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Review Round-up: Great Gambon Lands Critical Hit

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Rupert Goold’s production of Harold Pinter’s No Man\'s Land opened in the West End last night (7 October 2008, previews from 27 September) to an audience including the playwright himself as well as a plethora of celebrity guests (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos and WOS TV).

The four-hander stars veteran thespians Michael Gambon, David Bradley, Nick Dunning and, making his stage acting debut, Little Britain star David Walliams. Hirst (Gambon), a wealthy Hampstead aesthete meets a shabby and penniless poet, Spooner (Bradley), and invites him home for a late-night session of drinking and games, overseen by his henchmen, Briggs (Dunning) and Foster (Walliams).

No Man\'s Land premiered in 1975 at the National Theatre where the cast included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Its major London revivals since have included a 1992 Almeida production, which starred Pinter and transferred to the West End, and a 2001 production, directed by Pinter and starring Corin Redgrave and John Wood, back at the NT.

The “great Gambon” stole many of the plaudits in today’s newspapers, his “magnificent” and “compelling” portrayal of Hirst matched only by the “equally superb” work of David Bradley as Spooner. David Walliams didn’t fair quite so well, with some labelling him “technically stiff” and slightly “overwhelmed” by his first straight stage role. Overall, though, Rupert ‘midas-touch’ Goold appears to have done it again – with raves for his “metaphysical” take on No Man\'s Land following the recent ebullient reception of his other current West End offering, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Rupert Goold’s production … seems more than ever like a reminiscent re-run of Waiting for Godot, Hirst and Spooner trapped in their roles, and memories, in a cold limbo which is forever icy and forever silent … Always the great electrifying moment, Gambon bursts forth in daylight in a pin-striped suit to greet his old friend and evoke pre-War golden days in Oxford and their shared enthusiasm for the same woman … Bradley is equally superb as Spooner, cawing and craven, picking at his language, all revealed as he releases his tattered invitation to the poetry reading in Chalk Farm … Dunning’s Briggs is a superbly malevolent jumped-up waiter, while Walliams’ Foster, technically stiff and insufficiently emphatic with his trailing phrases, nonetheless conveys his seedy past with a looming sneeriness.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Gambon\'s magnificent Hirst seems to exist in two dimensions at once, and the great morning-after scene where he greets the bedraggled Spooner as if some long-lost Oxford chum is superb … Bradley\'s Spooner also memorably combines a predatory poverty with a touching gallantry … I was less impressed with David Walliams\' Foster, which strangely misses the Orton-esque sexual banditry implied by a description of the character as ‘a vagabond cock’. This is a compelling revival much aided by Neil Austin\'s lighting and Adam Cork\'s subliminal sound. And when audience and cast finally joined in applauding Pinter, seated in a box, I felt it was in recognition of an eerily disturbing play that transports us into a world somewhere between reality and dream.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “I have never seen a Pinter play so possessed by deathly foreboding, menace and covert gay desire. Almost every pore of Rupert Goold’s revelatory production, with its ominous flutters of sound and music, is permeated by these emotions and athletic flights of black comedy … The key to the power of Goold’s illuminating revival lies in its revelation of the play’s gay ambience … Gambon’s florid gentleman of letters, eyes roving the room in blank impassivity, may have picked up David Bradley’s effete Spooner, but sex is not in the air since both men appear past anything but heavy fantasising about themselves … Nick Dunning’s splendid, thuggish Briggs sports spooky brown leather gloves and a surly stare, while David Walliams, all preening, lip-sticked, henna-haired attitude, makes a dazzlingly assured straight-stage debut as the sinister Foster.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telgraph – “More than 30 years ago, as a young student, I reeled out of the premiere production of Harold Pinter\'s No Man\'s Land (1975) blown away by both the mysterious power of the play and the thrilling, mould-breaking performances of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Rupert Goold\'s superb new production, which opened last night in the West End, strikes me as equally fine, with Michael Gambon and David Bradley rising magnificently to the benchmark set by their illustrious predecessors … Gambon, his face like a battered lump of pink Play-Doh, his eyes like runny poached eggs, is in his element as the permanently pickled pensman Hirst, ranging from sudden moments of alert, mickey-taking joviality when he skips almost girlishly across the stage to the deep lethargy of the chronic alcoholic for whom drink is a ticket to oblivion. His disconcerting moments of utter vacancy are a chilling reminder that life can become a living death. David Bradley, sporting a disreputable suit you can almost smell, a grotesque pink cardigan and a distressing socks\'n\'sandals combo, proves the equal of the great Gambon every step of the way.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Gambon himself is magnificent. Glued into his armchair by booze, he peers bewildered at the guest he cannot remember inviting to join him, and the slightest widening of an eyelid seems like a dramatic event. For his part, Bradley looks wonderfully seedy, like a telegraph pole with wrinkles … But his rambling garrulousness is not as compelling as it could be, and you can forgive Gambon for drifting off … Nick Dunning’s rent-a-menace, as the senior butler Briggs, seems to fall into the category of Pinter-by-numbers. Meanwhile David Walliams … seems overwhelmed in his role as the younger houseman Foster. We know from Little Britain that he can be a seriously good actor, but here the need to be Pinteresque seems to have made him forget everything he knows about holding an audience … As a director, Goold thrives when he can turn an established script on its head and inside out. He seems less confident with the kind of work which – on Pinter’s terrifying say-so – there is no messing with.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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