‘The audience are left bug-eyed, appalled and wickedly entertained’The Times
‘Magnificent performances in Simon Evans’ tensely paced and gruesomely funny revival’The Independent
‘A show that gives fly-on-the-wall drama a whole new meaning’The Financial Times
‘James Norton has a creepy authenticity in the hippest pop-up space in town’Daily Telegraph
‘Some of the finest ensemble acting seen at the National’Sunday Express
‘A curious path between twisted thriller, black comedy and luridly gory spectacle’Evening Standard
In a triumphant return to Found111, Simon Evans directs this critically acclaimed, smash hit revival of Bug, starring James Norton (War and Peace, Happy Valley)
A seedy motel room. Oklahoma City. Summer. Agnes, a lonely cocktail waitress, is holed-up from her violent ex-con ex-husband, seeking solace in drink and drugs. Until a stranger arrives.
Tense and blackly comic, Bug – written by multi award-winner Tracy Letts (August Osage County, Killer Joe) - is a taut exploration of two people on the edge; where the lines between reality and delusions become blurred.
With an exceptional cast including Kate Fleetwood (London Road, Medea), Alec Newman (The Motherf**ker with the Hat), Daisy Lewis (Downton Abbey) and Carl Prekopp (Love for Love/Queen Anne), Bug has drawn critical praise for the strength of its ensemble.
By Dominic Cavendish
In just a few years and thanks to a hat-trick of must-watch TV series (Granchester, Happy Valley and War & Peace) James Norton has achieved household-name status at the age of 30. There’s a theatre itch that this chiselled heart-throb needs to scratch, though, and he’s briefly doing so in characteristically brooding style in the hippest pop-up space in town, Found111, in the former Central Saint Martins College on Charing Cross Road.
I say ‘hippest’ - the top-floor fringe venue is actually a 130-seat fleapit barely big enough to swing a cat in, but that’s just perfect for Simon Evans’s 20th anniversary revival of Tracy Letts’s funny-peculiar drama about two lost souls who become increasingly convinced they are infested to the core with bugs.
Norton plays a youngish loner called Peter who enters the damaged, cocaine-inhaling life of Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, a fortysomething woman who has taken refuge from her abusive ex-husband in a motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. As befits a supposed former serviceman, Norton has gone for a rugged look, with close cropped hair, unshaven face and trim blue jeans and shirt. Initially a softly spoken charmer who says he has no predatory interest in the opposite sex, he gains Agnes’s trust. No sooner have they lain in bed together (the dominant furniture item in Ben Stones’s down-at-heel set) than he has got the light on, is inspecting the bed-sheets and starts fixating on the microscopic critters he believes are sucking the life out of him or worse. I’m not going to pretend that Letts’s play stands up to similarly ferocious inspection: it’s skin-deep stuff, drawing on the conspiracy theories of the time about Gulf War Syndrome and what the military might have been doing to its personnel. Yet given today’s paranoia about government surveillance and unseen decision-makers, the piece has ongoing topicality. And there’s something compelling about the way sinister ideas keep crawling out of the woodwork of Peter’s mind, assuming a reality for the fragile pair. The US playwright shows in microcosm how 'cult’ mentalities and loyalties take hold.
Full review here
By Henry Hitchings
Tracy Letts's play certainly isn’t for the squeamish. There’s a moment in the second half when James Norton’s character, a drifter called Peter, tries to yank out one of his own teeth with a pair of pliers. By this time he’s already covered in sores and scratches, and his crude attempts at oral surgery induce gasps of horror.
Fans may spot similarities between Peter and Norton’s psychotic yet vulnerable Tommy Lee Royce in the BBC’s Happy Valley. But when we first see Peter he appears polite and relaxed. Instead it’s Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes who comes across as fidgety and anxious. She’s a cocktail waitress who craves hard drugs and vodka to blot out memories of her failed marriage.
The pair are introduced by brassy biker Ronnie (Daisy Lewis), and before long jittery romance brightens Agnes’s seedy Oklahoma City motel room. But when they finally clamber under the covers, their intimacy is disrupted by an insect that nips Peter. Soon there are a lot more of these crawling, biting intruders — Peter improbably insists that they are aphids and must be a relic of the US army’s decision to use him as a guinea pig for its bid to develop a new and bizarre weapon.
As Peter’s paranoid delusions intensify, Letts’s writing treads a curious path between twisted thriller, black comedy and luridly gory spectacle. There are moments, too, when it oozes a sour lyricism. Simon Evans’s production takes a while to exert its grip and could do more to suggest the squalor of the characters’ lives. But as Peter’s claims get under Agnes’s skin, so this portrait of infestation gets under ours.
Fleetwood convinces as the needy, feverish Agnes. Haunted by visions of her lost son, she unravels before our eyes. Meanwhile the impressive Norton slowly exposes Peter’s psychological injuries. As he treats his body like a laboratory for a series of gruesome experiments, every audience member’s flesh starts to crawl.
By Susannah Clapp
Every now and then a particular theatre turns into a breeding ground. It becomes indispensable. Which is the case with Emily Dobbs’s Found111. It is not only that this unlikely theatrical space, at the top of several punitive flights of stairs next to Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, has been terrifically well programmed with ferocious plays: Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians and Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle. It is also that its productions have been detailed and unsparing. The physical conditions – the low ceiling, the cramped room where the audience almost spill on to the stage – mean that the space itself becomes a magnifying glass for actors. The best of them shine.
As do Kate Fleetwood and James Norton in Simon Evans’s production of Bug. Seeing Tracy Letts’s 1996 paranoia play here is like watching a disaster unfold in a shaving mirror. Agnes (Fleetwood), in mourning for a child that has vanished, high on coke and liquor, in fear of her battering ex-con husband, takes a Gulf war veteran, Peter (Norton), into her motel room. For a moment hope twinkles. But the bug starts here.
There is, it seems, an aphid in the bed – or a surveillance system implanted in Peter’s skin. Misery turns to horror, enclosed in the unnerving crackle of Ed Lewis’s soundscape. Huge red sores like infected tattoos; a bloodied nose; pliers meeting teeth. Norton – he of War and Peace and Happy Valley – slinks like a lashed dog. He looks utterly flayed, but is himself an infection.
Fleetwood is one of the few actors who can suggest impoverishment, of means and mettle, without flashing it like a cloak. She draws on the quality she showed in the film of London Road: magnetic despair.
By Michael Arditti
The Stars and Stripes have been flying over the British theatre with the opening of three very different American plays.
The first and finest is Tracy Letts’s Bug, in which James Norton’s Gulf War veteran convinces Kate Fleetwood’s lonely divorcee that he is the victim of experiments by military doctors and his body is the breeding ground for the next generation of germ warfare.
Letts’s play brilliantly captures the violence and paranoia that lurk just beneath the surface of American life and are currently fuelling Donald Trump’s bid for presidency. It is set in a seedy motel room, itself a potent metaphor for American rootlessness, and populated by a cast of misfits and loners.
Norton and Fleetwood give deeply committed performances in Simon Evans’s impassioned production. The play, which veers dangerously close to Grand Guignol, not least with Norton’s character’s do-it-yourself dentistry, gains immeasurably from the intimacy of the “pop-up theatre” setting.
The audience is so close to the action that, by the end, one is tempted to check one’s own clothes for bugs.
Yael Farber’s production is sensuous, rigorous and over-eager to cloak the play’s faults. It does, however, contain some of the finest ensemble acting seen at the National in an age.