A man with a face like a comedy potato should have no business becoming a star. But that isn’t stopping Rafe Spall. Spall, who turned 30 this year, didn’t get into drama school, but his talent is all the fresher for it. He has his father Timothy’s knack for settling into a character like a comfortable chair, but is capable of adding an edge—of menace, pain or urgency—that quickly caught the eye of directors. In comedies, he’s often cast for his clownish ability to tread the tightrope between disaster and success, slipping through trouble’s fingers with an appealing mixture of innocence and self-regard—think of his gurning nerd in a space suit in Ridley Scott’s "Prometheus" (2012), or the hapless anti-hero of "Pete Versus Life" on Channel 4 (2010/11). But give him a script with more meat, and he can really chow down. Watching him sweat as Edward Rochester in the BBC’s adaptation of "Wide Sargasso Sea" (2006), trapped with Rebecca Hall’s vicious Antoinette Cosway in the dark of a Caribbean night, was like seeing two ferrets in a cage. And in Nick Payne’s "Constellations" at the Royal Court last year, playing a man whose partner struggles with encroaching amnesia, Spall turned with heart-breaking delicacy on a fulcrum of hope and despair. Now his job is to convince Broadway audiences that Rachel Weisz would choose him as a lover over Daniel Craig, in an all-British version of Harold Pinter’s "Betrayal". It’s interesting casting, and not just because Weisz and Craig are married off stage as well as on. The usual trick is to have a bullish, macho actor play the boyfriend against someone wispier as the cuckolded husband, but the director, Mike Nichols, has turned this upside down. Potato-head beats monkey-man? If anyone can do it, Spall can. ~ Isabel Lloyd
Betrayal Ethel Barrymore, New York, Oct 1st to Jan 12th
THEATRE AT A GLANCE
The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic, London, Oct 18th to Nov 23rd). An unusual choice for Susan Stroman, the razzle-dazzle choreographer of "The Producers", "Crazy For You" and just about any other witty, high-kicking musical you can think of. She directs this small-scale, stripped-back "modern minstrel show" based on the true, tragic story of nine black American teenagers accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.
The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas (Royal Court, London, to Oct 19th). After a summer of theatrical experiments, most of them successful, Vicky Featherstone directs her first full play as artistic director of the Royal Court, about a man without morals barnstorming through four decades of recent British history. The writer is Dennis Kelly, whose book for the RSC musical "Matilda", like his "Pulling" and "Utopia" on television, showed a talent for the darker shades of black.
The Events (Young Vic, London, Oct 9th to Nov 2nd). A woman, a young boy with a blank face and no name, a community choir: this new play-with-songs from David Greig, a writer who often explores the stories societies tell themselves, examines the way we respond to young men who perpetrate extreme violence. Do we try to explain, do we punish, or do we simply accept the darkness?
Much Ado about Nothing (Old Vic, London, to Nov 23rd). Mark Rylance steps off stage to direct Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as an unusually elderly Beatrice and Benedick. Some will call it a gimmick, but it’s more likely Rylance has spotted the potential for extra poignancy as well as comedy—and topicality, as more of us live long enough to sample late-blooming love.
The Commitments (Palace, London, to Jan 26th). Tim Rice’s new musical, "From Here to Eternity", opens this autumn, and Andrew Lloyd Webber raises the curtain on "Stephen Ward" in December. Neither whets the appetite as much as this stage version of Roddy Doyle’s novel turned movie about a mixed bag of white Dubliners singing black soul. Great tunes, and no pomposity. The sharp-eared Jamie Lloyd directs.
Richard II (RSC, Stratford, Oct 10th to Nov 16th; Barbican, London, Dec 9th to Jan 25th). The plan may have been to begin a new cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, but still the RSC has to have asked itself how on earth it could follow Rupert Goold’s amazing "Richard II" for the BBC last year. Its answer: cast the quicksilver David Tennant as the monarch disabled by vanity, and get Nigel Lindsay to step away from Shrek and play Richard’s nemesis, Bolingbroke. ~ IL