Reviews roundup: Machinal 3.8★

The Old Vic

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal. Photo: Manuel Harlan

They loved the play, they loved the production, but most of all they loved Rosie Sheehy in Machinal, now transferred from the Ustinov Studio in Bath to London’s Old Vic. The 1928 play by Sophie Treadwell, directed by Richard Jones, delves into the mind of a woman who murdered her husband, but let Time Out tell you why it’s so good.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out (5★): ‘Jones’s hyper-stylized production is audacious from start to finish…a tale of one woman standing up to the system turned into a pulverising rapture.’ For him, every element worked: ‘Hyemi Shin’s retina-searing set is unforgettable, Benjamin Grant’s sound design skin-crawling unnerving, Adam Silverman’s lighting exquisitely unsettling, Sarah Fahie’s movement ravishingly creepy.’ About the star, he said: ‘Sheehy is astonishing. There’s something almost Hogarthian about how each scene sees her nail a different aspect of alienation’

David Nice was just as enthusiastic on the Artsdesk (5★) ‘You rarely see such meticulous, detailed work in the theatre,’ he said. Again the lead actor stood out in a stand out show: ‘Sheehy…is central, visceral when she needs to be yet precise and controlled – the sort of performance you wonder how an actor can sustain night after night.’ He concluded: ‘this is theatre that demands so much of team and audience, maybe even changes your perspectives. Unmissable.’

Awarding yet more full marks, Sam Marlowe in The Stage (5★) proclaimed: ‘It’s a mind-bending, inexorable helter skelter into hell, surreal as a nightmare yet terrifyingly real.’ For her, Rosie Sheehy acted ‘with such raw anguish and fury that it almost hurts to watch.’

Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (4★) reported: ‘In Richard Jones’s super, stark production, (the play) tears off the stage as if written yesterday, led by an outstanding performance from Rosie Sheehy.’ She had more to say about her: ‘It’s a brave, searingly physical performance.’ She summed up the production as ‘a staging of hallucinatory force.’

Nick Ferris in the Telegraph (4★) was also full of praise for the star: ‘It is a masterclass in how to play a character at the end of her tether. Sheehy is matched with a stellar supporting cast’ in what he called ‘an exceptional production’

The one party pooper was Gary Naylor at Broadway World (3): ‘Coming in at a gruelling 100 minutes all-through, the play is not an easy watch. Whether it’s worth the emotional investment required on both on sides of the fourth wall for its equivocating payoff is moot.’

Two major outlets decided their reviews of the original pre-transfer Ustinov Studio production were sufficient. Back then, Anya Ryan in The Times (5★) said: ‘this is a damning, dehumanising picture of industrialisation and sadness.’ And The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (4★) concluded: ‘We walk away in horror, just as we should.’

Machinal is at the Old Vic until 1 June 2024. Click to buy tickets direct from the theatre

Average critics’ rating 3.8★
Value Rating 63 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60.)

If you’ve seen Machinal, please add your review and rating below

Reviews Roundup: London Tide at The National 2.8★

  • Lyttelton Theatre
Bella Mclean in London Tide. Photo: Marc Brenner

An adaptation by Ben Power (The Lehman Trilogy) of Charles Dickens’ last completed novel Our Mutual Friend, with songs by P J Harvey, must have seemed like a surefire winner. Running through the typically Dickensian larger-than-life characters and complex plot about money, poverty, death and resurrection is the River Thames itself. Sadly for the National Theatre, the critics were not swept away. On thecwhole, they found the script shalloe but Bunny Christie’s set which evoked the river went down well. PJ Harvey’s song proved a sticking for most critics. So, Ian Rickson’s production was greeted with three and two star reviews with just one critic enthusiastic enough to award four stars.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

That was Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out (4★). ‘The performance space becomes the Thames – the effect is majestic and disconcerting (I felt a bit seasick in places),’ he shared. It was, he said, ‘Dickens’s late class drama turned into a work both elemental and righteous.’

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (3★) found it ‘light on the satire and heavy on mood, strikingly staged as a kind of 19th-century noir.’ She concluded: ‘The play winds up to a melodramatic end, with its potboiler elements exposed, but it still retains a curious power, and performances shine.’

Sarah Hemming at the Financial Times (3★) admired the ‘restless, intelligent, absorbing production’ but thought, ‘as drama it is held back by sheer narrative bulk.’ Susannah Clapp in The Observer (3★) decided: ‘Ian Rickson’s production aims to be more than episodically charged, to explore the life of the city that is not contained by character. It is not sufficiently wraparound-vibrant to achieve this.’

For Sam Marlowe in The Stage (3★) ‘emotional impact is a casualty’ and  ‘its characters don’t quite come to life, drowning in the politics and plot mechanics’ but she did appreciate ‘The performances are sinewy and direct, with Ellie-May Sheridan scene-stealing.’ Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph  (3★) agreed: ‘the laurels go to the transfixing stage debutante Ellie-May Sheridan, who seems to have stepped out of Dickens’s imagination.’ Otherwise, for him, it was a ‘five-star wow bobbing in a three-star show.’

Fiona Mountford in the i (3★), like many others couldn’t resist a watery metaphor: ‘we emerge from this theatrical river feeling slightly soggy and mildly bewildered.’ Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (3★) also took a dip: ‘it feels bogged down in the shallows, never quite plunging into the depths of the story’s meaning or fulfilling its own intelligent and honest intentions. It’s full of integrity, but lacks drama.’

And so to the ones who really took against it. Alexander Cohen at Broadway World (2★)  said: ‘reduced to its naked mechanics, the exposition laden writing lacks the lustrous life blood that so warmly flows through the veins of Dickens’s literary worlds.’

Clive Davis in The Times (2★) came out fighting, calling it ‘this weirdly misconceived adaptation’. He didn’t pull his punches: ‘Ian Rickson’s lumbering production is anything but a page-turner.’ And a final kick at the ‘crowded, undernourished melodrama.’

For David Benedict at The Standard (2★) it was ‘a leaden three-and-a-quarter hours.’ His analysis of the failings of the adaptation included this comment: ‘where Dickens’ contextualised writing allows coincidence to thrive, in dialogue as bald as this, the coincidences just feel contrived.’ He concluded, ‘Near the end, Rokesmith sings “Why, why, why, why, why…” Indeed.’

PJ Harvey’s songs

It seems you either like PJ Harvey or you don’t, and the critics didn’t, except for the Time Out reviewer who is clearly a fan: ‘Harvey’s songs are integral…the poised drama they provide feels vital to a show which is bigger on storytelling than emotions and might have felt flat without its spine-tingling tunes.’ The Guardian had a foot in both camps, describing the songs as ‘anti-ballads’ whose ‘seriousness gives the story a lugubrious depth but also undercuts Dickens’ satire and levity.’

No-one else had a good thing to say about them. Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) noted ‘as the story gets more interesting and the characters richer, the songs remain the same – each character stands centre stage and sings out at the audience – until you can’t help sighing a little when another one strikes up, knowing another dirge is on its way.’ The i had a similar thought: ‘It’s a fine idea, but one that plays to decidedly diminishing returns as the mournful, almost identical-sounding numbers mount up.’

The Financial Times said the songs ‘add to the ballast and, often in a gloomily low register, are challenging to deliver.’ For WhatsOnStage, ‘the songs, which are dark and relentless as well as impressive, have a tendency to stop the action rather than move it on.’ The Telegraph agreed: ‘those ditties often impede the action, without adding much ambience.‘ ‘It sounds as if Harvey is constantly recycling the same two slender, indie-flavoured themes,’ said The Times.

For The Observer, ‘They supply a dark, rough undertow but they don’t push on the drama. Rather, like a tide, they simply recur.’ To the ears of The Standard: ‘Harvey’s ceaselessly repetitive, deadeningly slow rhythms and mostly stolidly unchanging harmonies – unhelped by Powers’ flat, earnest lyrics – never make a case for songs being in the show whatsoever.’ Broadway World too could have done without them and didn’t let politeness stand in the way of a good insult. The ‘sludgy dirge’ was a ‘bloated concoction of subdued power ballads paired with painfully superficial lyrics are such a tagged-on afterthought that the production couldn’t just go on happily without it, but would actively improve if it were abandoned.’

Thank goodness for Bunny Christie’s set

Time Out gave a vivid description: ‘At first the performance space looks virtually unadorned. Soon though, the entire ceiling – or rather a series of poles the lights are attached to – starts to undulate, rising and falling like the tide. Eventually it’s joined by the very surface of the stage, which ripples and heaves.’

The Independent recorded: ’50 spotlights hanging over the stage in receding strips, each undulating slowly, giving the queasy impression of the river somehow reflected in the sky, rather than the other way around.’ The Observer said: ‘Christie’s set – with iron lighting rigs that rise and fall – is evocatively adamantine, when not looking like decor for a 21st-century loft.’

The Stage referred to ‘a flinty, hard-edged staging‘ and the i called it ‘striking’.

London Tide can be seen at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 22 June 2024

Average critics’ rating 2.8★

Value Rating 41 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen London Tide, please add your review and rating below


What is the point of the Oliviers?

What is the point of the Olivier Awards? They purport to celebrate theatre but end up looking like self congratulatory lovie love-ins. The awards, organised by the Society of London Theatres, are meant to be a shop window for the best shows, performers and creatives. But what kind of shop displays goods that are not on sale? Want a ticket for the multi-Olivier winning Sunset Boulevard? Sorry, it’s closed. Perhaps you’d like to see the Best New Play? I’m afraid not, the final whistle has blown for Dear England. The curtain has come down on Best Actor Mark Gatiss’ John Gielgud. Vanya, the best play revival, has gone back under the dust covers. Quick! You can still catch Sarah Snook in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stranger Things, Operation Mincemeat and Guys And Dolls. At least all the Oscar winners have an afterlife of DVDs and streaming.
Let’s not even debate the ridiculous proposition that there is such a thing as the best. For example, Mark Gatiss thoroughly deserved his award as Best Actor but any of the otger nominees- Andrew Scott, James Norton, Joseph Fiennes or David Tennant- would have been just as deserving.
Inevitably, once you invent an award someone has to win it. But who could possibly have decided that Guys And Dolls only merited one award? One? Who made the decision to give almost every Olivier to Sunset Boulevard. Did Tom Francis really give a better performance than the phenomenal Charlie Stemp in Crazy For You? You couldn’t choose between their voices, so did Nicole Scherzinger offer as subtle an acting performance as Marisha Wallace did in Guys And Dolls to win Best Actress in a Musical?

You can say it’s all a matter of opinion and taste, but I return to my question: who makes the decisions? The answer is surprising. David Benedict explained in a recent article in The Stage that a panel of ten experts cast their votes. This would be reassuring except for the fact they are slightly outweighed by the 238 votes cast by members of the Society of London Theatres, in other words, theatre owners and producers, the larger of whom have multiple votes. Fortunately, they are all honourable people who vote objectively and wouldn’t dream of favouring their own shows. Even so, if the general public knew that the awards were potentially given to people voting for themselves, I doubt there would be any interest at all.

So, if we are to take the winners with a pinch of salt, I go back to my question: what is the point of the Oliviers? Rather than being anything as lofty as celebrating the best in London theatre, I suggest it’s marketing plain and simple. If that’s the case, the Awards are doing a decent job. The ceremony was covered in the news media from the nominations to the red carpet to the results, albeit not interesting enough to be broadcast on TV.
And, talking of marketing, the Lloyd Webber empire of theatres and productions must be pleased to be able to boast so many Oliviers in the publicity for the Broadway opening of Sunset Boulevard.

Reviews Roundup: The Comeuppance

The Almeida

Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh in The Comeuppance. Photo: Marc Brenner

Most critics agreed that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play The Comeuppance didn’t reach the heights of An Octoroon. Nevertheless they greeted the story of a group of American millennials now in middle age who look back and face mortality (literally since Death appears) with 4 and 3 star enthusiasm.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Let’s start with the high markers. Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (4★) was beguiled. She said it was ‘a play about death which is both high comedy and a melancholic exploration of the vagaries of memory and the weight of nostalgia on 30-somethings surviving in a post-Covid landscape’ and described it as ‘a magnificent drama, truthful and haunting.’

‘it’s Bruce Springsteen meets Chekhov, delivered with waspish humour and the modern irritations of missed texts and faulty GPS,’ said Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (4★), calling it ‘clever, funny and compelling: part social comedy, part danse macabre.’ She added: ‘there’s something poignant about this wry, sad encounter with the inevitability of mortality.’

Debbie Gilpin for Broadway World (4★) was impressed by the way ‘it broaches the trauma of the COVID pandemic in an original and thought-provoking way.’ She also liked the way ‘the blend of humour and drama allows the play to remain engaging.’ ‘Every member of the company has excellent comic timing, as well as great dramatic chops,’ she said, adding’Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh stand out’.

The rest of the pack were more reserved. Fiona Mountford at the I (3★) praised ‘the all-round excellence of the five-person cast’ but said ‘we spend too much of the two-hour running time waiting for Eric Ting’s production to shake itself out of a state of suspended animation and hit full flow.’ Arifa Akbar The Guardian (3★) commented: ‘the production never becomes quite savage enough; the unleashing of rage seems a little polite.’ However, she concluded: ‘Even with its off notes, The Comeuppance is good theatre with eloquent outbursts and awkward wit.’

Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out (3★) had this to say: ‘Finely acted, ‘The Comeuppance’ is a dark, droll, somewhat contemplative comedy about how a generation gets old (or at least, middle-aged).’ Tim Bano in The Independent (3 ★) was even more succinct , calling it ‘two hours of listening to middle-aged millennials feeling sorry for themselves.’

David Benedict in The Standard (3★) praised the ‘warm, carefully paced production’ but found ‘In place of engaging subtext, there’s merely withheld information dragged into the open at convenient moments like in an awkward thriller.’ The result? ‘the play lacks focus and tension evaporates’.

Dzifa Benson for the Telegraph (3★) was disappointed: ‘Jacobs-Jenkins is a fine playwright…On this occasion, however, he doesn’t land his mark.’ He observed: ‘Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t seem to know what to make of all these calamities.’ For Aleks Sierz at the Arts Desk (3★) ‘the play remains inconclusive and, for me, unsatisfying.’

‘It’s a melancholic, meditative piece with a dash of gallows humour’ said Sam Marlowe in The Stage (3★), ‘it’s as if we’re watching them through a fine veil, groping among its allusions for more solid and penetrating meaning.’

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) was forgiving if its perceived faults: ‘If you can’t help sensing that all the characters are types rather than three-dimensional beings, Jacobs-Jenkins’s sharply sculpted dialogue teases out the tensions that exist beneath the bonhomie. Natasha Chivers’s crepuscular lighting design adds to the sense that we are caught somewhere between reality, a dream and a nightmare.’

The Comeuppance can be seen at The Almeida until 18 May 2024. Buy tickets directly from

Average Critic Rating 3.3★

Value Rating 63 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen The Comeuppance, please add your review and rating below




Underdog: The Other Other Brontë – National Theatre- Review

Gemma Whelan is a winner in this romp through the lives of the Brontes


Three actors Adele James, Gemma Whelan and Rhiannon Clements gather round to read a letter in a scene from Underdog: The Othe Other Bronte at the National Theatre
Adele James, Gemma Whelan, Rhiannon Clements in Underdog_ The Other Other Brontë. Photo: Isha Shah

It might be better if you know nothing about the Brontës and simply watch Sarah Gordon’s play Underdog as a portrait of the competition and mutual support that often co-exist among sisters, and of the challenges of being a female novelist in early Victorian times. If you do know a bit about them, you may be annoyed at the liberties taken by this interpretation of their relationship. On the other hand, like me, you may find it jolly good fun. It certainly gains from having the mightily talented Gemma Whelan as Charlotte Brontë.

Let’s start with Ms Whelan.  It’s only right, since she begins the play. She enters through the auditorium, chatting to audience members about the Brontë novels. Unexpectedly, for the author of one of those ‘dour’ books, she’s wearing a bright red dress. She goes up on stage and explains that we are going to hear her story.

As promised, Gemma Whelan and her character dominate the whole evening. She is cocky and nervous, knowing and naive, likeable and unpleasant, and very funny. Supported by Natalie Ibu’s sharp and speedy direction, she holds us- and her sisters- in her grip throughout the evening.

This is a good point to tell you about the set. I know we don’t buy tickets to see the design but Grace Smart’s is impressive. At the beginning, there is a thick carpet of moorland gorse and heather. Almost as soon as Charlotte has mounted the stage, this flies upwards until all we can see is the mass of brown roots underneath. Three black walls are revealed that, combined with the ceiling, represent wonderfully the claustrophobia and earthiness so often associated with the Brontë sisters.

One nice touch is the use of a revolve to indicate more frantic activity, or at the start of act two the long slow coach journey to London, complete with theatrical coconut shells clip-clopping. The set has one more surprise at the end of the play when the back opens up to indicate that Charlotte and the other Brontes are nowadays known to the whole world.

The Other Other Brontë of the title is not the middle sister Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights. Emily’s character isn’t explored so deeply as the other two but then she was the most keen to preserve her anonymity and she died young. So less is known about her. That doesn’t stop Adele James making a good fist of playing a middle sister who challenges the elder and defends the younger.

No, the other other Brontë is the youngest sister Anne who wrote the less well known Agnes Grey and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Anne is played by Rhiannon Clements with an excellent combination of inner strength and outer submissiveness.

The play suggests Charlotte was jealous of Anne’s talent, that she stole the premise of Agnes Grey for her own novel Jane Eyre, and that Anne let her eldest sister walk all over her. Charlotte waivers between undermining her youngest sister and giving her love and support. In fact, this is the greatest joy of Underdog, the way in which many sisters close in age are both competitive and supportive. (This subject has become almost a theme at the National lately, with the great Till The Stars Come Down, The House of Bernarda Alba and Dancing At Lughnasa all featuring sisterly rivalry and solidarity.)

There is a scene, where Charlotte confident of her work but not of her looks, is welcomed into London’s literary grandees’ club (shown as a kind of disco- just one of many amusing anachronisms). On a high because her talent has been recognised, she shrugs off Anne’s concerns. But when she is insulted for her lack of femininity, she turns desperately to her sisters for reassurance.
By the way, the sisters’ ‘coarseness’, which at that time was how many perceived their writing and therefore the women themselves, is given substance in the play by their use of modern expressions and a huge amount of swearing, all to great comic effect.

Liberty-taking, laughter-inducing

Gemma Whelan in Underdog. Photo: Isha Shah

Here’s some of the historical background.  Back in the first half of the 19th century, women novelists were expected to write romances set in polite society. It was unacceptable to many critics that novels that involved class discrimination, male violence, substance abuse and more, as the Brontes’ did, could be written, or read, by women. Therefore, all three sisters submitted their first novels to publishers under male pseudonyms, something Charlotte and Anne were keen to give up, but which Emily clung to.
Charlotte outlived her younger sisters. After their deaths, she did stop a reprint of Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, despite its success. She also seems to have been the most determined among the three to gain respect in literary society, and worked with Elizabeth Gaskell to this end.

Sarah Gordon uses these facts to support a thesis that Charlotte was ambitious and competitive, while the other two were not, and that Charlotte pushed her own work at their expense. The reality may be different, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story, full of comedy and a little pathos, and some interesting ideas.

The many other parts are played by a small group of men, including Nick Blakeley as a snooty Elizabeth Gaskell, Julian Moore-Cook as the slimy publisher George Smith and James Phoon as the the Brontes’ troubled alcoholic brother Branwell.

Underdog is primarily about three sisters, and 19th century attitudes to women, but there is an undertow that questions how what we know or think we know about artists influences our appreciation of their art. However, apart from the boisterous relationship of the sisters, everything else is touched on lightly, and the main emphasis is on fun. Which it is.

Underdog can be seen at the National Theatre’s Dorfman studio until 25 May 2024.
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre

Watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

Reviews Roundup: Ian McKellen in Player Kings

Noël Coward Theatre

Ian McKellen and Toheeb Jimoh in Player kings. Photo: Manuel Harlan

With Sir Ian McKellen playing Falstaff in a new play directed by Robert Icke and adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two, the critics expected the theatrical event of the year. They got it.  4 and 3 star reviews told us that, even if they didn’t think it was a production to go down in theatrical history, they were not disappointed.  They loved Sir Ian (although some seemed more impressed that he was doing it at all at his age), the rest of the top class cast, and the director. Most of the critics thought the second half didn’t match the first in this nearly four-hour marathon.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

The Telegraph‘s Dominic Cavendish (4 ★) summed up: ‘This account may not be one for the annals, but we surely exit eternally grateful that McKellen added the challenge to his bucket-list; a must-witness.’ He said, ‘an unmistakable aura of elegy and mortality hangs over his largely delightful and affecting turn as old Jack Falstaff.’ As for the direction, ‘Though it can incline to the briskly efficient, Icke’s intelligent and beautifully bookended.’

Sam Marlowe in The Stage (4 ★) said ‘McKellen’s rendition of this familiar role feels astonishingly fresh and rewarding…a performance that is, in itself, crammed with observations about some traditional traits of the national character, many of which are not pretty.’ She wrote perceptively about the way Icke’s ‘thoughtful, needling and often very entertaining’ production is ‘skewering of the mythology of Englishness and patriotism, a shrewd overview of the current state of the nation and a piece of premium classical theatre’. It was, she said, ‘A play for today; a performance to remember.’ Like other critics, she felt ‘The pacy first half gives way to a certain amount of languor in the second.’
Nick Curtis in The Standard (4 ★) was possibly the most enthusiastic of all about Sir Ian’s performance, saying he ‘attacks the part ..with relish and superb comic timing…it’s a remarkable feat of skill, swagger and stamina for an 84-year-old…His rheumy, phlegmy Falstaff demands time and attention.’ Fiona Mountford at the i  (4 ★) noted, ‘Sir Ian’s Falstaff, mighty of belly and bragging and snuffling like a pig, has a nasty edge.’

For Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times (4★) ‘McKellen, nearly 85, is magnificent. It’s a performance that confirms once again the depth, breadth and acuity of this great actor’s skill.’ She continued: ‘It’s a brilliant portrayal: magnetic, constantly shifting, often funny, yet fundamentally sad.’ She liked the production: ‘Icke drives through his staging a febrile uncertainty and sense of transience.’ Despite her high rating, she felt ‘The second half is choppy and loses momentum, and some of the comic warmth goes missing.’ However, she ended, ‘at the heart of the show sits McKellen’s unforgettable portrayal of a big player drinking in the last-chance saloon — a Falstaff for our times.’

‘It didn’t feel like nigh on four hours’ for Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★). For her both Falstaff and Hal are outstanding: McKellen is ‘a mighty actor at the peak of his power’ and ‘Toheeb Jimoh is a completely radiant presence’.

It wasn’t too long for Adam Bloodworth at CityAM (4★) either, who said it  ‘goes in a flash, feeling constantly pacey and surprising.’ In line with his peers, he said: ‘you simply can’t take your eyes off of magnetic McKellen, leering around the stage.’

Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out (4 ★) called Sir Ian ‘excellent as a Falstaff whose essential failure in life obviously weighs heavily on him. It’s a funny role, and McKellen gets some big laughs.’ He gave the production high praise: ‘it’s a pretty much faultless turn from the director, a reminder of his uncanny ability to get to the psychological heart of a classic text.’ He continued: ‘it’s a terrific take on one of the greatest plays ever written (plus its decent straight-to-DVD sequel) blessed by two tremendous – and tremendously original – lead performances.’ Like others, he enthused about all the actors: ‘a supporting cast to die for.’

Dominic Maxwell in The Sunday Times (4 ★) observed: ‘McKellen has a unique capacity to play it big and hardly appear to be acting at all.’ He described Toheeb Jimoh as a ‘sensation-in-waiting’.

The critics all had good words for the rest of the cast. Alex Wood at Whats On Stage (3★) , while piling on the bouquets for the lead- ‘McKellen delivers one of the best stage performances of the year’- added ‘Toheeb Jimoh…is an enthralling presence.’ His main reservation was that ‘it all comes apart in a staid second half (shorter in length yet feeling longer), where both Shakespeare’s text and Icke’s choices feel much more lacklustre and uninspired…There may be mighty players, but this occasionally feels like less than the sum of its parts.’

The Guardian‘s Arifa Akbar (3★) agreed: ‘There is a shift in tone between two parts: the first is staged as a gothic thriller, of sorts, with long shadows and suspense. The shorter latter half feels oddly anti-climatic.’ But she praised ‘McKellen’s is a richly complex portrayal’ and liked the ‘slick modern dress production with a magnificent brick-backed set designed by Hildegard Bechtler’.

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) also saw it as a play of two halves: ‘It’s in the first half of the evening, a full two hours long, that the drama is at its sharpest. After the interval, there’s a sense of events being allowed to pile up almost at random.’ However he did like Sir Ian’s voice which ‘still paints in rich colours’ and he too was impressed by the supporting actors: ‘Toheeb Jimoh, lean and athletic, makes a likeable prince. Richard Coyle’s King Henry possesses suitable gravitas.’

Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) was the least enthusiastic. He had mixed feelings about Sir Ian’s performance: ‘He’…soaks up all the attention when he’s on stage; basically, he’s as brilliant as ever. But he also feels like a cartoon splotch on an otherwise realist production. McKellen’s approach is outsized and incongruous, especially in those early scenes when he’s alongside Toheeb Jimoh’s joyous Prince Hal.’ And he certainly wasn’t keen on the production: ‘the whole thing tips into naffnes… McKellen meets Icke could have been magic. In spurts, to be fair, it is. But as Falstaff toddles off into the wings, the overriding sensation is one of trying to convince yourself you’re not disappointed.’

Player Kings continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 22 June 2024, then touring. For details and tickets, go to

Average Critic Rating 3.7★

Value Rating 42 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Player Kings, please add your review and rating below

Reviews Roundup: Underdog: The Other Other Brontë 3.1★

National Theatre

Adele James, Gemma Whelan and Rhiannon Clements in Underdog. Photo:: Isha Shah

The Brontë sisters are re-examined in Sarah Gordon’s comedy Underdog: The Other Other Brontë, which won the Nick Darke Award in 2020 and is now given an outing at the National’s small Dorfman Theatre. Most critics occupied the middle ground, finding it funny but shallow, but the i gave it a rare 5 stars while The Stage could only find a curmudgeonly two. Gemma Whelan from Game of Thrones and Upstart Crow stands out as Charlotte in a story of sibling rivalry also featuring Rhiannon Clements as put-upon Anne, and Adele James as marginalised Emily.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Let’s start with Fiona Mountford in inews (5★). Describing it as ‘ebullient’, she said it was ‘as joyously invigorating as a brisk walk over the Yorkshire Moors’. She liked the ‘robustly 21st-century critique of sisterhood, ambition, reputation and gatekeeping’ and said, ‘Whelan is in her element as the uncompromising Charlotte, witty, selfish and magnificent with it.’

Neil Norman in the Mail (4★) liked the sisters: ‘Arresting performances from Whelan as the deeply unsympathetic Charlotte, Clements as the independent-but-withdrawn Anne and James as the stoical Emily keep Gordon’s spirited play alight.’

And so to the three star reviews. Here’s Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (3★): ‘Directed with pace by Natalie Ibu…Gordon’s script bounces along, albeit with some glaring modern-day lessons on masculinity and inequality tacked on. It is quick-witted and amusing’, then comes the iron fist in the velvet glove, ‘though it never deepens enough for the emotional punches to land.’ She praised the look of it: ‘the exposure of envy and competition beneath the Brontës’ sisterliness is mirrored in the visual metaphor of Grace Smart’s set which consists of a verdant floral mound uprooted at the start to reveal dark matter beneath.’

Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (3★) talked of a ‘canny, but in my view overly perky, portrait of the siblings’. He expanded, ‘It’s as if in fearing to make the past dull, it must be brought alive in primary colours. In avoiding the clichés of the Gothic…she errs towards the goonish.’ His final comment suggested he was judging the show by the standard of an imaginary play in which ‘the novels, in all their richness, … speak for themselves.’ On the plus side: ‘It’s very stylishly designed by Grace Smart, pacily staged by Natalie Ibu, and winningly played across the board.’

For Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (3★), ‘Natalie Ibu’s direction (is) confident and fleet…Whelan…is commanding as she turns Charlotte into a monster…Adele James brings deep emotion to the under-written part of Emily, author of Wuthering Height.’ However, she seems to be having the same thought as the Telegraph critic: ‘what goes missing amidst the humour and the sisterly squabbling, is the sense that the Brontës did actually deserve their place in the literary canon.’Nick Curtis used plenty of complimentary adjectives in his review in the Standard (3★)- ‘rumbunctious’ ‘playful and visually witty’ but he also damned it as ‘slender’.

Heather Neill at The Arts Desk (3★)felt ‘Natalie Ibu’s speedy direction fits the light-hearted, often caricatured storytelling, the audience always knowingly acknowledged…Whelan is a fire-cracker, rarely still, very funny.’

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) described it as ‘hyperactive burlesque’, and ‘a short story posing as a novel.’ In compensation, he found ‘Gemma Whelan’s salty performance always holds your attention’ and he appreciated ‘All the salty language, not to mention the unashamedly anachronistic jokes’.

Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out (3★) also liked Gordon’s script and Gemma Whelan’s performance: ‘(the) dialogue is blunt, funny and wilfully anachronistic..the supremely watchable Whelan devours her part whole’. Although he liked ‘Natalie Ibu‘s larky, visually inventive production’ and thought ‘Underdog is a very funny play,’ he felt, ‘That funniness doesn’t always work to its advantage. It has nuanced points about authorship, legacy and family that are obscured by the sound of laughter.’

Lucy Kenningham at CityAM (3★) took it quite personally. Having told us she has a sister, she ended her review: ‘Short and ambitious, it hurls ideas into the Yorkshire air, many of which land flat. But examinations of sisterhood are depressingly rare, so when those ideas are explored, they hit hard.’ (She clearly missed Till The Stars Come Down, The House of Bernarda Alba and Dancing At Lughnasa, all recently at the National, and all exploring sisterly relationships.)

While Sam Marlowe in The Stage (2★) made many of the same points as her fellow critics, she was less forgiving. She referred to it as being ‘reductive to the point of becoming glib and cartoonish’. ‘There’s nothing deeply felt and scant sense of character, in a play more invested in winning easy laughs,’ she said. ‘The actors are game and hard-working, and at best it’s mildly entertaining. But as an exploration of women who left us such sinewy, sexy, courageous writing, it feels like a sadly wasted opportunity.’

The Observer’s Susannah Clapp (2★) had little time for the show: ‘where in this mechanical modernisation is the imaginative power that makes the sisters worth attending to?’ although she did concede: ‘Natalie Ibu’s strenuously comic production gets lively perfs from Rhiannon Clements as Anne…Adele James as vibrant Emily, and Gemma Whelan as domineering Charlotte.’

Underdog can be seen at the National Theatre until 25 May 2024. Buy tickets direct from

Average Critic Rating 3.1★

Value Rating 48 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

Read Paul Seven Lewis’s review of Underdog

If you’ve seen Underdog, please add your review and rating below

Reviews Roundup: Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3.5★


Brian Cox & Patricia Clarkson in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photo: Johan Persson

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of the great American plays of the twentieth century, some say the greatest. The latest West end production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, brings together Succession star Brian Cox as the paterfamilias James Tyrone, and Patricia Clarkson as his morphine-addicted wife Mary. It is she, even more than he, who got the critics excited. This is a long play, as most of the reviews reminded us. ‘For three and a half hours, the four members of the Tyrone family – a morphine addict, two alcoholics and a consumptive – shout and mope and recriminate’ (to quote The Independent).  The supporting cast of Laurie KynastonDaryl McCormack and Louisa Harland (recently seen in Ulster American) were all well received.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (4★) praised both stars. About Brian Cox he said: ‘this verbose, confined epic calls for vocal clout and physical heft. Which he has.’ Then: ‘the terrific American actress Patricia Clarkson as the stricken matriarch generates an increasingly hypnotic force of unstable energy.’ The play is, he said, ‘a heart-rending mirror of forsaken souls in which we may all glimpse our own familial griefs.’ He ended with one word: ‘Recommended.’

Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (4★) had  this to say about the duo: ‘Cox, all bark and ferocity, plays up the character’s fury, his sense of betrayal, his anger at the world and himself’ and ‘In Patricia Clarkson’s eagle-sharp interpretation, Mary (is) a dominant force, whose evasions, untruths and occasional moments of absolute knowledge prevent her family from confronting their own demons.’ She was impressed by ‘The clarity and directness of Herrin’s production and the way that the cast both speak and listen with absolute intent brings it to vivid life once more.’

For Nick Curtis in The Standard (4★) ‘Cox is magnetic as Tyrone, volcanic one moment, maudlin the next. He’s well-matched by Clarkson whose prim body language and sly evasions betray the wariness of the secret addict.’ The rest of the cast hold their own: ‘Jeremy Herrin’s production is full of pathos and ruined grandeur, with superb performances all round.’ He noted ‘Kynaston…brings great delicacy and watchfulness to Edmund: he also resembles Clarkson in profile. McCormack…brings a malign, defeated charisma to Jamie. Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland turns the caricatured Oirish servant Kathleen into a gust of light relief.’ He had praise too for the look of the production: ‘Designer Lizzie Clachan emphasises the oppressive, inescapable nature of their tragedy with a cramped box of a set.’

Louise Penn at Broadway World (4★) didn’t find it too long: ‘not a second is wasted in Jeremy Herrin’s fine production, which features a delicate showcase of addiction, longing, and despair from Patricia Clarkson.’ She also thought Brian Cox gave ‘a mesmerising performance’. She shared with other critics an admiration for the way ‘Lizzie Clachan’s set and costumes capture the sense of a prosperous past while providing muted hues which fit well with Jack Knowles’s lighting.’ She clearly loved the play: ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the mirror into which we can see our souls.’

Sam Marlowe in The Stage (4★) thought it was ‘faultlessly performed’, but reserved her highest praise for the two stars:  ‘A serene smile battling with tiny nervous gestures, her eyes increasingly somnolent and vague as the drug kicks in, Clarkson is shattering. Cox’s James combines an ox-like bulk and power with the silver-haired, self-conscious elegance of an old stager.’ She concluded: ‘It’s a demanding experience, which Herrin allows to accumulate its force slowly, but the acting here is dauntless: a monumental testament to domestic agony.’ Matt Wolf at The Arts Desk (4★) centred his review around Patricia Clarkson: ‘Jeremy Herrin’s slow-aborning if properly sorrowful production confirms a sense confirmed by experience that this text really does belong to Mary’. (‘Aborning’ is an American word for being born.)

Susannah Clapp in The Observer (3★) thought not only was it long but also didn’t half the impact it should: ‘Jeremy Herrin’s production is careful, slowly gathering – and three-and-a-half hours long. The opening scenes are muted, not so much anguished as anxious.’ She continued, ‘Solo confessions are the motor of the play but they gain in intensity with a greater sense of family…than there is here. The wounds look grave, not – as they should – fatal.’ However, she was impressed by ‘the sheer force of writing and of acting’.

Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) described how ‘Herrin turns this into a showcase for Big Acting, with no distractions.  The stripped-back approach is really exposing, and there are moments when it doesn’t bear up to the scrutiny.’  Even though he found ‘some scenes in the second half feel really bum-numbingly long,’ the play is, he said, ‘very impressive, often mesmerising and – when it hits right – really profoundly moving.’ About Patricia Clarkson, he said she ‘has an extraordinary ability to flitter in and out of reality, sometimes just with her eyes.’

For Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (3★), while ‘Cox is, as always, thrilling to watch’…’it is Patricia Clarkson…who steals the show…hers feels like a true, infuriating, compassionate portrait of an addict.’  She was not entirely won over by O’Neill’s play: ‘Some scenes glitter with dark energy, and are truly tragic. Others feel protracted, the play’s old-fashioned exposition exposed, and the over-used device of characters narrating memories feeling like lengthy confessions.’

While all the critics loved Patricia Clarkson, some were less sure about Brian Cox. Fiona Mountford in inews (3★) said: ‘Clarkson is magnificent, giving the performance of the evening, shaping Mary into a figure of almost ethereal radiance, present but also absent’ but ‘Cox struggles to shift register sufficiently and convinces us a little less of the weight of the wounds he bears, especially in comparison to Clarkson’s deep mining of truth.’ She found ‘The almost three-and-a-half hours of Jeremy Herrin’s production do weigh heavily.’ Andrezej Lukowski in Time Out (3★), while praising ‘a superlative turn from …Patricia Clarkson’, opined, ‘Cox doesn’t quite nail the role of James Tyrone’. He also had reservations about the direction: ‘mostly this is a very straight production… It’s a daunting play, yes, but it shouldn’t be a museum piece.’

Least convinced was Clive Davis in  The Times  (2★): ‘O’Neill grinds us into submission with dialogue which turns in achingly slow circles,‘ he said. ‘Cox is always watchable,’ he admitted, ‘but he’s still not able to prevent long-winded confrontations and confessions from slipping into melodrama.’ He didn’t like the production either: ‘Herrin’s prosaic approach doesn’t supply much in the way of light and shade. Lizzie Clachan’s austere set design offers little to please the eye, either.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night can be seen at Wyndham’s Theatre until 8 June 2024. Buy tickets directly from

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.4★

Value rating  23 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is usually based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Long Day’s Journey Into Night, please add your review and rating below

Reviews Roundup: Power of Sail 3.1★

Menier Chocolate Factory

Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera in Power of Sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In Paul Grellong’s play, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, a Harvard professor invites a racist, holocaust denier to a symposium. Various people are up in arms, freedom of speech is evoked, but as the would-be thriller travels back in time, it reveals there is more to various protagonists’ motives than their stated positions. There may have been an almighty row on stage, but in the stalls the critics showed a rare moment of unity (until a late review appeared). David Mamet is mentioned frequently in the reviews, both for content (remember Oleanna) and language, but the critics found Power of Sail fell short of greatness because there were too many twists to the plot. By the way, the title refers to the rule that says engine-driven ships must give way to sail boats. None of the critics came up with a satisfactory explanation of its relevance to the story.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) found much of interest:  ‘Paul Grellong’s intelligent if schematic play incorporates themes of cancel culture, Nazi legacies and the intersection between freedom of expression and hate speech.’ ‘it grips with its adrenalised dialogue,’ she said. ‘But,’ she said, ‘this is coupled with a briskness in plot – one twist after another – that pushes it forward at a rate of knots, while almost all of the characters turn out to be appalling in ways that feel too flat.’ Nick Curtis in The Standard (3★) agreed, even using the same adjective: ‘It’s an enjoyable and provoking watch, though the number of issues Grellong crams into 100 minutes means it’s necessarily schematic.’ Like others, he found ‘The rollercoaster of “aha” moments gradually shows diminishing returns.’

Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (3★) was on the same track. She said it ‘takes a fascinating subject and then via various unlikely plot twists, so muddies the water that its impact is blunted.’ Like the others, she found it superficial: ‘It ends up skating along the surface of a hugely important debate rather than digging deep.’ Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (3★) was yet another who felt ‘the subject-matter cries out for more time to unpack.’ He clearly thought this was a shame because it was ‘a timely look at freedom of speech and the perils of taking sides at university, smartly directed, as ever, by Dominic Dromgoole.’ He found space to praise the lead actor Julian Ovenden, describing him as ‘convincingly acerbic’.

Clive Davis  in The Times (3★) appears to be more positive: ‘Not content with setting up a fast-paced debate about the limits of academic freedom, the American playwright catches us off balance with a shifting chronological structure which, in the second half, continually asks us to reassess the motivations of his main characters.’ But his positivity ran aground on the same rocks observed by the other reviewers: ‘It’s just a pity that Grellong tries to rush through many plot twists, some of them less than plausible.’ Did Patrick Marmion in the Mail (3★) take a different view? No: ‘Grellong also loses the dramatic focus of his would-be thriller by digressing.’

Mica Blackwell at Broadway World (3★) joined the procession: ‘Grellong’s snappy dialogue and Dominic Dromgoole’s direction keep the play punchy, but it feels too short to fully discuss the topics with the true nuance they deserve.’ ‘Maybe those conversations will be better discussed after watching the show,’ she added hopefully. Like the other critics, she praised the look of the show: ‘Paul Farnsworth’s sleek set captures the prestige of an Ivy League campus.’

But the critics’ unity was shattered when, a little after the others, Caroline McGinn’s review appeared at Time Out (4★) and told us why it was ‘Brisk, well-made and punchy’. ‘It has a genuinely exciting plot and a full-spectrum moral awareness of the murky motives and pitiless passions of identity politics…both together are an absolute treat.’ The ‘terrific’ play is, she said, ‘wisely and craftily directed by…Dominic Dromgoole.’

Power of Sail can be seen at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 12 May 2024. Buy tickets directly from

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.1★

Value rating  60 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Power of Sail, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)

Reviews Roundup: The Divine Mrs S 2.9★

Hampstead Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson

Despite the Arts Council withdrawing its grant, Hampstead Theatre continues to present new work. The Divine Mrs S is a new comedy written by April De Angelis, directed by Anna Mackmin, and starring Rachael Stirling. It tells the story of the great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons as she tries to break free from the control and exploitation of the men around her. Stirling’s performance went down well with the critics. However the play itself was at one extreme an ‘absolute hoot’ and at the other ‘unfunny’; the direction was ‘fleet footed’ or ‘without pacing’; and it was a ‘drama that makes you burn at the injustice’ or else it was ‘pointless’. Unusually, it was a night on which the female reviewers outnumbered the men, and it would be neat to say the women liked it and the men didn’t, except the harshest critic was a woman.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

For Claire Allfree in the Telegraph (4★), ‘A pitch-perfect Rachael Stirling brings an air of fruity exasperation to Siddons.’ She described the play as ‘beautifully skewering the entrenched hypocrisies surrounding female roles both on stage and in real life, The Divine Mrs S is an absolute hoot.’ As for the production, ‘Anna Mackmin’s fleet-footed production keeps the play’s light and dark tones and anachronistic sensibilities in fluent balance.’ Anya Ryan at Time Out (4★) was another enthusiast.: ‘To merge sharp comedy with drama that makes you burn at the injustice is no mean feat, but De Angelis has done it marvellously.’

Frey Kwa Hawking of Whats On Stage (3★) awarded one less star but still enjoyed her evening: ‘Anna Mackmin keeps things moving at a great clap, and harnesses the fun De Angelis is having with her language.’ She was also impressed by the way ‘Siddons, her life and enduring, existential questions about what to play and how to play it are done loving justice.’

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) was more reserved in her praise: ‘ the larky comedy is good-natured and clever, but it does not deepen enough… and might have benefited from sharper pacing.’ ‘Rachael Stirling as Siddons puts fire into Anna Mackmin’s fitful production,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer (3★)

Cindy Marcolina of Broadway World (2★) didn’t like it at all, describing it as ‘a load of… silliness.’ ‘Very little happens,’ she complained. She went on, ‘It’s aimless and confused as well as riddled with static figurines who avoid going on any kind of personal journey.’ It is, she concluded, ‘a tired, unfunny comedy that doesn’t have a point.’

And so to the male critics. For The Standard’s Nick Curtis (2★), it was ‘Disappointing.’  ‘Rachael Stirling’s imperious, high-comic performance as Sarah Siddons is the saving grace of this aimless and tiresomely in-jokey play,’ he said. He didn’t like the direction, saying the play was ‘left to meander without pacing or purpose’. He conceded, ‘Many of the jokes are very funny but they rob the story of weight.’

Dominic Maxwell in The Times (2★) also found a redeeming feature in the ‘highly watchable’ Rachael Stirling. Thank goodness, because, ‘Beyond that, the feminist satire, the handsome staging and the forcible fun of the playing add up to less than the sum of their playfully mock-Georgian parts.’

The divine Mrs S can be seen at Hamostead Theatre until 27 April 2024. Buy tickets direct from Hampstead Theatre

Average critic rating (out of 5) 2.9★

Value rating  52 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen The Divine Mrs S, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)