The week in theatre: A German Life; Sweet Charity; Three Sisters – review

“Let’s see how we go,” she says, and looks straight into the audience. For a moment Maggie Smith – knowing, nonchalant, arresting – toys with us: as if, back on the stage after 12 years, she is speaking as herself when she says she may not remember. Then she sinks down into her blue cardie and becomes Brunhilde Pomsel: Joseph Goebbels’s secretary.

A German Life is one of the rarest of evenings. A mighty actress. An explosive subject treated with exceptional subtlety. Christopher Hampton has marvellously distilled transcripts of recordings made by Pomsel when she was 102. The result is the more elusive because it seems so transparent. There is a myriad of detail: Pomsel swam a lot in 1933; Goebbels had a daily manicure but became “a demented midget” on the podium; Pomsel went to a Nazi rally and saw “a lot of men with BO”. She flatly denies that she knew what the camps were for. It is as if she had dismantled the tools of her intelligence. There are hints of why this might be: a childhood in which obedience was thrashed into her with a carpet beater; a father who didn’t believe in women being educated. Nothing is spelt out; modern parallels are lightly trailed: “all that hot air” wouldn’t take people in nowadays, she declares.

There is no grandstanding: no tipping the wink to dowager or wizard. Smith’s gestures seem to hotfoot it from her mind, to mimic its movements. Her hands trail over her face – to conceal or to pull out memories? – and jab down as if she were tramlining her thoughts. Jonathan Kent’s production is equally delicate, with a few small sound effects and light that slowly fades from the background to leave Smith’s face highlighted, alone.

Hampton has said that though he normally likes his plays performed exactly as he wrote them, he felt obliged to pay attention to Smith’s comments on his text; so much so that he now regards the piece as “raw material” for whoever plays the part. It is hard to imagine someone making it more triumphantly her own.

Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity. Photograph: Johan Persson

Is it surprising that Josie Rourke, who changed the face of the theatre with her championing of all-women Shakespeares, should make her final production as the Donmar’s artistic director a 1960s musical? Not when it is Sweet Charity (book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields): the story of a dancehall hostess who has a heart “like a hotel” and is perpetually betrayed. Not when spiky vim is the predominant mode. “Dance?” drawls one of the hostesses: “We defend ourselves to music.”

Wayne McGregor’s reworking of Bob Fosse’s original choreography is strutting, confrontational. Big Spender is snarled by a stamping chorus who turn “a good time” into a sardonic sigh. Robert Jones’s set is inspired by Billy Name’s design for Warhol’s “Silver Factory”: the Donmar glitters in a Bacofoil bonanza; it also features gold balloons, and sparkly cut-out letters. At one point a troupe of Andy Warhol lookalikes – blond mops and shades – scissor across the stage.

It’s overwhelming. But there is a point. Our heroine swims in flashiness but is hoisted above it by hopes of love. Anne-Marie Duff, with her thin-skinned openness and her lighthouse beam, is blazingly authentic and wonderfully gleeful. Her voice is sometimes raw; her dancing – cane in hand, top hat banged against her bottom – is not as sinuous as the cat-like Debbie Kurup, but Charity is not meant to be sleek. What Duff gives is incessant, full-on expressiveness. She animates every line of If My Friends Could See Me Now, when, in a penthouse with a movie star, she thinks of her pals, those “stumblebums” and “thrift shop cats”. She bends and stiffens and curls and waggles in I’m a Brass Band as if she truly were becoming a clarinet or harpsichord.

She is the heart of the evening but not its only pleasure. As her suitor, Arthur Darvill is perfectly buttoned-up: anxiously wiping the rim of a bottle before he drinks, struggling to click his fingers to music, moving in a twink from meekness to a kind of malevolence. And there are special guest appearances in the part of the cult leader Daddy Brubeck. On press night, Adrian Lester dazzled as he shimmied, gigantic spliff in hand, in a Lurex T-shirt. Beverley Knight is among future Daddies.

A year ago Rebecca Frecknall created an amazing neurasthenic production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida. Hers was a decisive reimagining of Tennessee Williams’s play, which seemed to work from the inside out: everything quivering around a febrile Patsy Ferran.

‘Intensity and strangeness’: Patsy Ferran, Pearl Chanda  and Ria Zmitrowicz in the Almeida’s Three Sisters.

‘Intensity and strangeness’: Patsy Ferran, Pearl Chanda and Ria Zmitrowicz in the Almeida’s Three Sisters. Photograph: Marc Brenner

The same gift for conjuring up intensity and strangeness sends sparks through Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters. But these do not build to flame. Opening the play with the mimed funeral of the sisters’ father (time, I think, to call a halt on actors slowly waving chairs over their heads) is more ingenious than illuminating: it sets the women so firmly looking backwards that any hope for them is stillborn. Without hope, the sadness is weaker, the action irrevocably stuck.

Still, there are lovely things here. Hildegard Bechtler’s cleverly disorienting design is a scruffed-up place, a flat, unyielding scene of disappointment: eventually the ground beneath the sisters’ feet is bare earth. There is no traditional dapple: Jack Knowles’s lighting is mostly dusky, broken at one point by a number of Anglepoise lamps set on the floor, so that each character, only an arm’s reach from the next, is separate, in her own illuminated bubble. As Irina, Ria Zmitrowicz whirls on the spot, drilling down without getting anywhere, like the spinning top she gets for her birthday – which releases one of those eerie sounds to which Chekhov was drawn.

Cordelia Lynn’s new version, based on a literal translation by Helen Rappaport, is caught between eras: transistor radios but a schoolmistress in a smock, quotes from TS Eliot but shuffling old retainers. Given their modern sensibility it is not always easy to see why these sisters are stuck – not historical circumstances but a lethal spell seems to bind them – yet their performances make you believe that they can’t move.

As Masha, Pearl Chanda is all attitude: she is both sullen and drained. Zmitrowicz’s Irina is bursting with teenage contradiction, gauche, promising, finally faded. It is extraordinary to think that it’s only five years since Ferran made her stage debut. I wish only that she would keep her hands still: she is most magnetic here in moments of silence, turning away from lovers, breaking into quiet tears, welling with abandoned hope. You can see the plot of the play in her face.

Star ratings (out of five)
A German Life ★★★★★
Sweet Charity ★★★★
Three Sisters ★★★

A German Life is at the Bridge until 11 May; Sweet Charity at the Donmar until 8 June; Three Sisters at the Almeida until 1 June

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