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PREVIEW – The National Theatre at The Lowry

Reporter: Jim Gillespie

The Lowry theatre in Salford played host to a triple-decker event to mark the regional tour of some of the National Theatre’s most successful shows of recent years: One Man, Two Guvnors; War Horse; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The first two of these have enjoyed sell-out runs at the Lowry in the recent past, and this showcase event majored on the two more established offerings. Simon Stephen’s award winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book will be visiting Salford for the first time.

Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, comes trailing clouds of glory. “The Funniest Show on the Planet”, eulogised the Daily Mail, ensuring that their judgement features above the title in the publicity material. That is big billing to live up to, and Gavin Spokes has the unenviable task of filling the comedy boots vacated by James Corden and Rufus Hound in previous incarnations of the hapless Francis Henshall. At the Lowry we were treated to a brief cameo excerpt from the play, with Gavin indulging in some over-the-top slapstick self abuse. One Man’s resident skiffle band, the Craze, ran through a few of their well-honed foot-tappers to set the period tone. Otherwise, the appetite of the invited audience was whetted with video clips of the London production, fully reflecting the play’s frenzied headlong trajectory.

War Horse, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s moving book, has acquired legendary status as a stage piece, not least because of the mastery of the South African puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company, who bring such realism to the depiction of the animals, including an irascible goose. Those in the stalls at the Lowry were treated to a close-up encounter with Joey, the war horse, who walked down the aisle of the theatre, nuzzling audience members, before taking to the stage, and demonstrating his repertoire of moves. The three puppeteers, whose brilliant coordination makes the animal’s movements so credible, took him from a walk through a trot to a full gallop across the stage.

Marianne Elliott, Co-Director of War Horse, was returning to home turf, having lived in Stockport when young, and learnt her craft during 10 years at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Marianne reflected on the difficulty of transferring a story told from the first-person perspective of the horse, to a dramatic narrative told through the words of others, but with the animal at the centre of the action. She also outlined the creative process, during weeks of workshop experimentation, to test the ability of the cast and technical team to make the action credible; not just to make a horse move realistically, but to imbue it with enough personality to make his story move an audience. Six years on the London stage have more than proved the success of the venture, but Marianne is clear that the risk of failure was very real at the outset.

Similar uncertainties attended the birth of the third NT play taking to the road this summer. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for author Mark Haddon. The choice of a 15 year old first-person narrator with Asperger’s Syndrome allowed Haddon to take an oblique slant on the narrative, and indeed on the world. But translating the view from inside the head of an oddball teenager to a dramatic form that would connect emotionally with a theatre audience would inevitably be a challenge.

Dramatist Simon Stephens, a Stockport native himself, risked sharing a first draft with Marianne. She confessed that she had read it with some trepidation in case it fell short, not least because Simon also happens to be her daughter’s godfather! That Simon succeeded in delivering a powerful script still left considerable problems to be overcome in staging the drama, and the show was initially allocated only the smallest space in the NT”s Cottesloe Theatre. The seven Olivier Awards it garnered last year, and a total audience of over 200,000, fully vindicate the risks taken to stage this wise and bleakly funny story.

Guests at the showcase event at Salford Quays had to settle for video clips of the London production. But it comes with such a fanfare of acclaim, that NT and the Lowry must feel confident that the two month run this summer will add considerable extra numbers to those who have already been thrilled and moved by this drama.

  • War Horse runs from 23rd July until 20th September 2014.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs from 18 December 2014 until 10 January 2015
  • One Man, Two Guvnors runs from 12 January until 17 January 2015.

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The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.