Chichester Festival Theatre Until May 25, 2hrs 20mins
Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville is the latest to play the tweedy academic C S Lewis, author of the Narnia chronicles, in this old favourite about a confirmed bachelor brutally ambushed by love and grief.
In William Nicholson’s play, ‘Jack’ Lewis is giving smug Christian lectures about how God shapes us out of stone and suffering. ‘The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.’
Yet he is talking twaddle because Lewis privately feels no pain at all, having spent his life repressing the trauma of his mother’s death when he was a child.
Lewis (Hugh Bonneville) gets fan letters from a brash woman called Joy Gresham (Liz White), describing herself a ‘Jewish Communist Christian American’
He now prefers to live with his sweet brother Warnie in a comfy bachelor rut in their Oxford home. Lewis at one point mentions that the central heating in the house went on the blink many years previously and is still unfixed.
Well, his heart is in the same state as his boiler.
Things change when Lewis gets fan letters from a brash woman called Joy Gresham, describing herself a ‘Jewish Communist Christian American’. She and her young son come to Oxford to meet him and he agrees to a paper marriage for the sake of her British visa.
At moments in Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, the book-lined set gives way to a vista of Narnia, with its trees and lamppost (pictured above with Ruari Finnegan)
But it is only when Joy finds she has advanced cancer that he finds the courage to love.
At moments in Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, the book-lined set gives way to a vista of Narnia, with its trees and lamppost. To my mind, Bonneville’s Lewis looks the part, but he exudes little more than a bland, Lord Grantham-ish decency.
Explosive grief and real emotional turbulence seem to elude him. Liz White makes the most of the thankless job of playing Joy, shepherding her son and then doing the dying in hospital.
Liz White makes the most of the thankless job of playing Joy, shepherding her son and then doing the dying in hospital
Andrew Havill is Lewis’s brother Warnie, whose deep alcoholism the play ignores. Timothy Watson plays the bitchy atheist in Lewis’s Oxford circle of pathetic, sherry-sipping dons.
Lewis died in 1963 (on the same day as President Kennedy) at the age of 64, surviving, by three years, Joy, who was only 45 when her cancer finally got her.
The upshot of her death was the most useful thing Lewis ever wrote, his short book on bereavement, A Grief Observed.
Their love story is all the better for being true, and it’s funny how this humane sob-fest of a play never seems to fail, even in this rather so-so production.
Duke of York’s Theatre, London Until Jul 20, 2hrs 20mins
Hayley Atwell has a global movie following as Marvel’s Agent Carter. Now she is in this rarely staged play by the great 19th-century Scandi-gloomster Henrik Ibsen. She’s joined by Tom Burke, who has happily sprouted another leg after playing Cormoran Strike, J K Rowling’s amputee detective, on TV.
Burke is the nobleman and pastor John Rosmer, who has lost both his wife and his faith and now grieves among his family’s ancestral portraits, thinking radical thoughts.
We are on the eve of an election. The press is wildly partisan and the divided country is in a fever of populism.
Hayley Atwell is superb as the wired Rebecca, one of Ibsen’s greatest heroines. She and Rosmer eye each other with erotic interest and a breathy, shared intellectual fervour
Duncan Macmillan’s clever version avoids the B-word but makes sure the audience can’t. The play exists, excitingly, in a riptide way beyond theatre’s Remainer comfort zone.
Giles Terera – fresh from starring in Hamilton – plays Rosmer’s brother-in-law, Governor Kroll, an overbearing elitist prig who thinks the people stink and that Rosmer’s live-in assistant, Rebecca West (Atwell), is a dangerous revolutionary.
Atwell is superb as the wired Rebecca, one of Ibsen’s greatest heroines. She and Rosmer eye each other with erotic interest and a breathy, shared intellectual fervour. Mrs Rosmer drowned herself.
Giles Terera – fresh from starring in Hamilton – plays Rosmer’s brother-in-law, Governor Kroll, an overbearing elitist prig who thinks the people stink
Did Rebecca, her live-in helper, metaphorically shove her in? Why Rebecca and Rosmer don’t just jump into bed is the play’s great Freudian enigma.
Ian Rickson’s pacy production features the excellent Peter Wight as a drunken tutor from Rosmer’s past. Lucy Briers is the fraught, superstitious housekeeper.
Full of torrential talk about sex, freedom and politics, it’s not an easy play. But even when it occasionally went over my head, I never doubted I was watching a really passionate masterpiece about how we should live.
Olivier stage, National Theatre Until Aug 10, 3hrs 10mins
At one point the bulky ship stern of the Empire Windrush dominates the stage in this terrific version of Andrea Levy’s acclaimed 2004 novel. It’s a timely reminder of the recent Windrush scandal.
But also of the role played by Caribbeans who fought in the war, and that first generation of bold immigrants shivering in a bankrupt Britain in the wake of victory.
If, like me, you’ve not read the book, it doesn’t seem to matter. As events sweep across the stage like a high wind in Jamaica, everything makes total sense.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation clearly has Brexit in its sights, and a great deal is made of this country’s hostile reception to Jamaicans
The story follows the fortunes of the prim, self-contained teacher Hortense (Leah Harvey), who leaves the island in 1948 to join her husband in gold-paved London – and gets a terrible shock.
Her ex-RAF hubby is living in a squalid flat, existing on a diet of racial abuse and casual labour. Queenie (Aisling Loftus) is his open-hearted landlady with an absent husband missing in action.
What follows is a saga of birth, love, loss and dislocation in the terminally ill British empire. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation clearly has Brexit in its sights, and a great deal is made of this country’s hostile reception to Jamaicans (referred to as ‘darkies’, ‘curlies’ and worse), epitomised by Queenie’s xenophobic husband (Andrew Rothney), who unexpectedly returns.
The story follows the fortunes of the prim, self-contained teacher Hortense (Leah Harvey), who leaves the island in 1948 to join her husband in gold-paved London
This resonant, often funny and cumulatively moving story holds its own in Rufus Norris’s wonderful production, with huge, evocative projections of Jamaican palms and a bleak London, designed by Katrina Lindsay.
More than three hours just whistles by in what deserves to be a big smash hit.
Hampstead Theatre, London Until Jun 1, 2hrs 20mins
Edward Hall’s production of Howard Brenton’s play is his last for the theatre he’s run for almost a decade. It is a baffling choice on many levels – more a head-scratch than last hurrah.
Jude is a loose update of Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. Here, Jude is a Syrian refugee with an extraordinary talent for languages, determined to study classics at Oxford but thwarted by the system.
A promising premise, but Brenton’s treatment is all over the place. The plot lurches implausibly, and characters are wildly inconsistent. Jude is strenuously over-sexualised, while Jack, her pig-farming lunk of a boyfriend, and her flirting-with-extremism cousin (whom she also sleeps with) are crudely sketched.
Jude (Isabella Nefar) is strenuously over-sexualised, while Jack (Luke MacGregor), her pig-farming lunk of a boyfriend, and her flirting-with-extremism cousin are crudely sketched
Tension-raising, spy-filled sub-plots fizzle out, damply. And pity the poor actor who must play Euripides in a snigger-inducing mask.
Line by line, the dialogue is bad: clunky, over-written and heavy-handed in its Greek references. Without Brenton’s long association with Hampstead Theatre, this surely wouldn’t be programmed – a cruel irony given that the play itself laments how opportunities aren’t always given to those with the most talent.
Jude is a Syrian refugee with an extraordinary talent for languages, determined to study classics at Oxford but thwarted by the system (Caroline Loncq pictured)
Hall’s direction doesn’t help: lumpen and leaden, it fails to prevent conversations clunking, or to find thrills in the weirder moments.
Ashley Martin-Davis delivers a streamlined, elegant design, but everything else is a mess.
Avalanche: A Love Story
Barbican Theatre, London Until today, 1hr 30mins
In Julia Leigh’s adaptation of her 2016 memoir about IVF, Maxine Peake’s female character, who goes only but the title ‘Woman’, spends years, considerable portions of her mental reserves and an eye-watering amount of cash trying to conceive.
Anne-Louise Sarks’s production is part of the Barbican’s Fertility Fest – and while this is a valuable subject to explore, the staging and script don’t quite do it justice.
At the start, Woman reconnects with a former boyfriend, and they agree to try for a child. It doesn’t work; the bloke bows out; she bravely goes it alone.
Maxine Peake’s character, who goes only but the title ‘Woman’, spends years, considerable portions of her mental reserves and an eye-watering amount of cash trying to conceive
Aside from the ghost-like children who drift on and off stage, this is a one-woman show – and Peake fills the sparse set with her wry, engaging narration.
As Woman sinks deeper into the IVF process – she undergoes eight successful rounds in total – proceedings pick up pace. Here, Leigh proves herself an astute chronicler of the gruelling medicalisation of life that fertility treatment involves.
The climatic disintegration of Marg Howell’s set provides a sense of catharsis, if in obvious fashion.
Ultimately, the stage might not be the right vehicle for this story. But Peake’s open-hearted performance proves she’s certainly the correct person to tell it.