Selected reviews by Sam Marlowe, the lead theatre critic for i News.
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Sam Marlowe – selected theatre reviews
"This new family musical dishes up a double helping of charm. "
"The ambitious production has its sights set on the West End: it’s directed, with bravura flourish and a shamelessly heavy finger on every available emotional button, by Trevor Nunn. It’s beguiling, but so meandering and tension-free that eventually its relentless niceness begins to grate."
"Without a convincing psychological grounding, or a stronger sense of damage done and emotional lessons learnt, the story feels like so much sentimental fluff. Efforts to add depth are half-hearted and garbled: an incongruous, overblown nightmare sequence in which an operatic Lewis-Dodson appears as a fairy-tale witch; and a superfluous romantic subplot involving a kindly doctor and Johan’s housekeeper."
"Stiles’s score includes sumptuous waltzes, lachrymose ballads, and – most affectingly – touching duets for Lottie and Lisa. It’s impossible not to warm to a show this sweet-natured; but if it’s sunny, it’s also slight."
The Tempest (2022)
"Inflatable lobsters and football anthems make for gimmicky Shakespeare"
"It’s vivid, cheerfully garish and never dull, but it’s also gimmicky. Ariel’s song of enchantment is a rendition of the football anthem Three Lions, crooned over a feast of fast food; the robes that Prospero leaves as bait for George Fouracres’ bullyish Stefano and Ralph Davis’s Trinculo are Harry Potter merch. All of that strips away the fantastical and brings the drama closer to us: it’s redolent of drunken Brits abroad, and of our colonial past."
"This is, though, a DayGlo romp, flimsy as a lilo, if just as buoyant."
"It feels a little curious, in the middle of summer, to be watching a wintry tale that comes complete with an appearance from Father Christmas. But this brooding adaptation of CS Lewis’s much-loved, quasi-religious fantasy adventure casts its chilly spell in spite of the odd timing."
"Womack is imperiously nasty and seductively glamorous, and there’s a moment of glorious, awestruck dread when she levitates high over the stage in triumph, her gown billowing."
"The grotesque face-off at the Stone Table, with Aslan sacrificing himself to Womack and her army of demons, is properly nightmarish, a phantasmagoria set to an ominous thunder of drums. It’s a thrilling climax in a show that, at its best, makes a shivery family treat."
"Angsty songs, rainbow bubbles and a giant avocado"
"this plotless collection of numbers feels rather aimless and generalised, and although Clay’s songs are catchy and well crafted, you can’t help feeling that Gen-Z pop experts on the wryly funny, sharp-eyed and angsty — Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo — are doing a more sophisticated job of covering similar territory."
"It’s all thoroughly likeable and guaranteed to leave you feeling better and brighter, however old you are."
"Tom Hollander is magnetic in Peter Morgan’s slick Russian oligarch drama"
"...his [Peter Morgan's] latest theatrical outing is predictably pacey and tartly entertaining. But despite a stylish production by Rupert Goold with a lead performance of genially ruthless charisma from Tom Hollander, it lacks texture and dimension: it’s a bright cartoon-strip in which the characters remain broad and flat."
The Seagull (2022)
"Emilia Clarke is dazzling in Jamie Lloyd’s brilliant reimagining"
"The Game of Thrones actor gives a fragile, almost childlike turn in a brutally beautiful production"
"a brutally beautiful reimagining: it’s as if he’s shot the Seagull we’ve seen so many times before clean out of the sky to land smack in the here and now."
The House of Shades (2022)
"Anne-Marie Duff glitters with spite in gripping family drama"
"Steel’s writing is joltingly powerful, with its jagged confrontations, corrosive wit and dark, vivid poeticism. It’s also slippery and sprawling, and sometimes ideologically blunt – but the play’s engine is so fuelled by the blood and guts of life that it hardly seems to matter."
"Duff is wrenching, eyes glittering with terrible spite and desperate sadness. Riveting, too, are Kelly Gough and Michael Grady-Hall as the adult Agnes and Jack, ripping themselves and each other apart as their lives, loyalties and ideals diverge. This is gripping, gristly drama: a story of so-called ordinary people, made epic."
My Fair Lady (2022)
"Amara Okereke dazzles as Eliza Doolittle"
"Bartlett Sher’s production, a 2018 hit at New York’s Lincoln Centre, is pretty to look at. And in Amara Okereke, it has a dazzling Eliza Doolittle. But while the familiar score sounds as lush as ever, it’s all a bit bland."
"A thrilling reinvention that swaps the twee for sex and danger"
"No corn-fed hokey here – this production is tense and freshly thrilling"
"Arthur Darvill’s guitar-twanging cowboy Curly, swaggering in crotch-enhancing fringed chaps, sings a bluegrass rendition of famous opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, while sharp eyes under Stetsons and baseball caps look on."
"This is a raw refashioning both of a cherished show and American mythology: ingenious, and freshly thrilling."
"Mark Rylance is unforgettable in a triumphant revival"
"The actor gives a mesmerising turn as he reprises his role as Johnny “Rooster” Byron alongside Mackenzie Crook"
"Rickson’s production beautifully blends every shimmer and shiver: betrayals and small acts of spite rip holes in the camaraderie, the cowardice and petty nastiness of disappointing, circumscribed lives."
"Butterworth’s play, rooted in England’s ancient past and reaching into its inglorious present, is steeped in myths. Well, here’s one you can believe in: this is rich, haunting theatre – and Rylance is, once again, unforgettable."
Prima Facie (2022)
"Jodie Comer blazes with fury in a patchy sexual assault drama"
"Suzie Miller’s play doesn’t offer much fresh perspective – but the Killing Eve star is utterly terrific"
"Miller – herself a former lawyer – doesn’t offer much fresh perspective, despite some harrowingly vivid detail; there’s none of the knotty complexity of Consent, Nina Raine’s much better 2017 play on the same subject."
"Miriam Buether’s design – with its hefty mahogany furniture and towering stacks of case files – makes a solid, conventional setting. But Martin’s production is caught slightly awkwardly between realism and expressionistic flourish."
"omer is always compelling, as she fights to cling on to her belief in justice, the life she’s built and her sense of self. If the play, for all its conviction, sheds little new light on an egregious – and worsening – issue, she blazes."
The Burnt City (2022)
"Punchdrunk are back – but have lost a little of their magic"
"The company’s latest show drawing on Greek myth is one of the hottest tickets at present – but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype"
"The phenomenal sets, designed by company founder Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, are like cinematic soundstages, hyperreal and shimmeringly fantastical. And there are flashes of brilliance in the performance, co-created and directed by Barrett and choreographer Maxine Doyle.
"But for a piece inspired by classical tragedy – specifically, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba – there’s a surprising absence of dramatic impact, and a lot that is confusing, ponderous or frustrating."
"A biting satire? You can find sharper discourse on Twitter"
"In current times, Mike Bartlett’s Restoration-style political romp ought to go off like a rocket, but the characters aren’t nearly big or vivid enough to make it sparkle"
"The only time O’Riordan’s staging, on a toy-theatre set by the collective Good Teeth, ever feels properly energised in when [Rachael] Stirling appears, lounging and purring in a gold lamé pantsuit or gliding, sleek as a shark, in a satin negligee (the eccentric costumes, part glitz, part charity shop upcycle, are by Kinnetia Isidore). But mostly, this is a toothless disappointment."
The 47th (2022)
"Bertie Carvel is magnificently monstrous – but this Trump satire falls flat"
"Carvel steals the show with his uncanny turn as the orange political atrocity, but this lightweight story is lacking in meat"
"Carvel’s turn is uncanny, from the corpulent bulk and tiny flapping hands to the pouty, rubbery beige lips, the avaricious, lizard-like gaze and ludicrous swirl of nicotine-yellow hair. Yet in this dystopian vision of the near future – it imagines Trump trying to get back into power in the next presidential race – where’s the meat? The plot is a grotesque soap opera, all greasy poles and dirty deals; as America descends into anarchy, a bug-eyed, rebel-yelling craziness takes hold in scenes that, like the 2021 Capitol riot, feature a cavorting, horned shaman, and wouldn’t look out of place in The Purge."
To Kill A Mockingbird (2022)
"Rafe Spall plays the hero in a tremendous reimagining"
"Aaron Sorkin’s searing adaptation improves on Harper Lee’s novel where it matters the most"
"Most significantly, Sorkin expands the roles of African Americans Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), the field hand falsely accused of rape, and Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete), the Finches’ housekeeper.
Both actors are magnificent, challenging Spall’s warm, magnetic Atticus on his naive faith in his neighbours’ inherent goodness, and confronting the appalling reality with pain, rage and a control born of long, terrible endurance. Owusu’s tense, anguished testimony and Nomvete’s outraged agony, poured into a silent scream, are searingly memorable."
Straight Line Crazy (2022)
"Ralph Fiennes shines – but this lumpen play is, frankly, a bit boring"
"David Hare’s New York-set polemic on gentrification has a great true story to work with – but it is heavy on the declamatory and light on actual drama"
"Directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Ralph Fiennes – both regular Hare collaborators – it is heavy on the declamatory and the dialectic, light on actual drama."
"Hare’s treatment of the few black characters – black and Hispanic New Yorkers were disproportionately affected by Moses’s influence – is especially cursory. For all Fiennes’s energy, the whole thing feels inert: a two-dimensional interplay of underdeveloped ideas."
The Human Voice (2022)
"Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove fail to connect in a clichéd show"
"Ruth Wilson’s acting masterclass can’t save this sexist production of Jean Cocteau’s drama at the end of a phone."
"Van Hove gives it an explicitly tragic conclusion that, thanks to the narrative’s flimsiness, doesn’t feel earned."
"Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton draw blood in a shrewd, savage revival"
"Jade Anouka combines assertiveness with longing in Marianne Elliott’s elegant revamp of Mike Bartlett’s sexual identity drama"
"Marianne Elliott’s shrewd production shifts its focus away from a gay/straight binary, with bisexuality the only rather hazily imagined alternative, and towards a broader consideration of how we define and evaluate ourselves in relation to whom we choose to love."
"The play brutally exposes the lies and compromises we’re prepared to swallow to get what we think we need. Elegantly presented and very funny, it no longer quite lands a knock-out blow – but it still draws blood."
The Book of Dust (2021)
"Disappointing daemons and a surprisingly pedestrian adventure"
"Lavery does her best to hack through the dense thicket of plot, but Creasey’s likeable Malcolm is lumbered with gobs of exposition that sap dramatic tension. Nor is the production’s visual language as thrilling as hoped."
"Bob Crowley’s sets and Luke Halls’s video give the teeming rain and bucolic backdrops a flavour of William Blake’s prints, and the canoe glides elegantly enough."
"Grown-ups are not to be trusted; Malcolm and Alice, adolescent surrogate parents to the vulnerable Lyra, are a poignant symbol of hope. There’s a nagging sense that the piece is groping for a significance and theatrical magic that stubbornly elude it. But it still has its ripples of inky glitter."
"A potent enchantment"
"Glittering with dark wonder, this National Theatre staging of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel is a bewitching shapeshifter."
"Mark Gatiss’s spooky new take is both horrific and hammy"
"Nicholas Farrell’s acerbically funny Scrooge and Gatiss’s ghostly Jacob Marley are a Dickens double-act to savour in this fun show with magical special effects."
"Arinzé Kene mesmerises in an exhilarating tribute to a legend"
"Lee Hall’s book grapples with turbulent politics, Marley’s complex personal life and his Rastafarian faith. There’s a seriousness here, a real attempt to honour Marley’s legacy."
"Julene Robinson as his mother and Shanay Holmes as singer and beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare, his lover, are powerful presences."
Back to the Future (2021)
"An eye-popping Gen X nostalgia trip...
The vibe is determinedly feelgood in this dazzling production full of 80s hits."
"The show, by Zemeckis’ co-writer Bob Gale, with songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, may well delight a whole new young audience and certainly packs enough eye-popping spectacle and gigawatt energy. But where it really fires on all cylinders is as a Gen X nostalgia trip. "
"Claire Foy and Matt Smith elevate Duncan Macmillan's rather toothless parenting drama"
“Deluxe casting and slick delivery. Claire Foy and Matt Smith elevate Duncan Macmillan's rather toothless parenting drama.”
“There’s a level of skill and intelligence to its fraught, circuitous exchanges that hints at the dazzling writer Macmillan has become. Despite fine performances from its two stars in a neat, deft production by Matthew Warchus, however, it’s a bland, self-regarding affair that feels decidedly longer than its 80-minute duration. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion may be keeping environmental issues in the headlines, but a similar sense of urgency is scarce here: beneath a faint greenwash of larger ideas, the piece is far more preoccupied with domestic politics. And like a mewling infant yet to cut its milk teeth, it lacks bite.”
“Ultimately, this is an unremarkable play that has been lavished with luxury casting – and while there’s nothing uniquely demanding about these roles, it’s Smith and Foy that make it worthwhile. Plenty of new and prospective parents will probably nod along with the drama’s anxieties and wryly humorous observations. And, no argument: it’s slickly delivered.”
‘Ellie Kendrick’s flawed but ferocious debut play reverberates with feminist rage’
‘Rage and frustration blaze throughout this play – but so does hope. It’s a riotous, ragged, wild thing with the glimmer of magnificence among its flailing and its flaws.’