Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Nominations for 2013 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical

Gabriel Ebert, Matilda the Musical
Charl Brown, Motown: The Musical
Keith Carradine, Hands on a Hardbody
Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Terrence Mann, Pippin


Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

Andrea Martin, Pippin
Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody
Lauren Ward, Matilda the Musical

Nominations for 2013 Tonys - Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play

Courtney B Vance, Lucky Guy
Danny Burstein, Golden Boy
Richard Kind, The Big Knife
Billy Magnussen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy


Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play

Judith Light, The Assembled Parties
Carrie Coon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Shalita Grant, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Judith Ivey, The Heiress
Condola Rashad, The Trip to Bountiful

Nominations for 2013 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Musical

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

Billy Porter, Kinky Boots
Bertie Carvel, Matilda the Musical
Santino Fontana, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Rob McClure, Chaplin
Stark Sands, Kinky Boots



Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical

Patina Miller, Pippin
Stephanie J Block, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Carolee Carmello, Scandalous
Valisia LeKae, Motown: The Musical
Laura Osnes, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Nominations for 2013 Tonys - Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Play

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play

Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy
Nathan Lane, The Nance
David Hyde Pierce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tom Sturridge, Orphans 



Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play

Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful
Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
Amy Morton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Holland Taylor, Ann

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review: The Weir, Donmar Warehouse

“And the barman asked if I was alright”

It is interesting how the experience of one play can shape attitudes towards a playwright and for me, it was 2011’s The Veil which completely turned me off Conor McPherson to the point where I really wasn’t keen to be seeing any more of his plays. It’s not even as if The Veil was that bad but it was hard work and that thought has lingered strongly, to the point where I really wasn’t too keen on seeing the Donmar’s revival of the The Weir, especially since the venue has been far from a must-see place in recent times. But an irresistible opportunity to see it was dangled in front of me and I took it, and as is so often the case with low expectations, I had an absolutely cracking evening in the theatre.

Josie Rourke’s production is just sensational. Creatively, Tom Scutt’s design is perfectly, realistically detailed right down to the packets of bacon fries on the wall (though I always preferred the scampi ones myself) and Neil Austin’s lighting subtly graduates throughout the show to take us through the light and shade of the changing moods. And the casting is pitch-perfect, bringing together five Irish actors at the top of their game and combining to hauntingly fantastic effect in the rural bar room in which the play is set.

Review: The Seagull, Headlong at Watford Palace

“Art can’t be made into a spectacle; you can’t put it in a box”

There’s something quite remarkable about the boldness with which Blanche McIntyre has reinterpreted Chekhov’s perennial classic The Seagull for Headlong. Gone is the stuffy country house to be replaced by Laura Hopkins’ expressionistic, open space and the formality of the Russian’s words has been supplanted by John Donnelly’s fresh new version which refocuses the play’s centre away from melodrama to something sharper, funnier, more powerful even. This is an interpretation that genuinely makes the play feel new. 

McIntyre introduces notes of meta-theatre to push home the exploration of the nature of art and artists that now sits at the heart of the play – the house lights come up as characters direct their soliloquies straight to the audience, the blank rear wall becomes the page of a notebook complete with significant changing scribbles, the stark simplicity of the set allowing for a deeper intellectual excavation of the issues of art and love and creativity and sex. And it is a compelling mixture, all pushing along the vital narrative and driving these familiar characters to their predestined fates with a fresh new verve. 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,St Leonard’s Church


There’s a concept, Cunningham, called “playing the card you are  dealt” – one can either accept that concept, or, one can slowly lose their mind, heart and soul."


Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot premiered in the UK back in 2008 at the Almeida with a colourful and sharp production from Headlong. Producer/director and latterly actor Antony Law’s revival down the road in St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch has removed the colour for an altogether more severe aesthetic and, although there are two sets of cushions on the pews, it is a severity that punishes your posterior as much as anything. The setting of the church has a sombre beauty and occasional acoustic challenges aside, offers a grandeur to this courtroom-set drama with its Alice-in-Wonderland-style oversized judge’s platform but Law rarely exploits the potential of this unique venue and the production suffers a little for it.


Set in Purgatory, the point where souls await their ultimate destination of either heaven or hell, Guirgis puts Judas in the dock and in something of a show trial, a vastly eclectic range of witnesses are called not just to explore the reasons behind his betrayal of Jesus but a wider examination of what it means to be good or to be responsible. So contemporaries like Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the Elder are interrogated for their culpability whilst luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa find themselves under the spotlight as their reputations are questioned too. It’s a heady mixture of intellectual argument and showboating pizazz, difficult to pull off and only intermittently successful here.


In appreciation of... Lucy Cohu


The list of actresses whom I love has always been a long one, and one which is ever-increasing, but there’s a select collection at the top, of those performers I consider to be particularly special and who I would do anything to see. At the top of that list is Helen McCrory and she has already been blessed with a weekend of posts about her work and after a series of conversations about who else was on there, I identified Lucy Cohu and Ruth Wilson. Wilson will get her own feature sometime next month but this weekend is all about Cohu. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you when she genuinely first pinged my radar but I’m pretty sure it was in the third series of Torchwood where she broke my heart and captivated me. 


I’ve only seen her on stage three times, yet each one has been a cracker. In Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, her hypnotic sensuality and flirtatious dancing was a highlight in a quality production and at the Almeida, she more than held her own in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance against heavyweights Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton. But it was in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at the Tricycle where she really astonished with the kind of performance that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Her stage work has been pretty limited though and so I’ve been glad for her film and TV roles. 


TV Review: Lightfields


“I feel like I’ve been running my whole life from this”

Cohu’s biggest TV show of recent times is probably Lightfields, conceived as a follow-up to the rather successful Marchlands of a couple of years ago, and occupying very similar ground of supernatural phenomena haunting the same property through different time periods. A remote farmhouse in Suffolk is the setting, the building named Lightfields, and as a young woman dies in mysterious circumstances in a wartorn 1944, the repercussions are felt by a mother and daughter who stay there for the summer in 1975 and also by the family who are running it as a bed and breakfast in 2012. The ghosts of the past weigh heavily on all concerned as in all three eras, the search for the truth as to what happened puts several people in danger.


I really enjoyed Marchlands so I was a little sceptical to hear that a sequel of sorts had been planned one which seemed to repeat the same format. And though it was mostly enjoyable to watch, I did find it to be not quite on the same level as its predecessor. For a start, it had far too many characters in the 1944 slot alone, I couldn’t get a bearing on who was who even when they were right in front of me, never mind when older versions of them appeared in the later time periods – I felt like I needed to write down a list of everyone as it always felt overly cluttered, with too many story strands feeding into both the 1944 and 2012 slots and leaving the overall feel of the programme as rather confused.


Cast of Lightfields continued

DVD Review: Ballet Shoes


“Who knows what you three could achieve”

It’s lovely the way things fall together sometimes. Noel Streatfield’s book Ballet Shoes is a huge favourite in the Clowns family household – my mum enjoyed reading it as a girl and it was one of those books I loved to read and re-read in my own childhood. And whilst I was initially filled with trepidation at the prospect of a television adaptation, the cast that was announced was like something out of a fantasy dream team of dames and dames-to-be. From Eileen Atkins to Lucy Cohu, Victoria Wood, Harriet Walter and Gemma Jones, this is the kind of female cast I dream about seeing and for it to be in a story so dear to me felt just right.

That story concerns the three Fossil sisters – all adopted as young girls by Gum, a wealthy palaeontologist and adventurer, but raised by his niece Sylvia and Nana. When he fails to return from an expedition, the family are left to fend for themselves in increasingly straitened circumstances and in his absence, decide to sell off some of his extensive collections of fossils and artefacts and take in a variety of boarders. And this injection of new life into the household offers up a whole new world of opportunity for Pauline, Petrova and Posy who until now had previously been home-schooled as Posy receives the training to become the ballerina she is fated to be, Pauline is able to develop her interest in becoming an actress and Petrova can follow her passions of mechanics and following in aviator Amy Johnson’s footsteps.

DVD Review: Einstein and Eddington


“We need English science to prove to everyone just how good we are”


A 2008 BBC film, Einstein and Eddington offers limited pleasure to the Lucy Cohu lover as she plays Einstein’s increasingly estranged wife Mileva and is consequently predominantly left to look moody in the background looking after some mopey moppets. But elsewhere it was a surprisingly engaging piece of film-making, bringing a very human aspect to the work of science, the sacrifices necessary, and also showing that nothing, not even ground-breaking scientific discoveries, happen in moral or ethical vaccums.

The focus is pulling together of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and how against the backdrop of the First World War, a correspondence grew between him and British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington which enabled the Brit to use his greater freedom to gather the necessary proof for the theory and catapult the German-born into the history books. But the pursuit of life-enhancing knowledge has its consequences and this Peter Moffat-written drama doesn’t shy away from showing the emotional damage suffered by all concerned.


DVD: Cape Wrath / Meadowlands


“The consequences of doing the right thing…”

Cape Wrath, or Meadowlands as it was retitled for the US market, was a 2007 TV drama which aired on Channel 4, following the fortunes of a family who have to enter a witness protection programme in an idyllic new neighbourhood but increasingly find that they may just have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Lucy Cohu stars as the matriarch of the family, Evelyn Brogan, who with her twin children have been uprooted due to some unspecified incident that involved her husband, David Morrissey’s Danny and over the eight episodes of the show, it proves a good showcase for her talents.


Created and largely written by Robert Murphy, the story unwinds as a psychological thriller as the Brogans struggle to come to terms with their new way of life and find many a mystery which keeps their paranoia levels justifiably high. Morrissey’s Danny is the main investigator of the strange goings-on around him as his testy relationships with Nina Sosanya’s Samantha, the bureaucrat who runs the programme, Ralph Brown’s magnificently moustached policeman and Tom Hardy’s lascivious handyman with an eye on his daughter instantly put him on guard as he soon clocks that something suspicious is going on in their new home.


DVD Review: Murderland


“You’re not a child any more”


As the first DVD I put on to start my Lucy Cohu marathon, my heart sank a little when her first appearance in Murderland was as the main subject in a photograph of a murder scene. But as her face was on the cover, I hoped that her role would be more than just a fleeting one in this 2009 ITV drama. Written by David Pirie, the three-parter examines the lasting impact of a violent crime and the mysteries surrounding it, viewed from the shifting perspectives of the murdered woman, her traumatised daughter and the investigating detective.


It’s not the most sophisticated of crime dramas, truth be told, but it is certainly competently done and intriguingly put together as events start off in the present day with a woman, the ever-wan Amanda Hale, running from her wedding day. Her distress comes from the unsolved murder of her mother some 15 years earlier which she is now determined to solve and visits Robbie Coltrane’s DI Hain to get his help as he was intimately involved in the case – and more so than she realises. The story then flips back to the time of the crime to give an account of what happened. As the show progresses and we, and Carol, find out more and more, the events around the murder are revisited and replayed getting us ever closer to the terrible truth.

TV Review: Ripper Street

“Whitechapel calls you back"

Victorian crime procedural Ripper Street burst onto our screens at the beginning of this year with a blood-spattered élan and a perhaps more violent streak than many were expecting, but it grew to be a most successful series with audiences (and me) and has since been renewed for a second series. Set in Whitechapel, the first episode had a Jack the Ripper focus, which with the title of the show, proved a bit of misdirection in terms of the series as a whole as the crimes that H Division ended up investigating were of a hugely wide-ranging nature and not just focused on the notorious serial killer (although the Ripper’s exploits did form a backdrop to part of the series-long arc).

It’s a period of history, and particularly social history, that I have long found interesting (I studied it as part of my degree) as notions of crime and punishment were rapidly changing and the nature of policing was also changing with the introduction of a more scientific approach to solving crimes. So Matthew Macfadyen’s DI Reid and Jerome Flynn’s DS Flynn are joined by US army surgeon Captain Jackson, played by Adam Rothenburg, as they work their way through the serious crimes, civil unrest, and personal vendettas that crop up on a weekly basis.

Ripper Street cast contd

Ripper Street cast continued



DVD: Rebecca (1997)


“Stop asking silly questions and eat your egg”


If I’d known more about Rebecca before I watched the 1997 television adaptation as part of my Lucy Cohu marathon, I might not have bothered. Not having seen it before or read it, I assumed that her part – the titular role no less – might have had a little more to do in the story but as the story is about the second Mrs De Winter, this wasn’t the case. At all. The first half, 90 minutes in total, featured one brief shot of her eyebrows and one of her hands. The second not much better with tantalising glimpses of parts of her face and a few snatched lines of dialogue (although Wikipedia informs me I’m lucky to even get this!)

Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Arthur Hopcraft’s adaption directed here by Jim O’Brien stretches over 3 hours and had to deal with the weight of a much-watched (although not by me) version by Hitchcock but I have to say I rather enjoyed watching it. The story focuses on the marital relations of Maxim De Winter as he marries a young gamine he meets whilst spending the summer in Monte Carlo less than a year after the mysterious death of his first wife Rebecca, much beloved by simply everyone around. Thrust into an entirely new and unfamiliar social milieu, the new Mrs De Winter has much to deal with, not least the terrifying housekeeper Mrs Danvers, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s more at stake here than class difficulties.


DVD Review: Gosford Park


“Now, now, we don’t want to be thought unsophisticated”

There’s a rather amusing moment on the Gosford Park DVD extras with a short documentary about how director Robert Altman but particularly writer Julian Fellowes tried to ensure the greatest level of authenticity in representing the world of service. Three people who were actually in service in the 1930s were employed as consultants on the film and their insights are genuinely fascinating and it shows. It’s just a shame that Fellowes took so little of that knowledge into creating the fanciful world of Downton Abbey with its blurred distinctions between masters and servants.

There’s no such problem in Altman’s film where the social divisions are sharply defined between upstairs and downstairs but where Gosford Park really grips is in the hierarchies and snobberies that exist throughout, the vagaries of the English class system permeating at all levels. The murder mystery that forms the biggest plot point is deliberately incidental as what is much more compelling is the intricate web of relationships that percolate through the McCordle’s country pile over a long weekend of shooting and the simply gobsmacking ensemble cast that was put together to portray them.


Cast of Gosford Park contd

Review: On Approval, Jermyn Street


“Where do you bank?” – 
‘Anywhere; I simply don’t care’”

On Approval was written in 1926 by Frederick Lonsdale as a comedy of manners capturing the shifting dynamics in gender roles in a world where suffragists and the Great War had ushered in the potential for great change. Against this backdrop, Lonsdale posits a scenario with two wealthy woman – one a young pickle heiress, the other an older spoilt widow - seeking to test drive potential future spouses by taking them up to a Scottish country estate ‘on approval’ and spending a few weeks together to test their compatibility. But though the promise of a witty evening is often raised, its light-hearted nature too often feels insubstantial.

Anthony Biggs’ production polishes the play hard but never really comes up with the cut-glass sharpness needed to elevate the performances above the comic shortcomings of the writing nor the crispness of pacing that would create an irresistible forward momentum. The intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre doesn’t always help, leaving the quartet of actors frequently exposed at the lack of solid dramatic foundation and missing the gumption necessary to paper over the cracks. 

Short Film Review #11

The latest set of short films that have crossed my path.


Cooked 
I haven’t covered any animated films before, but the voice cast for Cooked was just too irresistible, featuring as it does Katherine Parkinson, Stephen Mangan and David Morrissey. And I’m glad I did as this tale of an everyday love triangle between a walrus, a lobster and a seal by German animators Jens & Anna is just adorable. My limited experience in the field makes the comparison with Aardman’s work a little lazy but it really does have some of the same fresh and quirky sense of humour about it and visually it looks really impressive, using a variety of techniques to create something that feels nicely different. At barely six minutes long, you should definitely give this a watch.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: Geek! A New Musical, Tristan Bates

"We're sorry that there wasn't much plot"

I cannot lie to you, when I came out of Geek! A New Musical at the Tristan Bates, I thought (and tweeted) that it was one of the most puerile and offensively bad shows I had seen in quite some time. A few days distance has mellowed that viewpoint a little, but mainly to replace indignation with frustration at the choices in both play and production. Writer Scott Morgan has put together a pretty bog-standard American high school drama – when Queen Bee Flissy Joy has her plans to win the school beauty pageant derailed by Daddy cutting her off, she and her clique of plastics turn to new girl plain Jane to makeover her into a prize-winning stooge and catch the eye of handsome jock Billy-Bob into the bargain. But it is such a saturated genre that every plot point, twist and gag can be traced back to Glee, Cruel Intentions, She’s All That, Mean Girls, etc etc… and with little sense that anything new has been added here.

Musically, Morgan’s score is functional rather than distinguished, Benjamin Holder’s over-amplified musical direction far too heavy on the drums (on this night at least) though it is sung proficiently. But dramatically, it suffers from trying to be too clever in self-referencing as a pastiche of both the high school genre (‘don’t run down the corridor, douchebag’) and of musical theatre itself (‘”where were you?” just singing a song outside…’), without having the requisite sharp-edged wit or dramatic chops to carry it off throughout the whole show. Perhaps to overcompensate for this, directors Porl Matthews (who also designs) and Jamie Chapman Dixon throw everything, the kitchen sink AND the blow-up doll at the show with a key note of the lewder and cruder the better which batters away with an unrelenting persistence which may well be to your tastes. It wasn’t to mine. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Review: A Thousand Shards of Glass, Albany


"You catch a glimpse of the horizon..."


Some performers announce their presence with a bang, wrestling their way into my affections, but others just creep up on you and so it was with Lucy Ellinson last year. She broke my heart out of nowhere in Oh, The Humanity, did so again and then some in The Trojan Women and proved an exceptional game show host earlier this year at the Bush. So the chance to see her in a solo show, and to cross off a theatre I'd never been to in Deptford's The Albany, was a no-brainer.


A Thousand Shards of Glass describes itself as ‘a surround-sound action adventure which happens mostly in your head’ and as we enter the room, we’re urged not to hold on too tightly to what we’re about to see but to lightly embrace its dreamlike qualities and just feel it. The staging instantly nods to the unique quality of the show: a ring of chairs – each performance is just for 30 people – surrounds a circle of lights on the floor and that’s it. A pair of portable speakers that offer up aural cues are the only props and the rest is conjured up by Ellinson’s dancingly poetic journey through Ben Pacey’s text and the twists and turns of our own imaginations. 


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Review: Sunday in the Park with George, Théâtre du Châtelet


“Well there are worse things…on a Sunday”

As a rule, I have generally resisted the urge to go to the theatre whilst on holiday, preferring to actually take a proper break from it all, but with free Eurostar tickets to take care of and the promise of a cast that included Julian Ovenden, Beverley Klein and Sophie-Louise Dann, I could not resist the lure of making a trip to Paris to see the Théâtre du Châtelet’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. It is a Sondheim that I hadn’t seen before and the Châtelet’s reputation for producing his work with Lee Blakeley at the helm (previous years have seen them put on A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and next year is Into the Woods) meant that building a weekend away around it was an irresistible choice.

The show uses Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as a starting point explore the relationship between artists and the art they create, and also the impact that pursuing the creative impulse has on those close to them. Ovenden fits the role of Georges perfectly, the grandeur of his virile voice a good match both for the compulsive obsession of the artist and the demands of leading such a show as this – if he wanted to (and I’m not so sure that he does), he really could become one of the premier leading men de nos jours. As his long-suffering mistress Dot, Dann is highly appealing and sounds wonderful and there’s lovely work from supporting players like Francesca Jackson and Rebecca Bottone as a pair of flirty shopgirls and Klein’s Yvonne, negotiating the bumps of her own marriage to an artist.

Review: Beautiful Thing, Arts Theatre


“Some things are hard to say”

Somewhat appropriately, this 20th anniversary production of Beautiful Thing arrives in London just as a writer, who is carrying much of Jonathan Harvey’s legacy in giving life to a rich tapestry of diverse gay characters, has just closed his own gently touching play of young gay romance Jumpers for Goalposts (look out for its UK tour in the autumn). In the 20 years since Harvey put pen to paper, there have been significant legal, cultural and social changes so that gratefully, we are now in a world where many aspects of being gay are indeed easier. But at the same time, we should not forget that the battle is far from being won – there’s a constant struggle against fear, prejudice, violence, that should never be underestimated, no matter how many ‘gay plays’ may appear in our theatres.



What makes Harvey’s play so special is that it represents one of the first times in which gay characters took centre stage in a play that wasn’t particularly issue-driven and instead, serves up a straight love story (badumtish). Ste and Jamie are two regular working-class South London lads, everyday schoolboys living next door to each other and over the passage of a hot summer, finding that they’ve an awful lot more in common than they ever realised. And that’s essentially the sum of it: ostensibly a ‘gentle’ topic, but the slow but steady discovery of their sexuality and what that is going to mean for their futures, and the worlds of emotion that can accompany the decision to come out are huge, potentially life-changing matters and it is Harvey’s sensitive but assured handling of this that makes Beautiful Thing the timeless success that it is and will continue to be for at least another 20 years more.


Saturday, 20 April 2013

Re-review: Jumpers for Goalposts, Watford Palace


“If you don’t have a go, you definitely won’t score”


One can re-read a book and re-watch a film on DVD at leisure, but the window for revisiting pieces of theatre, especially those on limited runs, is much narrower and it is a different kind of decision to make. It’s not every play that I want to see again – sometimes the best nights are ones that I don’t want to try and repeat for fear that they won’t live up to expectations – but on occasion, I leave the theatre just knowing that I have to make a return trip. It’s not something I always act on and that way leads regret – I really wish I’d gone back to Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink at the Bush Theatre so when I fell head over heels for his latest play Jumpers for Goalposts, I was determined not to make the same mistake again.


My original review can be read here and given that it was less than two weeks ago, there’s not a huge amount more to say about how much I loved it. But what made me want to come back was the detail of the writing, every scene is so rich in comic detail that it was easy to miss some absolute crackers first time round. And since James Grieve’s production is so very effective at generating the intimate banter-filled environment of this group of five people pulled together to play in the Hull Gay and Lesbian five-a-side football tournament, I found real joy in just sitting and listening these characters bounce off of each other.


Friday, 19 April 2013

Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre

“The art is in what happened to those people's spirits"

The trick behind James Macdonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new play #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is to suggest that the 2011 detention and interrogation of the artist by the Chinese authorities was as big and far-reaching a piece of conceptual art as any of his installations at the Tate Modern. Ashley Martin Davies’ design sets the drama in a gleaming white gallery with spectators lining up either side of a wooden crate, whose walls are opened up to portray the two different cells in which he was kept during the 81 days of his imprisonment. The observers, or netizens, remain onstage throughout as Ai is trapped inside the nightmarish absurdities of such an authoritarian regime.

Based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man which documented Ai’s ordeal using his own testimony, Brenton’s play eschews conventional dramatic structure – it is no secret that the artist is eventually released – for something more ruminative about the nature of incarceration. And in its focus on the detail of the situation, it is ultimately rather insightful into the labyrinthine complexities of living and working under an unbending state whose orthodoxy is struggling to deal with a dissident whose worldwide fame precludes any unexplained disappearance into the murky depths of the system.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Othello, National Theatre

“Demand me nothing: what you know, you know”

Though I’ve been to the theatre a fair bit over the last few years and taken in more than my fair share of Shakespeare, the distribution across his plays has been far from equitable. I’ve seen more Macbeths, Twelfth Nights and Midsummer Night’s Dreams that I can shake a stick at, yet my first and only Othello to date was in Sheffield back in 2011. Not having previously read or studied it, it was never a play that had really appealed and though I really did enjoy that trip to the Crucible, I can’t say I was dying to see it again. But this high-profile National Theatre modern-day update, featuring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, proved impossible to resist, not least with preview prices meaning the £48 seats were going for £20 (and with this running time, it was money well spent).

The Venice of the opening is a non-descript place and it is only with the departure to Cyprus, and specifically here a British base on the island, that the military aesthetic of the production comes to full fruition. Vicki Mortimer’s design captures the sun-blasted stone of the Mediterranean location and the claustrophobically stuffy air of the prefab offices and rooms of the military base, with the only real nod to the geopolitics of the modern-day setting a map of the Middle East behind a desk. The production wears the updating quite lightly: on the one hand, nothing feels too forced to fit in with the concept but on the other, it doesn’t always seem like the most inspired. The bland nature of so much of the setting – the generic office, the shared bathroom, the depersonalised bedroom – mutes something of the tragedy, there’s little grandeur on display to match the heights of the emotion.

Cast of Othello continued

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Review: Table, National Theatre


“I have a world map on my door.
‘We’ll see if we can find Lichfield on it later’.”


As the Cottesloe becomes the Dorfman, among other changes, the National Theatre has erected a temporary space called The Shed to keep a third working venue in their complex and opening the programme there, is this original play Table by Tanya Ronder. A family saga that stretches across several generations from 19th century Staffordshire to modern day London, taking in trips to hippy communes and East African missions, and with a rather gentle grace, it explores the way in which the actions of our parents impact on the people we become and how easy it is to irrevocably hurt the ones we love.


It’s a densely told story, made more complex by a fracturing of the timeline which sees the focus constantly shifting between time periods, and it may take some getting used to. Rufus Norris marshals his deeply talented cast of nine, who cover thirty characters across six generations of the Best family, with a highly engaging playfulness but it does take a little time for the key pieces to come into focus and for the play to really coalesce into something affecting. But when it does get there, and it was the second half for me, its gentle energy and reflective charm make for a winning combination.


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Review: Say It With Flowers, Hampstead Downstairs

“It was spoken in this way and it was spoken of in this way”

Returning to the Hampstead Downstairs after the intensely immersive small hours, Katie Mitchell continues to push the boundaries of what this theatrical space can offer by creating its first promenade production – Say It With Flowers. A journey through some of the writings of American modernist writer Gertrude Stein, it maintains Mitchell’s customary inventive approach to theatre – probably unparalleled by any other British director – as she explores Stein’s use of language and wordplay with her own unconventional, and playful, style.

The pleasures that come from a piece such as this are not those that equate to a conventional play – I’ve heard mention that “it isn’t dramatic” but it would seem to me that this is to miss the intentions of both Stein’s writing and Mitchell’s work. Rather than notions of story or character, we’re challenged as an audience about the way in which words are used, how language can define our identity, and how meaning can shift so completely with a slight change of emphasis. These are elusive, even existential concepts that defy simplistic narrative devices and consequently, it is probably best to just embrace the hypnotic swirl and compelling strangeness of this world. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre

“We are tiny, tiny fragments of miniscule cogs in a grand and fabulously random collision”

If it ain’t broke… Adaptor Andrew Upton, director Howard Davies and designer Bunny Christie have had considerable success with previous Russian epics Philistines and The White Guard and so they’ve reunited once again, this time to breathe new life in Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, which has just started its run in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre. Set in a small town in a Russia on the cusp of revolution (1905 rather than 1917), experimental chemist Protasov and his coterie of middle class hangers-on are waltzing through life oblivious to the turmoil outside the gates of their estate, but their tragedy is as much personal as they turn out to be as blind to the needs and desires of each other as well. 

Gorky’s writing is remarkably perceptive throughout the play. Written in 1905 as a direct response to the huge societal changes around him, he skilfully diagnoses the malaise of the self-absorbed bourgeoisie and lays bare the blinkeredness of their cosseted ignorance and the hopelessness of their grandiose idealism. But he does it with a real deftness of touch, creating richly detailed characters who are rarely so insufferable that one’s heart doesn’t ache at the inevitability of the violent collapse of their entire world. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s erudite academic Protasov fully exemplifies this – a man full of an acute sense of the growing importance of science in the world yet an abject failure at maintaining the relationships in his life. 

Cast of Children of the Sun continued

Saturday, 13 April 2013

DVD Review: The Road to Coronation Street


“I don’t care what they do in St Helens but in Salford, no-one puts soap next to bacon”

Despite being relevant to my interests on a number of levels (David Dawson, I’m northern, and the rest of that cast!), The Road to Coronation Street managed to slip by me when it was first broadcast on BBC4 in 2010. Though a long term fixture on ITV (this drama celebrated the 50th anniversary of the soap opera), it was the BBC that took up the reins of creating this origin story for the show, a journey that partly reflects that of its writer Daran Little, who worked on Coronation Street for many years as an archivist but is now a screenwriter for Eastenders, long its traditional rival. But oddities aside, it was a frenetic, energetic romp that I found highly engaging and found it to be over far too soon with its scant 75 minutes-long running time.

The programme tells the true life story of how Tony Warren, a young screenwriter struggling to make his name in the business at Granada Studios, who hit on the idea of creating a television programme that related directly to its audience by presenting a version of everyday working class life on a terraced street in Manchester. We see the genesis of Warren’s idea, conceived from so many details of his own upbringing; his fight to convince his Canadian-born boss to take a chance on it; their battle to persuade the Bernsteins, the studio owners, to put it on the air; and once agreed, the trials of casting it perfectly so that it met both the exacting standards of Warren’s ideal and the new realities of acting on television.  

DVD Review: Half Broken Things


“It seemed to me the only solution…”


Based on the Silver Dagger winning novel by Morag Joss, Half Broken Things was a psychological drama shown on ITV in 2007 and deemed worthy of my attention, as ever, due to the presence of such luminaries as Penelope Wilton and Sinéad Matthews in the cast. And in Alan Whiting’s adaptation, these talents are put to good use in in what is far from a conventional crime drama but rather an intriguingly drawn character study that sits in a grey area of morality and toys most effectively with our preconceptions.


Wilton plays Jean, a professional house-sitter whom life has passed by rather and even this one thing of hers is soon to be gone as enforced retirement looms large on the horizon after one final job looking after an idyllic mansion on the edges of a quiet village. All that changes when she gets an unexpected visit though as heavily pregnant Steph (Matthews) and new boyfriend (and petty criminal on the side) Michael (Mays) rock up on the run from her violent ex. Intending to scam Jean, instead a bond is built between the trio when Steph gives birth and the unlikeliest of surrogate families is born as the older lady insists that they stay in the house with her.


DVD Review: Easy Virtue


“Dancing with you is like trying to move a piano”

Last up this weekend was the 2008 film of Easy Virtue and though the saying goes last but not least, it’s not really the case here. Adapted by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, their version of the story is practically a rewriting so different is it from the original, but the efforts have largely been in vain as it makes for a lumpen and turgid watch with a distinct waste of the not inconsiderable talent on show. A part of this comes from my own preferences – Jessica Biel is an actress to whom I have never warmed and I love Kristin Scott Thomas far too much to see her reduced to such one-note caricatures – but a larger part comes from the fatally misguided direction which tries far too hard to make this what it is not.

The story flirts between the romantic comedy of an out-of-place American widow newly married into the English aristocracy and battling against the stuffiness of his family, and the more socially astute depiction of the trials faced by the upper classes in the interwar period. But it achieves neither particularly well. There’s nowhere near enough of Coward’s customary bon mots and razor-sharp wit to make it recognisable as anywhere close to his best work and the insistence on maintaining the faux stylings of its chirpy jazz-lite score means that nothing deep is allowed to achieve any resonance. That score may have (disposable) versions of Coward and Cole Porter classics but it also contains horrendous jazzy reinterpretations of songs like Car Wash, Sex Bomb, and When The Going Gets Tough…need I say any more.

DVD Review: Dead Babies

“The jokes, the drugs, it all gets so tedious”

If you use Lovefilm, then you might have experienced that moment when you open the packet and you have no earthly clue as to what the film is that they have sent you. Compiling the list of films that you want to watch starts when you first open your account, which in my case was a good couple of years ago and the thought processes that go behind adding things, as you browse through various categories and names, remain a mystery as all sorts of random things end up on there. So I was genuinely intrigued by the prospect of Dead Babies and decided to pop in the DVD without googling it to if it would become clear to me.

And sure enough it soon did and in the most delightful of ways as two of my favourite actresses, Alexandra Gilbreath and Olivia Williams, popped up in the opening scenes. And based on a novel by Martin Amis, my hopes were fairly high. But good Lord they were soon dashed with what was really quite a terrible film. Set in a country house over a long weekend where a group of self-involved old college friends invite some American pals over in anticipation of some hard-core experimental drug taking, but William Marsh’s directorial debut revels far too much in depicting scenes of hedonistic debauchery at the expense of anything else.

Barely-a-Review: Richard III, Radio 3


So wise, so young, they say, do never live long

I picked on this radio adaptation of Richard III to be my companion on a particularly long journey over the weekend since it came in at nearly three hours of running time, but hadn’t anticipated that it would be as dull and unengaging as it was and consequently I struggled to get to the end of it. Quite why this should be I’m not entirely sure, it is competently spoken throughout – Douglas Henshall taking on the title role – but it never gripped me, it never seemed to transcend the medium to come alive and sound real rather than an academic exercise and so it left me most disappointed indeed.  

Friday, 12 April 2013

Review – A Larkin Double, Radio 4


“His impulse is to run away, but there’s nowhere to run to”

Philip Larkin is well known as a poet but fresh out of university at Oxford, he wrote two novels, both of which have been dramatized for Radio 4 into hour-long dramas. First up was Jill, adapted by Robin Brooks, a rites of passage tale of the experiences of introverted Huddersfield boy John Kemp as he is thrust into university life also at Oxford – Larkin clearly drawing on personal experiences to paint a gorgeously sensitive portrayal of a young man struggling to come to terms with his place in this world and following his journey into a more seasoned maturity.


Fiona McAlpine’s production works so well mainly due to the pitch-perfect casting of Samuel Barnett as Kemp, the main figure and narrator of much of the story. His melodious voice – always sounding one part on the verge of wonder, one part matter-of-fact honesty – is well suited to radio, full of character and conveying much of the social discomfort of a man both languishing out of his milieu in terms of class and dealing with the intensity of first-flush homosexual longings for his roommate, the charismatic scoundrel Christopher Warner, into whose elevated societal orbit he finds himself locked.      


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Review: Once, Phoenix


"Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice"
Unusually for a West End musical, Once gently pulses rather than powerhouses its way into the affections, beating very much to its own unique rhythm with a sublimely sensitive story of the power of music and the pain of untimely love. From the working bar on stage that welcomes the audience into the auditorium of the Phoenix with a makeshift ceilidh to the presence of quality names like Enda Walsh and John Tiffany, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary film-to-stage transfer.

Augmented and adapted by Walsh, the book covers the brief but intense journey of a guy and a girl, named Guy and Girl, who connect strongly but find that what they can sing to each other, they cannot say once the music has stopped. He’s a busking vacuum cleaner repairman missing his girlfriend in New York, she’s an unhappily married Czech mother searching for purpose and when she spots his potential, starts up a project to get him to record a demo but their feelings soon threaten to pull them onto the cusp of new possibility. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Review: Jumpers for Goalposts, Watford Palace Theatre


"Next season, we're aiming for third"

Some might cite Tom Wells’ new play Jumpers for Goalposts for its slightly fantastical air and lack of serious dramatic tension, but that would be to entirely miss the point of its warm-hearted yet clear-sighted pleasures. The play follows a predominantly gay five-a-side football team –Barely United – in Hull, scraped together from a selection of misfits and gradually unwinds to reveal their reasons for signing up and the impact that being part of this team has on their lives. But though it is gentle rather than grand, it is a hugely affecting and uplifting piece of theatre that feels vitally important from a writer who genuinely can find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

In previous plays such as the tender Me, As A Penguin and the glorious The Kitchen Sink, Wells has demonstrated a gift for exploring the challenges of young gay life outside of the big cities and a serious talent for understated but highly comic writing and both are brought to bear here with great effect. Beardy Geoff splits his time between seducing the opposition and coming up with a song to win a talent show; head coach Viv wants to score revenge on the Lesbian Rovers team that kicked her out but also offer some respite to her grieving brother-in-law; and Danny, struggling to get through his coaching qualification, is entirely distracted by new arrival Luke, a painfully shy librarian.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Short Film Review #10

A new set of short films for your delectation.


Blind Eye

Laura Degnan’s film Blind eye is chiefly so effective because it taps into one of those fears that is so current and real and the reason why most sensible people avoid the top decks of buses that populated by roving youths. Anchored by a compelling performance from Liz White as the mother torn between doing the right thing and protective self-interest for herself and her daughter, Degnan explores the ‘what would you do’ scenario with visual interest and a little imagination. And if it gets a little heavy-handed towards its ending, then it worth remembering that it’s an issue where we’d all need a little prodding to decide where we’d ultimately come down. 


Monday, 8 April 2013

Review: Narrative, Royal Court


“Don’t internalise it, tell us your story”

‘Form is broken’, so the publicity for Anthony Neilson’s new play Narrative tells us, so here goes. Simply described as a new play about stories, it has been devised by Neilson and his company of seven  and brings together a blend of characters and scenes and songs and poems and scripts and video to diagnose something of the modern condition, the world in which we find ourselves today. 


It will come as little surprise that there's great unconventionality at work here as the structure used is best described as freeform as scenes merge and talk over the top of each other, some characters (the actors mostly use their own names) reappear throughout and follow something of a journey whilst others just evaporate and the choice of media follows no visible logic. And the choice of subject is breathlessly endless using ultra-modern reference points like gangnamstyleandNorthKoreaandYouTubeclipsandRolfHarrisandGeorgeClooneyandRussellCrowe, oblique visuals like the recurring images of bulls...bison...buffalo...and of course veering into the more surreal world of footmouseandhornsandarseholesandpenknivesandapplesandElasticMan. Oh, and kittens.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Review: Present Laughter, Radio 4


“There’s something awfully sad about happiness isn’t there”


Casting is everything and Celia de Wolff hits the jackpot with her radio production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter for Radio 4 by putting Samuel West into the main role of Garry Essendine, the self-obsessed actor at the centre of a social maelstrom caused by his imminent departure on a theatre tour of Africa. West perfectly captures the outraged vanity of a man upset by the temerity of life letting him turn 40 and exasperated by the endless roll-call of people who either want to bid him farewell or can’t bear to see him go.


And what a roll-call it is - from top quality classic actors to top notch fresh talent, it sparkles from top to bottom as characters rattle in and out of the offices and spare rooms of Essendine’s house, marshalled by his ever-tolerant secretary Monica, voiced beautifully by a purring Frances Barber. Janie Dee shines as his estranged wife; Susannah Harker is raucous fun as the woman married to Jonathan Coy’s Henry, having an affair with Anthony Calf’s Morris and determined to philander her way into Garry’s bed; and Lily James and Freddie Fox are both good as a pair of besotted youngsters, the former an aspiring actress and the latter a would-be playwright, both determined to have their way with him.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Review: Old Times, Harold Pinter


“If you have only one of something, you can't say it's the best of anything”

I do try to have willpower, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Having decided that I wouldn’t be going to see the revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, the announcement of Kristin Scott Thomas’ Olivier nomination crumbled my resolve and sure enough, I made enquiries into finding someone who would do me the kindness of day-seating. Part of the reason for not going was that I knew that if I had seen it once, I would want to see it a second time as Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternated the two female roles of Kate and Anna throughout the run and I do like to complete a set.

In the end, I was lucky and able to call in on some favours which meant I did get to see it two times in the last couple of weeks and from the vantage point of the front row which made it worthwhile as the quality of the acting was hypnotically good, from both actresses and also from Rufus Sewell’s Deeley. But Pinter has always been a playwright whose charms have eluded me and Old Times is as gnomic an example of his work as any and though I was glad to have been able to take in both iterations of the cast, I can’t say that it really added a huge amount to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the play.

Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more”

What is it that makes a hit? Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth, the first show in his Trafalgar Transformed residency at the Trafalgar Studios, has rapidly become one of the hottest tickets in town, selling out nearly all of its shows and inspiring epic levels of queuing for the dayseats. And the audience it has drawn, at this show at least, felt significantly younger than one would usually see at a West End house. So something has clearly worked in the marketing of Shakespeare’s tragedy to make it the kind of success that they most likely hadn’t dared dream of. In light of that, it seems almost immaterial that I predominantly found it a disappointing production. 

It was a fascinating experience to see the reactions of fresher eyes to a play whose ubiquity, arguably, does not necessarily correlate with its quality. For all its noble brutality and visceral poetry, it can be something of a hard ask in its later stages, no more so than in Act 4 Scene 3 which is the stuff of theatrical nightmares, yet it remains popular. And in Lloyd’s production with its Kensington Gore-splattered imagining of a near-future dystopian Scotland (the consequence of independence…?) and frequent bold strokes especially in Soutra Gilmour’s design which cleverly opens out, it clearly connected with its teenage audience from their frequent audible reactions.