Updated: Aug 25
Review by Daz Gale
It’s safe to say the Almeida Theatre are having a pretty good year. With their critically acclaimed productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Patriots both transferring to the West End and their recent production of Romeo and Juliet wowing audiences, they have managed to get themselves a reputation for high quality and consistent productions. With that, the weight of expectation is huge for their latest offering – a brand new play called A Mirror. Will this show continue their recent trend or will it reflect badly on them?
The world premiere of this new play by Sam Holcroft is shrouded in secrecy with advertising featuring the slogan “This play is a lie”. With that in mind, how much can I say in a review without giving away any of its tricks? It is pretty impossible to review A Mirror without some inevitable spoilers – such is the nature of this play. I will try and minimize this as much as possible but read on at your own peril.
The Almeida Theatre has been completely transformed into “Almeida Hall” – a venue which today is playing host to a wedding… supposedly. As you walk in, the foyer is decorated with flowers, a wedding arch and even a book to sign your message of congratulations to the happy couple. Amongst all this festivity is a large and rather ominous poster filling an entire wall with an “Oath of Allegiance” suggesting this might not be your everyday wedding. The wedding theme is continued as you walk in to the theatre space and take your seats, all with an order of service placed upon them. There is a marvellous attention to detail throughout the theatre, all wonderfully designed by Max Jones and transforming the space in a way I have never seen before.
All is not as it seems, however, and minutes into the wedding reception, the true reason we are gathered here is revealed to us. We are here to watch a play. A play about a play… about a play. Think of it like Inception only set in Islington and with the guy from Trainspotting instead of the guy from Titanic. Without spoiling too much, performing this play is against the law in this world. What follows is an attempt to see it through without being caught. Will we ever get to see the end of the play? You’ll have to see it for yourself to find out!
Sam Holcroft’s writing is superb in its exposition of complex themes with no shortage of depth. As it touches upon freedom of speech and censorship, topics surrounding what can be considered art and how creative you need to be in theatre are played out fascinatingly, with lines many theatre lovers will take great joy in relating to. I particularly enjoyed discussions about escapism and relatability in theatre – a subject I have written about myself in the past. The way Sam weaves through a multi-layered narrative to go back and forth across different layers while always knowing where you are is a testament to her skill and the high quality of writing in A Mirror. I also admire her determination to not reveal what the play is about and where everything is going too quickly but still keeping the content accessible and enjoyable, even if your mind is racing at certain elements. With some funny one-liners thrown in and a twist many will have not seen coming, there is plenty to love about the writing here.
Equally impressive is Jeremy Herrins direction which uses the unconventional staging of this production and runs with it, beautifully allowing characters to jump in and out of scenes as they venture through the different layers of the play. A couple of minor moments of audience participation may fill certain people with dread but work exceptionally well here. Azusa Ono has to use some very different lighting design than you may expect, particularly in the wedding scenes. The ability to transition this immediately, transforming the auditorium to create a vastly different-looking space is a gorgeous touch. Nick Powell’s sound design creates an atmospheric setting with some original compositions smattered throughout the play, accompanied by the ever-presence of musician Miriam Wakeling by the stage.
The cast of A Mirror all deliver sensational performances with Jonny Lee Miller forming the centrepiece of the action as Celik. A character with some extremely contrasting sides, Jonny is a formidable presence on that stage and always captivating to watch in a performance that can be overstated at times but wonderfully so, and being careful never to veer on the wrong side of farcical. Tanya Reynolds delights as Mei - a character who grows as the show progresses. Tanya’s ability to control her mannerisms as the character evolves showed great skill and made her character seem all the more rounded.
Geoffrey Streatfeild is a highlight as the often comical Bax. Though it takes him a while to appear initially, the appearance of his character changes the tone of the play in a way that never looks back. With an unrivaled ability to play off his fellow cast members, particularly Miller’s Celik, I longed to see more of this fantastic character. The main cast are completed by Micheal Ward who amazingly makes his professional stage debut as Adam, giving an assured and confident performance that more than matched the level of the established star of stage and screen he was playing against. A constant joy to watch, Micheal provided the key to the dynamic of the play – a responsibility he held with ease. There are two further actors in this cast but to mention them would spoil things so I’ll censor myself for now and just say they also featured in star turns at a point in the story or two.
Going into a brand new play with no idea of what to expect is always an uncertain experience. With a sense of excitement and perhaps nerves, the fact A Mirror hasn’t given anything away thus far only heightened these feelings. However, this made the impact of the play revealing itself all the better for it. An obvious comparison to make would be last years That Is Not Who I Am at Royal Court. However, while that deception was used as a stunt, this time it is used for a greater purpose and ties into the story, allowing to create a narrative full of thought-provoking themes that at times blurs the line between reality and fiction.
There is a lot more I would love to say about A Mirror. I would love to talk about specifics from the story and certain moments and elements that made this such a fantastic watch. However, it is important to go into the show with as little knowledge as possible to get the most out of it, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone. What I can say is this is an amazing piece of theatre. Remarkable in its execution and distinctly different to anything else that is out there, this production took a risk that paid off completely, leaving me with an unforgettable experience. A Mirror really is smashing!
A Mirror plays at the Almeida Theatre until 23rd September. Tickets from almeidatheatre.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner