Note: This is a review of the preview on Wednesday 22nd July 2015. The Press Night is this evening.
It's a pleasure to be able to report (following a number of shows that misfired variously because of work, casting or production) that Rufus Norris's National has at last produced a show pretty close to excellent in all three of those departments. The evening is also a reminder, like the Donmar's Temple, that attention to character, narrative and simplicity of staging can carry you a long way.
The play takes us into the familiar pre-Revolutionary aristocratic Russian territory so often visited by Howard Davies during the Hytner years, though the production intends I think to detach the play to some extent from that setting (difficult in practice because the text remains very clear on that point). We follow through two swift-moving, episodic acts, the romantic longings of various pairings among the company. The fractured marriage of Arkady (John Light) and Natalya (Amanda Drew). The ultimately cold young tutor (Royce Pierreson) who sets various hearts ablaze. The too clinical doctor (Mark Gatiss) and the perhaps lonely old maid (Debra Gillett). And, in a binding central performance, the lover (John Simm) who did not speak years before and has spent a life crafting a mask to conceal his passion. Like Temple the play is often very funny – most of all in the brilliant opening scene of Act Two where Gatiss's self-confessed second rate doctor proposes to Gillett's snuff-taking spinster - but it is ultimately a hard series of studies reminiscent of a line from Babylon 5 – “all love is unrequited.”
The ensemble is a very strong one but I was most caught by two of the performers who were new to me, Simm and Pierreson, both of whom I hope to see more of. Simm travels movingly from cutting flipancy to heartbreak. Pierreson has a striking presence, particularly showing that ability to be still in character which is so valuable. Of the rest I would also single out John Light's bluff, naïve husband, and the double act of Gatiss and Gillett, but the quality of the whole ensemble is high.
There is lots to appreciate in both Patrick Marber's direction and Mark Thompson's design. Marber is also responsible for the effective adaptation, the sharply poignant final moments are especially well done. As director, Marber is alive to the power of stillness, small gesture and the detail of how characters interact with each other. The set is spare and in the main successfully focuses attention in on the emotional lives before us. There are a few things that didn't quite convince me. Marber rings the three non-audience sides of the acting square with green chairs and these are frequently occupied either by characters awaiting or concluding a scene, or those being currently discussed. While this does keep the action moving speedily, it can also be distracting and overall it isn't nearly as effective as the similar approach in the NT's brilliant From Morning to Midnight. The other set related irritant is the large red door, practically the only piece of set in the second half. Again the symbolic point it is obviously intended to make is perfectly clear without it – it's a distraction rather than a reinforcement. The other oddity is a couple of occasions when Cherrelle Skeete playing one of the other servants breaks into songs, which to me felt like interlopers from a different show.
But overall this is a funny, moving and ultimately powerful evening. This is the finest show of the Norris era so far and well worth picking up a ticket if you haven't already booked.