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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea