteers to raise awareness among the gay community and campaign to get funding and support from the authorities.

Ned's approach is to be direct, to shout and stamp, but others prefer a softer, more diplomatic tone; there is more at stake than losing lovers and friends.

Fight for recognition

This isn't just a fight for life, it's a fight to smash stereotypes. It's a fight for the recognition of a community and the right to be out and proud - or not - without prejudice.

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