The week in theatre: Two Billion Beats; Running With Lions; The Forest; The Chairs – review

Orange Tree, Richmond; Lyric Hammersmith; Hampstead; Almeida, London
A Hindu schoolgirl challenges all around her; Toby Stephens and Gina McKee star in Florian Zeller’s sketchy new play; and Kathryn Hunter excels in a frisky reworking of Ionescu

I have got used to thinking that new theatre arrives in an explosion of form. Yet – obvious but true – sometimes fresh subject matter alone is the vital thing.

Straightforward in structure, occasionally too explicit but dynamic in its argumentative twists, Two Billion Beats sets up an urgent thrum. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s two-hander constantly surprises as it spins from bullying to sibling rivalry and the difficulty of not fibbing when speaking up.

A clever schoolgirl with a Hindu background challenges her mother, who reveres Gandhi, with her own preference for BR Ambedkar, spokesman for “untouchables”. Her enthusiasm for the ideals of the most politically radical of the Pankhursts, Sylvia, brings her into confrontation with a teacher inclined to think this prize pupil will go further if she concentrates on studying people with brown faces. When her sister exaggerates a Muslim boy’s bullying, she takes his side.

Nimmo Ismail’s absorbing production sets Anoushka Chadha and Safiyya Ingar on a concrete stage, alone apart from a hamster, of whose presence the audience is warned. Moving towards self-determination, they are slangy and fervent and sharp. Their school uniforms hang off them like the unsuitable assumptions they are trying to shuck. They are better than babes: they are unclassifiable.

Sian Carter’s first play also unfolds without structural flourishes, but it has at its centre an intricate knot: the concealments of the open-hearted. Three generations of a British Caribbean family are living together. The grandparents are of Windrush vintage; their granddaughter dreams of making her own flight. Sorrow, guilt and social anxiety have turned the death of a son and the illness of a bipolar daughter into unmentioned subjects. Running With Lions turns on the patient warmth – but also the sheer accident – that eventually unlocks their secrecy.

Ruby Barker in Running With Lions .
‘Steady radiance’: Ruby Barker in Running With Lions . Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Michael Buffong’s production for Talawa, the black touring company of which he is artistic director, leaps over the stiltedness of some over-declamatory dialogue. The family dance together – over-optimistically to Let the Good Times Roll – and bump each other knowingly hip to hip. Ruby Barker – of Bridgerton – has a steady radiance and Wil Johnson beguiles with sinuous mischief. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests precariousness, high hopes and long voyages: rupture and reconciliation take place on a shifting platform under a dazzling, starry sky.

Gina McKee is not given much to do, but emits honour from every pore

Florian Zeller’s plays have altered the landscape of British theatre. Apparently bourgeois domestic dramas can crack open the stage with distress. A man with dementia is surrounded by scenery that keeps being dismantled. A woman quietly peels mushrooms while bereavement conjures illusions. The mushroom moment was part of Jonathan Kent’s superb production of The Height of the Storm in 2018. Now Kent directs the world premiere of The Forest, in a version by Zeller’s long-time English translator Christopher Hampton.

Anna Fleischle’s design is sinister and sleek: glossy parquet; a portrait whose subject unaccountably changes; a mass of stiff bouquets that begin to look like floral tributes. The stage, divided horizontally and vertically, echoes the fractures of the plot, in which unnamed characters – “Man 1”, “The Wife” – step unexplained into each other’s roles, and dream merges with action. The thriller element – did an adulterer hire a contract killer? Is a blood-boltered figure a ghost? What is that Big Dead Beast on a bed? – grips, but too many of the play’s mysteries look like ways of diverting attention from a thinly conventional plot and sketchy characterisation. You may never know where you are, but there’s not much mystery about who you can trust.

Toby Stephens has a flair for suggesting the inauthentic, and uses it to the hilt. Gina McKee’s talent runs in the opposite direction: she is not given much to do, but emits honour from every pore. There is a rigid, possibly satirical performance from Silas Carson and a gleamingly macabre turn by Finbar Lynch. Intriguing rather than resonant.

Eugène Ionesco’s work plays peek-a-boo with its audiences, waggishly semaphoring its lack of significance. The Chairs (1952) is like Beckett’s Endgame without the pungency. An elderly couple daily repeat the same routine to an invisible audience – a growing number of empty chairs. They await a speaker who will say nothing. They jump to their deaths.

Yet what on the page is skinny and over-insistent can on stage be haunting and frisky. Twenty-five years ago, Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan were beautifully comic in a tumbling Complicité production. Now, Omar Elerian impressively stages his own translation. The design by Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen is the perfect tease: four sets of frowsty velvet curtains looped in front of each other; pretence revealing further pretence. Kathryn Hunter, skittering in an orange wig (with dark roots) and scarlet stockings, looks like a marionette – Ionesco was transfixed by puppets – while her extraordinary voice, unearthly yet inward, swoops from piping to guttural. Marcello Magni – Hunter’s husband on and offstage – is casually nimble, deftly snatching chairs from the air and ensuring that his placing of a cup in its saucer is disconcertingly not synchronised with the clinking sound effect.

Together they swing an imaginary child and walk from opposite sides of the stage, each carrying half of an unseen window. In a surprise coda, Toby Sedgwick arrives as the expected non-speaking speaker – and blasts Ionesco’s airiness with a brilliantly delivered naturalistic oration. The most vivacious, surprising part of the evening was not written by the Romanian-French dramatist. Still, subverting subversion: what could be more apt for elusive Ionesco?

Star ratings (out of five)
Two Billion Beats
Running With Lions ★★★
The Forest ★★★
The Chairs ★★★

Two Billion Beats is at the Orange Tree, Richmond, Surrey until 5 March

Running With Lions is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London until 12 March

The Forest is at Hampstead theatre, London until 12 March

The Chairs is at the Almeida, London until 5 March