Till the Stars Come Down: 'an early contender for the best play of the year'

Bijan Sheibani's blistering comedy about three sisters in Mansfield is like 'Chekhov on Heineken'

Sinéad Matthews (Sylvia), Lisa McGrillis (Maggie), Philip Whitchurch (Uncle Pete), Lorraine Ashbourne (Aunty Carol) and Lucy Black (Hazel) in Till the Stars Come Down at the National Theatre
Sinéad Matthews (Sylvia), Lisa McGrillis (Maggie), Philip Whitchurch (Uncle Pete), Lorraine Ashbourne (Aunty Carol) and Lucy Black (Hazel) in Till the Stars Come Down at the National Theatre
(Image credit: Manuel Harlan)

"Too often, when working-class characters are allowed on stage, they speak in the voice of a socially conscious playwright who has just returned from a field trip," said Clive Davis in The Times. But in this new play at the National – set in the former pit town of Mansfield – the characters' "passions, jokes and prejudices" feel totally authentic.

With three sisters at its centre and its regional setting, Beth Steel's "unmissable" jewel of a play is like "Chekhov on Heineken", said Sarah Crompton on What's on Stage. It's a blistering comedy, yet "full of the deepest, saddest truths about life and love" – and it reaches "the parts other plays don't reach".

For theatregoers starved of top-class new drama, there's a real feel of "at last!" about this production, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. We start in the house of a widowed ex-miner whose daughter, Sylvia, is marrying Marek, a local Polish man; and we end in a pub garden amid increasingly drunken celebrations. 

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If there is, perhaps, a touch of "soap-ishness" to the betrayals and intrigues along the way, Steel "convinces you of the epic emotions contained in small-town lives". The play is brilliantly staged by director Bijan Sheibani, and dazzlingly performed. Sinead Matthews brims with fragile hope and "numinous yearning" as Sylvia, while Lorraine Ashbourne steals scenes as the fantastically gobby Aunty Carol.

This is a "beautifully observed and often bruisingly hilarious play", said Andrzej Lukowski on Time Out. My only complaint is that the character of Marek is thinly written and unconvincing. He's apparently the only Polish person at his wedding – no family, no best man – which makes it feel like his only function is to "complicate the English characters". 

And Marc Wootton's attempt at a Polish accent is practically a "hate crime". Still, the evening is overwhelmingly a success – funny and heartbreaking. It's an "uproariously enthralling" drama, agreed Nick Curtis in the London Evening Standard – "an early contender for the best play of the year".

Dorfman, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 3989 5455). Until 16 March

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