Manor (National Theatre, London)
A Christmas Carol (Old Vic, London)
Verdict: A treat, whatever the season
Four Quartets (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Verdict: Glimpses of Eternity
At last, the National Theatre has come up with a play which only ultra Right-wing paranoid conspiracy theorists and soil-worshipping nut jobs will be able to understand.
Everyone else will be left baffled and bewildered but, on the upside, it shows that the country’s flagship theatre really does reach out to all sections of society.
The set-up for Moira Buffini’s rambling and frankly bonkers new play, starring the normally exquisite Nancy Carroll and mercurial Shaun Evans (he of ITV’s Endeavour and recent BBC series Vigil), seems simple enough.
Diana (Carroll) lives in a tumbledown manor house battered by a biblical tempest apparently triggered by climate change.
Seeking shelter, a fortuitous cross-section of modern British society turn up on her doorstep.
First to arrive is an ancient — gay — vicar (David Hargreaves), followed by a black London nurse (Michele Austin) and her bolshie daughter (Shaniqua Okwok).
They are joined by Ted Farrier (Evans), leader of Albion: a fictional group of British nationalist white supremacists.
The set-up for Moira Buffini’s rambling and frankly bonkers new play, starring the normally exquisite Nancy Carroll and mercurial Shaun Evans (pictured), seems simple enough
Even inside the house, things are pretty stormy. Following an argument, Diana’s husband (Owen McDonnell), a washed-up rock star, has fallen downstairs while high on magic mushrooms.
His daughter Isis (Liadan Dunlea) isn’t too bothered. She seems more eager to clarify that she’s named after the Egyptian goddess, and not the Islamic State group.
Also in the spontaneous house party from hell is an overweight former Sainsbury’s check-out assistant (Edward Judge), who falls under Ted’s spell — and Ted’s chauffeur (Peter Bray), recruited to the Albion cause while in jail.
Finally, there is Ted’s blind academic girlfriend (Amy Forrest), who happens to be an expert in French revolutionary history.
Diana’s manor house is, I suppose, meant to represent Britain falling apart. But really, it’s just a pretext for the men to spout sub-Nietzschean supremacist twaddle.
Inevitably, there is wittering about Islamic takeovers. The nurse warns darkly that they are ‘clinging to the laws of the future’. What does that mean? Who knows.
Buffini fares better with the vicar, who has a nice line in Whitney Houston-ish platitudes: ‘It’s hard to sustain love until you love yourself’.
But with everyone putting their oar in, there are simply too many random characters, armed with too many crackpot ideas.
Carroll’s whimsical Diana goes from being repulsed by Ted to becoming spellbound by the ‘charismatic man of action’.
Hobbling from a sprained ankle, Evans’s Ted is a rattish, Reiss-apparelled Scouser. He may be vaguely charismatic, but not in a rip your clothes off kind of way — more in a ‘call the cops, now!’ kind of way (although, to be fair to Diana, her phone lines are down).
Not surprisingly, Fiona Buffini’s production fails to make sense of her sister’s madcap misadventure, which is neither dramatically serious nor obviously funny.
Lez Brotherston’s wonky set is as hard to look at as the plot is to follow. And Jon Nicholls’s slasher-movie music urges us to think of all this in terms of apocalyptic doom.
I am at least impressed that the Buffini sisters managed to steer this chaos through the National’s literary department.
I’ve long suspected the place might have been infiltrated by renegade, Right-wing fifth columnists. Now, perhaps, we have proof.
Another Christmas Carol in November? Bah humbug!
First Mark Gatiss’s Nottingham production (reopening this week in Alexandra Palace); and now Stephen Mangan, in the Old Vic’s fifth iteration of the show in five years.
Hadn’t theatres better remain dark and ‘reduce the surplus population’ of Christmas Carols, as old Scrooge might put it?
Emphatically not! Matthew Warchus’s production of Jack Thorne’s adaptation is the benchmark of modern Christmas Carols on stage.
Stephen Mangan slots into the show like sage-and-onion stuffing into the festive bird — even if he looks more like the kind of metrosexual beardy man you’d expect to find advertising Waitrose rare-breed turkeys than a miser, counting his pennies and rueing his ‘choices’ in life.
And Mangan slots into the show like sage-and-onion stuffing into the festive bird — even if he looks more like the kind of metrosexual beardy man you’d expect to find advertising Waitrose rare-breed turkeys than a miser, counting his pennies and rueing his ‘choices’ in life.
Anyway, the real star of Warchus’s production is the atmosphere created by a Milky Way of lanterns over Rob Howell’s catwalk stage. Here, most of the scenery is provided by creaking sound effects, as Ebenezer is given a tour of his life by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
Christopher Nightingale’s enchanting music sends the cast reeling in jigs, and has them singing snatches of carols during scene changes, while weaving in heart-tugging variations on O Holy Night. And at the end, the company’s crystalline hand-held bell ringing reduces the audience to rapt, damp-eyed ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.
Add to that a snow machine filling the theatre with whirling white flakes — and a whip round for the charity FoodCycle — and dare I say it … it’s A Christmas Carol that comes not a moment too soon.
Best of all, it’ll be even riper next month.
Matthew Warchus’s production of Jack Thorne’s adaptation is the benchmark of modern Christmas Carols on stage
Fiennes’ performance is poetry in motion
By Libby Purves
Sometimes a simple, short performance can shake, rouse or even change you. So step away from the mundane rush of earning and spending, leave the gaudy Christmas streets and the scrolling, nagging screens.
Sit quietly for 75 minutes while a tall, high-browed, slightly haggard man reflects on time, eternity and mortality.
Feel with him the ‘still centre of the turning world’, the piercing wonder of those moments when suddenly, something immense fills you, then slips away, uncatchable.
T.S. Eliot wrote these four long poems in the 1930s and 1940s: they are not easy, but their music and images have great power.
Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before, but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision.
It feels, in this performance, that he managed to do so: reaching out (although no human ever quite grasps it) for the meaning of those moments of eternity.
They might come in a silent rose garden, beside a crashing sea, in the distant voices of children, or (as in the case of Eliot) while fire watching by night during the Blitz.
Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before, but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision
As Fiennes learned the poems, it occurred to him — as the lockdowns made time seem either to squeeze or stretch, and exposed our fragility — that the four might be performed physically.
That was genius on his part, because we are carried along by his presence and his movement on stage: sometimes dramatic, sometimes almost playful. It is a simple set, with great revolving grey walls: dark spaces open and close as he wanders between them, drifting from exaltation to despair, and sometimes even amusement.
For Eliot is sometimes lyrically beautiful, often learned, but he also suddenly stops to consider his own baffled inability to express what he glimpses.
Fiennes makes good use of this, sometimes seeming to appeal to us, sometimes alone, deep in meditation.
That he has toured this extraordinary show for months may have given it still more depth. It is worth drowning in.