Saturday, 30 August 2014

Review: Crystal Springs, Park Theatre

“Everything I did was to protect my daughter”

The world of cyber-bullying may be new and uncharted territory that parents have to delve into but Kathy Rucker’s Crystal Springs makes the case that it is vital that we as a society engage with it sooner rather than later for all our sakes. Of course bullying is nothing new but the way in which the available technology and the proliferation of the internet has transformed the way in which people relate to each other means that it has become far easier to make life-altering decisions.

Rucker’s play doesn’t have too much to say that is new or original in all honesty but its structure means that it takes a while for this to emerge and in the telling, it does fitfully engage. We start at the end, in the aftermath of a teen suicide and with the help of a journalist who has a book deal, we work backwards to discover the detail of a tragic tale of class conflict and jealousy in which the mothers are as much to blame as the daughters whose initially bright friendship becomes soured.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Review: Autobahn, King’s Head

“It’s all the same, you know? How it looks out there, along the highway."

This summer has seen at least two song cycles imported into our theatres from the US (I’ve seen See Rock City… and Edges though there may well have been more) but Neil LaBute’s Autobahn extends the concept to straight drama, subtitled as it is as ‘A Short-Play Cycle’. As with the musicals, what this means is that to search for overarching narratives is a fruitless activity as what we’re presented with is a series of disparate parts with only the loosest thematic continuity.

It can help to be forearmed with such knowledge as the experience might otherwise be a little disconcerting. The seven playlets here are linked merely by all taking place in the front seats of a car that is making one kind of journey or another in America, and through the way in which the playwright toys with ideas of language and how people use it. Though given LaBute’s predilection for the darker, seedier side of human nature, we’re often left squirming in the back as unpalatable truths come to light and shocking revelations spill forth. 

Review: Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios 2

“Who does she think she is?”

Based on the novel of the same name by Sherley Anne Williams and premiering off-Broadway in 2005, this is a show that has taken its time to reach our shores. And reflecting the hugely diverse nature of their back catalogue, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Dessa Rose adds another multi-layered account of a key moment in US history (see Ragtime) to their account, in the tale of the diverse but complementary journeys of a young black woman and a young white women in the Deep South.

It’s 1847 and Dessa is reaping the results of her wilful temperament as a love affair with a fellow slave has left her pregnant and behind bars. But try as she might to assert her independence, she has to learn to accept the kindness of others, chief among whom is Ruth, a former Charleston belle whose marriage has gone awry due to her husband’s gambling problem. Alone on the plantation, she welcomes runaway slaves and altogether, through their difficulties, they dare to dream of a brighter future. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory

“You sing cliché
I’ll sing haiku”

There are, in the main, two types of people in the audience for Forbidden Broadway. There’s your devotees who preach evangelically about this Broadway legend and the previous times it has come to the UK, the ones who laugh in anticipation of the jokes that they probably know already, and then there’s the more regular folk who might find themselves just a little turned off by the smugness of a show that is essentially one big inside joke.

Gerard Alessandri’s original concept, augmented here with additional material from Phillip George, is indubitably a classic – making viciously biting fun of the biggest shows to hit (and miss) our stages such as Once, Les Mis, Book of Mormon etc and this iteration of the show has its West End-specific references too, The Pajama Game and Charlie and Chocolate Factory come in for a hammering here, there is indeed much to laugh at.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

DVD Review: Penny Dreadful

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

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

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

Cast of Penny Dreadful continued



DVD Review: Vicious

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

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

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

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

“I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that's sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

As if you could hide the truth about this, surely destined to be one of the shows of the year. Benedict Andrews’ thoughtful updating of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire makes it seem like the play has always lived in this era and these characters always as freshly vibrant as they are here. The work of Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster as Blanche, Stella and Stanley is extraordinarily done – the disturbing sheen of sexual violence a tangible and thoroughly believable threat throughout as Andrews pulls no punches in showing us how brutal this world is.

There’s no escaping it either as Magda Willi’s framelike design constantly revolves in front of us as we’re sat in the round. This choice works on so many levels – the dizzying descent that characterises Blanche’s downfall, the relentless passage of time, the voyeurism it provokes from the audience as we crane to see what it sometimes hidden from view (just like the passive neighbours in the New Orleans neighbourhood). It’s not always easy or comfortable but given what we’re watching, why the hell should we be?!

Short Film Review #48

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


Music in the Bones

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

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Review: Little Stitches, Theatre503

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Re-review: The Bodyguard, Adelphi

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

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

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

Cast of The Bodyguard continued



Cast of The Bodyguard continued



Review: Edges, Tabard

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review: Porgy and Bess, Open Air Theatre

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

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

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

Cast of Porgy and Bess continued



Saturday afternoon music treats

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


Friday, 22 August 2014

My top 10 favourite Doctor Who guest star appearances

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

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



Doctor Who guest stars continued

Review: Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre

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

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

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

Cast of Guys and Dolls continued



Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review: Thérèse Raquin, Theatre Royal Bath


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

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

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

Re-review: Thérèse Raquin, Park Theatre

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

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

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

Film Review: In Secret (or Thérèse) (or Thérèse Raquin)

“It's always the ones in the corner you have too worry about”

This film version of Thérèse Raquin was originally entitled Thérèse Raquin as it is based on Neal Bell’s stage adaptation but between presumed focus groups and a less than stellar premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it was renamed Thérèse and in advance of its muted recent wider release, it changed again to In Secret. It is hard to see the logic of divorcing the title entirely from any connection with Zola as the generic replacement is hardly a big pull but who knows how the minds of Hollywood executives work.

As it is, I don’t think it would have made too much difference to the success of the film, as stellar performance from Jessica Lange aside, it is a fairly hokey take on the story which somewhat misses the mark. A young Thérèse gets a potted backstory as she’s left in the care of her aunt (Lange) by kindly parents and quickly morphs into a gamine Elizabeth Olsen who must play nursemaid and companion, and eventually wife, to her sickly cousin Camille (a brilliantly washed out Tom Felton).

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Review: See Rock City And Other Destinations, Union Theatre

“It’s not what I expected.
Is it what you expected?”

I doubt it was fully the intention of bookwriter Adam Mathais and composer Brad Alexander to suggest Dante’s circles of hell in the unconnected stories of their song cycle See Rock City And Other Destinations but there are moments when it might feel like it. The show purports to show vignettes of people searching for the meaning of life and love against the backdrop of different US landmarks with no real connection between them all save the shadowy presence of the Tour Guide, lurking at each scene.


In reality, we get fragments of stories accompanied by a handful of songs each which a youthful company try their hardest to make register but few really succeed. They’re hardly helped by a format which allows so short a time to establish their characters and a score which seems intent mainly on showcasing a wide range of musical styles rather than really forming any sort of narrative push or wider coherence to the scattered storytelling. Nor does Graham Hubbard’s direction really help us to find any connective tissue that might help the piece hang together more effectively.


See Rock City... cast continued



Short Film Review #47

Eclipse Theatre’s 10by10 project was a series of short films “exploding the myth of a homogenised Black British culture”, all directed by Dawn Walton but written by and starring a wide range of some of our most exciting writers and performers. Filmed in 10 different cities across the UK, the hometowns of the playwrights in fact, and each shot in a single day, these make a fascinating insight into a wider cross-section of British society that perhaps is normally seen. Part 1 of 2.

Parking Wars

Representing for South London is Bola Agbaje’s Parking Wars, a short, sharp and ultimately sweet tale of the thing most likely to test religious harmony on a Sunday morning – parking spaces. Richard Pepple’s pastor and Danny Sapani’s imam preach in neighbouring rooms and are united by their annoyance as the sound of car horns and shouting from outside. And out there, is a challenge that would faze any man, no matter his religion – good fun.

  

Monday, 18 August 2014

Review: The Saints, Nuffield Playing Field

“It's quite clearly not just a game or we wouldn't be this upset about it would we"

In lieu of anyone having written a play about Wigan Athletic (although maybe there is one to come from somewhere…), I had to make do with Luke Barnes’ The Saints for my theatrical footie fix, journeying down to Southampton on a beautiful summer’s day. The weather was key as the Nuffield have created a pop-up theatre in Guildhall Square for the Art at the Heart Festival and as you can see from the pics below, it takes the form of a mini football stadium, leaving the audience exposed to the elements on its terraces but fortunately a morning rain shower soon changed to blazing sun in time for the starting whistle and a really rather enjoyable piece of theatre.

Kenny Glynn is a lifelong Southampton FC supporter and that life has been one full of hardship and challenges, not least in supporting the Saints through thick and thin, and in a brilliantly conceived first half, we see exactly how that life has played out. We witness the early death of his father at Kenny’s first trip to the Dell, the development of his mother’s chronic illness which made him her live-in carer, the trials being a Sunday League footballer and not a very good one at that, and the woes of being a teenager in love with a girl who barely knows he exists. Alongside this runs a potted history of the club, Kenny unable to dissociate the key events of his life from what was happening on and off the field.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Review: The Picture of John Gray, Old Red Lion

“We are living in an age of unrivalled beastliness” 

The life of Oscar Wilde has been much explored, not least in the theatre with De Profundis and The Judas Kiss just two recent examples, but CJ Wilmann’s new play takes a different angle on the familiar events by focusing on others who were in his circle and how they were affected by the scandal that engulfed the writer and eventually claimed his life. The fresh-faced and devout poet John Gray was one of those men, a lover of Wilde’s and reportedly the inspiration for the character of Dorian Gray, and Wilmann’s play adroitly explores this slice of gay life anew. 

Though Wilde is oft mentioned, he never actually appears here, his presence is merely felt and as Patrick Walshe McBride’s youthful Gray burns brightly and briefly in Oscar’s life, he spends more and more time in The Vale, the artist’s studio of couple Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon that formed the salon for the group. There, his head is turned by the French Jewish literary critic Marc-André Raffalovich and an intense relationship forms between the two, right at the moment that the Bosie-led scandal explodes and lands Wilde in court and then in jail. 

Review: Laughing Matters with Celia Imrie, St James Studio

“They're out of sorts in Sunderland
And terribly cross in Kent”

There’s something a little curious about Celia Imrie’s Laughing Matters, a cabaret show in all but nature, which means it never quite satisfies in the way one yearns for it to do so. In the intimate surroundings of the Crazy Coqs, she rattles through a selection of comic songs and extracts from her 2011 autobiography The Happy Hoofer but with so little audience interaction until the very end, this revue feels a little sterile rather than offering the personal insight that more seasoned cabaret performers bring to the table.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience, I really rather liked it, but rather it needs to be taken more as a kind of vanity project and Lord knows, she has paid her dues. Her personal anecdotes are chucklesome if not particularly revelatory and her choice of songs wisely errs on the patter side of things - she’d be the first to say she’s hardly the strongest singer although she did win an Olivier for Best Supporting Role in A Musical for Acorn Antiques, which simply demonstrates her considerable comic capabilities.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Review: The Hired Man, NYMT at St James Theatre

"What would you say to your son?"

Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man probably has to be one of my favourite musicals, British or otherwise, so going to see any production of it is something of a no-brainer, especially in a year that marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War that plays such a strong part here. But performed by the National Youth Music Theatre of Great Britain, this one has the added bonus of featuring people who we are bound to be seeing on our stages for years to come, emerging as an astonishingly accomplished piece of work, not least in the lead performances of Amara Okereke and Dominic Harrison. 

Bolstering the sterling efforts of the cast though is some superb creative work under Nikolai Foster’s hands. Matthew Wright’s design really opens up the stage most effectively, allowing for his beautiful set to evoke the unforgiving terrain of the turn-of-the-century English countryside; Nick Winston’s choreography reflects a similar muscularity that felt utterly true; and Sarah Travis’ musical direction is just inspired, marshalling the voices of her 30+-strong company to spine-tingling effect and also employing actor-musicianship to add real texture to the music.

Cast of The Hired Man continued



Cast of The Hired Man continued



Review: Jezebel, Soho Theatre

“Roughly 15% of people report to have had a threesome”

There’s something rather refreshing about Mark Cantan’s Jezebel, newly opened in the attic room/oven of the Soho Theatre upstairs, in its uncomplicated nature. There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in its format or earth-shattering in its content but rather, there’s a finely balanced comedy with a sparkling modern take on its farcical shenanigans and which, pleasingly, feels no need to try and mine elements of social relevance or emotional depth in search of ‘significance’. Sometimes a play can just be fun and not have mean anything more than that.

So it’s something of a sex farce which slides into a comedy of errors. Both in their early 30s, Alan and Robin are both coming off a series of unsuccessful relationship so when they get set up and the chemistry between them is palpable (and hilariously double-entendre-ridden), it seems their luck may have finally changed. But eight months in, that initial flame has fizzled a little and so they turn sexual adventuring to spice things up, working their way through allsorts until settling on a threesome, the kookily, hapless-in-love Jezebel being their third.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Review: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse

“Lock your door and hide your daughter"

After the extraordinary success that was In The Heights, the Southwark Playhouse have gone for another American musical theatre import in the shape of 2012’s Dogfight. But whilst expectations were high – something heightened by the auditorium being in the same configuration as for that previous show, the reality fell far short. Peter Duchan’s book, based on the 1991 film of the same name, follows a group of boisterous marines in San Francisco on the night before they’re due to fly out to Vietnam as they look to maintain the (dis)honourable tradition of holding a dogfight.

As we come to realise, their version of a dogfight is distinctly unpleasant, a cruel game played on unsuspecting women and though he is a part of this world of pent-up testosterone and hints of sexual violence, the young Eddie Birdlace soon comes to regret his choice of victim – a sweet waitress called Rose – and tries to make amends, though whether this is because he has fallen instantly in love with her or he has spotted an easy way to get laid on his last night is anyone’s guess. So what is trying to be a sweet love story is overlaid with this troubling sour note throughout. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rockwell House


“The summer still doth tend upon my state”

The Malachites have more usually been found at St Leonard’s Church in their quest to “reconnect Shakespeare with Shoreditch in the public consciousness” but this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream sees them skip down the road to the tented rooftop of a venue which sits on the site where the Curtain Theatre once stood more than 400 years ago. And more significantly, it sees this young company taking a much more inventive approach to the Bard’s work – there can’t have been too many other female Bottoms, gender-swapped Oberons and Titanias or such explicit references to a 1909 silent film version of the play. 

Benjamin Blyth’s production is cleverly done indeed. Projected snippets of that film play out above us – one brilliant scene sees the Rude Mechanicals mime along silently as their roles are given out by Peter Quince – and there’s something rather magical about seeing, even if only briefly, an interpretation of this same story that is over a century old. Blyth is also unafraid to contrast this with the new and novel though – having the Fairy King and Queen swap bodies in some magical mishap is further exploited when we meet our female Bottom, the tangled sexual dynamics of these mischievous spirits cast in a fresh light. 

Review: Perseverance Drive, Bush Theatre


“I know we have a certain amount of dirty laundry in this family, but is it really necessary to keep on washing it so publicly?” 

Robin Soans’ new play for the Bush Theatre takes a little time to get where it is going but by the time it arrives at its destination, it has gathered into something really rather moving. Perseverance Drive opens in Barbados as the Gillards come together to bury their matriarch Grace. Pentecostal pastor Eli heads up a deeply religious family but not one that is close – one of his sons Joshua has been exiled for being gay, and Nathan and Zek who are both ministers as well have splintered into opposing factions of the church. 

Their battles are endless – who will get to speak the eulogy, what will happen to their mother’s soul etc etc and though the gospel-inflected ambience created in Madani Younis’ production is powerful, this opening half is a little too static for its own good. Fortunately, after the interval the energy shifts subtly to become much more affecting. It is four years later and now it is Eli’s turn to die in the somewhat less tropical surroundings of a run-down Leytonstone flat but as he slowly shuffles closer to the end of his mortal coil, it is clear that little has really changed.

Short Film Review #46

Expectation Management – Episode 2
Expectation Management, Episode 2 from tupaq felber on Vimeo.

A second instalment for Tupaq Felber’s Expectation Management, seeing Jon Foster’s Owen remaining unlucky in love and dating, not least because of the efforts of his friends. It’s not quite as funny as the first but still rather good fun.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review: Marry Me A Little, St James

“Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low”

Just a (relative) quickie for this as I ease gently back into the theatrical maelstrom after three weeks of well-earned rest. Marry Me A Little is a Sondheim revue at the St James Theatre - not to be confused with Putting It Together, another Sondheim compilation show that played in the main space of the same theatre earlier this year – which is made up of songs that hadn’t previously been used before, whether cut from shows before they opened or taken from productions that hadn’t made it onto the stage.

Given Sondheim’s fondness for endlessly tinkering with his musicals and the now ever-present cultural curiosity that demands nothing by a ‘master’ gets left unproduced, there’s more in here that might be recognisable than might originally have been conceived when the show was put together in 1980. Saturday Night has now been introduced into the repertoire and at least a couple of the songs – including the title number – have been restored into their original shows. That said, this can’t hide the fact it is a show made up of songs that were rejected... 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility (1995)

“People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them”

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility has aged rather well, a tribute to the efforts of its star and screenwriter Emma Thompson (along with countless others), and is probably one of the best big screen adaptations of any of Jane Austen’s works. It has a collection of performances that run counter to expectations – Alan Rickman makes a rare trip onto the good side as the compassionate Colonel Brandon, Kate Winslet has a raw freshness to her that makes for an ideal Marianne, and these were the days when Hugh Grant still had a suggestion of flexibility about his range as the decent Edward Ferrars. 

And even when there aren’t too many surprises, Lee teases real emotion from his performers – Gemma Jones’ matriarch is full of aching emotion, a propensity echoed beautifully in Emma Thompson’s Elinor whose expressions of heartbreak and pain are just exquisite in their agony. In the smaller roles there’s delicious biting manipulation from Harriet Walter’s snobbish Fanny, riding roughshod over James Fleet’s John as they take over Norland; Imogen Stubbs finds a lovely delicacy in Lucy Steele; and it’s intriguing to see Imelda Staunton as a startling brash Charlotte Palmer, missing something of the subtlety we’re used to now from her. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility (2008)

“I think we all have to find our own ways to be happy”

Who else but Andrew Davies did this adaptation for the BBC and to be sure, it is another cracker. I vividly remember loving this immensely when it aired and then being ridiculously excited as I was able to tick the actors off one by one as I saw them on the stage. From Hattie Morahan to Charity Wakefield, Dominic Cooper to Dan Stevens, Claire Skinner to the marvellous Linda Bassett, it is a wonderful cast and over the three hours of this version directed by John Alexander, they give great life to the tale of the Dashwood women as they are forced to downsize yet still find themselves suitable husbands.

Led by the widowed Mrs Dashwood (a wounded yet pragmatic Janet McTeer), eldest daughter Elinor (a magnificent performance of beautiful restraint from Hattie Morahan) and impetuous middle child Marianne (a deliciously spunky Charity Wakefield) have to dance their way through the minefield of male attention, conscious of the fact that their reduced situation may have limited them somewhat but hyper-aware of the importance in following their passion. Davies’ writing plays up the real difficulties for women stuck in a world where men make the rules and this more serious vein really works.

Monday, 4 August 2014

DVD Review: Northanger Abbey (2007)

“What could be a more innocent or harmless pastime than reading”

Another of Austen’s novels that I haven’t quite gotten round to reading, Northanger Abbey was thus a brand new beast to me and so something of a queer little thing. Its mixture of naïve girlishness and gothic fantasy is winsomely portrayed by Felicity Jones as the ingenuish Catherine Morland and the ever-so-handsome JJ Field as Henry Tilney, but I found it very hard to get into the story or really care for it.

It’s always nice to see Sylvestra Le Touzel, here a friend of the family who introduces the book-obsessed Catherine into Bath society with her husband, the equally kindly Desmond Barrit, and Carey Mulligan is surprisingly fresh as the spirited Isabella. But the use of Geraldine James’ voice as a narrator in the form of Jane Austen herself sits a little oddly and altogether, this was one of my least favourite films in this whole exercise.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

DVD Review: Mansfield Park (1999)


“Life seems nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings”

Eek. So having sampled the more recent ITV version of Mansfield Park. I next turned to Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation and adaptation is surely the right word for it felt like an entirely different story and not in a good way. Again, there’s a distinct modernisation of the heroine into something which was assumedly palatable for test audiences and/or studio bosses but consequently way misses the mark for anything truly Austenesque, Frances O’Connor isn’t exactly bad as Fanny but it never feels like a good fit.

Elsewhere, there’s a scything of some of the key characters, script changes altering others completely. And strangely, given how much of Austen’s novel has to be concertinaed into feature film length, Rozema opts to add in new material – an overworked strand about slavery is heavy-handed in the extreme, the hints of lesbianism (Embeth Davidtz’s Mary Crawford) a desperate ploy for scandal, opium addiction for Lady Bertram scandalously wasting the presence of Lindsay Duncan. 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

DVD Review: Mansfield Park (2007)


“There’s something about Fanny I’ve often observed” 

This being my first experience with Mansfield Park, I can’t really talk about it as an adaptation (although it was impossible to avoid the opprobrium it seems to have evoked) but even as a standalone piece of drama, it can’t help but disappoint. Maggie Wadey’s writing lacks any real sense of the carefully constructed literary world of Jane Austen and Iain B MacDonald’s direction has a very loose sense of time and self, clearly straining for a connection with a contemporary audience but in doing so, losing sight of the story it is trying to tell. 

Billie Piper’s Fanny, sent to live with her rich aunt (a distracted Jemma Redgrave) and uncle (a delightfully brusque Douglas Hodge) and whilst initially feeling out of place - “I was the poor relation and was made to feel it” – builds a place for herself as an indispensable member of the household. But with her tousled sun-bleached hair and entirely modern ways, she just doesn’t convince as a historical heroine. She’s not helped by a scarcely-there plot in which little of consequence seems to actually happen, it’s all just so uneventful. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Women in theatre - July 2014

The headline figures

% of women in the 29 shows seen in July

Actors: 43%
Writers: 34%
Directors: 31%
Designers: 32%
Light: 8%
Sound: 26%

Number of shows with 50% or more women in the cast - 13

Results from January, February, March, April, May, and June


DVD Review: Persuasion (1995)

“No-one wants to be in calm waters all their life”

Anyone who has read this blog for a wee while will know I’m a sucker for a thesp-heavy cast but not even could have come up with the manifold delights of the ensemble for this 1995 version of Persuasion. Directed by Roger Michell and adapted by Nick Dear, it features Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, a once-engaged couple who were pulled apart by societal pressure as he was but a penniless seaman. Eight years later, Anne’s family is struggling to maintain their aristrocratic lifestyle due to overspending but Wentworth is now a captain and highly sought after – might their love be reunited after all? Watch this space…

Root and Hinds are both excellent with hugely subtle performances suggesting the depth of emotion each holds, unable to express how they truly feel and buffeted around a range of alternative marriage proposals as everyone tries to secure the best possible situation for themselves. But real pleasure comes too in the supporting performances, seeing such fantastic actors earlier in their career and tracing something of a journey in their acting careers.

Cast of Persuasion continued