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(NOT) TO THE MANOR BORN….
The current National Theatre’s greatly reduced repertoire, which is seeing productions playing in straight runs in each of their auditoria instead of in rep, means that it is going to be more difficult to bury a disaster like Moira Buffini’s new play Manor that opened in the Lyttelton on Tuesday, and is scheduled to run continuously to January 1.
In a zero-star review for The TImes, Clive Davis wrote: “Some plays are so awful that they almost become enjoyable. Moira Buffini’s breathtakingly inept satire, a state-of-the-nation piece about a collection of one-dimensional characters trapped in a decrepit manor house during an earth-shattering storm, lurches from one improbable scene to another before sinking with all hands.”
And Arifa Akbar’s one-star review in The Guardian was starkly headlined: “This state-of-the-nation satire is clumsy, crass and unconvincing.” She concluded: “Manor’s many failings might have been forgiven if the comedy was just sharper, funnier, at least a few degrees more dangerous. But even as a light-hearted Christmas show, this feels little short of a turkey.”
Others are no more encouraging. Of course critics should make up our own minds — but having booked (and paid for) a ticket to see it on Saturday, I’m now going to return the ticket and get a credit note. One of the great services critics can provide, I’ve always said, is seeing shows so that the rest of us don’t need to. Enough critics have indicated that this turkey doesn’t need to be seen.
Now that I no longer live in London, I need to use the times I do go up wisely. And that means not seeing everything. So other critics help me and you) to sort the wheat from the chaff.
PLAYING CATCH UP
As I was away in New York for two weeks, I missed quite a few London openings. Some will have to be lost. But others I’m trying to hastily schedule now, like LITTLE WOMEN (the 2005 Broadway musical version of the Louisa May Alcott novel, at the Park Theatre to December 19), DICK WHITTINGTON: A NEW DICK IN TOWN (Jon Bradfield & Martin Hoopers annual gay panto for the Above the Stag, running to January 16), and Zadie Smith’s first play THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN (at the Kiln to January 15, pictured below).
But yesterday I caught up with Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, a wistful contemporary comic riff on Chekhov, receiving its London premiere at Charing Cross Theatre (to January 8), in a production that was previously seen at Bath’s Ustinov Studio in pre-pandemic 2019, and now has Janie Dee and Rebecca Lacey reprising their performances as the madly narcissistic Masha and her badly depressed adoptive sister Sonia, with Michael Maloney newly joining the company as Vanya (replacing Mark Hadfield).
I’d seen the original Broadway production in 2005, when a stellar cast was led by Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Neilsen and David Hyde Pierce in those roles respectively.
It’s full of frequently delicious in-theatrical jokes, and Walter Bobbie’s affectionate (but not affected) UK production, pictured above, breezily engages with its outrageous interventions, including a young, aspiring actor toyboy partner of the older Masha (29 years old, to her vaguely-claimed 42 or 43) who loves showing off his highly buff body, and in Charlie Maher’s performance has him visibly itching to lift his shirt off his waist at nearly every opportunity, as well as a hilarious running joke of an impression of Maggie Smith, by way of her Oscar-winning role in the film version of Neil Simon’s California Suite (memo to self: I must re-watch this film!)
Seeing it yesterday in a very sparsely attended Charing Cross matinee, I longed for the collective rush of laughter that would release the play’s comedy. In Charles Isherwood’s review for the New York TImes when the play transferred to Broadway, he wrote, “I can think of no more deliriously funny moment from this theater season than what transpires when [Kristine] Nielsen, playing Sonia, a middle-aged, morbidly depressed woman, swans onstage in a sequined evening gown, with a tiara shimmering on her head and a new glitter of self-confidence in her eyes. When Sonia proceeds to explain why she is thus attired, the theater erupts in booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats. It would be unfair to spoil the fun for those holding tickets to the show, but I can reveal that Sonia is dressed for a costume party in a highly conceptual manner, and that Maggie Smith figures prominently in the concept.”
At Charing Cross, it is the sound of trains overhead that are more likely to shake the seats. But this delightful play still stirs the soul.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS
Christina Applegate, 50 (pic: in Sweet Charity, Broadway, 2005); Kevin Chamberlin, 58 (pic: as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family on Broadway in 2010) Dougray Scott, 56; Sir Peter Wright, director laureate, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 95