Review- Hamlet

I haven’t had the easiest time coming up with a response to Robert Icke’s Hamlet for a number of reasons. First, I hadn’t really wanted to see it in the first place. When it had its initial run at The Almeida, I thought I’d dodged a bullet.  The last Icke production I’d seen at The Almeida was Uncle Vanya, arguably one of the most ponderous, tedious, and cruelly long evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. Telling tales out of school, I sat near the actor Stephen Mangan, who, swearing under his breath, left in a hurry at the first, (or was it the second?) interval.  The ingredients in Uncle Vanya were all there for Hamlet: long play, lots of text, speeches galore, gloomy central male character, endless pontificating about life and man’s nature, Robert Icke directing, and Jessica Brown-Findlay.  So I was hesitant. But when the invitation came through for the West End transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre, I snapped it up, because an overwhelming amount of critical praise  had been heaped upon the production at The Almeida. I then had another moment of doubt after coffee with an actor friend, who pointed out that not only did I have serious reservations about Icke, I also did not particularly care for the lead actor, Andrew  Scott.  Granted, I had only ever seen him in Sherlock, as a twerpy, psychopathic sort of Moriarty, but it was enough.  I groaned at my ordeal. Thee plus hours of things that surely cannot, would not, come to good!  So I went along, more in sorrow at myself than anger, and lo, was hoisted by my own petard. For I have  been to a production of anything, let alone Hamlet,  which was so alive to each and every actor  onstage.  From the electrifying moment a security guard shouts the famous first line (“Who’s there?”) to the equally famous  last, I was gripped. I had such trouble coming to grips with the emotions from the play cluttering up my brain that it took a great deal of time to actually be able to sit and write them all down.

I had done a disservice to both Icke and Scott. This is one of the most stupendous things I have seen onstage. I have never, even knowing the story well, had so many moments where my heart was in my mouth, laughter on my lips, or tears pricking my eyes. Shakespeare’s words leapt from the page and became (too, too solid) flesh, and the whole thing seemed so vital, so alive.

The wedding  party is in full swing when Hamlet darkens the stage, fresh from travel. In the background, a gentle, throbbing baseline is heard, and balloons and streamers crowd the dance floor, as Gertrude and Claudius nuzzle each other, for one  more slow dance.  The famous lines in Hamlet come thick and fast, but never were they spoken in a more natural, unaffected way as here, particularly by Scott.  I have written before about a problem actors have with Shakespeare: how if you don’t fully and completely understand each and every word you are saying, it comes out as a sort of beautiful word salad, but that if the person understands his speeches, their meaning then  becomes clear to the audience. There was literally none of that here.  Icke has teased out  excellent performances from each of his players. So when Scott strolls on stage and plays verbal tennis with Claudius, uttering the refutation “A little more than kin, a little less than kind,” the rebuke is as stinging as a slap, but not half so showy.  And when Hamlet enters into his first soliloquy, it is so natural, so funny, so mournful, that I forgot he was the Melancholy Dane, and was  rapt.

The relationships here are one of the many things which stood out. Everyone seemed so much closer in this production, so when it all goes wrong it’s truly horrifying. Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude, leaves all of the one-note performances of that unfortunate lady behind with her kind, desperate, lustful Queen.  Her relationship with Hamlet is clearly one of great mutual respect and concern (though not, as some have attempted, an incestuous one,) so when the scale of her folly is revealed, you feel Hamlet’s horror for her as well as her own. And Ophelia, poor, sexy, sacrificed Ophelia, is ruined and driven to suicide by Hamlet’s antic disposition (and the murder of Polonius.) Brown Findlay plays her straight, a young woman in love, and in thrall to her father and brother. The visual impact of her transformation from dewy ingénue to ruined madwoman could not have had a more unsettling effect.

For all of the death and navel-gazing, one of the more surprising things about Icke’s production was how funny it was.  Polonious might categorise it as a “Tragi-Comedy.”  There has always been an archness to Hamlet’s character, but Scott really subtly inhabits his dry, amused nature. There were many, many, laugh-out loud moments. The most famous of these often involve Polonius, and here he is ingeniously given bits of business in his spying and meddling which adds both to the overarching theme of surveillance in the play and to its comedic heart.

But, naturally, what Shakespeare does best is tragedy. And  in Hamlet, famously, there is a lot of tragedy to go around.  Without giving too much away, the final act, the duel, is so tightly crafted  with suspense and horror that I was speechless at the end of it. Where Laertes was once Hamlet’s willing killer, here he is, after a time, reluctant, almost begging to switch swords. When the end has come for all, up comes the slow thrum of the wedding reception, and each character is welcomed back to the eternal party.

I’ve never been so affected by anything in my theatre-going life.  Bravo to all involved. It is a masterpiece.

Hamlet is at The Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd September 2017.


Review- Sand in the Sandwiches

John Betjeman is one of those seemingly ubiquitous figures, beloved by history, who appears here and there to add a bit of comforting familiarity to a story, or a soupçon of rightness to a cause.  Any number of biographers ascribe to him a quality of lovelorn hopelessness in his romantic affairs, and he is forever associated with lending his name to causes devoted to saving bits of Britain’s architectural history.


Betjamin is, of course, one of Britain’s best-loved poets. My personal favourite is “A Subaltern’s Love Song”, where the narrator rhapsodises about Joan Hunter Dunne, “Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun.” His work is light, whimsical, harmless. It’s nostalgic, and often comforting. And so is “Sand in the Sandwiches”, the one-man play written by Hugh Whitemore to celebrate Betjamin’s fusty, avuncular appeal.

Edward Fox is Betjamin. There’s no one quite like Fox.  His voice is so plummy, his face so  singularly creased, his presence so large, it’s almost difficult to see beyond the Edward Fox-ness of him. But he becomes Betjamin, and several other characters besides.  He recites with great passion (or as he would say “pyashion,”) even as he strolls casually about the stage. He takes obvious pleasure in the jokes, japes, and anecdotes which litter the script, and where other actors might teeter over into hamminess, Fox steers his performance into something more pleasingly real. He looks so at home in a linen three-piece you can believe it’s what he wears at home. It’s a treat and a pleasure to watch him.

The play itself is insubstantial. An ode, a puff piece. The biographical bits on Betjamin are interesting, and the anecdotes ( like what Churchill reportedly said when he heard Tom Driberg was to be married,) are funny, but the whole effect is more cozy armchair evening and less theatrical event.  There is a great deal of Betjamin’s verse, as you would expect, but this too, is much of a muchness after a while. There needs to be more Betjamin, less Betjamin’s poetry. (Heresy!  But it is a play. Arguably there should be less recitation and more drama.)

But whatever the shortcomings of the script, an evening with Fox is a gift.


Sand in the Sandwiches is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3rd June.

Review- The Ferryman

A personal policy of mine is to avoid reading any reviews or commentary on plays that I’m going to review. I have trouble enough collecting my thoughts and emotions into coherent critical analysis without the noise of outside praise or pans. Expectations for The Ferryman were high already- it is directed by Sam Mendes and written by Jez Butterwortth, after all, so is highly buzz worthy, with or without the weight of critical praise. So I was slightly dismayed when (Bad Habit Alert!) I checked Twitter before bed on Wednesday night and saw that Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) had both raved about it on their feeds. This is not to throw shade on those two gentlemen-Twitter is all about instant reaction, and is the ultimate tool for expressing interval joy or dismay if you’ve just seen something incredible- but I was annoyed that I now had to contend with someone else’s opinions before I had formed my own. I’m easily swayed, it’s how I’ve always been. So when I went into the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court last night, I was ready to be wowed.

The Ferryman certainly packs a punch. Butterworth does a good line in the sunny gone sinister (see: Jerusalem,) and the opening is very sinister indeed. A priest is threatened by an IRA man into giving information about Quinn Carney, and the air is thick with threat. A body has been found in a bog, with a bullet in its head. Carney (Paddy Considine) is an ex-IRA foot soldier who is now living the bucolic life in the country, raising his children, and we’re soon treated to scenes of him drinking and dancing in the kitchen with a woman whom we assume to be his wife.  It turns out to be his sister-in-law Caitlin, the wife of his dead brother (the body in the bog). Carney’s actual wife is a bed-ridden waif plagued by a “virus”, and who doesn’t take much of an interest in downstairs life, other than to order Caitlin around. Tom Kettle, a mentally disabled, one-time-ward-of-the-family, Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie round out the adults, and there are about twenty children of various sizes, including Caitlin’s son, Oisin. It’s harvest, and whilst Caitlin busies herself at the hearth, Muldoon, the sinister IRA man who knows where the bodies are buried, soon makes an appearance. The festive mood turns sour as it becomes clear that certain things are never forgotten, and that Carney has to get his hands dirty  if he wants to carry on with his charmed life.  Except, of course, things will never be the same.

It’s riveting. Mendes takes Butterworth’s gift of building tension and runs with it, making the happy family scenes faintly echo with the possibility of tragedy. There are so many children in the play- which ones will come to harm? Butterworth keeps you guessing.  It’s a deft move- you know that something terrible will happen to one of them. So many children cannot be allowed to remain happy at the end of such a play. The menace builds with the introduction of out-of-town cousins, IRA hopefuls the Corcorans, and all the kindling is placed in good position for a fire.

Considine is commanding as the laid-back pater familias, making it almost unbelievable that Quinn has this dark past. Almost is the important word here. The revelation that the man seen boozing and cavorting to the Rolling Stones is a hard-working father is another nice little bamboozle, turning the assumptions from that scene on their heads and using them to furnish our assumptions about Quinn for the rest of the play. Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin is quite moving, as she plays a woman who is quite dominant in her adopted home at Quinn’s range. The dangers of ambiguous IRA devotion are cleverly laid bare in the boasting Corcorans, of which the wary Carney boys rightly steer clear. But not so angry Oisin, and another stunning bamboozle by Butterworth awaits- but I won’t spoil that for you. The reckoning from all of this is truly shocking. I felt my breath leave my body. But was it satisfying? I’m still not sure.  My feeling is that it wasn’t.  The burst of violence at the end, and then simply ending on it, is a maverick move. It’s a playgoer’s worst nightmare to be confronted with a play that never ends, each bold act being followed by some kind of endless reckoning by the characters, and it was a relief to be spared that, but at the same time, this may have been too sudden an ending. And the supernatural element was out of place- the real-world threats of the IRA and what they symbolised were enough, without the banshees.  But there’s real skill in the build (look at me, complimenting Sam Mendes and Jez Butterworth!) and it’s no mean achievement to create and sustain such tension for so long (it’s quite long, but you won’t notice.)  There are moments of real hilarity (the children’s uniquely Irish profanity never gets old,) and a few incongruous moments which break up the tension (look for the rabbit,) but it’s always there, rising, right up until the shocking end.

The Ferryman is at the Royal Court Theatre until 20th May, and then transfers to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End.


Welcome, theatre-lover.

Hi, welcome to my blog.  I’ve been a theatre critic since I first put pen to paper and childishly monstered a university production for a student newspaper back in the year 2000. I have a theatre degree myself, so perhaps that gives me my sense of entitlement which I use as a shield when judging others’ artistic works.  Who do I think I am?  Well, that’s another blog.  What do I think of your play? You’re in the right place.

This is a space for fresh theatre reviews, and for archiving my old ones for other publications.  All of my new writing will appear here, as well as on the original publication’s website.  There’s a lot of really exciting stuff coming up in London, and I will be writing about it here. Please feel free to comment or to get in touch.