National theatre

Cheesy remake of Our Mutual Friend: London Tide, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Our Mutual Friend has been turned into a musical with a new title, London Tide, which sounds duller and more forgettable than the original. Why change the name? To confuse fans of Dickens, presumably, and to keep the theatre half-empty while heaps of tickets are sold at a discount. At the end of Act One, an actor explains the entire plot. This might have been delivered earlier The plot is a cheesy Victorian whodunnit involving three main characters and multiple locations so it’s hard to follow the action as it flits from this lowly hovel to that seedy tavern. The chief personalities are a pretentious lawyer, a psychotic teacher and

The tumultuous story behind Caravaggio’s last painting

For centuries no one knew who it was by or even what it was of. The picture that had hung unnoticed in a succession of noble palazzi in the Italian province of Salerno, with its deep chiaroscuro and close-cropped composition, looked like a Caravaggio – but after Caravaggio almost every painting in Naples did. When it entered the collection of the Banca Commerciale Italiana in 1973 it was attributed to Mattia Preti, a Calabrian Caravaggista of the next generation who had caught the tenebrist bug. But in 1980, a letter discovered in the Naples State Archive changed the picture. Written on 11 May 1610 by Lanfranco Massa – the Naples

What a muddle: The House of Bernarda Alba, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Green, green, green. Everything on stage is the same shade of eau de Nil in the NT’s version of Federico García Lorca’s classic, The House of Bernarda Alba. All the furniture and props are green. The mirrors, the walls, the crucifixes, the clocks and even the bucket and the knife-rack bear the same queasy pigment. The idea, perhaps, is to suggest a lunatic asylum or an NHS waiting room. Lorca’s steamy tale is set in a remote Spanish village in the 1930s where life is dominated by the repressive and superstitious Catholic church. The story opens with a nasty matriarch, Bernarda Alba, celebrating her husband’s death by ordering her five

Our theatre critic applies to be director of the National Theatre

The director of the National Theatre will be stepping down in 2025. I’ve written to the chairman offering a new vision for Britain’s leading playhouse. Dear Sir Damon Buffini, I’m a reviewer of plays and a part-time theatre producer. In the past 20 years I’ve seen more than 2,000 shows, hundreds of them at your venue, and here is my plan to transform the NT. Britain’s dramatic heritage is the best in the world and our national theatre should meet that standard of excellence. Three simple reforms to start with. US stars crave the prestige offered by the NT. Each year we will hire half a dozen Oscar-winning actors One:

Two very long hours: The Effect, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Lucy Prebble belongs to the posse of scribblers responsible for the HBO hit, Succession. Perhaps in honour of this distinction, her 2012 play, The Effect, has been revived at the National by master-director Jamie Lloyd. The show is a sitcom set in Britain’s most dysfunctional drug-testing facility where two sexy young volunteers, Tristan and Connie, are fed an experimental love potion that may help medics to find a cure for narcissists suffering from depression. Running the experiment are two weird boffins, Professor Brainstorm and Nurse Snooty, who once enjoyed a fling at a conference and whose lust is not entirely extinct. But Nurse Snooty is playing hard to get. ‘Sometimes,’

A show for politicians: John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre, reviewed

Clunk, clunk, clunk. John Gabriel Borkman opens with the obsessive footfalls of a disgraced banker as he prowls the attic of a shabby townhouse. On a beaten-up sofa lies Gunhild, his estranged wife, who guzzles Coke and watches TV game shows. The whole place stinks of stagnation and failure. The reclusive Borkman was once the country’s best-known banker until envious colleagues accused him of embezzlement and got him sent to jail for five years. After his release, he began a life of self-destructive solitude. The family are more riven with feuds than the royals. Gunhild loathes her twin sister, Ella, while Borkman blames both women for his downfall. His one

Stupendously good: Much Ado About Nothing, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Simon Godwin’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in a steamy Italian holiday resort, the Hotel Messina, in the 1920s. A smart move, design-wise. The jazz age was one of those rare moments in history when every member of society, from the lowliest chambermaid to the richest aristocrat, dressed with impeccable style and flair. The show is stupendously good to look at it and it kicks off with a thrilling blast of rumba music from a jazz quartet on the hotel balcony. Even sceptics of jazz need not fear these players. The musical score is a triumph for one simple reason: there are no jazz solos. The comic passages of

Gandhi’s killer is more loveable than his victim: The Father and the Assassin reviewed

Dictating to the Estate is a piece of community theatre that explains why Grenfell Tower went up in flames on 14 June 2017. The abandoned block stands, like a cenotaph, a few minutes’ walk from the social club where the show is presented. The local council never cared much for Grenfell’s 120 families. Plans to destroy the tower and expand the estate – with higher rents, of course – had long been under discussion. A one-bedroom flat in west London goes for half a million pounds so there were profits galore to be made. ‘A gold mine for the council,’ said one developer, ‘and they don’t even have to dig

Two hours of bickering from a couple of doughnut-shaped crybabies: Middle, at the Dorfman Theatre, reviewed

‘I fink I doan luv yew any maw.’ A marital bust-up drama at the National Theatre opens with a whining Cockney, Maggie, telling her City whizzkid husband Gary that their relationship is over. Gary and Maggie are aspriring underclass types who’ve achieved bourgeois prosperity: John Lewis kitchen, vintage wine rack and a ceramics collection. They have an eight-year-old daughter at a private school where she learns ballet steps and the piano instead of watching road-rage videos on YouTube like a council-house kid. She’s called Annabelle, by the way, and one wonders if Gary and Maggie style themselves ‘Garfield and Margaret’ at the school gate. It’s hard to know why a

A tangle of nonsense from the sloppy Caryl Churchill: A Number, at the Old Vic, reviewed

A Number, by Caryl Churchill, is a sci-fi drama of impenetrable complexity. It’s set in a future society where cloning has become possible for those on modest incomes. A Cockney father reveals to his grown-up son that he’s a replica of his older brother who died, aged four, in a car crash that also killed his mum. The son reacts with anger and bafflement. But Dad soothes him with happy news. The boy’s DNA was stolen by a gang of scientists who created 20 more copycat zombies, and these replicas are now scattered across the globe. Dad plans to cash in by suing the boffins for £5 million. No sooner

One of the best nights of my life: Hampstead Theatre’s Peggy For You reviewed

Hampstead Theatre has revived a play about Peggy Ramsay, the legendary West End agent who shaped the careers of Joe Orton, Robert Bolt, David Hare and others. We first meet her on the phone to a dramatist whose new script is good but, warns Peggy, it must not be produced because it will damage his career. She hates ‘fine writing’ and she knows how easily a scribbler can be corrupted by praise, awards and cash. Peggy is one of those rare creatures whom everyone wants to please and whose faults are considered charming oddities. Some might find her maddeningly fey but this show, directed by Richard Wilson, is part of

The National has become the graveyard of talent: Manor, at the Lyttelton, reviewed

Somewhere in the wilds of England a stately home is collapsing. Rising floodwaters threaten the foundations. Storms break over the leaking roofs. Inside, an argument rages between a snooty moron, Lady Diana, and her drunken Marxist husband who used to be rock star. This is the chaotic opening of Moira Buffini’s country-house drama Manor. The angry husband picks up a hunting rifle and blasts ornaments to smithereens. Then he chases his wife to the top of a staircase where she hits him with a candlestick. Once the fight ends, more commotion erupts as various groups of evacuees rush in through the front doors. Two women arrive from south London. They’re

Tsunami of piffle: Rockets and Blue Lights at the Dorfman Theatre reviewed

Deep breath. Here goes. Winsome Pinnock’s new play about Turner opens with one of the most confusing and illogical scenes you’re ever likely to see. A teacher on a school trip is showing her pupils a Turner painting displayed in a gallery housed inside a ship donated by the producers of a film starring a famous actress, Lou, who happens to be on board wearing a sumptuous outfit for an awards ceremony, which she plans to avoid for fear that a coveted prize will be handed to a rival. Lou invites the school teacher to an after party that is scheduled to start when the awards ceremony ends. She then

Captures the rapturous gaiety of the original: Globe’s Twelfth Night reviewed

The new Lily Allen vehicle opens in a spruced-up terrace in the East End. Allen plays a self-satisfied yuppie, Jenny, whose cynical husband has invited two ghastly friends over for a bitchy booze-up. At first sight this looks like a Hampstead comedy from the 1970s but it’s a horror story, and it has a huge black hole at its core. A classic horror yarn should be driven by a single, powerful premise. In Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, a failing playwright has to bump off a talented rival to restore his fortunes. In Psycho, a bland motel is terrorised by a deranged and violent loner. Even Shakespeare dipped into the horror genre.

Homeric levels of misery: Paradise, at the Olivier Theatre, reviewed

The National Theatre has given Sophocles’s Philoctetes a makeover and a new title, Paradise. This must be ironic because the location is hell on earth. The action starts in a dirt circle sprawling with smashed military gear where a group of plump female vagrants are waking up in a clutch of filthy old tents. They’re living on a Caribbean island which also houses a prison for migrants. In a nearby cave dwells an exiled Homeric archer, Philoctetes, who survives by eating squirrels which he kills with his handmade bow. A committed anti-vegan, Philoctetes shuns the plentiful rice, garlic and mangos that grow naturally in the tropics. Enter two British soldiers

Enjoyable in spite of the National’s best efforts: Under Milk Wood reviewed

Before the National Theatre produced Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood they had to make a decision. How could they stuff this dazzling, rapturous comic tone-poem with misery and pain? The policy at the NT is that ticket holders must endure a play rather than enjoy it. They had four options. Racism, homophobia, misogyny and mental illness are the sources of woe most favoured by modern theatre-makers. The NT duly ticked box four, mental breakdown, and hired a writer, Siân Owen, to supply the necessary dollops of torment by penning a one-act melodrama as a preamble to the script itself. The setting is an old folks’ home which looks like a

Theatre’s final taboo: fun

How will the theatre look after lockdown? A clue emerges in a statement made by Guy Jones, the literary associate of the Orange Tree in Richmond. ‘The victims of this year are many. Homelessness is on the rise, loneliness is deadly, the monster of racism lurks in every-day interactions… and many of the inequalities we live with are written into the systems in which we are asked to participate.’ ‘The victims’. That’s his starting point. It might seem odd that a theatre should prioritise the injured and the aggrieved, as if the stage were a tribunal or a public court where justice is dispensed. But that’s how theatres see themselves.

Racists will love it: National Theatre’s Death of England – Delroy reviewed

Death of England: Delroy is a companion piece to Death of England, which ran in February at the NT and examined the white working classes. Here the focus is on a successful black Briton, Delroy, who votes Tory and feels at home in multicultural society. The charismatic Michael Balogun plays him as a complex, shrewd and humane figure. He likes to mock white people who judge others according to superficialities like accent and pronunciation. And he recalls his horrified excitement when a white girl at school calmly placed her finger inside his boxer shorts. Delroy has plenty of white pals including his girlfriend, Carly, who is expecting their child. The

Defund theatres – and give the money to gardeners and bingo halls

For nearly six months our subsidised playhouses, notably the National Theatre, have been dark. What have we missed? Not much. Some would say nothing at all. And this has come as a surprise to those of us who were led to believe that the subsidised theatre is critical to ‘the national conversation’. It turns out that the nation can happily debate political and social issues without the help of playwrights or actors. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine our state-funded theatres and the reasons we support them. The National Theatre was set up in 1963, soon after the establishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, and both received funding from

The Madness of George III is much easier to like than King Lear

The longest interval in theatre history continues. Last week the National Theatre livestreamed a 2018 version of The Madness of George III produced by Nottingham Playhouse with Mark Gatiss in the title role. The script, written by Alan Bennett as a response to King Lear, is much easier to like than the original. An engaging family comedy, with a sad bit in the middle, it benefits from a wonderfully happy ending. The good king is cured, the bad doctors are vanquished, order is restored. A real crowd-pleaser. Bennett’s research gives it the feeling of a documentary drama as he examines the difficulties faced by monarchs who wielded real political power.