Review – Nation – National Theatre


I am afraid I did not enjoy Nation. Perhaps I went for the wrong reasons: my best friend loves Terry Pratchett, and I loved Melly Still’s direction of Coram Boy. Both of us frequently love children’s theater.

But, but, but.

The story, for those who don’t know it (I didn’t): it’s roughly 1850 in a parallel universe (one in which there was no Queen Victoria, but it’s still basically this world), and a tidal wave has left 15-ish Mau (Gary Carr, very solid acting and very YUM) the last person alive on his South Pacific island. The same tidal wave casts 13 year old English girl Daphne (Emily Taaffe, energetic, lovable, and thus clearly also doing a nice job) on the island along with the ship’s parrot Milton (charmingly portrayed by Jason Thorpe). The kids become friends and have to start making a new life and culture, a new nation, on what’s left to them of the old – the wreckage of Mau’s people and Daphne’s ship. They are joined by other people from more distant islands, eventually, and conflict develops from Mau’s attempt to create a truly new world and the other people’s wishes to stick to their old. Then, in a more traditional plot mold, a scary other survivor of the shipwreck has become the leader of an island of cannibals … and (for reasons clearly having to do with “keeping the story moving forward” and little else) wants to see Daphne dead. Of course he will have to come to the island she is on and have a showdown at some point. The show is just that kind of surprising.

For some reason that I can’t help but feel has to do with the “children’s play” the National chose to make of this book, there is rather a lot of singing and dancing, and this is pretty much where it started to lose me. The singing, while in tune, is just flat out horrible and insipid and ACK and does NOT add anything to the show.

Even worse and absolutely insulting is the horrible dancing they pastiched in. Parallel universe or not, this show should have really made a bit of effort to pull in actual Pacific Island dance traditions instead of some half-baked crap that didn’t have a bit of nod to the real thing other than grass skirts. Pacific Island dance is so amazing, and so fantastic for men to perform, that it was a fist in the gut to watch this fakey-fakey hoodoo garbage on stage. Maybe I’m a little protective of my Hawaiian compatriots and the tradition they are a part of (Tahitian dance also being a big favorite and SO fun to watch), but this was like some horrible “white man does all-cultures-are-the-same” BS that just stuck in my craw. The sad thing was that if they had gone for the real thing, this show could have become genuinely special and given something truly unique back to London theater audiences. Instead, it was … bad.

Unfortunately, rather than just a few awful moments of dance polluting a great night, instead what happened is that most of the first act just wandered around aimlessly, not pulled down by the dance all that much because, in fact, it just didn’t have very far down to go. Story-wise, the kids worked through the language issue; someone has a baby; there are discussions about God. It was like having someone read through the various chapters of Robinson Crusoe as he figures out how to solve one puzzle after another. There were no fresh insights to the characters or moments of lasting beauty; it was just boring. I thought about leaving after the interval, but it wasn’t actually awful … and my row J center upper balcony seats had a nice view … and I wanted to be able to finish my review … and I didn’t want to insult my friends by leaving … so I stayed. (PaulInLondon did not. However, most of the audience appeared to stay, so clearly few people found it intolerable.)

Anyway, the second act moved a little better, as a lot of the threads of the first came to fruition (and there was a magnificent duel on a boat that took full advantage of everything the National has to offer technically), but it couldn’t wash the taste of disappointment out of my mouth. Kids plays can be better than this. With more than a week until the official opening of the play (November 24th), here’s hoping Mark Ravenhill cuts a good 20 minutes from the first act and somebody pumps up the dance scenes. Otherwise … I’d say if you’re looking for a fun family night out, hit the Hackney Empire’s Aladdin panto, which will be entertaining from start to finish, feature songs that engage your brain, and cost a hell of a lot less than this did. Otherwise, a rousing game of charades played at home will likely provide better entertainment and prove more memorable in the long run.

(Nation continues at the National Theatre until March 28th, 2010. This review is for a preview performance seen on November 14, 2009. There is some swearing: “asshole,” “bugger,” possibly “fuck” and definitely “is a frog’s ass watertight.” PaulInLondon‘s review is now up.)

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7 Responses to “Review – Nation – National Theatre”

  1. Louise de Board Says:

    I walked out of Nation, thought it was trite rubbish

  2. Sonia Jacks Says:

    “Nation” is an insult to the sophistication of the average teenager – really dumbed down drama. I have seen better productions written by teachers and performed by youngsters in both primary and secondary schools. I have seen Coram Boy and Warhorse that were aimed at a similar age group; both were a tribute to the National and recognised as such by adults and children alike. Sadly “Nation” is not in the same class. The script is weak, the plot confused, there is lots of shouting, no good songs and the best thing one can say is that we liked to parrot. I too noticed many people looking at their watches and I considered leaving at the interval but I could not believe that it would not get better. It didn’t. How can The National let this continue?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Yes, the parrot was fun, wasn’t he? Maybe he can get his own show. Or maybe he can become a permanent feature of all shows at the Olivier. God knows Fram could have used a bit of parrot.

      I stand by my assertion that a night of charades or Scrabble would ultimately be a better way of spending your time than this show, but since Terry Pratchett is so well liked, people will keep coming to this show. PEOPLE, PLEASE GO SEE “AN INSPECTOR CALLS” as at least you’ll have something intelligent to talk about later. Or go see whatever Sadler’s Wells is putting on at the Peacock. It has to be better than this.

  3. Oliver Says:

    I totally agree, bored me to death, my college went to do this and for our a level course work piece on it, i’m fuming cause it bored me and my mate so much we feel asleep during act 1, so i cant even remember the dam thing.

    the parrot was good though, and act 2 did pick up…slightly….

    • webcowgirl Says:

      What a horrible waste of your time. Pity they didnºt take you to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or An Inspector Calls, lots of school groups there but much better shows.

  4. Martin Baker Says:

    I agree. Apart from a couple of moments of very nice staging, the play was a laboured and clunky affair. Your comment about cutting 20 mins out of act 1 is spot on. zzzzz 🙂

  5. Review – Anansi, an African Fairy Tale – Southwark Playhouse « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] by a weak script and rather dull songs. Still, it felt much better than last year’s horrible Nation, and I felt it actually had a lot going for it that made it more of a pure distillation of African […]

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