The Motive and the Cue review – Noël Coward Theatre, London ★★★★★

Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. Photo: Mark Douet

The Motive and the Cue review – Noël Coward Theatre, London

Rating: ★★★★★

2023 ends with a bang, not a whimper, with the opening of the West End transfer of The Motive and the Cue: the last major press night of the year. Jack Thorne’s new play transfers to the Noël Coward Theatre following a sold-out run at the National Theatre earlier this year. Thorne is a man in demand: with the opening of The Motive and the Cue, he is now involved in four plays currently running in London, having also written the book for the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as being involved in the story development for Stranger Things: The First Shadow.

Not content to rest on their laurels following a slew of positive reviews and full houses, Thorne and director Sam Mendes set out to tighten the production. Ahead of opening night, Thorne tweeted that “the play has grown, been restaged and been rewritten in places.” The result is a near-faultless piece of theatre.

The cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End. Photo: Mark Douet 

The Motive and the Cue explores the relationship between Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) in 1964 as they prepare to stage Hamlet on Broadway during transition periods in both men’s lives: Gielgud trying to find his place in a new era of theatre while his old rival Laurence Olivier has begun to make ground with his new National Theatre Company on London’s South Bank, and Burton having just married the movie-star Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and with his star in ascension.

Mirroring their play, where Burton plays the young Dane and Gielgud plays the ghost of his father, there is a father-son dynamic playing out here too, though Gielguid dryly suggests, ‘Shall I be mother?’ As rehearsals fail to go to plan and the production begins to spin out out of control, they find themselves battling, not just to find themselves, but to save the production. But to describe it like that is to fail to capture the heart of what it is; a captivating examination of theatre-making, a love letter to theatre-making as an art form.

Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor and Luke Norris as William Redfield in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. Photo: Mark Douet

On her honeymoon, Taylor finds herself in the margins – mostly confined to her hotel suite because of the hordes of press, whipped up by her marriage to Burton, with her new husband throwing regular parties to keep her entertained. Middleton’s glamourous and alluring Taylor is proudly her own woman in an era where it is uncommon to be so. Her well-judged intervention and discerning advice to Gielgud over an incredibly entertaining lunch exchange provides him with the key that unlocks Burton’s Hamlet. And yet she is happy to be in the orbit of this great man. In fact, they all orbit this Welsh star – even ‘Sir John’ is mournfully aware of his own need for Burton.

But though Burton is the star, and his relationship with Taylor has provided rich pickings for writers for decades, this play only scratches the surface of the drama. There is Taylor’s confinement to her quarters due to the activity outside the hotel, and on the first day of rehearsals, the company have had to contend with a scrum of photographers at the theatre’s doors to find their way to the high-ceiled rehearsal room with its long windows stretching to the roof in Es Devlins wonderful set. Jon Clark’s lighting captures the passing of time in rehearsals as the bright light pouring through the windows gives way to the warm orange glow of sunset.

Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. Photo: Mark Douet

The fiery Burton-Taylor relationship is rightfully sidelined as Gielgud is the real subject here. Thorne gets under the skin of what it is to be a person adrift, struggling to find a place for themselves in a world that is slowly changing around them. Gatiss gives an award-worthy performance in the role, full of humour and humanity – he finds the balance between a man who can switch from benevolent to desultory on the turn of a dime. “Am I being dismissed?” asks his assistant after Gielgud has suddenly added a full-stop to a heartfelt conversation. “How sweet of you to notice,” Gatiss sardonically intones. He captures the essence of Gielgud, bringing him back to life on the same stage where the great actor played Hamlet himself in 1934.

Flynn finds the voice and gravitas that has drawn people to Burton but, more importantly, the internal conflict too – you see the storm blowing inside him as he goes deep within himself to find his Hamlet, but also when he battles with Gielgud in rehearsals and in their private meetings where the play is most powerful. In the supporting cast, Luke Norris’s eager but fretful William Redfield is excellent as he comes to terms with his disappointment with taking on a role he feels is beneath him for the experience of working with Gielgud, only to find his director lacking: ‘I cannot make you a better actor,’ Gielgud tells him, holding no punches. He wilts with awe under Taylor’s influence.

London has had an incredibly strong run of end-of-year productions with The Homecoming at the Young Vic, Woody Harrelson’s star-turn in Ulster American at Riverside Studios and Stranger Things: The First Shadow in the West End, but The Motive and the Cue’s just might be the pick of the lot. Don’t miss it – I can only assume that it will soon be off to reunite Gielgud and Burton with Broadway.

The Motive and the Cue is at the Noël Coward Theatre until 23 March