West End Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

The latest from director Michael Grandage is a rare tonal misfire, despite the warm humor


Sheridan Smith, Padraic Delaney, David Walliams, Katherine Kingsley, Susannah Fielding, Sam Swainsbury, Stefan Adegbola, Richard Dempsey. Rachel Barry, Stefano Braschi, Jack Brown, Henry Everett, Gavin Fowler, Alex Large, Lorna Stuart, Craig Vye, Leo Wringer.

Despite Bottom, the lovers, Oberon and Titania, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has either no leads or too many. No single character-line drives the action and everyone comes from different worlds. Christopher Oram’s Burning Man/hippy-esque design drenched in Paule Constable’s super-saturated-color lighting create a unifying visual world, but the latest production from director Michael Grandage — the London-to-Broadway regular whose last West End outing was hit Daniel Radcliffe topliner “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — doesn’t cohere dramatically. There’s much warm humor, but the emphasis on sex and sexuality is self-conscious when it should be chaotic. It’s too clean about being dirty.

As Bottom, comically self-aggrandizing David Walliams (BBC TV’s “Little Britain”) leads the production’s most fully realized strand. With complete fidelity to the text, Walliams’s preening Bottom is unusually presented as the partner of Peter Quince (comically fraught Richard Dempsey, as uptight as his neat bow-tie,) the director of the play-with-the-play. This gives a solid reason as to why Bottom is able to get away with murder. That clarity of characterization is the hallmark of Grandage’s deft approach to these amateur theatricals too often partronizingly played as working-class numbskulls. Here, their Pyramus and Thisbe play raises laughs for being so unsophisticatedly vainglorious while also being touching in its consistent sincerity.

Sheridan Smith, who leapt from the small screen to bag Olivier awards two years running, tosses off Shakespearean verse with ease. Her exuberant Titania leads a group of flesh-and-blood fairies who are young, counter-culture pleasure-seekers wearing little but skin, feathers and exotic plumes. Smith has real physical fire, most evident as she cavorts delightedly with Bottom.

Her problem is that her relationships are under-explored due to the casting of her Oberon. Fascinatingly calm and clear in Grandage’s fine production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” that preceded this, Padraic Delaney’s Oberon has no energy, any potential character lost beneath unmotivated verse-speaking. Since the two double as Hippolyta and Theseus, his lack of power gets the play off to a worryingly sluggish start and means the play’s controlling relationships don’t gel.

Once the walls of Theseus’s sombre palace have risen to reveal the wrecked fairytale forest dominated by a huge, glowing moon, the lovers take wing, especially Katherine Kingsley’s excellent Helena, whose increasingly panicked outrage at the belligerent actions of her erstwhile friends is beautifully plotted and very funny. However, the more the men respond to the havoc caused by Puck (well-grounded, scampering Gavin Fowler), which is made plain by the shedding of their clothes, the more doubts emerge.

Stripping down to close-fitting underwear makes complete comic sense in a play in which otherwise sane characters go mad. But although their six-packs are admirable, the palpable heat of sexual desire is absent. When one of the men distractedly fondles Helena’s hair, you wonder why he isn’t pawing her body.

Grandage raises welcome laughs at Bottom’s delight in his new heterosexual prowess, but although the production’s aesthetic aims for hedonism, the choreography feels too scrupulous. And while it’s amusing to have Oberon and Titania reunite to The Carpenters’ “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” it’s music that, rightly or wrongly, instantly evokes a sense of kitsch which militates against depth of feeling.

This may be a rare tonal misfire on Grandage’s part but pricing — 25% of the tickets throughout the house cost just £10/$16 — and the presence of audience-friendly Smith and Walliams is likely to dwarf criticism while bringing further new young audiences to his already highly successful five-play West End season.

West End Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Noel Coward Theater, London; 946 seats; £57 ($91) top. Opened, Sept 17, 2013, reviewed Sept. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.


A Michael Grandage Company presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.


Directed by Michael Grandage. Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Paule Constable; sound and music, Ben and Max Ringham; production stage manager, Sophie Gabszewicz.


Sheridan Smith, Padraic Delaney, David Walliams, Katherine Kingsley, Susannah Fielding, Sam Swainsbury, Stefan Adegbola, Richard Dempsey. Rachel Barry, Stefano Braschi, Jack Brown, Henry Everett, Gavin Fowler, Alex Large, Lorna Stuart, Craig Vye, Leo Wringer.

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]


    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]


    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content