Reviews Roundup: London Tide at The National 2.8★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PJ Harvey’s songs

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

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

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

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

Thank goodness for Bunny Christie’s set

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

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

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

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

Average critics’ rating 2.8★

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

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