Reviews Round-Up: Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Gillian Lynne Theatre

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

The superlatives have been brought out, dusted and polished once again for Standing At The Sky’s Edge, the musical about three generations of residents in Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate, which has now transferred to the West End. Directed by Robert Hastie, Chris Bush’s book augmented by Richard Hawley’s songs and performed by an impressive cast has captured the hearts of nearly all the critics.

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

Stefan Kyriazis in the Daily Express 5★ repeated his previously expressed view that ‘this is the greatest new British musical for years.’  ‘Chris Bush’s note-perfect script tugs at heartstrings as much as it tickles funny bones,’ he said, and ‘Hawley’s exquisite compositions through the years are more like living poetry.’ As if that weren’t enough, he adds: ‘The entire cast is superb’. ‘Prepare to fall in love’ said Franco Milazzo in BroadwayWorld (5★) ‘Robert Hastie’s direction earns every laugh and tear ‘ he enthused, calling the show ‘an epic musical for (and about) the ages’.
Calling it ‘unmissable’, Alex Wood at Whats On Stage (5★)said: ‘It stands as a shining tribute to the combined power of both popular music and stage storytelling, and subsidised and commercial theatre.’
Caroline McGinn in Time Out (5★) was ‘blown away by the emotional power of this show’, dubbing it ‘an instant classic’. She picked out the female leads for special mention: ‘Rachael Wooding, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Elizabeth Ayodele and especially Lauryn Redding will break your heart with lungs of steel’. She summed up: ‘joy, lust, fear, sadness, despair, are crafted into an emotional edifice which stands nearly as tall as the place that inspired it.’
Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (4★) praised Richard Hawley’s beautiful songs full of melancholy, tenderness, warmth and yearning, hammering at the door of your heart, demanding to be let in.’ He concluded: ‘It’s hard to feel anything other than enriched and often deeply moved by it. It offers rare intellectual and emotional ambition, songs that should stay with you, and sustain you, over a lifetime; and frankly deserves to be a huge hit.’
Dave Fargnoli in The Stage (3★) was less carried away but still found it ‘a bittersweet, multigenerational epic’ in which ‘the big ensemble numbers … carry the production along.’ It was left to Clive Davis in The Times (3★) to bring the high-rise enthusiasm down to earth: ‘the script sometimes resembles a conscientiously assembled checklist of social issues’ the songs ‘sometimes seem to have been inserted into the action almost at random’
Standing At Sky’s Edge continues at Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024.

Click here to buy tickets directly.

Average rating: 4.3★

Value Rating 34  (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

Reviews Round-up: Keeley Hawes in The Human Body 3.1★

Donmar Warehouse

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport in The Human Body. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Human Body is Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play following such successes as The Witches, The Children, Mosquitoes and Chimerica. Starring Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport, both returning to the stage after a long gap, it tells the story of the birth of the NHS at a local level, wrapped up in a Brief Encounter-style romance. Directors Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee incorporate film into the production, which didn’t please everybody. The two stars were universally loved by the critics but some found the play unfocussed.

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

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (3★) wasn’t keen on the use of film but thought ‘Kirkwood’s script crackles with unspoken desires, disappointments, yearning and some fantastic humour’. Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (3★) describes the production as ‘engrossing but meandering’, however ‘Davenport is very funny in it and Hawes is superb.’ The Stage‘s Sam Marlowe (3★) agreed calling the play ‘disjointed’ but saying it was ‘beautifully acted’. For Time Out‘s Andrzej Lukowski (3★) too, ‘the cast sells it’. Otherwise he is lukewarm in his praise of ‘a heartfelt but old-fashioned drama’. Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (3★) felt it ‘urgently needs a scalpel to cut back excess flab’ but concurs with the general opinion that ‘There’s no faulting the leads’. Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) agreed about the acting (‘Hawes dazzles’) and about the need for some cutting, saying the play was a ‘fabulously rich piece of writing’ but ‘bogged down by an overstuffed production’.

Not even the acting saved the evening for Clive Davis in The Times (2★). Calling it a ‘sub-standard play’, he asks: ‘Is it a staid, semi-documentary celebration…Or is it a clever-clever meta-romance?’ before concluding ‘It fails on both counts.’

Lucy Kirkwood can take comfort from Sarah Crompton at WhatsOnStage (4★) who was forgiving of any flaws: ‘Kirkwood is such a wonderful writer and Longhurst…and Yee such confident, fluent co-directors that the occasional bagginess doesn’t matter.’ She too loved the acting: ‘The performances are a joy.’ It pressed all the right buttons for Cindy Marcolina at Broadway World (4★). She thought it was ‘a gripping comic drama’ and liked how a ‘deft use of camera feeds combines with a genre-hopping and tone-shifting chameleonic script to make The Human Body a feat of movement direction.’ She concluded: ‘this is a show to see.’

The Human Body is at Donmar Warehouse, London, until 13 April. Click here to buy tickets directly from the theatre.

Critics’ Average Rating 3.1★

Value Rating 52 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

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

Reviews Round-up: The Big Life 3.4★

 Stratford East, London

Membres of the cast of The Big Life at Stratford East theatre in London dancing on stage February 2024
The Big Life. Photo: Mark Senior

The Big Life, Paul Sirett and Paul Joseph’s 2004 ska musical, uses the plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to tell a story about people arriving in Britain on the Windrush in the 1950s. Twenty years after it was launched there, it has been revived at Stratford East, directed by Tinuke Craig.

(There are links to the full reviews but these are sometimes behind paywalls.)

The Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish (4★) was very happy to see its return. Calling it ‘joyous’, he said: ‘watching it feels like a holiday in itself.. this slick, vividly staged revival by Tinuke Craig.’ ‘Joyous’ crops up in Anya Ryan’s review in Time Out (4★). She liked the ‘colossally talented cast, but the evening belongs to Tameka Empson’. Louise Penn in Broadway World (4★) praised ‘a big heart and a sense of fun’. Nick Curtis’ review for the Evening Standard (4★) said: ‘The Big Life is a big-hearted, baggy piece of work, more joyful than breast-beating, with a bouncy score by Paul Joseph. It’s not subtle, but it’s damn good fun.’

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) also calls it ‘baggy’ but highlights ‘incredibly infectious songs, ebullient spirit and stunning performances’. Alun Hood in Whats On Stage (3★) doesn’t use the word ‘baggy’ but did say: ‘the lack of dramatic substance starts to become more apparent as Tinuke Craig’s production meanders on.’ Nevertheless he praised it as a ‘rollicking crowd pleaser.’ Clive Davis in The Times (3★) agreed that it could do with a 30 minute trim’ but described it as ‘very broad and very colourful’. Siobhan Murphy in The Stage (3★) found it ‘good fun’ but laments ‘the slightly meandering main action.’

The Big Life can be seen at Stratford East until 30 March 2024  Buy tickets directly from the theatre

Average Rating 3.4★

Value Rating 74 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top rice (excluding premium prices)

Reviews round-up: Hadestown 3.7★

Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London

Grace Hodgett-Young and Donal Finn in Hadestown. Photo: Marc Brenner

Hadestown is an American sung-through musical version of the Greek myth about Orpheus’ attempt to rescue his late wife and love of his life Eurydice from the Underworld (i.e. Hell) with Persephone’s story added to the mix. Written by Anais Mitchell, it began its life 18 years ago as a community project in Vermont and was presented at the National Theatre in 2018 before scooping 8 Tony Awards on Broadway.

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

Clive Davis in The Times (5★), possibly our most parsimonious critic when it comes to handing out stars, gave Hadestown top marks, saying it’s ‘a reminder of what musical theatre can achieve when it sets its sights beyond the lowest common denominator. ‘ He loved the band: ‘a glorious noise’; he loved the singers ‘Grace Hodgett-Young’s voice has a raw northern edge…Gloria Onitiri is a thunderous, sexy Persephone.’ He concluded that Orpheus and Eurydice’s  ‘final ill-starred journey still touches the heart.’

The Guardian‘s Arifa Akbar (4★) may have held back a star but she still enthused: ‘This is one of the best West End musicals around.’ ‘Every scene becomes a set piece: big, beautiful and emotionally blasting,’ she said in her review.  Sarah Crompton at WhatsOnStage (4★) was similarly smitten: ‘the most exhilarating ride. That band, with its bluesy trombone and folksy guitar is consistently thrilling, the songs are vibrant and smart, the sung-through text is compelling..(Rachel) Chavkin’s direction is direct and impassioned.’ Her only reservation was, ‘the material just doesn’t quite coalesce into the ending I long for.’ Time Out‘s Andrzej Lukowski (4★) was particularly taken by the music: ‘It is essentially a staged concert, but it’s done with such pulsing musical intensity, physical dynamism and heft of meaning that it never feels like one..It’s a musical of beautiful texture and tone.. Mitchell has penned some flat-out brilliant songs.’ Marainka Swann at londontheatre.co.uk (4★) enjoyed ‘the quiet power of this singular show, which demonstrates the magic of a shared story, and how such a collective effort can change the world, is undeniable. This spellbinding West End production was well worth the wait.’ Fiona Mountford in the i (4★) talked about being ‘wooed by the hazy, dazy atmosphere of this splendidly sultry show’. Cindy Marcolina at Broadway World (4★) called the singers: ‘an exciting team who carry the intensity and high-stake energy of the tale with precise delivery’ and described Grace Hodgett-Young’s performance as Eurydice as ‘astounding’.

Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (3★) couldn’t summon quite the same level of enthusiasm: ‘Yes, it can feel like one damned song after another. But it washes over you like a steam bath.’ He praised ‘the rich attention to detail in costuming, choreography, lighting and ensemble flamboyance’ and noted that ‘Donal Finn’s Orpheus can hit heavenly high notes.’ The Stage‘s Sam Marlowe (3★) just about managed to contain her excitement: ‘An uneven, unsatisfying creation, it is light on plot, heavy on pretentious portent – yet it’s fitfully seductive, with Mitchell’s New Orleans jazz-inflected score and Rachel Chavkin’s fever dream of a production both oozing spicy flavour. And the electrifying energy and knockout vocals of the cast come close to blasting away objections.’

It was left to Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (2★) to sound a sour note: ‘The writer-composer’s score is catchy and eclectic but often bombastic, her lyrics pretentious or nonsensical…the endless reprises start to drag and, oh dear, the words within and in between the songs can be dire’

David Neumann’s choreography was widely but not universally praised: ‘energetic yet precise’ (WhatsOnStage), ‘ethereal’ (Times), ‘pneumatic’ (Time Out).

Hadestown at Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, is booking until December 2024. Buy tickets directly here.

Average Rating 3.7★

Value Rating 30 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

Reviews round-up: Danny Sapani in King Lear 3.8★

  1. Almeida Theatre

At 53, Danny Sapani is a relatively young King Lear at London’s Almeida Theatre, but the critics liked him and Yaël Farber’s staging. Many compared this version favourably with Kenneth Branagh’s shortened King Lear from a few months ago, which was almost universally panned.

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

Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (4★) sums it up thus: ‘a mighty production that fuses the sense of ritual so often central to the director’s work with a modern setting to create a shattering piece of theatre, led by a towering, beautifully shaped performance from Danny Sapani.’ Over at The Times (4★), Dominic Maxwell thought ‘The first half is not just one of the best King Lears I’ve seen, but one of the best Shakespeares I’ve seen.’ He adds: ‘The last 90-odd minutes are…yes, pretty good.’ Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★) compliments’Yaël Farber’s dark and swirling production’ in which ‘Danny Sapani’s Lear is commanding’.

For Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (4★) it is a ‘dark, doomy and epic production’. The Daily Telegraph‘s (4★) Claire Allfree calls it ‘a mighty, soul-pummelling evening’. and ends ‘This is a shattering, comfortless night’. This is a gripping piece of entertainment’ said Andrzej Lukowski in his Time Out (4★) review. Alexander Cohen at Broadway World (4★) likes Farber’s ‘razor-sharp focus on the text and the slimy political subterfuge bubbling beneath it.’ Dave Fargnoli’s review in The Stage (4★) concluded: ‘Unrelentingly grim as it is, Farber’s vision accurately reflects our compassionless times.’ Sarah Crompton at WhatsOnStage thought: ‘Each detail of the production feels meant and a terrific cast wrench sense from each fluctuation of character’ but she did find it a bit long.

Fiona Mountford in the i (3★) survived the storm unmoved: ‘Farber’s vision teems with ideas, but they do not lead us to a fresh understanding of Shakespeare’s most ferociously flawed play.’ The Evening Standard’s Nick Curtis (3★) reached this conclusion: ‘This is a strange, imperfect but intriguing take on Shakespeare’s play, in which Sapani triumphantly claims the central role.’

Sapani is the hit of the show, with high praise from The Guardian: ‘It is a supremely moving performance, among the most tragic King Lears I have seen.’ The Telegraph praised his ‘intelligently unshowy approach’. WhatsOn Stage says he is ‘a towering Lear, beautifully finding his way through the lines’.

There’s a lot of love for Clarke Peters too. The Stage thought he gave ‘a magnetic, scene-stealing performance’ and Broadway World said he is ‘mesmerisingly Beckett-like’. The Times enthused: ‘I’ve never seen a wiser, wittier counsel than Clarke Peters’ laconic fool.’

Much praise also for Merle Hanson’s set (‘creates an ambivalent atmosphere of strangeness, of beauty fashioned from the ugly, of violence brought into the domestic’ WhatsOnStage) and Peter Rice’s soundscape (‘arresting’ The Guardian).

King Lear is at the Almeida until 30 March. Buy tickets directly from the theatre.

Average rating 3.8★ 

Value Rating 66 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

Please add your review and rating (but keep it relevant and polite)

Reviews Round-up: Matt Smith in An Enemy Of The People 3.3★

Duke Of York’s Theatre

Matt Smith in An Enemy Of The People. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Henrik Ibsen‘s play about a whistleblower has been reimagined for the modern world by German director Thomas Ostermeier. Former Doctor Who and The Crown star Matt Smith takes on the lead role in a production that places the story in the modern world and includes he and his friends singing Changes by David Bowie and a scene in the middle where the audience become the crowd. Some critics liked this attempt to modernise Ibsen’s classic, others found it didn’t work.

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

Clive Davis in The Times (2★) said ‘Thomas Ostermeier’s sophomoric attempt to drag the Norwegian playwright into the 21st century is so clumsy it might be part of some sinister conservative plot to kill of left-wing theatre once and for all.’  Sam Marlowe in The Stage (2★) was equally unimpressed: ‘the production’s innovations are essentially arid and effortful’ and concluded ‘The whole thing is executed with superficial flair. But it feels like an elaborate exercise in preaching to the converted.’ Alexander Cohen in Broadway World  (2★) was unmoved: ‘Explosive monologues saddled with politics are hurled at us without the humanity to anchor them…Interminable one-dimensionality plagues the performance as a result.’

Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (3 ★) was lukewarm in his response: ‘A play for today, on paper, but the concept could use a digital-era upgrade, and a shot more vigour, to set the world on fire.’ Alice Saville’s review in The Independent (3★) thought the modernisation ‘makes its message still more biting’ but found it ‘a morally and.. messy political drama’ and said that it ‘periodically slips into smugness’. Nick Curtis in  the Evening Standard (3★) described ‘coarse political sloganeering and audience participation’ and said: ‘The casually charismatic Smith and a fine supporting cast can’t stop it falling apart in the second half.’

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (4★) had an opposite view. For her, it was ‘strangely subdued and halting in the first, less compelling act’ but said the second act ‘brings intensity, showcases Ibsen’s timelessness and also adapts the play’s moral arguments excellently for our times’ and described ‘an ending which is more equivocal and unsettling than Ibsen’s’. Time Out‘s Andrzej Lukowski (4★) also praised this ‘extremely droll’ production. His comment ‘The director chucks a lot of stylistic stuff in with more concern for impact than consistency’ may seem to be damning with faint praise but he likes the involvement of the audience (‘enormously provocative’) and the ‘deliciously punchy final third’. Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (4★) said ‘the pacing feels a bit spongy at the outset and sometimes a lack of nuance grates’ but ‘the performances are great’. Sarah Crompton’s review at WhatsOnStage (4★) thought ‘The whole thing has a contemporaneity that makes it feel urgent, a tribute both to Ibsen’s prescience and to Ostermeier’s rigorous analysis of its relevance’ and loved the way ‘All of this is presented with the verve and energy of a rather wild sitcom, on a witty set by Jan Papplebaum’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★) found it ‘a rousing evening’. Dominic Maxwell in The Sunday Times (4★) thought it showed ‘a good sense of humour’.

Matt Smith’s performance was well received. The Evening Standard said: ‘Smith’s performance is a nuanced, complex portrayal of a flawed man.’ The FT called it a ‘superb performance’. Whats On Stage observed an ‘edgy intensity’.

Average rating 3.3★

Value Rating 19 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

An Enemy Of The People is at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until 6 April 2024. Buy tickets directly from the theatre.

Reviews Round-up: Dear Octopus 3.6★

National Theatre (Lyttelton)

Lindsay Duncan in Dear Octopus.Photo: March Brenner

After many years of neglect, Dodie Smith‘s 1938 play Dear Octopus gets a revival at the National Theatre. The critics were charmed by its gentle story of a family through the years but some found it unexciting.

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

Kate Kellaway in The Observer (4★) called it ‘a tip-top, fastidious, perfectly pitched production’. The Guardian‘s Kate Wyver (4★) thought it a ‘glorious revival’. Dave Fargnoli in The Stage (4 ★) described it as ‘a touching celebration of enduring love, family and forgiveness.’ Marianka Swain of The Daily Telegraph (4★) found the ‘sensitive revival’ ‘poignant, exquisitely performed theatre’. Although Tim Bano in The Independent (4★) thinks it’s ‘a slightly soppy, unfashionable play’, he found it ‘a pretty great pleasure to spend time in the company of this family’. The Financial Times‘ Sarah Hemming (4★) said ‘(director Emily) Burns’ delicately acted staging coaxes you to fall for this fretful, funny bunch and gently draws out the melancholy notes beneath the comedy’. In her Whats On Stage (4★) review, Lucinda Everett said it was ‘moving but never maudlin’. Paul T Davis at BritishTheatre.com (4★) liked ‘the sublime script and performances’. Maryam Philpott at The Reviews Hub thought the play ‘sprightly, beautifully observed and full of hope’. Cindy Marcolina at Broadway World (3★) quite liked what she called ‘a gold mine of dry humour and psychological fun’.

Less enthusiastic was Clive Davis in The Times (3★): ‘some of the dialogue is showing its age’ and ‘sometimes you long for a little more pace and levity.’ Caroline McGinn in Time Out (3★) said it was ‘a pleasant revival and the Evening Standard‘s Nick Curtis (3★) found it ‘incurably quaint and dated’. Adam Bloodworth in City AM (3★) had a similar reaction: ‘Smith’s play feels deeply dated, the overlong first act stuffed with hammy..banter’.

They loved Lindsay Duncan. The Guardian said she gave ‘an imperious performance’. Caiti Grove at londontheatrereviews.co.uk (4★) speaks of her ‘very genuine and motherly performance’.

Frankie Bradshaw’s set is praised, with The Telegraph saying the ‘ravishing revolving set is almost another character.’

At the National Theatre until 27 March. Buy tickets directly from the theatre.

Average rating: 3.6

Value Rating 36 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average review rating by the top price excluding premium prices)

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.