If you’re one of the lucky few who managed to get tickets for Unreachable – only the second theatre stint for Matt Smith since he left Doctor Who – then you’re in an enviable position.
And so is the press. The play stars Matt as a director who’s obsessed with finding ‘the perfect light’ while trying to make a sequel to his previous award-winning film. The interesting thing, however, is that only part of Unreachable was scripted before the stars were cast, and the main thrusts of it came from the actors and actresses themselves.
It’s an interesting idea. So what did the critics think?
Let’s begin with TimeOut, notable for being one of the sole publications to interview Matt about the play; during that talk, Matt said, perhaps jokingly, that it was “career suicide” for its director, Anthony Neilson.
But it’s gone down well with TimeOut, who awards it 4 out of 5 stars, despite calling it “just a splash too cosy. Though there’s an agreeably livewire air to it – particularly from the winningly childlike, erratic Smith – it also feels a bit like a teatime appropriate sitcom.”
Reviewer, Andrzej Lukowski does highlight the “remarkable and ridiculous” performance of another cast member, one whose name should be familiar to Doctor Who fans: Jonjo O’Neill, who played McGillop in The Day of the Doctor. “There is the sense that he has hit upon a style of performance so fanatically intense that this improvised play about the elusiveness of artistry must bend to accommodate it,” Lukowski says. “If the light exists, it’s inside him, and in the glorious last couple of minutes when designer Chloe Lamford spunks her entire set budget on an ending that filled me with actual, genuine wonder.”
Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph is less impressed, describing the sets as “drab, stripped-back”; critic, Dominic Cavendish does at least praise O’Neill as “dazzlingly funny” – before concluding that this “self-fancying lothario capsizes the play and proves it to be an empty vessel too.” Awarding it just two stars, Cavendish calls it “Matt Smith’s theatrical failure,” says he’s as “dashing and broodingly intense as ever,” and perhaps most importantly notes that Matt wears “dark trousers, jacket and T-shirt.” So there we go. Just in case you thought he’d be in tweed, a long scarf, or holographic clothes.
The Telegraph does instruct Smith to “please fulfil your huge promise and give us Hamlet”, something we can all get behind.
Despite hosting a webchat with Matt, The Guardian isn’t massively impressed either, awarding it 3 stars. Comparing Matt’s character, Maxim, to Michael Cimino (who searched for “total authenticity” on film after his acclaimed The Deer Hunter), reviewer Michael Billington says, “Smith offers a totally convincing portrait of a similarly hubristic director. Smith does not bark or shout but achieves his effects by stealth. He jumps when anyone speaks to him, as if locked into his private dream. At the same time he mercilessly exploits his loyal acolytes and, ignoring his young female star’s devotion to him, relentlessly asks her to explore her private pain. What Smith proves, in a fine performance, is that ego takes many forms, including a manipulative quietism.”
“He is spectacularly angry – a brilliant idiot. He combines self-aggrandising rhetoric with violent silliness. He kicks off at the audience, asking whether we are hoping he will ‘brighten this dirge’ – and by ‘dirge’ he means production. Whatever we were hoping, I have not laughed so helplessly in ages. O’Neill makes the evening unmissable.”
City A.M. also praises O’Neill, though cautions that “his presence is so disruptive it threatens to eclipse the rest of the play, although it does lead to some brilliant visual gags.” Nick Barham gives it 4 stars, noting that “there is a trade-off, however, with the moments of poignancy – especially those between Smith and [leading lady, Tamara] Lawrance – never quite working in tandem with the bawdy humour. But while Neilson’s script has a tendency to meander, things fall more or less into place during a second half that descends into a joyous cacophony of insults and recriminations.”
The Hollywood Reporter also praises Lawrence, especially as she “is required to switch fluidly among different accents and emotional registers, with the most weighty dramatic monologues resting on her young shoulders. Bigger, brighter roles will surely follow.”
Further praising Matt’s “quick-witted and nimble performance, making Maxim just sympathetic enough to take the sting out of his all-consuming arrogance,” Stephen Dalton says Unreachable is “an old-fashioned, very British romp full of sexual innuendo and vintage showbiz folklore” but “has a disjointed rhythm, often feeling more like a series of loosely linked vignettes than a smoothly integrated drama. A little overstretched at more than two hours, the play’s comic energy surges and slackens, but never dissipates completely.”
The Independent, unfortunately, isn’t impressed, saying it “comes across as strangely conventional and cut off from the momentous happenings in the outside world,” before concluding that “it’s funny; it’s unbalanced by the egregious Ivan; it has yet to come together; and it feels oddly inconsequential.”
Pleasingly, The Spectator lavishes a lot of compliments on both the play and Smith, saying “this self-involved storyline would be unbearable if it weren’t for the charming whimsicality of Matt Smith as Max. He develops a minor crush on his leading lady, whose cynical attitude to her trade is coolly refreshing. ‘If you want me to feel something, pay me.'”
Lloyd Evans, though, is most impressed with Jonjo O’Neill as The Brute, “a role every actor would kill to play… He corpsed twice [on press night], quite openly, and his fellow actors seemed not to mind this atrocity. They even joined in. My hunch is that they’ve grasped the nature of this project. They’re merely inaugurating roles that future actors will develop and extend for years to come. That’s how good it was. The birth of a classic.”
Praising Matt’s “nuanced and understated reading,” the Evening Standard gives it 4 out of 5 stars, concluding that “the unevenness doesn’t stop it being packed with cracking one-liners and bursts of outrageous slapstick. At the same time it’s alert to the fragile nature of creativity — which it embodies, sometimes boldly and sometimes with foxy cunning.”
But as ever, the best judges are the audience. Angela calls it “excruciating in a really funny but dark and fragile way” and “probably one of the most original plays I’ve seen in a long time”; meanwhile, Ged says “I enjoyed this play/production immensely. I laughed a lot. All of the performances were excellent.”
My favourite comment, however, comes from DWC commenter, Edward Delingford, who says:
“Unreachable is one of the most funny, profound, silly, brilliant, wonderful, ALIVE things I have ever seen on stage… [I] can confirm that Matt is as spell binding on stage as you would expect. He has the least showy part in many ways but displays the greatest range of any of the actors and is just riveting. Jonjo O’Neill, an RSC regular has the big showy scene stealing part and hams it up to the roof. He’s great but lacks the nuance in Matt’s performance. (I expect the cast is going to win loads of awards for this.) There was the biggest, loudest and most spontaneous standing ovation at the end of the play I have ever see. I have seen Peter [Davison], Chris [Eccleston], David [Tennant], Paul [McGann], Sylv [McCoy], and John Simm on stage and I can honestly say that none of them has Matt’s talent as a theatre actor or connection to the live audience. I would urge anyone interested in spending two and one half of the funniest hours of your life to rush to get tickets. Think it is sold out but you can get on-the-day tickets through a lottery.”
Truly lovely comment, Edward. Thank you!
And indeed, while Unreachable continues until 6th August at the Royal Court Theatre, tickets are sold out, so you’ll have to cross your fingers in order to see it!