The week in theatre: The Narcissist; Into the Woods – review

Minerva, Chichester; Theatre Royal Bath
Christopher Shinn’s new play of post-Trump politics finds complex characters lost in ego and addiction, while Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman’s take on Sondheim is just a bit too much

What a zinging evening at Chichester. Christopher Shinn’s new play The Narcissist, set in 2017, centres on a former American presidential adviser who announces that in a digitally transfixed, utterly individualistic age, voters engage with politics as they do with dating apps: they use them as distractions, beginning with arousal and ending in disappointment. His own marriage is on the rocks; he is hesitantly bisexual, bereft – and vulnerable.

Originally planned for 2020, Josh Seymour’s production swoops adroitly from shrewd argument to intimate dialogue and jittery sputter: two characters are addicted to opiates and everyone is fighting addiction to their screens. Jasmine Swan’s design glimmers with the drama’s possibilities: quietly opulent, with reflective walls and floor (so good for seeing yourself everywhere). Characters are first seen aloft in separate booths, outlined in neon, made for declamation and isolation.

Cynicism and hope come from the least predictable mouths. The claim to be described by the title swivels between characters. Shinn braces his audience to expect the would-be presidential candidate to reveal herself as a monster of self-regard: “People like narcissists as leaders – haven’t you noticed?” Yet, elegantly played by Claire Skinner, she remains inscrutably calm and goody-two-shoes. A young man (Simon Lennon) destroyed by addiction is accused of having always selfishly disappeared into himself. As his spiky girlfriend, Jenny Walser is a whirl of angular egotism.

Everyone – friend, colleague, mother, brother, potential lover – makes claims on the adviser, their demands ingeniously overlapping: you might think that he is not entranced by himself. Think again: with a fine coolness, Harry Lloyd shows that his apparent bending to other egos is a version of narcissism. And then prepare to reconsider again: empathy may unexpectedly break through.

People really change in the course of The Narcissist – not as common in plays as you might think. Politics and personality are unstably bound together. In an evening of finely controlled performances, Stuart Thompson is outstanding as the would-be boyfriend: earnestly proclaiming his socialist credentials, quietly preening as he tucks a curl behind an ear.

The time for Into the Woods has come. Not, evidently, at the Old Vic, where some Neanderthal harrumphing by Terry Gilliam, who co-directs with Leah Hausman, led to the production being destaged. But in Bath, and the outside world, this is the ideal moment, with points of view shifting everywhere and news getting ever bleaker, to be looking at the tales we tell our children, tales that shape our expectations.

Julian Bleach and the company in Into the Woods.
‘Old Father Time and everyone’s unburied dad’: Julian Bleach and the company in Into the Woods. Photograph: Marc Brenner

In 1986, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim mashed together a variety of fairy stories to make a new prickly thicket. The result is not tidy and compared with some reworkings of folklore – Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber appeared seven years earlier – is sometimes overblunt. But it is exhilarating. The first half skids merrily, comically around; Red Riding Hood (Lauren Conroy makes an impressively fierce debut) meets Jack of the beanstalk; princes ogle each other as they eulogise their “agonee”. The second half is translated into wider dismay and disaster, which now looks cosmic. Happy endings come unstuck: years being locked in a tower have caught up with Rapunzel, who has lost her mind. Cinderella’s prince commits adultery: “I’m meant to be Charming, not Sincere.” Jack’s giant reappears, seen here as a massive toddler’s foot, in lacy ankle sock, stamping on foes and dreams.

That Monty Python-style foot is one of the most effective strokes in a visually noisy production (designed by Jon Bausor) in which everything is larkily underlined: Rapunzel’s tower is made of bean cans. There are beguiling touches: a charming cow who might have clopped in from a pantomime; woodland creatures with wide-eyed masks and sophisticated limbs; a lovely flutter of bird stick-puppets.

When the Uglies hack at their heels to get into the prince’s slipper, blood runs down the stage. As Cinderella, Audrey Brisson tumbles across the stage, landing (mostly upside down) as light as thistledown. Rhashan Stone is the warm heart of the action as an innocent baker. Nicola Hughes is a blasting witch. Trouble is there is just too much of everything.

Sidling around the action with undertaker’s topper and unctuous drawl is Julian Bleach: Old Father Time and everyone’s unburied dad. It is impossible not to be reminded of the similar figure he cut – and slashed – in one of the most original shows of the past 25 years, Shockheaded Peter, which, like this, was set in a toy theatre. The aesthetic there was harsher and more complicated. Sondheim deserves similar, less fussy illumination. They say he is not hummable, but rhythms and lyrics – hitting a core while sounding skewwhiff – tick away long term in your blood.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Narcissist
Into the Woods ★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in theatre: Me and My Girl; Dusty review – daft, delicious and irresistible
Timeworn tropes prove irresistible as Chichester does the Lambeth Walk, while Katherine Kingsley’s singing overcomes a galumphing script in Dusty

Susannah Clapp

15, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: My Neighbour Totoro; Local Hero – review
A beloved Studio Ghibli anime is brought to magical life in Phelim McDermott’s new RSC production, while the 1983 film Local Hero finds fresh resonance

Susannah Clapp

23, Oct, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Company; Measure for Measure; Stories – review
Marianne Elliott dazzlingly remakes Sondheim, Josie Rourke adds a Shakespearean twist, and from Nina Raine, a sperm donor comedy

Susannah Clapp

20, Oct, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
The week in theatre: Much Ado About Nothing; Jack Absolute Flies Again; Crazy for You
Shakespeare’s comedy is the gift that keeps on giving; Mrs Malaprop’s a loose cannon in Richard Bean’s Battle of Britain take on Sheridan; and who can resist Gershwin?

Susannah Clapp

24, Jul, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
South Pacific review – a radical reappraisal
Daniel Evans’s production bursts with energy as it foregrounds an anti-racist message in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic

Susannah Clapp

18, Jul, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
The Michael Billington archive: highlights from five decades of reviews
Ken Dodd’s laugh riot, Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, Lucy Prebble’s dazzling debut and ‘off-with-your kit Harington’ … revisit the hits and flops assessed by our outgoing theatre critic

20, Dec, 2019 @7:49 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Switzerland; The Price; Aristocrats – review
Patricia Highsmith’s most famous creation comes back to haunt her, while the ghosts are closer to home in revivals of Miller and Friel

Susannah Clapp

19, Aug, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Into the Woods review – bittersweet Sondheim with a homemade look
This musical mashup of fairytales makes for a playful and thoughtful evening

Kate Kellaway

17, Jul, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: The Secret River; La Reprise; 8 Hotels – review
English settlers terrorise Indigenous Australians in an unflinching production from Sydney

Clare Brennan

11, Aug, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Henry V; Vardy v Rooney; ¡Showmanism! – review
Oliver Johnstone mesmerises as Henry V, Vardy and Rooney go head to head, and Dickie Beau lipsyncs a swarm of voices, from Hitchcock to Fiona Shaw

Susannah Clapp

27, Nov, 2022 @10:30 AM