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TV review: National Theatre – 50 Years on Stage

Dominic Cooper, Sacha Dhawan, James Corden and Philip Correia in The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I wasn’t at the National Theatre last Saturday when it celebrated its 50th anniversary. As it happens, I caught it instead on BBC iPlayer on my laptop – proof of how theatrical performance no longer has to exist entirely in the moment of its creation, but can live on at a moment entirely of our choosing.

And this collection of momentous plays and players that have been seen at the NT, from the Old Vic to the South Bank, provided a riveting snapshot, if a necessarily selective one, of 50 years of theatre history.

As Nicholas Hytner observed in one of the pre-recorded video introductions to scenes: “We’ve got two hours to show the vast range of work the National has done over the last 50 years by staging scenes from some of the most memorable shows – there are more than 800 to choose from.”

In the event, Hytner chose to represent around 25 of them live, with a handful more from video archives. These included glimpses of Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright – including footage recorded just a few weeks ago on the stage of the Old Vic, where she first played Joan of Arc 50 years ago and returned to now – Paul Scofield in Amadeus and Nigel Hawthorne in Hytner’s own production of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III.

Bennett was further represented by a reunion of some of the original cast of The History Boys, including James Corden and a bearded Dominic Cooper, rather incongruously still playing a schoolboy, with Bennett himself standing in for the late Richard Griffiths as schoolmaster Hector.

Many of the NT’s most memorable plays were recreated at times by the members of their original casts – Judi Dench was again a sublime Desiree Armfelt in A Little Night Music, declaring that she was “losing my timing, this late in my career” but proving when it comes to timing, no one has it like she has and Corden, again doing hilarious battle with himself in a scene from One Man, Two Guvnors.

At other times, we had what could have been tantalising auditions to play the roles in future revivals. If ever David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda is to be revived, Ralph Fiennes surely has the role of South African press baron Lambert Le Roux in the bag.

Purely from an organisational point of view, it was an astonishing achievement, seamlessly moving between scenes with sets and lighting, and showing the versatility of actors such as Alex Jennings, who switched from playing Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady to George W Bush in Stuff Happens.

But it was also difficult to dispel the impression, at least on TV, that it was a bit like an endless awards show, with snippets of scenes that were never quite satisfyingly whole.

It has also been cogently argued that women playwrights were shockingly under-represented – just one in the entire show, while Hare and Bennett each had three works performed. But this was otherwise a genuine and heartfelt love-fest to a beloved institution.

National Theatre – 50 Years on Stage, BB2, November 2, 9pm

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