The Lion in Winter, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Juno and the Paycock, NT Lyttelton, London
Reasons to be Pretty, Almeida, London

The lead actor does a sterling job with shoddy goods. But what's happened to Nunn's quality control?

Is he still the king of beasts when nipped by frost?

In James Goldman's lightweight history play The Lion in Winter – premiered on Broadway in 1966 and now revived by Trevor Nunn – Robert Lindsay's Henry II of England is past his prime. He still holds sway with cloak-swishing suavity, cat-and-mouse games, and occasional angry roars. However, he is facing an awfully inclement family Christmas.

His scheming sons include the bellicose mummy's boy Richard the Lionheart. Henry is wary of divvying up his empire which, through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, extends to the Pyrenees. In this conflation of 12th-century spats, his castle is rife with further machinations as, gathered under one roof, we also have Joanna Lumley's long-imprisoned Eleanor (determined to get her own back); Henry's mistress (officially Richard's fiancée); and the French king (revealed as Richard's ex-squeeze in a caught-in-the-closet scene that aspires to farce).

Alas, The Lion in Winter is a major letdown, somewhere between pseudo-Shakespearean drama and lame sitcom. Sure, Goldman's script offers some droll quips, but with reams of tosh in between. ("The hot wine steams, the yule log roars, and we're the fat that's in the fire" etc.) It has half a mind to wax serious, routinely flips back into bathos, generates no suspense. Would that Lindsay – a magnetic actor, now free from BBC1's My Family – had a better play than this to grapple with. He's doing a sterling job with shoddy goods, displaying ace comic timing and mercurial tenderness under Henry's guile. But Lumley is merely superficial: not a fabulous stage actress. The younger cast members struggle to be three-dimensional and – on a grandiose Gothic set – the medieval costumes (of sparkly, visibly modern fabric) look naff.

Though he ran the RSC for years, Nunn's quality-control faculty seems unreliable these days. His year as the Haymarket's resident director, rather than going from strength to strength, has proved hit and miss.

In Howard Davies's staging of Juno and the Paycock – Sean O'Casey's classic, set in a Dublin tenement in 1922 – the political troubles are simmering outside and the windows are riddled with bullet holes. Yet the stalwart matriarch, Sinead Cusack's Juno Boyle, inset, is busy just keeping her household ticking over; cooking meals; nagging her layabout husband, Jack; or having sing-alongs with the neighbours.

In this joint production between the National Theatre and the Abbey (Ireland's national theatre), the Boyles' home is a Georgian mansion turned into a slum: a few sticks of furniture and shanty-style bedrooms, cobbled together in a vaulty drawing room of grime-grey stucco (design by Bob Crowley).

Juno dances for joy when she learns the family has been left a fortune by Jack's cousin. There's some lovely naturalistic detailing – including the smell of frying sausages – and lots of humour from Ciaran Hinds as the self-aggrandising, booze-sodden Jack who puffs himself up with airs to match his hire-purchase chaise longue. His spindle-shanked drinking companion, Risteard Cooper's Joxer, is both ragged clown and vicious turncoat.

O'Casey's play is cleverly loaded, for this domestic microcosm is gradually revealed to be far from apolitical. It is, in fact, a metaphor for his motherland and Irish dreams. The Boyles' hopes are shattered, the civil war comes bursting through the front door in the form of republican reprisals, and there are radical expressions of lost religious faith, and a startling vein of feminism. The seeds of other plays can be glimpsed here too, from A Raisin in the Sun to Waiting for Godot to Mike Leigh's Ecstasy.

Nevertheless, this isn't Davies at his best. Setting aside the technical hitch on press night when the door jammed – leaving Hinds crying "Has anyone got a key?" and Cusack giving it a good kicking – this production makes O'Casey seem creaky. The cast milk comic moments cloyingly, then sound sententious when tragedy strikes.

At the Almeida, the UK premiere of Reasons to be Pretty sees US writer Neil LaBute back on outstanding form. Steph (Siân Brooke) and boyfriend Greg (Tom Burke) are having a blazing row. She's screaming blue murder as he lies on the bed, protesting his innocence. She has heard that he and his more lascivious mate, Kent, discussed some pretty girl at work, and Greg said Steph's looks were, by comparison, "just regular", but so what.

For Steph, that's a slap in the face, undermining her whole sense of sexual attractiveness. They bust up, cross paths occasionally, try to move on. He's left quietly reeling and having to endure – on his warehouse shifts – the lecherous confidences of Kent (Kieran Bew). Is he then going to say nothing when Kent's wife, Carly (Billie Piper), suspecting adultery, tearfully begs Greg for the truth? (It was Carly, by the way, who informed Steph of Greg's "just regular" comment).

Michael Attenborough's production is terrifically taut, lights snapping up on multiple settings concealed in a revolving freight container. The cast is excellent: no weak links. Brooke is surely up for a Best Actress award, treading a fine line here between social comedy and the scarily psychotic, then touching vulnerability. Maybe Greg (a semi-autobiographical character?) is slightly romanticised as the good guy (patient, loving, strong, witty and well read). However, Burke has his edgy moments. And the play becomes subtly mature, in the end, about the sexes, beauty, carpe diem and regrets, "reasonable" behaviour and moral stands. See this.

'The Lion in Winter' (0845 481 1870) to 28 Jan; 'Juno and the Paycock' (020-7452 3000) to 26 Feb; 'Reasons to be Pretty' (020-7359 4404) to 14 Jan

Next Week:

Kate Bassett reports back on the Tricycle's investigative, verbatim docudrama, The Riots

Theatre Choice

The RSC's exuberant family musical Matilda – adapted from Roald Dahl, with Tim Minchin songs – is at London's Cambridge Theatre (0844 412 4652, booking to 12 Feb). Mark Rylance is glorious as maverick gypsy Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's darkening comedy Jerusalem at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, (0844 412 4658 to 12 Jan).

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past