Wednesday, 31 July 2013

DVD Review: Suburban Shootout

"I'm a housewife Barbara, not a hitman" 

Suburban Shootout ought to have ticked all the boxes to become one of my guilty pleasures when it was shown on TV in 2006, a black comedy featuring Anna Chancellor as the fierce leader of a gang of murderous housewives. But as it was shown on Channel 5, who also produced it, it got lost somewhere along the way and I have to admit to not even having heard of it at the time. It lives on on DVD though and actually provides a highly amusing opportunity to see not just Ruth Wilson early in her career, but also a fresh-faced Tom Hiddleston before he was swept up by Hollywood. 

Set in the fictional small town of Little Stempington, smack in the middle of the Home Counties, Joyce Hazeldine and her policeman husband Jeremy move into a new house, seeking respite from hectic London life, and are very much looking forward to their new quiet life. But the premise of the show, created by Roger Beckett and James Gary Martin, is that the village is secretly controlled by two opposing gangs of housewives – both determined to keep village life crime-free, but deadly rivals into the bargain and both keen to co-opt Joyce into their crew. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

DVD Review: Small Island

"This island is too small if you have big dreams" 

Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island was inescapable at the time, it seemed like everyone I knew had read and loved it but though it went on to win prizes, I wasn’t as big a fan of most of it. That said, I did love much of this television adaptation in 2009 which came just after Ruth Wilson’s superlative turn in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire as I began to realise how special an actress she really was. The story focuses on the experiences of two women – Queenie Bligh and Hortense Roberts – as the economic and social impact of World War Two ripples out through London and Jamaica.

Naomie Harris’ Hortense is a young Jamaican woman with heady dreams of becoming a teacher in what she sees as the idyllic land of England yet is devastated to find the gloominess of reality, alleviated only once she meets a man called Gilbert; and Ruth Wilson’s Queenie is a working class Yorkshirewoman who moves to London to escape the family farm but with little real prospects. When her job falls through, she accepts the marriage proposal of the attentive Bernard Bligh – Benedict Cumberbatch in full-on English mode – to avoid having to move back but when he leaves for WWII, huge changes are set in motion for all concerned. 

Monday, 29 July 2013

DVD Review: Jane Eyre (2006)

“We’re not the platonic sort Jane”

The 2006 BBC take on Jane Eyre marked Ruth Wilson’s major television debut and in quite some style too. Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine is surely one of literature’s most loved but it is a challenge that Wilson rises to excellently, with the kind of nuanced sensitive portrayal that will ensure that this version will remain near the top of the ever-growing pile of adaptations of this story. Alongside Toby Stephens as Rochester, she drives this clear-sighted, uncomplicated retelling over four hour-long episodes as Jane negotiates the many travails of her life.

From being abandoned as a poor relation with a dour aunt to the unfriendly walls of Lowood School and then on to her first job as governess to a young girl in a household where the promise of love and genuine affection offer a first chance at happiness, but also where secrets abound and threaten to snatch it away before it has even started. Wilson makes Jane a straightforward girl, always pragmatic in the face of adversity and even as she melts in the face of kindness, whether from Lorraine Ashbourne’s kindly Mrs Fairfax or the one that eventually comes from Rochester, she has enough nous to be able to retain her poise. Stephens really is good here too, balancing the macho arrogance of the man with a more romantic sensibility that comes through but always keeping each element in play so we never forget the complexity of the man, yet remaining entirely drawn by his charisma. 

Cast of Jane Eyre contd

Film Review: The Lone Ranger

“Please don't do this"

The lure of the Western has never really appealed to me and so though I have heard of The Lone Ranger, I would not be able to tell you that much about him. And I certainly wouldn’t have bothered watching his film but the casting of Ruth Wilson meant that that was going to be an inevitability. More’s the pity as I found to be an excruciatingly boring film but I’ve only myself to blame as central to the creative team were Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp, responsible for the inexplicably successful Pirates of the Caribbean films, the latter two of which are horrendously bloated and dull – in my own opinion of course.

The main problem with The Lone Ranger though is the complete imbalance at the centre of it. It is never clear what type of film it is trying to be – a serious Western about blood and honour or an affectionate send-up of the genre, a conflict epitomised by Armie Hammer’s John Reid (who becomes the masked avenger after his brother’s heart gets eaten by a bad man) and Johnny Depp’s Tonto (a Native American spirit guide given to Yoda-isms and repeatedly touching the dead crow that lives on top of his head). Depp’s casting as the sidekick also throws the balance off, he’s frequently to be found at the centre of the shot, constantly pulling focus, not least in the ridiculously unnecessary framing device.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

TV Review: Luther, Series 3

“You assert this fabulous moral conscience John, this adherence to unwritten law”

Despite finding Ruth Wilson’s performance as Alice Morgan one of the greatest things on TV, it was with a slightly heavy heart that I heard she would be returning to the show for its third series. The way in which she was crowbarred into the second was no great success and I feared that familiarity might breed yet more contempt, but my faith in writer/creator Neil Cross was strong enough to see me through, along with the news that favourite-in-these-parts Elliot Cowan would be part of the guest cast. 

The 4 part series essentially took the form of two 2-parters – the first making literal the horror trope of there being something under the bed and the second exploring vigilante justice, along with a series-long story which saw Internal Affairs turn the heat on Luther himself, trying to get to the bottom of just why so many of the people around him ended up dead. This latter strand didn’t really work for me, rehashing Dermot Crowley’s Schenk’s original role in the show, and adding a note of false jeopardy that never felt like it was going to go anywhere substantive.

Cast of Luther Series 3 continued

Saturday, 27 July 2013

DVD Review: Luther Series 2

“They’ve set up a new unit”

Series 1, and particularly episode 1, of Luther has to rank as one of my favourite bits of television in recent years, so it was great news to hear that a second season had been commissioned. But given that my main enjoyment came from the ladies of the show, it was perhaps unsurprising that my enjoyment didn't quite reach the same level. Taking place months after Series 1 finished, rebel detective John Luther has now joined the Serious and Serial Crimes division after some time off following the shocking events of the season finale. There, he continues to deal with the worst of human nature and utilising his own inimitable approach to catching these criminals.

For our purposes here on a Ruth Wilson level, there's no denying that the character of Alice really has run its natural course and so it feels like a bit of a cheat having her be the first face we see just to recap the events of the series 1 finale. She reappears a couple of times after that but not in any meaningful way for the main story, so it's a bit of a letdown. And Saskia Reeves' Rose is not given the farewell she deserves as Luther's former boss which feels a real shame, the impact of his repeated actions on her life and career could have been something rather interesting to explore.

Cast of Luther Series 2 continued

Friday, 26 July 2013

DVD Review: Luther Series 1

“You don’t need to be thinking about Alice Morgan right now”

By the time that the television series Luther started on BBC1, I was already keen on Ruth Wilson as an actress but the first episode of the first series – which now ranks as one of my all-time favourite pieces of television ever – confirmed her as one of the most exciting people we have working in this country. The show is a high-quality detective drama featuring Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, a member of the Serious Crime Unit, whose unconventional and often controversial methods frequently sets him at odds with his colleagues and his estranged wife who end up paying the price for his uncompromising genius. 

Entirely written and created by Neil Cross, there’s a most pleasing continuous feel to the six-part series which combines a ‘story of the week’ format featuring some extremely gory and plain icky crimes with larger story arcs which build to the shockingly climactic finish of Episode 6. Ruth Wilson stars as research scientist Alice Morgan, who is involved in the former in Episode One but soon turns into the latter as a wonderfully twisted kind of relationship builds between her and Luther. It is hard to say much more without revealing too much for those who haven’t seen it – shame on you if you haven’t, go and watch it now! – but the way in which Wilson slowly subverts our expectations in that first hour is nothing short of superlative, the gradual reveal completely compelling, the way she says the word ‘kooky’ deserves an award category of its own. 

Around the rest of the show which is anchored by Elba’s stunning performance as the emotionally volatile and combustible lead role, there’s excellent work across the board too. Saskia Reeves as Luther’s boss DS Teller is a complex mix of mother-figure and friend, aware that she needs to give him the free rein to work his own way but constantly struggling to fit that into the confines of modern policing; Indira Varma as estranged wife Zoe brings real pathos to a woman who is still irresistibly drawn to her ex despite knowing how destructive his presence is in her life and having met someone else; and Steven Mackintosh’s DCI Reed, Luther’s best friend, provides an interesting, though unravelling, foil to the way his colleague works. 

And the show looks amazing, especially for a British police procedural. A visual language has been invented to suggest the different way in which Luther views the world, which often places subjects off-centre in the frame, a simple but highly effective technique. The colour palettes evoke a bleaker world-view that fits the darkness of the storytelling which often treads a questionable moral line. One particularly strong episode features Nicola Walker in excoriating form as a (relatively) innocent bystander of Luther’s provocative methods, the consequences of his roughshod actions having a devastating impact but one which isn’t really explored to its full potential.

So a properly good piece of television in its own right, but also one in which Ruth Wilson delivers the kind of exceptional performance that should not be missed on any account.

Cast of Luther Series 1 continued

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Short Film Review #14

An Irish short from 2009 written and directed by Hugh O’Conor, Corduroy is a simply gorgeous piece of film. Inspired by a charity that teaches autistic children to surf, we dip briefly but powerfully into the life of Jessie, a young woman whose Asperger Syndrome has left her deeply depressed. With gentle encouragement from a support worker, she is introduced to the sea and all its power and possibly, just possibly, begins to hope that life might get a little brighter.

It’s extraordinarily acted by Caoilfhionn Dunne as Jessie, movingly understated and painfully authentic in its awkwardness, the glimmers of connection with Domhnall Gleeson’s Mahon are played just right. But it is O’Conor’s direction which is just superb, adroitly suggesting the different way in which people at different points on the autistic spectrum might see and hear the world – audio and visual effects employed with intelligence and compassion to offer insight, understanding, appreciation. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: Wag! The Musical, Charing Cross

“I really have a heart, let that be known, 
I once sponsored an elephant in Sierra Leone” 

I doubt anyone is turning up to WAG! The Musical expecting insightful commentary into the illusory nature of celebrity and the socio-economic impact of the WAG phenomenon on a generation of young women. But it is hard to see exactly what Tibetan writer Belvedere Pashun is trying to achieve or say. This is no indictment of the WAG lifestyle – with personal spray tan artists and eyelash suppliers credited in the programme, how could it be – and it seems like it wants to break away from the stereotypical image of these figures to show the real women within. 

But it is hard to feel any vestige of sympathy or indeed empathy for any of them when everything they do pertains to received notions of WAGdom. The tottering around in sky-high heels, the money-grabbing chase after rich men, the turning up to any event which has the label ‘celebrity’ plastered on it, sleeping with other women’s husbands, acting like a grade-A bitch when you’ve been caught sleeping other women’s husbands and still somehow getting away with it. There’s no real attempt to show that there could be anything more to a WAG than these situations and so the stereotypes end up being reinforced. 

Cast of Wag the Musical continued

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Review: If Only, Minerva

“By the way, David Cameron has met a black man in Plymouth”

A cheeky trip to Chichester meant that I was able to catch David Edgar’s latest play If Only in its final week and whilst it was fun to see a piece of such hyper-contemporary political theatre (Edgar was writing the second act right until the play opened to keep it up-to-date), the real joy was seeing three exciting actors - Martin Hutson, Jamie Glover and Charlotte Lucas – in the spotlight as the main characters. The play starts in the midst of the 2010 election with the result as yet unknown, and the second act takes a jump four years into the future to examine the impact of coalition politics on the nation.

The first half is excellent. Trapped in a Spanish airport by the Icelandic ash cloud, three young politicos are forced into a road trip adventure to make it back in time for the election result. Martin Hutson is a Labour special advisor, Charlotte Lucas is a Lib Dem staffer and Jamie Glover is a Tory MP licking his wounds after the expenses scandal and there’s huge fun as they thrash out the various permutations of a hung parliament and what that would mean for politics in the UK. It’s wordy but funny, Edgar disguises strategising with a little comedy and comes up a plausible, Thick-of-It-style version of what could well have happened involving camels (funnier and cleverer than it sounds).

Review: Talk Show, Royal Court

“I am sure you can all tell we’re going to have a great show tonight”

‘The show must go on’. Rarely can the oft-glibly offered aphorism have possessed such poignant resonance as at the Royal Court over the past week. Alistair McDowell’s Talk Show should have marked the end of the hugely ambitious weekly rep season, with a company of fourteen actors working their way through six new plays with just a week’s rehearsal for each. But instead, the news that company member Paul Bhattacharjee had gone missing during rehearsals, being followed by the discovery of his body a week later cast the most tragic sheen over the show.

The company opted to continue, initially recasting his (relatively small) role and then dedicating the remainder of the run to him. An incredibly tough decision at the best of times but sitting through the play and realising it touched so deeply on the emotional inarticulacy of generations of men, to the point where suicide becomes a viable option, there’s an almost incomprehensible poignancy about the determination to honour a colleague’s memory.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Review: As You Like It, Guildford College of Law

“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” 

The elegant surroundings of the gardens of the Guildford College of Law prove an ideal setting for the Guildford Shakespearean Company’s late-Edwardian open air production of As You Like It. Stately buildings, hints of ruins and leafy glades frame this happiest of Shakespearean tales as not even the bitterest of sibling rivalries, jealous hearts and surprisingly convincing cross-dressing can stop the business of everyone falling in love. The play wears its adaptation lightly, always a good sign, and allows for an interesting reading of some characters. Richard Delaney’s Jaques is an almost Wildean figure and the spirited independence of Rosalind and constant companion Celia makes an easy fit with the suffragette movement.

And there’s a wonderfully wry sense of humour about the whole affair, as if the outdoors setting has captured some of the liberating magic of the Forest of Arden itself. Utilising a fair amount of creative license works wonders in bringing laugh-out-loud moments aplenty – magic tricks, in-jokes, audience participation and no small amount of animal noises all contribute to an affectionately raucous take on the pastoral comedy which is hugely effective.

Review: Red Enters the Eye / Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear / Feather, Radio 4

“Come, I’ll make you some lamb cutlets”

A friend recommended Red Enters The Eye to me mainly because the too-long-absent-from-our-stages Siân Brooke was in it but she also knew it would be just my cup of tea, and she was right. Jane Rogers’ 2011 radio drama follows the story of Brooke’s idealistic Julie, a volunteer heading to a women’s refuge in Nigeria to teach sewing classes. From nervous beginnings as the strict manager Fran - Penny Downie donning an Aussie accent – outlines all the rules and regulations, Julie soon makes a huge success of the classes, revelling in their popularity, the way the women respond to her work and the potential opportunities that open up as they realise the marketability of these new-found skills.

But her untempered enthusiasm fails to take into account the gravity of the situation in which these women have found themselves, so that they were forced to seek refuge. Rogers carefully threads in a necessarily weighty level of detail about the various threats that women face in this part of the world, explaining also how the volatile socio-religious situation has a huge part to play in Nigeria. But it is never heavy-handed and instead emerges as a sensitive and thoughtful piece of drama which I’d heartily recommend. Brooke is excellent as the breathlessly naïve volunteer, Downie grimly pragmatic as Fran and there’s also great work from Adjoa Andoh as her partner and Demi Oyediran as Sarah, one of the women in the refuge.

Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF

“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—“

A sneaky brief return trip to Manchester allowed me to take in two more of the shows in this year’s Manchester International Festival and whilst one was definitely world class, the other didn’t quite match up for me. Starting with the latter, Matt Charman’s play The Machine dramatises the iconic chess series between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue and delves way back into their respective pasts to see how they came to be – Kasparov driven to grandmaster status by his determined mother, Deep Blue brought into being by an equally fierce creator, the Taiwanese Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu.

In Campfield Market Hall, Josie Rourke’s production of this sprawling play feels very much like a sub-Enron pastiche, borrowing heavily from the visual audacity of that Headlong play but floundering in the far greater space of this stage. The scale means that the play often achieves the level of spectacle but it rarely feels like great theatre. Multiple scenes wind back through history to trace the progress of the entities that would contest this match-up and there’s undoubtedly strong work from Hadley Fraser and Francesca Annia as Kasparov and his fearsome mother, and Kenneth Lee as the prof, helped out by Brian Sills’ grandmaster employed to teach strategy to the computer. 

Friday, 19 July 2013

Review: The Color Purple, Menier Chocolate Factory

“Somebody gonna love you”

The Broadway production of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple was no great success and so it may seem an unusual choice for the Menier Chocolate Factory to bring to their Southwark home. Nor does the story of Celie, a young woman forced to bear two children by her violent stepfather who then sent them away and then married her off to a brutal partner, necessarily seem one ideal for this genre. But with the focus being on survival, on the road to self-actualisation against racial and sexual pressures, and a score blending many aspects of black music into a smooth melange, it is surprisingly effective. 

There’s much potential for this to be a highly overwrought piece, but where John Doyle’s production comes into its own is in achieving a Zen-like state of calm for the show, a clean simplicity which permeates every aspect and focuses the intensity of the emotion. Doyle’s own design reconfigures the Menier to great effect, stripping it back to bleached wood and a collection of chairs; Ann Yee’s choreography finds huge elegance in as simple a movement as walking forwards and then back; and at the heart of it all, is a performance of immense grace from Cynthia Erivo as the much-maligned Celie. 

Cast of The Color Purple continued

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Review: The American Plan, St James Theatre

“If ever there were such a one, I am she”

Perhaps with an eye to the crowded marketplace that is London theatreland and trying to find a niche for itself, the St James Theatre has taken to transferring in productions, providing a mid-sized space for shows like Finborough transfer London Wall, Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son and now The American Plan, fresh from the Theatre Royal Bath. Some of the risk may be mitigated this way but the choice of play remains equally important and with Richard Greenberg’s 1990 work, I’m not so sure they’ve hit on a great success.

David Grindley first directed this play in New York in 2009 and clearly enamoured of it, has returned to the show and assembled an excellent cast to do so, not least Diana Quick, Doña Croll and Emily Taaffe. And he undoubtedly encourages some marvellous performances from them and the men of the cast, Luke Allen-Gale and Mark Edel-Hunt, but it just never struck me as a play that was worth reviving – it’s heavy-handed, tonally confused and ultimately for me, just not engaging enough. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Review: The Precariat, Finborough

“You're tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system"

The plays that end up in the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough have to ride the luck of the draw when it comes to the sets upon which they have to perch, borrowing space as they do from the main show. And for Chris Dunkley’s new play The Precariat, the garishness of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi’s set has actually worked well here for in having to cover it up with dark drapes, much of design consultant James Turner’s work is then done. It forms the ideal backdrop for the sparse bits of battered furniture and the array of video screens that litter the intimate space in which this tale of a teenage North Londoner trying to find his place in a world decimated by the financial crisis.

Fin is a 15 year old schoolboy and is clearly a bright boy but the road ahead is far from clear. His mother is depressed and disconnected, his younger brother has fallen in with a bad crowd and has started taking drugs and his petty criminal father is barely on the scene. And in a Tottenham still recovering from the seismic shock of the 2011 riots, Fin only sees opportunities shrinking away for him and his brother alike, both in terms of the lack of decent jobs in the immediate future and with the long-term prospects in a society that has been irrevocably broken.  

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Review: Carnival of the Animals, Riverside Studios

"C'est parfait!"

Little is it known that Paris actually has 21 districts. And that in the 21e arrondisement, humans and animals live side by side. And that in that corner of Paris, they put on a show every day – the Carnival of the Animals. But the animals are tired, they’ve lost their enthusiasm for the theatre, their star turn has gone missing and they can’t stop arguing. It is only when a chimpanzee, a zebra, a parrot and a lioness arrive breathlessly in the square, determined to join the carnival, that they decide to carry on, but the newcomers are hiding a secret. And watching over all of them is neighbourly dress-shop owner Mademoiselle Parfait, who despite her friendly demeanour perhaps isn’t quite all she seems either.

Inspired by Saint-Saëns’ musical opus of the same name, this Carnival of the Animals maintains a similar family friendly ambience to create a really rather charming piece of musical theatre. Andrew Marshall’s book weaves a likeable story about finding one’s own self-worth and appreciating others’ differences in with the slightly darker sub-plot – nothing too sinister, think pantomime villainry – and the whole thing is peppered with a bunch of amiable songs from composer Gavin Greenaway and lyricist Roger Hyams.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Review: Circle Mirror Transformation, Royal Court Local

“When are we going to start acting?”

Whilst Vicky Featherstone has turned over the keys of the Royal Court’s Sloane Square home for the Open Court festival, the more traditional business of regular plays continues with Circle Mirror Transformation. But even this strains against convention, taking place under their (pre-existing) Theatre Local umbrella and introducing its audience to stations and areas such as Haggerston and De Beauvoir Town in North-East London. Annie Baker’s award-winning 2009 play takes place in a community centre in the small town of Shirley, Vermont and to replicate that feel, James Macdonald’s production takes place in the bona fide environment of the Rose Lipman community arts building, lending a veneer of authenticity that would never have been possible either upstairs or down back in SW1W.

Baker’s trick here is to take us through the six weeks of a creative drama class and visit how the five people who sign up react to the therapeutic intentions of course leader Marty, For they all have issues to deal with, Marty included, and through the breathing exercises, word-association games and self-revealing acting techniques they learn, they all edge closer to an emotional breakthrough. The undoubted charms of this play ripple gently across the hall, washing over us quietly with its perceptive take on the ways in which people respond to personal turmoil, turning to others in time of need yet using them for entirely different means. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Review: Macbeth, St Peter’s Church Manchester

“Thou call'st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell” 

One of the big ticket numbers in the Manchester International Festival this year has to be the return of Kenneth Branagh to Shakespeare, with him taking on the role of Macbeth in a production that was surrounded in secrecy and full of advisory warnings to the lucky few with tickets such as “don’t wear any dry-clean only outfits”, “you may not leave your seat once it has started” and possibly the toughest given its 2 hour interval-free running time, “no toilets in the venue”. That venue has now been revealed to be St Peter’s Church in Ancoats, a deconsecrated space used by the Hallé orchestra to rehearse in and whilst the toilets may be five minutes away at Murray’s Mill where tickets are collected from, any fears of emerging from the show drenched in mud and/or blood were left unfounded.

One can see straightaway though why the warnings have been made. The audience is placed in traverse either side of an earth-covered aisle and within moments of the start, a huge battle rages just inches from the audience with rain pouring, mud churning and sparks flying as swords clash. It’s an incredibly visceral start to a frequently breath-taking production – co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford – which successfully marries tradition with innovation, reinvigorating rather than reinventing Shakespeare’s timeless tale of the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Ashford’s eye for theatrical spectacle is combined with Branagh’s acute Shakespearean expertise and together, create something uniquely special.

Review: Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi, Finborough

“Nobody could have worshipped his cock more than I did"

There’s something of a contradiction with Pam Gems’ 1975 play Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi. Labelled an early feminist classic and nominated as one of the top 100 plays of the twentieth century, it has since languished many a shelf and rarely been seen. Naturally it falls to the West London powerhouse of the Finborough to give it a long overdue revival but though Helen Eastman’s production gently highlights how many of its issues remain so pertinent today and is indeed excellently cast, it cannot disguise its dramatic slightness.

Part of it is intentional. Gems’ style was deliberately filmic, cutting between short scenes and skimming across the potential depth to her characters at the expense of focusing on the major events. So in this slice of life from a tiny shared apartment somewhere in London, we experience the trials of newly separated Dusa whose husband has run away from the divorce papers and smuggled their children away to Argentina, the self-assured Stas who is funding her dream of studying marine biology in Hawaii by working on the game, Vi’s emotional fragility is symptomised by her anorexic tendencies and the highly politically aware Fish can’t quite get over the fellow campaigner who is breaking her heart.

Cast of Macbeth (MIF) continued

Friday, 12 July 2013

Review: Address Unknown, Soho Theatre

“I loved you not because of your race, but in spite of it”

Adapted for the stage by Frank Dunlop, Address Unknown started life as an epistolary novella from 1938, written by Kathrine Kressman Taylor and charting the tragic deconstruction of a once-beloved friendship. Max and Martin are German business partners, the former a Jewish art dealer residing in San Francisco and the latter a Gentile who has now returned to Munich. But the year is 1932 and with National Socialism on the rise, the pair become increasingly estranged as their lives and philosophies diverge to the point of no return.

Over a period of a couple of years, the two men exchange letters and this is what makes the play. Two desks on raised platforms are occupied by two men, each reading aloud what they write and the other reacting, over and over until bitter recrimination has swallowed the last tiny bit of affection that was ever there. Steve Marmion injects as much intensity as possible into the production which is essentially static by nature, opting to ratchet up the atmosphere with the crackle of newsreel and radio adding texture and the lighting design increasingly exposing their differences even in terms of office furniture and wall decoration.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Review: Relative Values, Richmond

"I know nothing and just pretend to know a great deal"
I think I might be falling out with Noël Coward, or rather producers’ insistence on frequently remounting the same plays of his, so I had to be persuaded to go and see this production of Relative Values making a short tour to Richmond after a well-received run at Theatre Royal Bath. And it was nice to see a Coward play that I had never seen before, even if it was Trevor Nunn directing – running time is 2 hours 45 minutes and you do begin to feel it – even if it doesn’t really offer much new either in plot or characterisation.

Where it is strongest is in satirising the class hang-ups of post-war Britain as the stately home of Marshwood House tries to deal with the news of the impending nuptials of the son of the house to a flighty Hollywood actress. Not only that, it turns out the beloved maid has a particular connection to his wife-to-be that makes her position untenable. So in order to keep her companion, the Countess decides to elevate the reluctant Moxie from member of staff to family friend, something made more difficult by her sister’s reinvention of her past and the arrival of an old suitor who wants to stop the wedding.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Review: Untitled Matriarch Play (Or Seven Sisters), Royal Court

“Be the change you want to see in this world”

As we get closer to the end of the weekly rep season, I’d love to be able to say that the over-arching conceit of the whole affair has been revealed in a moment of stunning clarity, but instead it just trundles on as a bold experiment which has had just as many misses as it has had hits. Play number five – Nikole Beckwith’s Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters) – was closer to the former than the latter for me – a decent concept but one besmirched by an over-extended, over-worked stab at something interesting that rarely comes off.

The play begins in Nowheresville USA with Siobhan Redmond’s Lorraine gathering her ageing mother and her four-strong brood of daughters to reveal that she is going to have another baby, and this time it will be a boy. This comes as something of a surprise as Lorraine is 54, so she is employing a surrogate in the form of Angela Terence’s Sera, but her decision awakens a whole host of dissatisfactions in these women as the situation highlights the frustrations they all hold.

Review: The Big Idea - PIIGS Spain, Royal Court via YouTube

“The wealth has been distributed differently, but they take your house too”

The Spanish take on The Big Idea featured the short plays Chalk Land by Vanessa Montfort and Merit by Alexandra Wood, interspersed with some verbatim accounts of interviews that Montfort conducted with some Spanish people. Though the last to be performed, this was actually the first of the set that I watched but I genuinely did find it hugely engaging from start to finish. Director Richard Twyman ensured that Chalk Land had the visual humour, though of a distinctly bittersweet note, to accompany the conversation between a homeless man and a passer-by full of indignance at the injustice of the world, Robert Lonsdale and Mariah Gale pairing up well.

And Wood’s Merit was a fascinating look at the ethical compromises people are willing to make in terms of getting and securing a job, but also at the ethics of friends and family around us from whom we might well benefit. Meera Syal and Paul Chahidi as the parents pussyfooting around their concern for their daughter, Gale again full of righteous fire, both giving excellent performances. I really enjoyed the verbatim accounts though, raising the powerful issue of how media coverage of austerity shies away from the ordinariness of so many of the victims and preferring to focus on stock images of poverty-ridden people in order to separate ‘them’ from ‘us’ even as the dividing line has become so blurred as to not even exist any more.

Review: The Big Idea - PIIGS, Greece - Royal Court via YouTube

“There are no Greek islands left, they’ve all been bought up at knockdown prices by the Qataris”

The Greek iteration of The Big Idea had a rather distinct character, mixing the ruminative quality of Andreas Flourakis’ I Want A Country with the more absurdist bent of Mr Brown, Mrs Paparigopoulou and the Interpreter by Alexi Kaye Campbell. And perhaps with an abiding feeling that Greece has borne the brunt of the European financial crisis, watching these plays felt less enjoyable and rooted in a greater seriousness, a weight which it didn’t always manage to pull off. 

I Want A Country worked better, its lament for a homeland gone awry, for the security of the past to return and envelop the three characters in home comforts, is a delicately persuasive one and Flourakis laces the bittersweetness with occasional laughs to ensure the tone never gets too mordantly dark. Alexi Kaye Campbell – himself a Greek expat – fared less well for me, trying to find a more overtly humourous angle on the nightmare of unwanted bureaucracy being imposed on an entire nation.

Review: The Big Ideas- PIIGS, Portugal, - Royal Court via YouTube

“Progress has not been as pronounced as expected”

The Portuguese take on The Big Idea was written by Sandra Pinheiro and responded to by April de Angelis with snatches of verbatim interviews interspersed throughout, and as seemed to be something of the model, ranged from the harrowing (from the native playwright) to the surreal (from the Brit). Pinheiro’s story involved a family who had taken the difficult decision to emigrate from Portugal in pursuit of work and new beginnings, but having opted to make a staggered departure – letting the husband go first to get settled – the enormity of their choice makes the wife question what is most important. 

For they have a child and she will be left with her grandma and though Dad has put up with it for six months, Mum is now having a crisis of faith. Told mainly via the medium of Skype, it formed an interesting look at how far people are willing to go in order to make change happen but also how far they are willing to let others go for them. The strain put on this marriage is unimaginably huge and though one is left appalled, there’s an element of understanding about it too.

Review: The Big Ideas- PIIGS, Ireland, - Royal Court via YouTube

“I had a completely ungrounded confidence, financially”

The Irish incarnation of The Big Idea featured Protest by Deirdre Kinehan, with its parents at a school meeting debating the ethics of austerity and particularly the effects that cuts in education threaten to make in their school. It’s quite an intimate piece, its concerns perhaps a little inwards –looking but for me that is where its strengths lie, in dramatizing the kind of everyday situation that people under austerity are facing. It isn’t all headlines news and high-profile decisions, but rather the slowly tightening screw of small cut after small cut taking over almost every aspect of people’s lives.

Following that was Kieran Hurley's Belcoo, a less successful play for me, looking at the G8 protests, as fake shop fronts are erected in a Northern Ireland town and three people debate the ins and outs of plastic fruit. Again though, I found the verbatim pieces more fascinating than the dramatic writing itself, especially the Stephen Carswell section. There’s something truly educational about the staging of such brutally frank conversations about the financial crisis that works so much better than trying to dramatise it fictionally and it would have been good to see at least one play that was entirely based on this format.


Review: The Big Ideas- PIIGS, Italy, - Royal Court via YouTube

“I’m not saying this is the answer”

With the Italian edition of The Big Idea, it was actually the verbatim sections that I enjoyed the most. The reportage element used Twitter and Facebook conversations as a model, creating a punchy set of responses to a series of questions which felt more impactful than some of the other interviewing techniques, although predictably it does perhaps give less considered answers. But this lengthier technique was used later on to great effect in exploring just who was culpable for the state of Italian life and a self-reflexive sequence on how a way forward might be found. 

The two plays - They Were In My Field by Fausto Paravidino and Three Gifts by Anders Lustgarten - both failed to really engage me but I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why. Both took a slightly obscure slant on the the issue at hand and maybe I was just too tired, but it left me alienated for the whole shebang. And since it is my blog, I'm leaving it at that.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Review: Masterpieces, Royal Court Surprise Theatre via YouTube

"Looking at pictures never hurt anyone"

Alongside the Weekly Rep season, another of the major innovations at the Royal Court as part of their Open Court summer is the notion of Surprise Theatre. Here, the upstairs space has been taken over on Mondays and Tuesdays and tickets sold without any information being given about what is to be performed. An ambitious move to be sure but one which clearly paid off as the run soon sold out - but even with the assurance of a quality programme, I have to admit to not being willing to take the risk. I like to be able to have the choice of how I spend my money and my time.

Perhaps with an eye on this, or just acknowledging the limited number of tickets for the smaller theatre there, many of the pieces of theatre have been made available on their YouTube channel - the performances themselves filmed from a standing camera, and allowing many more people to experience the surprise. A good thing, one may think, but having watched one of them - the performance of Sarah Daniels' 1983 polemic against pornography Masterpieces - I'm not 100% sure it is the most successful of enterprises.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Review: Mint, Royal Court

“Is that what you knew? Even then? Even as a little boy? That you had it in you?”

The Royal Court’s weekly rep season has been about promoting new writers but the name Clare Lizzimore may already be familiar to some, as indeed it was to me and making me more intrigued to see her play – Mint – than any of the others. She has worked as a director for a few years now, creating some excellent work in intimate surroundings like Mike Bartlett’s Bull at Sheffield’s Studio and One Day When We Were Young as part of Paines Plough’s Roundabout season. But Mint marks her first foray into playwriting, as part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme. 

And whether through design or just a happy accident of fate, it reunites Lizzimore with Sam Troughton – most excellent in Bull – who takes on the lead role of Alan and delivers one of the finest performances this season has seen so far. Alan is facing a five year prison sentence for an unspecified act of robbery and as he serves his time, we see the snippets of normality he is allowed to experience through the weekly visits from his family. The banter with his slightly older sister, the bickering with his much younger sister, the grim disapproval of his stern father, the blithe but affected nonchalance of his uncomprehending mother. But the play also covers the three years after his release as it turns out being released ain’t as easy as all that. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Review: Bracken Moor, Tricycle

“I think most of us are walking around in a sort of slumber really”

With a revival of The Pride just announced as the next production in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency, it seemed like a good time to visit Alexi Kaye Campbell’s latest play Bracken Moor at the Tricycle. That said, I have to admit to not being the greatest fan of this ambitious mash-up of political/economic drama and ghost story which is co-produced by Shared Experience and directed by their own Polly Teale. In the midst of the 1930s financial crisis, Yorkshire landowner Harold and his wife Elizabeth are still shell-shocked by the ghastly death of their young son Edgar ten years since and only now are they acquiescing to an extended visit from their old friends Vanessa and Geoffrey. But as they retrace their old friendship, the presence of the visitors’ son Terence awakens something more sinister.

Terence was Edgar’s boyhood best friend and within a few nights, appears to become possessed by Edgar’s restless spirit. This provokes his parents to finally start to deal with their buttoned-up grief but in hugely different ways. Helen Schlesinger’s extraordinarily affecting Elizabeth clings to every possible shred of hope that she could actually be communicating with her lost son and the rawness of her grief is spell-binding. And the much more pragmatic Harold, Antony Byrne in classically old-school English mode, finds himself questioning the decisions he has to make about a dispute over pit closures, his capitalist certainties challenged by this brush with the unknown.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Propeller at Hampstead

“It will make the man mad, to make a woman of him”

It is nigh on impossible to put on a production of The Taming of the Shrew these days without first considering how to solve the issues that lie at the heart of this problematic play. Last year saw the Globe play it for laughs hugely successfully and it also saw the RSC up the erotic ante with less effective results, we now get the all-male Propeller interpretation in London which takes a yet different route into one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works. In direct contrast with their take on Twelfth Night, there is a marked lack of sexual attraction in this world, instead this is firmly a tale about power and control and just how brutal the male exercising thereof can get.

Ed Hall’s production plays up the framing device of Christopher Sly’s drunken shenanigans and firmly locates the main body of the story, of Petruchio’s brutish diminishment of the spirited Kate, in the play-within-a-play. This is achieved mainly by the rather nifty device of having Sly himself co-opted into being part of the play put on for his benefit - Vince Leigh’s sizzled tinker morphing into a viciously virile Petruchio who then becomes the calculatingly hard focal point, failing to realise just what is being revealed of his true self in the telling of this tale. 

Re-review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“Ay marry, what is he?”

It’s over six months since Propeller started their most recent tour and so a similar amount of time since I saw Twelfth Night back in Guildford, a production I enjoyed immensely and ranked as my 13th favourite of the year. And as is now their wont, their tour makes a late stop at Edward Hall’s London abode at the Hampstead Theatre for an extended stay where both their productions (The Taming of the Shrew is the other this time round) will play in rep. Getting to revisit a show like this is something of a luxury and a rare opportunity at that, I ummed and aahed briefly about booking again but the lure of the front row was too strong for me to resist. 

And I am glad I went back for seconds, for this really is my kind of Shakespearean comedy. Not so much in the all-male playing of it but rather in the restraint with which it goes for the laughs, concentrating instead on a tone of sustained melancholy. In emphasising the bittersweet notes as it does – from the start, it is clear Liam O’Brien’s Feste prefers a more mournful ballad – the play is given, for me at least, a greater sense of depth. A real feeling of loneliness, pain and bitterness to so many of these characters creates an ideal counterweight to the broad humour once it comes and makes us feel their ups and downs so much more.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Review: Julius Caesar, St Paul’s Church

“Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome"

It starts off like Shakespeare meets Mad Max, but Iris Theatre’s inventive and contemporary reimagining of Julius Caesar at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden gradually unfurls a much more intelligent reading and builds into something infinitely more moving than Tina Turner atop the Thunderdome could ever hope for. In their fifth year of designing site-specific productions for this tucked away Central London venue, there’s a clear sense from Iris of the possibilities and practicalities of putting together a piece of gently immersive theatre that genuinely works but this has been paired here with a deeply considered retelling of the play that surely makes it one of the Shakespearean highlights of the summer.

Daniel Winder has translated this Roman epic into a near-future dystopian version of the world, with riot shields and a dubstep soundtrack setting the scene for the opening as a cast of seven pull us into a tale of political struggle and violent betrayal that sadly rings true in any period of time. The shaven hairstyles and lean muscularity of the rebels, led by Nick Howard-Brown’s manipulative Cassius and David Hywel Baynes’ more nobly-inclined Brutus contrast well against the beefier aesthetic of the neo-imperialist rulers, Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and Matt Wilman’s outrageously stacked Mark Anthony. And as they all fight for the hearts and minds of the people, as well as reconciling their sense of duty with the love they bear for those closest to them, the production successfully negotiates the ambiguity that often accompanies the corrupting nature of power and the journey to seek it.  

Review: Nunsense A-men!, Landor Theatre

“That’s a little bit of convent humour for you”

With a dodgy pot of Vichyssoise, Sister Julia, Child of God has decimated the Little Sisters of Hoboken. But the business of burying 52 dead nuns is a costly one and the remaining sisters are left with no choice but to put on a fundraising variety show to make up the shortfall. Thus begins Dan Goggin’s habit-forming romp Nunsense A-Men! which has just opened at the Landor Theatre and marks the musical theatre debut of cabaret fixture Sister Mary McArthur.

It’s the kind of warmly affectionate silliness that lives or dies by the strength of its performances and fortunately Robert McWhir’s production has hit the mark with some astute casting which allows the show to cycle through its multitude of turns with a heady sense of mischievous glee and irreverent charm. From the moment you enter the theatre, the nuns are there welcoming you in, cracking any number of terrible jokes and generating the kind of relaxed, fun atmosphere that characterises the whole show even at this late preview.

Review: The Forbidden, Radio 4


Just a quickie for this as I hadn’t intended to blog it but it has lingered long in the memory to merit a recommendation. Clive Barker’s 1985 novella formed the inspiration for the 1992 horror film Candyman but Duncan MacMillan’s modernised adaptation for Radio 4 takes it back to its British roots, finding the modern-day creepiness inherent in rundown council estates populated by riot-happy hordes. Helen’s sleep is frequently disturbed by a recurring nightmare that takes her back to a basement in her old home and a mysterious unidentified presence always alongside her. As she moves into a new place which is in the same area with her ever-patient husband Trevor, she sets about trying to get to the bottom of her dreams but is unprepared for the truth that is buried deep in her subconscious.

And Polly Thomas’ production is superbly effective at generating the spine-chilling atmosphere that moves from the paranoid wonderings of a stressed woman to something altogether more sinister, aided immeasurably by John Coxon’s (of Spiritualised) original score and the choice to record on location which brings the right level of authenticity. Nadine Marshall strikes the right notes as Helen, blindly unaware of the danger she is in as she determinedly explores the mysteries of her past and the threat she poses to her current happiness as she neglects those around her, Michael Begley’s Trevor in particular. Fenella Woolgar is great as two supporting roles as is Danny Lee Wynter’s Archie and all in all, it was a cracking piece of radio drama – just don’t listen to it last thing at night!