Review by Daz Gale
It would be an understatement to call 2023 a sensational year for National Theatre. With so many of their productions not just getting critical acclaim but a record number enjoying West End transfers. Their efforts were recently recognised as one of the two winners of The Stage Awards Theatre of the year. With a track record that impressive, how can they possibly match it let alone top that in 2024? The first major offering of the year may be in their smallest space but Till The Stars Come Down proves that the sky's the limit for their programming this year.
A world premiere play by Beth Steel, Till the Stars Come Down is set on the day of Sylvia’s wedding to Marek as her family gathers to celebrate the happy occasion. As the drinks flow and events spiral, demons from the past rear their ugly heads alongside past differences and family secrets. Sylvia can’t shake the feeling that something awful is about to happen – but how awful would it be and would it change her and her family’s lives forever?
The brilliance of Till The Stars Come Down is in its writing and how multi-layered and complex it is. What starts as a slightly exaggerated and outlandish comedy with a never-ending tirade of laughs soon makes way for more serious and somber themes. The laughs keep coming but simultaneously, less laughable matters are brought to the table with politics and racism two of the more prevalent themes. The subtle way the narrative adapts and unravels, tweaking its tone is incredibly effective – while the play may be a completely different one to the one that starts, this journey is never noticeable which ensures it is every bit as enjoyable from his over-the-top opening to its crushing ending. With no shortage of witty one-liners and fantastic characterisations that feel instantly familiar in our own lives, Beth Steel’s writing never falters, only growing in its impressive nature.
Bijan Sheibani’s inspired direction takes Steel’s changing narrative and matches it at every turn in a beautiful marriage of artistry. Taking advantage of the intimate and unforgiving space of the Dorfman Theatre, which sees the cast surrounded by the audience at every corner in this production, the direction skilfully features a great use of a revolve and some brilliant props, the direction elevates an already excellent script, ensuring the laughs are as funny as they should be and the harder moments come with the required punch in the gut. Samal Blak’s design similarly impresses, creatively transforming the versatile space of the Dorfman and almost transporting the audience into the event as wedding guests. Till the Stars Come Down is a beautiful show visually, thanks in part to some stunning lighting from Paule Constable which complements Blak’s set immaculately.
There are several moments of fantasy interspersed in the story with a great use of freezeframes as time is literally stopped. There is also a very different aside where Leanne (Ruby Stokes) talks about the end of the world, leading to a powerful visual moment. However, as impactful as these brief moments were, my only minor criticism is they didn’t segue into the play as naturally as I would have liked, whether that was very much a deliberate choice. While the fact these moments were so few and far between did create a huge impact, part of me longed for a couple more like this to make it a little bit more cohesive.
The characters are wonderfully played by a cast of fabulous actors, all tapping into the intricacies of these heavily developed family members, all of whom have more to them than meets the eye. Sinead Matthews gives a sweet and anxious portrayal of bride-to-be Sylvia, while Lucy Black and Lisa McGrillis dominate with their note-perfect depictions of her sisters, Hazel and Maggie. Alan Williams brilliantly underplays his role as father of the bride, Tony, making his bigger moments later on land all the more successful. The standout performance among a consistently talented cast belongs to Lorraine Ashbourne giving a comedy masterclass in her turn as Aunty Carol, stealing every scene she appears in and delivering a performance I am sure not to forget in a hurry.
Till The Stars Come Down is another exceptional show from National Theatre, more than matching the incredible quality of their productions last year. With some truly sensational writing from Beth Steel, delivered by a winning cast, there is a lot to love about this deceptively deep play. If you go to the theatre wanting a good laugh or go to the theatre for something a bit more thought-provoking, Till The Stars Come Down really does have it all. Once again, the stars have aligned for National Theatre, giving them their first deserved hit of the year.
Till The Stars Come Down plays at National Theatre until 16th March. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
Photos by Manuel Harlan