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National Theatre

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  • South Bank
  • Recommended
  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. These days, Hytner's successor Rufus Norris calls the shots, with a programme that's stuck with many Hytner fundamentals but offered an edgier, more international spin, with a run of ambitious, experimental and often divisive works.

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

The Motive and the Cue

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Drama

Johnny Flynn: ‘I fall asleep to Richard Burton reading me ”Under Milk Wood”’. Jack Thorne’s new drama is the sort of play that gets described by the timelessly wanky epithet ‘a love letter to theatre’. Don’t let that put you off: you can rarely go wrong with a production directed by Sam frickin’ Mendes, and if it’s essentially MOR as hell, ‘The Motive and the Cue’ finds its feet via three excellent lead performances. It is 1964, and Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) is probably the second-most famous actor in the world – the most famous being his wife, Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton). Unlike her, the blunt, boozy Welshman is a creature of the stage. After achieving global celebrity through a prolific but ‘mixed’ body of film work, he’s determined to show the world what he’s really made of. He’s going to do ‘Hamlet’ on Broadway. Or that’s the plan. What Burton’s doing is arguing with the legendary theatre knight Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss), who is notionally directing him in a high-concept production of Shakespeare’s greatest play. Flynn has done a remarkable job of nailing Burton’s rough-hewn but mellifluous South Wales accent Like Burton, Thorne and Mendes started out in theatre and have now largely moved into screen work. And at first ‘The Motive and the Cue’ feels like a loving tribute to the rehearsal process from a writer and director who are now largely looking back at it nostalgically. Even the liberal doses of ‘Hamlet’ peppered throughout feel rooted in a certai

River Stage: The Glory

  • Cabaret and burlesque

One of the annual highlights of the National Theatre's River Stage (a month-long, mini-festival in the South Bank that pops up each summer) is The Glory's weekend takeover. The iconic LGBTQ+ venue will be putting on an impressive programme of performances, parties and workshops hosted by the Grande-Dames of East End drag, Jonny Woo and John Sizzle.  Expect highlights fom their much-loved drag talent contest ‘LIPSYNC1000’, Glory DJs spinning tunes, the iconic ‘Drag Life Drawing’ afternoon and (hopefully) Jonny Woo doing some Liza. Take me to the river! 

Dear England

  • Drama

At this stage in his career it feels like playwright James Graham could make a play about literally anything and it would turn out just great – witness his recent triumphs with works about everything from Rupert Murdoch”s acquisition of The Sun (‘Ink’) to LGBTQ-friendly ’80s televangelist Tammy Faye (‘Tammy Faye’).  So while the prospect of a play about the rejuvenation of the England men’s team under the management of Gareth Southgate feels potentially a bit iffy, Graham’s unparalleled command of nuance and factual detail – and the fact he tends to make these things very funny – ought to see him through, and indeed, hopefully give us another banger. Joseph Fiennes will play the role of the waistcoated former penalty misser, co-starring with Gina McKee as sports psychologist Pippa Grange.  A large ensemble cast will feature plenty of familiar characters: Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford, Gunnar Cauthery as Gary Lineker, Will Close as Harry Kane, Crystal Condie as Alex Scott, Will Fletcher as Jordan Henderson, Sean Gilder as Sam Allardyce, Darragh Hand as Marcus Rashford, John Hodgkinson as Greg Clarke, Adam Hugill as Harry Maguire, Albert Magashi as Jadon Sancho, Kel Matsena as Raheem Sterling, Abdul Sessay as Bukayo Saka, Lewis Shepherd as Dele Alli, Paul Thornley as Mike Webster, Tony Turner as Greg Dyke and Ryan Whittle as Eric Dier.  It’ll be directed by Almeida boss Rupert Goold, who did the honours for both ‘Ink’ and ‘Tammy Faye’.

Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors

  • Drama

Following the two verbatim dramatisations of the Grenfell Inquiry – ‘Value Engineering’ and ‘System Failure’ – that played around west London over the last year, here comes the National Theatre’s response to the tragedy and it’s… another verbatim play!  How could it be otherwise, really? The need to be sensitive with regards to the 2017 disaster remains paramount, especially with the inquiry unfinished and zero convictions given out for the devastating tower block fire spread by flammable cladding, which cost 72 lives.  The centrepiece of a multi-year arts collaboration between the NT and North Kensington communities, the play is based upon years of in-depth conversations with bereaved and survivors. A criticism of the two previous Grenfell plays is that people who actually lived in Grenfell weren’t featured – in fact the intention was to make the findings of the inquest more accessible, but you can see why the optics may have upset people. This certainly redresses that. Certainly the NT’s ‘Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors’ is on the blockbuster end of the range: the project is creative directed by big names Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike and the play itself is the work of novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo.   

The Effect

  • Drama

Lucy Prebble’s landmark 2012 play ‘The Effect’ is easily her most performed work nationally, being considerably more practical to stage than ‘ENRON’ and ‘A Very Expensive Poison’.  However, the story of two people who fall in love on a drug trial but can’t work out what’s real and what’s the chemicals hasn’t been seen London since its original run at the National Theatre’s small Dorfman Theatre, which failed to begat a West End run – presumably because star Billie Piper was too busy. An enticing Anthony Neilson-directed revival was due to take place at the Boulevard Theatre in 2020, but the pandemic scuppered both the production and the theatre itself. That's sad, but it does open the doors for this much grander revival, which will see director Jamie Lloyd return to the National Theatre for the first time in over a decade to helm a production in the larger Lyttelton Theatre. The wondrous Paapa Essiedu will be paired with rising Canadian screen star Taylor Russell as Tristan and Connie, the two patients on an anti-depressant trial whose burgeomning romance causes a major ethical dilemma for their supervising doctors. 

The Father and the Assassin

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Drama

This review is from May 2022. ‘The Father and the Assassin’ returns in September 2023. Paul Bazely will stay on as Gandhi while Hiran Abeysekera (‘Life of Pi’) will take over the role of Nathuram Godse. To say that ‘The Father and the Assassin’ is a historical drama about Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, is both accurate and a bone-dry underselling of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play.  Wandering on stage, covered in blood, with an enormous shit-eating grin on his face, Shubham Saraf gives a hilarious, tragic, titanic tour de force performance as Godse. He initially presents as a sort of wannabe supervillain: convinced (or is he?) that he’s achieved a great thing in killing Gandhi, gleefully needling the audience with snarky lines about how our knowledge of his victim is solely derived from Wikipedia and ‘that fawning Attenborough film’. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that he’s such an unreliable narrator that he can’t even convince himself: characters pop up unbidden from his subconscious to aggressively complicate his attempts to argue that Gandhi was a big fraud and it was necessary for him to die.  Before long, the play thrillingly dives into Nathuram’s backstory and we discover that he had a truly bizarre childhood, having been a) raised as a girl by his parents (it’s a long story) and b) regarded as a conduit for the goddess Durga who he seemed to believe spoke through him. (‘Kindly switch off your British scepticism,’ requests Saraf prior to introducing this bit.) The ma

The Witches

  • Musicals

The National Theatre hasn't hosted a major musical in some time, with the troubled Christmas show ‘Hex’ being something of a pandemic-era stopgap that played two years in a row after Covid cancelled so much of its original run that it didn’t really get a fair crack at the whip. ‘The Witches’, though, is much more serious stuff, being a major adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved dark kids’ novel about a young boy who lives with his grandmother and stumbles across a conspiracy of villainous witches hoping to turn the world’s children into mice.  This stage version combines the musical theatre debuts of the great British director Lyndsey Turner and playwright Lucy Kirkwood – reuniting a decade after their Almeida smash ‘Chimerica’ – with songs and music from the US composer Dave Malloy (still something of a cult concern in the UK as we’ve yet to stage his great ‘War & Peace’ adaptation ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’). The musical comes at a fascinating time for Dahl and his legacy: there has been much criticism of recent tweaks to his books to make the language more acceptable to modern audiences, but at the same time Dahl’s personal antisemitism is well-known, and ‘The Witches’ – with its depiction of a powerful conspiracy of hook-nosed women – is often held as a possible manifestation of this in his writing. Hopefully the whole thing will prove to be diabolical good fun, but it’ll be interesting to see if it can realise its full potential without egregiously offen

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