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

Michael Sheen in Nye – review

Michael Sheen’s titanic tribute to founder of NHS

★★★★★
A scene from Nye at the National Theatre London in which actor Michael Sheen is lying on a hospital bed with actors Roger Evans and Sharon Small standing either side of him
Roger Evans, Michael Sheen and Sharon Small in Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

A man is dying in a hospital bed. He is flanked by his wife and his oldest friend. Heavily sedated with pain killing morphine, his brain takes him back to significant episodes in his life. And what a life. Because this Aneurin Bevan known as Nye who spearheaded the foundation of the National Health Service.

In the course of the evening, while we do learn something about how the service came into being, much more to the point we discover why it was so important to this man and what made him into one of the Labour Party’s most powerful figures.
Playwright Tim Price’s concept is superb. For the entire play, Nye is on stage in his pyjamas and often in his hospital bed. This may remind you of Dennis Potter’s TV drama The Singing Detective, and there is even a sequence in which Nye sings Get Happy to the backing of a brass band. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a highly effective device.
It may be fair to say that, because of the constant presence of Nye, the production would not succeed without an actor of exceptional brilliance in the role. Fortunately, in Michael Sheen, it has one. He never overplays the part, tempting as it must be when portraying one of the twentieth century’s great orators. Nye himself may have had a huge ego, he may have been disloyal, and these characteristics are hinted at, but what we are given by Michael Sheen is a man scared by his present condition and wondering desperately whether his life has been worthwhile. It is a magnetic and moving performance.
A scene from Nye at the National Theatre in London in which Michael Sheen in pyjamas with a book in his hand is being held up by other cast members
Michael Sheen and the cast of Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

Vicki Mortimer’s clever set uses green hospital-style curtains to open to reveal a whole ward of beds, and close to provide the intimacy of a single room. The beds and curtains also move around to create a schoolroom, the House of Commons, a library, the local council chamber and a parliamentary tea room. A low ceiling from which hang the lights emphasises depth and human scale. The lighting designed by Paule Constable enhances each scene: flat fluorescent for the ward, green laser for the coal face, and so on.

So, we encounter Nye bullied by a teacher because his stammer, and receiving solidarity from his friends including his lifelong friend Archie Lush, given a solid portrayal by Roger Evans, and it’s he who helps him overcome his stammer by introducing him to the miners’ free library where he learns alternatives that avoid the traps of words beginning with ‘s’. And of course, it’s his wide vocabulary that helps him become one of the great orators of his time.
We see how he organises the mine workers in his home town Tredegar. How he was a lone and unpopular voice opposing that other great orator WinstonChurchill during World War Two. Tony Jayawardena giving a very amusing version of the wartime leader as a charming persuader, symbolically dancing light on his feet.
In the post-War Labour government, Nye becomes Health Minister and forces through the National Health Service against considerable opposition both from within his own party (a egocentric patronising Herbert Morrisson is played by Jon Furlong) and from the doctors. He sues tactics learned from his youth, his brief time in the mines and his time in local politics, as well his power of persuasion. Although in the end the doctors are brought round by throwing a lot of money at them. The use of a stark black-and-white video created by Jon Driscoll is hugely effective. First it shows the myriad challenges facing the new universal health service and overwhelming Nye, especially when people step out of the screen to tell their personal story. Then it shows the faces of the doctors harsh, greedy and recalcitrant.
On a personal front, we learn how his poetry-loving mineworker father who died from coal dust in the lungs influenced him. And how he met and wooed his wife and fellow MP Jenny Lee. Sharon Small is wonderful as the far left feminist, sharp of mind and tongue.

A worthy swansong for Rufus Norris

There are elements of a history lesson, but ultimately this is the story of a man and his mission. It is told with humour and compassion. Director Rufus Norris, in his last production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, uses the stage to the full, creating a feel that is both epic and intimate. There are complex scenes choreographed by Steven Hogget and Jess Williams, there are small moments of passion and poignancy.
Now, you can say, as some critics have, that the other characters have little depth, and that may be true but this is a play about Nye Bevan. You may even say that it is not a full picture of him or the full story of the formation of the NHS. That may also be true, but why expect it to be something that it doesn’t claim to be? What we are given are the episodes that stand out in a life as remembered by a dying man.
When death finally arrives, he asks plaintively: ‘Did I look after everyone?’ It is a moment that brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, and I was not alone. Tears for the loss of someone who we have come to care about, and maybe also for a health service that was started with such high ideals.
Nye is at the National Theatre until 11 May, after which it will transfer to Wales Millennium Centre from 18 May to 1 June. There will also be a National Theatre Live broadcast in cinemas from 23 April.
Coincidentally on the same day as I saw Nye, I also watched The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in which Keeley Hawes as a local GP and Labour politician is involved in ushering in the NHS at local level while having a Brief Encounter-ish affair with a film star played by Jack Davenport. If you’d like to know what I thought of it, click here.

Keeley Hawes in The Human Body – review

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport rise above a messy play

★★★
Actors Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport hold each other with a camera operator in the backgound in a scene from stage play The Human Body by Lucy Kirkwood at the Donmar Warehouse
Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport in The Human Body. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in London tells the story of a middle-aged love affair to the background of the birth of the NHS.

Lucy Kirkwood‘s inspiration is Brief Encounter and other British films of the immediate postwar era that looked at women in a changing society. To hammer the point home, there are multiple occasions in the production when the action is videoed and shown on the back wall as a black-and-white film. Video has been used quite a bit in theatre productions recently, notably in Ivo von Hove‘s  A Little Life and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ivo von Hove this isn’t. For me, the filming was a distraction, not a reinforcement, made worse, much worse, by having cameras and camera operators on stage, getting in the way, and killing the moment.
Maybe Lucy Kirkwood and the directors Michael Longhurst and Ann  Lee meant us to be alienated so that, rather get too tied up in the love story, we could observe from a distance the parallels between the revolution in health care and women’s desire to abandon pre-war traditional behaviour.
The argument for universal health care is strongly made, the case for an affair between a rising politician and a fading movie star more uncertain. She rarely goes to the cinema and he is disinterested in politics, albeit able to quote Charlie Chaplin’s inspiring anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator. Perhaps part of the attraction lies in each being outside the other’s world.
There is certainly a physical attraction between the two- the dice are definitely loaded by having them played by Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport–  and they do have in common that both are unhappy in their marriages, but, as in Brief Encounter, good old fashioned guilt and duty threaten to pull them apart. The echoes of the film are many but with some crucial changes. She, not he, is the GP. Both have greater reasons than a simple morality to stick with their spouses. And the sense of guilt and duty, in her case, extends beyond her family to take in the Party and her patients. The physical consummation of their affair is more satisfactory, shall we say, than in Brief Encounter.
Lucy Kirkwood’s dialogue is touching, heartfelt and funny and it’s an absorbing ‘will she, won’t she’ story. Ben and Max Ringham‘s score works well, sounding more like the tense background to a 1940s thriller than the stirring Rachmaninov piano notes of Brief Encounter. If only the production was as fast or exciting as the music.
Keeley Hawes plays a multi-tasking modern woman, not only a GP and would-be Labour MP, but also a wife and mother. Her husband has been disabled when fighting in the war. So, whether to save her marriage is just one of many choices she has to make. This makes the story more interesting as well as giving Ms Hawes many opportunities to display a middle-class stiff upper lip hiding a volcano of emotions.   Often, when containing her feelings, she adopts a tight smile, but when she laughs, it’s as if an extra light shines on the stage. Her speech in favour of the new socialism and an end to Victorian values was so passionate, it actually received a round of applause from the audience. At all times, she commands the stage.
Admittedly, she is probably too glamorous for the ordinary woman she is meant to be. In fact, there is an unintentional moment of humour when her husband says ‘I hate your body’. There were audible intakes of breath from some people in the audience on the night I was there, as if they couldn’t believe anyone would reject the immaculate Keeley Hawes.

Top Class Cast

Tom Goodman-Hill, Siobhan Redmond & Pearl Mackie in The Human Body. Photo: Mar Brenner

All the actors are top class. Jack Davenport was full of self deprecating charm as a gone-to-seed film star. Siobhan Redmond, Pearl Mackie and Tom Goodman-Hill excel in multiple parts. Thank goodness, because they save the evening.

I can’t help feeling this play was not designed for the Donmar. Fly Davis‘ mainly dark blue set design with a revolve creates a sense of the monochrome austerity of the late 1940s and, with the audience on three sides, she wisely keeps the props to a minimum. However, unless you sit in the centre block of seats, your view of the high-up screen will inevitably be partially obscured. Much more detrimental than this, though, are the many scene changes which should have been fast moving and fluid but are slowed down by mobile props- tables, chairs and so on- being trundled on and off the empty stage via the aisles in the auditorium. Worse than the time this consumed in an already overlong play is the distracting noise of the wheels and of technicians whispering into headsets.
Earlier in the day, across the river at the National, I had seen Nye, the epic story of the Labour politician who was the driving force behind the creation of the NHS. The Human Body might have been a counterpoint, offering a microcosm about the creation of the health service at a local level. Instead, while strands of the story do offer insights into the struggles within the Labour Party, and the resistance of the medical profession and the need for free healthcare, these are not the focal point. However, along with the other distractions, they are enough to take the focus away from the conflicted love affair.
The Human Body is at Donmar Warehouse, London, until 13 April. Click here to buy tickets directly from the theatre.
Paul paid for his ticket

Richard Hawley & Chris Bush’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge – Gillian Lynne Theatre – Review

Sheffield high-rise musical hits the heights


★★★★

Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

With a book written by Chris Bush and music by Richard Hawley, both born in Sheffield, and direction by Robert Hastie, who is the Artistic Director of the city’s Crucible theatre where it began life, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is Made In Sheffield, just as much as the steel for which the city was famous. Yet it has a universal appeal, as shown by its the National Theatre and now to the West End.

Starting in 1961 and spanning nearly sixty years, the musical tells the story of three families who at separate times live in a high-rise flat in the huge Sheffield housing estate called Park Hill. Their narratives later intersect but initially it seems like a portrait of three discrete times adding up to a history of modern Britain. There’s the socialist optimism following the second world war; the decimation of industrial Britain and the destruction of working-class communities during the Thatcher years (Act One concludes with a shocking riot to the tune of There’s A Storm A-Coming); and today’s liberal-minded but materialistic services economy. I assume Chris Bush leans to the left but she wears her socialism lightly.

They all have their histories, their tragedies, and most of all their love stories. A neon sign says ‘I love you Will u marry me’ replicating the real sign on the flats which itself was based on a famous piece of graffiti.

The main interest is in characters who try to make the best of their situations, even if some fall through the cracks. Her dialogue flows as smoothly as the River Sheaf.

The musical begins with a traditional British working-class couple moving in, thrilled to have all mod cons. Rachael Wooding as Rose is excellent as she goes from excited young wife to strong partner when her husband loses his job following the steelworks closures and to a weary acceptance when life often doesn’t work out as expected, exemplified in her heart breaking rendition of After The Rain. Her husband Harry, played by Joel Harper-Jackson, makes a journey too, starting as a confident provider, then falling apart as so many proud working-class men did without a job to give meaning to their lives.

Next, as the estate becomes run down, we see the arrival of immigrant refugees.  Joy has been brought by her aunt and uncle from Liberia to the safety of Sheffield. Played by   Elizabeth Ayodele, she undergoes a transformation as she rebels against the values of the old country and adopts the culture of Sheffield, including a change in accent.

Finally, we meet Poppy, perhaps the one with whom we will feel the most in common. She’s a marketing person from London who has headed north to get over a broken relationship. Although she has the least dramatic story, mainly relying on jokes about today’s middle class lifestyle, it’s hard not to be touched by Laura Pitt-Pulford as she conveys Poppy’s desire to be part of a community.  Lauryn Redding as her desperate ex belts out a rousing version of Open Up Your Door.

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Chris Bush’s witty, angry and moving script finds parallels in the different eras, so that all three families eventually appear on the stage at the same time, their conversations overlapping. It’s a real sense of how a building retains its history and a way to see how much ostensibly different people can have in common. It reminded me of some of Alan Aykbourn’s experiments in presenting more than one narrative simultaneously on stage. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s harder to become involved with individual stories.

The selection of Richard Hawley’s poetic songs creates an impressive soundtrack for a rock musical but there is plenty of variation in style. A blistering bluesy version of the title number opens Act Two.  The many excellent songs, angry, poignant or passionate, augment what’s happening on stage and are wonderfully performed but inevitably they seem too often as if they have been tacked on to the story rather than integral to it, like the blistering bluesy version of the title number that opens Act Two.

Robert Hastie moves these various narratives deftly around the set and at tiumes has the whoile cast of over thirty players interweaving on stage. Lynn Page’s clever choreography at times had the cast moving in a rhythmical walking motion and swaying embraces, uniting different times, generations and classes.

Ben Stone’s set is magnificent, filling the stage with a three storey section of a building with the features of a Park Hill high rise. The main action takes place on a basic but sufficient representation of a flat while the upper two floors are occupied by a large band. The flat apparently offers a glorious view of Sheffield but for us it is down-to-earth.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is an excellent musical that not only has much to say but says it from the heart. It deserves a long life in the West End.

Standing At Sky’s Edge continues at Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024.

Click here to buy tickets directly.

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth – review

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma offer a glimpse of greatness


★★★★

Indira Varma holds Ralph Fiennes in a scene from Macbeth touring theatre production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes & Indira Varma in Macbeth. Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes wanted to take this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth away from the traditional theatrical venues and audiences, so it has popped up in a warehouse-like hall in London’s Docklands. Apart from the possibility of attracting a new audience, there are other advantages to a venue like Dock X.

For a start, Frankie Bradshaw can begin her fabulous set design before you even enter the auditorium, by making the lobby or antechamber an immersive scene that conjures the aftermath of a battle. There’s a burning car, rubble and patrolling soldiers, as you might have seen on news reports from Gaza or Ukraine.
This is important because, although this production by Simon Godwin, constantly reminds you that you are in a war zone, the set itself, once you are inside the auditorium is a plain stage rising via wide stairs to a mezzanine, emphasising the domestic situations in which the play largely takes place, rather than battlefields.
The temporary seating is on three sides which adds an appropriate intimacy. I must say, though, I would rather sit in an actual theatre any day than this shed, into which well over a thousand people were crammed with apparently no consideration given to the torture caused by minuscule legroom and cheap plastic seats.
Anyway, enough of the venue, what about the show? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, surpassed only, in my opinion, by King Lear. Its supremacy derives from its complexity: the constant psychological battles between good and evil, duty and ambition, fate and free will, truth and lies, and so on. I go to every production hoping it will shed light on the play’s depths, and guide us through the states of mind of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as they make their bloody decisions.
In this production, we are constantly reminded that we are in a war torn country, and, as the cast are in modern dress, that it could be one of today’s many conflicts. There has been a rebellion and an invasion, and Macbeth has played an important part in the King’s victory over the opposition.
The sound of artillery is frequent and loud. But does that explain the Macbeths’ ambition? I don’t think so. If anything, the reminder of today’s awful fighting is a distraction, because it is unnecessarily upsetting. I saw this show on the day of the 2nd anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Someone who was sitting near me and had experience of that war, didn’t return for the second half, apparently because they found it too traumatic.
The background of conflict seems to me irrelevant to a play primarily about the consequences of overthrowing a legitimate government (even if it’s one with which you disagree) and such themes as whether the end can justify the means, and how one evil act leads to another.
Perhaps this is a good point to run over the plot, if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth. The Scottish lord and soldier meets three Weird Sisters, or Witches, who predict that he will become King. He’s quite excited by this prospect but seems prepared to let it happen naturally until his wife persuades him to take the opportunity to kill the monarch while he’s staying with them. The weird women also predict that his friend Banquo’s heirs will become Kings, so he decides to kill Banquo. MacDuff joins the English in opposition to him, so he puts out a contract on the MacDuff family. All very Putin. In the end, he suffers the consequences of his actions.
Actor Ralph Fiennes stands holding a knife in a scene from Macbeth touring production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth. Photo: Matt Humphrey

So, what do Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma as the murderous couple tell us about the ‘why’ of all this? Both actors bring out the richness of their roles. We first meet Mr Fiennes’ Macbeth as he lumbers onto the stage. He talks like a blunt soldier. He’s slightly stooped, he looks tired, as if he is exhausted rather than exhilarated by his victories. Maybe this explains why he’s not in a hurry to embark on another round of killing and thinks he might leave his succession to the throne to ‘chance’.

His wife on the other hand, bright eyed, articulate, and sophisticated in dress and manner, can’t wait. Ms Varma is clipped and matter-of-fact as she pushes him toward the deed. It’s then we get the first of many speeches in which Shakespeare expresses Macbeth’s internal arguments, sometimes to others, sometimes to himself. At first, his objections seem to be to do with etiquette: he is the King’s subject, obliged to be against assassination; that he is his host, who should be providing protection.
Ralph Fiennes is magnificent at these moments. He rightly acknowledges the speeches for the powerful poetry they are, and almost stepping out of the body of the plain soldier, to address the audience and explain his thinking. He articulates the lines beautifully, yet sounds as if he’s just thought of them, and he conveys their meaning with clarity. It’s an absolute pleasure to hear Shakespeare’s poetry projected to the back of the auditorium without any apparent strain. And I know because I was in the back row.
Indira Varma’ injects a moment of black comedy when Lady Macbeth loudly castigates her shaken husband for bringing the bloody knives out of Duncan’s bed chamber.
There’s a lot in the play about being a ‘man’, not a weak ‘woman’. Having initially seemed emasculated by his wife, Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth becomes almost giddy following his killing spree, laughing and dancing nervously between appearances of Banquo’s ghost in the middle of a dinner party. It’s a funny moment but Indira Varma’s eyes show Lady Macbeth’s concern that her husband is becoming unhinged and uncoupled from her.
Guilt affects them both in different ways, Lady Macbeth cannot escape the thought of the horror of the crime they have committed and is driven to madness and suicide. The scene in which she tries to wash invisible blood from her hands was chilling. In fact, Indira Varma almost stole the show, except…
Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth, having begun the play hunched and exhausted, becomes more and more frenetically alive, and more reckless, even as he perceives the futility of life: the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, the last great examination of the consequences of his actions, is spoken to perfection, with the final conclusion that life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, hanging in the air like a warning to us all.
The adaptation by Emily Burns makes the play move along at a pace, as it should, although she has excised the drunken Porter scene. I know a lot of people will be pleased to lose what they say is an incongruous piece of bawdy comedy in the midst of the murder of the King, but I think it offers a relief from the tension and a kind of parody of the chief villain’s antithetical way of expressing himself. I know you’ll want an example. So, a typical Macbeth declamation goes: ‘I should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.’ The Porter uses the same form to say: ‘Drink provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
I did like the way the Weird Sisters permeated the play. I find the supernatural nature of the Witches a difficult element of Macbeth, even though they are essential to driving the plot but here, in everyday clothes and played by Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya and Lola Shalam, they come across as ordinary young women, maybe even displaced citizens, whose looks of mischief suggest they are passing on their predictions to expose and undermine those in charge.
I’d also pick out the performances of Steffan Rhodri who gives the loyal Banquo, solidity and a skeptical eye, and Ben Turner as MacDuff whose heartbroken reaction to the murder of his family was palpable.

So, for me, a slightly disappointing production, and a terrible venue, but a glimpse of greatness in the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out – review

Peppa Pig brings home the bacon

★★★

Peppa, George and Daisy (Perrie Sunuwar) in Peppa Pig’s FGun Day Out. Photo: Barry Rivett

Peppa Pig celebrates her 20th anniversary this year with a new stage show Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out.

In the last two decades, challengers for her crown have come along in the form of Hey Duggee, Bluey and a production line of live shows based on Julia Donaldson’s perennially popular stories. So, is 20 year old Peppa the attraction she once was? I soon got my answer when I saw that three performances at The Mast in Southampton were all but sold out.

The first fans of Peppa may now be grown-ups and even have pre-school kids of their own but it seems there is still appeal in these simple tales of family life. But does Peppa live on stage still offer a fun outing for a preschool child?
The production company has done an excellent job is creating the look of the animated series seen on TV. Simon Scullion’s set is colourful and, important point this, doesn’t feel it’s been done on a budget, which small scale children’s shows often do.
The plot- and I use the word as loosely as a four year old ties their shoelaces- takes us on a visit to the zoo, and, after the interval, a trip to the seaside. The fun day culminates with a birthday party.
A small cast of familiar characters are on the outing- Peppa and little brother George, of course, as well as Danny Dog and Susie the Sheep. These are puppets manipulated by actors behind them, who also provide their voices. Amy Brooke‘s interpretation of Peppa is spot on.
There occasional appearances by Mummy and Daddy Pig, and Miss Rabbit, who are played by actors in costumes. Holding the show together is a human, Perrie Sunuwar as Daisy, who maintains a high energy and infectious enthusiasm as she conducts the action and the audience.
Richard Lewis and Matt Lewis’s script for Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out crams in most of what you might hope for in a show aimed at young children: there are little puppet animals flying around at the end of sticks, fluorescent creatures  in the dark, and blue undulating cloths creating waves. There’s no mud which may be a disappointment to some Peppa fans but there is quite a bit of water spraying, to the extent the first few rows could be labelled a Splash Zone.
There’s plenty of participation in the form of songs, physical routines and verbal interaction, but this is an age group that’s still learning about socialising and joining in, so I would suggest that you gear your child up for copying Daisy.
The production directed by Richard Lewis moves quickly and there’s lots of activity but, at over an hour including interval, some children may get bored, because not much actually happens. You won’t be expecting the humour of Hey Duggee, the depth of Bluey or the poetry of Donaldson, but you might have hoped for a life lesson or some mild peril to engage those little brains.
Perhaps this is why it is advertised as being suitable for even the youngest child. I would disagree. I think any child under three will struggle with even as undemanding a stage show as this: the concept of theatre may be a puzzle to them, they may find it hard to concentrate, they may be frightened of the dark or of large numbers of people. I say: restrict the age to three and over and make the show a little more challenging.
That aside, Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out is well done and offers a good introduction to the magic of theatre.
Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out is touring the UK throughout 2024.  Click on the website peppapiglive.com for dates and links
Paul paid for his ticket.

Till The Stars Come Down (National Theatre) – Review

Hilarious comedy reveals home truths about Britain

★★★★

A bridfe and her aunt played by actors are doing their makeup and hair in Till The Stars Come Down at the National Theatre February 2024
Lorraine Ashbourne & Sinéad Matthews in Till The Stars Come Down. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Till The Stars Come Down written by Beth Steel is a shocking insight into the despair of post industrial Britain disguised as a hilarious comedy about a working class family wedding. It may also turn out to be the best new play of 2024.

At the heart of Till The Stars Come Down are three sisters. We meet these delightful characters in the excitement of the morning when the youngest Sylvia is getting married. You positively glow in the warmth of this ebullient, raucous occasion of bickering and bonding.
Hazel played by Lucy Black is the eldest, the mother hen in the absence of their late actual mother. Overworked and over cheerful, she is also begrudging and bigoted. Lisa McGrillis plays Maggie, glittery and wild but unsettled. Sinéad Matthews as Sylvia, naturally nervous but the most forward-looking of the siblings.
They are joined by Aunty Carol. She’s a force of nature who deals with life in sarcastic quips that are funny enough to have the audience in stitches. Her hard mouth shoots out words like a nail gun. From her opening line, directed at Sylvia, ‘How you doing, sugar tits?’,  Lorraine Ashbourne‘s larger-than-life portrayal commands the stage in every one of her scenes.
In the beginning, all is lighthearted conversation and affectionate jibes. The women’s banter- especially Aunty Carol’s- is full of outrageous metaphors and vulgar observations: she talks of a woman who shaved pubic hair as a ‘trailblazer with a razor’. An unfaithful man would have ‘shagged a frog if he could gerrit to hold still long enough’. Maggie liked the way a man looked at her, making her feel ‘like I was a potato in a famine’. Hazel can’t wear a fascinator because she’s ‘got a flat head’.
We also meet Helen’s children. Leanne played by Ruby Stokes is a teenager who wants to save the planet while being depressed by the possibility it is beyond saving. Sarah is a confident little girl who dreams of being an astronaut.
A scene from Till The Stars Come Down at the National Theatre February 2024
Till The Stars Come Down at the National Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s an intimate setting that keeps us involved with Beth Steel’s complex family. The audience is on all four sides looking at a stage floor almost filled with a revolve that, when it turns, enables us to get a fair view of all the characters. Props- usually tables and chairs- are taken on and off for the changing scenes. Samal Blak’s set enables director Bijan Sheibani’s deftly choreographed production to keep moving slickly.

In this stereotypical working-class society of strong women and weak men, they chat and interrupt and talk over one another most naturally.  In Beth Steel’s finest work to date, she juggles many characters and situations. And the performances are so real that you almost feel you are members of the wedding party rather than an audience. The ensemble cast are first-rate actors, many of whom you will recognise from the better quality TV dramas like Happy Valley and Sherwood.
Hazel’s husband John, a shell of a man, is given a mighty characterisation by Derek Riddell. His rabbit-like eyes are soft and nervous, his body trembles with feeling. Alan Williams plays Tony the father of the bride, a stolid man of few words who oozes disappointment but who in a magical moment suddenly comes to life when he remembers winning a Tarzan competition in his youth. His brother Pete played by Philip Whitchurch is a joker with weakness lurking behind his twinkling eyes.
But for Leanne’s mobile phone, it could be 50 years ago in this East Midlands mining community. Except that the mines have shut down and Sylvia is marrying an enterprising Polish immigrant of whom there are quite a few in the area these days. ‘The Team Leaders are all Eastern European and they look after their own’ says Hazel, explaining why she failed to get a promotion.
The guests are celebrating outdoors when a downpour sends them running for cover. Having warmed to these characters, we find ourselves journeying into a sometimes shocking discovery of the truth about their lives.
The wedding is a chance for the sisters to slip into the past, when they were carefree and their beloved mother was still in their lives. For a few hours, nostalgia fuelled by drink brings out, in some of them, their true feelings and their desire to live a more fulfilling life. Onto the stage tumble unconsummated love, unrealised ambition, and a longstanding feud between the father and his brother.
The title appears to derive from W H Auden‘s poem Death’s Echo about our short, meaningless lives and how we should dance while we can. There is certainly plenty of ecstatic dancing in the play. However, existential talk about the age of the universe and the destruction of humanity seems out of place in an already rich portrait of turmoil within a family.

A rollicking start leads to a deeper, darker conclusion

After the rollicking start, you look forward to two-and-a-half hours of laugh-out-loud comedy but it doesn’t last. The humour never quite stops but the play becomes deeper and darker, because this is a play about a community laid low by the loss of the mines around which it prospered. The once proud working class population now work in meaningless jobs in warehouses and supermarkets. Hazel talks of ‘Lost men, lost boys, who once thought they’d have a better life.’ It’s a story that could be repeated in so many parts of post-Industrial Britain, the parts that punished the country’s elite by voting for Brexit, you may think.
If the community has been crushed, so have the dreams of the older characters. Of the sisters, only the youngest Sylvia remains an optimist, looking forward to married life, and embracing change, even if she does sometimes mystically wish she could freeze her moments of happiness. The other two and Helen’s husband John as well as the senior generation have seen their dreams crushed and they bemoan their unhappy, disappointing lives.
By contrast, the outsider, the Pole, is positive about life. Marek, played by Marc Wootton, is willing to work hard at ‘shit jobs’ as he calls them- the kind in which the others feel trapped- to build a better life. He exposes the sense of entitlement and lack of ambition of the British natives. Like the pigs in the abattoir he once worked in, they know their fate.
He is also an outsider in this play, an underdeveloped character and seemingly without any family or friends at the wedding. Of course, we are meant to be concentrating on the state of the British working class but it still feels like a clumsy piece of writing.
Bigotry and racism among Sylvia’s family, kindled by their frustrations and lost power and frustrations, simmer and eventually boil over into a violent climax. The empty shell of a community cracks and the sisterly bond is tested to the limit.
And all praise to the National Theatre for presenting Beth Steel‘s superb play with its impressive large cast. Some other theatres have all but abandoned new writing in the face of funding cuts but the National, also operating on a reduced budget, continues to nurture new writing.
Till The Stars Come Down can be seen at the National Theatre until 16 March 2024
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

The Witches musical at the National Theatre – review

Daniel Rigby & Katherine Kingsley reach comedy heights in musical spectacular


★★★

Daniel Rigby and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s hard not to compare the National Theatre’s The Witches with the

West End hit Matilda. Both originated as stories by Road Dahl, both have been turned into much-loved films before being transformed into musical spectaculars.

Good as this well-produced show is, The Witches never quite reaches the heights of its RSC rival. But it does offer an entertaining evening, especially if you want to take your older children to a theatrical show more inventive, and less cliched, than a pantomime.

National Theatre favourite Lucy Kirkwood has done a good job with the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, although it does take a while to get going. It could have gained from being half an hour shorter than its current two-and-a-half hours plus interval.

Still, her lyrics, jointly credited with the composer Dave Malloy, are sharp and witty. The latter clearly knows his way round musicals and has written varied hummable tunes appropriate to the different situations.

The plot goes back to the original story, losing the happier ending of the 1990 film. To remind you, a child discovers that a group of witches is meeting in the hotel at which he’s staying and they are planning to turn every child into a mouse. With the aid of his Gran, he sets out to thwart them.

The cast of The Witches

Director Lyndsey Turner was previously at the National with a very different show about witches. Following the tense drama of The Crucible,  she shows she is also a champion of fast-moving musical comedy. Supported by set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan, Ms Turner takes full advantage of the large cast, and the Olivier revolve.

My only reservation about Ms Clachan’s contribution is the surround of dark thorns which provide a contrast to the brightly colourful sets and costumes (and fill in the enormous Olivier space) but seem like too heavy handed a reminder that the world is a dark place.

Spectacular routines

There’s a Broadway chorus style number Magnificent, which introduces Mr Stringer, a character much expanded from the novel and played by Daniel Rigby as a frantic Basil Fawlty-style hotel manager, obsequious to his rich guests and rude to the less well off.

By the time there is an outbreak of mice in the building, Mr Stringer becomes hysterical and leads possibly the stand-out routine of the show- Out! Out! Out! It’s a dizzying number in which he and his staff prance round the revolve going from room to room looking for mice, placating complaining guests along the way. Daniel Rigby‘s contortions of face and body combined with a strangulated voice surely make him the finest physical comedy actor currently on the London stage.

Katherine Kingsley and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Grand High Witch is a superb villain, and Katherine Kingsley extracts every drop of evil from her cauldron. She is imperiously haughty, she snarls at everyone including the audience, and sings an hilarious song Wouldn’t It Be Nice, about how marvellous it would be for parents if they didn’t have children dominating their lives.

Both Daniel Rigby and Katherine Kingsley are a gift wrapped in a bowto this musical. They take the foundations of words, music and situation, and build upon them until the comedy reaches summits of laughter.

The good adult, so to speak, is the boy’s cantankerous elderly gran, beautifully played for laughs and pathos by Sally Anne Triplett. She sings a gorgeous song with her grandson Luke called Heartbeat Duet.

Let’s go back to the comparison with Matilda. Where the earlier musical scores is that its child hero survives intact to the end whereas Luke is turned into a mouse halfway through. At that point, his character alternates between being a mechanical mouse and a  boy in a costume. I know we often need to use our imagination in theatre, but this particular concept failed to fire mine.

One other caveat. Although this is a family show, it is not for young children. It’s not only the complexities of the plot and the darkness of some of the events (Luke’s parents die early on), the language and length are too much for anyone under about ten years old.

Still, for the rest, children and adults alike, there’s plenty of spectacle and comedy in this musical

The Witches performed at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27 January 2024.

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

 

 

 

 

Infinite Life – National Theatre – review

Annie Baker’s outstanding play about women coping with pain

★★★★

Two women sit next to one another, one is wearing a rucksack, in a stage production of infinite Life by Annie Baker
Christina Kirk & Marylouise Burke in Infinte Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

Infinite Life by Annie Baker, which I saw at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, is a play you might find riveting or soporific, or both. Five women all have illnesses that are causing them chronic pain but that conventional medicine has been unable to treat. Desperate for a cure, they have resorted to fasting in a retreat in California.

They lie on sun loungers, they doze, they sip their water or green drinks… and they talk. There’s no action, no emotional explosions, no-one dies, and no dramatic plot twists, although there is an interesting development at the end.

It sounds like a snooze-fest, and in fact some members of the audience did doze or even leave, but I was engrossed by this outstanding play.

Infinite Life may remind you of Waiting For Godot and its days apparently repeating into infinity. Like Beckett’s play, there is not much drama but a lot going on beneath the surface and quite a bit of humour. For good measure, there is the doctor in charge of the clinic, and possibly their fates, who is mentioned frequently but never appears.

Why is it called ‘Infinite Life’? I think, because the five women are so consumed by their pain that they live very much in the moment, unable to think of life beyond it.

I understand that you may prefer loud over quiet, fast over slow, witty comedy over gentle humour, but personally I loved the way every sentence of Annie Baker’s dialogue seems carefully constructed to work on two levels, and rewarded concentrated listening.

There’s the surface of apparently inconsequential talk about what they’re reading, their lists of diagnoses and failed treatments, their chat about sex. Then there are the implications of what they’re saying in the context of the pain they are feeling, as well as the hints of the lives they have led and will lead outside of this moment of suspended time.

Even Annie Baker’s trademark pauses and silences as the women gather their thoughts, or get lost in them, reinforce the disorientation caused by fasting. They also provide us the audience with moments of contemplation.

If you’re expecting their pain to be a metaphor for life, you’ll be disappointed. It is what it says on the tin. As one of the characters says: ‘If pain doesn’t mean anything, it’s so boring. But if it means anything at all then I don’t know if I can bear it.’ It is what it brings out in their characters that stands out.

It is certainly not as depressing as you might imagine. Most of the time, rather than feel sorry for them, you admire these women’s resilience, and the mutual respect inspired by their confinement together and common predicament. Their conversations are leavened with some very funny lines. I could have carried on listening to their conversations long beyond the one hour 45 minutes.

This is a joint National Theatre and Atlantic Theater Company production but the effort has been put in by the Americans. Thanks to an agreement between the British actors’ union and American Equity, the off-Broadway production has been transported set, creatives and cast. And what a cast we were privileged to see! Annie Baker has created five strong characters. Directed by James Macdonald, all the actors do a superlative job at subtly suggesting their suffering, their vulnerability, their fortitude and their inner life.

The women are mostly in their sixties or seventies. Marylouise Burke as Eileen, the oldest, shuffles slowly on and off stage, carefully laying out her cushions on her lounger, moving with delicate precision as if every movement hurts.

Mia Katigbak plays Yvette, precise and firm in her thoughts, and who reels off a tremendously long list of ailments, but also reveals her desperation for the fasting to be a cure. Brenda Pressley is Elaine, reserved and determined. As Ginnie, Kristine Nielsen has a twinkling eye and a playful manner.

Christina Kirk plays Sofi, at 47 the youngest of the cohort. She is tortured, and self torturing, at times blaming herself for her illness. You might think that chronic pain would push sex off the agenda. Far from it. While the older women muse on sex, she is still wracked by desire: forbidden lust that has jeopardised her marriage, the sex itself that is debilitatingly painful, the desperate belief that orgasms might be the cure. In the night, she leaves voice messages about her agony for her husband, and sexual fantasies for her platonic lover.

Incidentally, this was the second National Theatre production running I’ve seen (The House Of Bernarda Alba being the first), in which a woman has masturbated on stage. I’m hoping this isn’t now mandatory because the next show I’m seeing at the National is a family show, The Witches.

Sex crops up quite frequently as a subject for conversation. Someone wonders if bad sex is the cause of illness. On another occasion, there is an extended discussion after someone reveals that a cousin describes pornography for blind people. We always learn about their characters from what they say.

Some time into the play, a solitary man appears. Nelson is mature and attractive enough to make the women take notice. His character is much more thinly drawn than those of the women but Pete Simpson exhibits a believable arrogance. Unlike the others, he has a specifically identified and, it would seem, mortal disease. He seems to be introduced for two reasons. I’ll come to the other later but the first is to provide a contrast to the women’s camaraderie. ‘I don’t want to sound like a dick,’ he says, then proceeds to do just that.

He is the only character who contends that his agony is worse than that of the others. Sofi says to him: ‘You don’t actually know if your level of pain that night was worse than my level of pain on my worst night. It’s impossible to know.’ Until then, I hadn’t fully taken on board how, for the women, their suffering is not a competition. They realise that, like sex, everyone has their own unique, incomparable experience of suffering. And as an audience, we cannot make a judgment. They and we can only offer a gentle sympathy.

Privately it may be different. Eileen, who seems the calmest of all, has a moment alone on stage when she says: ‘This is the night you heard me screaming. I said terrible things …I said none of you have ever been in this much pain …I said it’s a conspiracy..I said …A minute of this is an infinity.’ Not something any of them would actually say out loud to one another: they keep their all-engulfing agony to themselves. 

When they’re not talking about sex or illness, the women often talk philosophically about what they have read, and again we can see how what interests them reflects on their own lives-  how did a similarly ill woman go about setting up a successful business; does an Asian pirate, brought up in a certain culture (for which, perhaps, read afflicted by sickness), have the free will to choose his actions or is he bound to act in a certain way?

Boring or entertaining or both?

Most significantly, Sofi is trying to read George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. This is not a random choice by Annie Baker. When asked what it’s about, Sofi says that so far the book is concerned with Gwendoline and her suitors. Those familiar with the novel will know that Gwendoline is self-obsessed, contained in her own world, much as people in constant agony are.

She says: ‘If I’m not reading it all the time it seems really boring, but once I’m into it, it’s like the most entertaining thing in the world.’ Is Annie Baker giving a knowing wink to the audience about this play?

Sofi is finding it hard to get beyond page 152. The sentence she gets stuck at says irrational fear can stop you doing what you know is achievable. Something else to think about, and certainly relevant to the test Nelson provides for Sofi on whether she will act on her sexual desire.

Dusk follows day, night takes over, then another day in the blazing Californian sun begins. Lighting designer Isabella Byrd dims the lights into moonlight that actually feels cool, then slams on a sudden migraine-inducing flood of daylight. The women’s current lives may be an infinite loop as each day merges into the next but there is a finite time frame to the play. It begins with the first day of Sofi’s stay at the retreat and ends on the day she leaves.

Four women doze on sun loungers in the Atlantic Theater proudction of Infinite Life
Christina Kirk, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Mia Katigbak in Infinite Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

The set, from the New York design collective, dots, suggests the monotony of fasting. It is minimal and never changing. In front of a beige background, there’s a patterned breeze block wall of a similar colour, about two metres tall. In front of that there are a number of loungers. The cheap nature of the wall and beds implies that the so-called clinic is a new age sham designed to make money from desperate people who have been failed by medical science.

For the majority of the play, the women lie down as if their loungers are islands in an ocean of agony. They talk but they don’t make physical contact or delve deeply into each other’s lives. Then, as we reach the final minutes of the play, there is a moment between Sofi and Eileen, which does seem to take us forward.

They touch each other, both mentally and physically.  It’s a human connection that suggests we need not be alone in our pain. This seems to point to a way in which we can possibly learn from it. Perhaps by moving from the inward-facing world of Gwendoline to the outward-looking and more empathetic behaviour of Daniel Deronda himself.

Annie Baker is that rare class of writer who can create a funny, moving play about the human condition, without resorting to easy messages and emotional manipulation.

Infinite Life was performed at the Linda Gross Theater in New York from August 18 to October 15, 2023, and from 22 November 2023 to 13 January 2024 at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre.

Paul purchased his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven


The House Of Bernada Alba – National Theatre – Review

Harriet Walter leads first rate cast in revitalised Lorca classic

★★★★

Rosalind Eleazar, Thusitha Jayasunde & Harriet Walter in The House of Bernarda Alba. Photo: Marc Brenner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This National Theatre production isn’t for everybody. If you’re familiar with The House of Bernada Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, you’re going to have to put it out of your mind. Alice Birch‘s version is a devastating dissection of an authoritarian household and the malign influence of men. Rebecca Frecknall‘s production offers some of the finest acting you could hope to see, and not just from Harriet Walter. If the beginning is a little disjointed, messy even, the second half is theatre at its best.

Sometimes you enter an auditorium and the set is already laid out before you. Not on this occasion. Instead you wait for the Lyttelton safety curtain to open. When it does, it reveals Merle Hensel’s magnificent house, filling the giant stage from top to bottom and right to left. It’s on three storeys with seven separate bedrooms and a bathroom on the top two levels, and, thanks to transparent walls, you can see its full depth. So there is no escape, no privacy for the five daughters of Bernarda Alba, we even see one of them masturbating. And that’s very much the dominant theme of this production: Bernarda rules her daughters and believes she knows everything that’s going on.

The complete set including props is a pale green colour, except for a rifle sinisterly centre stage, which is the trigger- no pun intended- for the devastating end. The colour is not only the least distracting you could choose but it provides the starkest of contrasts to the black clothes of the women, whose husband and father has been buried that day. Bernarda declares eight years of mourning to the horror of her unmarried daughters.

 

The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

At first, as we get to know the household, there is much chatter and gossip from many women who have gathered after the funeral. Bernada says nothing but sits rigidly. She is a woman of few words. Harriet Walter gives a masterful performance in which less is more. She exhibits a cold stare, an imperious pose, and, when she does speak, it is without emotion. Bernada Alba has learned to survive in a man’s world by revealing no weakness.

The daughters are rebellious individuals but this is 1930s Spain and there is no escape for them. So, they are cowed by Bernarda and contain their thoughts, breaking out occasionally as when the oldest puts on makeup or the youngest a bright green dress. They are forbidden to fraternise with men, however Angustias, who is from Bernada’s first marriage, is the only daughter with money, which gives her an escape route. Her wealth has attracted a suitor, Pepe de Romans, and she is due to wed. Her fiance is an obsession of at least two of her sisters who both exhibit a dangerous jealousy. All the women are fearful of and fascinated by men generally, and Pepe in particular.

Spain in the 1930s was a patriarchal society. No doubt Lorca intended his audience to see parallels with an authoritarian society in which the people are forced into conformity, and this is why the play retains such power today. Bernarda Alba, like many in such a situation, does the job of the patriarchy for it by teaching, and expecting, her daughters to treat men with caution and respect.

She makes the house a female bastion against the male-dominated outside world, female but not feminist. ‘Men are capable of anything’ it is said, and there are hints, and more than hints, that men have and do behave despicably.
Her rule is cruel and dictatorial. Toward the end of act one, when one of her daughters does something wrong, the punishment is brutal and disproportionate. The first act ends with a shocking scene in which the house is invaded by a lynch mob chasing an ‘sinful’ young woman.

In Lorca’s original play, we never see Angustias’s fiance. In Alice Birch’s generally superb rewriting of the play, we see him silently moving across the stage in balletic manner. This underlines that he is a romantic fantasy, because we can see that in the flesh he is quite ordinary. Even so, I still prefer Lorca’s idea of him living in the imagination as an invisible presence hanging over the household.

As the play progresses to its tragic end, we see that Bernada is not as all-seeing as she thinks, and that her control is illusory.

The cast is uniformly brilliant. Angustias, the sickly and psychologically damaged eldest daughter, is played with layers of aloofness and vulnerability by Rosalind Eleazar. Isis Ainsworth provides an extraordinarily strong performance as the youngest sister Adela, in love with Pepe, defiant, and with emotions out of control. Lizzie Annis, Eliot Salt and Pearl Chanda are the other three sisters, also excellent. Eileen Nicholas is the senile grandmother who is locked in her bedroom. Thusita Jayasundera and Bryony Hannah are the servants who provide both honest comments and humour.

Rebecca Frecknall, after her recent successes directing Cabaret at The Playhouse and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida, has triumphed again with this forceful production.

The House Of Bernarda Alba can be seen at the National Theatre until 6 January 2024

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

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