Theatre

Fawlty Towers – The Play is the best museum piece you’ll ever see

Fawlty Towers at the Apollo may be the best museum piece you’ll ever see. A full-length play has been carved out of three episodes: ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, ‘The Germans’, and ‘Communication Problems’ in which the deaf guest, Mrs Richards, made a nuisance of herself by refusing to switch on her hearing aid in case the batteries ran out. For anyone who saw the sitcom in the 1970s, this is a pleasantly weird show. It’s like returning to a seaside funfair after half a century and finding all the rides unchanged and the staff more or less as you remember them. If Beckett had written family comedies he might have created

Minority Report is superficial pap – why on earth stage it?

Minority Report is a plodding bit of sci-fi based on a Steven Spielberg movie made more than two decades ago. The setting is London, 2050, and every citizen has been implanted with an undetectably tiny neuroscanner which informs the cops about crimes before they’ve been committed. However, as the first scene reveals, the undetectably tiny neuroscanner can be removed from the flesh with a corkscrew. The character who gouges out her tag is a computer geek, Julia, who invented the surveillance method in the first place. She stands accused of planning a murder and she goes on the run to clear her name. The actors appear to be trapped inside

Four female writers at the court of Elizabeth I

Almost a century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf claimed that if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister the obstacles to her sharing his vocation would have been insurmountable. Woolf’s argument that a woman needs ‘money and a room of her own’ in order to write proved persuasive. ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ has become a pop-cultural trope. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the distinguished American scholar of the Renaissance Ramie Targoff should borrow the phrase for a study of four woman writers. Her title offers a shortcut to understanding how significant this immensely accomplished quartet is for readers and writers today. Not that Targoff’s elegantly readable, immaculately

‘I couldn’t afford loo roll’: Bruce Robinson on being skint, Zeffirelli’s advances and Withnail’s return

Bruce Robinson is ramming a huge log into the grate of his ancient fireplace in mud-clogged Herefordshire. He’s 77 and the film for which he is famous, Withnail and I, is about to open as a play. Isn’t it curious it hasn’t happened before, given that the comedy is about two thirsty, unemployed actors and is a sort of love-hate letter to the theatre? ‘I was living on 30 bob a week – I could either afford fish and chips or ten gold leaf’ ‘I wasn’t fond of the idea of staging it,’ says Robinson, who wrote and directed the 1987 film based on his own boozy life as an

Lloyd Evans

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

Player Kings proves that Shakespeare can be funny

Play-goers, beware. Director Robert Icke is back in town, and that means a turgid four-hour revival of a heavyweight classic with every actor screaming, bawling, weeping, howling and generally overdoing it. But here’s a surprise. Player Kings, Icke’s new version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is a dazzling piece of entertainment and the only exaggerated performance comes from Sir Ian McKellen who plays Falstaff, quite rightly, as a noisy, swaggering dissembler. Those who imagine ‘Shakespearean comedy’ to be an oxymoron will be pleasantly surprised Small details deliver large dividends. The tavern scenes are set in an east London hipster bar with chipped wooden tables and exposed brickwork. Richard

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

The mayhem ‘Born Slippy’ provoked felt both poignant and cathartic: Underworld, at Usher Hall, reviewed

On the same night Underworld played the second of two shows at the Usher Hall, next door at the Traverse Theatre, This is Memorial Device was midway through a short run. Seeing both within a matter of hours, I felt an exchange of currents, a renewed awareness of the short distance we travel between euphoria and sorrow when we start mixing music and memory. The short play, adapted and directed by Graham Eatough from the novel by David Keenan, concerns the brief, wayward life of a (fictional) 1980s cult band from Airdrie. We see how the group’s complicated yet charismatic personal dynamic, intense improvised music and quasi-occult power was once

Exhilarating: MJ the Musical reviewed

If you’ve heard good reports about MJ the Musical, believe them all and multiply everything by a hundred. As a music-and-dance spectacular, the show is as exhilarating as any Jackson produced while he was alive. The sets, the costumes, the choreography and the live band deliver an amazing collective punch. When he removes his black trilby he looks like Rishi Sunak at a karaoke bar The script, by Lynn Nottage, takes us into Jackson’s twisted personal history. He was one of ten children raised in a four-room shack in Gary, Indiana, by weirdo parents. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness who refused to celebrate birthdays or Christmas. His father, Joseph,

If you hate the Irish, you’ll adore this play

Faith Healer is a classic Oirish wrist-slasher about three sponging half-wits caught in a downward spiral of penury, booze, squalor, sexual repression, bad healthcare, murderous violence and non-stop drizzle. The mood of grinding despair never lets up for a second as the healer, Frank Hardy, along with his moaning wife and their Cockney sidekick, motors around the British Isles trying to cadge pennies from cripples in exchange for bogus cures. Every cliché in the rich thesaurus of Celtic misery is brought together in this rancid melodrama about mob justice. Every cliché in the rich thesaurus of Celtic misery is brought together in this rancid melodrama Brian Friel’s play premiered in

An engrossing new two-hander about Benjamin Britten

Ben and Imo are composer Benjamin Britten and his musical assistant, Imogen Holst. But those cosy pet names tell us where we stand – or at least, where we think we do. The illusion of being inside an artistic clique is at the heart of Mark Ravenhill’s new two-hander, which began life as a BBC radio drama and which he has now opened out into a two-act play about the pair. Alan Bennett did a Britten play a few years back but Ravenhill is sharper, and as directed by Erica Whyman, Ben and Imo just about supports its own length. His Benjamin Britten is bravura – neck stretching forward, then

Lloyd Evans

Dazzling: Harry Clarke, at the Ambassadors Theatre, reviewed

Sheridan Smith’s new show is more a mystery than a musical. Opening Night is based on a 1977 film by John Cassavetes that failed to attract a major US distributor. After opening briefly in LA, it vanished without trace. It’s a backstage drama about a tattooed drunk, Myrtle, who accepts the lead role in a new play which she starts to dislike. Realising her error, she tries to improve the script at the rehearsals and during preview performances ahead of the opening on Broadway. In real life, an actor who sabotaged a show like this would be fired and replaced. But never mind. This is make-believe. Myrtle’s attempts to vandalise

It’s no Jerusalem: Jez Butterworth’s Hills of California, at Harold Pinter Theatre, reviewed

Fifteen years after penning his mega-hit Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth has knocked out a new drama. The slightly baffling title, The Hills of California, refers to a hit by Johnny Mercer (the US songwriter not the MP for Plymouth) and it suggests American themes and locations. But the show is set in a knackered old Blackpool boarding house in the 1970s, where three sisters are waiting for their elderly mum to croak. It takes an hour of chit-chat to explain what’s happening. When the sisters were little, their ambitious mother forced them to perform song-and-dance routines in the hope of launching them as kiddie superstars on the new medium of television.

Do we really need this unsubtle and irrelevant play about Covid?

Pandemonium is a new satire about the Covid nightmare that uses the quaint style of the Elizabethan masque. Armando Iannucci’s play opens with Paul Chahidi as Shakespeare introducing a troupe of players who all speak in rhyming couplets. A golden wig descends like a signal from on high and Shakespeare transforms himself into the ‘World King’ or ‘Orbis Rex’. This jocular play reminds spectators with a low IQ that Orbis is an anagram of Boris. The former prime minister, also labelled the ‘globular squire’, is portrayed as a heartless, arrogant schemer driven by ambition and vanity. He retells the main events of the pandemic with the help of an infernal

Why the story of the Holocaust still needs telling

In Chekhov’s The Seagull Dr Dorn is asked which is his favourite foreign city. Genoa, he replies: in the evening the streets are full of strolling people and you became part of the crowd, body and soul. ‘You start to think there really might be a universal spirit,’ he says. I remembered Dr Dorn when I was discovering Genoa in October. Then it suddenly came to me that I had been to the city before. Genoa was where my family embarked for the Far East, when I was 18 months old, fleeing the Nazis. I don’t know about the universal spirit, though. I’m reading Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews

Just how much lower can the Conservatives sink?

This is the year in which Michael Gambon died, so by definition a grim one for theatre. Of all the tributes, one of the most acute was by Tom Hollander, who recalled how expressive Gambon’s voice was after 30 years on stage. He could reach hundreds of people while seeming to address only one or two. That’s essential theatre acting. When Gambon turned to cinema, his voice had become supple and mellow. It set me to thinking of other great cinema voices. Simone Signoret came first to mind. Then Jeanne Moreau, James Mason, and above all, Henry Fonda. These actors have you at hello. I would have added Marlene Dietrich,

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:

Comedy of the blackest kind: Boy Parts, at Soho Theatre, reviewed

There’s something mesmerising about watching a good mimic. And Aimée Kelly, who plays fetish photographer Irina Sturges in Soho Theatre’s Boy Parts, is a very good mimic. Across the 80 minutes of this one-woman performance, she inhabits the bodies of dozens of characters, each a carbon copy of the worst kind of person: oleaginous city bankers; shrill, hysterical twenty-something women; ‘Andrew Tate-core’ men. An unnamed boy ends up as nothing more than a severed head Her sneering representations of these characters instruct us to see them (whether we want to or not) as Irina does: pathetic and deeply undesirable. It’s uncomfortable. Irina is a narcissist which is enforced, immediately, by

If only Caryl Churchill’s plays were as thrillingly macabre as her debut

The first play by the pioneering feminist Caryl Churchill has been revived at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Owners, originally staged in 1972, feels very different from Churchill’s later work and it recalls the apprentice efforts of Brecht who started out writing middle-class comedies tinged with satirical anger. Churchill sets her play in the cut-throat London property market where prices are soaring and tenants are apt to be evicted if they can’t cover sudden rent rises. Marion is an estate agent who secretly buys a house occupied by her former lover Alec who is married to Lisa. Their third child is on the way. Marion hatches an evil plan to kick