Theatre Review: The Motive And The Cue, Noel Coward Theatre

Theatre Review: the Motive And The Cue, Noel Coward Theatre

“What’s my motivation?” It has become one of theatre’s most abiding clichés and it forms part of the plot of this acclaimed play by Jack Thorne and directed by Sam Mendes that is anything but clichéd. It’s a love letter to theatre certainly, and more thoughtful than comic, but a truly compelling work. It has already been lauded at the National Theatre, recently bagging Best Play gong at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, and now transfers to the West End.

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn play, respectively, Sir John Gielgud and Richard Burton. It is 1964 and Gielgud is directing Burton in a Broadway production of Hamlet. Inevitably with star casting like that – Burton was a big movie name at the time – the sparks soon fly. They might be great actors but they come from very different generations and very different backgrounds. They can never both play the Dane in the same way. As Gielgud observes tartly, Hamlet is usually about someone who procrastinates about murder, Burton is so decisive he would kill without hesitation.

This action is set during rehearsals in the run-up to opening night. (Anyone thinking they are going to see a drama about Ronnie O’Sullivan will be disappointed, although the title, taken from Shakespeare, would actually make a great title for a biopic of the complex snooker star). Gielgud is full of admiration for Burton, saying that he is so eloquent he can make “blag, blah, blah” sound like the bard, but admiration doesn't make directing him a walk in the park.

Burton is both trouble and troubled. He talks about his father introducing him to Gielgud’s work when he was a boy and being entranced, but this is not quite true. His father was an alcoholic miner from Port Talbot and it was a teacher that took the young Welshman under his wing. Gielgud, by contrast, was steeped in theatre and, as he doesn’t stop telling us, played all the greats in his early twenties.

The scene is set for dramatic showdowns between these two very different types – Gielgud all tweedy and “dear boy”, Burton all in black and shouty. When not rehearsing Burton is partying and boozing in his digs – well I say digs, it’s more like a grand room at Versailles – with his wife Elizabeth Taylor (played by Tuppence Middleton), a former Hollywood child star with career and issues of her own about negotiating the contract between art and celebrity.

Gatiss and Flynn are both excellent. The League of Gentleman star has done a lot of straight acting in recent years and subtly evokes the camp grandeur of Gielgud without ever becoming the Spitting Image luvvie version. Even if he does keep mentioning his contemporary Laurence Olivier – it surely niggles him that while he gave his classic Hamlet onstage (including, as it is touchingly revealed at the end, on this very stage), Olivier's performance is the one people remember because it was in a film version.

Flynn, who will be better known to comedy fans for his lighter work (and for writing the music to Detectorists) has the tougher challenge. How do you even begin to capture the dynamite charisma of Richard Burton when you aren’t Richard Burton. Flynn tackles this by avoiding a straight vocal impersonation, going for something more impressionistic. It certainly works though - as Burton eventually finds his motivation Flynn certainly delivers. As does this profound and entertaining production. 

Until March 23, 2024. Tickets are available from £20 at with assisted performances across the run.

Picture: Mark Douet



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