Olivier, National Theatre – until to 8 October 2019
I see we have our summer 2019 London theatre mini-trend: plays about the fickle nature of fame. That this coincides with yet another series of Love Island is a pleasing coincidence. Or is it? Maybe Rufus Norris and David Hare are fans? Imagine if they were. Now I can’t get the idea of them having nightly viewing parties out of my head.
Anyhoo, the latest addition to this trend is Peter Gynt, a new adaptation of Ibsen’s apparently unstageable Peer Gynt by David Hare. This is normally the point in proceedings where I’d give you a pithy couple of sentence summary of the plot but Peter Gynt is so utterly, joyously bonkers that I can’t really do that. But in essence it’s about a man who wants to be famous and rich and powerful and, above all, anything other than ordinary. The lengths he goes to to achieve this are ridiculous, but the central idea – that actually our apparently never ending grasping for fame and fortune are also ridiculous – is cleverly worked through and of course depressingly timely.
It feels like a long ass time since I had anything nice to say about Hare but I will happily admit that I loved his script here. Yes it’s a little bit all over the place, yes the plot is at times completely irrelevant and stupid and of course there’s some clunkingly heavy-handed attempts at political satire but my god it’s also so much fun. A Hare play that’s fun – who knew?! And it’s not just fun, it’s funny. Like really, properly, my face hurts can you please stop funny. I shan’t spoil any of the jokes but there’s one about the TV show Bodyguard that still makes me giggle to myself a good 10 days after seeing the show. Watch out for it.
This brings me to a wider point that I think makes this play such a success as a piece of writing, which is that the updates and the cultural references totally work. Yes some of them are frivolous and silly but they also make complete sense in the context of this production. They also, of course, enhance the feeling of timeliness around it. This is a really well thought out update in other words. The modern cultural references give us a way into a difficult play but it remains very obvious that they could be replaced with equivalent references for any period and the show would still work.
Director Jonathan Kent’s production fully embraces the bonkers and the legendary unstageable-ness of this play in a way which basically makes me want to go to a party at his house because I think it would be super fun. This is a long show (I gather it’s down to three hours and twenty minutes now, which is shorter than when I saw it in preview, including two intervals) but Kent’s production never sags. Quite the contrary, it positively bounces along on a wave of its own madness. Richard Hudson’s design is brilliant: technically clever (all the trap doors and hidey holes in the set are aces) and aesthetically exactly the right level of crazy. His costumes are great too. Dick Straker’s video and Mark Henderson’s lighting are equally glitzy and effective. And there are songs! Paul Englishby’s music isn’t 100% effective for me (the more traditional musical theatre ‘I want’ song that crops up in the later acts is not a welcome addition) but the vaudeville tracks definitely are. I did not know I needed singing cowgirl trolls in my life as much as I apparently do. Some clever illusion work from Chris Fisher is the cherry on top of a deliciously crazy confection – and given the uniqueness of the shape of the Olivier auditorium he does particularly well to create things that work from every angle.
All of these nice words aside, none of them are the main reason I enjoyed Peter Gynt so much. No, the reason for that is much simpler. So simple it can be summed up in two words: James McArdle. In the title role McArdle is absolutely magnificent. He has the timing, swagger and charisma of a stand up comedian which, when combined with the general all round excellent, deeply emotional acting he’s shown time and again on various NT stages, is absolutely irresistible. His performance is like crack for your eyes; completely addictive. It’s genuinely impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s on stage, which thankfully is like 99% of the time. Frankly the whole affair should just be renamed The James McArdle Show and be done with it. He has a fine supporting cast behind him too, especially Ann Louise Ross as his acerbic and long suffering (very funny) mother.
In truth I don’t think Peter Gynt/The James McArdle Show will be a production or a play for everyone, but for me it was both. I loved the bonkers, I loved the silly jokes and most of all I loved James McArdle. His performance is more than worth the price of a ticket, regardless of what you think of the rest of the show.
Peter Gynt is in the Olivier theatre at the NT until October 8th, with a break to go to the Edinburgh Festival over the summer.
I sat in J53 in the stalls for this one – a rare foray out of the circle in the Olivier – and paid £36 for the ticket. I saw the production in preview.