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Review Round-up: Fond Farewell at Hampstead?

Richard Nelson's Farewell to the Theatre opened at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this week (7 March 2012, previews from 1 March 2012).

The play follows legendary actor-manager Harley Granville Barker's estrangement from theatre, as he exiles himself to Williamstown, Massachusetts during World War I.

Directed by Roger Michell, Ben Chaplin plays the role of Granville Barker, alongisde a cast that includes Jemma Redgrave, Tara Fitzgerald, William French, Andrew Havill, Louis Hilyer and Jason Watkins.

The production continues on the Hampstead's Main Stage until 7 April 2012.

Michael Coveney


"What is in effect a sober conversation piece with insider historical information is presented with stark clarity in Roger Michell’s admirably cast production ... But the flame of the play, and of Ben Chaplin’s performance, burns quite low, ending in an almost embarrassingly unremarkable Mummers Play in the garden ... Granville Barker has rediscovered that theatre matters, but this is all talk, not show, and it’s a struggle to remain interested for the uninterrupted 105 minutes’ playing time. Still, it’s very good to see Chaplin on the stage again. Jemma Redgrave as the widow manageress, Henry’s sister, emotes quietly in the background and Tara Fitzgerald as a flighty lecturer impresses once again with her ability to inhabit any period or indeed costume without seeming false or unnatural. As a testament to Granville Barker, the play is obviously positive but also too knowing for an audience unaware of his then radical, now taken-for-granted, approach to Shakespeare."

Paul Taylor

"Michell once again turns up trumps with a production exquisitely attuned to the Chekhovian mix of rueful melancholy and sharp-eyed objectivity about the absurd ... This new work almost combines elements from its two predecessors in that it is an agonising comedy ... Radiating languid irony and emotional reserve, Ben Chaplin is superb in the role of protagonist ... Jason Watkins's endearing Frank Spraight ... Sunk in sardonic disillusion, Barker is in a personal and professional limb ... It boasts some lovely performances (especially from Jemma Redgrave and Tara Fitzgerald). But the echoes of the Shakespeare feel contrived; the presentation of Barker through his effect on a campus squabble feels faintly too non-momentous; and the happy-ish Mummers' Play ending unearned."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Ben Chaplin does an unshowy job of conveying his character’s passion for theatre and simultaneous desire to change it with a mix of playful charm, geniality and soulfulness ... A touching Jemma Redgrave ... is embroiled in a furtive relationship with the much younger Charles, and we understand that she and Granville-Barker share certain frustrations. But this is underdeveloped, and Tara Fitzgerald feels underused in the role. Jason Watkins makes the strongest impression as Frank Spraight ... Through Frank, Nelson introduces touches of poignancy and moments of humour. Yet Granville-Barker’s emotional turmoil is thinly sketched. Roger Michell’s well-cast production has a quiet dignity. But Farewell to the Theatre suffers from a cloying earnestness. Granville-Barker’s pioneering talents don’t come across. The writing, though elegant, is bloodless; the key relationships are undernourished."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Frank Spraight, beautifully played by Jason Watkins as initially a bit of a buffoon, finally dignified ... Chaplin’s performance is low-key, repressed with flashes of anger. I found it gripping ... Farewell to the Theatre is a play for people who already care about the theatre, and at a hundred minutes it is a pretty slow-burn. Jemma Redgrave is impressive as Henry’s sister who keeps the boarding-house; Andrew Havill has a curiously pointless role as a visiting cousin ... It is only the introduction of an invisible villain, “Professor Weston”, which brings the play to life; the most dramatic scene is related, albeit with brilliant force, by Barker ... It suitably echoes the real Barker’s credo: that his art is a living, nourishing form of communication and consolation, not an insider hobby or a vehicle for show-offs and visual effects. If that fellowship of feeling and philosophical questing is what theatre is about, it should not get mired in technicality and scholarship, and certainly not in spite."

Michael Billington
The Guardian

"Richard Nelson's extraordinary play...combines a command of realistic detail with a sense of suffering and loss that genuinely evokes the Russian masters ... There is not a lot of plot: simply a mesmerising record of a group of people all in flight from their own unhappiness ... Roger Michell's exquisite production also fulfils the play's mission of interesting us in characters because of who they are as much as what they do. Ben Chaplin has just the right air of thwarted idealism as Granville Barker ... Jason Watkins as the peripatetic Dickensian burying his sadness under a Pickwickian exterior and Tara Fitzgerald as the hopelessly lovelorn Beatrice are also first-rate. And although Jemma Redgrave, as the widowed manager of the Williamstown boardinghouse, spends much of her time laying and clearing tables, everything she does reveals her unhappiness in a way that Chekhov would have approved."

Paul Callan
Daily Express

"Ben Chaplin captures, with much thoughtfulness, the sense of desolation that Granville-Barker experienced when he slipped away from the theatre, fame and the hypnotic power of the Bright Lights. You witness his inner anguish and the inevitable fact that theatrical ideas are still spinning in his head ... There are some neat performances, in particular that of Frank (Jason Watkins), who takes his one-man Charles Dickens show around America ... Tara Fitzgerald...excellent as the young actress-cum-lecturer Beatrice ... Young student Charles...a neat performance by William French ... Jemma Redgrave is a suffering Dorothy ... Hers is one of the most beautiful voices on the English stage and she uses it cleverly with its sad cadences. Roger Michell directs firmly in this sad picture of English expats in safe America during war-torn 1916."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"A sweet, sorrowful, defiant play about the cultural bond of drama ... Jason Watkins gives a beautiful performance as the nobly discreet husband of an ill wife ... Ben Chaplin combines a bewitching inner stillness with an almost balletic quality when he moves. We never see the production of Twelfth Night (thank goodness). Instead, we meet its nervous director (done well by Louis Hilyer, all jerky hand movements) ... Andrew Havill, playing a lonely chump, is as good as the rest of the cast. Director Roger Michell schools them well but should maybe ask them to speak louder ... It is perfectly credible this lot would miss English plays ... There may be something a little thespily self-indulgent about the enterprise yet the characters are shrewdly written, prettily caught and the whole thing classily staged."

- Amy Sheppard


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