Review: The Observer, National Theatre

My latest trip to the National Theatre took me to The Observer which is premiering at the Cottesloe Theatre (although strictly speaking it was a preview). I had not intended to see this play but I was seduced by the offer of cheap tickets, and I was extremely glad that I did since it gave me what I think is the strongest acting performance I have seen so far this year.

Anna Chancellor is quite simply astonishing, she’s on stage for practically the whole thing and is entirely believable as Fiona, the brittle, uptight observer of an election in an unspecified African country (though the parallels are clearly drawn with the recent Zimbabwean election). The play follows the processes around the first democratic elections in this country and how the impartial monitoring committee that Fiona works for interacts with the situation that they find themselves in. With her translator aiding her, Fiona finds herself drawn closer and closer to crossing the boundaries imposed by her position, as she realises the potential influence that she has on the election result. Chancellor plays this awakening, this blossoming so astutely, it is a thing of wonder to watch, and one is just swept up in the journey that Fiona is forced to take.

Cyril Nri is also really good, playing a multitude of different characters with varying impact on the election. One thing that was quite interesting was the usage of the native language in various scenes which meant that one was quite often in the same boat as Fiona, just simply having to ‘observe’ the action. The only slight bum note for me was James Fleet’s Foreign Office representative whose interventions, whilst quite funny, were clearly designed to allow the (very clunky and noisy) set changes to take place behind him, and so I didn’t feel that they were integrated well enough into the play.

It was quite odd seeing a play in the Cottesloe presented in a more traditional way using a raised stage, instead of the space in the middle, I’ve only ever seen things there that use the centre space. Nonetheless, it worked well especially with some really effective drapes/panel-type things that evoked the different locations. With the space being used more traditionally, the seating set-up is different with a raked bank of seats in the middle. My seats were in what was described as the “pit” on the right hand side, and gave a brilliant view, you’re at stage level, whereas the front row is considerably lower than the stage, so I would recommend trying to get those seats.

So all in all, I would recommend this play, if only to see some amazing acting. The play itself is engaging, but Anna Chancellor really lifts it into the stratosphere and I hope that she gains some recognition for this, whether awards or critical acclaim or simply reading this review!

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