The Motive And The Cue, Jack Thorne's love letter to theatre and more specifically the rehearsal process has transferred from its May debut at the National to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End. It follows the often halting progress of Sir John Gielgud's Broadway production of Hamlet in 1964.

It is evident from the closing moments that this production was a triumph (it played longer on Broadway than any other) though the earlier scenes might suggest otherwise. Gielgud's lead actor is superstar Richard Burton newly married to Elizabeth Taylor, regularly drunk, argumentative and shape-shifting as often as the character he is portraying. Gielgud, himself a celebrated Hamlet, struggles to bring coherence to the production and there are pitched battles between star and director which, accompanied by a double dose of dog in the manager attitude, threatens to undermine the production.

It is to be hoped that production director Sam Mende's experience in the rehearsal room was rather more fulfilling than his predecessor's. Certainly, it is a highly polished piece of work which looks good and, for the most part, works well. 

The two leads, Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn, are excellent, both capturing the essence of their real-life counterparts – or at least that of how we would seem to remember them. Gatiss bears a striking resemblance to Gielgud and deploys the waspish wit for which he was renowned but also suggests the sad and lonely figure that he was at this stage in his life. Flynn by contrast is a roaring (sometimes literally) but boorish buccaneer of a newer wave of performing that will brook no criticism and seems to take up a contrary position just for the hell of it. Tuppence Middleton also appears as a hotel-marooned Elizabeth Taylor who adds a touch of Hollywood glamour and, unlike the men, seems to know exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it.

The rest of the large ensemble cast, with the exception of a magisterial Sarah Woodward as Eileen Herlie/Gertrude, are really not given enough to do other than to watch Burton and Gielgud knocking chunks out of each other. 

Switching between the rehearsal room, Burton/Taylor's opulent hotel accommodation and Gielgud's rather more austere counterpart, Es Devlin's set and Katrina Lindsay's costumes are an embodiment of the early 60s aesthetic. Scene changes are cleverly masked by having extracts from Hamlet, relevant to the main action performed front of curtain. These give teasing glimpses of why the production was ultimately a record-breaking success.

To someone immersed in the theatre world, all this is fascinating, entertaining and will probably touch more than a chord or two. But exposing the mysteries of the rehearsal room may be of limited interest to others and even seem a bit incestuous. And I fear that the production loses its momentum rather in the final third when the two protagonists form a rapprochement. It is even in danger of falling into clichéd showbiz/Hollywood territory where success is snatched from the jaws of disaster. The fact is that the hatchet of conflict wielded throughout most of the play is far more exhilarating than when the hatchet is finally buried. Fortunately, there is sufficient of the former to ensure that the play is – to sneak in a quotation from Hamlet itself – a very palpable hit.

The Motive And The Cue is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre 

It runs until 23 March. Tickets: here.


Review: BottomLine           Photos: Mark Douet