A review round-up for Kiss of the Spider Woman

José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Alan Baker’s new dramatic adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel has opened to mixed reviews at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.

From inside the confines of a wraparound prison set, Manuel Puig’s love story comes to the West End with this “focused and bitter-sweet adaptation”.

Laurie Sansom directs (The James Plays/ Beyond The Horizon), with Samuel Barnett playing Molina (The History Boys), and Declan Bennett (Jesus Christ Superstar) as the role of Valentin.

The story focuses on gay window-dresser Molina and tortured revolutionary Valentin, who are imprisoned together in an Argentinean jail during the 1970s regime. It’s tale of love, victimisation, fantasy and the friendship that grows between two different men.

Read a round-up of reviews below.

The Guardian, ★★

”Oh, what a tangled web.”

“José Rivera’s adaptation of Manuel Puig’s prison-set romance is well-acted but needs more of an erotic and political charge.

“Sensitively directed by Laurie Sansom, and irradiated by two piercing performances from Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett, this adaptation eschews the stylistic variety of the book in favour of a distilled and very moving concentration on the essence of the relationship between the two men at the story’s centre.

“As Molina, Barnett is as beguiling as a butterfly with a broken wing, and Bennett is quietly effective as Valentin, the revolutionary imprisoned by his own worldview and attitudes. But there is no spark between them, which means no erotic charge or political meaning. It is also a strange decision to use projections to illustrate Molina’s retellings of movies, when the point is that it’s the power of the human imagination that allows us to dream a different reality – political or personal – from the distorting one in which we find ourselves imprisoned.”

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

Independent, ★★★★

“A focused, bitter-sweet adaptation.

Set in an Argentine prison cell, this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel brings out the emotional delicacy of what the pair discover about the nature of love and power.

The production registers the expansiveness of this understanding and the sadness of the circumstances with admirable tact, and no sense of false redemptive uplift. It segues with just the right droll knowingness into that mix of camp parody and haunted sense of human loss with which the proceedings elusively end. A focused, bitter-sweet adaptation that can be fervently recommended.”

Paul Taylor, The Independent

Daily Telegraph, ★★★★

“Barnett wasn’t wholly convincing as a gentleman on the prowl for women of means in the National’s recent revival of Farquhar’s ‘The Beaux’ Stratagem’, but he’s in his element here: subtle, wry, touching, believable even given the stretch of imagination required to plant such a pale, English-sounding creature amid a Latin American jail.

Languishing on a bed and brooding, Bennett suffers a little from being insufficiently volatile given the challenge to Valentin’s hard-line politics and personality that Molina represents. The revelatory shock of his lust – and love too – for the other man is fully realised, though.

It’s a simple, romantic, masculinity-critiquing message the story carries: that tenderness can have the transformative force of a revolution – but it holds as true, and stands as necessary, as ever.

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph

Financial Times [paywall], ★★★

“This new stage adaptation of Manuel Puig’s story has its flaws, but the performances are beautifully detailed.

Two excellent, beautifully detailed performances.

It’s a captivating production that pushes past stickier elements of the plotting to drill into the story’s deeper questions about freedom and identity.”

Sarah Hemming, Financial Times

The Stage, ★★★

”Strong performances and moments of beauty in an imperfect adaptation.

There’s a mismatch in acting styles between Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett playing Valentin. They’re both great, but it feels like they’re in slightly different plays. That’s not hugely to the production’s detriment: in one sense the two characters come from different worlds, and the play looks at how those differences elide. This adaptation, after all, is about two men trying to understand the other end of the Kinsey scale.”

Tim Bano, The Stage

The Times [paywall], ★★

“Depressing story of two cellmates will drive you stir crazy.

If you are not depressed when you go in to this play, you will be when you emerge. Actually make that very depressed.

The storyline is as full of holes as a colander and the two main characters are full-blown stereotypes.”

Ann Treneman, The Times

Metro, ★★

”The story of two contrasting characters forced to, as Valentin puts it, ‘be human to one another’, feels more dog-eared than in the 1970s. That said, Laurie Sansom’s production has a fresh visual approach.

Molina’s descriptions are beautifully illustrated with animated silhouettes of his favourite characters projected on to the concrete walls.
Of the leads, only Barnett — who conveys aching vulnerability and great mental strength — lights up this shadowy prison cell.
Bennett has the less well drawn character but the one-note masculinity of his Valentin is like a footballer who has swallowed a copy of Marx’s Das Kapita.
This tiny, big-hitting theatre has been turned into a nightmare detention centre.”

John Nathan, Metro

Time Out, ★★★

“Samuel Barnett shines in this new stage version of Manuel Puig’s prison novel.”

“This is a sturdy production with a fine turn from Barnett. However, none of this quite vindicates the endeavour. If only there had been some sort of musical version they could have done instead….”

Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out

Buy tickets to Kiss of the Spider Woman

Kiss of the Spider Woman is booking until 5 May at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London