The Motive and the Cue Reviews ★★★★

Reviews are coming in for the world premiere of Jack Thorne’s new play The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.

Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has written a compelling new drama that’s set during rehearsals for an infamous staging of Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, that starred British acting icon Richard Burton and was directed by John Gielgud.

The Motive and the Cue will play at the National Theatre ‘s Lyttelton Theatre until 15 July 2023.

The A-list cast includes Johnny Flynn (Emma, Hangmen) as Richard Burton, Tuppence Middleton (Downton Abbey) as Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as John Gielgud, and Janie Dee as Scottish-American actress Eileen Hurlie.

The play also features Aaron Anthony, Tom Babbage, Allan Corduner, Elena Delia, Ryan Ellsworth, Phoebe Horn, Aysha Kala, Luke Norris, Huw Parmenter, David Ricardo-Pearce, David Tarkenter, Kate Tydman, Laurence Ubong Williams and Michael Walters.

Alongside Sam Mendes in the creative team is production designer Es Devlin, costume designer Katrina Lindsay, lighting designer Jon Clark, music composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, sound designer Paul Arditti, and video designer Luke Halls. The Associate director is Zoe Ford Burnett.

Co-producers of the play, Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, are currently also producing The Lehman Trilogy, which is now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, and the RSC’s adaptation of Hamnet, coming to the Garrick Theatre at the end of September.

Read reviews for The Motive and the Cue including The Times, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard and more.

More reviews to follow.

More about The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre

Average Critics Rating

The Motive and the Cue reviews

The Telegraph

"To see or not to see? No question – go"

"A witty, deft, touching evocation of a fascinating, fraught encounter that captures the mood of those times"

"It’s a pleasure to report that the evening is a palpable hit. This is a witty, deft, touching evocation of a fascinating, fraught encounter that captures the mood of those times, the character of those men. Compressing events, Thorne weaves fact with judicious fiction, taking notable liberties including a sweary confrontation. But what he achieves is the truth, or what feels like it – a portrait of two artists at very different points of their illustrious careers."

"Gatiss is to the manner born as the quietly pained old knight... A gangly figure, his chin back, as if always aiming his words to the gallery, Gatiss’s Sir John mixes regal poise with a bashful air of repression."

"The beauty of the evening is that it shows the mysteries of the rehearsal room, how different chemistries can mix badly but also the alchemy of revelation."

"I’d love to see more of Middleton’s Taylor, smart in every sense; funny, shrewd."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
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The Guardian

"Gielgud and Burton battle it out"

"Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn star in Jack Thorne’s play about the prickly pair’s 1960s Broadway production of Hamlet"

"... fireworks take some time to explode in Sam Mendes’s attractive but slightly anaemic production, which splices ego-bound battles between the men with scenes from Hamlet, some of which are evocatively staged. But the proxy father-son psychodrama between the two remains undercharged for too long and is then resolved too neatly."

"Burton and Taylor’s relationship does not set the stage alight either. Middleton plays the part too lightly, rather like a turn in a TV sitcom, emanating none of the smouldering charisma of her real-life counterpart. Flynn does an energetic impression of Burton, hitting all the Welsh inflections and tonality of his speech patterns, but it remains an impersonation."

"Where the play comes alive is in Gielgud’s story and Gatiss’s performance... While Gielgud’s inner complications are slowly but searingly explored, much of what surrounds him feels emotionally sterile."

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
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i News

"Mark Gatiss is mesmerising in Jack Thorne’s gossipy new play"

"This gossipy new play is a teasing memorial to the days when actors were king"

"Currently, London’s edgiest theatre directors favour understated performances that force audiences to lean in close to catch each word. But Jack Thorne’s fascinating, gossipy new play is a teasing memorial to the days when actors were king."

"This is theatre at its very most thespy. Flynn’s vast performance sees him bellowing like a bull through his soliloquies, pricked by Gielgud’s suggestions that he should favour a more genteel, princely approach. And Gatiss is mesmerising to watch as this mellifluous acting legend, whose directorial frustrations build from hilariously subtle digs to verbal hammer attacks."

"Sam Mendes’s beautifully realised production is full of ingenious transitions between naturalism and staginess, facilitated by designer Es Devlin..."

"There’s so much historical richness and wit in Thorne’s play that its lapses are frustrating. There’s a structural unwieldiness to it that particularly affects the female roles..."

Alice Saville, i News
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The Financial Times

"Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s dramatic encounter brilliantly portrayed in The Motive and the Cue"

"There are fireworks and fights aplenty in The Motive and the Cue, but the image that lingers from Jack Thorne’s brilliant, compassionate new play is of two household names, John Gielgud and Richard Burton, in an empty rehearsal room wrangling, quietly and honestly, with what it is that has brought them — and us — to this point."

"That simple truth drives Thorne’s play and Sam Mendes’s rich, witty production: the hunger for understanding that can produce those electrifying moments of connection between actor and audience. And yet for long periods in The Motive and the Cue, the hope of arriving at that moment of alchemy seems increasingly forlorn."

"Thorne and Mendes, focusing on rehearsals for that production, add yet another layer, creating a kind of Russian doll effect — play stacked within play stacked within play. The great skill of the evening is that, for all that artifice, it delivers moving truths about loneliness, frailty, and the great consolation of art"

"Gatiss is superb: with that imperious tilt of the chin and sharp, darting glance, he catches Gielgud’s mannerisms precisely. But he also brings great sadness and depth to the part"

Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
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The Evening Standard

"Sam Mendes’s elegant production is a love letter to theatre"

"In this look at Richard Burton and Sir John Gielgud’s staging of Hamlet on Broadway, the play is not the thing"

"In this enjoyable, hugely adroit but distinctly “theatrical” extravaganza, writer Jack Thorne uses Richard Burton’s hit Hamlet on Broadway in 1964 to explore the art of acting and the trap of fame. This is a play that thrives on the knowing exploitation of showbiz mythology. But also on the fizz and crackle of opposites: film vs theatre, modernism vs classicism; passion vs dedication."

"Those who get all the references and in-jokes and know Hamlet inside out – hardcore theatre nerds like me – will probably love it. Others may find it overly smug and self-referential."

"It’s elegantly put together and acted. Flynn and Gatiss successfully capture Burton’s harsh, growling diction and Gielgud’s fluting musicality without stooping to outright impersonation. Physically, the former is driven, arrogant, confrontational, stalking the stage with a restless energy, looking for a fight."

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard
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The Times

"Burton and Gielgud clash in battle of wits"

"Jack Thorne’s thoughtful, often wickedly droll play about Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s battle of wits during a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet is a distinguished addition to the celebrity genre. Immaculately directed by Sam Mendes, it’s a poised study of how two actors of radically different temperaments sparred in the run-up to opening night."

"Mark Gatiss captures all of Gielgud’s self-effacing stratagems and “dear boy” charm. Bumbling around the rehearsal room like a curate who has mislaid his sermon, he constantly searches for ways of coping with his star’s ego. As Burton, Johnny Flynn grows into his role with each scene."

"True, a vein of sentimentality seeps into the very final scenes as the two thespians say farewell to each other... Will this play be a hit? I think so, dear boy, I think so."

Clive Davis, The Times
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The Stage


"Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn are mesmerising in this absorbing real-life tale of Gielgud and Burton’s Broadway Hamlet"

"There are hefty questions here about the value and meaning of art, and theatre specifically – some of them a little too bluntly posed. But the great pleasure of Sam Mendes’ production is its performances, with Mark Gatiss a glorious Gielgud and Johnny Flynn smoulderingly charismatic and turbulent as Burton."

"Es Devlin’s elegant design opens and closes like a camera shutter, reminding us that Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – to whom he had just, for the first time, got married – were accustomed to living their lives through a lens: the paparazzi variety, as well as the cinematic."

"Gatiss – an actor with a supreme skill for pathos – lends Gielgud a tender vulnerability as well as a waspish, aphoristic wit: he is sweet and dry as a slightly stale teacake. And Flynn is mesmerising as Burton, sexy even in vest and Y-fronts, his Welsh accent most prominent when he’s angry."

Sam Marlowe, The Stage
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The Independent

"Burton/Gielgud luvvie-off will give you goosebumps"

"Mark Gatiss is superb as Sir John Gielgud in Jack Thorne’s affecting play about Hamlet rehearsals with Richard Burton"

" Jack Thorne’s deeply affecting play"

"This play is about a lot of things – art, youth and ageing, sexuality, masculinity and celebrity – but perhaps most of all, it’s an ode to the idea that there’s beauty in the endeavour."

"Your enjoyment of this show many depend on your tolerance for luvvie jokes and Shakespeare references. For theatre lovers, it is manna from heaven. But this is not just a heartfelt plea for the power of theatre, but a moving, often very funny, story about two generations teasing and provoking one another."

"The scenes between Gielgud and Burton, though, really do fly. Funny, explosive badinage, in which Gielgud despairs of Burton’s “hunting calls”, simmer down into quieter moments of stark vulnerability."

"Mendes’s graceful production conjures an image that captures why any actor wants to play this role, what they are trying to achieve, and why we want to watch it. It’s soft to say theatre is magical, but in this moment it really is: ghosts are truly summoned."

Jessie Thompson, The Independent
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"Dazzling performances from Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss and Tuppence Middleton power the NT’s Sam Mendes-directed Richard Burton drama"

"Jack Thorne’s new drama is the sort of play that gets described by the timelessly wanky epithet ‘a love letter to theatre’. Don’t let that put you off: you can rarely go wrong with a production directed by Sam frickin’ Mendes, and if it’s essentially MOR as hell, ‘The Motive and the Cue’ finds its feet via three excellent lead performances."

" Its slick docudrama beginnings are interesting, but not riveting. What brings it to life is its cast."

"In a smaller part, Middleton is scene-stealing as Taylor, both radiant and dangerous. She’s like a tiger that’s content to be caged for now... But unexpectedly, this turns out to be Gatiss’s play."

"Gatiss’s Sir John goes from amusing character sketch to a poignant study in genius and ageing, a man who was a superstar in his twenties now facing up to old age, irrelevance and the loneliness of being a queer older man in an unaccepting era."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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Libby Purves (Theatre Cat)

"A theatrical echo, 70 years ago"

"Jack Thorne’s new play, directed with devoted love by Sam Mendes, is an imaginative (and partly archival) reconstruction of the fraught rehearsals of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed in 1964 by Sir John Gielgud."

"Mark Gatiss is a revelation as Gielgud: after one row there’s a profoundly moving moment before a black curtain when he simply speaks the Ghost’s words. He is saying it for all past generations pleading to help guide the young: “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night..”."

"... both Thorne and Mendes know absolutely what to do with the pieces of Shakespearean magic granted them by telling this story."

"For while sometimes you think you are seeing a witty insider masterclass on Hamlet and the evolution of acting styles, what Thorne really offers is a story about humanity, vulnerability, reconciliation. "

Libby Purves, Libby Purves (Theatre Cat)
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The Observer

"Sam Mendes reignites Gielgud and Burton’s Broadway Hamlet"

"Charged up, but without actually propelling the action: too many interesting or debatable notions – “Theatre is thinking,” says Gielgud, but is it, really? – are baldly declared rather than quizzed."

"Shakespeare speeches... are often finely delivered, not least by Janie Dee as Gertrude, but rarely meshed tellingly into the action. The effect is not so much urgency and development as a series of arresting tableaux."

"Johnny Flynn’s Burton has cutting allure, not least when having to appear sloshed in white underpants: when he finally stops yelling his soliloquies, he makes you long for more. And Mark Gatiss as Gielgud is a mellifluous marvel."

Susannah Clapp, The Observer
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The Sunday Times

"Mark Gatiss is eerily good in this clash of titan thesps"

"Sam Mendes directs an explosive struggle between Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Elizabeth Taylor at the National Theatre"

"Sumptuous Sam Mendes direction and an eerily good depiction of John Gielgud by Mark Gatiss will have you reversing out of The Motive and the Cue with awed footsteps, as though having just attended on royalty."

"One of many pleasures in this show is seeing the essential antagonism between director and actor bud, ripen and explode."

"Gatiss moves and sounds remarkably like Gielgud. This honeyed subtlety contrasts with the rasping, blurted immediacy of Johnny Flynn’s Burton."

"It is a work of touching devotion to the art form."

Quentin Letts, The Sunday Times
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Daily Express

"Mark Gatiss acting saves 'this insubstantial play'"

"As Burton, Johnny Flynn brings a wiry physicality and Tuppence Middleton does her best with an underwritten Taylor, but the incendiary chemistry between the two is conspicuously absent."

"Mark Gatiss as the venerable, vulnerable Gielgud is another thing altogether. He captures Gielgud’s patrician flair and the cultivated air of diffidence, effectively exposing the fearful and disconsolate man beneath the Noel Coward-like carapace..."

"Sam Mendes’ reverential direction makes the conflicts and triumphs seem sedated and the remaining cast hardly registers, Allan Corduner and Janie Dee excepted."

Neil Norman, Daily Express
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📷 Main photo: The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

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