Female trouble at London’s National Theatre

"The Witches" at the National Theatre's Olivier.
“The Witches” at the National Theatre’s Olivier.
Marc Brenner

The big theater news in London was the selection of Indhu Rubasingham to take over as artistic director of the National Theatre from Rufus Norris in 2025. She’s presided over the off-the-West End Kiln Theatre for 11 years and will be the first woman and first person of color to lead the National since its founding by Laurence Olivier in 1963. Her appointment has been greeted with widespread acclaim. Sheffield-born, her reputation is for bringing international playwrights and new work to UK stages. She knows that audiences at the National have come to expect classics (however much updated) along with challenging premiers often reflecting on the state of the nation, but Rubasingham is sure to shake things up at the storied venue on the Southbank with three theatres to fill.

Norris is far from done and his current fine offerings — each in their own way concerning what might be called female trouble — show him in top form. He likes a big musical at Yuletide and doesn’t shy away from dark material that can be made fun for kids of all ages. This season it’s Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” at the big Olivier (to Jan. 27) directed by Lyndsey Turner — the tale of how a big group of witches (integrated into unthreatening professions) plot to turn all the children of Britain into mice starting at the high-end hotel where they’re convening. (Or is it covening?) 

Early on, they do mousify two little boys — poor orphaned Luke and rich kid Bruno (in two star-making turns by Bertie Caplan and Cian Eagle-Service respectively at the performance I saw). Hilarious and a bit scary is Luke’s Gran (Sally Ann Triplett) who teams up with the boy/mouse to thwart the witches who are led by the unrelentingly cruel Grand High Witch (Katherine Kingsley). Daniel Rigby as the pretentious hotel manager — terrified of what mice can do to his business — is another standout.

The songs — with book and lyrics by Lucy Kirkwood and music and lyrics by Dave Malloy — and dance numbers (Stephen Mear) are a break from the indistinguishable belted anthems that Broadway has become addicted to in recent years. They’re lively and clever despite the dark material. 

This crazy show — like “Mathilde” (also based on a Dahl story) — is destined for a West End and Broadway transfer.

Dark without the fun is Alice Birch’s new version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” directed by Rebecca Frecknall, at the Lyttleton (to Jan. 6). Lorca finished the play in June 1936 as the Spanish Civil War intensified and he — a gay leftist — became a target of Franco’s Nationalist reactionary forces. He was assassinated and thrown into a mass grave by mid-August.

Harriet Walter as Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre.
Harriet Walter as Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre.Marc Brenner

Death hangs over the whole of this production, the “home” of Bernarda (a fierce Harriet Walter) where she presides over her grown daughters and mother like a prison warden (reflected in the one set of rooms stacked upon rooms like cells). It opens on the day of her husband’s funeral and she tells her daughters that they will all begin a period of mourning for eight years (!) and not leave the house — something she matter-of-factly says is traditional. 

It is not as if the young women don’t crave social connection and love — romantic and carnal. Several from this upper class home long for the same local peasant (James McHugh). Adela (Isis Hainsworth) comes closest to breaking out and pays the price, but each of them — including their imperious mother — is a tragic figure. Only their housekeeper Poncia (Thusitha Jayasundera) stands up to Bernarda but as an employee who needs the job she can only take it so far.

We’re trapped with them in this lock-up and there is no let up. If it sounds like a trial, it is — of the repressive sexism of the Spanish culture of the time that didn’t start to fade there until Franco’s death in 1975 (and that is still extant in much of our troubled world). Not light holiday fare, to be sure. A reminder that the wages of repression are death.

Not much let up when the venue changes to modern California in Annie Baker’s “Infinite Life” at the Dorfman (to Jan. 13) directed by James Macdonald. I missed this visit with five women and one man fasting at some kind of spa/clinic to help them overcome chronic pain when it was at Manhattan’s Atlantic Theatre this fall. Listening to the (mostly) older women tick off and describe their ailments and hopes for deliverance is challenging — reminding us of our own mortality. Their exchanges can be humorous at times, but they’re mostly grim, especially for Sofi (Christina Kirk), the youngest of them and the most burdened with unfathomable pains. (Where’s the morphine when you need it?)

"Infinite Life" by Annie Baker at the National Theatre.
“Infinite Life” by Annie Baker at the National Theatre.

It’s another one-set play — a line of chaise-lounges outdoors where the patients rest and converse, wandering in and out at various intervals along with the sun. There’s some sexual intrigue here, too, but it is mostly about pain — including the pain of being. In its spareness it reminded me a bit of a Beckett play but without his poetry. These are Americans, deftly limned by a fine cast, facing reality squarely.

Info on all National Theatre productions — including those available in cinemas on NT Live — is here

Off the West End at Rubasingham’s Kiln is the rom com musical “Two Strangers (carry a cake across New York)”  (to Jan. 20) directed by Tim Jackson. It’s something of a fairy tale (with a dark undercurrent) as 27-year old Dougal (bouncy Sam Tutty, who starred in “Dear Even Hansen” in the West End) lands in New York City from the UK for the wedding of a father he has never seen. He’s met by Robin (Dujonna Gift, a “Hamilton” veteran), also 27, the younger sister of the bride whose tension and irritation at having to get Dougal (and a big cake) to the wedding doesn’t make complete sense until the end.

Along the way there are some lively song numbers (by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan) about Dougal’s love of New York and maybe Robin, too. The plotting is implausible but the players are agreeable enough to carry it off and let us leave the theatre smiling. 

Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in "Two Strangers (carry a cake across New York)" at the Kiln Theatre.
Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in “Two Strangers (carry a cake across New York)” at the Kiln Theatre.

Backstairs Billy,” by out gay playwright Macrelo Dos Santos at the Duke of York’s (to Jan. 27) and directed by the estimable Michael Grandage, is a boulevard comedy where the boulevard is The Mall on which sits Clarence House down the block from Buckingham Palace, the home of the Queen Mother (Penelope Wilton). She is attended there for decades by gay servant William “Billy” Tallon (out Luke Evans). If you’re going through withdrawal from the end of “The Crown,” this one is for you without a tenth of the angst. 

George VI died in 1952 at age 56 and was succeeded by his 25-year old daughter Elizabeth. Her mum — the Queen Mother — would live on for another 50 years, going from the steely consort as Britain was being bombed in World War II (Hitler calling her “the most dangerous woman in Europe” for the loyalty she inspired) to a beloved ornament in the royal family filling her days with ribbon cuttings and hosting teas (and stronger drinks) for friends and people who want an audience with royalty but couldn’t get one with The Queen. 

At her side throughout is Backstairs Billy, her indispensable and loyal aide, who keeps her engagements bearable while testing the limits of how much of a personal life he can have in such a job. The comedy is fairly broad; Evans and Wilton are two pros having a gay old time. We get to see Billy as a teen (a touching, wide-eyed Ilan Galkoff) when he enters service and as an adult who clashes with staff head Mr. Kerr (Ian Drysdale), who tries to rein him in. A real crisis develops between Billy and the Queen Mother and his sex life is in the center of it, raising the play above the sit com level. 

"Backstairs Billy" at the Duke of York's Theatre.
“Backstairs Billy” at the Duke of York’s Theatre.Johan Persson

Even gayer was “Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen” (just closed), also by Dos Santos at the Bush Theatre: out Samuel Barnett (of “History Boys” and “Twelfth Night” fame) who starts this one-man show by telling us, “I’m a comedian and I’m about to kill my boyfriend.” This is no macabre tale but mostly light stand-up from a 36-year old who has never been in a serious long-term relationship but is still trying. It was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London, reviewing the ups and downs of gay dating in 2023 in unapologetically explicit terms that provoke much laughter — some of it uncomfortable. 

It is a win for the appealing Barnett and playwright Dos Santos, who we will surely be hearing more from in years to come.


Sunset Boulevard” at the Savoy has gotten raves here and may be headed to Broadway late in 2024. “Stranger Things: The First Shadow” (based on the TV series) just opened to raves at the Phoenix, directed by Justin Martin and out Stephen Daldry. Out Derren Brown is making magic in “Unbelievable” at the Criterion to April 7. Nick Hytner’s hit revival of “Guys and Dolls” abides at his Bridge Theatre. Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring Brian Cox, Patricia Clarkson, Alex Lawther, and Daryl McCormack, is at Wyndham’s Theatre Mar. 19-June 8. Out Ian McKellen is Falstaff in “Player Kings” (adaptation of Henry IV, Parts I and II), at the Noel Coward Theatre, Apr. 1-Jun. 22. Matt Smith (Dr. Who) is in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” Duke of York’s, Feb. 6-Apr. 6. “Opening Night,” by out Ivo Van Hove and Rufus Wainwright and starring Sheridan Smith, is at the Gielgud, Mar. 26-July 27.