Breaking Baz: West End Hitmaker Sam Mendes Is Right On Cue With Richard Burton, John Gielgud & Elizabeth Taylor In London’s Hottest New Play; Take That Pray ‘Greatest Days’ Film Will Shine

EXCLUSIVE: Sam Mendes has a mammoth hit on his hands with The Motive and the Cue, which has been playing to packed houses on the National Theatre’s 890-seater Lyttelton proscenium stage.

Breaking Baz can reveal that discussions are ongoing with the play’s cast, including stars Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss and Tuppence Middleton — who portray Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively — to transfer the acclaimed work into the West End.

Broadway surely will follow.

Mendes (Empire of Light, 1917, Skyfall) came up with the idea for The Motive and the Cue after reading firsthand accounts from William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne of the time Gielgud opted to direct hot star Burton in Hamlet on Broadway in 1964.

Burton had just married Taylor for the first time — her fifth, his second; the actress shredded her schedule to be with him in New York.

The combination of Shakespeare and acting royalty was like “magic dust to Sam,” recalled Caro Newling, who set up the Neal Street Production Company in 2003 with Mendes and Pippa Harris. Nicolas Brown was appointed to the partnership in 2013.

Mendes enticed playwright Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to write the show. “You don’t say no to Sam Mendes when he comes to you during a pandemic with an idea like that,” he said. 

Thorne believes that “in a mad way, it matters that I wrote it during the pandemic. I don’t know what version I’d have done not in the pandemic when neither Sam nor I could get to the theater.”

Burton and Gielgud clash like titans, with Taylor stepping in to mediate. It’s a magnificent play about artists of different temperaments and references — and levels of concentration — who grapple with how to best interpret the Bard’s most-performed work. “The actor meets the character, the characters meet the actors,” says Thorne, ”and they find a way to do it.”

Flynn and Gatiss are at the height of their craft here, each one effortlessly pinpointing their characters’ biographical hallmarks.

Having sat alone with Burton in his cups through a long day’s journey into the early morning hours in his suite at the Dorchester hotel, where he joyously educated me about his passion for acting, along with his passion for Taylor — “I bred her in my bones,” he boasted — and, in fact, his passion for this Hamlet, I can attest to Flynn’s ability to capture the essence of this Welsh-born star, classically trained actor and hell-raiser.

As luck would have it, I saw Gielgud with his great old stage companion Ralph Richardson in director Peter Hall’s production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in the Lyttelton. I saw him in other plays too, and at many tribute and awards shows and movie premieres. Approaching him for a quote was always something of a lark because I’d introduce myself and invariably he’d respond in his golden tenor: “Baz Bambigboye! Of course you are!”

I saw a piece in The Oldie, a witty UK magazine, which related many of Gielgud’s seemingly innocent gaffes. One such recalled Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) tackling her major Shakespearean role at the Old Vic — Miranda in The Tempest, in which Gielgud played a memorable Prospero. Gielgud turned to Agutter on opening night, before their entrance, and almost as an afterthought told her, ”By the way, Jenny, I keep meaning to tell you: Don’t worry about not being able to play Miranda; nobody ever could, not even Peggy [Ashcroft].”

He was approaching in years at that point, yet he seemed to possess a youthful vitality as if he wanted to tell you a filthy joke but daren’t. On reflection, I suppose rolling his tongue around the name Bambigboye was his dirty joke.

No, in public he was all present and correct; something noble and fine about him. He undoubtedly was one of “The Greats,” as the male thespians of Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness’ generation were known

That’s what Gatiss captures; a hint of an underlying sadness too. 

There once was a producer called Toby Rowland, an American, who ruled Shaftesbury Avenue for the old Stoll Moss theater empire. Rowland presented all the posh plays including the original run of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On in 1968, with Gielgud in the lead.

Rowland once told me of seeing Gielgud in a Shakespeare play — can’t remember which one he cited — where he was giving the kind of performance “that people will talk about for years.”

That’s the level of what Gatiss achieves on the Lyttelton stage. His portrait of Gielgud is one for the ages. 

So you’d think the perfect house for The Motive and the Cue to transfer to would be the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. 

But it’s unavailable. 

The Motive and the Cue runs at the NT through July 15. Lyndsey Turner’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, also an NT production, will be running at the Gielgud by then through September 2, followed by Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga from September 2-January 6.

That show’s a favorite of Cameron Mackintosh, who controls the Gielgud and seven other West End including the Noel Coward. And, yes, that’s free after The Crown creator-writer Peter Morgan’s play Patriots plays there. 

Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, stars Tom Hollander (The White Lotus, The Night Manager) as oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Will Keen (His Dark Materials, The Crown) as Vladimir Putin. The Almeida Theatre transfer runs until August 19.

“The infrastructure” is there for The Motive and the Cue to reside at the Noel Coward, Newling told me, but Mendes will not trigger the move until he has discussed the possibility of it with his cast. Along with Flynn (The Dig, The Detectorists),Gatiss (Sherlock, The Favourite) and Middleton, they include Janie Dee (Follies, Women of Troy), Allan Corduner (Homeland, Ridley Road), Luke Norris (Poldark), Phoebe Horn (Call the Midwife) and Laurence Ubong Williams (Flatshare, The Lord of the Rings: War of the Rohirrim).

“It’s dependent on having the right conversations in the right order,” Newling cautioned.

For starters it would need to be a longer season than the usual eight or 12 weeks. Plus, the technical crew is exploring whether the Noel Coward’s roof can accommodate the rigging for Es Devlin’s set. And there’s “due diligence to do to put the jigsaw puzzle together,” Newling adds.

All being well, The Motive and the Cue is headed for a season at the Noel Coward from September .

It’s a play for the theater, and thus far there are no plans to turn it into a film, according to Thorne and Newling.”I like this as a play,” Thorne explained.

However, there likely will be an NT Live recording of the theater production, a whole different thing “to a film,” Newling observed.

On the other side of the Thames from the National, The Lehman Trilogy, another Neal Street-NT co-production, resides at the Andrew Lloyd Webber-owned Gillian Lynne Theatre. Also directed by Mendes, it won the Tony Award for Best Play last year. Since The Motive and the Cue also opened, “We get two show reports telling us there’s a standing ovation on both sides of the river in London within an hour of each other,” Newling told me.

I put it to the test, and there is indeed a well-deserved standing ovation for The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power. I saw Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles originate the starring roles several years ago, but I very much enjoyed how Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay have made the roles their own.

Outta town at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, Hamnet — adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from Maggie O’Farrell’s bestseller and directed by Erica Whyman — is another Neal Street co-production that’s playing to full houses. It moves to the Nimax-owned Garrick Theatre from September 30.

Of late, Neal Street has become like a third national company, supplying solid-gold hits to the NT and RSC.

There’s promise of more to come.

The Motive and the Cue, comes on top of the National’s Olivier Award -winning success with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a co-production with Sheffield Theatres in association with Rupert Lord’s Various Productions.

The NT Production’s team led by Kash Bennett have joined with Lord to present Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Gillian Lynne from February.

So the post-pandemic W.End is jumping, again. 

The unbelievably brilliant revival of Guys & Dolls over at the Bridge Theatre, run by former NT custodians Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, is a solid smash. Sheridan Smith has been drawing crowds to the Duke of York’s, where she’s giving a sublime account of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine for director Matthew Dunster and producer David Pugh. Most shows are doing well, a few are faltering, and if they drop below the break, they’ll be off — and fast. Such is the hunger for theaters.

The play’s the thing, though.

And Neal Street Productions sure know how to develop them.


We can quibble about the cost and the optics of King Charles III’s Coronation, but the ceremony and the comings and goings to and from Westminster Abbey were the greatest show on Earth. 

Stirring stuff, all that pomp and Edward Elgar circumstance.

The Coronation concert the next night in the grounds of Windsor Castle? Blah. Mediocre piffle.

My feet tapped, involuntarily, only when Take That performed top of the bill. The group did “Shine” and they will surely, “Never Forget” the night they showed they could “Rule the World.” OK, enough already with the Take That song title puns. Patience! What Do You Want From Me? 

I played that game with Danny Perkins, founder of Elysian Film Group, on the set of Greatest Days, which he produced with Kate Solomon.

Perkins won. “I love singing Take That songs,” he confessed.

“Maybe we’ll do a sing-a-long at the premiere” was quickly followed by a meek “maybe not.”

Greatest Days isn’t about Take That. It’s based on a stage musical called The Band by Tim Firth and produced by David Pugh that features Take That’s hits. As with the show, the movie follows a group of fans who follow a boy band over the course of 25 years.

What’s great, Perkins noted, is that Firth has adapted his book for the screen ”so he could think about how big to take this number and that number.”

Perkins was impressed when he saw Take That on tour, “which is why I did the film.”

Gary Barlow, the group’s main songwriter, always says that he and bandmates Mark Owen and Howard Donald — Robbie Williams and Jason Orange have departed — always know the fans in the first five rows at every concert. Perkins knows that story too. “Those fans are regulars who’ve been following them for years.”

A poignant twist about Greatest Days is that the Greek chorus-like boy band doesn’t age throughout the 25-year storyline. “Don’t forget, our songs don’t age,” Donald told me.

Greatest Days director Coky Giedroyc agreed. “They don’t. And the memory of the band you loved. It’s something about being that [teen] age; it catches you at a moment in your life where you feel immortal and everything is possible. The band you lose your heart to at that age you’re never going to forget.”

Giedroyc collaborated with choreographer Drew McOnie to give each song its own visual identity, so one moment there’s a Busby Berkeley vibe, the next a hip-hop beat. Composers Nick Foster and Oli Julian re-arranged and re-orchestrated the music.

The filmmaker watched an array of classic movie musicals, but her reference points were for the music that comes out of naturalism. “It just sort of appears — sort of like we’re living in a world where it’s just sitting on the edge of everything,” like La La Land and tick, tick… BOOM!

Greatest Days opens here June 16 in cinemas.

The film stars Aisling Bea, Jayde Adams Alice Lowe and Amaka Okafor, along with Marc Wootton, Matthew McNulty and Lara McDonnell. And “Get Ready” for Take That cameos.

Pop Culture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *