The week in theatre: Romeo and Juliet; When Winston Went to War With the Wireless; Groundhog Day – review

Almeida; Donmar Warehouse; Old Vic, London
Danger stalks the radiant lovers in Rebecca Frecknall’s tumultuous, twilit Romeo and Juliet; a 1920s battle for the soul of BBC radio couldn’t be more timely; and Groundhog Day, once more with feeling

Rebecca Frecknall has again gone to the heart of the matter. The director, who recently stripped back Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, has now staged Shakespeare’s most famous love story as an unsparing tragedy. No healing at the end; vibrancy throughout. Two beacons at the centre.

As Romeo and Juliet, Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth are radiant and desperate. Out of control, not always lucid, compulsively drawn together. They are the magnetic centre but they are not the whole story. This is an evening of speed and secrets in the half light. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech – brilliantly delivered by Jack Riddiford, irradiates the evening. Riddiford – writhing, taunting, cajoling, enticing – is the quintessence of a dangerous friend, himself half hobgoblin: his description of hazelnut carriages shook amazed laughter from the press night audience. Dream tangles with the action, takes away certainties. I have never before realised how many characters don’t know the time of day. It is not only that the lovers ask whether they are woken by nightingale or lark. Juliet’s father (an explosively bullying Jamie Ballard) gets in a dither, first about what day of the week it is and then about the hour. He concludes with a lovely muddle: “It is so very late that we/ May call it early by and by.”

Nothing is ever seen in white daylight. Lee Curran’s lighting streaks the bare stage with shadows; when at the end the ground is stacked with candles and the stage golden with lights, it is as if the lovers have indeed been cut out into stars. Sergei Prokofiev’s music for the ballet, threaded (sometimes too emphatically) through the action, conjures up nightmare; characters dance to it, crouched over like beasts, and sink to the floor as if pulled by the scruffs of their necks.

There are flaws. Some of Miles Barrow’s speech as Benvolio vanishes in gabble. There is too much yelling. Hainsworth is guilty of this: though her fury, as a caged adolescent daughter, makes sense, you long earlier for touches of the quiet intimacy into which she finally settles. Oh, and I would lose Juliet’s knee-length socks: she is child enough without them. Yet nothing takes away from the propulsion of an evening driven not by mooning romance but by danger – in a tumultuous twilight.

There could scarcely be a better moment to put the BBC on stage. So under threat – from the influence of placemen and from precarious funding. So needed, not only for non-fake news but as a conduit of imagination and intellect, when the arts are under threat.

When Winston Went to War With the Wireless goes at the present sideways. Jack Thorne – recently announced as author of a new television adaptation of Lord of the Flies – recreates the clash during the 1926 General Strike between John Reith, head of what was then the British Broadcasting Company, and Winston Churchill, chancellor of the exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government.

The strikers had no access to print; the government had set up its own newspaper. The BBC, hoping to turn from company to corporation, was caught between the two. Thorne provides a crisp summary, some skittish wireless evocations (Beatrice Lillie chirrupping: “Don’t be cruel to a vegetabuel”), broadbrush characterisation and some sharp reconsiderations. The craggy and godly Reith is shown, in a gently revealing performance by Stephen Campbell Moore, as riven by his love for a young man. Adrian Scarborough’s Churchill is bristling, babyishly self-obsessed. No one merely impersonates, but there is wry evocation: Haydn Gwynne is a strikingly savvy Baldwin.

Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith and Adrian Scarborough as Churchill in When Winston Went to War With the Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse.
Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith and Adrian Scarborough as Churchill in When Winston Went to War With the Wireless at the Donmar. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Mostly this comes down to a vivacious, informative, it-was-ever-thus summary. A warning rather than a projection or an analysis. There is, though, another story beyond the script: the story of why radio particularly matters. This, beautifully rendered, is the most striking aspect of Katy Rudd’s production. At the back of Laura Hopkins’s metallic design of dangling mics, foley artists and musicians reveal how sound effects are produced: celery sticks are snapped for the breaking of bones.

They are under the direction of sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, who are becoming increasingly important in the theatre. As Kitty Archer’s narrator – brightly of the period, though burdened with too much straight-to-the-audience recapitulation – explains, sound invades and betrays: a mic can catch the tiniest crack in a voice and a tale. One terrible, marvellous account is unforgettable: of a young soldier who could not be near when his mother was cooking – the sound of boiling or frying made him scream. Sound gets under your skin, as theatre is beginning to acknowledge.

Tanisha Spring and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic.
‘Added oomph’: Tanisha Spring and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photograph: ©Manuel Harlan

Here we are again. Matthew Warchus’s production of Groundhog Day was first staged in 2016. Since then it has been, fairly briefly, to Broadway. It is back at the Old Vic, hitting the boards with added oomph, and the predictions look good for a healthy run.

It is an accomplished evening. How could it not be? It has in Tim Minchin a glorious lyricist, who throws out with casual levity the most strenuous of lines: “I’m God. You don’t believe me. But I forgive you.” Collaborating on Matilda in 2010, Minchin and Warchus delivered a great shot across the bows of the musical and theatre for the young. As the bighead weather reporter who, going to work on his ego, is condemned to repeat the same day in a small town he despises, Andy Karl is first rate: both limber and frenetic. Alongside him, Tanisha Spring is sharp-edged but smooth-voiced as the sound of love and sense.

Lizzi Gee’s driving choreography punches home in the same direction as Rob Howell’s design, with its gaudy palette and skewed perspectives: as if echoing the size of his self-esteem, our hero’s tousled room is studded with miniature illuminated houses, clinging to its walls like limpets. Yet the relentless energy of the early scenes does not move naturally into the self-discovery of the ending in Danny Rubin’s book or Minchin’s music. And I wish I could see a musical in which salvation didn’t depend on being homey. This is all adazzle but seeing it twice is enough for me.

Star ratings (out of five)
Romeo and Juliet
When Winston Went to War With the Wireless ★★★
Groundhog Day ★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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