'A Mirror' review – a brilliant Jonny Lee Miller leads this playful, potent riff on censorship

Read our four-star review of A Mirror, starring Jonny Lee Miller, now in performances at the Almeida Theatre to 23 September.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“This play is a lie.” So proclaim the posters for Sam Holcroft’s playful new riff on free speech and censorship – which just happens to open as news comes through of the plane crash killing Putin challenger Yevgeny Prigozhin. It’s strangely apt for a show that is all about the cost of criticism in a totalitarian regime.

Initially, A Mirror seems to be an immersive wedding experience: the Almeida is decked out with flowers, balloons, fairy lights and a disco ball. “The ceremony will last two hours,” ushers tell us, and we’re asked to stand for the entrance of the bride.

But it’s all a cover. We’re actually gathered to watch a subversive, unlicensed play. Several times, the action is halted when a lookout tips off the performers to nearby law enforcement, and they hastily reassemble the wedding paraphernalia, or ask us to join in reciting an oath of allegiance.

The metatheatrical layers keep on coming. The play is about an army mechanic-turned-playwright, Adem, whose debut effort comprises neighbours’ conversations overheard in his grim housing block. Mr Celik, the director of the ministry of culture, brings Adem in – to both warn him that such material (which is vetted by the state) could get him sent to a re-education camp, and to offer mentorship.

However, Adem’s next play is a word-for-word transcript of his chat with Celik. The frustrated minister pairs up Adem with a national treasure, the celebrated playwright Bax. But a workshop which contrasts Bax’s hilariously awful propagandist spin on a recent war with Adem’s brutally truthful account has serious consequences for all involved.

Holcroft’s witty satire is an exuberant experience if you surrender to its looping structure, which does pay off smartly in a big climactic reveal. Yet one of its internal debates – whether art should reflect messy reality or should be an inspiring or escapist experience – comes to apply to A Mirror. It’s so issue-led that it almost feels more like a staged essay than a drama.

Fortunately, a crack cast ensure that it’s thoroughly entertaining too. Jonny Lee Miller makes a brilliant return to stage, building up the zealous but hypocritical Celik through thoughtful details – from his disapproving peering over the top of his glasses to his warped drama teacher-ish enthusiasm and halting attempts to bond with new assistant Mei.

She is wonderfully played by Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds, whose startled reactions – especially when asked to sight-read Adem’s explicit work – are comic gold. She also has the strongest arc, gradually awakened to dissident ideas. Micheal Ward makes a charismatic stage debut as the (improbably) naïve but committed Adem, and Geoffrey Streatfeild is hilarious as the mannered, egotistical Bax.

Jeremy Herrin’s lively production includes a key contribution from cellist Miriam Wakeling, and a loving spoof of the theatrical process – including the semi-staging of Bax’s play, complete with a desk as a military barricade and former soldier Mei twirling a mop like a rifle.

There’s plenty here to mull over, including Adem’s potent line that you “have to know the breaking point of things”, the observation that all dictatorships rely on storytelling, and the shrewd dissection of power dynamics (which includes Celik’s preying on Mei).

You could also make contemporary British political parallels, like Nadine Dorries’s disastrous intervention into Arts Council spending – if you dare... Yes, it’s a bit too pleased with itself (the writer will save the world!), but Holcroft reminds us how lucky we are to be able to – freely – stage work like this, and express an opinion about it.

A Mirror is at the Almeida Theatre through 23 September.

Photo credit: A Mirror (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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