Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Review: NSFW, Royal Court


“This is not that sort of publication”

I’m rarely lost for an opinion, but I am struggling to decide what I really thought of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play for the Royal Court, the search-term-baiting NSFW (not safe for work). In its 80 minutes, it rips through the way in which magazine industry portrays its images of women from two wildly differing perspectives, both equally entertaining but troubling. But after the attitudes from both ends of the spectrum are laid bare in all their misogynistic glory, the play ends rather than delving deeper into the world that allows this to happen.

The journey there is interesting and insightful, even if I didn’t find it quite as funny as some of those around me (it is actually billed as a “timely new comedy”). In the garishly decorated offices of weekly lad’s mag Doghouse, a huge topless picture of Carrie - their Local Lovely 2012 – is given pride of place to celebrate an upturn in circulation. The mood quickly sinks though as it emerges that Carrie is just 14 and is unaware that her photo was submitted by her boyfriend and a serious damage limitation exercise is instituted. 

Re-review: Jumpy, Duke of York’s


“You think ‘I’m being a strong woman’, that’s a misinterpretation...”

Not too much to say about this last minute revisit to Jumpy before it closed this weekend, aside from the predictability that I would end up there despite repeatedly assuring the world I wouldn’t. My original review from its run at the Royal Court can be read here and much of it still stands as my response was largely the same second time round and, rather pleasingly for a play in the West End, it was a sell-out. I was admittedly a little surprised when I first heard this would be one of the plays transferring to the Duke of York’s as whilst I found it good, I didn’t think it was necessarily that great (unlike many others).

But holding onto the vast majority of its cast (just two replacements were needed), April De Angelis’ play maintained its essential quality with a stirring central performance from Tamsin Greig as a woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis as crises with her teenage daughter, tensions with her husband and losing her job all leave her reeling. De Angelis wraps all of this into a comedy though and so there’s a lightness to the whole affair which at once feels like its strength and its weakness. 

Happy Hallowe'en


After going to see The Horror! The Horror! and failing to be horrified, I spent the rest of the evening at Wilton’s Music Hall discussing exactly what it was that we all found scary as those around me swapped ghost stories and spooky happenings from their pasts. Cynic that I am, I really haven’t had any kind of experiences like that and so I’d be rubbish around the campfire, but it did get me thinking about what it is that I do find scary – little children ghosts mainly, and puppets trying to be lifelike – and whether any cultural medium can really capture that hairs-on-end feeling.

Theatre hasn’t really worked for me this Hallowe’en (the less said about The Revenger’s Tragedy the better) so I thought I’d watch a few DVDs that purport to have that spooky edge. The Awakening and The Woman In Black were both feature films from last year, The Turn of the Screw was shown on TV in 2009 and Marchlands, the only one of these that I had previously watched, was broadcast last year too. And no, this whole exercise wasn’t invented just as a reason to watch Elliot Cowan on screen again. Honest. 

So what sends shivers running up and down your spine on stage or on screen, do let me know.

DVD Review: The Woman in Black

"So many...so many children"

For his first major post-Harry Potter film outing, Daniel Radcliffe went for this adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestseller The Woman In Black, directed by James Watkins. An Edwardian ghost story, widowed father Arthur Kipps’ is tasked with closing up the account of Eel Marsh House, an isolated manor in the fens, but on his arrival he finds the locals unwilling to help, strange goings-on all around him and a haunted house to shake even the most resolute of sceptics. Skewed angles nod back to Hitchcock, the psychological horror suggests more recent exponents like Amenábar and del Toro.

James Watkins is clearly skilled in the art of making people jump but what really works successfully here is the genuine sense of creepiness that imbues much of the film. This is of course most effective in the earlier two-thirds of the film when we’re still hunting for explanations – the long wordless scenes and non-explicit moments of threats have a genuinely disturbing quality – and has there ever been a more unsettling collection of wind-up figures in the world, particularly that rabbit toy. 

DVD Review: Marchlands


“Sometimes we don’t see everything that’s going on”


A tale of how the supernatural can linger in the same house, Marchlands was an ITV drama originally broadcast in early 2011. Written by Stephen Greenhorn and set in Yorkshire, it follows the fortunes of three families who all live in the same house. In 1968, Ruth and Paul are mourning the death of their 8 year old daughter Alice but suffering from a serious lack of communication and stifled by living with his parents. In 1987, the Maynard family struggle to deal with young Amy’s invisible best friend whose arrival coincides with all sorts of strange happenings. And in 2010, Mark and Nisha return to the village of his childhood, but secrets from the past threaten their future and that of their unborn child. 

Greenhorn’s writing cleverly sets up and slowly unravels a different set of mysteries in each of the strands, whilst also introducing overlapping elements which intertwine across the years. Jodie Whittaker’s Ruth, dismissed as a hysterical grieving mother, brings  a tortured distress to her determination to find out the truth behind her daughter’s drowning; Dean Andrews and Alex Kingston pair up brilliantly as the 80s couple whose children are inexplicably caught up in Alice’s web; and Shelley Conn is convincing as the modern-day new mother, stressed from the demands of parenthood, the loneliness of her new home, the mysteries that her husband, the ever delectable Elliot Cowan, won’t reveal. And then there is Anne Reid, in scintillating form as a woman vital to all of the stories.    

Cast of Marchlands continued

DVD Review: The Awakening


"This is a time for ghosts"

Released at the end of last year, The Awakening seemed to sink without trace a little. I’m not the best judge of things given how little time I end up with to see films, but I would have thought a film that starred Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton would be a surefire hit. In any case, its general spookiness and delving into the realm of the supernatural makes it a good fit for inclusion here.

Nick Murphy’s film is set in 1921, a shell-shocked England still learning how to recover from the devastating impact of the Great War. Rebecca Hall plays a rather witty anti-Yvette Fielding figure named Florence Cathcart, a very modern sceptic who is a published author on the debunking of supernatural hoaxes. After a great opening sequence in which a séance is exposed for the nonsense it really is, she is visited by Dominic West’s Robert Mallory, a schoolteacher who wants her to come and investigate some spooky goings-on at his isolated boarding school. Yet in finding trying to a rational answer, she uncovers a deeper, more personal mystery which is far from easily explained. 

DVD Review: The Turn of the Screw


“The children - strange, shadowy creatures”

Starting in London in 1921 in a hospital for the war wounded, a junior psychiatrist tries to break through with a mentally disturbed patient, a young woman who was previously a governess at a grand house in the country. Thus starts this 2009 television adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch and directed by Tim Fywell which relocates the story to a shell-shocked post WWI society.

Michelle Dockery leads the cast as Ann, newly employed to look after the 2 young wards of the Master (Mark Umbers in handsomely brutish form), but soon finds out that neither child is quite as angelic as they first seem. Strange happenings keep on occurring to her and around her and all seems to be linked to the previous woman to hold the position of governess who died in mysterious circumstances along with a manservant from the house, Peter Quint, whose ghostly presence threatens the sanity and safety of all concerned, or so it seems to Ann at least.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Review: You Can Still Make A Killing, Southwark Playhouse



“It takes a certain kind of person to work in the city"
 
Nicholas Pierpan has looked previously at the financial sector before in his monologue The Maddening Rain, but in his new play You Can Still Make A Killing which is now coming to the end of its run at the Southwark Playhouse, his focus pulls out much wider than the impact on just one man. Edward and Jack were both traders at Lehman Brothers but their lives took significantly different turns after the company collapsed as the crisis in financial systems across the world began to really bite.
 
With too much invested in the firm, Edward’s world falls apart and he is left hanging around hopelessly in his old Starbucks, trying to wheedle his way back in through overheard gossip and tips from former colleagues. He eventually gets a job, but at the Financial Regulations Authority (the FSA by any other name), investigating the very nefarious practices that he himself had been involved in and soon the name of his old friend Jack pops up. For Jack managed to somehow keep his plates spinning in the air and kept his job, as ever more inventive ways of bending the system become necessary.
 

Review: Top Hat, Aldwych


“You’ll declare it’s simply topping to be there”


On the face of it, Top Hat should have been a rip-roaring extravaganza of a show that tapped and waltzed and strutted its way right into my affections, featuring some of my favourite things like a healthy selection of classic songs from the Irving Berlin back catalogue and the kind of choreography from Bill Deamer that genuinely makes me wonder if it isn’t too late to find my inner Billy Elliot (don’t worry, I know it is…). But at this Tuesday matinée, I found it was particularly topping to be there and I was sadly left a little underwhelmed by the whole shebang.


It seems perverse to comment on the plot of a musical being far-fetched, especially one based on an old-school Broadway film as this is, but the book here – adapted by director Matthew White and Howard Jacques – is criminally lame. The story is a whole lot of silliness, which is fine – girl complains about guy dancing in the room above her, guy flirts with girl, girl gets cold feet when she think s guy is married to her best friend. Oh, and the guy is a leading Broadway star about to open a show. Where the problem lies is in the incredibly dated humour, which one can just about explain away as a period piece, but which just sags and droops with lame joke after overblown stereotype which was lapped up all too easily by this audience, of whom I was the youngest member by quite some margin. 


Monday, 29 October 2012

Review: The Judas Kiss, Richmond Theatre


“I adored you.
'It was not the same...'"

Fresh from a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre and before its arrival in the West End in the New Year, this revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss visits Richmond Theatre for a week and packed out the halls (and overcrowded foyer) of this Victorian theatre last night. The play focuses on two episodes in the destructive relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas: the first as the playwright retreats to a suite in the Cadogan Hotel in the wake of his failed attempt to sue Bosie’s father for libel and in anticipation of his own arrest; and the second two years later as Wilde tries to recuperate post-incarceration in the warmer climes of Naples.

Everett makes a different Wilde to the one one might expect. Hare resists the temptation to over-burden him with an ever-present rapier wit, making him a more solemn, melancholy figure – though one who can still produce a barbed comment at the drop of a velvet hat – thoroughly pummelled by the weight of Victorian society’s puritanical hypocrisy, a point hammered home by the opening image of screwing servants. But there’s an element too of self-flagellation here, even against the advice of his nearest and dearest to flee for France. With a tragic knowingness in his eyes, Everett’s redoubtable Wilde determinedly holds onto his personal integrity even as he knows that Bosie cannot, or will not, match such devotion.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Review: Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory


“I am not an ordinary woman”


Between balancing requests for reviews and selecting what other plays I want to actually see, it is a rare occasion that I actually attend the theatre as someone else’s guest for a show of their own choosing. But in order to see an old university friend and Dominic Tighe (only one of these was actually sat next to me though), my Sunday afternoon was spent at the Menier Chocolate Factory to see the Victorian farce Charley’s Aunt.


It is little secret that I am no great fan of a farce, though I have been trying my best to being open to having my mind changed, but this isn’t the one to force a reappraisal of the genre. It is what it is, a cross-dressing, slapstick-filled riot of an occasion – revived here by Ian Talbot – which sets its stall out from the very beginning with a character mugging for laughs.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Review: Blue Sky, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

“Oh God! Now’s everyone’s got their own blog…”

Ray enjoys plane-spotting. Since his wife died and his teenage daughter is growing up far too quickly for his liking, it has provided him with a much-needed reason to get out of the house and into the Shropshire countryside. But it is early 2003, Iraq is about to be invaded and there’s a strange buzz of activity around their little airfield. When childhood friend and freelance journalist Jane waltzes back into his life, trying to follow up a lead on a story about a missing Pakistani man last seen being forced onto a US plane, neither of them are prepared for just how far this story will reach. 

Blue Sky is a pointedly political new play by Clare Bayley for the Pentabus Theatre company and in the intimate theatre downstairs at the Hampstead, director Elizabeth Freestone makes inventive use of the room with some excellent creative collaborations. Staged in traverse, Naomi Dawson’s deceptively simple design segments the open space, Johanna Town’s runway-inspired lighting is cleverly used as Adrienne Quartly’s sound design expands the horizons of the production into the big bad world being investigated. 

Review: Peter, LOST Theatre


“You can’t fix everything with a smile and some fairy dust”

The tale of Peter Pan is one which has proved timeless, but the life of its writer JM Barrie has also proved to be of enduring interest. The Hollywood film Finding Neverland dramatised (and semi-fictionalised) the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family who provided the main inspiration for the story and a big budget musical version of that interpretation has just finished its debut run at the Curve in Leicester ahead of a presumed forthcoming West End transfer. And in Peter, new American playwright Stacy Sobieski takes a different tack on the same story, looking at events from the eyes of Peter Llewelyn Davies: just a babe-in-arms when he became the namesake for Barrie’s new play, but a man who bore the weight of the limelight into which he had been thrust extremely heavily.

We first see Peter as an adult, an enigmatic figure in a darkened room setting light to a basketful of papers, and then swiftly leap back to 1987 and the beginnings of Barrie’s insinuation into the Llewelyn Davies family life. Sobieski tells this story through to the sad end of the childhood of the four boys but intercuts it with scenes from adult Peter’s life, as he meets up again with his boyhood nanny and reveals what impact being “the boy who never grew up” has had, and continues to have on his life. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: The Horror! The Horror!, Wilton’s Music Hall


“I know what you're thinking, you've seen it all before...”


Much like we all carry our own sense of humour with us, we all too have our own individual fears and dreads. Which means we don't all find the same things funny (I barely laughed in One Man, Two Guvnors for example) and, as Hallowe’en fast approaches, it makes it difficult to guarantee that something is scary for everyone. A proliferation of shows across London are all determined to send shivers down our spine, but none can have been so initially successful as Theatre of the Damned’s The Horror! The Horror! which sold out its run at Wilton’s Music Hall before it had even started.


As the main hall is being renovated, this Victorian-era promenade show takes place in the shadowy spaces and ramshackle rooms upstairs at Wilton’s and takes the form of a sneak preview of the new season of work from A.S. Brownlow & Company, a group of performers whose acts have all taken something of a gruesome turn. From saucy singers provoking mysterious men to vengeful magicians bitterly resisting the arrival of the future, a cabaret of the grisly and ghastly emerges from the ghosts of the past. And there are puppies. Oh, the puppies.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Review: Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East


“We could get the girls round for a game of kerplunk”


I’m a big fan of crime fiction but somehow Martina Cole has passed me by: none of my book-sharing buddies ever press her work into my hands, the TV adaptations didn’t grab me and the previous two Cole stage adaptations failed to tempt me to Theatre Royal Stratford East. But TRSE are clearly happy with how they went and it seems to be turning into an annual event there, so this year one can take in a version of her first novel, Dangerous Lady.

Cole seems to occupy similar ground, if not subject matter, to the Jilly Coopers and Jackie Collins of the world, the story has an epic sweep over several decades but an intimate focus in the struggles and self-empowerment of a ballsy lady. Here it is Maura Ryan, born into a family of gangsters but determined to do the right thing by avoiding the family business. An ill-advised liaison with a cop ends up in pregnancy but he swiftly departs and the subsequent back alley abortion leaves her broken-hearted, infertile and hardened to the world. She then joins her brothers and together they come to conquer gangland, but at considerable sacrifice.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Review: Other Hands, Riverside Studios

"I found I was desperate for a tiger prawn salad"


Though probably best known for her Royal Court hit Posh which transferred successfully into the West End this year, Laura Wade has been writing plays since 1996. But it is her 2006 play Other Hands which receives its first professional UK revival here at the Riverside Studios, fresh from a tour of the South Coast. Wade revisited the play to make a few updates to the text to reflect the technological advances and economic turmoil in the six years since it was written but at its heart, the central issues of Other Hands remain just as pertinent today. In a world of ever-increasing reliance on technology and the relentless pursuit of efficiency, are we in danger of not investing enough time in human relationships. To quote the playwright herself, what’s the use in 10,000 Facebook friends if you have no-one to give you a hug at the end of a rubbish day. 

Wade explores this contemporary malaise in two ways through the central couple of Steve and Hayley. Together for 8 years and both professionally adept at fixing things, Steve is a freelance IT consultant who is perfectly happy to while away the hours on his PlayStation instead of looking for business as Hayley is a high-flying management consultant, earning enough to keep them both afloat. But they are barely treading water emotionally, and as problems start to manifest themselves physically too in the form of Steve’s ever-worsening RSI, they both start to look elsewhere.  


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Review: 9 to 5 The Musical, New Wimbledon Theatre

"It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it"

With a score that incorporates both songs from her back catalogue and newly penned numbers by Dolly Parton and a book from Patricia Resnick, one of the co-writers of the film on which it based which also featured Parton’s screen debut, there was little danger of 9 to 5 The Musical ever veering too far from the template which saw it become a cinematic success. But though its crowd-pleasing adherence to the film brings a definite feel-good factor, which is best characterised by the effervescent opening rendition of the title song, it also imposes limits on just how successful a piece of musical theatre it can be. 

It’s 1979 and the office of Consolidated Companies, typical of most workplaces at the time, is a bearpit for the female of the species. But the tide is changing and as three women in this particular environment come together in the face of sexist adversity and an inadvertent deployment of some rat poison, an alternative way of running the company springs to mind and suggests that the future might not be so grim after all. 

Cast of 9 to 5 continued

Monday, 22 October 2012

Review: Old Goat Song, Lion and Unicorn


There’s a clever bit of word-play with the title of new musical Old Goat Song which will be readily apparent for those with a knowledge of some Ancient Greek, though the rest of us may need a helping hand. The word tragedy roughly translates as ‘goat song’ and the central character of this show, a widower in his 70s, refers to himself as the ‘old goat’, though the overall tone of the musical is less tragic than wistfully nostalgic. 


Bill Fast’s life since his wife died has not been the happiest and he is now seriously unwell. Living with his abrasive sister Cora who is enforcing a low-cholesterol diet, he seeks refuge in a local diner and soon becomes besotted with Cara, a 17 year old waitress there. As he edges ever closer to death, his relationship with her becomes increasingly entangled as the gifts he gives her become ever more grand and the feelings that start to move to an uncomfortable place.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Review: Elegy, Theatre503


‘Some stories are more powerful than others.’ 

In Douglas Rintoul’s devised monologue Elegy, the above is a piece of advice given to an asylum speaker preparing for an interview with the officials who’ll determine whether he will be allowed sanctuary or forced to return to the regime from which he is fleeing. But far from a cynical look at how the refugee system can be exploited, this is a deeply impassioned cri de coeur about the horrific realities of life for the LGBT community in post-liberation Iraq, an exceptionally powerful and haunting piece of theatre.

Based on a number of interviews from the Human Rights Watch and Stonewall, our narrator is an unnamed gay Iraqi who takes us through his personal history of cautiously optimistic though unrequited first love and the discovery of a careful but active gay community, through to the harsh dawn of a new ultra-conservatism which turned onto even the slightest intimation of homosexual behaviour and his ultimate desperate flight from his homeland.

Radio Review: Flare Path / Rock and Doris and Elizabeth

“There’s a war on, things will have to be different”

There was so much activity celebrating the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth last year that it is hardly surprising that I missed some of it, but I can’t believe I let this radio adaptation of Flare Path pass me by. Trevor Nunn’s revival at the Theatre Royal Haymarket was a genuine highlight of last year, a true revelation from this long-neglected playwright whose belated reassessment has been proved over and again by a suite of excellent productions over the last few years. And so a radio version, starring none other than my beloved Ruth Wilson alongside other such favourites like Rupert Penry-Jones, Rory Kinnear and Monica Dolan, was guaranteed to grab my attention, if only second time around. 

My love for Ruth Wilson aside, her casting is inspired here as haughty actress Pat, especially with Monica Dolan as the contrastingly open Doris. Where Sienna Miller caught the aloofness of Pat but didn’t always pair that with the emotional depth necessary to express the conflict of the central love triangle, Wilson gets to the heart of the woman and makes us care much more about her dilemma, her mellifluous voice cracking as she is confronted with feelings and situations that shake her certainties. And against Sheridan Smith’s superlative performance as Doris, Monica Dolan does a brilliant job with a subtly different take on the character, a more roundedly intelligent, slightly less dippy interpretation, but no less moving as she anxiously waits for news of her missing husband. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Review: The River, Royal Court

“I’m not entirely sure what love is”

Despite being prepared for all kinds of brouhaha with the specially instituted booking system for The River, Jez Butterworth’s new play upstairs at the Royal Court – tickets only available on the day of performance, 30 in person and the rest online – when it came to it, I only had to refresh the website twice at 9am to get my tickets (I recommend logging into your account first) so hopefully, it may be less of a trial than might be currently considered. Butterworth’s last play here was the behemoth that became Jerusalem (and yes, I am one of the few people that wasn’t much of a fan…) but I did enjoy his more intimate Parlour Song for the Almeida and so expectations were at a nicely manageable level. 

Which is always a good place to be, especially when it enables one to fully appreciate a play free from too much baggage. For The River is a piece of gorgeously sensitive writing, utterly beguiling in its subtle deconstruction of the way we conduct ourselves in relationships -the facades erected, the lies told, the declarations made, the pasts conveniently ignored. An introspective look at what it means to be intimate with someone and the importance of honesty in conjunction with that, it combines the highly naturalistic world realised by Ultz with the almost magical, poetic language of Butterworth which swims with unknowing purpose, occasionally catching the light beautifully like the sea trout in the story, negotiating the swells of the river back to its spawning ground. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Review: The Sound of Heavy Rain, Roundabout season at Shoreditch Town Hall


“You can’t always plan for the route ahead”

Technical problems meant that my original trip to see The Sound of Heavy Rain at Shoreditch Town Hall as part of a three show day, encompassing the whole Roundabout season of new writing engineered by Paines Plough, was scuppered. Fortunately the other two plays – Lungs and One Day When We Were Young – more than made up for the disappointment and I was able to squeeze in Penelope Skinner’s play later in the run to make up the full set.

In some ways, it seems a curious addition to the programme in that both stylistically and thematically, it felt quite distinct from the yearning, emotional intimacy of the other two plays. The Sound of Heavy Rain is a world apart with its film noir pastiche and cabaret leanings as grizzled private detective Dabrowski is approached by Maggie Brown to find her bar-room singer friend Foxy O’Hara who has gone missing. But instead of the boulevards of LA, we’re in the dark streets of Soho where it never stops raining. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Review: Medea, Watford Palace

"I am a modern woman, exploring my options, making a decision"

Mike Bartlett’s Medea initially seems a world away from Euripides’ original. With a new version written for Headlong and directed by himself, Bartlett transplants Rachael Stirling’s Medea into stultifying Home Counties suburbia, vibrantly captured by Ruari Murchison’s set. In this small town where her husband Jason grew up, she has long been viewed as a too proud outsider and when he leaves her for the much younger daughter of their landlord, she sinks into a deep and angry depression. Her wrath is all-consuming, pushing even her maternal instincts aside as she barely engages with her son Tom, left mute since his father departed, in her relentless pursuit for vengeance. 

Even before she arrives onstage, Stirling’s presence dominates proceedings like a threatening storm cloud. Her eyes flashing with coruscating wit and scarcely concealed contempt for those around her, even the making of cups of tea feels like a declaration of war as she seethes with rage at what her life has become. There’s a brutally blunt humour to her, especially in her interactions with those neighbours - Lu Corfield’s compassionate Sarah and Amelia Lowdell’s sharper Pam – but there’s also traumatic emotional damage, eye-wateringly evinced in a highly disturbing kitchen scene.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Review: Stacy, New Diorama

"I'm the sort of guy that falls in love easily"

Stacy is actually about Rob. And his best friend Stacy, and her flatmate Shona too. But mainly about Rob. For when a misguided drunken shag with Stacy later leads into another encounter with the more inexperienced Shona, it is Rob’s life that is thrown under the microscope in this hour-long monologue by Jack Thorne, as he delivers a stream of consciousness of epic proportions, full of amusing family anecdotes and wheedling self-justification, his unique world-view and several trips into a past which emerges as disturbingly warped.

Thorne’s writing literally zings with authenticity, packed full intensely familiar details – the evils of cheap blue plastic bags, the messiness that so often characterises ill-advised hook-ups, the appeal of trashy TV – to make this character a compellingly vivid and realistic depiction of disillusioned 21st century young adulthood. And Tim Dorsett really gets under the skin of Rob, a charmingly winsome presence who revels in the role of raconteur –playing beautifully off of our responses to some of the more ribald details – with a genuine warmth coming through his comedic persona too. Which makes it all the more powerful when the warning notes of uncertainty start to sound and then the siren blares at full volume. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Review: The Revenger’s Tragedy, Hoxton Hall


"Plagues! Confusions! Darkness! Devils!"

Technical difficulties around health and safety meant that Suba Das’ production of The Revenger’s Tragedy had to be rapidly reconceived from its intended promenade aspect but little can excuse shining a bright light into the eyes of part of the audience for 15 minutes. Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean blood-fest now sits still in the Victorian music hall surroundings of Hoxton Hall, but seriously lacks the basic thread of storytelling that such a complex play requires.

Vindice is determined to wreak a terrible revenge on the duke who poisoned his beloved fiancée and doesn’t care who get sucked into his machinations, whether it is the corrupt extended family of the duke, or his own (slightly) more innocent relations. This is a barely comprehensible world of deep selfishness, punctuated with episodes of extreme violence and illicit lust, and so needs a strong directorial hand to try and impose if not sense, then at least an interpretation of great clarity and focused intent.

Happy birthday Oscar Wilde

In recognition of the birth of Oscar Wilde on this day in 1854, I thought I'd pop a couple of his DVDs on and cast my roving eye over them. Though Coward gets revived on a regular basis, Wilde doesn't seem to pop up with quite the same frequency, at least not on London's stages, though his last appearance (of a fashion) was a hilarious musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest. He is of course the subject of The Judas Kiss which has just finished a highly successful run at the Hampstead Theatre and will be transferring into the West End after a short tour, where I will finally catch it in Richmond. And with a neat segue into these film reviews, it is Rupert Everett who takes on the role of Wilde in David Hare's play.

It is neat because Everett was the star of the two most recent cinematic adaptations of Wilde's work, An Ideal Husband (1999) and ...Earnest (2002), and so clearly has a long-standing affinity with the writer along with director Oliver Parker. And I've also thrown in a review of the Stephen Fry-starring Wilde (1997) as it was a fair while since I had seen that film and thought it would be a good time to revisit. So there you go, and let's hope it isn't too long before Mr Wilde's work can be seen on the London stage again soon.

DVD Review: Wilde


“It is monstrous how people say things behind one's back that are perfectly true”

Based on Richard Ellman’s biography, Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film Wilde saw Stephen Fry take on the eponymous role in a sweeping biopic slash drama which stretches over the last 18 years of his life. Beginning with his return to London from a trip to America and ripping speedily through his marriage to Jennifer Ehle’s kindly Constance and the birth of their two children, it is his relationship with family friend Robbie Ross that leads him into a world of sexual discovery. He finds there Jude Law’s impossibly handsome Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas and falls head over heels into a tempestuous relationship, but in a society where homosexuality is illegal and propriety is everything, a happy ending is far from likely.

Fry makes an appealing Wilde, though one shorn of much of the acerbic nature one might imagine he had, he is a gentle father – telling his own story of The Selfish Giant acts as a clever layer of extra commentary – and he brings an almost avuncular warmth to the part. Jude Law’s Bosie is a revelation though, a serious reminder of his talents as an actor, with a capriciousness that is seductively alluring and yet criminally irresponsible. As Wilde seeks to lay the blame at the door of Bosie’s domineering father the Marquess of Queensbury, he ignores the knife-edge that their relationship is balanced on with devastating consequences. 

DVD Review: An Ideal Husband


"Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do"

Oliver Parker’s first Wilde adaptation was this 1999 film of An Ideal Husband, with Rupert Everett leading the cast as Lord Goring. What is remarkable now though is the casting of both Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore who now boast nearly 10 Academy Award nominations (and 1 win) between them so this proves a great opportunity to catch them both just at the point where their careers were going stratospheric.

Sir Robert Chiltern’s security as a politician and respected gentleman comes under threat when the devilish Mrs Cheveley, a school-time enemy of his wife Lady Gertrude, attempts to blackmail him into voting a particular way in Parliament as she has evidence of past misdoings. He turns to his friend and eternal bachelor Lord Goring for assistance, who is currently avoiding the keen attentions of Robert’s sister Mabel, as he was previously engaged to Mrs Cheveley but the plot to extricate him has unintended consequences.

Cast of An Ideal Husband continued

DVD Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

"The old Ernest is dead, long live the new Ernest"

I remember rather enjoying this 2002 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest at the time, though I hadn’t seen it on stage before then I don’t think and so on re-watching it now, I can’t say I am as inclined to be as forgiving about it. Oliver Parker’s film seems so determined to put his own stamp on Wilde’s sparkling humour, assumedly to make it relevant to modern audiences, that he somewhat loses sight of what makes Wilde’s work such the joy that it is.

The tight three-act structure of the play is completely exploded with chase sequences, hot air balloon rides, money collectors, infuriating fantasy sequences and trips to tattoo parlours sending the film sprawling over too many locations. Clearly the opportunities offered by film mean the constraints of theatre are no longer applicable, but in not a single case do any of these innovations actually work with the story. They simply dull the sharp blade of Wilde’s wit, indeed Julian Fellowes’ screenplay excises whole chunks of it, and it is most certainly not a fair swap.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Review: Desire Under The Elms, Lyric Hammersmith


“Ye make a slick pair of murderin’ turtle-doves”

It’s been a slow but increasingly steady journey into the world of Eugene O’Neill for me: since 2010’s Beyond The Horizon, high profile productions of Anna Christie and Long Day’s Journey Into Night confirmed his reputation was indeed well earned (I do like to be able to make up my own mind on such things, I hate being told “so and so is the greatest playwright” and being expected just to accept it). And after The Hairy Ape at the Southwark Playhouse, it is now the turn of the Lyric Hammersmith to get in on the action with Sean Holmes’ production of his 1924 play Desire Under The Elms


Drawing heavily from Greek tragedy and in particular the tale of Phaedra, O’Neill locates his story in 19th century New England but mines a similar vein of earth-shattering catastrophe. Son of his father’s second wife, Eben is determined to secure the family farm for his inheritance. He pays off his two older half-brothers as they depart for the Gold Rush, but his father Ephraim is a randy old goat and marries for the third time, scuppering Eben’s plan as his new young wife Abbie stakes her own claim. But matters are further problematized by an illicit attraction between son and stepmother and when Abbie falls pregnant…well, do you think there’ll be a happy ending?


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Review: The President and the Pakistani, Waterloo East


“Wherever you go, don't forget who you are"

Layers upon layers: can we ever get to know the truth about the private lives of our public figures? In his own 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama changed names and conflated people to both protect people and to create more narrative flow, thus creating his own version of events from his life. And in The President and the Pakistani, Evening Standard journalist Rashid Razaq has now written his own fictionalised account of one of those crucial junctures in the life of POTUS in The President and the Pakistani to further obfuscate the picture whilst simultaneously providing a rather intriguing piece of drama.


In 1985 when Barack was still Barry, he was shacked up in Harlem and living a relatively normal life. But having decided to take a job in Chicago, that would mark the beginning of a meteoric political ascension, he has to say goodbye to his old life, including his roommate, an illegal Pakistani immigrant called Sal Maqbool (who is neither Obama’s fictional Sadiq, or real-life’s Sohale Siddiqi, and yet he is both). Over the course of a long night, Obama has to break the news to Sal – who thinks they’re just packing to move flat – that their journeys are about to take wildly different turns.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Review: Oh, the Humanity and Other Good Intentions, Soho Theatre


“I’ve been described as the girl next door…by neighbours”

Fresh from Edinburgh where it was part of Northern Stage’s programme, Will Eno’s collection of short plays, Oh, the Humanity and Other Good Intentions, made the transfer to the Soho Theatre to make this a good month for fans of this New York-based playwright. The five pieces are separate but interlinked, insomuch as they complement and reinforce each other with a loose thematic continuity. From the sports coach trying to rationalise a poor season to a man and a woman recording their intros for an online dating service, from an airline spokesperson struggling to deliver a press conference after a plane crash to a photographer and his assistant prepping for a shoot, Eno probes the different ways in which people present themselves, put brave faces on, even in the knowledge of the desperation of their various situations.

Eno’s powerfully evocative use of language brings a poetic charge to much of these, but also demonstrates the different ways in which we use words, as foreplay, as a protective buffer, as a smokescreen, as a way to search for meaning when the point of it all eludes us. The peeling back of the best, and the worst, of the would-be daters reveals lives barely lived; the erudite sports coach unexpectedly holds a mirror, or is it a shield, up to the voracious journalists waiting to tear him to shreds. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Review: All That Fall, Jermyn Street

"I'm left-handed on top of everything else!"

It is not surprising that the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production of All That Fall sold out in under three days: a rare Samuel Beckett play, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, in a 70 seat theatre tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus. A radio play written in 1956, it has never before been staged despite luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier applying for the rights, and so to maintain the integrity of the piece as it was originally intended, Nunn presents to us a staged reading of the play.

The actors sit to the sides of the stage, rising to take the floor as it is their turn to speak, scripts in hand and enacting any sound effects that accompany their arrival. For this is a piece of drama uniquely interested in the soundscape it is creating as a haunting picture of rural Ireland is evoked, laced through with a desolate humour, in which the spectre of death is never far away.

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe

“For she is changed, as she had never been"

Despite featuring Samantha Spiro as Kate, the Globe’s production of The Taming of the Shrew held little attraction for me when it was announced, and even once it had started. Though, not considered a ‘problem play’ as far as Shakespeare’s canon is concerned, problems tend to arise when productions seek to make sense of its knotty gender politics from a contemporary perspective. Southwark Playhouse and the RSC have recently tried different updated versions but neither one really convinced me. After allowing myself to be persuaded to see it before it finished its run, Toby Frow comes the closest I have seen to making the play work, mainly by - against the above quote - simply leaving it alone.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an immense amount of work that has been done, but rather that this production just takes the play for what it is – a piece of sixteenth century fiction presented as such. And instead of the furrowed brow that often comes with trying to work how misogynistic or otherwise the play or the production is being, there’s a sense of joyous fun as high-octane slapstick, capering about and unbelievably destructive capabilities are the order of the day. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Review: Finding Neverland, Curve

“That’s what makes him beautiful, and that’s what makes him sad”

One assumes it is the reality of funding a big-budget musical these days, but there are 17 names above the title of the musical adaptation of Finding Neverland, 17! The most famous of those is Harvey Weinstein whose Miramax studio made the Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet starring film and it is his driving force that has seen the show make its world premiere at Leicester’s Curve theatre, directed by Rob Ashford. The story of how writer JM Barrie found the creative spark for Peter Pan through his growing connection, after a chance encounter, with the Llewelyn Davies family of lost boys and their smart mother Sylvia is entirely charming in Weinstein’s hands. And given his Hollywood track record, it should be no surprise that the show achieves just the right level of gooey sentimentality, whilst avoiding becoming overly twee or sickly sweet.

Peter Pan references are gorgeously threaded throughout the tale, a series of moments that provide a whole set of inspirations for his new play after suffering critical disappointment with his last. Whether a stunning bit of a shadow work or a glimpse of the night sky – which leads to one of the loveliest songs of the night, Neverland – Ashford ensures they don’t become overplayed, especially in the restraint with which he employs the flying gear. Scott Pask’s scenic design allows for some grand flourishes in the key set pieces, some of which provide a little more stage magic than others and Ashford’s own choreography is used sparingly but with great purpose to lift the potential of scenes, especially in the pirate tango when the writer duels with his psyche – personified by Hook – as to how the story should properly end. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Review: Cabaret, Savoy


“You should have known by now you'd every cause to doubt me"

Rufus Norris’ restaging of Cabaret was a big hit a few years back (although I never quite managed to make the trip) and it now receives a revival which has toured the UK (where most of my family caught it at the Lowry before me, how very dare they!) in advance of arriving at the Savoy Theatre. Given the high-profile nature of the show, it seems surprising that the lead casting comes somewhat out of left field - the part of the Emcee is taken on by Will Young and the iconic role of Sally Bowles by Michelle Ryan – and it is a gamble with varying results. 

Young actually fits this production like a glove. His sinister, rapacious air as he manipulates the Kit Kat club in a striking rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me never lets us forget that this is no light-hearted piece of musical theatre fluff but a snapshot of a highly disturbing moment in world history as the German population fell under the spell of Nazism. Kander + Ebb’s deliciously dark musical was based on John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera which could be recently seen in glorious form at Southwark Playhouse, but that in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood’s short story Goodbye to Berlin, his semi-autobiographical account of living in 1930s Germany. 

Cast of Cabaret continued



Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre

“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”

I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitch sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production. 

The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production. 

Cast of Damned By Despair continued

Review: The Soft of her Palm, Finborough


“I forgive you, because I love you so much"

Not many plays are set in Northampton and though Chris Dunkley’s The Soft of her Palm takes place there, it is more a signifier of ‘everytown’ rather than tied to this specific location. For domestic violence – the subject of this disturbingly intense and thought-provoking 80 minute play – can happen to anyone, anywhere. The show opens in the present day where Sarah has crashed her car outside Phil’s house, she steps inside to recover but it soon becomes apparent that this is no accidental meeting – the pair know each other only too well and their relationship emerges to be a highly toxic and horrifically violent one.

Dunkley then rewinds scene by scene over the course of a year to trace how we have gotten to this place but at each step, the playwright confounds our expectations and prejudices as we edge ever closer to a fuller understanding of the truth. And that truth is essentially that these are two damaged individuals, equally adept at manipulation: struggling chef Phil is frustrated by his business dealings and his inability to communicate, Sarah’s psychology is deeply troubled and rooted in past insecurities, neither one is above shamelessly putting Sarah’s young daughter Poppy in the frontline of their battles, neither one seems truly able to move on from the other, with destructive consequences.   


Monday, 8 October 2012

Review: Cross Purpose, Kings Head


“One can’t always remain a stranger”


Albert Camus may be better known as a philosopher and author than as a playwright so it is a rare opportunity that presents itself to catch his play Cross Purpose (Le Malentendu) in the Sunday/Monday slot at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre pub. A mother and daughter eke out a joyless existence, running a glum guesthouse somewhere in Central Europe and murdering their rich guests, but when their next victim turns out to be a man with a connection to them both, tragic consequences ensue. 

Stuart Gilbert’s translation captures something of the philosophical weight of Camus’ writing, his exploration of the way life is cruel to anyone no matter how intrinsically good or evil they may be, but often does so in a rather cumbersome manner. There’s an archness to the text which also possesses a vein of mordant humour, both of which prove effective in summoning the strangeness of this world. But the turn of phrase occasionally jars in its awkwardness and not all the actors manage to surmount this challenge.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Review: One Day When We Were Young / Lungs, Roundabout season at Shoreditch Town Hall


“The world is going to need good people in it"

Those champions of great theatre Paines Plough make a rare foray into the capital with the Roundabout season – three new plays from three upcoming playwrights which can be seen individually or in a triple bill over one day at the weekend. We opted for the triple bill but sadly, the first of the plays – Penelope Skinner’s The Sound of Heavy Rain – was cancelled due to adverse weather affecting the venue. We were still able to take in Nick Payne’s One Day When We Were Young and Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs though and what a fantastic pair of plays they turned out to be.

Paines Plough have constructed a mini in-the-round wooden theatre, akin to the one in which Mike Bartlett’s Cock was performed at the Royal Court, and they have placed it in the historic and underused surroundings of Shoreditch Town Hall. The intimacy of the space is something really rather special and director of One Day When We Were Young, Clare Lizzimore really explores the possibilities it offers with a beautiful production of Nick Payne’s play.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Review: A Life, Finborough


“You are an Irish summer of a man”


Having spent most of his life fulminating behind his civil service desk in small-town Ireland, Desmond Drumm is forced to re-evaluate everything when he is given just six months to live in this fiercely moving and funny play from Hugh Leonard - A Life. Aware he has frequently sacrificed people for his principles, he attempts to make his peace with his oldest friends. But old scores from the past must be dealt with first and so as he struggles to get his emotional affairs in order in the current day, reminiscences of his younger days play out at the same time, shedding light on how Drumm has become the man he is. A commission from the Finborough Theatre, Eleanor Rhode’s production is the first UK showing for this Tony-nominated play in 30 years. 


Rhode’s previous work here has clearly encouraged her to explore the boundaries of how this intimate theatre can be used, creating an extraordinary sense of openness and space. James Turner’s design is stark simplicity, just crashing surf daubed on the wall behind and a single chair – a neat nod to the play – with props being kept to a bare minimum, to enhance the feeling of fluid timelessness. And scenes are played out from unexpected places - the extreme sides, the steps amidst the audience –popping up like fragments of memory that cannot be ignored either by us or by the older versions of the characters.


Review: Ding Dong the Wicked, Royal Court

“What’s happening out there?”

At just 20 minutes long, Ding Dong the Wicked is a new Caryl Churchill playlet that can be seen at various afternoon and late evening slots as it fits around her other show downstairs at the Royal Court, Love and Information. The two are not connected so do not need to be seen in tandem, just consider it a Brucie bonus for Churchill fans, a cadeau de Caryl if you will.

In a living room, a family prepares for the sending of one of its sons to war. They drink vodka, too much; patriotic jingoism is spouted blindly as battles rage on television screens; troubled familial dynamics are hinted at with squabbling aplenty and furtive affairs emerging. Then ten minutes later, we move to another country where things seem the same, but different.