Thursday, 31 July 2014

DVD Review: Persuasion (2007)

“I will not allow a woman’s nature to be more unconstant than a man’s”

This was actually my first interaction with Persuasion, the novel has languished on my bookshelf for years and I’ve never seen an adaptation before, so it was an interesting experience to take the story in for the first time with this ITV adaptation starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. Simon Burke’s adaptation condenses Austen’s work right down to 90 minutes, which means a lot may well have been lost, but it also made a great introduction for a novice.

After an engagement with Captain Frederick Wentworth eight years ago which crumbled in the face of her family’s disapproval, Anne Elliot finds herself on the shelf at 27. When her father and sister’s lavish lifestyle requires a downsizing of their household, life seems set to change for good as their beloved Kellynch Hall has to be let out to tenants. But the world is a small place and the connections that emerge between her sister’s household where she goes to stay and the new tenants, the Crofts, ensure that the past is not so easily left behind.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)

“Your alliance would be a disgrace”

This six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has gone down in history as one of the most iconic TV programmes ever, its cultural breakthrough into the mainstream taking everyone by surprise and spearheading something of a revival in period dramas. For me though, my abiding memory remains watching a documentary some years later and hearing adaptor Andrew Davies saying that the stage direction he wrote for Colin Firth, for when Darcy meets Elizabeth after she has rushed over to see her ailing sister, was “Darcy is surprised to get an erection”.

Smut aside, it is a strikingly well done piece of work though, Luxuriating over 6 hour-long instalments, it allows for the slow-burn of the central relationship which makes this version of the story really work, Firth and Jennifer Ehle so incredibly well-matched that their every interaction is scintillatingly drawn as mutual antipathy turns to mutual admiration amidst the various family dramas of the Bennetts, Wickhams, Collins et al. His brooding looks and engagingly smooth voice and her keenly intelligent eyes with her delightful pragmatism are utterly engaging.

Cast of Pride and Prejudice continued

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (2005)


“A Mrs Bennett, a Miss Bennett, a Miss Bennett and a Miss Bennett, sir.”

I deliberately chose to rewatch this version of Pride and Prejudice as Joe Wright’s film was the last I saw and I wanted to remind myself of it on its own merits, before returning to the iconic BBC television adaptation. Joe Wright seems to inspire a strength of feeling in some people which is almost akin to that which his frequent collaborator Keira Knightley is (IMHO) unfairly subjected and I don’t imagine his choice to take on Austen’s beloved story in an abridged film format and to cast Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett would have endeared him to anyone new. 

But Wright’s visual eye cannot be doubted as he has a clear gift for condensing and crystallising the key emotional moments of a story. He captures beautifully the informality of a public dance where the people actually talk, contrasted with the private moments of secrets and passions for all concerned; his customary flowing tracking shots are present and correct and there’s a hugely romantic feel. This really comes through in his composition of scenes – the first touch between the pair as Darcy lifts Elizabeth into her carriage is powerfully charged, the sense of emotional freedom that comes for the girls when they are allowed to dance is always convincing and there’s a clever reinterpretation of the wet shirt scene that tips the nod to the original but stands on its own two feet – Macfadyen wins my vote over Firth for those that are interested. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

DVD Review: Emma (1996 Film)

“Badly done, Emma. Badly done”

Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, this 1996 film adaptation of Emma may have had a starrier cast than the television version from the same year but it sadly pales by comparison. Gwyneth Paltrow gives a brittle, aloof performance as Emma Woodhouse, an almost princessy take on the character which may work for the unthinkingness of her actions but something that also detaches her emotionally from her friends and colleagues, robbing the film of the charming resonance it ought to possess as the romantic trials of Highbury unfold around her matchmaking. 

This starchiness is something that affects the whole film – Greta Scacchi’s former governess is too mannered for a good friend, Alan Cumming’s Mr Bates just feels wrongly pitched and whilst I normally love any opportunity to see Juliet Stevenson, her arrival as his wife is unbelievable and underplayed, and the delightful Toni Collette struggles with the meek Harriet, her natural ebullience hemmed in awkwardly. Even the normally reliable Jeremy Northam misses the mark as Knightley. (I won’t mention Ewan McGregor’s Frank Churchill to help to erase it from my memory). 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

DVD Review: Emma (1996 TV)

“Dear Emma bears everything so well” 

Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Emma for the television may have suffered by being released in the same year as the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film version but it is infinitely superior, a much better observed version blessed with an excellent cast, many of whom have gone on to bigger things indeed. Emma herself is played by Kate Beckinsale, Mr Knightley is the recently-returned-to-our-stages Mark Strong, Samantha Morton is the willing Miss Smith and the ever-superb Olivia Williams stars as the inscrutable Miss Fairfax. 

Star-spotting aside, it really works as a piece of drama. There’s a real warmth behind the whole affair which keeps it entirely engaging, Beckinsale’s Miss Woodhouse is the personification of charm and her gaucheness feels genuinely couched in innocence as she leads Morton’s Harriet a merry dance with her misguided match-making and eventually learns more about the world than her Highbury blinkers ever allowed. And Mark Strong’s pragmatically strong (ba-dum-tish) Knightley is a perfect match for her, practical in every sense as a hands-on landlord. 

Friday, 25 July 2014

DVD Review: Emma (2009)

“He would know me but there’s no reason I would know a farmer”

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma, I can’t really believe that I will ever see one as well done as this 2009 BBC adaptation by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon. Everything about it works for me, from the clever casting choices to the subtle redefinition of some characters, the (now) luxurious running time to the production values which mark it as something of a dying breed in terms of BBC period dramas.

I love its inventive prologue contrasting the early lives of Emma, Frank and Jane, how tragedy touched them all but their positions in life meant their journeys took wildly different paths. Romola Garai makes an immensely appealing heroine, her beautiful wide eyes so open and honest yet quickly able to take on a harder glint as her more self-obsessed side takes over, and she works so brilliantly with her cast-mates to give us full-fleshed, believable relationships.

Cast of Emma continued



Sunday, 20 July 2014

Review: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

“What kind of man would you be without the theatre”

I can’t lie – I had rather low expectations when it came to the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, not helped by rewatching the film recently and marvelling at how it managed to win 7 Academy Awards back in 1999. But I equally have to admit to being swept away by Declan Donellan’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation which is set to open this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, it managing to find an identity of its own (after a relatively slow start) to try and recapture the hearts of audiences anew.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original screenplay saw Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright, tussling for commissions with friendly rival Kit Marlowe and dealing with a particularly sticky case of writer’s block. With his unhappily married wife and kids sequestered in Stratford-upon-Avon, he embarks on a forbidden affair with noblewoman Viola de Lesseps, who has her own battles to face in being denied the career on the stage that she craves and being married off to the obnoxious Wessex. Their romantic strife thus provides the creative spark for Will to write Romeo and Juliet.

Cast of Shakespeare in Love (play) continued



Cast of Shakespeare in Love (play) continued



DVD Review: Shakespeare in Love

“Theatre is the handmaiden of the devil”

With a theatrical version of Shakespeare in Love about to open in the West End, I thought I’d revisit the 1998 film as I’m not entirely sure that I’ve seen it since it was first released. It is still surprising to see that it managed to win seven Academy Awards and whilst I like both Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench, looking at their competition it is a little galling to think that they were recognised for these roles. And in the light of the huge authorship furore that erupted around Anonymous, it is interesting to see how little comparable fuss the level of invention here caused.

To be fair, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s film makes no pretence to be literarily or historically accurate (given the paucity of source material, it’s hardly surprising) but because the approach here is a hugely affectionate one towards the Bard, rather than challenging popular notions about him, it is clear something of a free pass has been given here. So we see Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare working on a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter and being inspired by the everyday chatter and the tumult of his personal life to amend the play and write his famous words. 

Shakespeare in Love DVD cast continued

DVD Review: Stage Beauty

“A woman playing a woman, where’s the trick in that” 

Any film with Clare Higgins yelling ‘give me back my merkin’ is surely destined for stone cold classic status but 2004’s Stage Beauty seems to have slipped from people’s minds whereas I always remembered it as a film I really enjoyed, more so that Shakespeare in Love. Much will depend on your opinion of Claire Danes but this tale of the rapidly changing world of the theatre during Charles II’s reign proved much more enjoyable than Shakespeare in Love ever did, and offers a fascinating, even-handed look at how both the men and women of the stage were affected by the decision to ban the former from playing the latter.

Billy Crudup’s Ned Kynaston has become one of the top actors in town, specialising in female characters like Othello’s Desdemona in which he frequently steals the show and aided by his faithful dresser Maria, played by Danes. She has a burning desire to act on the stage herself but since the Puritans outlawed such a thing in professional theatres, she’s limited to appearing in grubby pub theatres on the fringe (plus ça change…). The thespian desires of Charles’ ambitious mistress Nell Gwynn seem set to change that completely though, along with the fortunes of all concerned.

Cast of Stage Beauty continued



Review: The Nether, Royal Court

“Just because it is virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real”

There are times when an age guidance notice can seem like mollycoddling, but there are others when they are truly justified. The UK premiere of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether by Headlong and the Royal Court is most certainly one of the latter cases, recommended for over 18s only as one of the more disturbing plays we are likely to see this year. The play is one of the more devastatingly effective looks at how the internet has shaped the way we live our lives and how society is struggling to keep up with, and govern, this fast-changing world. Writing now, a few days after seeing it, it still haunts my mind – a combination of Jeremy Herrin’s stunningly mounted production and a searingly brutal play.

Haley’s ‘Nether’ is her futuristic version of the internet where virtual reality has been fully integrated, so people are able to create their own realms like webpages. The playwright pushes that to the extreme in ‘The Hideaway’, a world created by Stanley Townsend’s Sims for him and other like-minded souls to act out their paedophiliac tendencies without actually committing any crime as it currently stands. Young detective Morris, Amanda Hale, has hauled Sims in for questioning though as she wants the details of the whole thing so she can shut it down, arguing that even online realms need to be policed, that all our interactions lead to our deeper understanding of the rules of the world.

DVD Review: Chatroom (2010)


“We can get him online” 

After watching The Nether at the Royal Court, a chat with a colleague about other plays that effectively depict the internet threw up Enda Walsh’s Chatroom which played at the National Theatre a few years back (and featured both Doctor Who (Matt Smith) and Spiderman (Andrew Garfield) in its cast. It was slightly before my time of insane theatre-going so I was glad to see that I could catch a film version, adapted by Walsh himself and directed by Japanese maestro Hideo Nakata. 

The story concerns five teenagers in various states of unhappiness who find succour in online chatrooms. Disillusioned model Eva, anti-depressant taker Jim, unhappy daughter Emily and inappropriately flirtatious Mo are swept up by highly-functioning sociopath and self-harmer William in a room he’s created called Chelsea Teens! At first they just talk smack about those they don’t like but William soon manipulates them into acting on their feelings, with devastating consequences. 

Cast of Chatroom continued

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: Kafka’s Dick, Theatre Royal Bath

“Hey, you look really depressed”

I fly off on holiday in mere hours so the briefest of mentions for this Alan Bennett play. My second comedy in a day after a Chichester matinée and a thankfully traffic-free drive over to Bath, Kafka’s Dick is a remarkably prescient play (from 1986) which looks at our ever-increasing desire to know more about the private details of our public figures. Sydney and Linda, a regular Yorkshire couple (is there any other kind?!) have their lives disrupted when Franz Kafka, his friend and contemporary Max Brod and his father Hermann all turn up at their home.

That they’re all dead is one thing but more importantly, Elliot Levey’s Brod promised Daniel Weyman’s Kafka that he would destroy all his writings on his death but published them instead, garnering the writer unimaginable posthumous fame. And as it turns out, Sydney is something of a Kafka scholar who focused on the family dynamic of the Czech, so the arrival of Matthew Kelly as Hermann adds a surprising depth to the play, far beyond the initial comic stylings.

Review: Amadeus, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I heard the voice of God…and it was the voice of an obscene child”

Whilst the mere mention of Amadeus, for most people, will instantly call to mind something like
for a Europop-obsessed child of the 80s as I was, this was the only Amadeus in my world
so it is hard not to be just a little disappointed that the late lamented Falco doesn’t make an appearance somewhere in Jonathan Church’s production of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus at the newly renovated Chichester Festival Theatre. Instead, it is a more prosaic look at life in the eighteenth century Viennese court where resident composer Antonio Salieri has his nose well and truly put out of joint by the arrival of a young upstart by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

It is told in flashback through the eyes of the embittered Salieri and it is here that the play is instantly hobbled. I rather like Rupert Everett but his monotonous delivery of the substantial amount of narration means that there’s no variation to the character at all – villain or no, he’s still allowed to be interested but instead he’s chained to an immutable interpretation here that stultifies much of the production.

Cast of Amadeus continued



Review: Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva

“Miss Julie is in complete denial about the whole thing”

Something of a random double-bill – August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (adapted here by Rebecca Lenkiwicz) and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy have previously been put together here at Chichester and so once again, they’re programmed as an engagement in the Minerva, partly cross-cast in a production by actor-increasingly-turned-director Jamie Glover. Each show has its merits but putting them together didn’t really add anything to the experience for me. 

Lenkiewicz’s version is solid rather than inspirational – the play has been adapted so many times now, it feels almost more surprising not to remove it from its original context. And consequently there’s no escaping the more misogynistic edges of the writing without the filter of another time. The glorious Rosalie Craig is excellent though as the titular, brittle aristocrat who can’t resist visits downstairs to bit of rough Jean, her father’s valet who is engaged to a kitchen maid.

Review: The Boss of it All, Soho

“We begin our story in Denmark. With an actor.”

Given the publicity-garnering controversial nature of much of his work, it is a little surprising that The Boss of it All actually marks the first time one of Lars von Trier’s films has made it onto a UK stage but then again, perhaps not – Antichrist the musical anyone, an immersive version of Nymphomaniac..? Jack McNamara should then be applauded for such a bold move with his first adaptation for renowned touring company New Perspectives, not least because it really is very good.

It is an astutely observed office comedy – Gerry Howell plays Kristoffer, an unemployed actor who is taken on by an IT company in dire straits to pretend to be the boss so that others can make the necessary difficult decisions under cover. It is a role to which he discovers he was born, slotting perfectly into the all-too-recognisable world of office politics with its petty rivalries and inexplicable peculiarities but sure enough, when it comes to pulling the trigger, he finds he might have gotten in a bit too deep.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Rebecca Caine, Gina Beck + Annalene Beechey – Sing For Your Supper

Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Annie Get Your Gun, Churchill Bromley

Even with a turkey that you know will fold
You may be stranded out in the cold”

Blessed with one of the almighty scores of Broadway history, you’d think that productions of Annie Get Your Gun would be the simplest of gimmes but given that it is very much a piece of writing of its time, it’s not quite as easy as that (as I discovered recently in seeing Carousel for the first time). The gender politics therein are dubious at best and the treatment of Native Americans also speaks of severely outdated attitudes, so directors are faced with something of a conundrum. The Young Vic just went bizarre with it back in 2009 and now a major UK touring production by Ian Talbot opts for the ‘play within a play’ route, the framing device often used in The Taming of the Shrew to address similarly thorny issues. 

Elements of the show have also been removed and tinkered to further redress the gender balance but in all honesty it feels like a step too far – applying both of these patches detracts from their intentions. If it is a bit of meta-theatre, then surely it can just be played as is, as we know not to take it seriously; or if we’re reinventing the story for 21st century eyes, then just rewrite it wholesale. Instead we’re left with something which never really achieves either aspect on a dramatic level, something exacerbated by the limitations of a touring set design. Fortunately, the production sounds like a dream with a superb orchestra though and has some cracking performances in it from a cast who deliver the utterly timeless score by Irving Berlin with all the panache it deserves.

Cast of Annie Get Your Gun continued



Thursday, 17 July 2014

Review: Medea, National Theatre

“Terrible things breed in broken hearts”

Euripides’ Medea has long been considered one of the greatest roles for a woman to play so it is a little surprising (or perhaps not) that it hasn’t been performed at the National Theatre before. But the winds of change blow even on the South Bank so it makes great sense that one of our finest living actresses, Helen McCrory, should take on the part in a production by Carrie Cracknell, herself responsible for making some of that change with recent shows like A Doll’s House and Blurred Lines

Ben Power’s new version relocates the betrayed Medea in a blasted contemporary setting (another ingeniously cracking design from Tom Scutt, evocatively lit by Lucy Carter) where she and her two children anxiously await news of the husband and father who has abandoned them for a newly politically expedient marriage. Trapped in a foreign land, having severely burned her bridges with her homeland, we watch helplessly along with a hefty Greek Chorus as grief inexorably transmutes into anger. 

Cast of Medea continued



Review: The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Tricycle

“Nobody knows us. They think they do. But they don’t”

As per the publicity image, Canadian playwright's Adam Bock's black comedy The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has aspirations of splashy cultural recognition with other North American fantastical worlds such as Carrie Bradshaw's fabulously-affordable-somehow-even-though-shes-a-writer fashion-dominated New York, or the glossy lives of the spoiled uber-rich teens of Gossip Girl, but it achieves neither with a curiously unsatisfying clunk, possibly the first mis-step by Indhu Rubasingham since taking over the Tricycle.

It's all so insubstantial, not in the way that the lives of the five spoiled sisters from Pitts...etc who now reside in New York are super-vacuous (though they are), but in the fact that Bock says nothing of any import about them. In their world, money says everything, except that it doesn't really say a lot and being told money doesn't buy you happiness is hardly ground-breaking stuff. Hints of more interesting stories do poke their way through in Trip Cullman's production but at just over an hour, there's no room for them to develop.
  
Running time: 75 minutes
Booking until 26th July


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review: Intimate Apparel, Park Theatre

“How we be friends? When I ain't never been through your front door”

The Theatre Royal Bath hit on another winner with this production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and so it has transferred over to the Park Theatre to let Londoners who don’t travel have a slice of the action. The play was inspired by Nottage finding faded photographs of her great-grandparents and then spinning an affectionate fantasia on the lives of African-American people at the turn of the twentieth century.

She imagines the life of Esther, an unmarried black seamstress in her mid-thirties in 1905 New York, who is a true exponent of her craft. People come from far and wide for the exquisite lingerie that she creates and her clients include women of all classes and colour and so she has managed to save up quite the nest egg. Her plans for the future include running her own salon but when a romantic correspondence is struck up with the Barbadian George, she dares to dream of marriage too. 

Short Film Review #45

Elevator Pitch

This is a brilliantly ingenious short which manages to pack in a huge amount into its couple of minutes, layer upon layer builds up as the fourth wall is continually smashed by an intern trying to make a pitch to a film producer. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Review: Fathers and Sons, Donmar Warehouse

“I share no-one’s ideas, I have my own”

Another day, another tale of people languishing in the dying embers of Imperial Russia, but Fathers and Sons Brian Friel’s 1987 adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel – has something special about it, which makes it truly stand out from the crowd. Much of this has to do with Lyndsey Turner’s sterling production for the Donmar, her gift for marshalling large ensembles to the absolute best of their abilities coming to the fore once again and smoothing over any potential weaknesses in the play itself. 

Pace sometimes flags, with narrative description dominating a little too much in the second act and too many characters for them to all to really register. But such caveats pale in the face of performances like these – Joshua James’ would-be revolutionary Arkady and Anthony Calf as his hapless father, Seth Numrich’s more radical Bazarov and his own father played beautifully by Karl Johnson, Susan Engel’s vividly drawn Princess, Tim McMullan’s hilarious fop of an uncle, it’s an embarrassment of riches. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 26th July

Cast of Fathers and Sons continued



Monday, 14 July 2014

Review: Pacific Overtures, Union

“Reviewing it from where we sit, the facts are irrefutable” 

Many of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals instantly gain the sobriquet ‘ambitious’ and so early productions suffered short runs. But where several have been revised and reworked into modern classics, 1976’s Pacific Overtures has remained one of his least produced works, languishing in relative obscurity. Which makes it ideal fodder for the musical theatre powerhouse of the Union Theatre to take on and revive, with Michael Strassen’s production garnering massive ticket sales before the run had even begun.

The show is set in mid-nineteenth century Japan where their isolationist policy has meant no visitors have been received to the country for hundreds of years. When an American ship arrives boisterously demanding an audience with the emperor and unwilling to have their colonial ambitions easily appeased, the Far Eastern nation is sucked slowly into the coils of Westernisation and opened up to ‘civilisation’. Based on John Weidman’s original play to which Sondheim added 12 melodically sophisticated songs, it isn’t too hard to see why it isn’t more often on our stages. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Review: The Confession Room, St James Theatre

“Welcome to the room where your problems are heard”

In this cut-throat theatre world, one takes the opportunity to celebrate new musical theatre writing where one can so there was little hesitation in booking for this one-off concert performance of Dan Looney’s The Confession Room at the St James Theatre’s downstairs studio space. I actually came across Looney as part of an evening celebrating another writer John Kristian last month so it was nice to be able join the dots a little here and see some of his work given theatrical life.

This show received a concept recording from SimG Productions which was released on CD last year when a production also played the Landor for a night and tonight’s show, directed by Paul Foster with musical direction from Tim Evans, used the music from the recording along with excerpts of Patrick Wilde’s book to entertain an audience who’d opted to miss (the first half at least) the theatre of the World Cup final for some genuine musical theatre. 

Review: Then, Soho Theatre

“Who do you feel you used to be?”

Proving that there are indeed no unfunny stories about Shania Twain, Yve Blake & Co’s Then has been delighting audiences all week long in the oven that is the Soho Theatre upstairs so I was pleased to be able to sneak into the final show of the run. Blake set up a website called whowerewe.com, invited the world to respond to the above question and then fashioned a show out of their answers, something that sits somewhere between performance art, stand-up, musical theatre and straight-up play.

The collage that she has created is entertaining, endearing, even enlightening. Bouncing off the collaborative energy from video designers Rosa Nussbaum and Joel Enfield, musical director Alex Groves and designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, Blake bounds onto the stage with an effervescence that never flags as she sings, dances and goofs her way through the memories that people have elected to share – the childhood dreams, the embarrassing photos, the bewildering confessions of youthful naïveté right through to more moving anecdotes of later life. 

Review: Shutters, Park Theatre

“Nothing here but kitchen things”

The intentions behind Making Productions’ triple-bill Shutters are certainly well-placed – bringing together 3 short American plays looking at female experience over the last 100 years and using a six-strong female ensemble to cover all roles whether male or female – but in the end, the choice of plays lets them down somewhat. Philip Dawkins’ Cast of Characters is a self-indulgent piece of playwrighting buffoonery which focuses on the production notes for an imagined play of family drama but achieves little. And Brooke Allen’s The Deer tested my patience with its pseudo-tragedy.

Both those plays are contemporary and sure enough, the one that worked best was the 1916 Trifles by award-winning Susan Glaspell. Here the murder of a farmer has taken place and his wife jailed on suspicion thereof but whilst the sheriff and his mates blunder about the property trying to find the answers, the two women left alone in the kitchen (where they belong…) get far closer to the truth. This is by far the most intriguing piece of writing but also of direction, Thorpe Baker introducing a neatly spooky trick to create a thrilling and engrossing atmosphere. One out of three isn’t good enough though.

Running time: 90 minutes

Booking until 3rd August

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Review: Invincible, St James

“We want to live our lives on a more human scale”

Back in 2012, Laura Howard gave a truly exceptional performance in Lost In Yonkers, something truly unexpected in its devastatingly deep emotion and so the thought of being able to see her onstage again was an exciting one. Sadly for me, her choice of return to the London stage was a farce, Torben Betts’ Invincible to be precise, which played Richmond’s Orange Tree earlier this year, making it easier for me to ignore. It has now however transferred to the St James thus wearing down my resistance, if not my natural antipathy to this form of theatre.

And sure enough, it really just wasn’t my cup of tea. A domestic farce taking Ayckbourn as its inspiration, a middle class London couple Emily and Oliver relocate to the working class north and they don’t automatically get on with their neighbours Dawn and Alan – such larks! Everything is up for debate - art, the war, politics, the financial crisis, family – and everything has deeper meaning than at first glance – both Emily and Alan paint, the patriotism here is personal, parenthood is precarious on both sides.

Review: The Rape of Lucrece, Southbank Centre

“Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds”

Not much to say aside from ‘wow’ at the fiercely committed performance from Camille O’Sullivan who delivers Shakespeare’s epic poem The Rape of Lucrece with musical accompaniment from Feargal Murray at the piano, original music having been composed by the both of them. The story is a tragic tale of lust, rape and politics (that old chestnut…) but it is given visceral life by O’Sullivan who inhabits both sides of the coin – she plays Lucrece, the wife of a Roman officer who boasts of her chastity, and also Tarquin, the arrogant  son of the king who sees a challenge he cannot resist. 

Its an exhilarating experience, the marriage of song and poetry expertly handled by consummate professional O’Sullivan and always interesting, as woman duels man, piano fights voice (there’s a particularly powerful moment when Murray unexpectedly changes what he’s doing), the politics of rape and the subjugation of women’s bodies never hidden as they remain sadly pertinent today. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is perhaps too big a venue for so intimately crushing a piece but its haunting spirit works nevertheless. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval) 
Booking until 12th July

Saturday afternoon music treats

Rebecca Lock, Gina Beck, Summer Strallen + Sasi Strallen - Little Women

Review: Macbeth, RIFT at Balfron Tower

“Macbeth does murder sleep”

Immersive schimmersive. In the creation of ever-more inventive ways of approaching familiar stories, theatre companies are consistently pushing the boundaries of what makes a theatrical experience and the set-up for RIFT’s 12-hour Macbeth complete with sleepover is certainly eye-catching. The reality though is quite something else – if sharing a dorm with strangers doesn’t appeal, you can pretty much leave at 1am without missing too much, and the practicalities of dividing the audience into three small groups each with their own Macbeth and Lady M stultifies the pace rather than invigorating the show. 

There’s cleverness to be sure, moments where the intimacy really sparks something thrilling whether in the subterranean meeting with the witches, guns being brandished in our faces, being an actual part of the feast that Banquo interrupts so spookily. But equally there’s a hella lot of waiting around, film work that falls flat, too much visible logistics work that saps the theatricality of the experience and snaps us out of the mindset that is needed to make such an endurance test fly. I’d say this production was a good idea but largely an unfeasible one, keeping you up for the wrong reasons. 

Running time: 12 hours (or 5 hours if you’re not up for the sleepover)
Booking until 16th August

Cast of Macbeth continued



Thursday, 10 July 2014

Review: Hotel, National Theatre

“It’s the same old colonial shit, just dressed in the shiny drag of free market capitalism”

Though Polly Stenham has been definitively anointed the next big thing by any number of feature writers, her repeated brand of “posh dysfunction” (I’m borrowing this from someone but I forget exactly who) has never really got my pulse racing. So when Hotel, her play for the National Theatre’s formerly-The-Shed-but-now-called-The-Temporary-Space-I-think, opens with two precocious teenagers and two bourgeois parents all suffering from the malaise of being that only a holiday to a luxurious African island resort can cure, my heart did verily sink.

Mother Vivienne has just had to resign from the cabinet due to a sex scandal that has engulfed her stay-at-home husband Robert whilst kids Ralph and Frankie look on bemusedly although not without some deeper connection as it turns out. But as we settle down for (yet another) family drama, Stenham pulls out the rug from us (and them) with a massive tonal shift which throws everyone off-balance, so much so that I’m not sure we ever regain a satisfactory equilibrium between the two very different parts of the play.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Harold Pinter Theatre

“It wouldn’t be like this at the National”

Does the West End really need another straight production of Oscar Wilde’s old war horse The Importance of Being Earnest? Apparently not, as the new productions lined up each have their own spin - 2015 will see David Suchet take on the role of the redoubtable Lady Bracknell for Adrian Noble and 2014 sees Lucy Bailey impose her own conceit onto the show which allows her to gather an ensemble of more seasoned professionals than might normally be expected to take on this play.

That she does with the help of extra material written by Simon Brett which sees this starry cast take on the mantle of am-dram society The Bunbury Company of Players who in turn, are putting on their take on Wilde's play as part of their summer season. So before Algernon and Jack have even taken to the stage, we've been inducted into the mini-dramas of the company themselves - Nigel Havers' lothario now having an affair with a third woman in the group, Siân Phillips and Patrick Godfrey's long-married couple fussing and bickering, Cherie Lunghi's would-be diva complaining about her costume not fitting... The scene thus seems set for a melding of onstage and offstage drama which would bring something new to this old classic. 

Re-review: Mr Burns, Almeida

"The episode starts with...
'Wait, doesn't he have...'"


It's a bit of crime that it was relatively easy to get one of the good cheap seats to see Mr Burns again at the Almeida this far into the run but I suppose it is indicative of the risks that theatres take when they programme in a more exciting way than simply remounting The Importance of Being Earnest... And I sure ain't complaining as I loved being able to revisit this searing production of Ann Washburn's play and appreciate more of its dense cultural referencing and complexity rather than just sitting slack-jawed at the audacity of the piece.

My original review can be found here and I think I will leave it at that, I just run the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam otherwise. What I would recommend you read instead are Mildly Bitter's insightful takes on the US productions she saw - first one here, and second one here which demonstrate a brilliantly articulated appreciation of what the show, and Washburn, are trying to do, and also offer an interesting look into how it has, and continues to, developed.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with two intervals)
Booking until 26th July, go on - do it, book now. And don't leave at the first interval!

Review: Daytona, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“I’m a joke and you know everything”

The arrival of a new play in the West End is something to be celebrated but I wish that I liked Oliver Cotton’s Daytona more than I did, its dull convention and wayward plotting making it an old-fashioned and frustrating experience rather than a shining beacon of new writing. Originally premiered at the Park Theatre last year before setting off on a brief UK tour, David Grindley’s production has been remounted for a limited run in the Theatre Royal Haymarket before heading out to the shires once again where perhaps it will gain more love than it did from me.

Set in mid-80s New York, retired Jewish couple Joe and Elli pass their time bickering amiably and rehearsing for their next ballroom dancing competition but their domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of Joe’s brother, unseen for the last 30 years and bringing with him two huge, weighty issues from the past. The first concerns the shocking settling of an old score with a concentration camp guard, the second is a more intimate revelation that tumbles up everything we know about this trio and their complicated personal history.

Short Film Review #44

Wonder
WONDER from johnnydaukes on Vimeo.
A real work of art this. Johnny Daukes’ Wonder has much of the multi-stranded, deeply emotional feel of one of my favourite films Lantana and is just beautifully made. Set in London with the odd excursion to the picturesque Dorset coast, a set of disparate lives are shown to us – a couple about to separate, another one tired of their long relationship, a family grieving, a jealous lover wanting to trust his boyfriend. Daukes spares us too much dialogue and focuses instead on gorgeous shots and an evocative, self-penned score, making this a deserved success.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Review: Hamlet vs Hamlet, Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg

“Ik was. Ik ben. Ik was. Ik ben.”

As soon as I booked my first theatre trip to Amsterdam I knew it would be a slippery slope and to be honest, there’s little resistance at all from me now (just my wallet) as I browse Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s website and figure out how many trips to the Netherlands it is reasonable to take in one year… This year, the UK has been blessed with a rare foray into English-language work by Ivo van Hove with a blistering take on A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, so it seems only fit that my return to the Stadsschouwburg should introduce me to a new director, Guy Cassiers, who delivers Hamlet vs Hamlet in a stunning installation-like set design by Ief Spincemaille.

The show is a co-production between Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the Flemish Toneelhuis (whom Cassiers leads) and Tom Lanoye’s adaptation plays fantastically fast and loose with the play as we know it, toying with our presumptions about what is happening/will happen and introducing a fascinating note of intrigue into a play that is normally so familiar. Combined with the linguistic challenge (this performance, as are several others on Thursdays, was surtitled in English) I loved the level of bamboozlement that came from these changes, the way in which it completely confounded expectations feeling more adventurous than anything we’d ever see at the National.

Review: Hobson’s Choice, Open Air Theatre

“There’s another man with claims on me”

Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play Hobson’s Choice is regarded a good old-fashioned British classic and features on the NT2000 Top 100 plays list so when a production was announced at the Bolton Octagon earlier this year, I was keen to see it for the first time. Sure enough, having made that trip the Open Air Theatre then announced their own revival at the distinctly more convenient location of Regents Park but hey ho, you can’t win ‘em all.


And in all honesty, I did prefer the bona fide Northern version. Nadia Fall’s production here feckles the show a little too much, moving it into the 60s which undoubtedly gives it a brighter sense of modernity but one which also flies in the face of many of the gender relationships of the play – the huge social change of the time is quietly forgotten for the most part, an inconvenient truth when so much of the writing is about specific notions of parental obedience and the bestowing of dowries. 


DVD Review: Delicious

“A lot of testosterone flying about but that’s kitchens for you”

Louise Brealey really does seem like she’d be a brilliant friend, having navigated the potential pitfalls of starring in a hit TV show to forge a fascinating career as an actor and playwright and being a wonderfully, refreshingly honest presence on Twitter. So I was more than happy to take in her recent film role in Delicious, an indie Brit-flick from 2013 written and directed by Tammy Riley-Smith, available on DVD and also on iTunes.

It’s an admirably spiky little thing, diverging from its apparent rom-com/family reunion beginnings into something altogether darker, a contrasting layer of sharp lemon under the sweet meringue if you will. So handsome Gallic chef Jacques arrives in London looking for a job and his biological father, conveniently finds both in the same restaurant and when he’s offered a flat-sitting arrangement, meets an intriguing young woman Stella who is living one floor down.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Review: About Miss Julie, King's Head

"I'm a woman of...simple pleasures" 

Miss Julie has proved an enduring classic over the years, not least because of its timeless malleability, the strength of Strindberg’s writing able to bear the weight of any conceit or concept that a director might throw at it. So it is perhaps little surprise that adaptors have taken it a step further – Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie relocated to 1945 to a just-post-war England on the cusp of great change and similarly, Jonathan Sidgwick’s About Miss Julie has shifted the play to the UK after another great conflict.

Specifically it is 1923 – the First World War may be over but the aftershocks of its seismic upheaval are still rippling through all levels of society. Aristocrat Miss Julie is longing for a return to the carefree status quo, handsome butler John is still carrying the trauma of life in the trenches with him and Christine, his fiancée, has been empowered by her experiences as a suffragette and as a working woman in the war, so a life of service in her master’s kitchen no longer seems quite enough. Thus sex, power, class, violence, even Julie’s budgie all intersect over one torrid Midsummer’s eve.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

DVD Review: Miss Marie Lloyd – Queen of the Music Hall

"She is a strumpet"

I’ve been meaning to get around to watching this for ages now, having picked up the DVD in Chichester for a snip, and having recently seen Jessie Wallace on stage and a date with Richard Armitage coming soon at the Old Vic, it seemed as good a time as any to delve into this 80 minute drama looking at the life and times of music hall superstar Marie Lloyd. Sadly, it should probably have lingered on the shelf a good while longer along with all the other charity shop bargains as I found it quite a disappointing bit of television.

For me its main problem lies in its format. Having avoided being a straight-up biopic, James Hawes’ production (written by Martyn Hesford, although he is curiously uncredited on the DVD) opts for a fantasia, gliding from scene to scene with little connective tissue giving us the context of the 30 odd years that are passing by. So we get the highlights of this remarkable woman’s life but nothing else –marriage, motherhood, divorce, remarriage, industrial action, public ruin, scandalous affair, boom boom boom – everything gets five minutes and then we move swiftly on.

DVD review: About Time

"Get ready for spooky time"

To criticise a film about time travel for not possessing the most stringent internal logic might seem perverse (though it has never stopped those who watch Doctor Who…); to criticise a Richard Curtis film for being utterly daft feels likewise misintentioned, his work is what it is. But there’s something really rather frustrating about his 2013 work About Time that is determined to have its cutesy cutesy pie and eat it, saccharine sweetness and all.

It is as much a father/son love story as it is a boy/girl romance in which Domhnall Gleeson’s nerdishly appealing Hugh-Grant-a-like Tim, is the son of an upper-class boho family - troubled-but-not-too-much sister (Lydia Wilson), check; slightly doolally uncle (Richard Cordery), check; perfect parents (Lindsay Duncan and Bill Nighy), check. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out the men in this family have the power to travel back in time by closing their eyes and squeezing a fist.

Cast of About Time continued

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Review: Love Story, Octagon

"What can you say, about a girl..."

Just a quickie for this most beloved of shows. The CFT production of Love Story that failed to take the West End by storm back in 2010 was a thing of sheer loveliness and Howard Goodall’s luscious score has to rank among my all-time favourites, I really do think it is that beautiful. So all future productions have a high benchmark to live up to – there was a low-key version at the Brockley Jack last year and this year, we have Elizabeth Newman’s production for the Bolton Octagon.

And what a lovely thing it is. Unafraid to be delicately simple and flirting with actor-musicianship in Ciaran Bagnall’s cleverly designed set, it is a deeply musical take on the soaring romance of the story that glides speedily through the relationship between Daniel Boys’ college jock Oliver Barrett IV and Lauren Samuels’ wisecracking musician Jennifer Cavilleri. From the chemistry of their ‘opposites attract’ first meeting to the heartbreaking sadness of the end, it’s a beautiful piece of work.


Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange

“You’ll need a clean shirt, they don’t have dirty necks on the BBC”

Hmmm. Trekking my way through this list can prove a little hard-going when it throws up plays like these… Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar might have been acclaimed as a Great British classic but in Sam Yates’ production for the Royal Exchange, its charms weren’t immediately clear to me. Much of it lies in the play itself I feel, a slice of late-1950s northern life from which dreamer Billy frequently escapes through the flights of fancy in his mind.

Trapped by immutable social strictures and parental expectation, he fantasises and lies his way through the day, as he dreams of leaving the day job (at the undertakers) and moving to London to become a writer for comedians. But the excitement is in the dreaming rather than the doing, so a strange state of affairs exists where he spins and invents and even destroys his actual world without any real sense that he might actually get up and go.

Film Review: Walking on Sunshine

“I’m not one of those people who goes wobbly when a boy take his shirt off”


You had me at 80s jukebox musical… Sometimes, after a crappy Wednesday in the office, all you really need is some uncomplicated, good-natured fun and that is exactly what Walking On Sunshine provides. A fresh-faced cast, the glorious Puglian sunshine, some nifty group dance routines and a track-listing that opens with the holy trifecta of Madonna’s Holiday, Bananarama’s Venus and Whitney’s How Will I Know – you pretty much know what you’re getting with this film (I won a bet by guessing one of the final plot flourishes just 10 minutes in) and on leaving the cinema, its fun and exuberance had done its job.


Joshua St Johnston’s writing is naff in the extreme, never quite living up to the (Italian) tongue-in-cheek spirit it opens with as Maddie (Annabel Scholey) invites her sister Taylor (Hannah Arterton) and erotic novelist friend Lil (Katy Brand) to her holiday home to surprise her with news of a lightning fast wedding to a man who just happens to be Taylor’s holiday romance three years prior, although she remains blissfully unaware of the fact. Scholey and Arterton are great value for money, throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the whole shebang – the former turns out to be quite the dancer too – and delivering 80s fierceness.

Theatre Review: The Kindness of Strangers


“Most people think it's like a bloody episode of Holby City” 

The sheer inventiveness with which companies approach the world of immersive theatre is just breath-taking. Even if it isn’t always completely successful, the idea of a sleepover Macbeth, a literal rollercoaster ride, a Kafka-esque legal nightmare or an office party pushes the boundaries of how we experience theatre and in a first for me at least, Curious Directive’s latest show takes place in a moving ambulance, which travels the streets of Southwark to give a taste of the frontline of the NHS.

Given that my only previous experience in ambulances has been a) being hit by one (my fault) and b) being transported in them whilst in a coma, there might have been something mildly poignant about being escorted into the vehicle but the amnesia put paid to that. Instead, there’s a genuine sense of thrill as we’re handed headphones and in our group of five, taken on a journey which marks the final shift for driver Sylvia and the first day on the job for newly-trained paramedic Lisa.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Simon Burke + Claire Moore – Why (from Anna Karenina)