Rupert Goold has a fascination with the devil. It has served him well as a director. Nearly 20 years ago, against the odds, he put on Paradise Lost in Northampton, and made it luscious. He has conjured demons in Macbeth, and 21st-century monsters in Enron. In Women, Beware the Devil, the fascination is evident in his whirligig staging. The trouble is that though Lulu Raczka’s new play about evil and change has many glinting moments, it lacks a driving force.
Raczka mashes together the voluptuous violence of 17th-century drama and a sardonic knowingness: it as if she has Googled “change” and “evil” and decided to animate all the results. It is 1642. The king is under threat from Cromwell’s army. Privilege is being challenged, along with the enthroned position of men. In a stately pile a clever servant girl, thought to be a witch, is one cause of disturbance: Alison Oliver cleverly makes her both vulnerable and toughened. The toffs are worse: determined at all poisonous costs to hang on to their inheritance, Lydia Leonard’s sinuous heiress is part serpent, part gimlet-eyed executive. Her doltish brother – an enjoyably grotesquely Leo Bill – blusters around with flying ringlets and groping hands. Beside them, the fellow with horns beneath his hat looks staunch. But perhaps he is shape-shifting into them – who knows?
Trying to wrest substance from this – and solemn speeches plead with an audience to look for substance – is like catching a lizard by its tail and being left holding the skin. But what a skin. Evie Gurney’s costumes are enticingly, bewitchingly textured. Designer Miriam Buether brilliantly makes the stage a mobile mixture: a world on the brink of change. The royalist mansion – dark wood panels and looming dining chairs – is solid but not stable, clad partly in the accoutrements of puritanism: chequerboard tiles; a table heaped with domed serving dishes and fat candles, as in a Dutch still life. Perspectives shift under Tim Lutkin’s lighting; the floor cracks open as a bed rises from the depths. Wonderful reflections of change: but the script demonstrates rather than probes.
It is unusual to sit in the stalls hanging on a plot twist. Yet Romeo and Julie, Gary Owen’s riff on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, skewers an audience’s anxieties. Small sighs rise up during the performance. On the way out, the dilemmas are debated: “I was so nervous that she…”; “I was sure that he…”
Owen’s speech is direct; his subject is important. In a Cardiff suburb teenagers meet. She, studying physics at a strong local comprehensive (she is to find out from a posh girl that this does not count as a “good school”), aims to be the first in her family to go to university. He is bringing up his baby single-handed alongside his alcoholic mother: he is first seen wiping poo from the infant’s chubby folds. If the lovers are to stay together, one of them will have to give up the life they have clung to.
This could so easily have been programmatic: a right-minded, much-needed but doctrinaire screed about the howling inequities of the education system. Yet Rachel O’Riordan’s production drums with urgency. Hayley Grindle’s design hangs a tangle of neon – astronomical algebra – over the action; rock thumps between scenes. Rosie Sheehy always brings an extraordinary gleam to the stage: it shows here as angry intelligence and ambition shot through with tremblings. Callum Scott Howells – recently the Emcee in Cabaret – is equally compelling: gormless and passionate, trapped and doting. They have fine support from Catrin Aaron as the addicted mother. The setting, too, has especial resonance. Last week Trouble in Butetown, last year The Corn Is Green. Wales is becoming a place for the stage to consider fractures and injustices in the Un-United Kingdom.
Strangely, there is some plot-hanging in Shirley Valentine, though most of the audience must know the answer to the question on which Willy Russell’s 1986 play pivots: will she stay or will she go? Though Russell’s monologue is tethered to its period – who now would expect a 42-year-old woman to consider herself past it in her pinny? It is nimble, generous and truly feminist in showing that the diminished life of a housewife means that everyone around her is diminished.
Still, the real grip of Matthew Dunster’s production is due to Sheridan Smith. Everyone is immediately on her side. The same age as Shirley, she does not divebomb the part like a celebrity, but she doesn’t quite vanish into it either. She glimmers through the jokes – why is no woman called Clitoris when there are many men called Dick? Without entirely breaking character she can take in audience reaction: a crack about men ceasing to be attentive after the “first horizontal” was greeted by a yelp; Smith almost winked back. She is a surefire hit. Perhaps next stop, that other monologue in which a woman alone in a hot place goes through her female stuff while sounding off into the air. The difference is that Happy Days does not have a happy ending.
Star ratings (out of five)
Women, Beware the Devil ★★★
Romeo and Julie ★★★★
Shirley Valentine ★★★★
Women, Beware the Devil is at the Almeida, London, until 25 March
Romeo and Julie is at the Dorfman, London, until 1 April
Shirley Valentine is at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, until 3 June