Review – Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Thursday 23 April 2015

Light_Shining_in_Buckinghamshire_poster_notitle_1We should have known better.

Andrew was keen to see Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, not for its obvious significance – that it heralds Rufus Norris’ takeover at the National Theatre – but because a) it’s about the English Civil War, b) features one of his favourite actresses, Amanda Lawrence and c) he thought it only fair to give playwright Caryl Churchill a second chance.

The thing is, he had completely forgotten he’d already given Ms Churchill a second chance. He could only remember “the one with the floating sofas” as he succinctly encapsulated Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?  Andrew had clearly expunged The Union’s Cloud Nine from his memory bank with no inconsiderable success.

So it was a case of 3 strikes and you’re out. Soz Caryl, we won’t be bothering you again.

It’s the aftermath of the civil war. The economy’s unstable, the political system is corrupt and the people are hungry for food (a point hammered home in the staging) and change. Rebels hope for a new age and a revolution that was not to be.

Sounds ripe with dramatic potential doesn’t it? But in 1976, when Churchill wrote this, she clearly had other plans: eschewing drama by using large verbatim chunks from the Putney Debates of 1647. Or, as Andrew sighed “it must have saved her a lot of time.”

The cast isScreen Shot 2015-04-21 at 13.39.42 massive, the design by Es Devlin is as striking as you’d expect from that designer (costumes Soutra Gilmour). The inaction is initially played out on a vast banqueting table littered with suckling pigs, lobster, cheeses etc. Inspiration appears to have come from the illustrated pages of Mrs Beeton’s cookery books, and then some.

Lyndsey Turner who made a splendid fist of directing both Chimerica and Posh is saddled with trying to make something engaging out of what is frequently just a series of speeches. The last half hour of Act 1 sees the cast do the best they can with it, rising from benches in turn to make impassioned proclamations. All that’s missing are talking sticks. It is inert and as dry as the loaves of bread on the table.

A few small crumbs of entertainment were gathered from watching the rich diners who surround the main playing area. These poor actors are saddled with miming dining and drinking (perhaps they were really eating and the drinking? There sightlines aren’t good if you’re in the cheap seats at the front) for an extended period of time. Phil became as transfixed by their acting as he would watching a Coronation Street background artiste trying to make an impression. They have our sympathy. How dull it must be for them to listen to this drear night after night.

No doubt the critics will make comparisons with the politics of today when it opens to the press. We found it impossible to care. Andrew declared it “the most boring play I’ve ever seen”, which is a probably because he’s forgetting an awful lot of other ones he’s said that about.

Billed by the National as “passionate, moving and provocative”, we won’t be invoking the Trade Descriptions Act as there was some truth in the statement: we were provoked passionately to moving elsewhere. There may well have been some dramatic fireworks in Act 2. We will never know.





19 Responses to “Review – Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre”

  1. Just… OUCH! That bad, huh?

  2. Phil Dale Says:

    Spot on! Btw, it didn’t get any better in the second half.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Sometimes you can just tell…but thanks for confirming.
      Andrew asked what the second glass was for. I said “the set”. But I think I may have been a tad generous.

      • Phil Dale Says:

        I do think there is a disparity bewteen your review and your rating. In the second half they started to tear up the boards of the table to review a muddy field below which was quite impressive but they may have just been doing that out of sheer desperation??

  3. Leveller Says:

    Totally unfair review.

    I suspect your reviewer just didn’t understand either the play or the history of the period. Hence he/she was so bored.

    Such a pity as this review will undoubtedly put others off attending what was a fantastic production.

    • Hackney Hal Says:

      Ah, that old theatrical excuse, if the audience doesn’t like something it is the fault of the audience. It is a bit elitist to say that only people with a knowledge of civil war history should go to see this play, the place would be empty. Rufus Norris programmes for Guardian readers so I imagine there’ll be ay least one positive review for this.

    • poppincorn Says:

      As someone with a rich knowledge of the period, I myself found it to be boring. Great acting, great staging and singing but the play itself was just dull! Lets not get pretentious about it.

  4. Yep completely agree to the point that I also ducked out at the interval. Glad I now know what happened to the table as I’d heard via Twitter that they ‘did something’.

  5. I loved it but there is no accounting for tastes. I’ve just come back from seeing Carmen Disruption at the Almeida which I hated and everyone else seems to have swooned over.

  6. Diogenes Says:

    Boring and pretentious is right, as a stripped down act at the Dorfman it might have worked. Ignore

  7. david Says:

    Excellent review – spot on! One small point sightlines were not just bad from the cheap seats at the front they were also rubbish from the cheap seats at the side

  8. Sandown Says:

    Caryl Churchill intended this quasi-historical play to reflect the politics of the 1970’s, the era in which it was written. Strikes, inflation, trouble in Ireland, political violence, workers’ uprising — leftist playwrights of the time really did think that they were on the verge of a revolution.

    What they got instead was Mrs Thatcher.

    Since then, the subsidised theatre has yearned for a return to that era, at least in fantasy. Perhaps Mr Miliband
    is about to oblige them by making it a reality.

  9. Eddie Says:

    I can only agree with your review. we left at half time- as we did last week for Man & Superman. I disagree with the above comments about knowledge of the period making for better “entertainment” I passed my A-level in History (admittedly some time ago) which covered the Stuarts and The Commonwealth and found this a boring production of a fascinating period in British history. Both these plays were heavy on declamation with very little to engage me (and reminded me of studying English Literature – heavy on analysis, short on entertainment). I felt I’d have been better off reading the text rather than watching this “action”, Rufus Norris has a high bar to clear after the two Nicks and his early programming makes me start to think he’s the David Moyes of London theatre.

  10. Lakanal Says:

    I sympathise with the review, but I am not sure it is the play that is the problem, testing though it is. I was moved and impressed by it at the Arcola a few years ago, and so was disappointed by this overblown production (admittedly I saw an early preview, so it may have improved). Not a wasted evening, but I concluded that the director had little faith in the play and, as you say, thought her job was “trying to make something engaging” out of it.” It needed austerity and intelligence. Leo Bill was excellent as Ireton, though.

  11. Baldassaro Says:

    I’m really interested in the period and the issues raised by the Putney Debates. I saw the National’s earlier production of the play (some time in the ’90s, I think) and was profoundly unimpressed. The play is gratingly didactic (parts of it make Brecht seem like a Whitehall farce) and manages to make important and serious issues inert and unengaging. I thought about giving it a second chance, but after seeing the reviews – not just the Whingers one – I think the problem is the play, not the production or one’s knowledge of the context. Pity.

  12. ja Says:

    I booked this play on the back of really enjoying Serious Money must be a generation ago. What a contrast. Like the Whingers I didnt trouble the scorers after the interval, and I like history and am interested in that period!

  13. […] £15 Travelex punters (yes) and if it will get less critically mauled than his debut production Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (couldn’t do […]

  14. Chris Voisey Says:

    I nodded off (and on) during the first half but stuck around for the second half. I liked it when they started pulling up the floor/table so The Diggers could get busy with their digging but feck me, surely they must have realised in the rehearsal and tech that the rest of the act is hampered by people coming and going at the back passing boards to each other. Like, Yeah We Get It,

    There was a singsong in the rain at the end. I am getting a bit worried about Rufus’ reign. I presume a decent laugh and some proper show tunes are going to be in short supply.

  15. […] Aún no he escrito nada sobre Light Shining, pero creo que el West End Whinger resume bastante bien mis sentimientos – también se agacharon en el […]

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