Review: Till the Stars Come Down, National Theatre

Lorraine Ashbourne, Sinéad Matthews, Lisa McGrillis and more shine in this stunning ensemble play Till the Stars Come Down at the National Theatre

“You need to decide if you are victim or superior, because you can’t be both”

Well this was fantastic. It’s one of my bugbears when critics (including myself) bang on about “the best show they’ve seen all year” when it’s only January but sometimes, sometimes, it’s just true. If we’re not talking about Beth Steel’s Till the Stars Come Down being one of the best new plays of the year come December, then we’ll have been blessed with an exceptional year for new writing.

Set in her frequent East Midlands milieu, we’re witness to the wedding day of Sylvia and Marek. She’s one of three sisters in a large, fractious family; he’s a Polish émigré made good in the shifting economy of this former mining town. Tensions are bubbling as they deal with hair and dress crises but it slowly becomes clear that there’s trouble way beyond the surface, manifesting itself in unexpected ways all night long.

Bijan Sheibani’s production is spectacularly good (recalling his astonishing work in this same theatre back in 2009), staging the action in the round (set by Samal Blak) so that we’re just guests on the next table along, surrepitiously listening out for the gossip. For this family is carrying a lot of baggage, weighed down by animosities of the past as they are for fears of the future.

Steel’s gift for conversational naturalism is on glorious display in the opening scene as the women of the piece gather, three gently squabbling sisters and possibly the greatest comic character of the last few years in Aunt Carol (a truly scene-stealingly sensational performance from Lorraine Ashbourne that demands to be seen again). And as the drinks flow, the casual racism seeps out and as more drinks flow, betrayals are writ large and as yet more drinks flow, some real shocks punch through.

Sinéad Matthews and Marc Wootton are beautifully good as the newlyweds, battling the forceful winds of familial discontent and societal xenophobia; Lisa McGrillis and Lucy Black excellent as Sylvia’s older sisters, each dealing with their own disappointments; and Alan Williams and Philip Whitchurch as their father and his estranged brother bring to life the unforgiving pain of betrayal, a cycle which threatens to haunt this family forever.

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