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Blithe Spirit review – Duke of York’s Theatre

4 star review

Like that saying about never being more than six feet from a rat in London, there should probably be a theatrical adage that in the West End you are never more than six years from a production of Blithe Spirit.

This latest invocation of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy stars Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (Back in 2014 the role was played by the legendary Angela Lansbury – here’s the interview I did with her at the time).

From the moment she enters, removing her cycling cloak to reveal enormous sweat patches around her armpits, Saunders owns every scene she’s in.  Yet it’s a cleverly nuanced performance that counterbalances the play’s more farcical elements. Despite Arcati’s idiosyncrasies, Saunders never loses sight of the fact that the oddball occultist takes her work extremely seriously.

The story takes place in the living room of Charles and Ruth Condomine’s country pile in Kent. The home’s rural setting is made even more obvious with the sound of mooing as the curtain rises. The upper floor of Anthony Ward’s impressive set is dominated by an immense bookcase that rises up like a cathedral.

Author Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has invited Madame Arcati over to hold a seance so he can secretly gather material for his next novel. However, the medium inadvertently raises the ghost of Charles’s former wife, the beautiful and mischievous Elvira (Emma Naomi), whom only her former husband can see and hear.

The supernatural special effects are kept simple, but the seance scenes conjure a genuinely eerie atmosphere.

As Ruth Condomine, Lisa Dillon is a joy to watch as she quietly seethes with jealousy that Charles is still under the spell of his first wife. She also gets the biggest laugh of the night with a sparkling one-liner in the second act.

Rose Wardlaw deserves a special mention for her energetic and amusing turn as the Condomines’ hyperactive maid, Edith.

In short, Richard Eyre’s lavish production ticks all the boxes you’d want in this Coward classic. And Saunders is ab fab.

Blithe Spirit is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 11 April


The Son review – Duke of York’s Theatre

Laurie Kynaston (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The West End is no stranger to the name Florian Zeller. When I interviewed him back in June 2016 at the opening of his comedy The Truth, the Paris-born playwright had already enjoyed success in the UK with The Father and The Mother. He told me he was planning to write a play called The Son which he hoped would premiere in London…

Well you read it there first.

And three years later here I am at The Son’s West End opening – a few months after its debut at London’s Kiln Theatre.

Be warned: this is not a comfortable watch – especially if you are the parent of a teenager. The signs are there even before the lights go down. On arrival, the audience is greeted by a deep rhythmic throbbing sound and the sight of a boy writing on the walls of a pristine apartment. A huge bag stuffed with unseen objects is suspended above the stage like a sinister piñata.

Amanda Abbington (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The story begins with Anne (Amanda Abbington) arriving at the home of her former husband Pierre (John Light) and his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) to reveal that their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been skipping school for three months.

“Don’t worry, everything will go back to normal,” Pierre reassures her. It’s a line that echoes chillingly in one form or another throughout the play.

Nicolas, however, is far from alright. He’s self-harming, depressed and consumed by anxiety about changing schools. After he moves in with Pierre and Sofia (and their new baby) it becomes clear he harbours huge resentment against his father for breaking up the family home to be with another woman.

John Light and Laurie Kynaston (photo: Marc Brenner)

Zeller powerfully explores family dynamics, guilt and father-son relationships throughout The Son’s intense one and three quarter hours.

There is much that is close to perfection in Michael Longhurst’s production: in particular the casting and the fluid use of the set.

Abbington and Light brilliantly convey raw frustration and fear in their exchanges with each other and their troubled son. Kynaston fills the character of Nicolas with so much anguish it’s sometimes almost too painful to watch.

There are shards of joy that pierce the gloom, such as a wonderful shared family moment that involves some hilarious dad-dancing to the song Happy.

Longhurst makes full use of Lizzie Clachan’s opulent yet clinical apartment set with its folding doors, choreographing the characters so that they appear in some scenes like silent ghosts.

But there are some frustrations too. So much of what happens is entirely predictable. There’s a reference early on to a possession of Pierre’s that might as well be accompanied by a klaxon and a flashing red light.

And amidst all the beautifully-acted pain and rage towards the end, it seemed unnecessary to soundtrack it with a well-worn classical piece seemingly designed to open the tear ducts.

Bleak as it is, Zeller’s play is an intelligent and moving portrayal of teenage depression that will linger long in the mind.

The Son is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 2 November.

Rosmersholm review – Duke of York’s Theatre

5 star review

I finally managed to catch up with Rosmersholm in the final weeks of its West End run. I’m so glad I did. After so many five star reviews it’s always a risk that you go in with high expectations and come out disappointed. Not so with Ian Rickson’s wonderful production of this lesser-known Ibsen work.

With its themes of political polarisation, conflicted desire, and the destructive power of the press, this 1886 play – adapted by Duncan Macmillan – feels like it could have been written this year.  Yes, it’s wordy, but never dull.

The story opens in the ancestral home of John Rosmer, a year after the suicide of his wife. The house reeks of neglect and is spoken of as a place where no laughter is heard.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke in Rosmersholm (Photo: Johan Persson)

Tom Burke is absolutely solid as Rosmer, a pastor who has turned his back on his faith, but the two standout performances come from Hayley Atwell as Rebecca West, the feminist friend of Rosmer’s late wife, and Giles Terera as Governer Kroll, Rosmer’s politically-motivated brother in law.

Atwell makes an instant impression as she sweeps into Rae Smith’s expansive set and insists on opening the windows and tearing down the dust sheets over the Rosmer family portraits. Neil Austin’s superb lighting design often makes scenes look like an oil painting come to life.

Photo: Johan Persson

A later scene in which Kroll presents Rebecca with a series of shocking revelations about her past sees both Terera and Atwell on searing form. Rickson ends things with a set piece that reminded me of the jaw-dropping conclusion to Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some stunning Ibsens over the years such as Carrie Cracknell’s A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, and Matthew Warchus’s The Master Builder at the Old Vic.  What a delight to add this rarity to the collection.

Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 July








Summer and Smoke – Duke of York’s Theatre

You can almost feel the heat. With its stage bathed in orange light, this production of Tennessee Williams’ play – a transfer from the Almeida – brings a welcome blast of “August madness” to a wintery West End.

Summer and Smoke centres on vicar’s daughter Alma (Patsy Ferran) and her complex relationship with doctor John Buchanan (Matthew Needham).

The minimalist staging of Rebecca Frecknall’s production lets the lyricism and emotion shine through. The action takes place within a semi-circle of pianos – their innards revealed as if to reflect Alma’s exposed soul.

The cast is impressive throughout, but it’s Patsy Ferran’s performance that people will be talking about in years to come. I first interviewed Patsy when she won a Critics’ Circle Award for most promising newcomer in 2015. She kicked off my theatrical year in 2018 in Anoushka Warden’s excellent My Mum’s a Twat at the Royal Court.

Here’s she’s unforgettable from the play’s opening moment as Alma finds herself thrashing around in the grip of a panic attack. You can’t take your eyes off her for the next two hours.

I’ve already bought my tickets to see this remarkable talent in Frecknall’s Three Sisters at the Almeida in April. It can’t come soon enough.