The Son (Duke of York’s)

Florian Zeller’s third play in his family trilogy, after The Father and The Mother, is again translated by Christopher Hampton, and brought to the London stage.

Pierre has left his former wife, Anne, and their teenage son, Nicolas, to set up a new home amd family with Sofia and their baby, Sacha. Nicolas is in a period of crisis – before the start of the play proper, he is furiously writing his thoughts in black marker on the bright white walls which encompass the set.

John Light and Laurie Kynaston in The Son
John Light and Laurie Kynaston in The Son

As Anne can no longer cope with her son’s silence and truancy, he comes to live with dad but remains isolated, capable for very brief moments of happiness, but also crushing resentment of the close-knit family of three which has been ripped apart.

The staging by director Michael Longhurst and designer Lizzie Clachan allows for ghostly presences, trashed surroundings, overlapping scenes, and unstated elegance. The white-walled space acts as a palatial living space, a hospital waiting room, and a cluttered office. It also acts as the prison within Nicolas’s mind as he struggles just to live.

John Light, Amanda Abbington, Laurie Kynaston in The Son
John Light, Amanda Abbington, Laurie Kynaston in The Son

John Light, Laurie Kynaston, Amanda Abbington and Amaka Okafor are all good in their roles, although Abbington is a little underused and Okafor’s Sofia remains slightly unsympathetic to the end. I disliked the attempt at a twist ending, which felt tacked on and pushed the play just beyond an effective stopping point.

There are excellent scenes: Pierre’s impotent fear at his son’s attempts to hide his physical and emotional pain; the “Happy” dance sequence; the icy coolness of the first scene between Pierre and Anne set against their closeness in the hospital; the guarded conversation between Sofia and Nicolas as she gets herself ready for a night out.

John Light and Amaka Okafor in The Son
John Light and Amaka Okafor in The Son

Small moments within a time of depression and crisis, where Nicolas’s decline is missed by everyone around him; even, perhaps, the psychiatrist who hides behind the logic of medicine.

The Son is not quite as successful as The Father or last year’s The Height of the Storm. It has a certain emotional punch, and Zeller’s usual economical tautness of script, but for me something disconnected. Rather than feeling I was in the room with these characters, it was more outside a pane of glass, looking in from some remote spot.

By the end, it seems that this family will never fit together in quite the same way, unlike the toy trucks which are left side by side, incongruous to a grown-up space.

The Son originally played at the Kiln Theatre, and opened at the Duke of York’s on 24 August 2019 for a limited season. Photo credits Marc Brenner.


Rosmersholm (Duke of York’s)

A sunny afternoon is perhaps not the perfect time to see one of Ibsen’s more ponderous plays, but this tale of the morally oppressive house of Pastor Rosmer, the memory of his drowned wife, and the political machinations in the upcoming election has a lot of relevance to what’s happening in the UK right now.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke in Rosmersholm. Photo by Johan Persson.

Ian Rickson’s production finds the humour within the text and translation (by Duncan MacMillan) despite the constant feeling, quite rightly, that disaster is just around the corner. With perceptive comments about the power of the press to bring influence from good or bad, the play retains its power to connect.

John Rosmer (Tom Burke) has lost his faith and has been swayed to the political left, personified by disgraced Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) who was cast out for having a child with a married woman, and who now publishes the leftist newspaper The Lighthouse.

Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) whose dead sister had been married to Rosmer, represents the right-wing of politics, against any talk of equality and a strong upholder of what he sees is the decent way of living (marriage, children, the Church, sobriety). He reveres the ancestors of Rosmersholm, a set of unsmiling men depicted in portraits which line the walls of the large dining room in which we first find ourselves.

Tom Burke in Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

Into this house we also find Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who had been a friend to both the Rosmers, and who is a liberated, independent thinker with a shadowy past. In contrast to her is Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), long-time housekeeper, who gets her opinions from the traditional paper The Tribune, yet acknowledges that women “are all human”.

There is also an academic idealist, come to grief, in the person of Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight), who turns up to Rosmersholm in rags, to call in favours from his former pupil and protege. His assumption that the people can think for themselves also comes to grief.

Peter Wight in Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

Rae Smith’s set is huge and oppressive, with cavernous space and triple height doors and windows, with Rosmer’s bedroom showing the spaces where his cross and (presumably) portrait of his dead wife once graced the wall.

At first the house is in darkness, furniture shrouded, dead flowers; then it opened up to represent something of the insight Rosmer thinks he has gained of the world.

When he tells his bewildered servants “I do not think I am better than you” and gives them fresh flowers to take back to their families, this is mainly received in silence, save one manservant who skips briefly on his way to the door.

Hayley Atwell and company of Rosmersholm. Photo credit Johan Persson.

The ending is bleak, and cleverly indicated as the stage floods with water as the mill wheel fails to keep the river moving. This is an important new reading of Rosmersholm, which deserves a bit more interest from audiences.

King Lear (Duke of York’s)

Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television.  Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.

Ian McKellen (Lear)

This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars.  In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.

When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.

Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor.  In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.

And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.

Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario).  She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.

Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.

I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.

Ian McKellen (Lear)

But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.

A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”.  I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”.  This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.

Buy the text of King Lear from Amazon UK

Buy the DVD of the New London theatre production from Amazon UK

The Moderate Soprano (Duke of York’s)

There is no singing, operatic or otherwise, in The Moderate Soprano, which returns to the stage following a sell-out run at Hampstead three years ago.

There is Roger Allam in a curiously bad wig (and at one point, lederhosen) as the eccentric John Christie, who made his fortune from building and decided his destiny was to build an opera house in his garden – which became Glyndebourne, England’s answer to Bayreuth.

moderate_soprano_2Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay (Christie) and Roger Allam as John Christie.

The soprano of the title (not moderate as in average, but as in gentle of voice) is John’s wife, Audrey, played by Nancy Carroll, and we meet both of them in the first scene after the Second World War, when their enterprise is to be taken under the control of a Trust, ‘for the people’.

We then go back to see how Glyndebourne came to be, by the tenacity and naivete of Christie, and the help of three refugees from the Nazis: Rudolf Bing, Carl Ebert, and Franz Busch.  So a truly English institution was modelled on the German model by three specialists in the production of Mozart.

There are hints and glimpses of politics pre-war, and these are done well, but they feel a bit lost in what is essentially a light comedy, and David Hare’s play, now split into two Acts with an interval, could do with an additional trim to stop the action dragging to a stop.

Paul Jesson, a stalwart of the RSC who I last saw playing Henry VIII at Stratford-upon-Avon, is Busch, a conductor who fell foul of promoting Jews above Gentiles for their talent in his opera house in Dresden, who was driven out after his orchestra took to wearing swastikas on their lapels.

Anthony Calf (best known perhaps, as Strickland in New Tricks) is Ebert, engaging with the Christies in characteristic Teutonic arrogance, and his assistant Bing is played by the very mannered Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.

The play is complex, but I felt it did not entirely convince.  The performances are broadly good (especially Allam, who gets to the core of the character and Jesson, who convinces as a man displaced and somewhat befuddled by political progress), but there is something missing, and the decline in health of both the Christies is not fully explained, or the fact the private enterprise seems to decline during wartime.

I was also a little disappointed with the frugality of the sets and backdrops, and the dig within the script to people prepared to pay high prices to watch opera (which is also true, these days, of London theatre).

Just a reasonable two hours of theatre, not unmissable by any means, and not an obvious candidate to see out its full run to the end of June; it probably suited the small space of the Hampstead Theatre far better.

FillWyI3NTAiLCI0MjIiXQ-TMS-Nancy-Carroll-and-Roger-Allam-Photo-Piers-Foley-Small2Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam visit Glyndebourne. Photo credit Piers Foley.

Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.

The Dresser (Duke of York’s)

Ronald Harwood’s play, inspired in part by his own experience as dresser to the actor-manager Donald Wolfit, creaks a little these days but this is still a very enjoyable revival.


‘Sir’ is the leading man in a touring company (‘next week, God willing, we will be in Eastbourne’), who, along with his ‘lady wife’, presents Shakespeare in a haphazard way to an audience who are probably as bored with the proceedings as those in the company (‘cripples, old men, and nancy boys’).  In this version of the play Sir is portrayed by Ken Stott, and at first I thought he was a little miscast, but as the play progressed he grew into the role and by the end was really rather effective.

In the main role of Norman, the dresser, Reece Shearsmith is wonderfully waspish and camp as the man who has been responsible for the cheering up of his charge and the ‘washing of his foul underpants’ for some sixteen years.  This man sees the lie of the land and realises that the game is up, and yet he still has to play-act just as much as those on stage.  His timing is faultless and his acting cuts straight to the heart, whether making us laugh with his constant refrain of ‘I had a friend’, or touching us with his final scenes of loneliness and desperation.


Supporting roles go to Simon Rouse, as the doddery Thornton, who for years has soldiered on in the smallest of parts, but tonight has to play the Fool; Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, now too old to care anything for her career or her sham marriage; and Selina Cadell as the quietly devoted but steely stage manager Madge.

I would like to give a nod to the set and staging too, Simon Higlett’s revolving backstage and wings, and Sean Foley’s direction, which is spot on, whether in the intimate two-handed scenes between Stott and Shearsmith, or the amusing opening of ‘King Lear’ (‘methinks I saw the King’) or the later storm, requiring all hands on deck.  In fact, Lear is the perfect depiction of the backstage drama, too, with Norman as the Fool, who although ever present, finds he has ‘slipped out of sight’ when he reads Sir’s book dedication.

Goodnight Mr Tom (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Michelle Margorian’s 1981 novel about evacuees in Dorset and one in particular, William Beech, has become a classic, and there was a television adaptation with John Thaw as Tom which screened in 1998 which was well-received.

In this small-scale but affecting production, we have David Troughton as the grouchy reclusive widower who takes in the nervous and abused William and both of them transform as their friendship grows along with those around them (including a kindly doctor, a newly-married teacher, and a spirited Jewish boy called Zach whose parents are in the theatre).

This is an old-fashioned tale with a simple message, but is well-told, and manages to be quite chilling in places (William’s insane Bible-bashing mother has had an illegitimate child and leaves her to die, causing the boy considerable mental distress).

David Wood’s play, directed by Angus Jackson, has been revived a few times, but still works.  As the boys, Joe Reynolds as Will (we think), and Sonny Kirby as Zach, were excellent, in quite difficult roles.  And I have to mention the marvellous puppet work which not only evokes squirrels and hedge-sparrows, but also Mr Tom’s dog Sammy, who came to life in the expert hands of Elisa de Grey.

I also loved the sets with train posters and wartime rationing tips dominating, and this even transferred into the programme, which has period advertising throughout.