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‘Remain on the edge of your seat, though you might fall off laughing’: THE MASSIVE TRAGEDY OF MADAME BOVARY – Jermyn Street Theatre ★★★★

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What could be more seasonal than Flaubert’s tale of wifely frustration, romantic illusions, disastrous adulteries and ruinous shopaholic debt? This adaptation of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary at the Jermyn Street Theatre is a clown-skilled four-hander by John Nicholson – founder of the gleefully clever Peepolykus.

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‘Hard, clever, truthful, sometimes funny’: BLACKOUT SONGS – Hampstead Theatre

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Blackout Songs is another sharp, pared-down studio production: in 95 minutes Joe White delivers a necessarily painful two-hander about youthful alcoholism and the disaster of colliding addictions. We watch two lovers, over an uncertain wavering timeline, who can neither control nor remember their lives and real selves: we get flashes, snapshots of their meeting, coupling, celebrating, fighting, betraying.

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‘Rona Morison is shiveringly powerful’: MARY – Hampstead Theatre

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For 400 years the reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been battled over: she has been called victim and whore, murderess and heroine, flighty and heroic. Romance flowers in drama and opera: she was a young mother, beautiful, imprisoned, finally executed by her cousin Elizabeth I. But in this static but powerful 90-minutes, in which the Queen herself is offstage except for two glimpses, Rona Munro concentrates on the period before her forced abdication in 1567.

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‘It’s a piece of bravura & massively entertaining’: TAMMY FAYE – Almeida Theatre ★★★★

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Rarely in the history of Islington playgoing have so many first-nighters whooped so enthusiastically at Gospel rock. When cheers for Elton John’s anthems in Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre briefly abate it is often for quite different whoops, laughter at James Graham’s dry sharp script or moments of enchanted shock at an unexpected popup.

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‘Has a melancholy beauty about it’: SOMETHING IN THE AIR – Jermyn Street Theatre ★★★★

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OLD MEN DO NOT FORGET        Peter Gill’s  new play has a melancholy beauty about  it;  it’s a sort of poem as the veteran playwright and director engages with  age, regret and memory. The one-act, hour-long piece, performed … Continue reading →

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‘A loving, haunting play, done very beautifully’: BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY – National Theatre ★★★★

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Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky creates a world, the world of dreamers in the fading Harlem renaissance, the Depression starting to bite. It’s domestic: Frankie Bradshaw’s fabulous set has two fire escapes, a hallway, steps, rooms high and low, balcony (where we glimpse other neighbours, sometimes with quiet harmonies sung). Outside the street is barred with lamplight.

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‘Juliet Stevenson is a marvel’: THE DOCTOR – Duke of York’s Theatre ★★★★

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This is the return of Robert Icke’s modern version of Schnitzler’s 1912 play The Doctor, transferred from he Almeida. And no question, it is an opportunity to see one of the finest stage actors of the age – Juliet Stevenson – firing on all cylinders at the centre of a painfully topical play.

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‘Magnificent’: THE CRUCIBLE – National Theatre ★★★★★

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This is the big one. The Crucible is the National Theatre at its strongest: unapologetic, classic, unsparing, gripping, impassioned. Here’s the heavy artillery, intellectual and dramatic, a big ensemble on a bare stage conjuring – in Es Devlin’s moody set – an illimitable blackness beyond. Hell and hysteria rage and choke and howl out across the centuries with all the power of irrationality.

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‘It’s just all very beautiful’: NOISES OFF – Bath & Touring ★★★★★

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Millions know it by now, but in case like my enthralled companions last night you aren’t among them, grant me a moment or skip the the penultimate paragraph. Noises Off has been a national treasure since 1982, written by Michael Frayn after realising that the hurtling backstage business of doors, props and actors under stress is funnier than most actual farces. He wrote a squib called EXITS, the great producer Michael Codron encouraged something fuller.

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‘Never a false note’: JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN – Bridge Theatre ★★★★★

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In great plays a scene, character or domestic confrontation can be both appalling and comic: pity, terror and barks of shocked laughter are not incompatible even within a sentence. Ibsen knew that, but in the Norwegian rebel’s grim late works it takes a relaxed director and some weapons-grade actors to keep that balance. Cue Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams: rescuing, for me and for good, a play (John Gabriel Borkman at the Bridge Theatre) I hated last time I saw it.

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‘For all its polish, the play feels oddly dated’: WOMAN IN MIND – Chichester ★★★

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in Woman In Mind at Chichester Festival Theatre Susan finds herself in mid-life with a dull clerical husband (Nigel Lindsay really enjoying it), obsessed with his dreary parish history pamphlet. His gloomy beige sister lives with them; Muriel (Stephanie Jacob equally relishing every stumping step and grudge). She believes she can conjure up the spirit of her dead husband, and cooks the worst possible food (for an Alan Ayckbourn play this one is short on big laughs, but the good ones are about her omelettes and coffee). Their son has run off to join a cult in Hemel Hempstead.

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‘Couldn’t be more topical’: EUREKA DAY – Old Vic Theatre ★★★★★

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So we know where we are with Eureka Day at the Old Vic: joyfully satirising middle-class liberal-cum-hippie angst, parental protectiveness and the age of offence-taking, as in beloved recent comedies like God of Carnage and Clybourne Park. But as it heats, the focus shifts to the even more topical theme: digital misinformation, rumour and fake news getting indiscriminately sucked in and solidified into identity politics.

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‘An unforgettable evening’: ROSE – Park Theatre ★★★★★

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Martin Sherman’s 1999 masterpiece Rose is an immense monologue – two halves, each over an hour – and Maureen Lipman tackles it with pin-sharp timing, humour, and controlled feeling, sitting on her bench remembering. Her extraordinary performance was streamed during the Covid years but to see it live in front of you in this intimate theatre is different, startling and personal, heroic. With the best will in the world any screen showing fades into being just more TV, more Holocaust history. This does not.

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‘Rarely less than entertaining but too restrained’: THE SNAIL HOUSE – Hampstead Theatre ★★★

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Shiny though the shell is, Richard Eyre’s play The Snail House at Hampstead Theatre becomes a frustrating stew of ideas, attitudes and family tensions which doesn’t quite hit the finishing line. Directed by the author himself it is rarely less than entertaining, always emotionally recognisable and interestingly topical: but it’s too humble, too restrained.

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‘There’s plenty of musical energy here’: PENELOPE: SEVEN WAYS TO WAIT – Arcola Theatre

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Grimeborn’s “in-progress sharing” of Penelope: Seven Ways to Wait provides 40 minutes of intriguing and accomplished musicality, loosely themed around the concept of waiting, with the classical heroine Penelope (long-suffering, long waiting wife of Odysseus) at its emotional helm.

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‘It would be hard to find a better healing for difficult times’: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – Touring ★★★★

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This humbly immense, uniquely created show threw me for a loop five summers ago. Girl From the North Country is back on tour, via Oliviers and Broadway awards, with its miraculous marriage of poetic sensibility and hardscrabble humanity. It would be hard to find a better healing for difficult times.

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‘Timely, enterprising, emotionally shattering, politically shaming’: TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS – Finborough Theatre

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These two Ukrainian Plays at the Finborough Theatre were both both first born at the time of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, the second particularly in the Donbas where ugly divisions erupted between Russian sympathisers and supporters of the elected and legitimate government in Kyiv.

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‘Reminds you of Shakespeare’s extraordinary moments too easily forgotten’: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING – National Theatre ★★★★

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A star danced, and under it was Simon Godwin’s joyful, 1930s Riviera production born. Quite apart from the fact that it is nice to have the earnest NT enjoying two outbreaks of frenetic jitterbug dancing at once – Jack Absolute upstairs at the Olivier, and here Much Ado About Nothing set in the Mediterranean hotel world of Noel Coward – where it feats with unexpected neatness.

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‘It’s a good-hearted, family-friendly show’: IDENTICAL – Nottingham ★★★★

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It is the original postwar Germany and Austria into which Stuart Paterson’s book for new musical Identical takes us in a fresh, bouncy Stiles and Drewe musical. Auditions of hundred pairs of identical twins found three: on press night Eden and Emme Patrick proved faultless in a complicated, sometimes emotionally intense performance, first disliking one another on sight and then rapturously realising their sisterhood; they are playfully natural and assured, rarely offstage for long