Coriolanus; Stephen Ward; Oliver! – review

Donmar; Aldwych, London; Crucible, Sheffield
Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus is blazing but bleak, and there's as little love in a 60s sex scandal as there was in Dickens's London

The first time I saw Tom Hiddleston act was at the Donmar six years ago. He was 26, a doleful Cassio to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello, and he made a small part look essential. Now he takes centre stage as a blazing Coriolanus. Blazing but bleak. He is the ideal combination of emotional reserve and physical bravura.

Reserve has always been one of the problems of this difficult play. Where do spectators put their trust? The play's martial hero treats the audience as he does the populace – don't say plebs – he despises. He will not show his wounds to the public in order to get their vote. He will not let spectators into his thoughts with a soliloquy.

A couple of years ago an adventurous National Theatre of Wales production – set in a vast aircraft hangar and drawing on Brecht's adaptation – tempted its audiences to become complicit with the abused and fickle populace. Josie Rourke's production, the best thing she has done as the Donmar's artistic director, could hardly be more different. It's set in a theatre about the same size as the Blackfriars, for which Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus. The approach is not sympathy-seeking but it is intimate.

Rarely can a production have been so fleshy. This is a play that begins by using the human body as a metaphor for society. It has at its centre a man whose vocation is for physical not mental work. Seldom can a Coriolanus have been so bloodied, sluiced, wincing and flayed. The fight between the hero and his admired adversary is terrific, with one warrior catapulted over the back of the other and blows seeming, as they seldom do on stage, truly to land; it's a love battle that prepares the way for a later kiss. Hiddleston ends up dangling headfirst. He is not the first Coriolanus to do so. Olivier was so suspended in 1959, when the memory of Mussolini's body being displayed upside-down was fresher in the mind.

Lucy Osborne's design is ash-coloured and uncluttered, save for some distracting symbolic chairs and ladders. The tangled battles and the shifts of allegiance by both crowds and the adamantine hero are brought into focus with unusual clarity. As are unsuspected textures in speeches. A scene between Coriolanus's mother and wife is a particular wonder. The two women stitch one piece of fabric in apparent tranquillity, while all their talk is of loss and of warfare. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen leaps easily from energetic spin-doctor in Borgen to suffering needlewoman. Deborah Findlay, an actress so powerfully humorous that she can subdue a stage by the snicker of her lip, is superb as the termagant matriarch. Behind every purr a roar.

Mark Gatiss is elegant – in word and gesture – as the advisor who becomes one of Shakespeare's many rejected father figures. In a nod to the last Roman production at the Donmar, the all-female Julius Caesar, some male roles are taken by women: Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger are equally sly as tribunes. The production is sold out but will be broadcast live to cinemas on 30 January (encore 3 February).

Alexander Hanson, Charlotte Spencer in Stephen Ward
‘The right insinuating charm’: Alexander Hanson in the title role with Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler in Stephen Ward. Photograph: Nobby Clark Photograph: Nobby Clark

As Christopher Hampton and Don Black point out in their script for Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Stephen Ward was subject to "the investigative diligence of the News of the World". The story of which Ward was a part – involving Christine Keeler, the secretary of state for war John Profumo and a Soviet naval attaché – is one of class deference, sexual prudishness and the misogyny of the early 60s. It was a time when mothers cancelled the papers in case their daughters read about sexual shenanigans, and the word "osteopath" (Ward treated Gandhi among others) was enough to elicit sniggers. The affair was nonsense in terms of the alleged security risk. But nonsense with consequences: the collapse of Macmillan's government, and the suicide of Ward himself.

Stephen Ward puts on show some filthy police practices (Ward was prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act). It emphasises the shoddy behaviour by members of the so-called upper class who took Ward up and threw him down. My friend and cabaret correspondent Diana Melly, who worked at the same club as Keeler, tells me that Richard Eyre's handsome production got the place bang on, save that the proprietor was enormous and had a wooden leg.

Lloyd Webber's music is pleasing, though it doesn't do much to evoke the pop culture of the period. In the week Ward was arrested, the hit parade included Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Ray Charles and Cliff Richard's Lucky Lips. Stephen Ward has a bit of reggae and yeah-yeahing, but the considerable singing high spot is Joanna Riding as Profumo's wife, Valerie Hobson, delivering a mournful ballad in a cut-glass accent. A gorgeous "You've never had it so good" sequence is sung at an S&M dinner party, with spanking, masks, whips and much display of baggy white pants. It's wittily delivered, with a nod to the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, to the primly tripping measure of a gavotte.

Alexander Hanson's Ward has the right insinuating, hands-in-the-pockets (his own, not anyone else's) charm. But his character remains elusive, and the events are ungovernably straggling. The show needs more fire in its belly. I should like to see it refashioned as a cabaret in a smaller space. Rob Howell's design features circular curtains. The videos of metropolitan life projected on to these are wobbly, and when the curtains swish round you might be watching a committal at a crematorium.

Ben Richards as Bill Sikes in Oliver! at the Crucible, Sheffield.
Ben Richards as Bill Sikes in Oliver! at the Crucible. Photograph: Mark Douet Photograph: Mark Douet

At the Crucible in Sheffield, artistic director Daniel Evans delivers his annual boisterous treat. Oliver! is one of the niftiest pick-pocketing jobs ever. In his 1960 musical – the biggest of his hits – Lionel Bart pulls all the juiciest plums out of Dickens's novel and sets them to music. Bart's skill makes a filleted Dickens flicker into life like a movie. The opening moments show a woman in a bloodied dress, then a doll, then a sign flashing up saying "11 years later", before seconds later there are en masse nippers and food glorious food.

Peter McKintosh's design suggests the right sooty discomfort. Alistair David's choreography delivers street life in a perfectly drilled tumult. The scamper of urchin hordes gives way so rapidly to the muscular dances of thieves and molls, it's as if you're watching a generation growing up into front of you.

The rollicking is given a particularly sinister twist. I had never before realised how many terrifying couplings the show contains. Bill Sikes and Nancy are only the most famous awful warning against love. As Nancy, Hayley Gallivan, who has a marvellously strong voice, pulls off As Long As He Needs Me without soppiness, making it a terrible act of defiance, the rationale of a woman who has just been clobbered. Other pairs are animated with ghastly sexpressiveness. Ample Mr Bumble and Widow Corney get salacious over the sugar lumps. Lean Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, the undertakers to whom Oliver is sold, cop off with each other over the cadavers. A show that asks "Where is love?" turns out also to be a dreadful warning against it.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Coriolanus ****
Stephen Ward ***
Oliver! ****

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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