Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Critics' Circle Awards 2011: the winners in full

Best New Play

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean

The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical

London Road

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein

Best Actress

Sheridan Smith in Flare Path

The John and Wendy Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance

Eddie Redmayne in Richard II

Best Director

Mike Leigh for Grief

Best Designer 

Mark Tildesley for Frankenstein

Most Promising Playwright

Tom Wells for The Kitchen Sink

The Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer [other than a playwright]

Blanche McIntyre in Accolade & Foxfinder

Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

“Keep it cheerful”

In some ways, there’s no point in commenting on Alan Ayckbourn as a playwright – his position in the pantheon is evidently secured and his body of work is frequently revived and toured around the country. And with such a prolific pen, it is a considerable number of plays that he has now amassed – 75 at the last count. However, I have never really been seduced by him, the only play I’ve really liked was the atypical Snake in the Grass, the majority of his pieces have struck me as somewhat inconsequential and sitcom-like, and further dulled by repetition as evidenced by the smattering of his oeuvre I have witnessed. But I can never resist a ticket being dropped into my hand and the lure of an interesting looking cast meant that I took in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

One of his earlier works from 1974, Absent Friends sees Ayckbourn train his aim on death and the different ways people deal with it. Colin’s old friends are holding a Saturday afternoon tea party to comfort him after the unfortunate death of his fiancee but as they attempt to step gingerly around the topic, he is more than willing to talk about her, their short time together and show his photo collection to everyone. But what Colin is blithely unaware of is that the perfect lives that he imagines they are all living are a sham and behind the forced smiles over the sandwiches, lies a seething mass of jealousy, anger and frustration that is coming to the boil and it becomes apparent that it is not him whose really in need of tea and comfort.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida

“They are women without men, that’s all”

The list of actresses whom I adore is forever growing and changing but certain women remain constant on it, and one of them – who I never thought I would get to see on stage – is Shohreh Aghdashloo. She completely broke my heart in the film House of Sand and Fog (for which she was Oscar-nominated) and then toyed with our loyalties with a brilliant duplicitous turn in series 4 of 24. So when she was announced as taken on the titular role in the Almeida’s new version of The House of Bernarda Alba, I was ecstatic.

Emily Mann’s adaptation relocates Lorca’s Spanish story to rural Iran and changes a few of the names, but largely keeps the architecture of the play intact (although compressed into 95 minutes here). It is a relocation which is extremely successful, the oppression and repression of female sexuality sadly fitting in as easily here as in Catholic Spain and class issues are common across the world, making this a powerfully affecting, beautifully staged and haunting production that lived up to my every expectation. 

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Weekend #3 – Philip Pullman

I love it when you stumble on greatness unexpectedly and so it was with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first book Northern Lights was bought for me (probably by Aunty Jean or my mum) and I remember loving it from the off, and the fact that we then had to wait, like properly wait, for the second and third installations, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, was an exquisite kind of torture, the best kind of anticipation and one that I haven’t really had with a book since. Investigating the rest of his canon made me a genuine fan and so I’ve kept a keen eye on adaptations of his work.

This weekend sees me revisiting the ill-fated film adaptation of Northern Lights, The Golden Compass and the two Sally Lockhart mysteries that were on the BBC a few years back – The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North.

DVD Review: The Ruby in the Smoke

Part of Philip Pullman weekend

“I mean to have that ruby”

The Ruby from the Smoke is the first in a series of four books featuring adventuring lead character Sally Lockhart. Here a mysterious message received from her father just before he drowned in the South China Seas sets her on a dangerous journey which starts with a man dying in front of her very eyes at the mere mention of what is contained within. She is then drawn into a mystery involving the opium trade, the fabled Ruby of Agrapur and even secrets from her own family history as her life is under constant peril from the dastardly Mrs Holland.

This was one of those things that I pretty much knew I was going to love from the moment I heard about it, but it certainly does help that I do really like the actress that Billie Piper has become. There’s an inner strength to her as well as a richly warm quality that is highly endearing and ideally suited to this modern figure of a woman, challenging Victorian notions of womanhood as she strives to uncover the truth. And Pullman writes extremely well for his female characters, something carried over in Adrian Hodges’ screenplay, as Hayley Atwell’s Rosa makes a sterling ally for Sally and as the evil Mrs Holland, Julie Walters makes a convincing villain. Obviously casting against type, it is an astonishingly effective performance, exuding huge malevolence and full of spine-chilling touches – the false teeth in particular – it’s a vein of work she ought to pursue a little more.

DVD Review: The Shadow in the North

Part of Philip Pullman weekend

“I thought you had a bit of milk in your coconut”

The second (and last) of The Sally Lockhart Mysteries to be adapted for the television, The Shadow in the North very much pales in the shadow of The Ruby in the Smoke for me as the lesser of the two, which is a real shame as I did love the latter and felt it showed great promise in setting up the mini-franchise. This story sees Sally following up a client who has lost her savings after investing in a company, on Sally’s advice, which went bust suspiciously. The mysterious industrialist behind that company the Swedish Axel Bellman quickly set up again and so Sally’s instincts are aroused as she investigates the business dealings in order to get compensation for her client. But accusing such a powerful man of corruption and fraud sets her on a most dangerous course and puts the lives of those around her at severe risk.

So the ingredients are there, and the story is one I enjoyed reading, but something was just missing. The mystery never quite has the drive to keep the story going, the tone ends up being rather dour rather than dark and subsequently doesn’t grip like it ought. And its nature means that Billie Piper’s Sally is given less chance to interact with the key players around her – it is Pullman’s fault rather than the show’s but it is a real shame that Hayley Atwell’s Rosa is dispatched to marital bliss in the country within 10 minutes of the show starting as they made a great team. Instead, the personal intrigue is around whether Sally will admit to her feelings for JJ Feild’s Fred (still so handsome!) and Matt Smith’s Jim, thankfully no longer the narrator, hangs around like a bit of a spare part, though gets to do a lot of the investigating (bizarrely though off-screen and on his own...).

Cast of The Ruby in the Smoke continued

Cast of The Shadow in the North continued

DVD Review: The Golden Compass

Part of Philip Pullman weekend

“There are worlds beyond our own”

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are amongst my favourite novels ever, and the National Theatre’s adaptation of the stories into a two-part play was a stunning interpretation that also ranks amongst my all-time favourites (I also trekked to Bath to see a youth theatre production and to the Lowry for a touring version). So the news of a film version of the first story, The Golden Compass (as it was renamed for the North American market from its original title Northern Lights) left me quite excited, though a little trepidatious at how Pullman’s writing would survive the Hollywood machine.

As it turns out, it didn’t really. Studio politics, script issues and intense pressure from Catholic organisations meant that the project had a most difficult genesis and creative process, Chris Weitz ending up writing and directing despite leaving the project and several other people working on it. So the tale of Lyra Belacqua’s brave journeying to the frozen north in a parallel universe to rescue her friend Roger as the mysterious Lord Asriel sets about a discovery that will challenge the highest Authority in the land which is so incredibly rich and detailed in the novel loses depth and magic to become just another special effects-laden fantasy flick.

Cast of The Golden Compass continued

Review: Shallow Slumber, Soho Theatre

"It's not random, it's not prying; it's considered and planned" 

Taking inspiration from the infamous Baby P case and his own experiences as a full-time social worker, Chris Lee’s play Shallow Slumber makes for brutal but compassionately compelling theatre. Played out in traverse in the intimacy of the Soho Theatre Upstairs, the relationship between Dawn, a young first-time mother, and Moira, her well-meaning social worker is traced out over three encounters spread over a number of years, seeking to explore the lives, motivations and issues that lie behind the hysterical headlines that often accompany accounts of child abuse.

Lee chooses to tell his story in reverse. So we open with Dawn making an unexpected visit to Moira’s house and both dealing with the aftermath of a horrific event which has had major repercussions on both their lives, and then we cycle back through another key encounter to their first meeting as Dawn reluctantly submits to the first intervention from Social Services. Inbetween these key scenes are two short monologues that add a little more context to these characters as we discover a little more about them. But the playwright doesn’t give us an easy ride, as if there could be such a thing with such a subject, by employing a measure of ambiguity throughout.

TV Review: We'll Take Manhattan

"They don't photograph just anyone you know"

You will of course be aware that it was Helen McCrory Weekend the weekend before last and in recognition of thereof, up popped two related treats: the announcement of her appearing in The Last of the Haussmans with Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear at the National Theatre and a new TV film she was in, We’ll Take Manhattan. I duly caught up with the show on iPlayer this weekend and though she gave an epic performance, I can’t say I cared that much for it.

The show followed the story of David Bailey, Aneurin Barnard in leather jacket, as he emerged as a photographic force to be reckoned with in the early 1960s, shaking up the whole fashion industry with an iconic photo shoot in New York starring his muse Jean Shrimpton, Karen Gillan marking out her possible post-Doctor Who options. McCrory starred as Lady Clare Rendlesham, fashion editor at Vogue and the representative of the old guard that Bailey so detested and wanted to be rid of.

Review: The Jinx Element, Radio 4

Having loved the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome that I listened to last week, my anticipation for The Jinx Element was quite high and that’s always a dangerous place to be. Sadly, my expectations weren’t really met by this radio play by Stephen Wakelam which told the story of Wharton’s affair with younger journalist Morton Fullerton, this being (part of at least) the inspiration for the story behind Ethan Frome. Told through the eyes of her friend Henry James, we see the impact of the liaison on the 47 year-old Wharton, on her stale marriage to Teddy Wharton and the creative impulses that it released in her.

But for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me. In truth, it came across as a rather dull effort to me – the narrative device is one which I’m never sure about as it does mean that there’s a lot of reportage rather than action and it’s not always the most entertaining. It was nice to hear Fenella Woolgar as Wharton again though her performance was a little too restrained for my liking, and the same went for Patrick Baladi’s Morton and Allan Corduner’s Henry James – just too much reserve all around.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Review: She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre

“Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no fibs"

Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer was last seen at the National Theatre in 2002 in an Out of Joint co-production, but has now been revived by the seemingly tireless Jamie Lloyd with a star-studded ensemble dripping with talent, both established and new, and breathing an entirely fresh energy into the Olivier theatre.

This comedy of manners centres on the Hardcastle clan, a family of means in the country: daughter Kate is due to be married off to young Marlow, the son of a friend of Mr Hardcastle's but she is determined to ensure the match is to her liking; Mrs Hardcastle is determined to have her heiress ward Miss Neville married off to her own son Tony in order to keep her fortune in the family though Miss Neville's attentions are focused on Marlow's friend Hastings. But when Marlow and Hastings get lost on their way from London and end up in a bawdy inn frequented by Tony, he espies an opportunity to make mayhem and sets in chain a series of mischiefs, misunderstandings and mistaken identities as convoluted courtships and class differences collide in the countryside.

Review: Constellations, Royal Court

"We have all the time we've always had"

When the Royal Court announced their forthcoming season with two hours notice, I was unable to get online in good time to book any of the beloved £10 Monday tickets for the shows upstairs. Generally speaking, any show at the Royal Court is worth taking a punt on, but I have been exercising a little discretion for once when it comes to the upstairs shows and so I was quite reconciled to the notion having tickets for none of them. But then of course the casting news came in and the revelation that Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall would be starring in Nick Payne's Constellations meant I had to have a ticket. Karma was good to me though and one random day when browsing the website, limited availability showed up instead of the usual sold out and so I was able to snaffle a ticket for a Thursday matinee - just goes to show it is worth keeping an eye on theatres' websites even when shows are reporting as sold out.

Nick Payne's last play, also upstairs at the Royal Court, was Wanderlust and I have to admit to not caring a great deal for it (part of the reason I wasn't too gutted at not getting tickets in the first instance) but the word of mouth for Constellations had been inescapably good and the anticipation in the room before the start was palpable. Tom Scutt's design puts a raised platform, made of tesselated hexagons, in the centre of the auditorium with seating on all four sides, but fills the ceiling with helium-filled balloons which also escape into the passage that leads into the theatre. And on this platform, Hawkins and Spall play Marianne and Roland, a quantum cosmologist and a beekeeper respectively, whose lives intertwine and intersect in a multitude of ways.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Review: The Pitchfork Disney, Arcola

"That's a nice jacket, a real bobbydazzler"

Some playwrights click with you instantly, and others just don't. Philip Ridley is one of the latter for me, my limited experience with his work has not been one that I've enjoyed and I've struggled to make a connection with what it is he is trying to say. He delights in the darkly poetic and wilfully enigmatic, but I rarely get on with that type of play – the word ‘lyrical’ increasingly strikes fear into my heart. But I do like to test out my limits regularly and so I had no problem booking for The Pitchfork Disney at the Arcola to see if it could change my mind.

Written in 1991, this was Ridley's first play and heralded the new age of in-yer-face theatre with its harsh outlook and depictions of deep social unease and fantastical violence. Twins Presley and Haley live a sheltered existence in a pokey East London, very rarely venturing out into the real world and subsisting on a limited diet of chocolate bars and pills. As we see how twisted and inter-dependent their relationship has become with each sharing disturbing stories with the other, we find out that their parents are no longer with us and haven't been for some time. An unexpected knock at the door reveals the mysteriously flamboyant figure of Cosmo Disney who sets about shaking up the brother/sister dynamic as we edge closer to finding out about what happened to their parents, and just who Disney's associate Pitchfork is.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Review: Master Class, Vaudeville

“Never miss an opportunity to theatricalise”

The obvious place to start with this review of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class is to take note of the fact that following Sharon Gless’ turn in A Round-Heeled Woman, it is now Tyne Daly’s turn as she reprises her Broadway performance as Maria Callas here. But even as it now means that I’ve seen both Cagney and Lacey on the stage, I have never actually seen an episode of Cagney and Lacey! A Round-Heeled Woman has now finished but as Master Class starts up its limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre (this was a preview), I have no hesitations in totally recommending booking for this fabulous show.

Initial signs were not encouraging as Daly’s first arrival on stage was met with rapturous applause, a personal bugbear but something more is going on as the fourth wall was immediately dismantled and it becomes apparent that we in the audience are actually playing a part in the show. Based on a series of master classes that renowned opera singer Maria Callas actually held at Juilliard in the 1970s, we see three students present their efforts for deconstruction by the great diva and by golly does she deconstruct. And we are acknowledged as the audience watching the master class, Callas jokes with us, hectors and exhorts us to embrace her every word and generally folds us into proceedings in the most engaging of manners.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Review: Bette and Joan and Baby Jane

“We’re just two professional dames doing our jobs”

Last year saw Anton Burge’s play Bette and Joan prove something of a success at the Arts Theatre and it is now heading out on a national tour with Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi reprising their roles this year. But a radio play which played on Radio 4 back in 2010 covered similar ground first and as it was made available to download from the Audiogo website at a most reasonable price, I purchased a copy of Bette and Joan and Baby Jane. The debut radio play by Tracy-Ann Oberman, the story uses the incident-ridden filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to hang the tale of the deep-seated enmity between its stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, how their rivalry played out on the film set and also revisit some of the history between them.

Oberman takes on the role of Crawford herself and Catherine Tate plays Bette Davis: both give great vocal performances but Davis’ inimitable tones are a gift of a role and Tate rises to the challenge superbly, capturing perfectly the clipped Mid-Atlantic voice, often dripping with condescension. We start at the home of newshound Hedda Hopper who has secured an interview with the two women who were taking a huge risk by taking on such a daring project whilst both in something of a career dip. When Hopper can’t get the dirt she is looking for as the bitter relationship between the two was no secret, she takes more furtive means to get the story.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Review: Ethan Frome, Radio 4

“He felt like he was in another world”

And so my delving into the world of radio drama continues with this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome. Serialised on Radio 4’s Woman Hour as was Possession, this didn’t appear to get the omnibus treatment so I had to listen to it in 15 minute chunks, but by leaving it until it had finished, I was able to listen to them all in one night. To be honest, I find the idea of listening to a part a day quite odd especially as they’re only 15 minutes long, but then the whole world of listening to the radio is alien to me and it obviously works well for them ;-)

Ethan Frome is perhaps not as well known as Wharton’s other works such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but actually contains the most autobiographical detail as it took large inspiration from her own sexless marriage and ensuing passionate affair with a younger man. (The story of which is covered in the accompanying Saturday play The Jinx Element which I’ll be listening to next.) And Lin Coghlan’s dramatisation plays on this by making Edith Wharton, voiced here by the incomparable Fenella Woolgar, the narrator of the story.

Review: Sea Wall, Bush Theatre via t’internet

“I’ve never worn a wetsuit before”

In the midst of all the opinion, and boy was there a lot of it, about Andrew Scott’s performance as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock which has recently had its second series, a fellow (uppity) blogger made me aware of another opportunity to see Scott acting, this time in a filmed version of the play/monologue Sea Wall. This little gem, which is available to either buy or rent from its own little website, originally played at the Bush Theatre and then at the Edinburgh Festival and was written by Simon Stephens especially for Scott.

As others have pointed out, it is difficult to review a monologue effectively without revealing too much and so I will limit what I say here. My recommendation is to give it a whirl regardless of how you feel: if you like Andrew Scott, then you won’t be disappointed, if you think you don’t like him (especially because of Sherlock) then this is guaranteed to change your mind. The set-up is a video diary with Scott often delivering right into the camera, his intense gaze rarely letting go as the story gathers force in reaching its harrowingly dramatic conclusion.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review: King John, Union

"Whate'er you think, good words, I think, were best"

Given the ubiquity of productions of Shakespeare’s works in so many of our theatres, and in particular of certain works within the canon, one might assume that those that remain neglected remain so for a very good reason. But director Phil Willmott and the Union Theatre clearly do not agree and after the successful run last year of Double Falsehood, its disputed authorship notwithstanding, they have now turned to a play that was definitely by Shakespeare, but remains very rarely produced in the modern day – King John. They say things come in threes and after having seen Prince John in The Lion in Winter and in the RSC's The Heart of Robin Hood, it seems apt to seen him all grown up in this play, even if it might as well have been three different people for all the continuity of character!

The play is focused on questions of legitimacy as John acceded to the throne at the expense of his nephew Arthur to control the Angevin Empire whose borders stretched far into France due to the land originally held by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. But he is not a natural-born leader like his father Henry II or brother Richard the Lionheart and his already tenuous hold on his kingdom is further threatened when the King of France throws his support behind young Arthur and demands his abdication. Thus John is driven to increasingly desperate action as battles rage, noblemen’s loyalties waver and to cap it all off, the Pope is displeased and is considering excommunicating him.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Weekend #2 - Helen McCrory

I would happily talk about Helen McCrory all day long, she is probably my all-time favourite actress - I think I would travel almost anywhere to see her onstage - and certainly one of the strongest we have working across theatre, film and television. Yet despite all this, she remains slightly under the radar, not many people know who she is by name alone but as her projects become increasingly high-profile, such anonymity cannot last long.

Most people will probably know her as Narcissa Malfoy from the Harry Potter films. She was originally cast as Bellatrix but had to withdraw due to pregnancy allowing Helena Bonham-Carter to take over, which I daresay was perhaps a better choice, though it would have been fascinating to see what she would have done with Bellatrix. Obviously still wanted by the Harry Potter franchise, she took the much smaller role of Draco’s mother in the later films and if you pay attention, it is actually her who saves the world at the end with her actions! She is also now filming the new Bond film Skyfall which fills me with endless excitement though if she is anything less than the new Goldfinger, I will be devastated.

Her work, whether on stage or screen, has the kind of lasting memorable quality that crept up on me rather slowly as I came to realise she is probably one of the finest actors we are blessed to have working. I’ve seen her onstage three times now: in As You Like It, Rosmersholm and The Late Middle Classes, but I’ve been a fan for a long time and so I’m blogging the things that made me fall in love with her: TV shows North Square, Charles II: The Power and the Passion and The Jury, as well as revisiting other things she has been in Frankenstein and Charlotte Gray, and watching a couple of films with her in for the first time, Becoming Jane and Casanova. I may well catch up with her work in other things for a later weekend, but I think this will do for now. So, welcome into the world of one of my obsessions!

DVD Review: North Square

Part of Helen McCrory Weekend
“Do the thing you have to to get your client off”

Helen McCrory first came to my attention as one of the lead characters in legal ensemble show North Square. Broadcast on Channel 4 in 2000, it featured a cracking ensemble that also included Rupert Penry-Jones, Dominic Rowan and Phil Davis, yet it only had the one series which I don’t think you can get on DVD but it is available to watch on Channel 4’s 4 On Demand service.

Written by Peter Moffat, North Square is a drama set in a criminal chambers in Leeds and centres on a group of young, irreverent barristers all determined to make their mark by using unorthodox methods and unconventional approaches to counter the dusty practices of a legal profession they want to lead into the twenty-first century. They are led by their chief clerk, the highly manipulative Peter McLeish played brilliantly by Phil Davis, who is determined to make a success of this enterprise and has no scruples about negotiating with the criminal families that rule Leeds in order to maximise business opportunities even as it poses a moral quandary for some of the lawyers.

Cast of North Square continued

Cast of North Square continued

DVD Review: The Jury

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

"I know first hand the cruelty he’s capable of”

Though North Square was probably the first time I really took notice of Helen McCrory, it was in The Jury that she really stole my heart and for ages, it was this show that I fruitlessly referenced when trying to explain who she was. Written by Peter Morgan, the Jury played on ITV in 2002 over 6 episodes following a single court case as a Sikh teenager is accused of killing his 15 year old classmate. But rather than focusing on the case, as the title suggests the attention was the men and women that made up the jury and how the experience affected their lives in a multitude of ways.

McCrory played Rose, a rather nervous woman with an overbearing husband (boo, Mark Strong) who unexpectedly finds a sense of freedom in being allowed out into a new world and seizes the opportunity with both hands. Stuck in a room with people she doesn't know, she almost reinvents herself from scratch and find herself increasingly drawn to Johnnie, who is played by a pre-Hollywood Gerard Butler (so who can blame her). He has his own challenges from a troubled recent past though and so whilst the sweet relationship that builds between the two is beautifully essayed as one senses the genuine spark between the pair, the small matter of his demons and her husband remain in the way.

Cast of The Jury continued

DVD Review: Charles II The Power and the Passion

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

“It’s amazing what Parliament will do when they feel guilty”

Charles II: The Power and the Passion was a 2003 BBC miniseries the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again in these times of austerity as it was a sprawlingly lavish costume drama, directed by a young Joe Wright. Covering the life and reign of Charles II, it starts just before his restoration to the throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell and runs right through to his death. Thus as 27 years of history are condensed into 4 hours, liberties and dramatic license is freely taken and this isn’t really the place to be too pernickety about this kind of things.

We follow Charles from his libidinous time in exile on the continent to arriving back in London to be crowned King and to lock horns with Parliament. Charles still believed strongly in the absolute power of the monarchy but the politicians of the day were determined not to surrender any of their new-gained influence and so much struggles ensued as members of his court both grew in influence and fell from favour as everyone jockeys for power and to make sure they’re on the winning side. There is also the matter of the succession as Charles has no legitimate heir, though plenty of illegitimate offspring, and wants his brother named but he is a Catholic.

Cast of Charles II continued

DVD Review: Frankenstein

Part of Helen McCrory weekend 

Even goddesses sometime make mis-steps and this modern-day rewriting of Frankenstein by Jed Mercurio probably fits closer to that category than anything else I’ve seen her in. A 2007 ITV special, it adapted Mary Shelley’s story into a contemporary world of stem cells and genetic engineering and cast McCrory as the lead, Doctor Victoria Frankenstein if you will. The new take is superficially surprisingly effective as the main thrust of the story is that Victoria is running an organ-growing experiment - the Universal Xenograft project - and is extremely motivated by the fact her young son is suffering from a terminal disease, his only hope being multiple organ transplant… As his condition worsens, so her desperation increases, resulting in her injecting her son William’s blood into the procedure though it is too late to save him. This has unexpected consequences though and in the murky void between bioethics and unscrupulous moneymen, the experiment is allowed to continue though no-one is sure exactly what has been created.

The emotional power of the story is heightened by the simple gender switch, McCrory excels at evoking the earth-shattering grief of a mother nursing her dying child and struggling to come to terms with the reality of his condition. That she channels her energies into her research is unsurprising and it is not by chance that it takes 9 months for the being – the UX - to enter the world. The relationship that then develops between creature and creator is then a most twisted one because of the genetic material contained within, part of her dead son is in the UX and in her grieving state, the lines become blurred. Contrasted against this relationship is the cold calculating mind of Victoria’s boss, Professor Pretorius – a steely turn from Lindsay Duncan – who is alive to the monetary and business potential that has come from this huge scientific breakthough. Victoria’s estranged husband also reappears on the scene though he is not all he seems as he has his own designs on the UX.

Cast of Frankenstein continued

DVD Review: Charlotte Gray

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

"Is it possible for a person to commit a crime without knowing it"

My abiding memory of seeing Charlotte Gray at the cinema was the much, much belated realisation that I had indeed previously read the book by Sebastian Faulks, it finally clicking about 10 minutes from the end as I realised I knew who she was going to see at the top of the stairs! I did enjoy the film though, even if it didn’t go down particularly well with the rest of the world, for it hits many of my buttons – I love Cate Blanchett, I love wartime stories that focus on women and I love France.

I also love Helen McCrory and she makes a brief, but enormously impactful cameo in this film which was a joy to return to and appreciate, me not being aware of who she was first time round, along with its other various treats. Charlotte Gray is set mainly in Vichy France during World War II where our eponymous heroine, a shy Scottish woman has joined the French Resistance as a covert operative. Her motivations are mixed though as she is determined to find the man for whom she has fallen hard, an RAF pilot, but as the war continues and Charlotte becomes accustomed to life undercover, her priorities begin to change as she learns much more about herself than she ever anticipated, thanks to the attentions of her handsome contact Julien, Billy Crudup, and his father, Michael Gambon in excellent form as Levade and the two Jewish orphans that they are harbouring and to whom she becomes housekeeper.

Cast of Charlotte Gray continued

DVD Review: Becoming Jane

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

“Consider, this is likely to be your best offer”

(This was actually written before Helen McCrory Weekend was conceptualised but I felt it fitted in better here than in the post-Christmas splurge.) Another film that was over Christmas that I hadn't seen before was Becoming Jane. Falling neatly into the costume drama niche, I thought I was in for a nice time but it all too easily fell into one of those traps most beloved by playwrights when writing about real people: fictionalised reality. So what we have is a mixture of truth about Jane Austen's life and a fictionalised version of a romance with lawyer Thomas Lefroy, combined with the additional directorial choice of having the events of the film be the direct inspiration for Austen's first novel, Pride and Prejudice.

What this meant was that much of the film was robbed of its spontaneity. Julie Walters as the hectoring mother and James Cromwell as the kindly father were entirely predictable, as was Maggie Smith's Lady Gresham - the Lady Catherine de Bourgh figure. There was hardly any room for the story to breathe of its own accord which was a real shame as this was where it was actually better. The chemistry between Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy as Austen and Lefroy - apparently the bona fide inspiration for the character of Darcy - is palpable and effectively deployed throughout the film, as Austen's certainties crumble in the face of genuine passion. And also in the slightly transgressive romance between Jane's brother and her older widowed cousin, the seductive Comptesse de Feullide played with glee by Lucy Cohu, an actress I love and whose presence I was nicely surprised with in this.

Cast of Becoming Jane continued

DVD Review: Casanova

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

"Be the flame, not the moth"

Taking in Lasse Hallström’s 2005 film version of Casanova was quite an odd experience in the end, a rather overwhelming sadness at Heath Ledger's passing struck me from the off, in a manner that hadn't hit me before, even whilst watching his final performances in The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus much closer to his untimely death in 2008. But I was resolved to watch as many films with Helen McCrory in as possible and so I continued with it.

She plays Casanova's mother and so her appearance was limited to an opening sequence which set the scene for the film, her leaving him with his grandmother as a young boy and then disappearing from his life. [SPOILER ALERT] She then reappears in the finale in the nick of time to save Casanova's bacon and is involved in the swashbuckling, sword-brandishing showdown as all those trying to catch up with the lusty lothario chase him through the streets of Venice. It's a small role, and one that sadly allows little opportunity for McCrory to really make her mark, one would be hard-pressed to really remember her in this particular film, but sometimes that is just the way it goes.

Cast of Casanova continued

Friday, 20 January 2012

Review: The Trial of Ubu, Hampstead

“Maybe the only thing we're obliged to do...is think the unthinkable"

One always knows that when Katie Mitchell’s name appears in connection with a play, then it is bound to be something just a little bit different as she has proved herself to be one of our most original, and consequently divisive, directors. Her latest foray into the theatre is with Simon Stephens’ satirical new play The Trial of Ubu which is just starting at the Hampstead Theatre. Mitchell has recently collaborated with both: Stephens’ play Wastwater left me more than a little bemused at the Royal Court but her installation piece small hours which played as part of the Hampstead Downstairs season last year was quietly, disturbingly excellent.

The Trial of Ubu is quite something else though. Dark, disconcerting and challenging, it really is unlike anything else in London at the moment. I saw it without knowing anything about it, or indeed about the play itself to be honest, aside from having a vague recollection of having heard a mention of Père Ubu once upon a time. And it is obviously up to you how forewarned you want to be about the show, just be aware that what will follow will necessarily contain a few spoilers.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Review: Swallows and Amazons, Chichester Festival Theatre

"Better drowned than duffers"

Originally a big success for the Bristol Old Vic last Christmas, Swallows and Amazons was revived for this festive season and has just spent a month in the West End at the Vaudeville Theatre ahead of an extensive UK tour. Starting off here in Chichester, Arthur Ransome's 1930 novel has been adapted by Helen Edmunson, sprinkled with songs from The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon and directed by Tom Morris, it emerges as a delightfully inventive and highly imaginative production.

It works so well because it captures a long-lost spirit of play so very genuinely. From beginning to end, the show exudes a joyous playful spirit that almost immediately makes us forget we're watching adults pretending to be kids. As the four Walker children set off to set up camp on an uninhabited island near their holiday home, they are whisked into a thrilling adventure beyond their wildest imagination and we are there with them for every beautifully-realised step.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: And No More Shall We Part, Hampstead Downstairs

"I still love you like in the beginning"

If you're suffering from the January blues, then the theatre can often provide a convenient respite. But be careful about the show you pick, as following on from the tear-jerking Lovesong at the Lyric Hammersmith is another piece that seems determined to make you reach for the tissues - Tom Holloway's And No More Shall We Part. A play about assisted suicide is rarely going to be easy viewing and in the intimate space downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre (I unwisely chose to sit on the front row), this two-hander is gently uncompromising stuff.

Pam is suffering from some unspecified terminal disease and has decided that she wants to take matters into her own hands and end her life whilst she still has her faculties and her dignity. But when the time comes, the tablets take much longer than anticipated to take hold and over several hours, horrified husband Don is forced to watch as the end comes, agonisingly slowly. The wait for release is interpersed with scenes from the recent past as we see Pam informing Don of what she has decided and his struggle to accept her wishes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review: Our New Girl, Bush

“Sometimes we have to take care of things we’re frightened of”

After winning London Theatre of the Year in The Stage’s awards and the considerable success of The Kitchen Sink before Christmas, expectations are certainly riding high at the Bush Theatre as Josie Rourke’s final season as Artistic Director continues. Our New Girl is a play by Nancy Harris, who’s also playing at the Gate with her Kreutzer Sonata, which on first glance bears similarities to Tom Wells’ play as it is set largely in a kitchen, though we soon come to see we’re in a whole other universe (with better plumbing).

Hazel has given up her high-flying career as a top lawyer to run an olive oil importing business from home to allow her to spend more time at home with son Daniel and an imminent new arrival; her plastic surgeon husband Richard is away in Haiti on a charitable mission and has engaged Annie, an Irish nanny to help out around the house. But the picture-perfect suburban lifestyle is showing severe cracks: no-one is buying olive oil, Daniel is something of a problem child to say the least and Richard neglected to tell Hazel about the fact that he was getting professional help for her. That the nanny is seemingly perfect at her job only raises Hazel’s hackles further and as things begin to take a more sinister turn, it seems her suspicions may not be entirely baseless.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Cast of Wilde continued

Radio Review: Possession, Radio 4

“It’s as if we’re waiting to be driven by their plot”

I’ve been something of a reluctant convert to radio drama, for every production I’ve enjoyed, there’s been one that has disappointed me, but if there is another that is as good as this version of Possession, then I will be a happy boy. Over the past three weekends, I have listened to the omnibus editions of this Radio 4 adaptation of AS Byatt’s novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker and have been utterly seduced by it. It was simply gorgeous, stunningly beautiful to listen to and deeply moving. I shall be investigating whether one can buy it as it really was that good.

Wertenbaker’s adaptation sees research assistant Roland Michell and literary scholar Maud Bailey recounting their quest to discover the secrets uncovered by two letters between Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and a woman named Christabel Lamotte which threaten to upturn literary history with their revelations. They are pursued by other more nefarious sorts who also want the correspondence and so the race is on to be the first to discover the truth. This story is enhanced by the reciting of letters between Ash and Lamotte as we follow their story of an illicit yet all-consumingly passionate affair which is revealed at the same time.

Review: The Art of Concealment, Jermyn Street

“One has to be careful about the things one reveals”

The Jermyn Street Theatre seem to be a little bit off with their timing here with The Art of Concealment. They were first off the mark in the capital last year in Terence Rattigan’s centenary year with their production of Less Than Kind, so importing a biographical piece like this one by Giles Cole now feels a little redundant, given how much of his work, and work inspired by his life, we were able to gorge ourselves upon. But still, he’s a figure I find fascinating and so I was more than willing to give this play a try.

The Art of Concealment plays for the most part like a simple biography of the English playwright. The older version, nearing death, recounts tales of his youth as he escaped the shadow of his father’s expectations to pursue a career writing in the theatre. As we see, he became quite the professional success with a string of successes on the West End stage, but this was countered by the secrecy of his private life as he remained desperate to keep his homosexuality a secret from his public, and more importantly from his mother, much to the chagrin of his lovers.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Weekend #1 - Shakespeare

It looks like I will be doing a fair amount of travelling over the next few weekends and I have a lot of DVD boxsets that I got for Christmas to work through, so I will be trying to control the slippery slope of madness that is the theatrical DVD reviewing by trying out a few themed collections of posts. Mainly it will be exploring the work of people I like Terence Rattigan and Helen McCrory, or whose work I want to revisit or know more about, Mike Leigh and Stephen Poliakoff. The possibilities are endless so I'll be trying it out for a few weeks, mainly to work through the presents I got of these four, and see how it goes.

First up though is good old Shakespeare, and I’ll be looking at Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest featuring Helen Mirren, and two RSC DVDs from the 90s: a filmed version of The Winter’s Tale with Antony Sher and Alexandra Gilbreath and an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1996.

DVD Review: The Winter’s Tale (RSC at the Barbican, 1998)

“Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge”

It is no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that any mention of Alexandra Gilbreath – recent winner of the Best Supporting Actress in a Play fosterIAN to be sure - sends me all a quiver. So when someone told me about this production of The Winter’s Tale which features not only her as Hermione but also has Nancy Carroll lurking in the ensemble, I was most keen to watch it. Plus there’s the small matter of Antony Sher as Leontes, an actor whom I am always intrigued to see more of as I’ve have actually had little experience of him as a performer.

An RSC production from 1998, this was recorded at the Barbican and so as a straight filming of the stage show, it is free from the kind of directorial innovation that blighted (IMHO) the versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also covered this weekend. Instead, we get the theatrical experience minus the live thrill but with the added bonus of close up work. And it is a great bonus here. Sher does so much acting with his eyes as a paranoiac Leontes, mentally damaged as suggested by a prologue and incapable of not seeing the dark shadows in the corner of the room. The way his suspicions are aroused by Polixenes’ attentiveness to his wife is brilliantly done as she is actually suffering from pregnancy pain but Leontes misses the crucial moments and all too easily lets the darkness consume him.

Cast of The Winter's Tale continued

DVD Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (RSC 1996)

"Thou art translated"

Perhaps at the time, this 1996 RSC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Adrian Noble was revolutionary in the way it reconceives the action of Shakespeare’s play, but to today’s eyes or at least mine in particular, it now feels rather hokey and dated. I suspect as well that something may have been lost in the translation from stage to screen as too often, the abiding vibe of this production was closer to a cheap music video.

It didn’t help that I disliked the opening conceit, and one that was carried through the whole show, of this being a figment of a young boy’s imagination, inspired by a book he’s reading. I could have lived with it had it just been at the beginning but the boy is a constant presence, we’re forever following his movements as we shift from scene to scene, but he has no real role in the show, no interaction with the characters and so it just becomes this clumsy device that continually rears its head.

DVD Review: The Tempest (Julie Taymor)

“Behold the wronged Duchess of Milan, Prospera”

Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest sank from view rather quickly on its original release, despite having the eye-catching coup of Helen Mirren taking on the lead role – renamed here Prospera. It wasn’t the best of times for Taymor at the beginning of 2011, riding a rather torrid time over the debacle of the much-delayed Spiderman musical, and perhaps people didn’t take this work as seriously as they might have done otherwise. Her previous Shakespeare adaptation – the fierce Titus - was a film I found endlessly intriguing and so I was actually quite keen to see this and thus frustrated when I realised I would have to wait for the DVD to be released.

Was it worth the wait...well, I’m not sure it was to be honest. The casting of Mirren is inspired and the text carries the little tinkering it needs to accommodate the gender switch very well – she’s the Duchess of Milan whose husband is murdered and title usurped by brother Antonio – and there’s an interesting shift in emphasis of the parenting relationship, the testing of Ferdinand feels more rooted in ensuring he’s an ideal suitor for Felicity Jones’ willowy Miranda. And Mirren speaks the verse with an intense passion, a burning fervour of injustice never far away but underscored with a measure of warmth.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Review: Travelling Light, National Theatre

“I don’t like it when he calls it a movie”

Perhaps I am more ignorant of Jewish terminology than I ought to be, but I do find it a little surprising that the blurb for Nicholas Wright’s new play for the National Theatre, Travelling Light, simply states that it takes place in “a shtetl in Eastern Europe”. I’d no idea what a shtetl was, didn’t notice any explicatory reference in the text and over the last couple of days have asked a few people, none of whom knew either. The internet informs me it is a small town with a largely Jewish population, but it does seem an odd assumption of knowledge to make (or perhaps it is just indicative of how few Jewish friends I actually have...) In any case, that this is the detail that sticks most in my mind after seeing the show is indicative of how little I cared for it.

Set in the early 1900s, the play – still in previews – centres on Motl Mendl, a young Jewish photographer whose dreams and ambitions as he discovers the burgeoning art form of motion pictures set him on a path that will see him end up in Hollywood. But before he makes it big, he needs to extricate himself from domestic village life and that is easier said than done as they are a group of real ‘characters’ one and all. Chief amongst these is Jacob Bindel, an illiterate timber merchant who is so enthused about the potential of film-making that he stumps up the money needed to keep Motl from emigrating (for the time being at least) and to make a movie in their very own village. Or shtetl. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: Lovesong, Lyric Hammersmith

“There are going to be moments like this where I have to know you can jump when I ask you to jump”

Abi Morgan’s writing has recently has quite the prolific burst: high-profile films such as Shame and The Iron Lady and the well-regarded BBC drama The Hour and the forthcoming adaptation of Birdsong have kept her profile sky high. But she started her writing career in the theatre and following on from 27 for the National Theatre of Scotland and a short piece that formed part of Headlong’s Decade, is the achingly delicate Lovesong which is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith as part of a UK tour.

A co-production with Frantic Assembly, Lovesong follows one British couple who we see at the beginning of their life together as they emigrate to the US and also much later on in their old age. But rather than opting for a straight narrative about this marriage, Morgan flits between past and present: memories are revisited and stories recollected by Billy and Maggie of their earlier lives as William and Margaret, the joys of early marriage, the struggles of trying to conceive and the disillusionments that creeps into everyday life and how they have all accumulated and translated into the relationship that they now have.