Thursday, 11 February 2016

In appreciation of…our elders and betters #2

It's a little while I did the first version of In appreciation of…our elders and betters, part of my infrequent Collection series, but the piles of DVDs were mounting up and the opening of Escaped Alone - starring four absolute stalwarts of the British theatre and written by one too - seemed like as good a time as any to do the second.

I should acknowledge the support, practically the sponsorship, from Boycotting Trends in helping build up my collection of films starring the older generation. And stretching over a good few years of film-making, it is interesting to see how the overly genteel likes of Ladies in Lavender and My House in Umbria have been largely eased out (though not completely, as per My Old Lady) in favour of more nuanced takes on the ageing process.

45 Years, Late Bloomers and Le Week-end all look at the kinks that can emerge even in the longest of relationships, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expands in a rather lovely way on the work of the original and saving the best for last, Love is Strange and Last Chance Harvey are two differently glorious examples of the confounding nature of life and how love can help us through it.

Review: Road Show, Union

“Carelessness and being free of care,
Aren't they the same?”

Since its inception in 1999, Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show - with book by John Weidman - has undergone considerable rehabilitation, not least three title changes, and so has rarely been seen on this side of the Atlantic. John Doyle transferred his Off-Broadway production to the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011 for its European premiere but this is the first UK revival since then, director Phil Willmott continuing a mini-residency at the Union after last month’s fine Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

But where the episodic nature of Brecht’s storytelling worked well, Road Show is less successful in stringing together its vignettes of chasing the American Dream into something more affectingly substantial. The show follows the contrasting but always connected lives of brothers Wilson and Addison Meisner (per the programme) as they seek to parlay guts and gumption into something more, taking unsuspecting benefactors, love interests and easy marks along for the ride.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

TV Review: Happy Valley, Series 2 Episode 1

"This is sheep-rustling, north-Halifax style - just the one sheep and three lads off their heads on acid"

One of the televisual highlights of 2014 was Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, anchored by an astonishing central performance from Sarah Lancashire as pragmatic Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. So the return of a second series on BBC One is good news indeed, especially given Wainwright's decision to also direct considerably more of the episodes this time round.

It's obvious from the off that she is entirely at the top of her game. Reintroducing the startlingly mordant vein of humour on't'moor, this opening sequence sees Cawood recounting a day's work to her sister, namely sheep-rustling gone unfortunately wrong on a housing estate but leading to an even grimmer discovery, one which links directly back to James Norton's Tommy Lee Royce, the father of her grandson after raping her daughter (who then committed suicide) and Catherine's nemesis from the first series.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Review: In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Gate

“Somewhere there’s a woman and
somewhere close, a man”

Nina Segal’s debut play In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) begins with a couple bursting free out of shrink-wrapped confines, plastic film their amniotic sac from which they emerge with their tales of new-born woes. The problem is their new-born though, a baby daughter who just won’t stop crying and over the duration of one long, long night, they have their certainties well and truly rocked by the realisation of exactly what they have taken on as new parents in today’s world.

As Man and Woman recount the story first of how they met, then how they moved in together and soon found themselves expecting, we’re introduced to Segal’s poetic writing style of almost duelling narratives (“A woman and a man meet in a street/ A woman and a man meet in a bar”), a storytelling game to amuse their infant and whose rhetoric is designed to make connections for the audience. For the angst they’re feeling in the nursery is amplified by a sense that the horrors of the world outside are seeping in – baby’s first existential crisis.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Re-review: Time Run, London Fields

"Listen to Babbage"

One of my favourite discoveries last year was the plethora of escape-the-room games in London, sparked off by a trip to Time Run over in London Fields. It was a hugely enjoyable experience and you can read about it - well as much as I could say in a spoiler-free manner - in this review here. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to go back again and see if we could get any closer to completing the range of challenges that are posed for you.

For the uninitiated, Time Run is a game for teams of 3-5 people, lasting an hour, in which you have to solve a quest of historic importance that stretches across time and space - think along the lines of The Crystal Maze and you're not too far off, just with less Richard O'Brien. And it remains an excellently conceptualised piece of entertainment - from its quirky beginnings to the neat introductions to the superbly executed production values.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Review: Weald, Finborough

“The earth sings when he touches it”

The slow decline of the English rural economy and the way of life that accompanies it has proved a fruitful one for playwrights and it is a subject to which Daniel Foxsmith has turned, drawing on his own brief experiences in a livery yard, for his third play Weald for Snuff Box Theatre. And hand in hand with this changing world come questions about our place within it, once clearly defined gender roles now more fluid, Foxsmith suggesting that modern masculinity is in crisis for both young and old in this intriguing two-hander directed by Bryony Shanahan. 

Now in his 50s, grizzled and weatherbeaten, Sam has worked the yard as long as he can remember but life seems to be passing him by – his wife has left him and he’s sold off the farmhouse to make ends meet. And it’s a life to which Jim, a 25-year-old full of cocky swagger, has returned, after flying the coop six years ago for life in London. There’s much history between the pair, not least in the manner of Jim’s parting and as he wangles his way back into his old job, secrets old and new start to spill forth like imaginary animal feed into a bucket. 

Review: Red Velvet, Garrick

"...now begrimed and black as mine own face"

For all the excitement of Kenneth Branagh's announcement of his year long residency at the Garrick, the programme was lacking a certain diversity. So it's pleasing to see that the Tricycle Theatre's production of Red Velvet has been slotted in for a month, featuring a barnstorming lead performance from Adrian Lester and a fascinating insight into a piece of sorely neglected theatrical history.


Thursday, 4 February 2016

Review: Rabbit Hole, Hampstead

“People want things to make sense”

Anchored by a barnstorming central turn from Imelda Staunton (as if there were any other kind), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People was a huge success for the Hampstead Theatre, so they’ve returned to this American playwright with his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. The suburban comforts of Becca and Howie Corbett’s family life are wrecked when their four-year-old Danny is killed in a road accident outside their home. Tragedy swallows them whole and grief tears them apart, the divergence in their individual journeys threatening what’s left of their family. 

The 2006 Broadway run got multiple Tony nominations and won for lead Cynthia Nixon and in 2011, the superb film adaptation garnered an Academy Award nomination for Nicole Kidman, so the stakes could be considered high for Outnumbered star Claire Skinner here. Edward Hall’s production never quite launches into the stratosphere though; whereas Good People depicted an authentic-feeling US working class life, Rabbit Hole’s middle class milieu doesn't convince, too stagily British for its own good.

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Thou metst with things dying,
I with things new-born”

It’s easy to feel a little jaded when it comes to Shakespeare, the same plays coming round with regularity and not always inspiring such great theatre. So I’m delighted to report that Michael Longhurst’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably the best version of the play I’ve ever seen. The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale was a staid disappointment for me, previously the Crucible had let me down too but in the candlelit atmosphere on Bankside, something truly magical is happening.

It’s a tricky play to get right in its split of two very different worlds but where Longhurst really succeeds is in suggesting that Sicilia and Bohemia perhaps aren’t too separate at all. Modern designers often highlight the dichotomy between the chilly stateliness of Leonte’s Sicilia with the freewheeling japery of Polixenes’ Bohemia but in the simplicity of Richard Kent’s design, they’re both very much on the same sliding scale - psychological darkness pervading the light in both worlds, the promise of redemption ultimately illuminating one and the other too.

Guest review: The Girls, Lowry

There's not many people I'd let have a guest review on here but Robert Foster, aka my father, is certainly one of them. I was (pleasantly) surprised when he (and my mum and Aunty Jean) declared that they had really enjoyed The Girls in Manchester and so I thought it would be fun to contrast our reactions - here's my own review from Leeds and read on for his.

"Look in the eye of your dear fucker uppers"

There cannot be many of you out there who do not know the real-life story of the Calendar Girls. It made national news at the time; the film has been around for more than a decade; and the stage play followed not long behind. Now, author Tim Firth has joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That (a popular beat combo, m’lud) in a musical version, which mysteriously has shed the ‘Calendar’ and is just called The Girls. For those recently returned from Mars, the story is set in a small Yorkshire town where Annie loses her husband, John, to cancer. Her best friend, Chris, and other Women’s Institute friends rally round to find a way to pay tribute to the man they all loved and decide on a nude calendar. The profits will buy a new settee for the Relatives Room at the hospital where John was treated.

Could this story stand yet another retelling? Well, my answer is a resounding if slightly surprised yes. Firth and Barlow have created a richly entertaining evening, at times gentle, sad and moving whilst being overwhelmingly joyous and funny.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Review: The Meeting, Hampstead Downstairs

“It’s all a question of perception”

Opening up 2016 downstairs at Hampstead, Andrew Payne’s The Meeting starts off brightly as a sharp office-set comedy where a crucial deal looks set to be torpedoed when one of the key parties has to be escorted from the premises after suffering an emotional breakdown. Denis Lawson’s production has fun with corporate behaviour and its nameless threats (“there’s been murmurs on the 10th floor”) but is perhaps a little less sure-footed when it then tackles sexism in the boardroom.

Cleverly, for all the talk of concepts and options, entry level kits and secondary licensing, we never find out exactly what it is the beleaguered Stratton and youthfully belligerent Cole do. For The Meeting is more about the way they behave – with each other, with Frank from upstairs, with the various unseen women in their lives, and with Ellen, who is stepping in for the indisposed Jack and disrupting the old boys’ network on which they had been relying for an easy time of it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Shakespeare Solos - Part 1

"But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall"

There's going to be a lot of Shakespearean content coming our way in the next couple of months as we approach the 400th anniversary of his death and the Guardian have got in early with the first part of their Shakespeare Solos. Six leading actors performing favourite monologues from the Bard, directed by Dan Susman, it's all rather luxurious, especially when we get the delights of Eileen Atkins in beautifully conversational mode as Othello's Emilia, Adrian Lester returning to Hamlet and Roger Allam whetting the appetite for a King Lear which will surely be one of the wonders of the modern world once it happens.

And if a couple of the choices here smack a little of sneaky advertising, then so what. Better to have opportunities for people to book and see more if they are so inspired by these clips. Atkins is reprising her solo show at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Ayesha Dharker (here as Titania) will open in the RSC's mammoth tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream later this month. It might not be Hamlet but Adrian Lester can be seen being differently Shakespearean in Red Velvet and most tenuously of all though still thoroughly theatrical, David Morrissey (a hypnotic Richard III) can be seen for another month in Hangmen.