Review – Mother Courage and Her Children, National Theatre

Mother Courage at the National Theatre
Mother Courage at the National Theatre

Earlier this year, British Airways launched an offer whereby buying an economy ticket to certain destinations earned a free upgrade on the return flight. With Mother Courage and Her Children the National Theatre seems to be trying something similar: during the first half we were all packed in to the Olivier like cattle, but after the interval it was a positively business class: no annoying neighbours to worry about, privacy, acres of legroom and even what seemed to be fully flat beds in some parts of the stalls where previously there had been audience.

Even this salubrious comfort, however, couldn’t stem the exodus of theatregoers fleeing the oppressive ennui of Deborah Warner’s production. My neighbours for instance, exited at the interval with the following wonderful verdict on subsidised arts: “Ugh. Theatre. Never again.”

This production comes close to being the worse received by an audience that I have ever seen (let us pray that the particular brand of unpleasantness experienced by Daphne and Celeste at Leeds Festival in 2000 is never repeated, ever).  Sitting, staring blankly ahead, arms crossed and subdued, the Olivier audience has never been so unexcited or unresponsive.

I should be clear: the production wasn’t all bad. The set, in particular, was superb: fluid, striking, unpretentious and intensely functional. It was Brechtian: pretentiously so, obviously expensively so, but Brechtian none the less and worked superbly.

Mother Courage Singing
But the singing. The singing. The horror, the horror. As they rolled out the first big musical number around half way through the play (or at least I thought it was half way through; not even close actually, about an eighth of the way through) it became clear that citizens Brecht, Warner and Shaw were unlikely to form a triumvirate ready to unseat Cameron Mackintosh anytime soon. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then proceeded to repeat the effort at the end of each scene (except the one in which nothing happened except the cart being dragged through the Central German highlands, which was my personal favourite). They rolled on a dreadlocked musician to provide some tone once in a while, but even this didn’t make the musical additions anything more than an excuse to check the time on your phone.

I should be clear, the production wasn’t all bad. There was a gun at one point which was really very very loud and realistic indeed. And I quite liked the sound effects done à la Police Academy; although, admittedly, the dog did sound pretty ropey and garner almost the biggest laugh of the evening.

The actual biggest laugh came towards the end (it had to end sometime) when the priest delivered the immortal line “I’m just going to change my clothes; don’t’ say anything interesting while I’m away” which I guarantee will be answered by some wag in the audience before the end of the run with “Don’t worry”.

This production wasn’t all bad. But it is fantastically long, and stupefying boring (I mean, it’s no Fram, but it’s still really, really boring). The whole effort feels like a noble failure waiting to happen, with a wonderful set and cast and director being thrown at something that must have been obvious, even from the very start, would have almost no appeal whatsoever.

This is a review of a preview performance which I’d be a little shy about publishing normally – but trust me, this one isn’t going to get fixed in three days twelve days.  Looks like the press night has been pushed back to 25th September from the 16th due to technical problems.

As an aside, strictly sotto voce, it seems the Guardian had a worse experience than me at a preview. Or actually, if you think about it, a better one. This play might not have been all that bad at two hours long.