Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Time and the Conways, NT Lyttelton, London
Peer Gynt, Barbican, London

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are on superb, unstarry form as they breathe fresh life into Beckett's tragicomedy

Time well spent: that sure as hell isn't how the passing years feel to Vladimir and Estragon, Samuel Beckett's tragicomic tramps in Waiting for Godot. For them, time is an endurance test as they kick their heels in a desolate wasteland, going nowhere on a kind of eternal loop-tape.

Indeed, each wretched minute strikes them as so interminable that they keenly debate what hope they have of hanging themselves successfully from the nearest tree. They'll babble about anything, like joke-philosophers, just to keep the frightening sense of emptiness at bay.

With Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on superb unstarry form as the ragged down-and-outs, what's brilliant about Sean Mathias's new production is how it fuses the duo's existential anxiety attacks with really delightful warm humour. How fresh they make this 1950s modern classic seem, too. Almost new-minted.

It's all in the delivery. Rather than pay obvious homage to Beckett's legendary poetic minimalism, Stewart and McKellen (using his native Yorkshire accent) sound startlingly natural. What Beckett captured, they reveal, was the rhythm of rambling, funny conversations between true old friends.

Mathias lets more stylised comedy – from the music hall tradition – slip in gradually, and it's a joy to see two such stellar performers, in their battered bowler hats, launching into nonchalant, shambling little jigs when their characters are feeling perky.

McKellen's Estragon is wonderfully entertaining when he snaffles a carrot, giving it a lightning-speed lick from the tip then munching frenetically with his mouth askew. And in his doddery, senile moments, he's like a retarded little boy, tottering on bruised feet to rest his chin on Stewart's shoulder, with a vacant stare.

Stewart's Vladimir is subtly differentiated. He has the air of a lapsed academic, is mentally sharper and morally kinder. Poignantly, he adopts the role of a fond older sibling, smiling and determinedly stoical. Yet he's the more fearful underneath: horrified when he finds himself fleetingly alone, perhaps completely forgotten, as if he had never existed.

By comparison, Simon Callow is a bit of a bore as the bombastic Pozzo. And Ronald Pickup as Lucky, his abused lackey, could be more distressingly downtrodden. Still, I could have watched McKellen and Stewart forever. In the great scheme of theatre-going, Godot is an evening extremely well spent. A splendid start for Mathias's new regime as artistic director of the Haymarket.

In Time and the Conways, over at the National, the hands of the clock spin forward then back again. JB Priestley's drama begins just after the First World War, in the titular family's mansion in a provincial town.

Here Francesca Annis swans around as the widowed matriarch welcoming home her favourite son, Mark Dexter's demobbed, swaggering Robin. His adoring sisters rush in and out, performing charades for their guests. This is the 21st birthday of Hattie Morahan's sensitive Kay – a would-be novelist – and everyone is dreaming of a bright future. Jump to Kay's 40th year, though, and hopes have been dashed. The property must be sold, romances have soured, careers atrophied. Kay has dwindled into a journalist. Yes, it's bleak.

What's worse, though, is having to sit through this sorely disappointing revival. Priestley's middle name was surely "B-rate". This is, essentially, a rehash of Chekhov with a thesis inserted on how all time, including the past, may be eternally present. It's a comforting idea but theatrically clunking, taking the form of a mini-lecture in Act Two.

Alas, some of the blame lies with director Rupert Goold, making a below-par NT debut. Some of his cast are excellent: Paul Ready as Kay's painfully shy brother, Alan, and Adrian Scarborough as the mocked businessman, Ernest, who turns chillingly nasty. Nevertheless, the social satire produces uneven caricatures and Annis turns dismayingly hammy. Goold inserts some hi-tech coups de théâtre, with a frozen moment dazzlingly caught on a spinning set, and multilayered projections of Kay and Alan – past and present – like eerie cubist ghosts. But elsewhere the blocking is peculiarly old-fashioned.

Lastly, there's Ibsen's sprawling episodic saga, Peer Gynt. I confess I glanced at my watch once or twice in the course of Colin Teevan's feisty, expletive-strewn modern adaptation. But Dominic Hill's production (co-presented by the Dundee Rep Ensemble and National Theatre of Scotland) is vibrant and visually stunning.

Hill's vision of the young Peer (Keith Fleming) as a lager-swilling fantasist and borderline mental case – running amok in some small Highlands town – proves remarkably coherent as a concept.

The whole thing is like a substance-abuser's nightmare, slipping in and out of hallucinations, the trolls a gang of druggie underworld sadists, with monstrous ratty tails.

Hill also has a brilliant grasp of pacing, relieving the mayhem with moments of unearthly quiet. Naomi Wilkinson's epic set design is equally inspired: spare, seedy and strangely beautiful. Recommended.

'Waiting for Godot' (0845 481 1870) to 30 Apr; 'Time and the Conways' (020-7452 3000) to 27 Jul; 'Peer Gynt' (0845 120 7550) to 16 May

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
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.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada