Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre

“There’s no more to be said
For when we are dead
We may understand it all”

Commemorating the start of the First World War has turned into something of a full-time business for the nation’s theatres but in reviving the rarely-seen 1927 Sean O’Casey anti-war piece The Silver Tassie, the National Theatre has hit on something special. The play is structurally extraordinary in the difference of its four acts – a vaudevillian take on an Irish household transforms memorably into the visceral horror of a battlefield haunted by music hall songs, after the interval a hospital-set comedy eventually turns into stark realism, as the shattering effects of war on society are laid bare. Howard Davies’ epic production forges through blood and noise to find a most painful truth.

The cumulative effect may challenge some and is certainly disorientating at times but it also has a form of progression that feels natural, like feeling a way through what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opening in the Dublin tenement home of the Heegans, the play riffs on Irish stereotypes through the clownish figures of Sylvester and Simon and the neighbourhood archetypes they teasingly mock but soon allows young gun Harry Heegan to take centre stage, boasting the trophy – the Silver Tassie – he and his teammates have won playing soccer, just before they head off to join the British war effort. 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Review: An Intervention, Watford Palace

“I didn’t - 
I never - 
You would.
‘I would’.’”

Is it ok for one country to intercede in the affairs of another, even with the most liberal of intentions? If your best friend starts dating someone who you think is eminently unsuitable, is the best thing to do to tell them? A Paines Plough co-production, Mike Bartlett’s new play (and boy is he cranking them out) conflates these two questions to look at the varied nature of friendship and how it changes in response to politics, pressures and the passing of time. 

An Intervention is a two-hander, the characters simply named A and B, reflecting the universality of the issues at hand. Here, A is played with real gusto by Rachael Stirling, vibrantly passionate in the things she believes in (the anti-war movement for one) and the right to keep a full drink in her hand. John Hollingworth’s B on the other hand, is much more reserved, pragmatic in his outlook and it is he whose relationship (with the unseen Hannah) changes so much. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

DVD Review: One Chance


“Kind of like the opera of my life”

Next up in the list of films I didn’t think I’d ever watch was Paul Potts’ biopic One Chance. For those not in the know or at least have little knowledge of Britain’s Got Talent, he emerged as the winner of the first series, his backstory as an unremarkable mobile telephone salesman with bad teeth the perfect foil for a rich operatic tenor. And as it turns out, his life was a catalogue of misfortunes, bullying and bad health holding back his dream of becoming a singer – perfect material to make into a film one might think.

Not on this evidence. David Frankel’s film is hamstrung from the outset by the fatal miscasting of James Corden in the leading role. Potts, or at least the version that is presented here, is a shy, retiring type full of crippling vulnerabilities and crucially enlivened through the gift of music but Corden conveys little, if any of this through his performance. He’s not helped by having to mime along to Potts’ own voice but there’s something more fundamentally wrong here, Corden’s cursory attempts at impersonation horribly superficial.

DVD Review: Diana

"He doesn't treat me like a princess”

There was a frisson of excitement in putting on the DVD of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana in the knowledge that we were about to watch something that many had declared ‘so bad it is good’, but even I couldn’t have expected just how true that sentiment would turn out in what has to be one of the most hilariously misjudged films of recent years. One now understands a little better why multi-Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, who takes on the eponymous role, had difficulties on the press tour for the film (though not necessarily why she took on the part in the first place).

Written by Stephen Jeffreys and based on an unofficial biography by Kate Snells, it follows the late Princess of Wales in the last two years of her life and claims that an affair with British-Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan blossomed into the real love of her life. But rather than try to tell a story with fleshed-out characters, the film is wedded to a misguided sense of loyalty to Diana, using actual newspaper headlines and speeches as hooks, presumably as a way of trying to stay true to her legacy but falling back on cheesy montages and execrable dialogue for the vast majority of the time as any two-bit biopic has to.

DVD Review: Sunshine on Leith

"If I get drunk, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you”

The idea of a Proclaimers jukebox musical is not one that appealed when I first heard of it and it was hardly on my list of films to see when Stephen Greenhorn’s musical was made into a film by Dexter Fletcher last year. But one of the lead actors George MacKay caught my attention in The Cement Garden a couple of months ago and reading in the programme that he had won awards for his performance, I decided to give it a whirl.

And as is often the case when expectations are low, I ended up absolutely adoring it. It may be jukebox in form but I’d wager most people – myself included – would be hard pressed to name more than two songs by the bespectacled brothers (who make a neat early cameo) and so there’s a real freshness to the score, a vibrancy that is essentially Scottish but ultimately universal in its celebration of the quirkiness of life and the emotions that govern us all.      

CD Review: Weird and Wonderful

“You seemed uplifted but a little upset”

Alexander S Bermange is a composer and lyricist who has been working away for over a decade without ever really breaking through into the mainstream here in the UK. He had a show – The Route to Happiness - at the new musical theatre writing festival at the Landor last year but he has generally had more success in Germany though his contact list is top rate, as the roll call on his most recent CD Act One certainly attests.

Predating that collection though is 2004’s Weird and Wonderful which again boasts a fine collection of interesting performers – Anna Francolini, John Barr, and Richard Dempsey to name but a few – perhaps not as starry as some, but catnip to a theatre nerd like me. The focus here is on Bermange’s comic writing which gives a weird balance to the CD over its 19 tracks which can get a little bit wearing. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Review: Home, National Theatre

“You don’t know whether to go out and say something…or…or not”

Returning to the Shed after a successful run last year, Nadia Fall’s Home is a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, stitched together by an exciting company – many of whom have returned from the original cast – who guide us through the changing, complex world of Target East, a refuge for young homeless people in London. The centre may be fictional but the issues and incidents raised here are anything but.

The need for security, a place where they can feel protected, is common to all the residents here, some just passing through, others destined to stay a bit longer and the staff committed to their thankless tasks just as long as the funding holds out. Fall deliberately crashes narratives into each other, the chaos of life for many of these people reflected in the way their stories get told, echoes of similar experiences creeping through just as much as the stark differences.

Review: A Spoonful of Sugar, St James

“Everyone was glad
What a time they had
They were so happy they came”

Nostalgia can be a lovely thing to bathe in and when it comes to the music of the Sherman Brothers, there’s an ocean of it. Robert and Richard Sherman can lay claim to being one of the most successful songwriting partnerships ever, taking Hollywood by storm with such iconic soundtracks as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few, in a career that has stretched over 60 years, even 90 if one includes their father Al who was a noted songwriter in his own right.

To really make it a family affair, A Spoonful of Sherman is hosted by Robert’s son Robbie who acts as compère throughout, drawing the narrative line from the beginning of the twentieth century right up to the present day as of course, he is a composer himself as well. Sadly, Sherman Junior is probably the weakest link of the evening, the unique insight that he could have brought to bear is largely conspicuous by its absence and he feels ill-suited to the task, one can tell this is not his natural oeuvre.

Saturday afternoon music treats

In this week’s selection, we have Elaine Paige simply giving us life with one of the most amazing routines you will ever see (the arrival of genuine menacing jazz flute at 3.06 is the best bit), a gorgeous snippet from the forthcoming Water Babies musical, a much-needed reminder of why Bernadette Peters is as highly regarded as she is, an excerpt of the launch concert for the Words Shared With Friends album, a (probably illegal) clip from the Broadway version of Damn Yankees which I saw on stage for the first time recently and Jonathan Groff being dreamy. 



Friday, 18 April 2014

Not-a-Review: In the Vale of Health - Japes Too, Hampstead Downstairs

"I don't mind sharing him with you"

And so back to the downstairs theatre at the Hampstead for round two of Simon Gray's In the Vale of Health. For me, this is Japes Too - there apparently being no set order in which to see these four plays - after Michael last week, and though I wish I had something to say about Japes Too, I can't say that I do at this point - it is probably safer to leave it until I've seen at least one more.    

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Short Film Review #39

WOW 2014 – A Day In Detention
Not a short film as such, but utterly essential. The Women of the World Festival took place at the Southbank Centre in early March and A Day In Detention was part of that event. A piece of verbatim theatre pulled together by Nell Leyshon and directed by Jessica Swale, it looks at varying experiences of refugee women in the UK asylum system with an unblinking eye and a near-shocking straightforwardness. The harsh reality of what they are forced to go through, after escaping untold horrors in their own country, is appallingly bleak but there’s a beautiful dignity to the way in which their stories are told, both in the way they have been captured and also in the stunning performances of Juliet Stevenson, Bryony Hannah and an unbearably moving Cush Jumbo.

Review: Archimedes’ Principle, Park Theatre

“You're more ready to believe a parent who has never set foot at the pool and the words of a five-year-old girl..."

Archimedes’ principle posits that “any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object” but Catalan playwright Josep Maria Miró i Coromina’s Archimedes’ Principle, receiving a UK premiere at the Park Theatre, explores what happens when the reciprocal force overwhelms the original. At a local swimming baths, an accusation about one of the coaches is made by a child. Parents are already on edge due to a recent incident at a nearby youth centre and in this day and age of unabating coverage of paedophilia cases and the instantly mobilising forces of social media, the situation rapidly deteriorates into bedlam.

But rather than present us with a play about sexual abuse, Miró explores something much more fascinating about the nature of truth and the way that even the most pernicious of accusations can insinuate their way into rational minds. We get the child’s version of events, we get to hear young coach Brandon’s explanation of what happened, but the playwright doesn’t come down on one side or the other. Instead we jump around in time, playing and replaying scenes which take on different meanings once an alternative position has been expressed. Thus we see how the reaction to even just the merest hint of paedophilia is just as dangerous, if not more, than the thing itself.