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FringeReview UK 2024

The Other Boleyn Girl

Chichester Festival Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

Nowadays the title suggests Mary Boleyn. But Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel shows it’s initially Anne who’s The Other Boleyn Girl premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by Lucy Bailey till May 11th.

Mike Poulton’s text gleams and snaps. Lucy Bailey’s production of it thrills and occasionally overwhelms, dazzling in its maze of missteps. A must-see.


Directed by Lucy Bailey, Set & Costume Designer Joanna Parker, Lighting Designer Chris Davey, Composer Orlando Gough, Sound Director Beth Duke, Video Designer Dick Straker, Movement Director Ayse Tashkiran, Fight Director Kate Waters, Wigs, Hair & Mek-up Designer Susanna Peretz, Musical Director Chris Green, Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG

Voice & Dialect Coach Edda Sharpe, Assistant Director Lata Nobes,

Production Manager Kate West, Costume Supervisor Caroline Hughes, Props Supervisor  Sharon Foley

Company Stage Manager Rebecca James, Deputy Stage Manager Olivia Roberts,  Assistant Stage Managers Isobel Eagle-Wilsher, Daisy Jones

Till May 11th



Nowadays the title suggests Mary Boleyn. But Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel shows it’s initially Anne who’s The Other Boleyn Girl premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by Lucy Bailey till May 11th.

That othering switch of sisters brings revolution. And Artistic Director Justin Audibert’s first season at Chichester brings consummate adaptor Mike Poulton (Imperium, the ongoing Wolf Hall Trilogy, A Tale of Two Cities) to dramatise for the stage what’s already enjoyed a masterly BBC version in 2003, and lesser film in 2008.

Poulton’s two hours 50 is a full, fast-paced immersion in a world of half-light and ritual: whether music or dancing, the missteps of sex and intrigue are encoded in everything we see.

Against Orlando Gough’s ravishing score, glinting Dowland and the Western Wind song, there’s scrapings and torturing sounds from Beth Duke’s sound design. From movement director Ayse Tashkiran’s transfixing courtly dances, courtiers hopscotch with landmines: whispers, spies, a more powerful ducal enemy. The king.

With Bailey, who can transform the Globe with the right designer (her magnificent Much Ado in 2022) or stark retelling in And Then There Were None with its sadistic consummation a few months ago, feelings are often pitched against spectacle, itself the oppressor. And Joanna Parker’s stunning set, aided by Dick Straker’s video design and the bewitching play of Chris Davey’s lighting, is breath-taking.

Whilst the concertina’d upstage resolves into castellated manors and interiors, white then tenebrous, the foreground pools into a green ellipse like a period fishpond: almost instantly walked through. Jousting poles suspended like swords of Damocles hover at jousts; four post themselves into a bed when it’s whisked on. Sex, injury, birth and miscarriage threaten to be skewered. It’s how one family mazes towards power: a misstep, and you’re trampled.

The three gambolling Boleyn siblings seem immersed in a dance of their own: from grooming each other to – almost – a dance of death where one steps away.  Lucy Phelps as Mary transfixes us from the start: radiant, poised, not adamantine like her sister or mother, she’s reflective: though eldest, the appeaser.

These Boleyns register Gregory’s and Poulton’s theme of sex as power-play and positioning, women as boy-bearing “brood mares” absolutely endorsed by a repellent brother and sister: Alex Kingston almost invoking her 2012 Lady Macbeth as Lady Elizabeth, but less human; and her brother, inky-voiced Andrew Woodall as icy Duke of Norfolk have schooled the Boleyn children. If personally endangered, they won’t hesitate to sacrifice them.

Freya Mavor’s thrusting Anne is their true child (Ben Jones’ Thomas Boleyn comically thrust aside as mere breeding stallion, now of no use).  Thwarted in her betrothal to Henry Percy (Osa Audu, all ardent callowness), commanded to keep the king dangling whilst his mistress Mary bears him another child, Anne instead cuts loose. She steps out of the dance as Mavor’s bearing straightens, only doubled-up when in agony.

Mavor’s Anne knows no half-lights, only bright and dark. Spoilt, self-exalting, thrilling in her sexual power (she never believes in love) she even slaps King Henry (James Atherton, fleetingly humane when severely injured) on his rare appearance.  The brilliance of this story lies partly in keeping the black hole of Henry out of it.

James Corrigan’s brother George, more in love with Peter Lossasso’s anxious realistic Francis Weston, is married off to hapless Jane Parker (Lily Nichol), one of the most rounded characters here. Though marginal she’s shifted from vengeful snooper to woman scorned. Nichol aches with longing; you feel her reluctant turn.

Though Corrigan makes George appealing, his transformation into a player seems redeemed by backward glances: till he’s forced to an act – something Mary suggests from desperation. That apocryphal act isn’t brought out here; if one didn’t know the plot elsewhere, Corrigan’s out-of-depth brother blind to danger would be almost sympathetic: were it not for Jane.

Long commanded as the king’s mistress with two children by him, Phelps’ Mary radiates anxious warmth: for siblings, her compromised husband William Carey (Jacob Ifan, a shrug of cuckoldom in his voice) and later for new husband the younger William Stafford (Oscar Batterham). She wants nothing of court, but to love in peace.

Significantly, Mary loves the woman she’s forced to wrong: Queen Katherine (a superbly-voiced Kemi-Bo Jacobs, later to return as vengeful Midwife). Their understanding radiates against the chill elsewhere, exceeded only by Batterham’s open-handed affection as Stafford, his dispatch and loyalty to Mary. Mary’s the centrifuge round whom others whirl: breaking off from her counsel hurls them to destruction.

The most savage scenes though aren’t court politics, but family. Phelps and Mavor are visceral, flaying into each other as only siblings can. Anne demands Mary surrender her son to her, as Henry’s child: “You’re stealing my baby because he’s mine. You steal everything precious to me…” She ripostes with magnificent scorn after being called “whore”. “My sister’s an adulteress, a whore, a bigamist and Queen of England.”

Almost stupefying as spectacle, there’s few moments of repose (something the BBC version managed, especially with those confessional blogs). Poulton directs some effects almost unobtainable and a final tableau’s excluded. The end’s pre-ordained. Bailey eschews the obvious.

A slow-burn first act ends with a ferocious climax; thereafter snares bite: the only question’s if any might escape. Poulton’s is just one version of Gregory’s; hers one selective reading. Such refraction doesn’t lessen some truths and this production nails these whilst backgrounding more lurid speculation.

There’s fine work from a wearily commanding Cardinal Wolsey in Roger Ringrose’s off-handedness (his Cromwell never speaks); Nital Levi’s puppyish Mark Smeaton; and music director Chris Green with Sarah Harrison provide vocal and instrumental interludes projected from Gough’s gorgeous musical fabric.

There’s another medium where Mary won through. Hugh Aston, an innovative composer, wrote ‘Lady Carey’s Dompe’ on the death of William in 1528. It’s a haunting  two-minute masterwork, the first harpsichord piece written in Britain. Poulton’s text gleams and snaps, quietly contemporary in idiom. Bailey’s production of it thrills and occasionally overwhelms, dazzling in its maze of missteps. A must-see.