Wednesday, 27 August 2014

DVD Review: Penny Dreadful

"Do you believe that there is a demi-monde?"

It is hard to credit that the first series of Penny Dreadful managed to encompass something as sublime as Eva Green’s magisterial lead performance as the haunted Vanessa Ives as well as one of the worst accents ever committed to celluloid (or whatever it is these days) in the form of Billie Piper’s Northern Irish brogue which, without due care, could well ignite some Troubles of its own. The transatlantic Showtime/Sky Atlantic co-production aired this summer and was conceived and written by John Logan and with an executive producer credit for Sam Mendes, it is no surprise that it is a quality product, albeit not without its issues.

Penny dreadfuls were a British 19th-century invention, sensationalist fiction with often lurid subject matter, and Logan has drawn on these alongside more well-known tales from the time from authors such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. So the show is set in 1891 London in a world heavy with the supernatural where noted explorer Sir Malcolm Murray is searching for his kidnapped daughter Mina. He is assisted by a motley crew – Green’s prepossessed Vanessa, Josh Hartnett’s sharp-shooting Ethan, Danny Sapani’s enigmatic Sembene, Harry Treadaway’s tortured Victor – but they soon find that (to borrow a phrase), the night is dark and full of terrors (and unexpected gayness).

DVD Review: Vicious

“I never know when I’m going too far but I’m always so glad when I do.”

It was with no little intrigue that I approached watching the boxset of ITV sitcom Vicious – memories of its run from last year focused on the absolute hammering it got, how it had apparently set representations of gay men back centuries and basically broken television. I have to admit to having no interest in watching it from the moment I’d heard about it but clearly something had mellowed by the time I spotted a bargain in a charity shop and sat down to watch Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a long-partnered, long-bickering couple.

Written and created by Gary Janetti (a veteran of US TV including Will & Grace) and Mark Ravenhill (a UK playwright of no little renown), it is an homage to, or more accurately a riff off, the world of 1970s sitcoms with its single living room set where Freddie and Stuart bitch away at each other all day long. They’re frequently joined on the sofa by barely-tolerated fag hag Violet, a deliciously fruity Frances De La Tour, and their newly arrived eye candy neighbour, the handsome but heterosexual Ash played by Iwan Rheon, and that’s pretty much your set-up from which endless capers abound.

Short Film Review #48

Eclipse Theatre’s 10by10 project was a series of short films “exploding the myth of a homogenised Black British culture”, all directed by Dawn Walton but written by and starring a wide range of some of our most exciting writers and performers. Filmed in 10 different cities across the UK, the hometowns of the playwrights in fact, and each shot in a single day, these make a fascinating insight into a wider cross-section of British society that perhaps is normally seen. Part 2 of 2.


Music in the Bones

Yusra Warsama’s Music in the Bones begins with Wunmi Mosaku’s Somaliwoman Amina running through a Manchester backstreet and quickly moves into flashback mode to tell us why. Mosaku has a beautifully modulated voice which is perfect for the narration here, aching with longing and loss and confusion and compassion. Beautiful. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Review: Little Stitches, Theatre503

“They held me down, My mother’s knees in my chest. Keeping me still. As that man sliced right into my soul.”

Four short plays on female genital mutilation (FGM) might be something of a hard sell on paper but in the flesh, this BAREtruth production is as stimulating as it is harrowing in its thought-provoking sweep across the ways in which this practice has encroached into our society and our own complicity in letting it happen. Alex Crampton ingeniously directs a company of five in a way which never preaches yet still asks its questions in a searching enough manner that means one doesn’t get off the hook that easily.

Isley Lynn’s opening Sleight of Hand is the most effective of the pieces in that respect, combining five monologues from different members of society on the periphery of FGM, each suspecting that something isn’t quite right but unsure about what if anything they might be able to do. From teachers to ice-cream vendors, a slyly comic tone seduces us in and then leaves us disarmed as the reality of what these women are forced to endure becomes apparent.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Re-review: The Bodyguard, Adelphi

"I don't really need to look very much further"

As The Bodyguard is soon to close in the West End with a UK tour scheduled for early next year, it seemed as good a choice as any for a Friday night out with the girls and a few bottles of wine. I saw the show when it first opened and recognised it exactly for what it is, uncomplicated blockbuster fun, and so I was happy to revisit. One of the sadder things about the continuation of the run though has been the move to star casting – I didn’t see Beverley Knight so I can’t comment on her performance but the current incumbent of the Rachel Marron role, immortalised by Whitney at the cinema, is X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke, a singer with no theatre experience.

Did it matter? It’s hard to tell in the end – she has the requisite booming voice to deliver the selections from Whitney’s back catalogue that are scattered through the show, although she really cannot resist the misguided inclination to throw in extra licks, riffs and wobbles into every single number, as if to prove a point that no-one is making. And her acting is neither here nor there, falling back on a lot of gesticulation to say what’s she saying and against a male lead part that asks nothing of Tristan Gemmill but to look craggy and an understudy on for sister Nicki (her singing voice strong but whose spoken accent was truly transatlantic, as Welsh as it was American), fitting right in.

Review: Edges, Tabard

“If your photo`s sexy then I might give you a poke”

I approached Pasek and Paul’s song cycle Edges with something of a little trepidation. Swimming against the critical tide somewhat, I was disappointed by their Dogfight and the Union’s production of See Rock City… reiterated the difficulties in nailing the song cycle format but regardless, I made the trip to Turnham Green to the Tabard, a theatre I don’t visit often enough for the UK professional premiere of Edges.

And I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, finding it the most satisfying out of the shows mentioned above. Adam Philpott’s production is simple – four twenty-somethings head out to the beach for the afternoon and just sing about life and love and Facebook and friends, trying to figure out some of the trials of young adulthood and the difficulties in finding your own place in a world that won’t stop to let you catch your breath.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review: Porgy and Bess, Open Air Theatre

"I'm full of all commotion like an ocean full of rhum"

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (as it appears to be styled here, in case you confuse it with Jedward’s Porgy and Bess) made for a striking component of the Open Air Theatre’s programme this summer. More folk opera than musical, it is perhaps a more challenging choice than usual but none the worse for it, the musical and dramatic spectacle heightened by an impressionistically remarkable design by Katrina Lindsay and director Timothy Sheader’s resourceful production which hammers home its musical strength.

From its tragically inclined leads, Nicola Hughes’ sensational Bess with her substance abuse issues and Rufus Bonds Jr’s impassioned dignity as Porgy, through brilliant support from the likes of Golda Roshuevel’s Serena and Sharon D Clarke’s Mariah, to the polar opposites of Jade Ewen’s impossibly pure Clara to croons the iconic lullaby Summertime and Cedric Neal’s sleazily cocky Sportin’ Life who swaggers through It Ain’t Necessarily So as he ensnares Bess with his wares, the sheer size and quality of this ensemble is truly something to behold.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Samantha Barks, Jon Robyns, Gina Beck and Alistair Barron – Up There


Friday, 22 August 2014

My top 10 favourite Doctor Who guest star appearances

With the new series of Doctor Who almost upon us, I thought I'd look back on some of my favourite guest spots on the show since it has come back on air, as it has become quite the magnet for actors to get on their CV. Have a look at my top 10, well 11, here and let me know who you think should have been on there instead.

Suranne Jones (The Doctor's Wife)
This is probably my all-time favourite moment out of all of the new Doctor Who episodes. Neil Gaiman's conceit was brilliantly simple, to bring the TARDIS to life, but Jones' performance elevates it to something extraordinary, I get goosebumps just thinking about it and this scene, from near the end, is just perfection. As Matt Smith's lip starts to wobble, we see the Doctor at his most affectingly human.


Review: Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre

“If I were a watch I'd start popping my springs!”

From the opening moments of an overture that demands the attention, it is clear that Chichester’s revival of the Broadway classic Guys and Dolls is going to be a scorcher. Director Gordon Greenberg utilises not only Carlos Acosta as choreographer but also Andrew Wright as a co-choreographer and the combination of the two is simply explosive – these are no two-bit routines that people are shuffling around, this is proper dance and it is thrilling to behold.

It helps of course to be connected to Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ amiable book, based on Damon Runyon’s characters, about the travails of a bunch of New York gamblers, and Frank Loesser’s evergreen music and lyrics which churns out classic after classic after classic. Greenberg wisely doesn’t interfere much at all with the material, just cultivating warmth from all of his performers and particularly his two leading couples, making them utterly adorable.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review: Thérèse Raquin, Theatre Royal Bath


"I am yours. Do what you want with me” 

It is clearly the moment for Thérèse Raquin- a stage adaptation in Bath (and touring to Malvern and Cambridge), the Finborough’s musical version transferring to the Park Theatre, and a film of the story also hitting our cinemas recently. Émile Zola’s 1867 novel heralded a new world of naturalism in literature in its focus on mood rather than character and has remained an enduring classic, hence this confluence of versions now and a cheeky trip to the penultimate show of the run at the gorgeous Theatre Royal Bath. 

Reflecting Zola’s intent, Jonathan Munby’s direction is highly theatrical and brings a powerful lyricism to the stage, bringing in Ann Yee to provide a fluid movement style that is near-balletic and which captures the yearning spirit perfectly – in a world where so much is unsaid, body language becomes ever more eloquent. And Helen Edmundson’s version emphasises Thérèse’s elemental connection to the water and the fevered eroticism that takes her over, unutterably disrupting her world as sex, murder and self-destruction come a-knocking to liven up her dull life forcibly married to her cousin in the Parisian backstreets. 

Re-review: Thérèse Raquin, Park Theatre

“They are drawn by the inescapble promptings of their flesh!"

A well-deserved transfer for this hit Finborough musical although coming a few months after that original run, the production has had to be recast a bit along with being reconceived for the larger space of the Park Theatre. On a personal note, whilst I loved being able to listen to the pleasingly textured score once again, it was also interesting to come back to the show with a much greater knowledge of the story, having recently seen both a play and a film of Thérèse Raquin, thus enabling me to compare and contrast adaptations.

This version hedges its bets from the beginning by describing itself as a “radical adaptation” by Nona Shepphard but what is interesting is that Shepphard is the only one who tries to replicate something of Thérèse’s interior life, which is so richly portrayed in the novel, by using a chorus of three river women. It works both dramatically and musically, creating additional layers to the vocals and these hints of Greek tragedy with its chorus passing commentary is used effectively elsewhere, most notably in reporting the news of Camille’s tragic ‘accident’.