The River, Royal Court Upstairs, London
Medea, Palace Theatre, Watford
55 Days, Hampstead Theatre, London

In a tiny studio space, Jez Butterworth’s fishing-themed ‘Jerusalem’ follow-up reels you in

The proverbial one that got away is always the whopper, the elusive prize catch. Well, it's a bit like that for some trying to secure a ticket to the Royal Court's keenly awaited premiere of The River, a darkening chamber play written by Jez Butterworth and starring Dominic West.

Obviously West is a big draw, and last year's long queues for Butterworth's previous stupendous hit, Jerusalem, made headlines. Nevertheless, the Court has tucked The River into its attic studio, and made more headlines by creating an on-the-day-only scramble for tickets – with its online allocation released at 9am. The try-and-try-again technique may succeed, though. The punter sitting next to me said he'd only failed the first time (naively reckoning there would still be seats available at 9.01).

The Theatre Upstairs is enthrallingly intimate, transformed into a log cabin, lit by paraffin lamps and flickering candles. This is the riverine pad where West's unnamed character, an artist with a passion for angling, brings his new girlfriend (Miranda Raison), to introduce her to night-fishing and to bare his heart. The place is, however, haunted by another woman (Laura Donnelly) – maybe a memory, maybe only imagined.

Butterworth's dialogue flips between wryly humorous, naturalistic exchanges and more stylistically heightened passages. The latter might describe an offstage sunset with blood-red and lilac-blue clouds, or the first trout that West ever netted. It exploded out of the mirror-smooth water then writhed on the bank – brown, silver, orange – like a bar of precious metal, like God's tongue, he says. Those speeches can sound obtrusively artificial, and this may be deliberate. Butterworth endows his characters with literary inclinations – reciting Ted Hughes's verse – and West refers to fishing as crafted trickery too, enticing the prey with fake bait.

A teaser, the drama plays startling games with time and morphs into a psychological thriller. West seems a sincerely smitten romantic, padding around the cabin in check shirt and socks, cooking while his sweetheart takes a shower, and declaring she's his one and only. Or is he a control freak, a fantasist, a serial womaniser with dangerous intentions who has to be given the slip? Rustling up supper certainly gains a sinister edge as he guts a trout with a flashing silver blade, hacks off its head, and slips its oil-slooshed body into a scorching oven.

Director Ian Rickson's cast are compelling, Raison lured by West but fighting back, and Donnelly developing a jealousy-mocking glimmer in her eye. The River may not be as great as Jerusalem, but it's a disturbing slow burn.

The home bird turns into a slaughtering avenger when her husband jilts her for a new bride in Medea. In Mike Bartlett's disappointing new English adaptation of Euripides' tragedy, which he has also directed for the touring company Headlong, Ancient Greece has morphed into modern suburbia. Rachael Stirling's Medea is going psycho in a bland, red-brick two-up-two-down. A punky scruff with a posh accent and a vicious tongue, this Medea is horribly rude to her well-meaning neighbours. She plunges her hand into a boiling saucepan as she dishes up tea to her traumatised, mute little boy, then she dreams up worse horrors for her ex, Adam Levy's Jason – even as she tempts him back for a final fling. Bartlett notably makes Jason a reasonable guy and Medea a desperate loose cannon, but his staging is hit and miss. There are strong supporting performances, but Stirling left me peculiarly cold.

The end of another soured relationship looms in 55 Days, Howard Brenton's history play, commissioned by Hampstead Theatre and superbly premiered by director Howard Davies. The subject here is a "domestic" on a national scale – the groundbreaking English Civil War – which ultimately, of course, severed the body politic from the crowned head of state.

Brenton homes in on the fraught final weeks of the reign of Charles I, in the midwinter of 1648-49, when Cromwell appears briefly to waver, claiming that he is waiting for God's guidance, while the monarch – though defeated in battle and under guard – continues to insist he is the Lord's anointed, with dangerous eloquence, and scorns the parliamentary court trying him for high treason.

This is an epic clash of ideals. It's messy as well, riven by sub-factions, doubts and fears. Yet 55 Days simultaneously manages to feel human in scale and have an overall, strongly hewn clarity in its narrative structure. Apart from a few slightly wobbly accents, Davies's production is fine-tuned and engrossingly close-up, played out on a narrow traverse stage with battered swing doors. Only Charles Stuart (Mark Gatiss on outstanding form) is in period finery, affecting a cavalier stance in black velvet cape and silk breeches, haughtily resisting the march of time. Everyone else is in modern-era jack boots or suits.

This works remarkably well, tallying with Brenton's script which is only occasionally laced with 17th-century phrases, and it encourages you to see parallels with the Russian Revolution or contemporary warmongers who think God is on their side. Douglas Henshall's Cromwell is fascinatingly mercurial too, wracked by panic but then displaying a cut-throat determination. A covert moderate or a new dictator in the making? Well worth catching.

'The River' (020-7565 5000) to 17 Nov; 'Medea' at Northern Stage, Newcastle (0191-230 5151) 30 Oct to 3 Nov, and touring to 1 Dec; '55 Days' (020-7722 9301) to 24 Nov

Next Week

Kate Bassett reports from NSFW, set in the offices of a lads' mag

Critic's Choice

Denise Gough is electrifying as the new bride entangled in a love triangle in Eugene O'Neill's rural tragedy, Desire Under the Elms, at London's Lyric Hammersmith (to 10 Nov). James Graham's absorbing new comedy, This House, at the NT Cottesloe (to 1 Dec), dramatises the whips' tussles for supremacy in the hung parliament of the 1970s.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific