Unseasonal turkey

The National Theatre’s new play about Enclosure is a dud, unlike On The Town in Regent’s Park

Theatre
Melancholy moments mixed with  giddy joy: Danny Mac and Siena Kelly in “On The Town” (©Johan Persson)

The National under Rufus Norris is a curious beast. If Nicholas Hytner erred on the side of running the great behemoth of British dramas as a large rep company, based on developing talents such as Rory Kinnear, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, Norris got the job on the basis that the National needed to do more to attract new talent and new writing — and redress some concerns about alpha males hogging the limelight. Norris has tried to broaden the National’s base (though the audience still looks heavily slanted to retired schoolteachers).

The record after two and a half years is mixed. He has had flops like Wonderland, the musical he oversaw with Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini, but also an unexpected hit with Duncan Macmillan’s powerful study of addiction and mental illness, People, Places & Things. And the consistently classy Haydn Gwynne was nominated for an Olivier for her gleefully awful incarnation as Mrs Peachum in a riotous Threepenny Opera last year.
If there is consistency to the detractors’ case, it is that the ideas put on stage are a bit student-union and the productions uneven. Common, the main stage offering for the summer, is a case in point. Co-produced with Headlong (Norris is giving opportunities to many excellent theatre companies outside the main houses), directed by Jeremy Herrin (a Norris favourite) and written by D.C. Moore, it is a story inspired by Enclosure, the process begun at the beginning of the 17th century to enclose common land for private use and which, by the time the play is set — around 1800 — was gobbling up commons and open spaces.
The central figure is Mary (Anne-Marie Duff), a rackety version of Becky Sharp, who at the start of the play is returning from a life of vice in London to her roots in an unspecified English backwater in the “runt-small country”.  She has come on an errand to rescue Laura (Cush Jumbo) from the incestuous clutches of her oppressive brother (John Dalgleish), who believes he has had Mary drowned. So far, so very Restoration theatre, in the interleaving of plots and passions. All that would be fine if the play had a clue what it is trying to say about Enclosure. Apart from the obvious — “sad, unmarried side-effects to change”, a bit of sour carping about Brexit analogies and a general assumption that anything to do with advancing the interests of capitalism must be very bad indeed — it does not.

So poor Anne-Marie Duff, with her wonderfully deep-timbred voice, has acquired a starring role as a bewitching adventuress, only to find herself stuck in an incomprehensible plot and with screeds of cod olde English to read — which makes her sound a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter. The play is written in adjectival idiom, interspersed with 21st-century profanities — entertaining at first, but a bit wearing. Herrin’s direction, usually assured, comes a cropper, so much so that by the middle of the second act we had long forgotten what the play was about, beyond bizarre coincidences and scary Harvest Kings engaging in sadistic revenge against those who went along with Enclosure. All that said, Duff and Jumbo are hard workers who bring a doomed intensity to their Sapphic attraction, but the whole thing teeters between a Sarah Waters-style lesbian revenge saga and a didactic play that sets up its premise, but is unable to follow it through.
Really, this is a play which should have run on a smaller stage and had some of its many rough edges filed off. As it is, the National is wedded to having it on the main stage through the long summer months, and it looks like a bit of an unseasonal turkey.
For those of us who like our drama in the summer outdoors and preferably with a cold glass of prosecco to hand, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London is worth checking out, Personally, I could live without another Peter Pan, having seen so many performances that I now secretly hope Captain Hook gets him. So I like the more ambitious offering this summer: a mix of high-kicking glorious fun in the Leonard Bernstein classic On The Town, and A Tale of Two Cities. Had Dickens been writing for the Regent’s Park management, it would doubtless have read, “It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather.”
Three sailors in wartime are on 24-hour leave in New York looking for adventure. Out of a thinly-brewed plot, Drew McOnie’s production of On The Town draws a dance spectacular (most of the dancers are ex-Royal Ballet School, so this is not just the art of glitz and West End chorus lines). It is also a changeable tale of melancholy moments, interspersed with the giddy joy of being young, in love or even lust — and a bit tipsy. The whole thing is a credit to Timothy Sheader’s reimagining of theatre-in-the-park, with ambitious lighting and design. Brutal city blocks and containers make up the set, around which the actors caper and leap in gloriously slinky costumes.
Samuel Edwards, Danny Mac, Miriam-Teak Lee, Lizzy Connolly and Jacob Maynard star, and it is one of those ensemble productions where you feel a bit guilty lifting out a star name because it works so seamlessly as a whole. But Lizzy Connolly as the déclassé, sexually avaricious taxi-driver has show-stealing moments. Plaudits too to the Strictly Come Dancing finalist Danny Mac, who has a golden tenor voice and snake-hipped moves. He won’t be out of work much after this. For more serious fare, A Tale of Two Cities, adapted by Matthew Dunster, revisits the epic with more than 20  actors of various nationalities who will retell the story as an allegory of the refugee crisis.
Lastly for your summer diaries, particularly if you have The Young to entertain, is The Odyssey performed at the Scoop, the outdoor auditorium at London’s City Hall. It’s a three-hour, three-part story of the ultimately lost Greek tourist. No booking, no fee (although subject to an audience maxium of 1,000 per performance), and a constantly high level of performance with ambition to bring the classics to open-air London and new audiences.
Staged as part of the London Bridge City Summer Festival, it’s carved up cleverly into age-sized chunks. So you can start with the weenies at A Great Big Ancient Greek Adventure, move onto Odysseus and Penelope and their multiple relationship issues in The Power Of Love — and then watch the threads drawn together in The Homecoming. Gods and Monsters Theatre have made their summer stay at the Scoop into a treat that is educational without being a chore. May the gods bring them — and the rest of us — sunny evenings.