Want to get your theatre on but not a fan of jazz-hands or people bursting into song? Look no further: here's our guide to the proper plays on in London right now, from copper-bottomed classics to hot new writing to more experimental fare. All the drama, with no-one making a song or dance about it.
Plays on in London
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dizzyingly inventive, Pulitzer Prize-winning race-relations satire ‘Fairview’ manages the rare trick of being righteously provocative while more or less demanding you don’t discuss what happens in it with anybody who hasn’t seen it. This isn’t a case of self-censorship: an email was sent by the Young Vic requesting that we refrain from spoilering its UK premiere, especially vis-à-vis the third act. (Possibly I have gone too far even acknowledging the existence of a third act.) Which makes it a real bugger to review: usually I’m a bit dubious about the idea that spoilers are a meaningful thing, but there would be a hysterical irony (which I can’t fully explain!) if I, a white guy, decided to go against the wishes of the show’s black creatives and explain exactly what happens. Also, I seem to now be making this review entirely about me, which is also ironic, again in a difficult-to-explain style. Anyhoo, what I can say is that ‘Fairview’ is a show that has a lot of uncomfortable hidden surprises, none of which are contained in the first act, which sees a middle-class African-American family prepare for a big birthday celebration in mildly neurotic, mildly sitcom-ish, basically fairly normal fashion. Of all the supremely gutsy moments in Sibblies Drury’s play and Nadia Latif’s production, probably the one I can tell you about is the boldest: expending a third of the play’s running time pretending it’s a bland domestic drama. There is a hint that so
Because there is no benevolent god, the actor Lydia Wilson is not yet a household name. But following her incandescent turn as a scheming Kate Middleton in ‘King Charles III’, she has returned to the Almeida to collect some serious dues, and has turned in a proper performance of the year in the title role of Rebecca Frecknall’s deeply humane revival of John Webster’s bloody ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. At the start, her widowed duchess is genteel and likeable, a charismatic posh woman who cheerily refuses to be cowed by the machinations of her villainous brothers Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus). Unusually for productions of the 1613 play, the trio start off looking at ease with each other, like an actual family. Perhaps the duchess’s understandable refusal to view these siblings as sociopaths is her downfall. It leads to her daring to woo her deeply flustered clerk Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), who is terrified of the consequences, but ultimately powerless, like a sheep swept up by a tornado. By the end, Wilson is like a fire on your retinas: as her brothers and their henchman Bosola (Leo Bill) tread an ever-darker path, she faces them down like a creature of pure flame, every line of Webster’s verse a flare of dazzling defiance, her wild charisma threatening to blast them off the stage. Words that read like despair on the page are delivered with imperious defiance on stage. It is a truly singular performance, although huge credit must go to Frecknall’s
It is a genuine strength of the playwright Mike Bartlett that he’s totally unafraid to be a touch gauche if it helps him tell a good story. His drolly named Christmas play ‘Snowflake’, about strife between Gen X and Gen Z, is clearly somewhat contrived: the entire first half of Clare Lizzimore’s production is sadsack 48-year-old widower Andy (Elliot Levey) talking to himself as he holds an exposition-heavy imaginary conversation with his daughter Maya as he waits optimistically for her return following a three-year estrangement. In the second half, Natalie (Amber James) blusters into the Oxfordshire church hall in which he’s hoping to meet Maya. She’s a hip young thing who seemingly randomly rocks up to act as a sounding board for the confused Andy. Her appearance is even more of a contrivance. And yet whatever clunking of gears might be involved in setting the scene, Bartlett’s dialogue is pure magic. As performed by the whinily loveable Levey, Andy, in particular, is a brilliantly observed piece of characterisation. He feels old and out of touch with the world, worried that he’s offended Maya… somehow. But the excruciating thing about him – certainly if you’re my age – is he’s not that old: the simpler world he pines for was essentially the ’90s, with its HMVs, absence of dating apps and uncomplicated attitude to heavy drinking and regretted snogs. At first he seems like nothing more than a smart, rueful character study of a generation whose ageing hasn’t gone much docum
There is something of Sarah Kane’s stark ferocity to this savage play about Elizabeth I’s rise to power by playwright Ella Hickson. Natalie Abrahami’s production is a searing 90 minutes that deals with history you’ll probably know, from angles you might not. ‘Swive [Elizabeth]’ repeatedly touches on the trauma the three-year-old princess suffered when she was left alone in the dark with a sleeping lady-in-waiting while her mother, Anne Boleyn, was taken away to be executed. And it follows the harsh, morally compromised scrabble to the top that she fought in subsequent years, manoeuvring around the machinations of siblings and relatives who saw her very existence as a threat. Following a sarcastic metatheatrical intro from Abigail Cruttenden’s older Queen Elizabeth, the first half of the play sees Nina Cassells play her as the adolescent Princess Elizabeth, circumventing the schemes of her brother Edward and sister Mary as she manipulates – sometimes deeply uncomfortably, given the yawning age difference between them – a series of older male nobles to help her ascent. Yet at no point does she seem like a petty schemer, or consumed with a lust for power: it’s always clear that it’s this or death. Swive is an archaic word for sexual intercourse, something Elizabeth reputedly never had. Hickson never disputes this (although never confirms it either), but shows how the commodification of, promise of, and above all withholding of her body enabled Elizabeth’s rise. She is furiou
‘The Girl from the North Country’ goes west again, as Conor McPherson’s highly acclaimed musical, using the back catalogue of legendary American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opens at the Gielgud Theatre. This follows the previous West End transfer of the original Old Vic production in 2017. Once again, it’s performed and sung with electric energy. McPherson’s book is a haunting slice of Depression-era Americana that draws not only on Dylan’s songbook but finds inspiration in the sad, vivid pages of authors like John Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the wrenching upheaval of the 1930s in the US. It takes place in 1934, in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace, but seven years before he was born. Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) is trying to keep his failing boarding house afloat in a sea of debt, while resentfully looking after his dementia-suffering wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), as well their adopted daughter, Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), who is unmarried and pregnant, and Gene (Colin Bates), their alcoholic son. The Laines’s crumbling home has become a place of last resort for America’s outcast and abandoned. McPherson understatedly explores the cross-currents of poverty, racism and mental illness at a time when deep, ugly social divisions were laid painfully bare by economic hardship. His writing is both blunt and poignant, weaving together disparate lives with tough, twisted threads. Shaq Taylor’s ex-con and ex-boxer Joe Scott and Marianne are united by the bigotry th
A reworking of ‘Hamlet’ as told by three travelling players. 6FootStories return to The Hope with a follow-up to their interpretation of 'Macbeth'. This time, it's the turn of Shakespeare’s longest play to be reduced to just 75 minutes of black comedy.
Set in a small village in pre-partition India, this new play from The Thelmas follows two friends who are at risk of being separated amidst political turmoil - so they do something drastic. 'Santi & Naz' is written by Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, and is the follow-up to previous Thelmas shows 'Ladykiller' and 'Coconut'.
A surprise pregnancy leaves a 35-year-old woman at a loss in 'Push', a cheeky look at motherhood by Popelei. It uses a Latin American setting to create a warm study of parenting, created by the makers of music-led feminist story 'Manuelita'.
It’s ‘Antigone’. But not as we know it. Lulu Raczka’s very free take on Sophocles’s ancient tragedy pulls the focus right in, telling the story with just two characters: doomed, defiant Antigone (Annabel Baldwin) and her beloved sister Ismene (Rachel Hosker). Raczka’s approach is essentially realist. She reduces the epic scale and considers what life might be like for the two teenage girls – younger siblings to brothers who have shattered their city-state of Thebes in a fratricidal civil war – if these events were somehow happening today. In Ali Pidsley’s pacy production the pair start off half-buried in the black sands of Lizzy Leech’s striking circular set. Shortly thereafter they spring to life for a frantic and fun opening section in which they cackle about boys, sex and booze, and dance joyfully to Destiny’s Child. It’s only when they work themselves up to defiantly go out for a drink that the darkness starts to intrude. The drinkers stop talking to stare angrily: they know who the princesses are, and that it is their cursed family that has plunged them all into war. If you know the original story, you’ll know what happens next: their brother Polynices’s body is brought home from war and dumped outside the city gates, with burial forbidden on pain of death. Antigone decides she’ll do it anyway; when she does, she refuses to make the apology that would save her. Why is she throwing her life away like this? Baldwin’s ebullient Antigone – Tig to her friends – seems to t
In 2015, Athena Stevens arrived at London City Airport for an early morning flight to Glasgow. But instead of flying to Scotland, Stevens was left on the tarmac to deal with her irrevocably damaged wheelchair that staff had wrecked attempting to fit it in the aircraft’s hold. That cock-up, and the absolute lack of care Stevens received afterwards, left her stranded in her London flat for months without a working wheelchair. ‘Scrounger’, Stevens’s second play, is based on this nightmare scenario and her general encounters with friends and strangers, some nice and some very much not. The playwright and performer is accompanied by Leigh Quinn, her ‘PA’ who jumps between a large number of roles, including the yoga-worshipping boyfriend, the perky idiocy of the recorded help desk voiceover, the ultimately unhelpful solicitor, and so on. Directed by Lily McLeish, the pacing is a little bit over-quick at times, although to be fair they are doing a huge amount with just two performers. But the brilliance of Stevens’s work is that it directly angles its comments about how disabled people are routinely treated at those lovely, left-leaning, Guardian-reading, petition-signing people most likely to be sitting in the audience (*waves*). It doesn’t, in other words, allow the ‘nice’ people to feel good about themselves by placing the blame on the Tories, the Daily Mail or outdated attitudes. It asks if your well-meaning bullshit is precisely that: bullshit. And that’s something so litt
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