Selected reviews by Arifa Akbar, chief theatre critic of The Guardian.
Arifa Akbar was appointed chief theatre critic at the Guardian in 2019, succeeding Michael Billington who stepped down as chief critic in December 2019.
Prior to taking on the chief role, Arifa had been reviewing for the Guardian for several years, and interviewing theatre talent.
Akbar previously worked as arts editor at Tortoise Media, and had worked for 15 years at the Independent, where she started as a news reporter before becoming arts correspondent and literary editor. She has also written for the Observer and the Financial Times, and is on the board of trustees of the Orwell Foundation.
More about Arifa Akbar:
A Sherlock Carol (2022)
"The detective takes on Dickens in a fresh festive mashup"
"There’s only one sleuth in Victorian London who can get to the bottom of the suspicious death of Ebenezer Scrooge, in this winning crossover mystery"
"Writer-director Mark Shanahan’s mashup is very well executed, taking the characters, styles and themes of both and weaving them into a yuletide detective story."
"Given the glut of Christmas Carols on stage, this is an imaginative alternative with a refreshingly scrappy, fringe feel. Sets are brought on and off by actors who turn cartwheels in a multiplicity of character switches, with a wonderful central performance by Ben Caplan as Holmes. It is only the production’s gentle pace that feels off – it really could do with some revving up."
"Laura Dos Santos and Lucy May Barker are excellent as the frenemies in a queasy verbatim drama"
"This is a tale of sleuthing, social media, fame and frenemies in all its lurid detail. Directed by Lisa Spirling, Liv Hennessy’s adaptation gives us nothing more than we know, but nothing less either. If its cross-examinations do not have the razor tension they should – the details were fed to us in daily news reports only this summer, after all – they engage us with their grisly voyeurism."
"Polly Sullivan’s set is a tacky courtroom cum football pitch and the drama is interrupted by a pair of football pundits who serve, rather gratingly, as narrators. But the performances are excellent, especially Barker’s as Vardy, who is deadpan and insouciant until the last. She comes across as an implacable force in sunglasses whose forgetfulness in the witness box resembles a teenage strop."
The Sex Party (2022)
"Spiky comedy fails to satisfy"
"There’s tension in Terry Johnson’s tale of four couples meeting for sex and nibbles but the unruly debate isn’t deep enough"
"Terry Johnson’s spiky comedy takes us from the familiar fare of smut and sniggering double entendres to something bolder and more awkward in the sex/gender debate at its centre, even if it does not reach a satisfying end."
"It is brave of Johnson to grapple with a debate that has become so divisive that a meeting of this kind would be unimaginable in real life. But arguments come thick and fast without being explored. Johnson seems to be shooting an arrow through the issues of the day – including, too briefly, consent – but it comes to feel like a dramatised version of Twitter."
Blackout Songs (2022)
"Drunk and disorderly exploration of love and addiction"
"Joe White’s romantic tragedy is a brave and original depiction of the hedonistic excess and inner battles of a co-dependent couple struggling with alcoholism"
"This is a drama about love while in the grip of addiction and this pair (we never learn their names) grow on us, and grow in depth too."
"Blackout Songs has much to say on mutual addiction: the pair’s compulsion to keep drinking is caught up with creativity for him, a rebellion against “normality” for her. She feels her “real” self to be indelibly entwined with her alcoholism and this becomes the big inner battle. This is brave and original writing, hard-edged and unsentimental one minute, heart-meltingly warm the next. A funny kind of romantic tragedy that becomes compulsive to watch."
"Douglas Henshall’s courtier defends a Queen in quick-fire debate"
"Rona Munro’s engaging debate drama has some thrilling exchanges as three characters argue the case for and against Mary Queen of Scots"
"Cleanly directed by Roxana Silbert, this is a debate play with little action. It feels static at the start but builds intrigue and has a thrilling series of quick-fire exchanges although the pace does not sustain itself."
"Morison gives an especially gripping performance but Agnes’s switch of position turns on a single factual detail and her sympathy towards Mary sounds too suddenly removed from the fierce ideological arguments she made previously. Sir James’s resignation, meanwhile, seems more a function of the plot than the end to a penetrating character study. But this is still an engaging production and an arresting way to stage the downfall of a contested figure in Stuart history."
Tammy Faye – A New Musical (2022)
"Elton John’s hymn to biblical kitsch"
"Songs belt out deliriously in this romp through rise and fall of the Bakker televangelists and latterday gay icons – so thick and fast the James Graham script and Jake Shears lyrics are sometimes overwhelmed by glitz"
"... it pulls out all the stops to stage a show as glittery as these starry names. Infectious in its music, exuberant in its performances and gloriously kitsch in its aesthetic, it is stylishly pulled together by director Rupert Goold."
"... Tammy Faye does have the best solo numbers and Brayben has a turbocharged voice that belts them out to awesome effect. Rannells is as strong, morphing from lovable klutz to flawed, tortured soul."
"The songs progress the story rather than illustrating it, but John’s music begins to overwhelm Graham’s script, which is so good we half wish this were Tammy Faye “the play” over “the musical”"
"This is, without doubt, a musical with charisma, just like Tammy Faye herself. In its biggest moments – and there are several – it reaches a delirious kind of excellence."
King Hamlin (2022)
"Trapped teens face up to lives at knife-point"
"Excellent performances enhance this story of three young boys hurtling towards gang culture"
"All three central actors give excellent performances: Cain shines in his title role, capturing the inner conflict of an intelligent, code-switching teenager who is desperate to escape the gang culture that has taken the life of his father but still finds himself hurtling towards it."
"There are switches to dream or fantasy, some more effective than others, and occasionally the dialogue speaks in blunt messages... Williams’s script is best in its granularity during the boys’ more casual moments"
A Single Man (2022)
"Isherwood’s melancholy mourner falls apart in 60s California"
"This adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a gay man grieving for his lover lacks the depth of Tom Ford’s movie version"
"This production – lean, inventive but fatally grounded in its action and effects – ends up proving the story’s inherent anti-theatricality."
"The book is led by thought, rather than action, and its tone is a mix of the comic, spiritual and melancholic: George’s grief for his dead lover, flaring memories of love, matter-of-fact domestic detail and bathos, all of which give it great underlying emotional power. But here the tone feels flat, stripped to archness and emotionally distant."
"... Fraser Steele certainly looks the part – a lonely outsider, his smart suit a form of armour – and Isherwood’s observations and arguments offer food for thought. Some drama blooms in a scene between George and Charley (Olivia Darnley, excellent), but none of it brings the intensity and depth of feeling it should."
Local Hero (2022)
"Musical misses the magic of Bill Forsyth’s classic"
"In spite of a nifty set and new songs, this story of an oil-man trying to buy a Highlands village never quite comes alive"
"it does not bring the same magic as that film and feels dated in its environmental message, and rather inert in its drama, although Daniel Evans directs with characteristic imagination. There is also an especially nifty set by Frankie Bradshaw, which turns the stage into a giant metallic ocean wave."
My Neighbour Totoro (2022)
"Dazzling staging of the Studio Ghibli classic"
"The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production has astonishing puppetry, magical music and huge emotional impact"
"Under the direction of Phelim McDermott, it is not an exact replica. There is a different imagination at work here, but it is just as enchanting and perhaps more emotionally impactful."
"The drama comes infused with Shinto and Japanese folklore which renders it a different narrative experience to western fairytales. It takes on an almost spiritual energy with its indistinguishable line between dreamworld and reality along with its centring of children’s imaginations and the importance of nature."
"It is not nearly as high-powered in its special effects as a Disney adaptation but just as dazzling in its magic realism"
"David Tennant is magnificent in chilling drama"
"Revived with a superb cast, CP Taylor’s play about a professor embracing nazism is fascinating psychological theatre with the feel of a fever dream"
"Good is an inherently discursive play which hangs on its final reveal and director Dominic Cooke ekes out the drama until it blooms into compelling psychological theatre with the feel of a fever dream."
"The strangeness of this staging – its scale and non-sequiturs – is explained at the end, but the payoff isn’t quite surprising enough. Never mind because there is enough intrigue, intellect and fine acting to keep us rapt. Tennant is spellbinding in his ordinariness, not hiding Halder’s venality yet ensuring he remains human. Levey plays the lovable Maurice first with desperation, when he is begging his friend for help, then with terrible, tragic silences."
"Good is a gradually enraging drama that makes us hear afresh the denials that lead populism into dangerous waters, and may well be a lesson for our times."
The Doctor (2022)
"A repeat prescription for acute intellectual stimulation"
"Robert Icke’s combative 2019 play about medical ethics, identity politics and antisemitism returns to the West End to divide and challenge audiences"
"It is often static in its action, abrasive in its tone and revels in its flagrant theatricality. Yet the effects are slowly, searingly electric and you are unlikely to see anything in the West End that comes with the same amounts of tension, combative intellectual complexity and sheer bare-toothed drama"
" the themes of this play chime louder than ever in a time when racial and antisemitic bigotries thrive and identity politics have become the stuff of gladiator fights."
"The Doctor eschews binaries and turns into a richly layered thing, as bigger racial, religious and gender politics come into play. "
Iphigenia in Splott (2022)
"A shattering modern classic that distils all our troubles"
"Gary Owen’s magnificent one-woman monologue brings Greek tragedy to Cardiff and reveals the terrible emotional costs of our societal shortfalls"
"Now, Gary Owen’s magnificent, eviscerating play still speaks to us about the sorry state of our nation but feels as if it was written for this year, month, and moment. That is partly down to coincidental timing but also to its artistry."
"[Sophie Melville] is a natural storyteller, swaggering as she takes us through the one-night stands and three-day hangovers that comprise her life. Melville somehow manages to encapsulate both the kinetic verbal highs of one of Irvine Welsh’s trainspotters and the stillness of Alan Bennett’s lonely women, observing the world with gimlet-eyed glances through the net curtain, gestured at in the luminous slats of a window blind on Hayley Grindle’s set."
"In 2015, a fellow critic at this paper described this play as “perfect theatre”. It is exactly that now. Everyone should see this shattering modern classic. No one will remain unmoved."
John Gabriel Borkman (2022)
"Simon Russell Beale magnetic as the shamed alpha-male banker"
"Turning to a lesser-staged work by Ibsen might seem risky, but Nicholas Hytner’s production is held together by some powerhouse performances"
"Reviving a lesser-staged Ibsen play might be deemed high risk in times when many venues are cleaving to safe programming choices. Director Nicholas Hytner should be commended for it, though there is the insurance policy of three formidable actors at its heart. The gamble half pays off...."
"What holds it together is its powerhouse performances from Clare Higgins, Lia Williams and most magnetically of all, Simon Russell Beale"
"The modernised language lays bare some of the play’s odd lines and tricky tonal shifts, too – it swings from despairing humour to naturalistic family drama and then to its convulsive last moments which brings intimations of King Lear’s heath scene."
Jews. In Their Own Words (2022)
"Appalling revelations in a gallop through centuries of bigotry"
"Jonathan Freedland has turned 180,000 words drawn from interviews into a potent verbatim play about antisemitism and the blindspots of liberal institutions. The results feel urgent – but is its remit simply too large?"
"... directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, that comes with bold theatricality, songs and wry jokes, albeit underpinned by deadly serious inquiry into how it is that this most ancient form of hate still persists"
"Its theatricality does not always land and feels as if it is trying too hard to give the verbatim form a dramatic edge, enacting medieval mystery style mimes while characters recount the origins of antisemitic tropes, from the myth of the moneylending Jew to the lurid fantasy of blood libel (which ties Jewish ritual with the blood of non-Jewish children)."
"... the drama much more compellingly shows how antisemitism pervades across culture, history and is embedded in language itself."
The Crucible (2022)
"Stylish restaging is all beauty and no bite"
"Director Lyndsey Turner misses the opportunity to give Arthur Miller’s allegory modern resonance with a too-faithful interpretation"
"Beautifully staged, it is an almost entirely faithful interpretation and feels safe for it. Where its world might have borne more resonances to the group-think and scapegoating that recent populist narratives have peddled, its faithfulness pushes its themes back to the past, to Puritan fundamentalism, a time of theocracy and the search for a New Jerusalem, without bringing anything substantially new or imaginative to the stage – other than its aesthetics."
"The cast as a whole runs on a too loud, urgent tone but this recalibrates in the second half, with better pace and intensity in exchanges between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh, brilliantly balancing inner steel and nervousness)."
Eureka Day (2022)
"Helen Hunt is an anti-vaxxer on the attack in anti-woke satire"
"What begins as a broad takedown of the liberal left morphs into an engrossing and textured debate on social justice, vaccination and the pull of conspiracy theory"
"... beneath its broadsides, Jonathan Spector’s 2018 play has a serious-minded core which grapples with the organisation of power and the masking of privilege in groups"
"... the cast is strong, covering over the smaller cracks of the script, and the starry names in it give slow-burn starry performances: Hunt is at ease on stage, her character growing in brittle power. Kelechi Watson is arguably even better as the outsider who makes her lone stand."
The Wonderful World of Dissocia (2022)
"Whimsical and brutal"
"At first, Anthony Neilson’s play is a bewildering affair, but its sombre aftermath imparts understanding with crushing effect"
"Anthony Neilson’s 2004 drama about dissociative identity disorder is a reminder to never judge a play at the interval. It is certainly tempting to write the whole thing off as we are dragged through the irrational and kooky first half. Everything changes in the short, stark, second act and radically transforms our experience."
"This revival more than stands the test of time in its portrait of mental illness – it is original, brutal, memorable."
"Sparks fly at the Queen’s audiences with the Iron Lady"
"Moira Buffini’s clever political comedy returns, educating a new generation on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy through her weekly encounters with the monarch"
"Almost a decade on this is still a clever, funny and charming political comedy, perhaps a little overstretched in its conceit, with four exceptional performances that almost upstage the script itself."
"Richard Kent’s stage design is an elegantly decorative white canvas resembling an architectural cat’s cradle to suggest a game of cat and mouse. It sits well with Buffini’s meta-theatrical framing"
"The most chilling, and exhilarating, moment comes in Kinnock’s “I warn you …” speech before Thatcher’s re-election which foresees, with such clear-eyed prescience, where we might end up"
The Snail House (2022)
"Richard Eyre’s debut play takes on too much"
"This debut, which he also directs, is a family drama cum state-of-the-nation play cum tale of medical misdiagnosis. As interesting as these parts are, they do not make a unified whole."
"the script takes on too much without giving us enough, leaving this feeling like a play uncertain of its focus."
The Clinic (2022)
"Culture wars erupt at a birthday party"
"Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s early dialogue shimmers with quick wit, intelligence and delightful touches (Happy Birthday is sung with harmonies, gospel-style). "
"Directed by Monique Touko, the story seems as if it could flip into domestic horror at any minute; there is a thrillerishness to the lighting (by Matt Haskins) and sound (by Christopher Shutt) which keeps us waiting for answers. Are the crackling light fittings on Paul Wills’s set signifying an alternate reality? Is Tiwa’s tea, which miraculously calms Wunmi, a magic brew? One of the play’s strengths, early on, is that we do not quite know where it is going."
"Its ominous signs lead nowhere, turning back into political argument as the plot yields one odd turn after another without delivering in its climax. Yet, incredibly, this drama never stops being absorbing, partly because of the calibre of performances; Obianyo and Berlin are particularly strong."
"A poetic tragedy about modern British Muslim life"
"Inua Ellams updates the Sophoclean drama into a beguiling piece about faith and prejudice, and casts a suspicious eye at politicians who betray their own communities"
"What we do not dwell on is character. The early scenes are too short and functional. The plot is cranked out at quite a rate in stops and starts, and characters spell out all their motivations. And there is not always enough dramatic intensity in the spoken scenes: the relationship between Haemon (Oliver Johnstone) and Antigone is anaemic, and Eurydice (Pandora Colin), who is Creon’s wife and political adviser, is undercharged in her maternal role."
"The throb and thrill of the staging is beguiling, along with the clean visual magnificence of Leslie Travers’s set design, which literally throws its opening set off the stage and uses emptiness to maximum effect with fire, smoke and spotlighting. The emotional voltage of the final tragedy is not delivered but this is exciting and extremely watchable theatre nonetheless."
"A potent and poetic telling of the partition of India"
"The stage adaptation of Kavita Puri’s extraordinary oral history project is at times superficial and blunt but also deeply moving"
"The testimonies, delivered by seven actors, keep their power in this co-production with Tara theatre, though they come in snippets and glimpses, hopping from sitting rooms in contemporary Lewisham to villages in 1940s Punjab. They do not always come with enough context, or even characters’ names, and are bound together by a journalist, Mina (Nimmi Harasgama)."
"... there are oddities in Rose Revitt’s set design: layered back screens alternately covered with abstract graphics, left bare or bearing images of maps and women carrying pots. Still, the production leaves us deeply moved..."
Who Killed My Father (2022)
"A powerful study of class, cruelty and kin"
"Hans Kesting is spellbinding as an anguished man facing up to his abusive father"
"Director Ivo van Hove elicits a performance of captivating intensity from Kesting. He addresses the invisible father but also slips into playing him. The transformation between the laconic gruffness of the father and the pain and anger of the son is penetrating and precise."
"Jan Versweyveld’s stage design is characteristically stripped back, drawing our eye to every detail. "
Ride - A New Musical (2022)
"Jaunty new musical takes cyclist’s feat for a spin"
"This soulful celebration of adventurer Annie Londonderry takes time to get into gear, but newcomer Liv Andrusier gives a superb performance"
"The music is strong, if slightly samey, although the meat of the story takes some time to reach."
"Whatever its shortfalls, this is a soulful musical with its biggest asset in Andrusier, who is captivating to watch throughout. A glittering new musical star has surely been launched."
All's Well That Ends Well (2022)
"Problem play gets a tasty Gen Z makeover"
"Rosie Sheehy dazzles as a woman calling the shots in this feverish production that underlines the play’s curious ambiguities"
"It is perfectly suited to its director, Blanche McIntyre, who has notched up The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure in recent years and again proves her knack for navigating the tricky plays."
"Every performance in this fine cast brings energy and conviction to a sometimes unconvincing drama. Sheehy stands apart though, a force to be reckoned with from her obsessive schoolgirl zeal at the start (she appears in uniform) to the pulsating rave party in which she poses as Bertram’s love interest, Diana (Olivia Onyehara)."
"The closing ambiguity is left hanging and takes away from any real romantic resolution. Even McIntyre can’t stop this play from feeling like a tasty meal, half served."
Into The Woods (2022)
"Terry Gilliam’s rollicking take on Sondheim’s ‘fairytale collision’"
"The ex-Python’s production is visually enticing, playful and dreamlike but doesn’t quite reach the mournful depths of parental anxiety that run through the story"
"Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman’s atmospheric production does not quite manage to pull us into the musical’s mournful depths but it entertains enough and excels in its aesthetics of dark, dreamlike otherworldliness as Cinderella (Audrey Brisson), Red Ridinghood (Lauren Conroy), Jack of the Beanstalk (Barney Wilkinson), Rapunzel (Maria Conneely) and of course the Baker (Rhashan Stone) and his wife (Alex Young) career and rollick in the thick of the woods."
"Some of the characterisation steers close to pantomime, especially in Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters, but the central fairytale figures are played relatively straight. This realism should render them more human and affecting, but they feel slightly featureless and generic instead, while the humorous lines in James Lapine’s book and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics feels oddly dampened."
The Trials (2022)
"Tomorrow’s children hold us to account for climate crimes"
"In a near-future world on fire, a jury of 12 young people listen to testimony from the ‘dinosaur’ generation"
"This courtroom drama has a compelling conceit, though it ends up slightly repetitive, and perhaps doesn’t fully develop its dystopian horror until the third and final defendant gives her testimony. But it holds us in its grip intellectually, and there is a complex interplay of arguments between the jurors, who grapple with ethical dilemmas and ideological positions involving justice, revenge and the possibility of forgiveness."
"Under Natalie Abrahami’s direction they all bring immense spirit, with a particularly controlled performance from Honor Kneafsey as the head juror, while Francis Dourado is strong as an often lone defender of those on trial. Taya Tower has a good, nervy presence while Charlie Reid is convincingly annoying in his part as a stroppy teen."
"A dark, riveting revamp"
"This exhilarating production of CS Lewis’s timeless tale delivers spellbinding spectacle, wartime drama and perfect puppetry"
"This captivating production takes the wartime framing of CS Lewis’s tale and bleeds it across the fantasia. It is still, in spirit, a children’s story but contains all the grit and gore of war and feels far darker than the 1950 novel."
"Samantha Womack’s White Witch is all hard edges and glaring looks yet resists becoming a pantomime villain."
"The pace has a stately grandeur; nothing is rushed and some scenes come to feel a little inert. The siblings, played efficiently by adult actors, are a little featureless at first but these are quibbles in a show that is orchestrated masterfully."
Chasing Hares (2022)
"Factory drama moulds its own subversive power play"
"Sonali Bhattacharyya intriguingly exposes the exploitative dynamics of the global gig economy through the lens of a Bengali jatra theatre group"
"This drama about the gig economy and the workers trapped inside it plays out like a thriller. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s fast, witty script finds an original way to tell the global backstory of the zero-hours workforce, joining up the dots from child labour in West Bengal to unethical working conditions in Britain."
"The story has some too-neat parallels between West Bengal and the UK and it is perhaps too sentimental in its ending, but this is easily forgiven when weighed up against its emotional power and intelligence."
101 Dalmatians (2022)
"Puppyish enthusiasm can’t save a patchy production"
"This family musical and adorable puppets will keep the kids happy, but parents might wish they could go walkies"
"Thank God for Kate Fleetwood’s Cruella de Vil (fur, stilettos, big wigs), who plays her part for kicks at first but brings a baroque darkness later on and channels the sinister energy of her creepy Disney cartoon forebear. It is hammy, and sometimes panto-ish, but it works."
"The show certainly improves as it goes along, and it works best as a children’s show: my two young nieces stayed hooked throughout on press night. So, perhaps a crowd-pleaser for the kids but one which may leave some parents wanting to go walkies."
Much Ado About Nothing (2022)
"Screwball Shakespeare goes with a swing"
"John Heffernan shines brightest as a dorkish Benedick; Katherine Parkinson’s Beatrice is wry and cute but she is, surprisingly, not at her finest in comedy mode."
"The production does not, perhaps, plunge deeply enough into the play’s darkness, and no one actor commands our attention, but they all form a very able ensemble."
Crazy For You (2022)
"Spine-tingling musical is a giddy thrill"
"Instantly infectious melodies, superb choreography and irresistible comedy are met with astonishing performances in this lovable show"
"... here is a spine-tingling production with instantly infectious melodies, irresistible physical comedy and punning wisecracks (Ken Ludwig’s book zings). The crowning glory is the choreography – a whirligig of tap, ballroom, chorus-line and balletic movement, all effortlessly athletic, which makes this as much a show of dance as song."
"The production’s original choreographer, Susan Stroman, also directs and turns what might have been a long show with wooden characters into spectacular entertainment, oiled by astonishing performances from Charlie Stemp as the New York wannabe dancer Bobby and Carly Anderson as tough cookie Polly."
Peaky Blinders: The Rise reviews (2022)
"Immersed in a criminally flimsy plot"
"Fans of the TV series may enjoy the period detail and atmosphere, but this immersive show is frustratingly light on story and drama"
"Lovers of the TV series may be content to drink in the period detail and atmosphere. But it has none of the slick intelligence of that show."
"Peter Morgan’s compelling study of Russian dissidence"
"Rupert Goold’s production is ultimately entertaining but choppy, taking time to settle before its power struggles gain intensity."
"But the play resets itself in the second half, dropping the Dead Ringers-style wisecracks and gathering potency, gripping stillness and tension."
"The show-stealing performance is Will Keen’s saturnine Putin who emerges as the greatest and most sinister force on stage. "
The Seagull (2022)
"Woodchip-walled Chekhov is hypnotic"
"Jamie Lloyd’s radical, stripped-back, strangely gripping production, using Anya Reiss’s cool adaptation, might well be aspiring to Konstantin’s ideal of creating a new theatrical form. This is not Chekhov as we know it, nor theatre as we know it, certainly not in the West End. "
"This is a maverick show that, like Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, proves how dangerous and daring a revival can be"
Richard III reviews - RSC Stratford (2022)
"Shakespeare’s supervillain breezes through the bloodbath"
"Arthur Hughes is the scheming sociopath in a production of magisterial stagecraft that builds to a powerful climax"
"Hughes’s Richard is every bit the schemer, dead-eyed and unmoved by the body count he leaves on the way to the throne, but he also has a smarmy mischief about him"
"It gives a strange note to his villainy. He does not always seem vicious enough, even when he is giving orders to kill former allies."
"This production shines in its aesthetics and stagecraft, which has a magisterial splendour."
"It is a shame the visceral power of the play comes so late but these climactic moments bring the full force of the drama’s eeriness and emanate Richard’s fear and desperation."
Mad House (2022)
"David Harbour and Bill Pullman spar in dark family psychodrama"
"Under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the first half seems like a particularly savage episode of Frasier"
"There are some sharp lines in Rebeck’s script, though the serrated humour is not as blistering as it strives to be."
"Too much is thrown in without enough depth or structural coherence; there are echoes of King Lear as Daniel uses threats of disinheritance to keep his three children in line, even as two – Nedward and Pam (Sinéad Matthews) – scheme for the lucrative deeds of his house. Pam is particularly flat in her villainy, which seems like a motor for the plot."
"Performances are magnificent across the board"
The Gunpowder Plot (2022)
"A thrilling live adventure is marred by moments of bewildering VR in this immersive voyage back to 1605"
"In the belly of the vaults – a grid of tunnel-like corridors and boiler rooms – we meet prisoners such as William (Lucas O’Mahoney), who is barefoot, black-eyed and shackled by a terrifying hooded guard. William looks at us blinkingly before he is led away and confirms us as fellow Catholic dissenters. There is also our companion, Thomas (Cormac Elliott, very characterfully played), a cheeky caped spy who appears sporadically, calls us “bastards” and works for the crown. Something of a Jacobean Indiana Jones, he helps us navigate the perils of these tunnels and delivers us to his boss, Lady Cecil (Kalifa Taylor), who recruits us as spies to thwart Fawkes’ plot."
"There are three VR headset moments to augment our experience, the first of which did not work for everyone in my group. The last, which traces the mythology around Fawkes in the centuries following his execution, is especially disappointing – not in the graphics but in the rather vague points it seeks to make."
"Political drama is deadly serious but full of sass"
"Timberlake Wertenbaker’s take on Racine’s version of ancient Rome is replete with power-crazed emperors, deadly poison and juicy family politics"
"Atri Banerjee’s thrilling production brings this Roman family into a modern-day court and shows us how old stories can be made terrifically new, with enough fearless imagination."
"Every performance is fabulous. So is Rosanna Vize’s stage design"
"Is it a penetrating or complicated enough study of power? It doesn’t matter because it is irresistible as a piece of theatre – a production of immense confidence and sass, and one that will leave you simultaneously chilled and chuckling."
The Glass Menagerie (2022)
"Amy Adams’s West End debut fails to find its heart"
"Tennessee Williams’s story of yearning, passion and despair never puts us under its spell in Jeremy Herrin’s production"
"Tennessee Williams’s narrator begins by speaking of all the ways a “memory play” conjures its effects: dim lighting, sentimentality, a lack of realism. This production uses those artifices and also boasts central star casting in Amy Adams, yet stops short of putting us under its spell."
"The play is pervaded by a sense of abandonment – first that of the absent father who has walked out on the Wingfield brood and then Tom’s own flight at the end. But we do not feel the emotional weight of the latter’s decision to leave. Nor do we pick up on tenderness between siblings."
Legally Blonde The Musical (2022)
"Joyously camp revamp is in the pink"
"An overhaul of the original’s gender politics, plenty of Gen-Z touchpoints and a big dollop of kitsch make this musical an irresistible cocktail"
"Bowman gives an incredibly strong performance, although Nadine Higgin, as the salon worker, Paulette, nearly steals her thunder with her raunchy magnetism and powerful voice."
"This is a tongue-in-cheek production that comes with a megawattage of kitsch and to some degree sends up the genre of the high-school musical. Characters are pancake flat, reaching beyond stereotype into cartoonishness"
"Campness dominates, with nasal American high-school accents, teenage squeals and deliberate overacting."
The House of Shades (2022)
"Anne-Marie Duff gives a toxic tour de force"
"Beth Steel’s large canvas reflects brawny ambition and magnificent fearlessness as the dead walk alongside the living and the surreal interrupts the real. It is a kitchen-sink drama that incorporates state-of-the-nation politics, and the generational damage within family life is shown largely through its women.
‘It’s an energy’ … Beth Steel.
"You don’t have to be invited – you do it’: Beth Steel on her working-class family epic"
"Directed by Blanche McIntyre, the play emanates a retro sitcom vibe at the start but detours into Dennis Potter territory, with hallucinatory scenes, seductive and dreamlike, often with song."
"While the script is strong, its realisation is bumpy, with uneven pacing and some scenes that are a little too short to hold potency. Actors double up down the ages to good effect, and there is further doubling on stage as characters from the past feature in parallel with their elder counterparts. "
My Fair Lady (2022)
"Perfectly elegant, ever so sedate"
"This garlanded production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical, fresh from Broadway, is the definition of a comforting night out at the theatre. It glides from one well-loved song to the next on an elegantly twirling set designed by Michael Yeargan."
Much Ado About Nothing (2022)
"Gaiety abounds in the Globe’s great garden party"
"Lucy Bailey’s ambling production of Shakespeare’s comedy, set in northern Italy on the eve of Mussolini’s defeat, exudes pastoral elegance and feels like the start of summer"
"The production as a whole seems to want to stick to gaiety and gambolling. Even the play’s central schemer, Don John (Olivier Huband), has deadpan humour. It works to create a consummately summer comedy, its lightness carrying an edge of our own post-lockdown lifting of the clouds."
"Mark Rylance’s riveting return as ‘Rooster’ Byron"
"Problematic gags limit the power of Jez Butterworth’s layered drama about myths and Englishness but the lead performance still astonishes"
"Its language predates #MeToo and Black Lives Matter – and it shows. There is a limp joke about dressing up in a burqa, another about Nigerian traffic wardens. There are references to women as “slappers”, “bitches” and fat wives. Byron boasts of his conquests and talks of pinching bums, while Ginger states: “I don’t actually have GCSE maths but I do have a great big hairy cock and balls.” Bizarrely, this gets some laughs on opening night."
"The play’s ideas around myth and identity are lyrical but do not fully cohere. Ultz’s astonishing set opens up to bacchanalian detritus outside Rooster’s caravan – empty bottles, a mucky sofa, a disco ball tied to a tree and even live chickens. But it is uncomfortable to see the St George’s Cross emblazoned on the curtain at the start and then a flag hung around the back of the caravan. That flag has, since Jerusalem’s first staging in 2009, continued to be associated with the far right, and the play’s bigger dewy-eyed ideas around Englishness carry a queasy proximity to the romanticised narrative that has been co-opted by the right.
"But any disagreement around the treatment of its themes cannot take away from its drama and the soaring central performance. Is it the greatest play of our times? Not in my view. But Rylance’s Rooster is surely the greatest performance of the century."
Prima Facie (2022)
"Jodie Comer on formidable form in roaring drama"
"The Killing Eve star makes a masterful West End debut in Suzie Miller’s play about sexual assault and the legal system"
"Comer delivers. She roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments."
"Comer’s performance compensates for the clompy-footed parts of Miller’s script, which falls into a loudly lecturing tone at the end. But Prima Facie’s final messages are urgent in highlighting who our laws fail to protect. If they are delivered in hammer blows, there is power in hearing them spoken on a West End stage, and Comer manages to infuse breath-taking emotional drama in every last word."
The Corn is Green (2022)
"An inspirational heart-warmer in praise of good education"
"Emlyn Williams’ 1938 play is a kind of Billy Elliot of the Valleys: the old-fashioned but hugely entertaining and affecting story of a Welsh miner’s son who escapes his class-bound home town with the help of a bold schoolteacher"
"Dominic Cooke’s revival deploys a quirky theatrical device in which the playwright, Williams (Gareth David-Lloyd), is a character on stage who is constructing his story before the audience. This device cannot quite disguise the old-fashioned nature of the story or dampen its sentimentality, but it brings clever humour and is beguiling in its own right."
"Cooke’s direction is supremely well-paced and all of the performers have impeccable comic timing. Walker is delightful to watch, both in her angry exchanges with the supercilious Squire (Rufus Wright, excellently doltish), which bring sparky satire, and in her initially brusque attitude towards Davies’s sweet, laconic Evans."
Marys Seacole (2022)
"Mystifying drama about caring through the ages"
"Despite strong performances, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play zigzags so much that it overshadows the remarkable life at its centre"
"The point about care and economic slavery is a crucial one, but the mother’s diatribe takes in the entire breadth of “white man terror” (from white supremacy to police violence) and it feels like a play speaking aloud all the racial ills of society in one gasping breath, using this character, and its finale, as a mouthpiece.
"She [Mary Seacole] is made gloriously flesh and blood by Kayla Meikle, a magnetic force who speaks in patois (or “patwah” as it is written in the script). Meikle keeps us hanging on her every word as she narrates a story that jumbles up character and chronology on Tom Scutt’s non-naturalistic stage, but does not carry a big enough payoff. The cast as a whole excels, playing multiple parts with deliberately overblown emotions and archness."
"It also leaves us with a sense that the figure of Mary Seacole is a vehicle used to explore our current-day issues too nakedly rather than a study of a singular life and its forgotten achievements."
Punchdrunk: The Burnt City (2022)
"Spectacle eclipses story in siege of Troy epic"
"This immersive retelling of Greek tragedies is stylish and atmospheric but lacks narrative momentum and its scattered scenes can be frustratingly arcane"
"The immense space and its immersive elements are impressive – we really feel as if we are in a bombed-out city, travelling through its grime and crumbling grandeur. Even the bar is immersive, with its own Cabaret-style decadent and risque performances, with magnificent singing by Kimberly Nichole."
"There is an increasingly exhausting feeling in this three-hour show of moving around the circuit of rooms in search of more performers, more story. Some of the longer and more dynamic scenes, when they come, are enthralling. In the most powerful moment a group of men move towards a desperate huddle of Trojan women, one of whom is strung up, half-naked and bloodied. The terror and tragedy – of female sacrifice and male violation – pervades the vast room, which looks like a gladiator’s ring. It could be a scene from Pat Barker’s magnificent and horrifying The Silence of the Girls, though it uses no words. Its emotional power lands like a punch and shows us that this company can orchestrate fantastically potent human theatre."
"Smut and silliness in modern Restoration comedy"
"Mike Bartlett’s rambunctious capers with types including Lady Susan Climber and Matt Eton MP are great fun if not exactly stinging satire"
"However, the pace and wit sag after the interval, the final revelations are not dynamic enough and the mystery around an offensive outfit worn by Lady Climber has no payoff. In its story it contains shades of Henry Fielding’s Bildungsroman, Tom Jones, which was recently adapted into the musical What’s New Pussycat? but that show was far more effective in its comic revelations, twists and pacing.
Still, there is fun and fine acting along the way and as Bartlett instructs, it is all joyfully silly stuff."
The 47th (2022)
"Bertie Carvel is devilishly good but this Trumpian satire feels too soon"
"Mike Bartlett’s script turns US politics into Shakepearean comedy but falls oddly flat despite magnetising performances"
"Donald Trump’s inner circle has, in Mike Bartlett’s satire, turned into a Shakespearean court of a near future in which the former president is back in the game. The script, best in its granular moments of comedy, blends billionaire pomp with political chicanery, dynastic family drama and blank verse."
"There are some delightful lines in Bartlett’s script nonetheless and it is in these moments that the play sparkles: an incarcerated Trump in an orange jumpsuit gives his jailtime a PR spin by claiming it will endow him with a “cool Mandela feel” in the eyes of the people. His slanging matches and put downs of Biden, who he calls an “elderly wizard”. His eulogy of Machiavelli’s The Prince although he admits he hasn’t read it all because it was too long: “Someone summed it up, and it made sense.” And the moment when Harris tells Trump that his legacy is a farce: “You will be mocked if ever you will be remembered,” she says, and this play proves her point."
To Kill A Mockingbird (2022)
"Harper Lee would approve of snappy Sorkin update"
"Rafe Spall is a dignified Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s smooth and confident adaptation, which finds modern-day resonances in the 1960 classic about racial injustice in the American south"
"The drama of the courtroom, as a whole, is when this production comes most fully alive, the testimonies of both Bob and Mayella Ewell (Patrick O’Kane and Poppy Lee Friar respectively, both sensational) are filled with tension, anger, betrayal and disbelief. There are modern-day resonances of Trump’s left-behinds in their characterisations that feel utterly real and uncontrived; both father and daughter sneer at Atticus’s intellectual elitism and could be today’s forgotten populists of the rust-belt."
The Human Voice (2022)
"Ruth Wilson fails to connect in Jean Cocteau’s tale of despair"
"Ivo van Hove’s production divests this drama of emotional power and momentum, keeping us at arm’s length"
"That drama is not captured here, nor its tension. The director Ivo van Hove also adapts Cocteau’s script and manages to divest it of its raw emotional power and momentum. It becomes as stripped and sterile as the empty glass box of a set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, which seems to keep us at arm’s length with its clinical inscrutability."
"Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton locked in a love triangle"
"Jade Anouka’s character causes an existential earthquake in Marianne Elliott’s stylised revival of Mike Bartlett’s comedy about sexual identity"
"It all combines into a slightly mystifying non-naturalism that is at once flamboyant and no-frills. And where the theatrical tics in Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s staging of Death of a Salesman gave the play an astonishing invention and power, the stylised elements here do not service this play’s meanings but seem like playful add-ons."
"One of the most powerful scenes comes at the end, in John’s childishly sulky intransigence, and here Cock’s drama ultimately reveals itself not as a contest between heteronormativity and gay partnerships, or a play about the right to resist one fixed identity, but a far more old-fashioned love triangle with a selfish, destructive and cruel figure at its centre."
"Who’s up for a cabaret lock-in?"
"Looking back at the work of Sondheim, Hamlisch and Legrand, with glorious songs and personal stories, this is a mixed bag of a show"
"Her voice is crystalline, quivering, silky, deep or high, as the song requires it; it is filled with all the hope and youth of a wannabe in Broadway Baby and driven by mournful knowing in Losing My Mind."
"There are solos and group numbers, the latter coming together gorgeously in Hamlisch’s I Hope I Get It and in Legrand’s The Windmills of Your Mind. But the various elements make for a mixed bag of a show: partly a look back to three extraordinary legacies, with Sondheim at the centre, and also something of a “Maria Friedman show”, with stories about her life, family, struggles and career highs. This is charming but sometimes cheesy in its self-celebratory tone."
The Collaboration (2022)
"Warhol and Basquiat mix paint and trade blows"
"Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope excel as the art world legends in Anthony McCarten’s account of a fractious friendship"
"An ebullient production under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction (there is even a live DJ though, oddly, the music is only cranked up in between scenes), it has two star turns in the central performances and a spectacular set from Anna Fleischle: paint-splattered floorboards and white brick walls which recreate the look of a loft studio. Duncan McLean’s magnificent projections conjure the New York skyline on semi-diaphanous panels."
"Eddie Redmayne is electric in this blinder of a show"
"Redmayne and Jessie Buckley ‘Willkommen’ us into this Weimar-era Berlin nightclub for an evening of flamboyance, menace and magnetism"
"It does not matter that Redmayne’s voice is drowned out by the orchestra at times. He gives an immense, physicalised performance, both muscular and delicate, from his curled limbs to his tautly expressive fingertips."
"Tom Scutt’s stage design is expressionistic and imaginative: a train journey is represented by a model train revolving around the outer part of the three-tiered, circular stage. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” has miniature model men standing to attention on the revolve, replaced by real men in its reprise, which is infused with ominous, stomping movements and a martial drum beat, prefiguring the terror to come."
"Redmayne creeps around the fringes of the stage when he is not performing, watching scenes from afar. If this show is sold on his star turn, we get more than our money’s worth with his blinding performance – in this blinder of a show."
The Book of Dust (2021)
"A theatrical marvel. Nicholas Hytner brings a dazzling wizard’s touch to this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy tale"
"The stage is action-filled with one dangerous turn after another, which reflects the spirit of the original faithfully, albeit unleavened by the deeper philosophical ruminations in the book. The production only falls short of perfection for those who find themselves flagging at Pullman’s – rather than Hytner’s – breakneck pace and plotting."
"What is more remarkable is the production’s ability to keep closely to Pullman’s earth-bound and realistic brand of fantasy. Just as in Hytner’s previous production, the daemons are puppets (kingfishers, lemurs, badgers, each as gorgeous as the next). Designed and directed by Barnaby Dixon, they are a marvel and glow from within like luminous origami. They seem like Jungian projections rather than airy, fantastical creatures."
"Here is the ultimate Christmas show – with sacrilegious twists."
"Rough-hewn but joyous musical take on the classic novel works in everything from Carly Simon to Chris de Burgh"
"As far as McArthur’s script goes, the (*sort of) in the title is key, with comedy that is hearty and upfront in place of Austen’s sly satire although it captures the essence of the book."
"The show has the spirit of fringe theatre and its rough-hewn, riotous nature might have sat at odds with this West End venue but it proves a natural fit with just the right balance between scrappiness and careful orchestration."
"However inconceivable a production it sounds, with its karaoke numbers and its silliness, it creates something new and joyous from the old."
"Mark Gatiss’s witty dash through Dickens"
"Gatiss’s delayed rework amps up the ghostly effects while drawing out the overlooked dark comedy in the classic tale"
"Other atmosphere-building exchanges – of an impoverished mother singing to her child, of street crowds – are too many, too short, and feel like pauses to the story. Some key moments feel too fleeting and don’t carry enough emotion, including Tiny Tim’s deathbed scene. But when the human drama slows down, it gains an emotional catch, such as a romantic pause between Belle (Aoife Gaston) and the young Scrooge, and the final scene between Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (Edward Harrison); we wish for a few more of these."
"It’s the music that carries the emotional weight in this tale of love, loss and roots rock, starring the superb Arinzé Kene"
"Clint Dyer’s pulsating production has the spirit of a staged concert with spoken scenes tucked in between the songs, and with the emotional freight of the story carried in its celebrated music. Sometimes this means that character and dialogue are sacrificed but the music is infectious – and there is a central performance from Arinzé Kene that soars and tingles the spine."
Back to the Future (2021)
"The car’s the star: this is a splashy theatre-film mashup, with gravity-defying effects, cute quirks and offbeat gags"
"The cast appear to imitate their film counterparts: Olly Dobson’s sweet, hapless, Marty McFly looks and acts like Michael J Fox and Hugh Coles’s George McFly replicates the gestures of his original, as do Marty’s mother, Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland), and the school bully, Biff (Aidan Cutler). Roger Bart’s “Doc” Emmett Brown begins the same way but his characterisation grows distinctive quirks and he ends up as an even more off-the-wall creation than Christopher Lloyd’s zany original."
Frozen The Musical (2021)
"Stunning musical extravaganza creates its own magic"
"Beyond the visual thrills and powerful ballads, this adaptation brings an unexpected depth to the relationship between two tortured sisters"
"Gradually, however, it grows to become its own magical thing, with some charming inventions and a few new songs (the best of which is an audacious comic number, appearing out of nowhere to satirise the Nordic notion of hygge as naked characters conga out of a sauna). What is more surprising than the uniformly storming singing voices and the theatrical razzmatazz is the sense of a real, beating heart in the relationship between the two tortured sisters."
"Claire Foy and Matt Smith shine in climate crisis drama"
"Duncan Macmillan’s two-hander is a frenetic portrait of flawed love in a flawed world, exposing the neuroses of a modern couple who struggle to put their principles aside and their existential crisis is as much about sexual politics as it is about the environment.”
“Rob Howell’s set design, like the original, is minimalist to the extreme, empty but for a solar-panelled floor and two tiles on opposite sides propped up by rock crystals – a sly satirical reminder of the couple’s fashionable, new age environmentalism.”
“Foy and Smith manage the switches of mood and tone with a virtuosity that verges on ostentatious, and there are very few off-moments in pace. It is only the last sequence, in which times speeds up and characters, present and imagined, grow up, age or die within seconds, which feels rushed, gimmicky and riddled with cliche.”