The Motive and the Cue review, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London

“There’s been no shortage of stage portrayals of real life VIPs in the past couple of years,” said Clive Davis in The Times. Jack Thorne’s “thoughtful, often wickedly droll” new play, about the relationship between Richard Burton and John Gielgud during rehearsals for a 1964 production of Hamlet on Broadway, is a “distinguished addition” to the genre. “Immaculately directed by Sam Mendes”, it is a “poised study” of how two actors with very different temperaments scrapped and sparred in the run-up to opening night. Gielgud, a Shakespearean actor of the old school, who was directing the play, felt his own star was fading; by contrast, the young, arrogant hard-drinking Burton was at the peak of his career, even if it was being overshadowed in the press by his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. 

Drawing on two books by members of the company, The Motive and the Cue is a “heartfelt plea for the power of theatre”, said Jessie Thompson in The Independent; and with its “luvvie jokes and Shakespeare references”, it will be “manna from heaven” for theatre lovers; but this funny, often moving play is about a lot of things – “art, youth and ageing, sexuality, masculinity and celebrity”. Perhaps most of all, it’s an ode to the idea that there is “beauty in the endeavour”. Johnny Flynn is “fascinating” as Burton, playing an actor playing a role he hasn’t yet got a reading on; Tuppence Middleton delivers a “classy” turn as the newlywed Taylor, who is barred from the rehearsals, though her chemistry with Flynn is oddly flat. But it’s Mark Gatiss, as Gielgud, who “owns this show. He deserves all the superlatives for a performance of restrained, quiet dignity, laced with sharp wit.” 

He is “to the manner born as the quietly pained old knight”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. And you can see why Flynn’s Burton would “resist the headmaster”, with his “repeat-after-me line-readings”; you can also see how this struggle unlocks “the filial complexes from his life that can feed the art”. It’s not a perfect evening – I’d love to have seen more of Middleton’s Taylor – but “it’s a palpable hit”.

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (020-3989 5455; Until 15 July. Rating ****