Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Travels With My Aunt, Minerva

"While you’ve flitted and you’ve flirted 
I’ve had rubber gloves inserted"

The Telegraph describes Travels With My Aunt as the perfect Sunday night musical, but whilst I'm all for a smattering of "gentle feel-good enjoyment" (I loved both Ballykissangel and Monarch of the Glen with the best of them), it's hard not to feel that this show also panders to the less-flattering side of that comparison too. In that it is thoroughly old-fashionedly middle-of-the-road, the traditional white, middle-class kind of undemanding entertainment that rarely gets the pulse racing yet still raises an eyebrow with the amount of stereotyping that it purveys.

You can see why Jonathan Church chose it to open his last season at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it's a safe bet for that venue and its typical audience and there's nothing wrong in that, I just can't pretend to have any enthusiasm for it. A musical adaptation of Graham Greene's 19969 novel of the same name, it comes from the same team who brought us Betty Blue Eyes - writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. But where that show had a liberating sense of nostalgia, this one kept me prisoner.

Cast of Travels With My Aunt continued

Friday, 29 April 2016

Review: Lucky Stiff, Drayton Arms

"Worlds of things to try, how can you refuse them?"

Everyone's gotta start somewhere and for writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, their musical theatre career began with their 1988 show Lucky Stiff. They'd go on to win Tony Awards for shows like Ragtime but this work definitely has the feel of a writing team still finding their feet. An adaptation of the Michael Butterworth novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, this musical farce makes bold claims from its opening number 'Something Funny's Going On' but sometimes you're left wondering if its funny-haha or just funny-odd.

It's an unevenness that is underlined by MKEC Productions' approach here at the Drayton Arms, director Marc Kelly reaching ambitiously to give us all the conventions of a farce, as it plays out here in a Monte Carlo hotel but on limited means, failing to conjure much luxury or laughter. Without the knowing wink to acknowledge the naffness, in a manner like Acorn Antiques say, the attention can't help but be drawn to unwieldy yet wobbly door frames and barely disguised camp beds, which is a shame as this enthusiastic company deserve better.

Review: Corbyn the Musical - The Motorcycle Diaries, Waterloo East

"Do it for Islington"

You make theatre, musical or otherwise, out of political satire at your peril. Last month at the Waterloo East Theatre saw UKIP! The Musical, written last year, already feel like a period piece and at the same venue, Corbyn the Musical - The Motorcycle Diaries has now opened, written more recently but still unable to keep up with the fast-moving and quite frankly ridiculous state of modern British politics and the media coverage thereof. 

It's not so much that Corbyn the Musical feels dated but rather that the nature of its comedy means that you want it to be as up to date as possible as the days when Corbyn's every action was decried as a front page gaffe seem to have passed. This show is competing in a market where the likes of Merton and Hislop are able to quickly respond to, for example, Ken Livingstone being cornered in a disabled loo having to defend his views on Hitler (a subject surely ripe for a one-man musical epic) and as such, lacks the requisite contemporary bite.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

TV Review: Line of Duty Series 3


"There’s a line. It’s called right and wrong and I know which side my duty lies"

Well, that's what you call a series finale! After the brilliant fake-out of Danny Waldron not being the new Tony Gates or Lindsay Denton, Jed Mercurio's Line of Duty took us further than we ever could have dared into the murky world of police corruption, weaving together story strands from all three series into an overarching conspiracy thriller that has to rank as one of the televisual highlights of the year so far.

My Episode 1 review can be found here and I won't say much more here than to recommend you buy the DVD boxset now.

Cast of Line of Duty Series 3 continued

Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore, Hackney Empire

"The gentleman is quite right. If you please" 

If you have seen one of Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, then you know exactly what you're getting with HMS Pinafore; if you haven't, then there's many a pleasant surprise in store. This production of the evergreen show has been seen before, at the Union in 2013 and on tour in 2014 but is being reprised here for another UK tour stretching from Yorkshire to Cornwall and it remains as refreshing as a Fisherman's Friend.

Regan's approach sees Sullivan's score stripped back to solo piano, musical director Richard Bates doing sterling work from the keys, and Gilbert's book performed by a set of 16 strapping sailors, the conceit here being performance as a way of passing the time, to lift spirits flagging a little after receiving letters from their loved ones. It's a canny framing device and one which works effectively with hardly any tinkering with the plot at all.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Cast of Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore continued

Review: Elegy, Donmar

"What would you choose?"

Irene Cara once declared she was going to live forever. But as advances in medical science enable us to live longer and survive once fatal conditions, the question remains about the quality of the life that remains. Nick Payne's Elegy, further exploring the neurological theatrical so vividly started in plays like Constellations and Incognito, imagines society in a near-future scenario where the choice can be made to have part of the brain removed and artificially regenerated. The price though, the loss of huge swathes of memory.

Payne pulls no punches in showing us the impact of such a decision as when we meet post-surgery Lorna and Carrie for the first time, the former has no recollection of the latter to whom she has been married for many years. And cast as perfectly as they are here in Josie Rourke's production in the form of Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn, Elegy has its achingly affecting moments as the non-linear narrative shows us Lorna as she was, as well as who she is now, and how the contours of her relationship have changed over time, particularly in the face of a degenerative brain disease.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review: The Toxic Avenger, Southwark Playhouse

"Let me tell you a story about a man with a strange complexion"

Baby, can’t you see, I’m calling. A show like this, should wear a warning...that warning should be avoid the front row if you're squeamish about having your face touched by strangers! For The Toxic Avenger is nothing if not hands on, drawing its Southwark Playhouse audience right into its B-movie world, the poison paradise of the New Jersey town of Tromaville. And as we come to see, whether just a taste on the lips or a full-body dunking, the effects of toxic waste are clearly having an impact.

Based on the 1984 film of the same name, a cult classic of which I hadn't heard, its hero is Melvin Ferd the Third, a geeky scientist determined to clean up the town but who soon finds himself the victim of such a dunking. Transformed and deformed, he emerges as Toxie, the Toxic Avenger - all rippling abs and dangling eyeballs - and newly fortified to tackle the dastardly Mayor whose scheming has caused the pollution and also take the plunge with hot blind librarian Sarah who rejected him as a nerd.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Review: Doctor Faustus, Duke of York's

"The hot whore of celebrity”


Jon Snow is dead. Isn't he? I suspect there'll be a twist in the tail as far as the newly started sixth series of Game of Thrones is concerned but for the meantime, Kit Harington is alive and kicking his way through this raucous reinvention of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for The Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company. 

My 3 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read here. And my little preview piece from a couple of weeks ago is here.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Photo: Marc Brenner

Booking until 25th June

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican


"I did not yet know the value of the throne"

It's well over six years now since Toneelgroep Amsterdam blew open my tiny little mind with their Roman Tragedies. Back at a time when this blog was in its infancy, back when I 'only' saw something like 10 shows a month, back when making the decision to see a six-hour-long Shakespearean epic in Dutch was something surprising. Nowadays of course it is second nature, I regularly visit Amsterdam to see this extraordinary company work and I've been to New York to see director Ivo van Hove cast his magic on Broadway too in The Crucible. But it is nice to only have to go to the Barbican to see them too and at just the four and a half hours, Kings of War is practically an amuse-bouche!

My spoiler-free review from Amsterdam is here but so much more resonated with me second time around, so we're going deeper here folks. As with the significantly worthier The Wars of the Roses (more than twice as long in toto, less than half as good), the impetus for the storytelling comes from merging Shakespeare's first history cycle, only van Hove goes one further and includes Henry V (and arguably a smidgen of Henry IV Part 2 too). So the overarching narrative becomes one of power - the violence of seizing it, the realities of maintaining it, the struggle to keep it - as played out over and over again in this vicious cycle of dynastic tussles. 

Cast of Kings of War continued

Saturday, 23 April 2016

TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

"I am a spirit of no common rate"

The culmination of the BBC's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don't care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn't do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion.

Cast of Shakespeare Live continued



Cast of Shakespeare Live continued



Cast of Shakespeare Live continued

TV Review: Shakespeare Lives - The Works


"Make me acquainted with your cause of grief"

The Works is a short film written and directed by Elliot Barnes-Worrell that rather ingeniously explores life for a group of young people on a Peckham estate using only the words of Shakespeare. Barnes-Worrell has worked his way through the Complete Works and woven together his own story by splicing diverse characters and speeches into one powerfully effective whole.

So when tension erupts into a fight between rival factions ("Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"), a nearby do-gooder called Portia intervenes to break them up ("The quality of mercy is not strained..."), breaking off from a chat with her girlfriend Celia (you always knew that, right?!) and so on and so forth. Barnes-Worrell is endlessly inventive in the way he cherry-picks the source material but it isn't always immediately clear who is who in the power structures on this estate.


#Shakespeare400 DVD collection

“Tempt not a desperate man”

There’s a wealth of Shakespearean content available on film and this is just a mere scratching of the surface that takes in:


Five Kenneth Branaghs – Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It, as well as the Othello in which he starred but did not direct;

Two more McKellens in Othello and Richard III

And a Coriolanus
A Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Maxine Peake’s superb Hamlet

Plus Brucie bonuses in the real-life backstage film of The Bridge Project and a fictional backstage film called A Midwinter’s Tale. Happy reading!

DVD Review: Hamlet (2014)

“A man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one’”

One of the main problems with the countless thinkpieces about the filming of live theatre is that they are almost always written by people who have ample opportunity to see the plays live. To talk about losing the innately unique quality of theatre unfolding before you is all too easy when you’re seeing shows pretty much every day of the week; when your own opportunities to see theatre, especially the bigger productions that tend to get filmed, are limited due to any kind of accessibility concern, it becomes a whole ‘nother ball game.

Which is a slight digression from how I intended to start this, by saying that I wonder how much of a difference it makes if you’ve seen a production live and then on screen. I’ve not done the double, as it were, on many plays, I’ve tended just to use DVD as a way to catch up on things I missed and so was a little hesitant about whether to include Sarah Frankcom’s production of Hamlet for the Royal Exchange in this collection. But boy am I glad I did, for I enjoyed immensely, possibly even more than I did at the theatre!

Cast of Hamlet continued

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior. 

Cast of Henry V continued

DVD Review: Hamlet (1996)





Cast of Hamlet continued

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

“You take pleasure then in the message?”

The good bits of Much Ado About Nothing, when done well, are so very good indeed, that it is sometimes hard to remember that the play has its dodgier moments too, for me at least. And it is none more so evident than in Kenneth Branagh’s beautifully sun-kissed adaptation, filmed in the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. The scenes with Dogberry and the Watch are usually problematic for me and with the broad stylings of Michael Keaton and Ben Elton here, they become unusually painful.

Thank the heavens then for Branagh and Emma Thompson, at this point midway through their six-year marriage and simply perfectly suited as sparring paramours Benedick and Beatrice. They spark off each other beautifully, making us believe in their spontaneous wit and all-too-human fallibility and you could watch them for days. Thompson plays up Beatrice’s bruised heart superbly as once bitten, twice shy, she prowls around Branagh’s amusedly careworn Benedick, who eventually deepens into real grace once the stakes are raised.

DVD Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

“I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor”

Proving that not even Kenneth Branagh is infallible when it comes to Shakespearean adaptations, this musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost sees him really come a cropper. Relocating the story to 1939 on the eve of the Second World War and swapping out three-quarters of Shakespeare’s text for a handful of Cole Porter songs to evoke the feel of a classic Golden Age musical, it is a curiously insubstantial enterprise and at its worst, somewhat smug.

It doesn’t help that the play itself ain’t a classic, as evidenced by the rarity with which it is produced but still, the approach here just doesn’t work. There’s a game cast of actors who are clearly up for it but their every weakness in singing and dancing is left exposed, there’s a paucity of triple threats here which just leaves you wondering why bother? And when you see the amazing moves of Adrian Lester or the sweet tones of Alessandro Nivola’s voice, you get hints of what might have been.

DVD Review: As You Like It (2006)

“We are not all alone unhappy”

As the fifth of his big screen Shakespeare adaptations, there’s a slight sense of Kenneth Branagh chomping at the bit, determined to do things differently whether they work or not. Not content with mutating Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930s musical, he then turned his hand to a more beloved play in As You Like It and adopted another approach, relocating it – notionally at least - to the striking world of late 19th century Japan.

There, the characters are turned into merchants seeking a foothold in the newly opened up trading routes and the battle between Dukes Senior and Frederick is over control of the family business. But aside from the wrestling match being turned into a sumo contest, there’s disappointingly little real purchase in this new world. Once in the forest, it could be any old Arden and the opportunity to explore something differently culturally is abandoned. 

DVD Review: Othello (1995)

“But yet the pity of it”



Oliver Parker’s directorial career has taken in glossy takes on Wilde in An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest as well as the St Trinian’s films and the recent Dad’s Army remake. But it all started in 1995 with this adaptation, and the word is used advisedly, of Othello. As with many cinematic Shakespearean ventures, it plays fast and loose with the text, cutting large amounts of it and then adding supplementary scenes because the director wants to impose a vision.


The publicity campaign for the film played down its classical roots, focusing instead on the interracial politics of its love story – a hot button topic for the US then, as it is still is now. And well it might, for Parker’s screenplay makes a crucial mistake in rupturing the natural rhythms of the speech, well above and beyond the trimming down which in and of itself, is never a bad thing. Instead, this version feels reductive and rebarbative as it mangles its way through the play.



DVD Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

“A part of love as dreams, sighs, wishes, and tears”

Perhaps taking influence from the roaring success of Kenneth Branagh’s sun-soaked Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Hoffman saw Hollywood’s return to Shakespeare transplant A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a luscious nineteenth century Tuscan setting. So Athens becomes the town of Monte Athena and the soundtrack is suffused with the strains of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini but in many other respects, it’s a fairly traditional interpretation – a plethora of bicycles aside.

And though it might not seem that big of a deal, it is indicative of Hoffman’s initial approach to tinker where tinkering is not needed. So the heart sinks as the lovers’ comic business is rough-handled onto two wheels and Nick Bottom gains a (mute) wife, but spirits soon rise again as the film begins to trust the text and just enjoy itself. Calista Flockhart proves a revelation as a genuinely emotionally bruised Helena, chasing Christian Bale’s disinterested Demetrius and fending off Dominic West’s magically enhanced interest, much to Anna Friel’s Hermia’s chagrin.

DVD Review: Private Romeo

“Proud can I never be of what I hate”

What first attracted me to a gay remake of Romeo and Juliet set in a military academy I cannot tell you but shallowness for shirtless soldiers aside, Alan Brown’s Private Romeo is a fascinating and adventurous take on Shakespeare. Eight military cadets are left unsupervised for four days as everyone else departs on some land navigation exercise or other, with the strict instruction to follow their usual campus routine. In English Lit though, their study of Romeo and Juliet takes on a new practical dimension as it inspires a real romance between leads Sam and Glenn.

Writer/director Alan Brown thus blends classroom readings with real-life re-enactments as the boys fall under the spell of Shakespeare – the vast majority of the dialogue is the written text - but also mixes in contemporary concepts as lipsyncs to YouTube videos to pull us further away from orthodoxy. The Shakespearean narrative is necessarily compressed and considerably adapted, which takes a little getting used to, but the result is a heady mixture of exuberance and exhilaration which, whilst it doesn’t always quite come off, still results in the kind of admirable experimental quality that is most appealing. 

DVD Review: Gnomeo and Juliet

“The story you’re about to hear as been told before, a lot”

Oh my giddy aunt, I wasn’t expecting that! Kelly Asbury’s computer-animated reworking of Romeo and Juliet (backed financially by Disney) takes us to the world of Verona Drive where elderly neighbours Mrs Montague and Mr Capulet spend their days bickering and sniping at each other whilst tending their equally impressive back gardens. And when their backs are turned, their garden gnomes come to life and play out the same conflict in miniature. Such is the world of Gnomeo and Juliet.

It is very much a family film so therefore this is very much an adaptation of the Bard and for me, it’s a rather entertaining one, if you’re seriously missing Mercutio then you’re seriously missing the point. James McAvoy’s effervescent blue-hat Gnomeo and Emily Blunt’s spirited red-hat Juliet make a highly charming couple, who fall for each other despite the enmity between their clans as typified by fierce back-alley lawnmower racing. But when things go too far – in a sequence that I actually found quite shocking, and moving – it seems that tragedy is destined to haunt this pair no matter what form they take.

DVD Review: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

“Now, the two hours’ traffic of our stage”

One of the more famous cinematic adaptations of any of Shakespeare’s plays has to be Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Verona becomes Verona Beach, a palm-fringed ocean-front suburb of LA or maybe Miami, where guns rule the roost with an almost-Western-like abandon, newsreaders recite prologues as news broadcasts on the latest violence to shatter the peace, and the world is full of the raucous vividness that is now more common to us given Luhrmann’s subsequent career. 

So Mercutio is a black drag queen, Queen Mab is a tab of Ecstasy, the balcony scene takes place in a swimming pool, Paris (a youthful Paul Rudd) is Time(ly) Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year etc etc It’s brashly, breathlessly modern and consequently quite divisive. Purists will baulk at the dramatic liberties taken – there’s a dizzying rearrangement of Montagues and Capulets which takes a little getting used to – and the verse speaking is certainly rough around the edges for the most part.

DVD Review: Romeo and Juliet (2014)

“They stumble that run fast”

David Leveaux’s production of Romeo and Juliet played Broadway in 2014, the first time the play had been seen there in 36 years and perhaps conscious of needing to go the hard sell to get audiences, employed Hollywood star Orlando Bloom’s services to play Romeo. At 36, one might have though the role a little past him and as he roars onto the stage of the Richard Rodgers theatre on a motorbike, you fear for what might come to pass.

In the end, he’s actually a fairly competent Romeo, as well spoken as you’d expect any Guildhall School of Music and Drama graduate to be, but it is clear that Leveaux doesn’t trust the verse to do the job as he layers distraction upon distraction onto this modern-day version of the play. So David Van Tieghem’s score dominates at the expense of clarity (and perhaps deliberately evoking West Side Story) and actor after actor is encouraged to over-egg the pudding.

DVD Review: The Merchant of Venice (2001)

“For your love I pray you, wrong me not”

Any filmed adaptation of The Merchant of Venice is up against it for me as I adore the Al Pacino version from 2004 which makes so much sense of so many of the difficulties of the play. This Trevor Nunn production was a big success for the National Theatre, transferring from the then-Cottesloe to the Olivier, winning all sorts of awards and then filmed for the US’s Masterpiece Theatre.

And as is often the case with these stage-to-screen adaptations, it’s a little flat and disappointing, little concession made to the change in medium and so the abiding feeling is that one is left wishing one could have seen it onstage. Which is a shame, as Henry Goodman makes an excellent Shylock, viciously vengeful but clearly victimised too in this adroit resituating of the play to the 1930s.

Cast of The Merchant of Venice continued

DVD Review: Macbeth (2001)

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”

Gregory Doran’s production of Macbeth for the RSC played at the Swan in 1999 before transferring to the Roundhouse and then touring internationally with its stars Antony Sher and Harriet Walter. And given its success, the show was filmed for television at the London venue, using the subterranean tunnels there as well as the stage to make the most of the location.

It’s a highly atmospheric, contemporary take on the play that may lack a little specificity but soars on the strengths of its leads. Sher makes an unexpectedly convincing soldier, on the brink of madness from the outset and Walter makes possibly the best Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen, from her quivering anticipation whilst bathing to the chilling eroticism with which she controls her husband, it’s an extraordinary performance.

DVD Review: Macbeth (2015)

“I feel now the future in the instant”



For one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth is not one that often appears on film screens but Justin Kurzel’s adaptation set that right in 2015 in blistering style. An utterly cinematic version that on paper should raise many a theatre fan’s hackles, its brooding sense of epic danger releases the film into a new dimension, one which may well irk a purist or three but on its own merits, is most darkly compelling.


Kurzel opts for a medieval Scottish setting, a land somewhere between the mythical and the mundane, using some striking Caledonian vistas for location work. The reality of life is shown by the Macbeths’ castle being little more than a collection of mud huts but sweeping shots of mountains and moorsides from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw pull us away into the ether and the red tinges of crimson flame and scarlet blood paint almost expressionistic frames that are just beautiful to behold.



DVD Review: Macbeth (1979)

“Round about the cauldron go”

Who’d’ve thought that it would be a production from 1979 that would be one of the most enduringly successful translations from stage to screen. It helps immensely of course that this RSC production of Macbeth features a couple by the name of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as its central lovebirds, with a young gentleman named Trevor Nunn on directorial duties at a point when playfulness didn’t seem like a dirty word to him.

The original production from 1976 played in the round to small audiences at The Other Place and Nunn recreates that intimacy by keeping his company on a circular set and keeping (mostly, one imagines) to the theatrical devices used, rather than employing anything too cinematic. So we’re left with what feels like pure Shakespeare, exceptional actors doing little else but acting as if their lives depended on it and holding the audience utterly in the palms of their hands.

DVD Review: Othello (1990)

“Horribly stuffed with epithets of war”

When starting this DVD rewatching enterprise, I knew I’d be happy to see actors I knew and loved earlier on in their careers but I had barely a thought for the directors, particularly Trevor Nunn. His reputation precedes him so far now (in terms of keeping a wide berth) that it is hard to think of him as the interesting and innovative talent that got him to that place but through his stunning Macbeth and this Othello, the evidence is here.

His 1989 RSC Othello played The Other Place to intimate audiences, as did his Macbeth, and it is an approach that pays dividends once again. Still a hefty three and a half hours, its American Civil War setting lends an interesting dynamism in which some brilliant key casting allows real fire and emotion to flourish in a drama that tends to the domestic in its bitter jealousies, fevered realisations and misappropriated affection.

DVD Review: Richard III (1995)

"I am not made of stone"

The boldness of Shakespearean adaptation can be a car crash when it goes wrong but when it is right, as in this 1995 version of Richard III, it is utterly thrilling. From the crashing of a tank through walls and subsequent gory executions into the jaunty sway of 1930s music, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine’s idiosyncratic reshaping of the story, first seen at the NT in 1992, is cannily and compellingly done. And because it has been done well, one is far more inclined to grant the liberties that have been taken with the text, because they’re reasoned and reasonable.

Relocated to a parallel version of 1930s Britain in which years of civil war has bred fascism, Richard of York’s rise to power has never seemed quite so chilling as it does here. An ingenious use of British landmarks put to different use cleverly disorients the audience but never so much that it seems too far beyond belief. So Battersea Power Station becomes a coastal military base, St Pancras is substituted for Westminster, and the visuals are just stunning throughout, culminating in a genuinely breath-taking rally. 

DVD Review: Coriolanus (2011)

“What would you have, you curs that like nor peace nor war?”

Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave will be starring together in the Almeida’s Richard III later this year but it’s not their first time doing Shakespeare together - Redgrave played an excellent Volumnia to Fiennes’ Coriolanus in this 2011 film adaptation which was directed by Fiennes himself. Scripted by John Logan in a trimmed and taut two hours, it’s a fiercely contemporary retelling that draws heavily on modern conflicts such as the Balkans and the Arab Spring.

The brutal sense of savage civil war is apparent from the shocking outset, there’s a real sense of the nervy tension on the streets of this version of Rome as warrior Caius Martius defends it from the invading Volscian army, simultaneously barely holding off a riot from within as the public rise up against an out-of-touch ruling class. But persuaded to run for office and unable to conceal his contempt for the mob, he is exiled and Rome’s biggest hero becomes its most unpredictable enemy.

DVD Review: NOW - in the Wings on a World Stage

“We're not doing in fucking tights, with whatever those fucking old jock-strap things are called that they wear”

NOW - in the Wings on a World Stage is a behind-the-scenes look at the final instalment of the Bridge Project, a transatlantic theatrical enterprise that saw a partnership between the Old Vic, London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York and Neal Street Production. Over each of its three years, a single Anglo-American company was brought together to perform classic plays, culminating in a production of Richard III that toured the world for over 200 years.

Led by Kevin Spacey’s Tricky Dicky (very much Frank Underwood in the making) and director Sam Mendes in their first collaboration since the Oscar winning American Beauty, NOW… is still very much a company piece, giving us a glimpse into life on the road not just for the actors but also for all the creatives, it’s fascinating to see the challenges that faced the associate director Bruce Guthrie and his stage management team as this substantial production moved from city to city.

DVD Review: A Midwinter's Tale (1995)

"I'm clean, I'm conscientous and I travel with my own tits"

Where else would you get to see Adrian Scarborough's Richard III but in passing in a random Kenneth Branagh backstage movie. His movie as a director in which he does not star, A Midwinter's Tale (or In The Bleak Midwinter as it appears to be known in some places) is a rather sweet comedy that makes for a light-hearted take on the often-time serious Shakespeare for which he was getting increasingly known.

Though fun, it is an acutely observed look at the itinerant life of an actor and the different ways in which people deal with its stresses. Unemployed for a year, Michael Maloney's Joe offers to help out his sister's local church by mounting a Christmas production of Hamlet, gathering a cast of similar odds and sods who are also available at the last minute. And together, even with the copious issues this motley crew bring with them, theatrical magic somehow begins to bloom. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Review: The Bacchae, Blue Elephant

"I've looked into the eyes of divinity and it blinded me"

Lazarus Theatre Company return to Camberwell's Blue Elephant Theatre after their 2014 Richard III with this striking new devised version of The Bacchae. Adapted by Gavin Harrington-Odedra after Euripides and then opened up to collaboration with the ensemble in the rehearsal room, the result is an enigmatic and seductive take on this Greek tragedy to end all tragedies.

Compared to the Almeida's Ben Whishaw/Bertie Carvel-led production with its amazing polyphonic Chorus, the focus on the ensemble here feels like a wise move. From its opening moments of haunting singing and percussive noise through the haze-filled auditorium, it is clear that something powerful has taken over in Thebes and that it contains that kind of elemental force that can't easily be tamed.

Review: Waitress, Brooks Atkinson Theatre

"She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie"

Hailed as the first Broadway musical with an all-female top-line creative team - music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Diane Paulus - Waitress marks something of a watershed moment. And even if it based on a film, that film was also written by a woman, the late Adrienne Shelly. One might wish for a slightly more substantial slice of something to take that credit but it's still a rather lovely thing, not least for the slices of pie available to buy in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Its saving grace is a superb leading performance from Jessie Mueller as Jenna, a waitress at Joe's Pie Diner somewhere in the South in a town off of Highway 27. Married and pregnant, and not particularly happy about either, her dreams of opening her own pie shop (she bakes all 27 varieties on offer herself) seem increasingly far away. Until that is, a baking contest in a nearby county opens a window of opportunity, as does an affair with her unexpectedly handsome gynaecologist.

Cast of Waitress continued

Review: American Psycho, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

“The song’s so damn catchy, most people don’t realize it’s a rollicking ode to conformity and the importance of trends”

Bigger and bolder, and that’s just the pecs of leading man Benjamin Walker. It’s taken a little while for Rupert Goold’s American Psycho to make it over the pond after its run at the Almeida in the winter of 2013/4. But nothing if not tenacious, it now opens in a remounted and slightly retooled version at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, in a production that is indeed bigger and bolder, brasher too as befits the 80s incarnation of the city in which it now resides.

Book-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of amorality into a tautly entertaining tale that both mocks the period (was that Donald Trump joke in the original?!) but also subversively questions the whole narrative, asking us how reliable Patrick Bateman is in relaying his tales of natural bedpartners investment banking and serial killing, or whether this uber-narcissist is something of a fantasist too.

Cast of American Psycho continued

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Review: Starting Here Starting Now, Pheasantry

"What's my life been lived for, if it never comes"

Just a quickie for this first of two Maltby and Shire revues taking place at the Pheasantry. Next week sees Closer Than Ever but first up is Starting Here, Starting Now, celebrating its 40th anniversary with this production by Neil Eckersley. The American pairing of composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr have had a long and fruitful career and this show, first seen in 1976, collected together a swathe of songs from the early part of their career, numbers that didn't necessarily make it into their bigger shows or indeed into the limelight.

Which means that they aren't always the most striking snippets of musical theatre in miniature. Granted, the majority are character studies, pieces of emotional minidramas, but as a selection box of songs, they don't add up to a huge deal, their style is naturally somewhat old-fashioned and so it was hard to get too excited. What did raise the pulse was the musicianship on show - Sam Lupton, Carolyn Maitland, and Kayleigh McKnight all impressed whether in solo, duet or altogether under Kris Rawlinson's taut musical direction. More of a curio than a must-see.

Booking until 20th April

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Review: The Flick, National

"Sometimes I worry that there’s something really, really wrong with me but that I’ll never know exactly what it is."

Already garlanded with a Pulitzer Prize and bolstered by articles insisting that "slow theatre" is a thing, it is clear that we're meant to think that Annie Baker's The Flick in all its 3 hours plus glory is close to the Second Coming. The reality is a play that it is just a very long time in a theatre for deliberately muted rewards. And it is deliberate, it is precise. Along with frequent collaborator and director Sam Gold, the simple act of mopping up the floor of a movie theatre is strictly regimented, the many pauses surrounding it measured down to the last, slow, tick of the second hand. 

The Flick is set in small-town Massachusetts in a run-down, single-screen cinema and lets us follow the lives of regular folk that work there, three people living humdrum lives in a humdrum world. At 35, Sam has worked there the longest but he's still just sweeping popcorn; 24 year old Rose has been promoted over him to projectionist but her spiky exterior belies a vulnerable uncertainty; and just turned 20 and taking a break from college, Avery is dealing with emotional issues that set him at odds with his co-workers, especially once a pseudo-love-triangle starts to form. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

Review: My Mother Said I Never Should, St James

"I don’t know if you’ll ever love me as much as I love you but one day you’ll understand why I’ve done this to you"

It's perhaps rather telling that a play that can claim the sobriquet "the most performed play by a female playwright" yet still be receiving its first London revival since its premiere here at the Royal Court in 1989. Fortunately, newly formed production company Tiny Fires are here to rectify that by mounting My Mother Said I Never Should at the St James Theatre (in its self-acknowledged first all-female production since opening three and half years ago - the clues are there...).

The fractured narrative of Charlotte Keatley's play may not confound modern audiences more used to such theatrical playfulness but it was a novel enough concept that it was rejected several times by key theatres when first written. Which makes it all the more impressive that its structure still holds up beautifully today, complex without being confusing, as it takes its time to lay out all random pieces of a jigsaw which ultimately combine to tell the story of four generations of women from a single family from the North-West. 
  

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Review: Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre

“I’m crossing the ocean and I just can’t wait”

Where to begin? Could anyone have expected the phenomenal success of Hamilton? Turning into the biggest Broadway hit of an age, accepting invitations to the White House, reinventing day queue culture, being the subject of made-up scandals, winning Grammys, all while radically challenging traditional notions of musical theatre. The build up of such hype has been thrilling to see but also poses questions like 'could it really possibly be that good?'. And 'how on earth does one get tickets for find out for oneself?'.

In short, the answers are yes and by booking months ahead in my case. I deliberately hadn't listened to the original cast recording when it was released as I wanted to experience it for the first time on stage and knowing full well that I would get to see it one way or another, I also denied myself any of the multifarious online offerings so that the first I saw of Hamilton would be as the curtain rose at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And I have to say the anticipation and delayed gratification was completely worth it - that said, I've struggled to write about the show in a satisfactory way ("I will never be satisfied...") so treat this as an outpouring rather than a review.

Cast of Hamilton continued

Cast of Hamilton continued

Review: The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theatre

“I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you”

I
 heard the phrase avant-garde mentioned several times in reference to Ivo van Hove whilst in New York and every time I bristled - the connotations in my head leaning towards a dismissive pretentiousness aimed at someone who I think is one of the most exciting theatre directors currently working. And it did make me wonder, especially in light of the reports of Katie Mitchell being booed at the Royal Opera House last week, about what feels like an instinctive resistance to ‘change’ from established audiences that just feels a bit sad.

Granted, with Broadway ticket prices you may well want to minimise the risk but it would be hard to get excited about another traditional production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible even with big names like 2-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in the cast. As it was, I was just as excited at the prospect of seeing Sophie Okonedo and Jenny Jules – both too rarely on the London stage in recent years – and of course, the chance to see van Hove at work once again was irresistible, especially since I’d let Lazarus pass me by.

Cast of The Crucible continued

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Review: Wipers, Curve

"Please God, help me not to make a complete fool of myself,"

Wipers - a garbled mispronunciation of Ypres - is a hugely fascinating piece of writing, co-produced by Leicester's Curve, Watford Palace and Coventry's Belgrade theatres and pleasingly playing in all three cities. For it is inspired by the real-life story of Khuddadad Khan, the first South Asian soldier to be awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery in the First World War, where no less than a million South Asian soldiers were active on the battlefield, previously relegated to a footnote in history but rightfully brought to our attention here.

Wounded by an attack in the first battle of Ypres that killed most if not all around him, Khan's resilience held off enemy fire to long enough to protect the remnants of the British forces, among them the four soldiers of this play. Seeking refuge in a barn, they await hoped-for reinforcements, the noises of (the unseen) Khan's weapon periodically discharging echoing around as they cleave together over a long night. But there's not just four men, they're a British officer and three Indian soldiers, with all the tension and torque that brings. 

Review: Legally Blonde, Curve

"I may be in love but im not stupid"

To the tune of 'Legally Blonde'

Legally Blonde as a musical 
Has worked before on and off-West-End 
Now it's gone to the East Midlands 
To Leicester's Curve, and just go. 

Nikolai Foster's directing it, 
He's changed some things that you may approve 
Others are not so successful 
But what do I know? 

Lucie Jones good, Lucie Jones strong 
Lucie Jones following on 
Icons like this, Sheridan Smith, Reese Witherspooooon

Her Elle Woods is a fun surprise 
You can see it in her eyes 
That's fine with me, 
should make you see Legally Blonde 

Jon Robyns is a gorgeous Emmett 
Danny Mac makes Warner seem ok 
They make their characters so charming 
You'll fall for them, no problem / Well what's the issue? 

Its meant to be kinda feminist / It is in its way 
Doesn't show through though they try their best / More of a fairytale 
And attitudes t'wards sexuality 
Are not ok 

What about fun? 
Is it ok if its fun? 
It means well, this I know 
But perhaps, if you don't take it to heart 
You'll find its humour pretty smart 
You may find it is so 
Cause you know that its frothy and fuuuun

Yes its bright pink, sometimes bizarre 
Tupele Dorgu's a star 
Nick Winston's cho-, reography 
Fills the stage well 
'What You Want's' rap, now Bollywood, 
doesn't quite work all the same 

That said I feel, this musical, is charming regardless of all 

It's not up to me 
If you go and see 
Legally Blonde.

European or gay. 

But I think maybe 
You should go and see 
Legally Blonde.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th May
NB: I've touched on it just lightly here but I do have to say that it was the first time in seeing the show umpteen times, that I felt queasy about its LGBT issues. Quite why that is I couldn't really say but I'm just being honest