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National Theatre

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  1. National Theatre, The Shed  (© Philip Vile)
    © Philip Vile
  2. © Philip Vile
    © Philip Vile
  3. © Philip Vile
    © Philip Vile
  4. Interior architecture (Rob Greig / Time Out)
    Rob Greig / Time Out
  5. National Theatre (Rob Greig / Time Out)
    Rob Greig / Time Out
  6. National Theatre architecture (Rob Greig / Time Out)
    Rob Greig / Time Out
  7. National Theatre interior (Rob Greig / Time Out)
    Rob Greig / Time Out
  8. National Theatre Stairs (Rob Greig / Time Out)
    Rob Greig / Time Out

Time Out says

The world's greatest theatre?

Arguably the greatest theatre in the world, the Royal National Theatre is also one of London's most recognisable landmarks and perhaps this country's foremost example of brutalist architecture. It boasts three auditoriums – the epic, ampitheatre-style Olivier, the substantial end-on space Lyttelton and the Dorfman, a smaller venue for edgier work. It's got a firm foothold on the West End, thanks to transferring shows like 'War Horse' and 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'. In summer, it spills out onto Southbank with its River Stage line-up of outdoor events. And its NT Live programme beams its greatest hits to cinemas across the globe.

NT Live is just one of the initiatives to issue forth from the golden reign of former artistic director Nicholas Hytner, which saw a canny mix of modernised classics, popular new writing, and a splash of hip experimental work fill out the houses night after night. Hytner's successor Rufus Norris has offered a programme that's stuck with many Hytner fundamentals but offered an edgier, more international spin, with a run of ambitious, experimental and – in the beginning especially – sometimes divisive works.

From 2025, former Kiln boss Indhu Rubsingham will take over as artistic director: the first woman and the first person of colour to hold the post.

The NT is a popular hangout for theatre fans, thanks to its warren-like array of spots to work and play. The real insider's hangout is The Understudy, a rough-and-ready riverside bar which brews its own lager and is thronged with theatre hipsters on pretty much any night of the week.


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What’s on


  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Drama

The British, in case you hadn’t noticed, tend to get a little sentimental about the NHS.  So it’s understandable that playwright Tim Price and director Rufus Norris are wary of dewy-eyed hagiography when approaching ‘Nye’, a new biographical drama about Aneurin Bevan, the firebrand Labour health minister who founded the service. With the title role played by the great Michael Sheen, there is a danger of going OTT in having the nation’s favourite current Welshman star as the nation’s favourite historical Welshman. And so Norris’s production has a determinedly trippy quality intended to counter the cliches. Billed as an ‘epic Welsh fantasia’, ‘Nye’ is largely presented as the stream-of-consciousness of an older Bevan, who is a patient in one of his own hospitals. There for an ulcer operation, he drifts in and out of the present and into recollections of his past, unaware he is dying of stomach cancer – something his MP wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) has determinedly kept from him. Crowned by a truly uncanny wig, Sheen is a delight as the fiery but unassuming Bevan. He never at any point changes out of his red striped pyjamas, a pleasingly absurdist touch at the heart of Norris’s stylish production, in which the green hospital ward repeatedly dissolves into the past to the sound of wheezing lungs.  It’s otherworldly in places, especially the scene where Tony Jayawardena’s overbearing Churchill collars Bevan in the Commons and groups of teacup-clutching MPs try to eavesdrop, movi

Underdog: The Other Brontë

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Drama

‘What’s your favourite Brontë novel?’ demands Gemma Whelan’s bolshy Charlotte Brontë, as she accosts a succession of random audience members at the start of Sarah Gordon’s new play about the literary sisters. Although really, ‘Underdog’ is mostly a play about the troubled relationship between Charlotte and Anne: the eldest and youngest, most and least famous Brontës. Charlotte is of course forever remembered thanks to her great work ‘Jane Eyre’, while Anne remains the most obscure of the trio - in large part because Charlotte banned further publication of Anne’s hit ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ after her little sister died at 29.  If it’s not a neat comparison, I’d say there are some parallels with Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’, with Whelan’s Charlotte the domineering Salieri-style figure, weaving plots against Rhiannon Clements’s gifted but unworldly Anne.  There’s a lot more swearing here, mind: Gordon’s dialogue is blunt, funny and wilfully anachronistic, the sisters goading each other in modern language, in Yorkshire accents so broad you could land a plane on them. Grace Smart’s set begins as a sumptuous, heather-strewn patch of moorland, but this is rapidly, ruthlessly pulled away – no romantic frills here. You are never far from a laugh, and the supremely watchable Whelan devours her part whole: she is wonderful as the wildly insecure but entirely fearless Charlotte, swaggering through the story with the elemental strut of a nineteenth-century Liam Gallagher, but beset by

London Tide

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Musicals

‘Little fish, big fish/swimming in the water/come back here man/gimme my daughter’ hissed a demonic 25-year-old Polly Jean Harvey in her 1995 hit ‘Down By the Water’.  That was a long time ago. But where so many middle-aged pop stars’ forays into musical theatre feel like bored attempts to crack new markets, the cycle of 13 songs Harvey has written for the National Theatre’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’ slot seamlessly into her body of work.  The imagery of water and drowning that flows through Ian Rickson’s production of Ben Power’s adaptation of Dickens’s final finished novel feels of a piece with ‘Down by the Water’ and its iconic video. And where Harvey’s most successful album, ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’ concerns itself with the Atlantic and with modern, gleaming New York, ‘London Tide’ is almost its negative, steeped in the mud of the Thames and the grime of old London, which is referenced again and again in the lyrics. ‘This is a story of London, death and resurrection’ howl the cast in the opening ‘London Song’. ‘London, forgive me’ they keen in the closing ‘Homecoming’.  The show is billed as a play with songs: the tune count is a bit low for actual musical status, and there’s a conspicuous lack of razzle-dazzle. Anna Morrissey’s stylised movement peps up the numbers, but there’s nothing like actual dancing here. Musically, the keyboard-led songs feel like a hybrid of the Harvey’s eerie ‘White Chalk’ album and the most vocally

Boys from the Blackstuff

  • Drama

The absurdly prolific James Graham is surely too busy for a new play this year – he’s got a million screen projects and his musical ‘Tammy Faye’ is heading to Broadway – but here’s a transfer of one he did last year for Liverpool’s Royal Court. ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ is, of course, Graham’s adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s seminal ’80s drama about five unemployed men trying to negotiate their way through Thatcher’s decade. Kate Wasserberg directs the show, which will return to Liverpool for a run prior to a short transfer to the Olivier theatre for 21 performances only then straight on to the West End’s Garrick Theatre.


  • Experimental

Even by Complicité’s lofty standards, 1999’s ‘Mnemonic’ is regarded as something truly exceptional. Devised by company founder Simon McBurney – and originally starring him –  it’s a wild ride show about humanity, memory and loss that starts as a jokey biochemistry lecture and ends up as something vast and transcendent involving an ancient body found in the ice and a woman searching for her vanished lover. You kind of jut have to see it, really, but if it lives up to the hype, it’ll change your life.  McBurney directs again, though it seems unlikely he’ll star this time: the only cast members confirmed so far are Richard Katz and Kostas Phillippoglou.  

River Stage

  • Outdoor theatres

The National Theatre’s River Stage returns to the South Bank for a month of outdoor live music, dance, performance, workshops and family fun. Weekend evenings will see a varied programme of entertainment take place in front of the theatre, with special take-over weekends from The Glory, James Cousins Company, Shubbak Festival and Hackney Empire’s Young Producers.  The takeover weekends will be…  July 5 - 8: The Glory, hosted by Jonny Woo and John Sizzle. They’ll be calling on all their top drag queens, kings alongside cabaret artists and DJs to help them pull-off a sparkling weekend of queer music.  July 12 - 14: Greenwich+Docklands International Festival will bring a cracking line-up of street theatre and circus performers.  July 19 - 21: Rambert. This London-based contemporary dance company’s teachers and artists are gracing the weekend with performances and tutorials.   July 26 - 28: National Theatre. The closing weekend looks set to be a family–friendly mish-mash of live music, theatre, dance and workshops with some tours of the iconic building being thrown in too.  See the National Theatre website for updates.

The Hot Wing King

  • Drama

US playwright Katori Hall had her breakthrough in the UK when her play ‘The Mountaintop’ unexpectedly became a huge success, eventually beating Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ to best play at the 2010 Oliviers. We’ve seen surprisingly little of her work since bar the smash musical ‘Tina: The Tina Turner Musical’ (which she wrote the book for), but here’s a major UK premiere as Hall makes her National Theatre debut with her 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner ‘The Hot Wing King’, which follows hero Cordell Crutchfield’s heroic attempt to reclaim the crown at Memphis, Tennessee’s hot wing festival. Roy Alexander Weise directs a cast that will be headed up by Kadiff Kirwan as Cordell.

The Grapes of Wrath

  • Drama

John Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece about a desperate Oklahoma family forced to migrate to California to escape the ravages of the Dustbowl is one of the most famous books of the twentieth century. And Frank Galati’s award-winning 1990 adaptation is pretty much agreed upon as the definitive stage version. Throw in the great American actor Cherry Jones as the family matriarch Ma Joad and you have a very handsome summer blockbuster indeed for the NT, which will be directed by the reliable Carrie Cracknell. Further casting – including the central role of Tom Joad – is TBA.

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