Review – The Visit, National Theatre

Monday 10 February 2020

You wait a lifetime for a play that features a character limp, blind people, prosthetic limbs and some funny business on a step ladder and you get two in a row. Endgame managed to squeeze all those elements into 85 minutes. This one has them too but takes things a little more leisurely.

Four hours. Four flipping hours!! That’s what the National’s website was promising last week when Phil payed a visit to, err, The Visit.

Was it to prepare us for the relief of seeing a sign in the theatre that it was now running at a relatively nippy 3 hours 40 minutes? Phil checked at the box office as he picked up his tickets. “3 hours 40 minutes, with 2 intervals” said the perky box office woman,  “But it could be  longer. It should be over by 11pm.”  (this was from a 7pm start) “But it is very good”. “Good?” Though Phil, “It needs to be bloody superb”.

But then this is Friedrich Dürrenmatt‘s play adapted and transported to 1950s USA by Tony (Angels in America) Kushner, someone not famous for brevity and presumably too big a name for someone to say, “ok Tone, enough is enough, it’s time for some brutal scissoring”. Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn cracked through it in the 1964 film in 100 minutes the same running time that Kander and Ebb managed in their version with Chita Rivera and songs to potentially drag things out longer.

The opening scene, at a railway station, sees the townsfolk of the severely depressed New York state town of Slurry awaiting the arrival of Claire Zachanassian (Lesley Manville) who is returning to her home town for the first time since becoming a billionaire. Perhaps the townspeople can persuade this acidic, much married “old lady” to help them financially? They do. But her offer of a billion dollars comes with a bothersome rider that might tear the town apart.

It’s 20 fairly languid minutes before we get to see Manville. Brent’s head was already starting to nod. Thankfully, when Manville arrives – in a dramatic flurry of pantomime genie smoke train steam – things pick up considerably.

Jeremy Herrin‘s production is an all singing, all dancing affair with the full resources of the Olivier Theatre on overdrive. There’s a cast of about 30, plus a group of “Supernumeries” to fill the vast stage, a live band, a huge choir, child acrobats and the drum revolve spinning, dropping and rising with Vicki Mortimer’s dreary sets. It is a depressed town after all. A gleaming full size Thunderbird car gets a couple of spins round the stage before it’s rolled off. Prepare to watch a lot of sets and furniture being humped on and off the stage.

Then add Hugo Weaving  – extraordinarily 26 years on from Priscilla Queen of the Desert (how can that be?) – as Alfred III, the man who done Claire wrong all those years ago bringing her back to seek revenge. If you don’t know the machinations of this play it’s pretty good, if only they’d rattled through it a little less indulgently.

Sara Kestleman plays a schoolteacher (a gender-swapped role) who likes a drink or two and and has a drunken moment up a step ladder and we’re treated to a pair of Thompson Twins (of Tintin, not the seventies popsters) styled men who have been blinded by Claire and now wander around with white sticks unsuccessfully looking for some laughs.

Manville sports prosthetic limbs and a rather fine array of outfits with élan and occasionally conjures up thoughts of Madonna in her Blond Ambition years with hints of Bette Davis at her most bitter and imperious (a good thing). She also gets carried around in a sedan chair. What’s not to like? There’s no faulting her or Weaving’s performances. Despite a few making escapes before the third act (and one pair sneaking out during the first) this enjoyably nasty tale of greed had enough compelling moments to drag us back after both intervals. 

If they’d shorn at least an hour off the running time and pepped up the often languid pace we might easily have rated it higher. Yes it was a preview, but our spies tell us it was even longer (3 hours 50 mins) the following night (at time of writing they’re advertising it at 3 hours 30 mins). How did that happen?

For us it felt less like a visit and more like a minibreak.

Screenshot 2019-03-16 at 11.27.30



One Response to “Review – The Visit, National Theatre”

  1. margarita Says:

    I’d recommend buying the NY recording of Chita Rivera and Roger Rees in the musical version. It’s very wonderful, not four hours long and ….. has music!!

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