Thursday, 31 January 2013

Review: Quartermaine’s Terms, Wyndham's

“I don't want them dripping their filthy compassion over me"

Lonely teachers seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Simon Gray – after Dominic West’s grizzled turn in Butley, we now get Rowan Atkinson slipping into obscurity in Quartermaine’s Terms. The play stretches over a couple of years at a dodgy English language school for foreign students in 1960s Cambridge and follows the relationships between the seven teachers as they all deal with their various crises that leave them feeling alone. The play carries a melancholy weight as understated tragicomedy is the dominant theme here but it is so muted, so low-key that it never really accrues the dramatic heft to make it matter.

Part of the problem lies in the constant referencing to Chekhov and his plays – aiming for Chekhovian depths sets a very high bar and for me, it just never reaches that level. It’s not a matter of acting – the company is full of some excellent actors and the way Gray has structured the play means that most of them get their moment to shine as their issues come to the fore. But their characters are all such social misfits that it is hard to really gain an interested foothold in their lives, even the main thrust of the play – Quartermaine’s increasing social isolation – somewhat works against this sort of engagement.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Review: The Act, Ovalhouse

“It is a topic that deserves serious debate”

To celebrate its fiftieth birthday, the Ovalhouse theatre has commissioned a season of work named Counterculture 50, exploring the possibilities of fringe theatre to inhabit a wider cultural frame of reference than the mainstream, something in which this theatre has a strong tradition whilst remaining aware that it is not always the easiest path to tread. The season contains 5 pieces of live performance work, one for each decade of the Ovalhouse’s existence, and representing the 1960s in the smaller upstairs studio is The Act.

Devised by Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin, The Act is a one man show that delves into the lives of the gay community at a crucial time of legal and societal change by weaving together strands of story, song and reportage. The experiences of a gay accountant from Derbyshire as he ventures tentatively into the shadowy gay life of 60s London, from bars full of characters like the vibrant Edna Mae to the sexy bits of rough trade he picks up in the toilets of Leicester Square, are interspersed with extracts from House of Commons debates as homosexual law reform rose to the top of the agenda in light of the pioneering Wolfenden Report. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Review: The Turn of the Screw, Almeida

“It’s hard to do things that are interesting and keep your hands clean”

Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to get right in any format, not least because we all have different triggers that give us the heebie-jeebies. So to take on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw feels like a bit of a brave choice by the Almeida theatre but from the outset, there are mixed signals as to the approach that has been taken. Lindsay Posner has commissioned a new adaptation of the tale from Rebecca Lenkiewicz but this is also a co-production with the Hammer Theatre of Horror, setting the scene for some interesting creative tension.

But that never really materialises as the ambiguity that frames the entirety of James’ tale of a governess appointed to look after a pair of orphans but finds them haunted by spirits past has been dispensed with. There’s much to be played with in the uncertainty as to whether the ghosts of the children’s’ former governess and her lover are really haunting these two moppets or whether it is the fevered imagination of the new woman in post whipping up the drama but Lenkiewicz leaves no such room for any subtleties from the get-go.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Review: Blood Wedding, New Diorama

“They washed their hands of blood”

The world of Lorca is naturally imbued with the essence of his native Andalusia, the aching sense of duende that characterises much of his work and at first sight, The Faction’s version of Blood Wedding inhabits a similar realm. Martin Dewar’s lighting casts a warmly Mediterranean haze, guitar strings are plucked from afar and the design is stripped back to a border of sand around the edge of the New Diorama’s stage which has been reconfigured into the round. And in the earthen tones of the costumes, the Cassandra-like Mother foretells a tale of woe between two long-feuding families which are soon to be joined in matrimony in an attempt to force a happy ending.

But the heady scent of sexual desire lingers between the wrong people, vengeance lies heavy in the air and there’s a price that must be paid as fate winds its unwieldy way across all concerned. And in their ensemble-led physicality, The Faction – directed here by Rachel Valentine Smith – cultivate the sense of hermetically-sealed community in all its inescapable oppressiveness, ever-present observers from the sidelines and participants in the rituals of marriage. And in the midst of the hustle and bustle, lead performances come shining through.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Re-review: Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Theatre

“If you're lucky enough to have a friend you grew up with in this way, you believe the arrangement is for life"

The Hampstead Theatre has managed to give further life to a couple of their Downstairs productions to other theatres, but Di and Viv and Rose marks the first time that one has been promoted to a full run in their main house. Happy news for me as I loved the play when I saw it back in 2011, though I was a little saddened to see that it wasn’t the original cast being brought back with this three-hander. Tamzin Outhwaite has returned but Claudie Blakley and Nicola Walker have been replaced by Anna Maxwell Martin and Gina McKee respectively, in Amelia Bullmore’s wonderfully frank and funny take on friendships.

My review of the original production can be read here, and my review of this new version for The Public Reviews from a more objective perspective is here, so I’ll just limit myself to a bit of a compare and contrast exercise here. By and large, I loved the play just as much second time around and it probably had a greater emotional impact due to the knowledge of what was to come in terms of the more dramatic moments. Bullmore has tweaked the play a little, adding a scene to the beginning of the second act but it has been seamlessly done and if I hadn’t have read the programme note about it, I doubt I would have noticed. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Not-a-Review: Rough Cuts – Searched, Royal Court

“He opened his laptop and didn’t like what he saw”

The second part of the Royal Court’s 2013 Rough Cuts mini-season based around the internet, was a work-in-progress from EV Crowe named Searched. I hadn’t initially intended to see this play as Crowe really provoked my ire with her last play Hero, it still annoys me to think of it now, but once the cast was announced I knew I would be powerless to resist. And whilst I might have preferred a little more cooling off time and a slightly more appropriate environment, I find it is always good to test one’s preconceptions and so I was willing to give a second chance to the young playwright.

Since this was a work-in-progress, workshopped by Crowe, the company and director Carrie Cracknell over the last 10 days, I won’t say too much about it, save to mention that it really is a pleasure to be able to see such great actors up close and personal in such an early stage of a project, even with script in hand there’s a genuine openness to the performances, a freshness to the acting which is great to see. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Review: Port, National Theatre

“It’s Stockport, it’s England”

He’s here, he’s there, Simon Stephens is everywhere. Between a prolific rate of new writing, adaptations of other texts and revivals of his older work, Stephens has been a remarkably constant presence on our stages for the past year or so and now it is the turn of the National Theatre to get in on the act as Marianne Elliott revives his 2002 play Port. Set in his native Stockport, it visits Racheal at roughly two-yearly intervals from the ages of 11 through to 24, as she grows up in a rough world. 

A victim of domestic violence, her mother leaves the family; a juvenile delinquent with a taste for robbing, her younger brother just can’t keep out of trouble; disillusioned with his lot, her father is still present but has checked out emotionally; against all of this Racheal plots to escape the narrow world of Stockport through hard work, through marriage, through whatever it takes but of course, life is never that easy as cold reality comes a-knocking at the door every time. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Review: Janie Dee - Satin Doll, The Crazy Coqs

“Happiness comes in on tiptoe…”

Fresh from the huge success that was Hello, Dolly! at the Curve in Leicester which in turn followed hard on the heels of the Royal Court’s NSFW, Janie Dee is clearly not one to rest on her laurels as she now debuts a brand new cabaret show – Satin Doll – at the uniquely named The Crazy Coqs in the basement of Brasserie Zédel. And it is a unique venue too, a circular room decorated in Art Deco swathes and stripes of black, white and red, nested in a rather swanky looking suite of brasseries and cocktail bars and the ideal kind of special and intimate space for cabaret.

Dee has long demonstrated her flexibility as a performer - her cabaret pedigree includes a 2002 turn at Divas at the Donmar – and it is clear she enjoys forging new creative relationships. This new show has been put together with her musical director from Hello, Dolly! Ben Atkinson, who accompanied on her piano this evening and if the show was a little slow to get going (beyond its delayed beginnings), it can well be forgiven as we were indeed “a virgin audience” and there will be ample time to finetune the nuances of Satin Doll.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Review: Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville

“Damn this old age, it’s so vile and repulsive”

Revivals of classics often find themselves caught between two schools: revitalising an oft-performed play with a fresh energy, but remaining aware of not rocking the boat too much in order to maintain a healthy (West End in this case) audience. The Print Room – a venue perhaps less burdened by quite the same commercial concerns as West End houses – were able to go whole-heartedly for the former with a scorchingly good version of Uncle Vanya which paid huge dividends. And Lindsay Posner has definitely gone for the latter option with a stolidly traditional production at the Vaudeville Theatre which does the job but rarely excited me in a similar way.

It is undoubtedly well acted, very much so in some quarters, but the performances are overpowered by the stultifying pace of a production that never really got out of second gear. The demonstration of how boring country life can be should never relate to the play itself but Posner has taken Chekhov too literally here and so far too little of the emotional energy being expended by the actors is allowed to take flight on the stage. Instead, the dominant aspect becomes Christopher Oram’s design and the interminably long pauses it enforces during lengthy scene changes which hardly feel worth the effort in the final analysis.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Review: La Turista: Café Duende, Morito Tapas Bar

“I have seen the blood of Spain”

“Ni en la vida ni en la guerra se puede triunfar sin fe.” The 1937 words of the Spanish Republican Prime Minister Juan Negrín are draped across the window of Morito Tapas Bar to beckon us into the highly evocative world of La Turista:Café Duende, a piece of dinner theatre that seeks to give a taste not only of some excellent Iberian cuisine but also of life during the Spanish Civil War. The quote translates roughly as “not in life nor war can one succeed without faith” and through Jamie Harper’s intricately pieced-together script, we bear witness to the different kinds of faith that saw people through the most difficult of times.

Hobo Theatre’s aim is to produce theatre in unconventional locations and the crowded intimacy of one of Exmouth Market’s most highly rated eateries certainly fits that bill. The easy conviviality of the space, combined with the realities of informal dining, creates a decidedly non-theatrical environment, an astute choice which fits the suggestively dark moods of La Turista perfectly. Split into four acts, interspersed with three courses of dinner, the show is less concerned with a theatrical narrative than evoking the mysterious spirit of duende, of deep feeling, of an almost spiritual connection with art.

Radio Review: Skios/Copenhagen/Headlong

“Foxoliver?”

Michael Frayn’s 80th birthday is being celebrated by BBC radio with a mini-season of his work, featuring a new version of his play Copenhagen and adaptation of his novels Skios and Headlong. First up was Skios, a farcical tale somewhat in the vein of Noises Off and something really quite funny indeed. The tale itself, of mistaken identities, fake professors and frustrated lovers, is mostly entertaining if not quite as masterfully complex as his other work, but what really lifts this dramatisation by Archie Scottney is the kind of dream comic casting one would pay through the nose to see in a theatre.

Tom Hollander plays Oliver Fox, who is going on an ill-advised romantic break to Greece with a woman he has just met. When he is taken for someone else at arrivals, he soon finds himself installed in the warm embrace of the Toppler Foundation who believe that he is Dr Norman Wilfred, the keynote speaker at their conference on Scientometrics and has his every need attended to by super-efficient PA Nikki Hook, Lisa Dillon in sparklingly funny form, who finds herself rather taken by him. Meanwhile, the real Dr Wilfred, a bumbling High Bonneville, also finds himself the victim of misidentification as he ends up in the remote Greek villa where Oliver was meant to be going and where his would-be girlfriend is still headed, the glorious Janie Dee starring as the unawares Georgie. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Re-review: War Horse, New London

“Do I look like an effing equine expert?”

The theatrical behemoth that is War Horse shows no signs of flagging (or ending up as a Tesco burger just yet…) but as someone who is easily freaked out by puppets and isn’t particularly keen on horses, its charms have eluded me somewhat. I was taken to see the show for my birthday in 2011 after declaring it was the only way I would ever see it (review here) and from the awkwardly placed cheap seats in the side circle, it was a difficult place from which to try and challenge my preconceptions. Surprisingly for me though, it was the actual play I had the biggest problem with rather than the puppets. 

But when the opportunity presented itself to go again with a friend who had never seen the show before, I couldn’t resist the temptation to revisit the show and revisit my opinion with something less of the original baggage I went with. And with this somewhat different mindset and also aided by far superior seats, I did find myself enjoying it far more than I had anticipated. Indeed I welled up more than during the film of Les Misérables, leaving me questioning just who I’ve turned into! 

Friday, 18 January 2013

Film Review: Les Misérables


“Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap”

For many people, myself included, it is nigh on impossible to approach a film version of stage behemoth Les Misérables with a blank slate. It’s been a mainstay of the musical theatre world since its 1985 London debut – it is most likely the show I have seen the most times throughout my lifetime – and after celebrating its 25th anniversary with an extraordinarily good touring production, has been riding high with a revitalised energy. So Tom Hooper’s film has a lot to contend with in terms of preconceptions, expectations and long-ingrained ideas of how it should be done. And he has attacked it with gusto, aiming to reinvent notions of cinematic musicals by having his actors sing live to camera and bringing his inimitable close-up directorial style to bear thus creating a film which is epic in scale but largely intimate in focus.

In short, I liked it but I didn’t love it. I’m not so sure that Hooper’s take on the piece as a whole is entirely suited to the material, or rather my idea of how best it works. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score has a sweeping grandeur which is already quasi-cinematic in its scope but Hooper never really embraces it fully as he works in his customary solo shots and close-ups into the numbers so well known as ensemble masterpieces.  At The End Of The Day and One Day More both suffer this fate of being presented as individually sung segments stitched together but for me, the pieces never really added up to more than the sum of their parts to gain the substantial power that they possess on the stage.

Cast of Les Mis contd

Film review here

Cast of Les Mis contd

Film review here

Cast of Les Mis contd

Film review here

Cast of Les Mis contd

Film review here

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Film review here

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Cast of Les Mis contd

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Review: No Quarter, Royal Court


“I would punch a baby for a cigarette”

During Dominic Cooke’s reign, the Royal Court has done an excellent job in nurturing a generation of new young female playwrights and Polly Stenham surely has to be considered as one of the breakout successes from this cohort, managing to maintain an air of great anticipation alongside a unhurried workrate. Her third play No Quarter, for the Royal Court as with That Face and Tusk Tusk, occupies similar territory as her earlier work, in the chronicling of dysfunction in families of the more privileged classes, but it could be said it is with diminishing returns.

24 year old music school dropout Robin has lost himself in a haze of drink and drugs but when he returns to the dilapidated manor house that is his family home, it is to the suffocatingly intense embrace of his dementia-stricken mother who wants his help to ease her way into death. But when he finds that the home he thought he would inherit has actually been sold from under him to developers, his self-destructive instincts kick in and the night of her wake sees him attract an assorted crowd for a wild party to end all parties, anything to avoid confronting the enduring malaise that weighs him down.

Review: Rough Cuts – Bytes, Royal Court

“It’s on the internet…”

Just a quickie for this as the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts season is a space for short plays, experimental readings and works in progress and so I’m just including it here for the completeness of my theatregoing records. It has previously taken place in the upstairs theatre but as this is currently occupied, they have converted the Wilson rehearsal studio – right next to the main building - into a public performance space for this group of four pieces, all based on the theme of our relationship to the internet.

This year’s cohort of writers made this a must-see from the moment it was announced, featuring as it does Alia Bano, DC Moore, Penelope Skinner and Nick Payne, and with an ensemble of six actors including Sarah Woodward and Al Weaver, I was confident of enjoying the performances too. And it was an agreeable evening from start to early finish - such a rarity to be home well before 9pm on a theatre night – and a pleasing indication of the vibrancy and variety in new theatre writing in the UK. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Review: The Silence of the Sea, Donmar at Trafalgar Studios 2

“The sound of a man understanding…something”

The final entry in the final year of the Resident Assistant Director programme which has seen the Donmar Warehouse periodically take over Trafalgar Studios 2 is The Silence of the Sea, directed by Simon Evans. Anthony Weigh has fashioned a new theatrical version of this story which was written pseudonymically by Vercors in 1942 as it spoke of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. Or rather, it tells of the silence with which a man and woman greet the German officer who is billeted to their small coastal cottage and the challenges faced not only by them but also by the interloper, who is not all at first seems. 

The predominance of silence is both illuminating and challenging. Leo Bill’s natural gift of spectacular oration is superbly highlighted as German officer Werner, delivering several lengthy speeches which delve deep into the increasingly troubled psyche of a man not necessarily convinced of the legitimacy of his country’s actions. From the patronising swagger of his arrival to the anguished reflexive defence of his countrymen, he is frequently mesmerising as he tries to fill the awkward void. Intersecting but not interacting with him, Finbar Lynch’s Older Man also gives us his take on the action, a more conversational account of life under Occupation which one which soon ramps up in intensity.

Radio Review: Second Body + Art and Gadg, Radio 4

“Be careful Anna, of the dark forces of the human mind”

I knew I liked Tara Fitzgerald’s voice, but I hadn’t realised I loved it. Listening to the radio play Second Body that featured her in a starring role was a genuine auditory pleasure which made me want to track down illegal ways of recording it off the iPlayer so that I could listen to it over again. Trevor Preston’s swirlingly dark drama centres on Fitzgerald’s Anna, a successful artist but one driven by haunting and disturbing visions and as she seeks to put together some of her work for a big new exhibition, a worrying prophecy of a death stalks her subconscious. 

Toby Swift’s production brings a wonderfully surreal quality to Anna’s experiences, full of textured sound effects and evocative atmosphere, and so as the stuff of her dreams starts to invade her waking life, we’re never quite sure how real any of it is – whether she is possessed of some supernatural gift or if actually, her artistic temperament masks some signs of mental illness. Fitzgerald’s honeyed tones constantly keep us guessing as her voice glides like velvet through the twists and turns as friends, agents and colleagues gather round to try and guide her through these troubled times. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Review: Three Sisters, New Diorama

"Happiness comes from desire, not fulfilment”

Though it was not particularly to my taste, Benedict Andrew’s radical take on Three Sisters for the Young Vic was a big success last year and so it is a brave company that takes Chekhov’s play on again so soon, not least in opening with a directorial choice which references it so strongly. It is the second play to open in The Faction’s 2013 rep season at the New Diorama after Schiller’s Fiesco, but where that play made imaginative use of the ensemble and sparkled with interesting direction, there’s not quite the same level of creativity at work here as this is altogether a straighter reading of a text.

Ranjit Bolt has adapted the text quite considerably and whilst some may baulk at the contemporised truncations, I rather liked the colloquial ease with which it flowed through the trials and tribulations of the siblings trapped in their Russian backwater, determined but seemingly unable to prevent life from passing them by. Director Mark Leipacher keeps things relatively simple, utilising a set of kitchen chairs in a multitude of ways to suggest the rooms of the house that variously keeps them prisoner, offers a blanket that maintains their declining privilege and yet also forms a kind of refuge from the realities of the word.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Short film reviews #8


Another collection of short films that I've been pointed to or had recommended to me and which I've enjoyed watching. If you have anything you think I should see, drop me an email at the address on the sidebar, and to read other short film reviews, click on the 'film' tag at the end of the post.

The Door
The Door (trailer) from Andrew Steggall on Vimeo.

(This is just the trailer for the film I'm afraid) Based on the HG Wells tale The Door in the Wall, Andrew Steggall’s short film The Door is a rather lovely piece of film – with a stunningly good cast – which delves into the ambiguous world of between personal memory and boyhood fantasy as an older man tries to make sense of a key event from his past. Charles Dance plays the older Thomas Arlington with a resigned enigmatic quality as he debates with his son, a sharply-suited Elliot Cowan, but clearly distracted by his memory of discovering a magical green door into a extraordinary world.

In that world, discovered with a sweetly boyish charm by Thomas Hardiman’s younger Thomas, is all manner of wonderment, evocative of Alice’s Wonderland and peopled by the likes of an achingly moving Harriet Walter, Tobias Menzies’ Bourne-like swan-angel and Michael Culkin’s clock-obsessed king. Its fable-like story remains something of a mystery but is all the more powerful for it. Steggall directs with a gorgeously sweeping cinematic vision, aided beautifully by Jools Scott’s sumptuous score, and it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for any opportunity to catch it.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Review: Fair Em, Union


"I never saw a harder favour'd slut"

The front of house hoarding that beckons you into the Union Theatre for Fair Em makes no less than three references to Shakespeare, but when a show’s main selling point is that it wasn’t in fact written by him, it sets an impossibly and unnecessarily high standard. It was misattributed to the bard by one of Charles II’s librarians and thus occupies a place in the Apocrypha where it has languished unproduced for over 400 years. But not even Phil Willmott’s normally sure touch can disguise the weaknesses of the play with a production that misfires on several levels.

The plot intertwines two love stories. First is well-to-do maiden Em who, when her father is banished by the new king, is forced to slum it as a miller’s daughter far from home and fends off the amorous attentions of the local suitors through feigning disabilities. And then there’s William the Conqueror, determined to claim Blanch, the Princess of Denmark for his wife but on finding she’s less comely than her portrait suggested, tries it on with her friend who is a Swedish princess and already entangled with the ambassador. Jealousies, deceptions and a lack of bread threaten the equilibrium of all as the play then gathers to a final scene of unparalleled unlikeliness.

Review: Somersaults, Finborough


"Fios agad am facal"

The Outer Hebrides have an austere challenging beauty about them and so too does Iain Finlay Macleod’s play Somersaults, relishing in an inscrutable quality which equally entertains and frustrates. After premiering in Edinburgh last year, director Russell Bolam has brought it to the intimate surroundings of the Finborough where its mix of English and Gaelic makes a fascinating exploration into where language and cultural heritage intersect in our lives.

Born on the Isle of Lewis (as was Macleod), David Carlyle’s James has since gotten it all. A lucrative dotcom business, a swanky pad in Hampstead, he even managed to marry the prettiest girl at university, but this has all come at a price – he’s become disconnected from his birthplace and increasingly so, from the language he spoke as a child, Scots Gaelic. And when his carefully constructed new life crashes down around him, it seems the ideal time to re-establish those links with home and the heart. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

DVD Review: A Very British Sex Scandal


“Do you think that homosexuality between 2 consenting males should be a criminal act”


A Very British Sex Scandal was a docu-drama that aired in 2007 on Channel 4. I watched it at the time and it has stuck with me ever since, a devastatingly powerful piece of film-making and a pertinent reminder of the struggles and battles that others fought in order for gay people to live in a more equal society today. Written and directed by Patrick Reams, it centres on the mid-1950s trial of several well-known men arrested for gross indecency and buggery which proved to be a landmark moment in solidifying public opinion against such legislation, stemming the virulently anti-homosexual political establishment and eventually leading to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in Britain.

The film is a combination of dramatisations of key moments and events from the story interspersed with a set of interviews with gay men who were alive at the time. The mix is a good one: initially it is a roughly even mixture of the two, full of scene-setting shots in the drama but also providing much context of the realities of being a practising homosexual man in this era. These contributions are often eye-openingly frank and disturbingly brutal, it’s hard to think that it really wasn’t so long ago but this was just what life was like. 



DVD Review: Clapham Junction


"The whole gay thing, is it still an issue any more?"

Part of Channel 4’s 2007 gay season, Clapham Junction was written by Kevin Elyot showing the lives of a number of separate but interconnected gay men over 36 hours in the Clapham area of London. So we have civil partnership ceremonies with the groom shagging one of the waiters at the party afterwards, dinner party guests meeting inopportunely at the local cottage before a ghastly middle class gathering, a teenage stalker finally meeting the handsome neighbour unaware of his troubled past, and guys prowling round the common for anonymous sex, little aware that a violent psychotic is amongst them.

Phoebe Nicholls’ delightfully overbearing mother with her monstrous prejudices, Samantha Bond’s blithely unaware party guest, Luke Treadaway’s sweatily intense teenager Theo desperate to offer himself up to Joseph Mawle’s lithe mystery man, Rupert Graves’ confident out television maker toying with James Wilby’s closet case (a neat nod back to Maurice), there are undoubtedly performances aplenty to be savoured in here. But the construction of the whole film is just generally too weak, Elyot’s writing uninventive and heavy-handed in the message it thumps home.

Cast of Clapham Junction continued

DVD Review: Weekend


“You know what it’s like when you first sleep with someone you don’t know”
 
There’s unfortunately still a paucity of interesting work that explores aspects of just being gay, rather than centring on coming out, gay-bashing or repressed love, which makes Andrew Haigh’s 2011 film Weekend all the more refreshing for its frank normality. Russell and Glen meet on a Friday night and what starts off seeming like a regular one-night-stand turns into something altogether more significant, as that special spark ignites between them and they spend a potentially life-changing weekend together, despite or perhaps because of the knowledge of they only have this weekend to share.
 
The film received immense hype from critics and several friends alike on its limited release last year and since I didn’t get to see it, I naturally found myself a little wary (after all, how can something be declared good if I haven’t given it my seal of approval!) and this wasn’t helped by the pedestrian pace of the opening third of the film and its rather soap-like tone, it wasn’t grabbing me at all. But slowly, it develops and matures into a really rather affecting story as the two lovers confront their preconceptions about each other, about themselves and about what they are looking for from life and love.
 

DVD Review: Fingersmith


“The over-exposure of women to literature breeds unnatural fancies”

I struggled a little bit to find another theatrical-friendly lesbian-themed thing to watch so I returned to Sarah Waters and the 2005 adaptation of Fingersmith, which as it starred Sally Hawkins was no great hardship at all. Set in Victorian England as was Tipping the Velvet, this story follows the lives of Sue and Maud, two very different women whose lives are irrevocably changed when a trio of fingersmiths, or pickpockets, conspire to rob an heiress of her fortune. But it turns out the plans are even more devious than first assumed as they culminate in the most unexpected of fashions and in a deftly clever move, we revisit all we have just seen from another perspective, casting uncertainty of the surety of what we know which plays excellently in the subsequent exploration of the disturbing reality of Victorian mental asylums.

Sally Hawkins is predictably excellent as Sue, one of the pickpockets who hoodwinks her way into the slightly disturbed Maud’s, the pale Elaine Cassidy, household as a housemaid who acts as a chaperone to allow a second trickster, Mr Rivers played by a bewhiskered Rupert Evans, to pose as a gentleman and seduce Maud into marriage just before she inherits a large fortune. Maud has been stifled by life in her extremely strict uncle’s house as a contributor to his immense collection of pornography and relishes the contact of Sue’s seemingly kindred spirit, so much so that an illicit lesbian affair springs up between the pair. But even as Sue is deceiving her, it emerges that Maud is not quite as delicate as she may seem and so intrigue builds on intrigue as Peter Ransley’s screenplay condenses a wonderfully complex novel into a more streamlined narrative, though still full of equally multifaceted characters. 

DVD Review: Tipping the Velvet


“You seem so very gay and bold”

I didn’t watch this 2002 television adaptation of Sarah Waters’ debut novel Tipping the Velvet nor had I read the book so this was all unchartered territory for me. I vaguely remembered a bit of a Daily Mail-style hoohah so I was a little surprised at the relative tameness of the first episode but then after getting through the second, I can see why an eyebrow might have been raised – I doubt I’ll see Anna Chancellor in quite the same light! Andrew Davies’ had the unenviable task of condensing Water’s seven year story of sexual and self-discovery into a three hour television script and manages the job fairly well, though with a rip-roaring pace that doesn’t always quite allow the story enough time to breathe.

The story centres on Nancy Astley, a young woman who works as an oyster-girl in her father’s Whitstable restaurant but who lacks a certain fulfilment in her life as a relationship with a local boy is failing to make her weak at the knees. What does capture her attention though is the arrival of a male impersonator Kitty Butler whose performances leave her transfixed and ultimately open up a whole new world for Nan, but a world that is full of as much heartbreak as love, as much pain as pleasure, as she finds herself on the stage, on the street, on a leash, on her knees, on an incredible journey.

DVD Review: Maurice


“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature”

This Merchant Ivory production of EM Forster’s novel of self-discovery Maurice was one of the first gay films I remember watching and it remains a remarkably touching watch now 25 years after it was made. A tale of gay love in the early 20th century, its poignancy is all the more moving for knowing that the novel was never published in Forster’s lifetime, cognisant of society’s (and the law’s) slow changing attitudes towards homosexuality, he withheld it from public consumption.

The story follows Maurice Hall from school to university and then into the real world full of careers, war and marriage as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality in a world where being gay is illegal. From a typically bashful initiation into the facts of life from a school professor to a Cambridge University full of possibility where the chance of love with a man first rears its head and then on into adult life where the slow acceptance of who he really is and what he really wants comes hand in hand with him falling in love with a man from a lower class, bringing further complications as the vagaries of the English class system are added to his trials.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Review: Fiesco, New Diorama

“Let the tyrant perish”

Last January, The Faction’s rep season at the New Diorama was an unexpected but much welcomed surprise for me as their ensemble took on Twelfth Night, Mary Stuart and Miss Julie to great effect and it seems I was not alone, as the season was a sell-out success. So they have returned in 2013 with three new plays: Three Sisters and Blood Wedding will come soon but first up is no less than a UK premiere, of Schiller’s Fiesco, a dark swirling tragedy of sixteenth century Italian city politics.

Determined to unseat the long-ruling Doge of Genoa and prevent his tyrannical nephew from succeeding him, a group of conspirators from the Genoese nobility plot to overthrow him and establish a republic. But they’re a diverse group full of individually selfish motivation and as charismatic playboy count Fiesco rises to become the head of the conspiracy, it is clear that the prospect of the ducal throne is just as appealing, if not more so, than simply deposing the ruling family. And so layer upon layer of treacherous intrigue is built up as betrayal comes as often as blinking as revolution threatens to erupt and disrupt all. 

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan


“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”


The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Cast of Boris Godunov continued

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre


“Hang the trifle, woman” 

I think I only made it Stratford once last year, partly a consequence of so much of the RSC’s work playing in London as part of one festival or another, but once the casting was announced for The Merry Wives of Windsor, I knew I would be making the trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre once again. This production of Shakespeare’s comedy of middle-class trials and tribulations is in modern dress but the reference point is closer to the British sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s and as with many of those television shows, it has its high points and its low points. 

Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel were thankfully the production’s highlight as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively. I’ve long been a devotee of Gilbreath and she remains an utter joy to watch on the stage. Superficially she’s something of an Essex wife here but we soon see the playful intelligence that lies behind the animal print and there’s much to enjoy as she deploys her flirtatious verve and feminine wiles – her final costume nearly converted me I tell you. And the contrast against Le Touzel is well worked: though a doughtier figure born of country life, they make believable firm friends and there’s a lovely constancy to the emotiveness with which she speaks, she touches the heart just as effectively as she tickles the ribs. 

Cast of The Merry Wives of Windsor continued

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Review: Old Money, Hampstead

“Twelve funerals I've been to this year. Twelve and it's only August”

There’s something of a delayed reaction feel to Sarah Wooley’s new play Old Money in the way that it explores the relationship between the generations now that it can no longer be assumed that wealth will continue to increase in the way it always has. I say delayed reaction because it feels like a subject that been dealt with by other writers like Mike Bartlett and Stephen Beresford, but neither had quite so comic a take as Wooley, a first time playwright, has here. She wraps her version in the tale of Joyce, widowed after 40 years of marriage and given an unexpected new lease of life, but it is one which doesn’t go down well with the various members of her family.

It is a play completely driven by Maureen Lipman’s excellent central performance as Joyce. Her delivery of the material is always so note-perfect and able to wring just the right amount of humour that it is close to a comic masterpiece. And as she travels on her journey of self-(re)-discovery through trips to the opera and drinking sessions with friendly young strippers, there’s also something rather touching about the reminder that it is never too late to learn things about oneself and Terry Johnson’s production manages to convey this without veering towards the patronising. 

Review: Chariots of Fire, Gielgud


“100 metres can feel like a marathon”

For the longest time, I was sure that I didn’t want to see Chariots of Fire, not least because the hoarding for this Hampstead Theatre transfer into the Gielgud finds it necessary to call it Chariots of Fire on stage, as if it could be anything else in a theatre. But Mike Bartlett, who adapted the film, is a writer I like and a change of cast meant Gabriel Vick, an actor whose charms I, erm, appreciate, was able to tempt me there on the final day of the (curtailed) run. The most arresting aspect of Edward Hall’s production is Miriam Buether’s design which snakes a running track around the front stalls and puts audience members on the stage – it makes for constant visual interest and not just for the men in shorts.

As a story set around the Olympics (Paris 1924), when the production was first announced it felt like a bit of a cash-in to the upcoming Games (London 2012) and sure enough, a West End transfer was announced even before it began. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it really stood up as a piece of effective theatre when separated from all the 2012 buzz. I’ve never seen the film so I wonder if this had an impact, but essentially the thrill of having athletically performed athletic races aside, it was rather dull.

Cast of Chariots of Fire continued

Radio Review: The Eustace Diamonds, Radio 4


“If only money were not an obstacle”

With fortuitous timing, given how much Trollope I’d read and watched at the tail end of 2012, came this radio adaptation, by noted author Rose Tremain, of The Eustace Diamonds. The manipulative Lizzie Eustace claims ownership of a marvellous diamond necklace, a family heirloom which she claims was given to her by her late husband Florian. As the Eustaces close rank in an attempt to reclaim what they believe should not have left the family, Lizzie looks to find another situation to keep her in the lifestyle she has become accustomed to but finds that the case of these precious stones follows her and blights all her attempts to form new attachments.


We’re 2 episodes in, with one left, and I am really enjoying it this far. Whether the novel is simpler in terms of its dramatis personae or if Tremain has simplified the plot in her adaptation (I’ve not read the novel myself…), it feels like the easiest of Trollope’s stories to follow of the three I have encountered recently, yet it doesn’t suffer for it. Pippa Nixon’s Lizzie is a wonderfully ambiguous figure, an inveterate fibber and yet one doesn’t want to quite dismiss her as a complete liar and as she works her way through the smitten men in her life – Joseph Kloska’s Frank and Jamie Glover’s Lord Fawn, and later Adrian Scarborough’s cheeky Lord George – one can imagine exactly why they fall for her charms.


DVD Review: The Way We Live Now

“We’ll be making history gentleman, and money too”

I picked up a copy of The Way We Live Now mid-November and as my Anthony Trollope novel, I rather enjoyed reading it. So with time on my hands for once over Christmas, I decided to watch the 2001 BBC adaptation which I didn’t watch at the time. Prolific period adaptor Andrew Davies was on hand to turn this lengthy novel into a four parter (just about 5 hours in total) and I found it to be a rather effective rendering of a most complex world of plots and subplots which, although a tad disappointing in its ending, was well worth the time to savour and enjoy. 

If it were on the stage, it would be labelled all over as a ‘timely revival’ as Trollope’s main thrust concerns the deviousness of financiers and politicos and the depths that society will sink to in order to maintain its position. There’s also love and good natured people involved to and the balance between the ever-spinning storylines is very well done. At the heart of it all is David Suchet’s Augustus Melmotte, surely one of his best ever performances, a foreign businessman who attempts to reinvent himself as a Englishman of pedigree by buying his way into business, society, property, the House of Commons, his ambitions know no bounds. And as he does so, many around him attempt to jump on his coat-tails for the ride up, not least the aristocratic but impoverished Carburys. 

The Way We Live Now cast contd

DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right

“What could be more innocent than visiting the vicar of Cockchaffington?”

So having completely tumbled for the charms of The Way We Live Now, I turned to the following BBC Anthony Trollope adaptation He Knew He Was Right which was also reworked by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 2004. Trollope’s main concern here was the corrosive effect of jealousy and particularly on his lead character of Louis Trevelyan whose marriage and family are broken up as he struggles to deal with the independent mind of his wife Emily as he suspects her of having an affair, and suffers the consequences of a gossipy Victorian society.

And thus the problems started for me - I never once found myself believing or really caring for Louis or Emily or their relationship. Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser both struggled with the likeability factor for me and so as a central plot point, the story lost me from the beginning. More engaging was Emily’s younger sister Nora’s romantic travails as she falls for a penniless writer – Christina Cole and Stephen Campbell Moore just lovely together, and another love story as a kind but poor young companion falls for her mistress’s great-nephew against society’s rules.

He Knew He Was Right cast contd

He Knew He Was Right cast contd