Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, National Theatre


"People don't want to hear the answer to a maths problem in a play"

Back in 2003, Mark Haddon's Whitbread Prize-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was somewhat inescapable. A murder mystery told from the perspective of Christopher, its quasi-Asperger's Syndrome-suffering main protagonist whose investigations open up further mysteries that irrevocably change his neatly ordered life, it charmed many a reader with its quirky format and unique voice. It didn't seem an automatic choice for a theatrical adaptation it has to be said but Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre have turned their hand to it regardless, employing a playwright who has had a ridiculously prolific year so far - Simon Stephens - to adapt it. 

I caught the first preview, as I wanted to see it before I went on holiday, and as I missed out on tickets in the first round, I ended up in the 'pit', essentially a row of seats at ground level around the Cottesloe which has been reconfigured into the round by Bunny Christie in a design which is always visually arresting and endlessly surprising. Paule Constable's excellent lighting design works beautifully with the swirling projection work, sequences of numbers tumbling all around, and Elliott has brought in Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly to lend their inimitable style to some of the movement. It is a production that is overflowing with ideas, perhaps a few too many at the moment and the preview period will help refine this a little, but the way in which they combine to powerfully affecting effect cleverly stretches our sensory experience to suggest how differently some see the world.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Review: Playhouse Creatures, Theatre on the Fly


“One can go a long way in the theatre with an open mouth”

The pop-up space created on the grounds of Chichester Festival Theatre to help celebrate its 50th anniversary is a curious thing, Named Theatre on the Fly and constructed solely from recycled material, its rough edges and unreserved bench seating speaks of its temporary nature but the introduction of a fully operational fly tower, whose machinery is laid bare for all to see, has a certain elegance about it. And it forms the ideal backdrop for April De Angelis’ play Playhouse Creatures which is set in, and backstage at, a seventeenth century theatre.

Specifically, it takes place during the Restoration. Puritanism has ended and the theatres reopened and for the first time, women are allowed on the stage. But as we follow a group of pioneering actresses in a working company, we see the struggles, compromises and stark realities they are faced with, in this exceedingly hard-hitting environment which they bear variously with grace, bawdiness, calculated drive and an ultimate equanimity that this is a tough world for a woman.   

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Radio Review: My Fair Lady, Prom 2 on Radio 3


"I understand dear, it's all so grand dear."

One of the earlier Proms this year featured a semi-staged, fully-talent loaded yet inexplicably unfilmed production of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical My Fair Lady. Fortunately it was recorded by Radio 3 so its reach wasn't just limited to those who were able to get tickets for the Royal Albert Hall. And as befits the Proms, it was given an extraordinarily lush treatment by Shaun Kerrison, with John Wilson conducting his own orchestra of 70, using Previn's film score orchestrations, and a classy cast and chorus plus dancers to make this quite the significant event and probably deserving of more than this mini-review.  

First off, it sounded simply glorious. The score is just a delight to listen to at the best of times but given full orchestral rein here, the songs like Wouldn't it be Loverly?, On The Street Where You Live and I Could Have Danced All Night amongst many many others, sparkled and shone and made an instant reminder as to why this show has endured so well. And it was largely sung well: Annalene Beechey (an actress we really ought to see more of on-stage, darn her maternal instincts ;-)) and Julian Ovenden bringing their customary interpretative skill to Eliza and Freddie and making a darn fine job of it.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

Review: The School of Night, Soho Theatre


“It may not be iambic pentameter but it is pretty f*cking close”
In advance of the start of the Edinburgh Festival, there have been many opportunities to sample some of the works going up there in venues across London, though the only one that I managed to fit into the schedule was The School of Night at the Soho Theatre. The main attraction was the fact that the company contained a number of the Showstoppers crew whose work I have enjoyed several times and so I was in no doubt of their improvisational skills. But where that previous show saw the team coming up with a musical on the spot, helped (or hindered) by audience suggestions, The School of Night sees them focusing on the world of literature, culminating in the creation of a uniquely special Shakespeare play that is shaped and guided by whatever the audience calls out.
Starting off with some improv games based on the reading material of the audience and stories we were encouraged to share, the troupe immediately demonstrate their considerable gift of rapid-fire, quick-witted wordplay and repartee which soon had me howling with laughter. There’s something delightful in the sheer abandon with which the players create such imaginative worlds out of seemingly nothing and they obviously relish the freedom given to them in this opening section.

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry V


"The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum"

The fourth and final part of The Hollow Crown was Thea Sharrock's televisual debut in directing Henry V, which carried over much of the same cast from the (disappointing for me) Henry IVs of the previous two weeks. The timing was not ideal for me to be honest, as I've seen the play in three different productions recently, and so normally I would have resisted the opportunity to see it again. But I needed to complete the set of these Shakespeare adaptations whilst I could still get them off the iPlayer before departing on holiday, and so once more unto the breach I stepped.

In some ways this was the type of production I'd been waiting for: a classical interpretation, but one which interpolated the melancholy, war-heavy themes that have marked the more modernised recent takes by Propeller and Theatre Delicatessen rather than the broadly comic and near-jingoistic approach currently at the Globe. From the off, it is clear that Sharrock is focusing on death as cinematic license permits Henry's own funeral at the young age of 35 to be used as a framing device, lending an emotional resonance to the film which Hiddleston's fast-maturing monarch plays against beautifully.


Cast of Henry V continued

Radio Review: From Russia With Love / My Own Private Gondolier

“It doesn’t do get mixed up with neurotic women in this business”

Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres have now produced three James Bond stories for Radio 4, the enduring popularity of the spy evidently insatiable and so From Russia With Love was the latest to be broadcast in the Saturday drama slot. I was being a bit of a glutton for punishment in listening to it as I really wasn’t a fan of Goldfinger which I listened to at Christmas, and the same thing that struck me about how old-fashioned it seems with the insistence on keeping Ian Fleming’s voice squarely in the production as the narrator. Fortunately, there aren’t too many interjections but each one breaks the mood of the story and makes it seem annoyingly quaint. This is exacerbated by the very old-school nature of the writing which feels rather out of place in the modern world, at least to me.

I seem to have tumbled for Toby Stephens’ charms though which meant I was much more engaged in the story, which cleaves closely to Fleming’s original in this adaptation by Archie Scottney, which focuses on Bond’s attempts to extract a Soviet army clerk who wants to defect along with a code-breaking device whilst attempting to foil a Rosa Klebb-led plot by the KGB to assassinate him. Stephens made a very personable Bond, unafraid to be a bit more human as his relationship with the Soviet Tatiana Romanova – ex-Holby City’s Olga Fedori in a lovely turn - begins to cloud his judgement.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Review: The Doctor’s Dilemma, National Theatre

“Cure guaranteed”

George Bernard Shaw’s 1906 medical ethics drama The Doctor’s Dilemma had a lot to live up to as the last time I was in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre was for the superlative The Last of the Haussmans, one of my favourite plays of the year so far, but though it didn’t quite scale those heights for me, it did emerge as a most satisfying night at the theatre. Shaw’s play centres on the newly ennobled Sir Colenso Ridgeon, a doctor who has discovered a new cure for tuberculosis but only has limited space on his trial. When the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat pleads for the inclusion of her talented artist husband, he is torn as his penniless colleague Dr Blenkinsop is also suffering from the disease and so Ridgeon and his colleagues gather to assess and discuss who is the worthier candidate for treatment.

Peter McKintosh’s set design is an effective triumph and ingenious to the extent that it garnered a round of applause at one point (although it will be slightly less surprising to those that saw this play). It possesses the requisite austere grandeur in all its incarnations of artists’ garrets, Richmond eateries, Bond Street art galleries and Harley Street salons into which Nadia Fall places her talented cast. Genevieve O’Reilly brings a stunning self-possessed statuesque dignity to Jennifer, almost too reserved until the devastating turbulence of the final act reveals all she has been concealing, Tom Burke dances across the stage with a quicksilver lightness as the manipulative Dubedat whose artistic talent has to be weighed against his problematic morals and Aden Gillett (who should always wear a full beard, always) is magnificent as Sir Colenso, pondering the titular dilemma with an aptly detached manner as befits his finely aristocratic bearing.

Cast of The Doctor's Dilemma continued

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Review: Vieux Carré, King’s Head


“What a remarkable tableau vivant
Though some of Tennessee Williams’ works are considered amongst the finest plays ever written, his legacy as a truly great playwright is something that has developed posthumously. He continued to produce considerable amounts of writing until the day that he died in 1983 but its critical reception was increasingly poor and so much of the latter part of his body of work has remained neglected. His 1977 play Vieux Carré hasn’t been seen in London since 1978 (although part of it formed part of another Williams play I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays which played at the Cock Tavern as part of a double bill of unperformed works) but now receives a rare revival at the King’s Head Theatre in north London.
Often, the delving into the little-performed parts of established playwrights’ back catalogues reveals a good reason as to why they have largely on the shelves, but Robert Chevara’s production shimmers with Southern heat and captivating character work to make this a rediscovery worth taking considerable note of. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set design wisely strips things back to distressed brick walls, maximising the space available into which three beds, a dinner table and a throw-covered grand piano are squeezed to evoke the rooming house of Mrs Wire, on 722 Toulouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans. We start with the figure of The Writer recalling the time he spent there and switch back in time to see him as a callow young man, newly arrived from St Louis and nervously struggling with his unfamiliar surroundings.

Monday, 16 July 2012

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part II


"I'll tickle your catastrophe"

I was mildly disappointed by the second instalment of The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I and so it was pretty much a given that I'd feel more or less the same about Henry IV Part II and so it came to pass. In some ways, little changed: Walters and Russell Beale continued to be themselves, Heffernan continued to be neglected as a simple serving boy, the women continued to get a raw deal of it only this time Niamh Cusack got in on the action with a mere handful of lines as Lady Northumberland (and admittedly Maxine Peake rightly got a bit more screentime as Doll Tearsheet), Hiddleston and Irons continued to be epically good and it all felt a bit too theatrical for my liking.

I did like that we got more Dominc Rowan in this one, though his hair still caused me consternation, Iain Glen and Pip Carter were great additions to the cast as Warwick and Gower respectively - Glen was particularly sonorous when speaking - and everyone has got to love a scene that looks like it could have been set in a gay sauna ;-) And though they lacked a certain something, the rural scenes with David Bamber and Tim McMullan as Shallow and Silence, were largely well-played.


Continuation of the Henry IV Part II cast

Continuation of the Henry IV Part II cast

Sunday, 15 July 2012

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I


"Then would I have his Harry, and he mine"

The Hollow Crown continues with Henry IV Part I, directed by Richard Eyre who also does the ensuing Part II (but not Henry V, though the productions are cross-cast). But where Rupert Goold's Richard II embraced the form to create something more cinematic (although not to everyone's tastes), this is an altogether more traditional affair and not necessarily the better for it.  

What Eyre brings out is the father-son relationships. Tom Hiddleston's carousing Prince Hal, partnered extremely well by David Dawson's Poins in what was an excellent performance I thought, is movingly forced towards maturity on the battlefield, as King Henry, Jeremy Irons in impassive form and making the presence of what is admittedly quite a secondary character really stand out, laments the fecklessness of his heir. This is contrasted of course by the gumption of young Hotspur, Joe Armstrong oozing rugged charisma and forming the highlight of the whole thing for me, and in a lovely piece of casting, his real father, Alun Armstrong has been cast as his onscreen father which added poignancy to their moments. 

Continuation of the Henry IV Part I cast

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: Richard III, Shakespeare’s Globe

“And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house…”

The last time I was at the Globe (for Henry V), I made the mistake of mentioning that I had never actually been rained on whilst being a groundling. This time round, for the opening night of Richard III, we made it to the second half quite dry but then the heavens opened and I was forced to use my delightful yellow poncho whilst proved little respite against a rather heavy and sustained fall of rain which made me long for the hard comfort of the Globe’s (covered) seating. This Richard III is notable for seeing the return of Mark Rylance to the theatre where he was Artistic Director for 10 years where this all-male Original Practices-exploring company will also take on Twelfth Night later in the season and then transfer both to the West End.

Given the tragic news just last week of the death of his stepdaughter, it is hard to know what to say or how to pitch any comments about Rylance. Though it is probably close to heretical to admit it, I’m not actually that big a fan of him as an actor, having found him too dominant a presence on stages before for my liking at least, but given that for once this is actually a play where that is the intention, I was willing to give this a try. Using the types of costumes and props that would have been available in 1593, Rylance sports a false arm complete with teeny withered hand (I jested at the interval that this is him saying ‘look, I can even do Shakespeare with one arm behind my back…’) and a rather muted demeanour as he limps and shuffles around the stage.

Continuation of Richard III cast

Continuing the cast list for the Globe's Richard III

Review: Mack and Mabel, Southwark Playhouse


“I’d be the first one to agree that I’m preoccupied with me”
Mack and Mabel reunites much of the creative team from last year’s very well received Parade at the Southwark Playhouse but sadly it also sees them go back into the same space of the Vault there. Despite its cavernous nature, it has become the default space for musicals at this London Bridge venue, although mystifyingly so as its first one – Company – was brilliantly played, unmiked, in the main house. To overcome the echoing acoustics of the Vault, shows tend to be heavily amplified and this has been something of a learning curve to say the least and for me undoes much of the point of going to see fringe musicals as it robs shows of the immediacy of hearing amazing voices up close and personal.
The show – book by Michael Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal – centres on the on-off relationship between Keystone Cops creator and silent film director Mack Sennett and the waitress he spotted, Mabel Normand, and turned into a star. Problem is, it isn’t a particularly gripping story, not even in its revised version, which tends towards a rather gloopy sentimentalisation, complete with annoying narration device, which never really addresses the fact that Mack is not someone you could imagine anyone ever giving the time of day to. Thom Southerland's overlong production never really manages to overcome this deficiency in the story.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Dance Review: Play Without Words, Sadler’s Wells


Truth be told, I am no real fan of dance shows. I do give it the occasional try hither and thither but it is an artform whose charms have largely bypassed me, but I do like to keep trying with things and so I took up the offer from a friend to take in Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words at the Sadler’s Wells theatre. A 2002 commission for the National Theatre, it is receiving its first revival here as part of the New Adventures’ 25th anniversary celebrations, but though it is undoubtedly a stylish and slick piece of work, I found it to be rather soulless.
Inspired in 1960s British New Wave cinema, it borrows heavily from the 1963 Harold Pinter-scripted The Servant to tell of a well-to-do young man who hires a manservant to run his household but who ends up controlling his life. But what Bourne has done is to double- and sometimes triple-cast the characters so that the story is told with multiple perspectives and the varying possibilities of each scene are explored right in front of us. It’s a clever move and one which offers much opportunity but I couldn’t help but feel that by the end it was overused.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Review: Timon of Athens, National Theatre

"We have seen better days"

Relevance. From the moment that Timon of Athens was announced as part of the upcoming season at the National Theatre with its look-alike poster image, it was clear that this would be a production straining for resonance in the modern world. This is nothing new of course - the recent Antigone opened with an evocation of the capture of Bin Laden, the RSC have relocated Julius Caesar in a modern-day African dictatorship, numerous Comedies of Errors have touched on people-trafficking – but in his quest to update this neglected Shakespeare problem play for our times, Nicholas Hytner seems to have suffered very much from square peg round hole syndrome. Aspects of this production may well improve as the preview period progresses, my problems with it ran much deeper.

Timon starts the play as a major player on the London social scene, showering the city and his acolytes with his financial largesse and a dubious open door policy. But such cultural and personal philanthropism comes at a serious price when it emerges that Timon is in fact bankrupt and when he turns to those who he has lavished with money and gifts, they turn their back on him and offer no help. He exacts a stinking revenge on them during a feast and then retires from society to become a bag lady. Even then, an unexpected discovery means that he cannot truly escape his former life but his influence is channelled into a darker stream of action as civil unrest is steadily growing.

Cast of Timon of Athens continued

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Review: St John’s Night, Jermyn Street


“Don’t forget about the goblin in the attic”

Written early in his career in 1852, Ibsen’s play St John’s Eve (or St John’s Night as it has been retitled here in this translation by James McFarlane) was so poorly received that it was brushed under the carpet somewhat and not even included in his collected works. Following on from last year’s successful version of another neglected Ibsen piece Little Eyolf, director Anthony Biggs returns to the Jermyn Street Theatre to see if lightning can strike twice by giving St John’s Night its UK premiere. This may have been a preview but for me, I’m not so sure that it did succeed, instead reminding us why some plays are left to collect dust.

This is very much an example of the playwright-in-progress , being unlike any other Ibsen play that I know, as it is a fairy-tale comedy, taking influence from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but putting a decidedly Nordic spin on it. The play is set on a Norwegian farm whose ownership is unclear after the death of Mr Berg. Berg’s second wife lives in one house and is trying to secure the inheritance for her daughter by finding a good marriage and she invites her chosen victim Birk, with two of his friends, to join in their midsummer revels. Berg’s aging father and naïve daughter live in another, older house on the estate which happens to have a resident goblin upstairs and when the young people decide to take their party up to a mystical hill, the goblin – a Puck-like figure – spikes their drink with a potion that unlocks all sorts of hidden memories.

Radio Review: The Last Breath / The Diary of a Nobody


“What is it? A drama, a documentary?”
A couple of short radio reviews, as with having to have done a fair bit of travelling over the last weeks, I’ve had ample time to listen to things. First up was a fascinating piece called The Last Breath, which I particularly admired for being something quite challenging, both in subject matter and form, even in the afternoon drama slot on Radio 4. Created by Ben Fearnside with Anita Sullivan and set in a 2018 UK where assisted suicide has been legalised, it chronicles the attempts of a radio producer – Anita – to profile an artist – Ben – who is making a piece of modern art which will be the capture of someone’s dying breath in a jar and displayed for all to see.
Fearnside and Sullivan’s work sits somewhere between documentary and drama – real people and real names are utilised in the telling of what is a fictional story (I couldn’t quite work out why there had to be one fictional character, though it was pleasure to get to hear Nicola Walker’s sonorous voice again) which posed and worked through, if not providing necessarily neat answers, to some powerful questions. The ethics of ending one’s own life, the ethics of representing that in whatever form, the role that art has to play in peoples’ lives, to entertain, to educate, to provoke. I wasn’t mad keen on the use of music as I couldn’t quite see what it added to the show as a whole, but overall I found it a rather strong piece of radio drama.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Re-review: Ghost the musical, Piccadilly

“It’s just relief to suspend my disbelief”

It feels a bit like I’m cursed when it comes to Ghost the musical. I booked it at the beginning of the year to see the original cast before they went to Broadway and Sharon D Clarke injured herself so I missed her and this time round, eager to see Mark Evans’ acting and musical talent / damn fine abs *delete as appropriate, we arrived at the theatre to find his understudy was on. It is not the end of the world when that happens of course but it is sometimes a disappointment when one is looking forward to seeing a particular person (though it helps that there’s videos like this to fall back on) and as it turned out, when I saw the name of the understudy – Spencer O’Brien – I was actually quite pleased as he is someone I have great residual affection for as he was in the cast of the superlative Salad Days the Christmas before last.

And though my feelings about the show were decidedly mixed when I saw it last – review here – I’d listened to the soundtrack quite a bit since then and discovered that it really is a grower. I really like a good proportion of it and so was quite happy to revisit the show, with the bonus of a new cast and a companion that had not seen it before, and in the end I found that I actually enjoyed it much more. The key for me and the soundtrack helped immensely here, is to think of it as a chamber musical, a small intimate piece essentially for four characters, and let the rest simply glide by in a rush of neon light and slow-motion walking. 

Cast of Ghost continued

Sunday, 8 July 2012

DVD Review: Women In Love


“Find love that burns your very soul”

A BBC4 television adaptation of the two DH Lawrence novels The Rainbow and Women In Love, although named solely after the latter, the Women In Love DVD was one I had been looking forward to delving into, mainly due to the presence of such luminous actresses as Rachael Stirling, Rosamund Pike and Saskia Reeves. Imagine my surprise, and indeed pleasure to a certain degree, to find that naked male wrestling was also part of the bargain in this William Ivory-directed two-parter. 

Centred on the lives and loves of the two Brangwen sisters, Guthrun and Ursula, as they react against the staid lives of their parents with stridently independent action, yet each end up in relationships with men that are endlessly complicated, not least by the feelings between those two men, Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin. The first part dealt with these lives individually in England and only slowly brought them together, leaving much of the second half to take place in the Southern African diamond mines and deserts (replacing the Tyrolean Alps of the original) where the partnerships literally reached boiling point.

Review: Money, Radio 3


"Men are valued not on what they are, but what they seem to be"

The term 'all-star cast' is bandied about quite a bit these days and the more I go to the theatre, the more I realise how subjective a concept it is for me at least. Looking at the performer credits for this Radio 3 production of the Victorian satirical drama Money by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, I went into paroxysms of delight at the names contained within, but chatting later that evening to a group of non-theatre-going friends (for indeed I do still have some!), my excitement was hardly shared. 

But for those of you in the know, and I'm counting all you readers of this blog, this is a great collection of actors. Celia Imrie, Roger Allam, Ian McDiarmid, Bertie Carvel, Tom Goodman-Hill, Phoebe Waller-Bridge to name just a few and all directed by the estimable Samuel West, making his radio directorial debut - how could anyone resist. For this version, the play, given a major production by the National Theatre in 1999 which also featured Allam, was recorded on location at Knebworth House which was inherited by Bulwer-Lytton himself just after he wrote this very work in 1840. 

Blogged: NoFit State Circus, the Eden Project and me


Roll up roll up… just the mere mention of the word ‘circus’ has to be one of the most evocative in the English language. Whether from personal experiences or from the multitude of cultural references in which the circus plays a key part – mine include trips to Blackpool Circus in infant school (the water!!), this frequently chilling Doctor Who story and of course Dumbo – there’s something undeniably persuasive about it, a sense of magical escapism that means the brain never quite discounts running away to the circus as a potential life choice ;-)

But times change and so too has the circus, or at least some parts of it, as can be seen in the rise of the incredibly popular strand of contemporary circus. Companies like NoFit State and shows like La Clique and La Soirée, and Cantina (which is still running at the London Wonderground) may have left the animals behind but in doing so have focused the attention onto the often breath-taking, boundary-pushing physical endeavours of their human ensembles. So when I was invited to come and preview NoFit State Circus’ upcoming show at the Eden Project in Cornwall, it was something of a no-brainer. I’d never been to this part of the UK before, the offer to teach us some circus skills intrigued and the clips on YouTube looked frankly amazing.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva


"Do not rejoice in his defeat"

Despite feeling like I live in a theatre at time, my experience of Brecht has actually been very limited. When I first saw Mother Courage at the National, I hadn't got a clue what was going on and it was a rather disconcerting experience all told. My subsequent discovery that all the shenanigans were an integral part of the show left me a little nonplussed, but since then I haven't had the opportunity to revisit his work, or maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough... Even when The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was first announced as part of Chichester's 50th anniversary season, I can't say the thought filled me with much anticipation.

But the cast was attractive, led by Henry Goodman, and crucially, the word of mouth from trusted souls was excellent and so I booked myself in on a day when those lovely £5 train tickets were available. And I really enjoyed myself, having one of those great experiences where a complete lack of pre-knowledge about the show really paid off to just fascinating effect. Brecht wrote the play in 1941, a story about a small-time Chicago gangster whose violent seizure and control of the cauliflower trade (I know but bear with) saw him ascend to fearsome heights, but the playwright's true intentions are revealed through the parallels, which are soon crystal clear, with the rise to power of one Adolf Hitler.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Review: The Golden Age of Broadway, Royal Festival Hall

"But now and then he'll do something wonderful"

Despite, or maybe because of, its richly diverse programming, the Royal Festival Hall has played host to two of my all-time favourite gigs ever: Röyksopp/Fever Ray and A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. Not quite reaching those giddy heights but then again not so very far off was The Golden Age of Broadway, a celebration of the classic musicals of the 1950s and 1960s that still rank amongst some of the all-time greats. It was the kind of evening that made me just feel sad for those people who insist that they don't like musicals for whatever reason, it just feels like they're missing out on so much joy and fun and in this case, a damn good evening. 

Bryn Terfel was sold as the leading man - he is in the midst of a mini-season on the South Bank - but in truth it was a much more balanced company affair, with Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams joining in to share the load. And this is where the evening really shone, with the irrepressible quality of the cast allowed to shine both individually, and together in various combinations as they cherry-picked from some of the best shows - and songs - ever written.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: A Doll’s House, Young Vic


“You are a wife and a mother before anything else."
There are occasions when I wonder if the madness will ever stop. In my determination to be as open-minded as theatre as I can, I frequently put myself through things that I know I don’t like in the hope that something new might appear to me. This is particularly true of Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright acclaimed as one of the greatest playwrights ever but through whose work I have suffered a lot as it just hasn’t connected with me. Some productions have come a little way but by and large, I just don’t like Ibsen. Yet when the Young Vic announced a new production of A Doll’s House, directed by former AD of the Gate Carrie Cracknell and newly adapted by Simon Stephens, my reflex booking finger got to work to revisit this shocking-at-the-time tale of the pursuit of self-realisation with its forward-thinking deconstruction of 19th century marriage as Nora and Torvald Helmer are rocked by a series of events that rips down their perceived notions of each other. This was a preview that I saw, so be sure to take everything I say with a pinch of salt.
And boy am I glad that I did as from the second row, I found it be utterly, hypnotically compelling. I’ve previously tended to find Ibsen’s characters extremely remote and hard to access but from the outset here, there’s a persuasive sense of a realistic dynamic in the marital relationship of the Helmers. Returning from her Christmas shopping trip, Nora’s image remains beautifully composed (Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are simply gorgeous) and her position as the ultimate trophy wife soon apparent as her husband emerges from his study. What Dominic Rowan does so very brilliantly is to convey all the brutal complexity of Torvald, there’s a seductive quality, a sexually possessive masculinity that one can imagine any of us, never mind Nora, falling for, even as he seeks to control her.  But as the play progresses, Rowan increasingly darkens in tone, and manner, as his attentions become creepier, more stifling as his true attitudes are laid bare. All the while though he maintains that veneer of magnetic affability that he can switch on, even in his drunken mocking of his wife’s friend Kristine, he is disarming and charming.

TV Preview: Sinbad

“Are you running to, or from, something?”

I’ve never been to the cinema to watch a TV programme before but there’s always a first time for everything and last Sunday we found ourselves in the midst of hordes of children during a family film funday to preview the new Sky 1 series Sinbad. The most expensive show Sky have ever commissioned in the UK, it was filmed over 9 months in Malta and marks a determined attempt to capture the family-friendly Dr Who/Merlin market from Impossible Pictures, who also produced Primeval.

As you may have deduced from the pictures, my motives were not entirely artistic, as the show also marks the return of one of my favourite actors, Elliot Cowan, to the screen (plus introduces another nice-looking gentleman called Elliot into the bargain). And as I don’t have Sky and will have to wait for the DVDs to come out at the end of the 12 episode run, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss to catch the first episode and attend the subsequent Q&A session.

Cast of Sinbad continued

TV Review: The Hollow Crown Part I, Richard II


“Take honour from me and my life is done”
And so finally it arrives, the culmination of the BBC's Shakespeare fest in The Hollow Crown, the four history plays from Richard II through to Henry V filmed by some of our most exciting directors and bringing together a simply astounding company of actors of the highest (theatrical) pedigree. Having been spoiled by an excellent Richard II from John Heffernan at the Tobacco Factory, the subsequent Eddie Redmayne-starring production at the Donmar suffered a little by comparison, but the sheer star quality on offer here, directed by Rupert Goold no less, meant there was no way I would be missing it.
Leading the cast as the feckless monarch undone by his own grandiloquence, Ben Whishaw imbues Richard with a capricious feyness - his camp is filled with handsome serving boys, juicy figs and a monkey - and a fateful contempt for the affairs of men. This leads to his downfall as his harsh punishment of cousin Henry Bolingbroke and his unlawful seizing of his family's land and money provokes a righteous retribution from Bolingbroke, who returns from exile supported by many a nobleman and seizes the throne. As the tide turns against him, Whishaw's king graduates to a heart-wrenching too-late maturity, as the only life he has ever known (he was crowned aged just 10 after all) slips from his grasp. Goold lays on this transformation a little too thickly with an inescapable religious iconography but plays a masterstroke in having the scene of Richard’s return to England played out on a windy beach, his petulant hopelessness washed away with his name in the sand, Whishaw embracing the text exquisitely.  

Continuation of Richard II cast

Finishing off the cast list for Richard II cos I'm nerdy like that.

TV Review: Julius Caesar, BBC4

“Men, at some times, are masters of their fate”

In the near-overwhelming deluge of Shakespeare love on the BBC which is about to reach its crescendo with the debut of the Hollow Crown season, the decision to film and broadcast the RSC’s current production of Julius Caesar seems a rather perverse one. The show, an all-black adaptation relocated to an unspecified modern African state by director Gregory Doran, has yet to complete its Stratford-upon-Avon run and will embark on a major UK tour including a residency in the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, so it seems a little counter-intuitive to present it on our televisions – I only hope this does not impact on ticket sales (though given it played on BBC4, one does wonder what viewing figures were actually like…).

Of course, watching a play on screen is not the same as watching it live and though this starts with the opening scene recorded at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the first transition cleverly moves us into location filming and so the production gains a filmic quality which makes use of varied locations, including a return to the RST, direct addresses to camera, ‘found’ cellphone footage and voiceovers to really translate the theatrical interpretation into something new for the screen, as opposed to simply replicating it. The relocation is a simple, yet powerfully effective one, the overthrowing of a military dictator by less than honourable types is something which will seemingly always have currency in the modern world, but more importantly the concept is worn lightly with little shoe-horning necessary to make it work. Instead it flows beautifully and naturally to great effect.

Cast of Julius Caesar continued