Friday, 28 February 2014

Re-review: Smallholding, Soho Theatre

“That’s a turnip for the books”

I’ve enjoyed previous plays by Chris Dunkley so when the invitation to see Smallholding, a co-production between HighTide and the Nuffield, came my way, I took the chance to make my first ever visit to Southampton (via a matinée in Salisbury of course) where I had a great time, ranking the play 22nd out of the 300 odd I saw last year. Spurred on by its success, the production has now resurfaced in the sweltering heat of the Soho Upstairs, where the bruising intimacy of this two-hander has only gained power. 

After a rocky time of it, Andy and Jen have moved back to the East Northamptonshire village of their youth and taken on a small farm, a smallholding where they intend to make a new life, rearing pigs and growing parsnips and garlic. It’s difficult to outrun demons though and the rural isolation presents its own set of challenges – Smallholding is a story about how we sometimes grip so tightly onto the things we deem most precious to us, we don’t notice them shattering in our hands. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Review: Variation on a Theme, Finborough

“I suppose the truth is, if you need somebody enough it doesn't seem to matter much what they do to you, or what they turn out to be"

It is Variation on a Theme that a young Shelagh Delaney saw and was inspired to write her iconoclastic A Taste of Honey, playing her own part in shaking up a British theatre scene that had Terence Rattigan as a fusty figurehead and whilst her play went on to become a classic, his slipped into obscurity and hasn’t been seen on stage for fifty years. Rattigan has of course undergone a serious re-appreciation since his recent centenary year with many of his works being staged, including a rehearsed reading of this play, which has blossomed into a full production at West London’s Finborough Theatre. The run has already sold out so we snuck into a preview.

Variation on a Theme is loosely based on La Dame aux Camélias, set in the 1950s on a sun and booze-soaked French Riviera where the taut charms of a handsome ballet dancer named Ron catch the eye of Rose, a much-married socialite and they tumble headlong into a passionate affair. But the path ne’er did run smooth – she’s suffering from a serious condition and has a powerful fiancé, and it’s not altogether clear that his motivations lie much beyond wanting a sugar mama. As her health continues to decline and his career hits the bumpers though, it becomes apparent that emotions run extremely deep but sadly, so too does the British predilection for repression. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Short Film Review #35


Knowledgy
Another Icelandic short (it’s a slippery slope once I start on these things…) and this time it’s a jet black comedy. Hrefna Hagalín and Kristín Bára Haraldsdóttir’s Knowledgy follows a naïve Icelandic couple as they get suckered into an LA-based cult by the charismatic leaders (and the example of Ashton Kutcher). Following their every move is their lodger who is filming their story for his film project and provides an excellent external view into this ever-darkening tale.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Review: Orlando, Royal Exchange

“Their morals were not ours”

Time for a confession – though I know I should have, I’ve not partaken of either Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel or Sally Potter’s 1992 Tilda Swinton-starring film adaptation of Orlando. So my trip to see the stage version by Sarah Ruhl at the Royal Exchange was actually my first experience of the story of a time-travelling, gender-swapping, history-defying nobleman, which is given highly theatrical life by Max Webster’s production which features Suranne Jones in the leading role.

It is strikingly done – Webster uses Liz Ranken’s movement and Vicki Amedume’s aerial knowledge to create a highly physical world which plays up the comedy of the story. From a sexually voracious Elizabeth I who is most taken with her pageboy to a gorgeous evocation of the arrival of electricity, the silly and the sublime co-exist, often in the form of the chorus of three men who narrate the action and populate the many small scenes.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Symphony, The Vaults

“I do enjoy a skimpy short”

Originally commissioned in 2012 when it played festivals like Latitude, nabokov’s Symphony is a great fit for the ethos of the Vault Festival taking place underneath Waterloo and this sparky revival proves to be one of the highlights of the programme so far. Three short plays by three of the UK’s most exciting playwrights which mix together spoken word and live music, the show treads a blurred line between theatre and gig and pulses with an exciting spirit.

The way that the three writers utilise Ed Gaughan’s music in their stories is quite different but always interesting. Jonesy by Tom Wells is a riff on sporting underdog movies, with an asthmatic student determined to prove himself in his GCSE PC class but ending up in the netball team when rugby turns out to be too rough. Iddon Jones makes a lovable lead and Wells’ quirky sense of humour shines through, not least when Jonesy’s personal theme song finally plays.


Review: A Number, Nuffield

“Are you my father?”

After the Menier’s version which starred Timothy and Sam West, the Nuffield uses a similar conceit to cast another father and son duo in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. This time, it is John and Lex Shrapnel who delve into the murky world of cloning, medical ethics and paternal responsibility but it is Tom Scutt’s unique set design that proves to be the most striking thing about Michael Longhurst’s production.

Divided into four, the audience are seated around an observation chamber – the mirrored glass of which allows us to see in but not the actors to see out. Furthermore, they are reflected multiple times, echoing the themes of splintered self and inescapable examination. For all its technical brilliance though, it is a design which sterilizes an already clinical exercise, leaving one impressed rather than amazed.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Review: Gaslight, Salisbury Playhouse

“Every night, I find myself waiting for something” 

Fans of overwrought cod-Victorian melodrama are definitely in for a treat at the Salisbury Playhouse, though I have to say Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight sadly fired up no sparks for me. Perhaps our taste in thrillers has become too sophisticated for such less complicated pleasures as these but the writing is clunky beyond belief, depressingly predictable from the off, and not helped by a production that tries to find a solution in prolonging the agony.

Hamilton sets his story in the household of the Manninghams, where he is a moustache-twirling, cackling fiend and she is a near-hysterical waif of a thing firmly under his thumb, leaving us in no doubt as to what’s afoot when the question is raised of whether she is losing her sanity or some more nefarious plan is in action. On and on it goes as their staff are drawn into the narrative along with an inquisitive detective but there’s so little to their parts, barely a hint of the characterisation that would lift the majority of the play from just being functional. 

Review: Finian’s Rainbow, Union Theatre

“Wanna cry, wanna croon,
wanna laugh like a loon"

Suspension of disbelief is par for the course with musical theatre, especially the type of obscure revivals that the Union Theatre specialises in, and Finian’s Rainbow is no exception in that respect. A leprechaun who is slowly turning into a human, a twinkle-eyed Irishman determined to grow a forest of gold, a mute girl who communicates solely through the medium of dance…this is unabashed hokum of the top order, but the sincerity of Phil Willmott’s sterling production makes it a genuine delight.

For what it’s worth, the plot concerns the twinkle-eyed Irishman Finian McLonegan’s efforts to make his fortune in the Deep South having borrowed a crock of gold from a leprechaun and marry off his granddaughter Sharon in the process. The community of tobacco pickers where they end up welcome them and their money with open arms but a corrupt and racist senator has other plans for the land on which they toil, putting their future in peril. E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy’s book contains much more dry humour than you might expect though, jabs about immigration and bankers showing how little things have changed in many respects.

Cast of Finian's Rainbow continued


Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: The Odyssey, Derby Theatre

“Where shall we start?”

Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western literature and so unsurprisingly has endured and thrived as part of our cultural consciousness since the 8th century BC when it was composed. So its tale of soldier Odysseus’ 20 year absence from his home in Ithica due to the 10 years of the Trojan War and then a troublesome 10 year journey back feels an appropriate fit in the centenary year of the Great War, especially given Mike Kenny’s new version and Sarah Brigham’s inspired direction.

For this interpretation digs deep into both the psychological and practical effects of war. The first half asks searching questions about the nature of telling war stories, Odysseus’ recounting of his trials become a meditation on survivor guilt as he revisits decisions made in the heat of combat, the sacrifices he asked of his men, struggling to rationalise the huge losses incurred. And part two turns its view on those left behind and the difficulties they have to face in welcoming back someone who has been unutterably changed by their experiences. 

Review: Penelope RETOLD, Derby Theatre

“How soon after you were married was your husband deployed?”

In one of the more interesting moves that an artistic director of a theatre anywhere in the UK has made, Derby Theatre’s Sarah Brigham has commissioned a set of one-woman plays from some interesting names indeed, to respond to the main house programme. The RETOLD series begins with Caroline Horton’s Penelope RETOLD which accompanies The Odyssey by placing Odysseus’ wife Penelope full square and centre.

Developed with director Lucy Doherty, Horton’s monologue imagines a current day Penelope, borrowing from the contemporary military wives trope to create something more recognisably modern. And skipping around through the nineteen years of her enforced separation from her husband the general, she finds something deeply moving in the challenges faced this woman, and indeed many others in similar scenarios.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Review: Hobson’s Choice, Octagon

“Do you call this English?...I thought it weren’t the sort we talk in Lancashire”

Though Wigan is nearer to my childhood home, it is the Octagon in Bolton that looms largest in the memory as the theatre we visited most often, particularly for their Christmas shows, school trips and my first ever Macbeth. Yet since leaving for university and latterly becoming a theatre blogger, I haven’t made a return trip there (possibly in 18 years or so) and so when circumstances prevailed to get me nearby, I decided to make a nostalgic visit.

And given that the play was Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, there was something delightfully old-school about the whole thing. David Thacker’s production, co-produced with Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s New Vic and the Oldham Coliseum, beats to a slow and steady rhythm over its three acts and once attuned to its pace, I found it to be a highly enjoyable piece of traditional story-telling.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Review: A Taste of Honey, National Theatre

“My usual self is a very unusual self”

The sight of Bijan Sheibani’s name on the creatives’ list of a show is now a terrifying one – swinging arbitrarily from the sublime to the ridiculous, it is impossible to tell what he is going to pull from his crazy-ass hat and so going to see one of his production automatically has a certain frisson about it before the curtain even rises. But even with this risk, getting to see Shelagh Delaney’s 1950s classic A Taste of Honey for the first time was something I was not willing to pass up, especially with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the cast.

And pretty damn fantastic it was too. An initial shadow of doubt as Hildegard Bechtler’s expansive set was revealed in its revolving glory was soon dispelled as it became apparent we had #goodSheibani, utilising a pared-back approach free from distractions and cultivating some high-intensity performances from his two leads. It definitely helps though when they are Dame-in-the-making Lesley Sharp and rising star Kate O’Flynn, my actress of the year in 2012 and surely destined to become one of our most interesting young performers. 

Short Film Review #34

Korriró

The Icelandic Vesturport company are well known here for their theatre work – I’ve seen their collaborations on Faust and The Heart of Robin Hood – but they are also film producers, both long and short. The first of their shorts that I caught was Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s Korriró as it starred two actors I’ve previously seen - Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Gísli Örn Garðarsson. Filippusdóttir plays a homeless woman who happens on an open garage door into a luxury home which offers a brief respite from the drudgery of her life. It is beautifully shot and uncompromisingly direct – confronting us all with our attitudes towards the homeless and those from whom we avert our gaze.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Review: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“If once I part from any man I meet, I am never found again”

Having decided not to go back to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse after the perverse pleasure it seems to take in charging large amounts of money for considerable discomfort nearly ruined a good Duchess of Malfi, the offer of a ticket to Eileen Atkins’ one woman show proved irresistible. That it was free helped, but I was also interested to see what the standing experience there was like, at just £10 it doesn’t seem too unreasonable and with it being a short show, it was a risk I was willing to take.

The show itself was predictably excellent. Ellen Terry was a Victorian actress known for her Shakespearean work and her analysis of it, so Atkins’ show weaves together material from Terry’s books and lectures with insights from her life and healthy chunks of the Bard, illustrating the characters of which she speaks. It’s a compelling mixture, full of absolutely fascinating observations on these characters we know so well and the experiences of a woman working her way through the canon as best she can, given the way society is.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Review: Outbox – Snapshots, Arcola

“If we use my poster, the gays will come”

All-gay theatre company Outbox put together Snapshots, an evening telling the untold and forgotten stories of the LGBT community which, in a nutshell, sum up as the gays are obsessed with sex, lesbians overcommit and Tom Wells remains the best chronicler of small-town gay life. Bringing together new and experienced writers, actors and directors, 5 short plays were featured in this particular programme which sold out the main room of the Arcola on a chilly February Sunday night.

The main reason for booking was to see Tom Wells’ My Number 1 Favourite Lesbian. No one could ever manage Simon Stephens’ level of ubiquity but Wells is giving it a damn good try with three short plays appearing in London over the next month or so. This one was a monologue, excellently delivered by Tim Jackson, set on a New Year’s Eve gone awry where Mark reflects on a difficult few months after moving to London from his hometown has ended up full of disillusionment. Full of rueful humour and wry observation, a lovely thing indeed.

Cast of Outbox continued



Sunday, 16 February 2014

Review: The Mystae, Hampstead Downstairs

“What’s the word for illusion…when it’s shared”

Whatever they’re smoking down at the Hampstead Downstairs, I approve and would like some. The Mystae (rhymes with fisheye, kind of) continues the more experimental feel that The Blackest Black started 2014 off with and features one of the more intriguing set designs that you will see this year. The play is set in an ancient Cornish sea cave where three teenagers have gathered to conduct a ritual before they scatter off to universities and jobs and somehow, Georgia Lowe has managed to carve an effective rock formation in the ground of Swiss Cottage, complete with ominously rising tidal waters.

Technically, The Mystae is a pretty smashing piece of work even before any actors get on stage (or climb into the cave). John Leonard’s sound design brings the soothingly persistent sound of the sea to life (and later echoes brilliantly across the space), Simon Opie’s lighting suggests the secrets and surprises that could lie in any shadowy nook or cranny, and Tim Carroll’s production sparkles with excitement from the off. That it is then backed up by a nifty piece of writing by Nick Whitby is especially pleasing, a moody meditation on the intense emotional pull of this time of great change.

CD Review: Ramin Karimloo – Ramin

“Your music, it teases at my ear”

After being most pleasantly surprised indeed by a sneak preview of Ramin Karimloo’s forthcoming EP, I thought I’d give his self-titled debut album a whirl to see how it stacked up. As with his invention of broadgrass, one can see the determination of Karimloo not to be restricted by his musical theatre career in the tracklisting of this 2012 collection too – he acknowledges it with interpretations of Phantom’s The Music of the Night and Love Never Dies’ ‘Til I Hear You Sing but the majority of the songs are self-penned or covers of bands like Muse.

The musical variety definitely makes the disc stand out from other such albums from musical theatre performers but I have to admit to being a little but disappointed with the production by Tom Nichols as a whole, which places a patina of professional sheen over the material which renders it unfortunately bland. Weighty orchestrations drown out any vocal subtlety and smother the emotional intensity that is Karimloo’s strength and though there are glimmers of what could have been and what is now with The Road To Find Out.

CD Review: Privates on Parade (1977)

“Remember the yearning we felt inside”

This 1977 recording of Denis King’s music is not going to convert any naysayers to Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade – the score to this play with songs doesn’t really stand on its own merits as it is too connected to the rest of the show. But what it does provide for those who know it and enjoy it (I loved the recent Michael Grandage revival) is an affectionate reminder of the rather unique old-school charms of the show and the catchiness of its jingle-like title number.

The beguiling period charm of the music is captured excellently here, remastered by Stage Door from the original tapes, as it dips into pastiches of a whole range of early twentieth century references – Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn being two notable examples – and cleverly steers a humorous route through the tangled racial politics of the failing colonial experiment. One could take offence here but to do so is to miss the intent of the show entirely. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“There must be no squeamishness over losses”

In the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War, many a theatre has programmed accordingly but few can lay as effective a tribute as the Theatre Royal Stratford East with their revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War which premiered here a little over 50 years ago. The play came in for some stick from that enlightened soul Michael Gove who denounced its political revisionism (and gave it a healthy dose of publicity to boot) but in the final moments of this emotionally exhausting show, only the most totally deluded of fools would have politics on their mind in the face of such unutterable loss of life, something that continues in battlefields today.

There is no denying that the show wears its politics clearly on its sleeve. Devised by Littlewood and Theatre Workshop in the 1960s, its depiction of the class lines within the armed forces speak firmly of its time, and it is interesting to see how the American efforts are viewed at a time before any “special relationships” had been forged. But truly at its heart is the experience of the ordinary soldier and Lez Brotherston’s design never lets us free of the unflinching barrage of information and imagery – projections simulate what life might have been life, a constantly scrolling panel of statistics keep the human cost at the front of our minds.

Review: Blindsided, Royal Exchange

“He puts his hand in your knickers and promises the world”

Lord this was grim. Hard-going, unlikeable and sterile – much of Simon Stephens’ writing has felt like this for me (as opposed to his adaptations) and so it can be something of a slog until one breaks through the revelatory moment that he often provides. But Blindsided never really got there, despite some excellent work from Julie Hesmondhalgh – making a bold move now that Hayley Cropper is coming a cropper – as the adult Cathy who has comes to terms with something shocking.

We first meet Cathy as a much younger woman though and see the seeds of what will happen coming from a tough upbringing in an unforgiving part of Stockport and her meeting with a darkly enigmatic man. But there’s something very artificial about the whole thing – there’s nothing discernable connecting the two versions of Cathy we meet – her rebirth is too much of a copout without any hint of redemptive quality in her – and the world(s) around her are poorly populated, the supporting character mere wisps.

Review: The Hotel Plays, Langham Hotel

“The world is a circle, and everything comes back to where it started"

A soldier on leave, a lover in the cupboard, an actress in her dotage; newlyweds, mistresses, hucksters; satin pyjamas, warm croissants, endless liquor. Such is the stuff of many a hotel and in the plush surroundings of the Langham, London, all of the above and more can be found in Defibrillator Theatre Company’s revival of The Hotel Plays, a suite of three Tennessee Williams short plays performed in three suites in the hotel itself.

Site-specific performances are sometimes guilty of square peg round hole syndrome but here, the marriage of material and setting is perfect. The seating may not always be the most comfortable but that’s only right as we’re the ones eavesdropping on the private affairs unfolding in these most intimate of surroundings, flies on the wall of Williams’ mini-universes full of heartbreak, hedonism and heists.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Review: Cover Her Face, Bethnal Green Working Men's Club

"In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness doth womanish and fearful mankind live"

Gemma Arterton may have the part of the willowy ingénue down pat in The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse just now but over in the earthier environment of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, something much more radical is happening. Cover Her Face is a new version of John Webster’s 1613 work which relocates the play to the queer subculture of 1950s London, Malfi being the club at the centre of the scene, and third gender writer/performer La JohnJoseph its transgender Duchess.

Daniel Fulvio and Martin Moriarty’s reworking for Inky Cloak is a bold move but one which pays richly evocative rewards. The shifting of the narrative onto a trans focus possesses an aching urgency – JohnJoseph’s Duchess longing for love and marriage and the freedom to live as a woman, yet cruelly constrained by the conservatism of her two brothers – malevolent twin Ferdinand and the closeted Minister. Their uneasy arrangement is shattered though by arrival of the handsome Antonio. with predictably tragic consequences.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Cast of Knowledgy continued

Review: In Skagway, Arcola

“I want some nice tasty salty-in-the-mouth cheese. CHEEEEEEEESE!!!”

One of the reasons I like going to the Arcola is that the Sainsburys nearby stocks one of my favourite cheeses in the world – Grandma Singleton’s tasty Lancashire if you’re interested – and so I duly made my trip to the Kingsland Shopping Centre before making my way over to the Arcola for In Skagway. So it was quite amusing to hear one of the characters talk about wanting cheese during the play – if only it had been amusing in a good way.

For I really didn’t enjoy the play at all. Karen Ardiff’s story of four women stuck in the Alaskan town of Skagway at the tail end of the gold rush failed to grab me from the start, her characterisations simultaneously thinly drawn and utterly predictable, her dialogue so full of cliché as to be laughable. Throw in a lead character who has had a stroke and so communicates via voiceover, numerous flashbacks and dreamlike sequences and there’s something close to an unholy mess.

Short Film Review #33

Connection

Responding to the work of Belarus Free Theatre, Connection is part of the continuing short film work that the Young Vic are producing in collaboration with the Guardian in response to their theatrical work. Written by Nicolai Khalezin and Laura Wade, it features Khalezin and Jude Law playing thinly veiled versions of themselves, both stuck at a London airport but for very different reasons. It’s an engaging, moving little tale and if the parallels that are drawn between the pair stick in the craw a little, Law’s ongoing work with BFT ought to silence any naysayers.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Radio Review: Just Dance / Sargasso

”They called a horse after a dancer?”

Just a quickie for these two Afternoon Dramas as it has turned into one of those weeks… I tweeted about Just Dance as its main star – John Heffernan – has quite the following amongst my followers and beyond and the prospect of hearing his voice when his next stage appearance is as yet unconfirmed was not one to pass up lightly. In Frances Byrnes’ Just Dance, he played Luke, the best dancer of his generation but one now crippled with doubt, psychologically unable to dance. Through a chance meeting with Afro-Caribbean Guy, he explores the driving forces behind both his talent and his torment, his luxuriously deep tones bringing the perfect amount of dancer’s elegance to the part.

Simon Bovey’s Sargasso is a much more earthy affair, set in the elver season on the Severn, where hundreds descend trying to catch the eels and sell them on at huge profit. Newcomer Kevin reckons he can get away with poaching without a license, and he’s not the only one, but when his father-in-law is the one who patrols the waters, it makes for a difficult and dangerous time. Robert Lonsdale as the younger man and Ian Gelder as the elder made it an enjoyable listen, though it never quite managed the level of gripping tension it could have done with. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Review: The Mistress Contract, Royal Court

“Intimacy to you is one thing, to me another” 

Regular sex without all the encumbrances of marriage, that’s the deal on the table at the beginning of The Mistress Contract, Abi Morgan’s adaptation of a memoir of the same name by an American couple known anonymously as She and He. They’re both still alive, 88 and 93, and have kept recordings of the thirty plus years of their arrangement under which She provides He with “mistress services – all sexual acts as requested” in exchange for a regular income and a lush home in West California. 

But far from an exploitative relationship, She and He are both middle-aged, highly educated, intellectuals – who’ve known each other since grad school - who are entering this contract with eyes wide open. And as we see thirty years fly by in five scenes which gently elide into each other, they debate her staunch feminism, the gender politics that shapes their sexual behaviour, the social conditioning that governs their emotional interdependence. For an intimacy does grow between them, a unique connection forged.

Review: Punishment without Revenge, Arcola

“I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason”

The third of the Spanish Golden Age plays for me was Punishment without Revenge – El Castigo sin Venganza – another Lope de Vega play but rather than the (not so) comic stylings of green breeches, this is a straight up tragedy and consequently emerges as the strongest of the lot. In the court of the Duke of Ferrara, an illicit passion builds up between the Duke’s bastard son Federico and Cassandra the Duchess of Mantua, the woman he is sent to collect to be a bride for his father. They submit to their urges when the Duke leaves for battle but on his return, the abuse to his honour must be avenged.

William Hoyland is excellent as the vituperative Duke, possessed of a deadly charm with the most vicious edges with some striking speechifying; Nick Barber’s handsome Federico pairs well with Frances McNamee’s Cassandra (a nice casting touch as they also portray lovers in another of the plays) as they pursue their doomed love in spite of the threat it poses to them; and even a lighter side is allowed to shine through the court shenanigans in the form of Simon Scardifield’s manservant and the blustering courtiers of Chris Andrew Mellon and Jim Bywater.

Review: A Lady of Little Sense, Arcola

“She is as thick as potato mash”

The remit of the Spanish Golden Age rep season, a co-production between Arcola Theatre, the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, is to bring to light three rarely performed plays from what they term “the last unopened treasure chest of world drama”. But whilst the academic interest of delving into this cultural period is undoubtable, the quality of the drama uncovered feels variable.

Lope de Vega’s A Lady of Little Sense, or La Dama Boba from 1613, is a romantic comedy whose tales of the arranged marriages of two sisters recalls The Taming of the Shrew. Wealthy businessman Don Octavio has two beautiful daughters to marry off but the educated Nise has an arrogance to match her intelligence and her sister Finea is as dopey as they come – the suitors that come to take their hands thus have to decide the lesser of two evils.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre

“If you marry me you'll never be a candidate for the Vatican”

Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 and 2007 as In Extremis, Howard Brenton’s newly retitled Eternal Love marks the 21st birthday year of English Touring Theatre and the first instalment in a three-year-long project to tour quality drama across the country. On a personal note, it also saw my first ever visit to Cambridge (too brief for my liking, I look forward to a return) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (very friendly, I like the fact I found the bar before I found the box office!).

The retitling offers a further clue to its subject matter in a subtitle The Story of Abelard and Heloise but in some ways, this feels a little bit of a misnomer. For though the enduring love story between the medieval theologian Peter Abelard and his fearsomely intelligent student Heloise is a central part of the play, Brenton also focuses on the key philosophical debate of the time, as intense rival Bernard of Clairvaux declares his determination to defeat this heretical foe and maintain the doctrine of absolute faith.

Cast of Eternal Love continued



Saturday, 8 February 2014

Russia


“From Russia, with love?” 

The finger of accusation has landed hard and uncompromisingly at the entirety of Russia with the eyes of the world on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the gay propaganda and blasphemy laws that have recently been passed there. And whilst there is no denying the utterly horrendous situation that has been created, as C4 documentary Hunted showed us so powerfully, it is hard not feel that there’s an element of self-absolution at work that sticks a little in the craw. 

I’m reminded of the US Olympic team making human rights protests at the opening ceremony in Beijing whilst Guantánamo Bay was still open, last weekend’s news story about the Home Office’s approach to making gay asylum seekers prove their homosexuality, Newsweek’s exposé of the institutionalised homophobia in a sport like figure skating, even UKIP’s claims of bad weather as punishment for the gays. 

DVD Review: Anna Karenina (2000)

“I need to know if he still loves me”

Joe Wright’s film version of Anna Karenina was, for me, a hugely under-rated piece of work, a sumptuous feast for the eyes in his inimitable style. But I can see it might not be to everyone tastes, which is where the 2000 mini-series should step in as an ideal replacement. Stretching out luxuriously over four hours, David Blair’s production of Tolstoy’s classic, adapted by Allan Cubitt, is something quite close to triumphant, not least for a desperately compelling performance from Helen McCrory as Anna but from a detailed realisation of so many aspects of the novel.

For though the tragic love triangle of Anna, Karenin and Vronsky is the best known strand of the story, Levin and Kitty’s relationship is just as significant in the grand scheme of things and there’s also room here for a fully-fleshed version of Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly. The way in which the multiple lines are followed is expertly done and begins to do some justice to the weight tome that is the piece of literature on which it is based.

Radio Review: Anna’s War, Radio 4

“Some of your publications aren’t exactly patriotic” 

Sadly, the oppressive nature of the ruling Russian regime is nothing new, as journalist Anna Politkovskaya found out to her cost when she was murdered in 2006. Up until then, she had been truly fearless, in a way that few of us could ever hope to dream of, in exposing and investigating the murkily complex relationship between Russia and Chechnya. Lizzie Mummery’s play Anna’s War dramatizes five key moments from her life, demonstrating the personal cost of so courageous a life.

Nunnery’s bite-sized approach makes it an ideal fit for the 15 minute drama slot on Radio 4. So we see her experiences as an investigative journalist helping to evacuate nearly 100 people from an abandoned old people’s home and then discovering the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers on Chechen mountain villagers, to the perhaps better known terrorist attacks on a Moscow theatre and the siege of Beslan school - her reputation for relentless truthseeking and opposition to the Chechen conflict increasingly making her a target.

DVD Review: Crime and Punishment (2002)

“Oh we’ll make him suffer, but will he make himself?”

This 2002 BBC2 adaptation of Crime and Punishment by Tony Marchant is a rather good bit of television – it may be a goodly while since I read Dostoevsky’s novel but it struck me as a respectful interpretation of the story, though not overly so, and one which makes the most of the televisual approach. Directed by Julian Jarrold, it employs a vivid array of camerawork – from jerky handheld work to epic sweeps of the St Petersburg location – to really capture the idiosyncrasies of the story. 

Jarrold really takes us into the mind of impoverished student Raskolnikov, a man who makes a virtue of his immorality in coming up with a plan to murder an unscrupulous pawnbroker as a justifiable good deed to the world at large. Fevered dream sequences, intensely visceral interactions, we delve right into his highly disorientated state of being as he struggles to ratify his choices in the face of their impact on his friends and family and as the law encroaches in on him.

DVD Review: A Young Doctor’s Notebook

“Even letters don’t want to be sent here”

The term black comedy is often used in reference to Russian works and in the case of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, it is well–earned. A short TV series from 2012 produced by Sky and based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s collection of short stories entitled A Country Doctor’s Notebook, it follows the experiences of a young doctor fresh out of medical school in Moscow and landed with an isolated post deep in the Russian countryside where even the nearest shop is half a day away by coach.

It frames these growing pains of a doctor (Daniel Radcliffe) learning how to deal with the practical, as opposed to the theoretical study at which he excelled, with scenes from 20 years or so in the future, when the doctor (now played by Jon Hamm) has been exposed as a morphine addict and has found his old diary. Hamm’s Doctor then dips in and out of the earlier scenes, interacting solely with his younger self and trying to offer a way through his crises of inexperience.

DVD Review: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel

"You sap the foundations of civilisation”

Based on one of Chekhov’s novellas, The Duel is set in a seaside town in the Caucasus which could be somewhere like Sochi (if I’ve got my geography right). But the Winter Olympics are far from the subject here, unless they’re giving out medals for passive-aggressiveness, pretentious moping and hopelessly futile inaction. These of course are the hallmarks of Chekhovian drama and they’re all present and correct in this 2010 film by Dover Kosashvili which boasts an excellent Anglo-Irish cast including Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies and Michelle Fairley. 

The plot focuses on Scott’s Laevsky, a Russian aristocrat whose sense of entitlement has abdicated any form of responsibility from his life. So he’s hugely in debt, he’s careless in his work at the civil service, and he’s engaged in an affair with a married woman, Nadya, whom he has coaxed away from Moscow. But he doesn’t love her and when the news comes that her husband has died, thereby freeing her to marry her lover, Laevsky withholds the information from her. All the while, he stands in pernicious moral judgement of all those around him, truly a product of the decaying society of this Mother Russia. 

Review: The Cement Garden, Vault Festival

"Thing is pet, maybe you're better on your own"

Under the cement and brick of Waterloo lies The Cement Garden, an interpretation of Ian McEwan’s highly regarded novel which is one of the centrepieces of the six week Vault Festival. Adapted by David Aula and Jimmy Osborne, it tells the disturbing story of what happens when four children are orphaned and end up retreating from society rather than notifying the authorities they believe would split them up.

Aula, who also directs, has chosen a deliberately varied and theatrical approach to the production. So the youngest child Tom is played by the oldest man in the cast, David Annen who manipulates a puppet boy. But the central couple of the two oldest kids, Jack and Julie, are played with an exceptionally punchy, naturalistic force by Ruby Bentall and BAFTA Rising Star Award nominee George MacKay.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Women in theatre - January 2014

As Lisa Stansfield once (almost) said, ‘I may not be a lady, but I’m all about the women’. It is no secret that I love actresses - if I had to name a list of my most highly rated performers, the vast majority would undoubtedly be female. Yet the theatre that I love doesn’t always serve them so well. In one week in November last year, I ended up seeing Twelve Angry Men, followed by the Union’s all-male HMS Pinafore, followed by Propeller’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – some good theatre to be sure but not a woman on stage to be seen. 

Others have picked up on this – this writer performed the Bechdel test on her theatregoing and this one made a ‘modest proposal’ to try and see work made by an equal balance of men and women. And it was the latter that got me thinking, what would the balance be on my theatregoing, which by any stretch of the imagination comes pretty close to being all-encompassing (not that I’m saying anything about the type of theatre Mr Haydon chooses but…you know…) So I’ve been keeping a tally of the gender divide in terms of actors, writers, directors and designers, with sound and light people included where named. See the results after the jump. 

The headline figures 
% of women in the 35 shows seen in January 

Actors: 39% 
Writers: 29% 
Directors: 40% 
Designers: 29% 
Light: 23% 
Sound: 13% 

So out of 35 shows seen (a mixture of new openings, tours, long-runners and also including three readings) and their 327 cast members, 126 were female, which is perhaps better than one might have expected, though still far from ideal. 10 of the 35 were written or co-written by women, and 14 directed. Creatively, things are less positive though with only 9 having a designer credit, 7 on the lighting side (Paule Constable almost single-handedly accounting for that figure!) and just 4 employed in sound design, the last no less depressing for its predictability. 

It’s an issue that, in its wider form (not just cast but creative), has long percolated in cultural discourse and was particularly highlighted after the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary last year. But as a kicker, can one really justify limiting this conversation to gender. If one complains that the NT, in this case, wasn’t representative of women, shouldn’t one also point out the other disparities – in terms of race, disability, sexuality… It may mean picking a battle that can’t necessarily be won, but it feels important to acknowledge that gender is only part of the battle. 

Easier said than done of course, I failed at the first hurdle, unable to work out a methodology that would, or even could, capture such personal data about people. And even then it is fraught with difficulty – what ethnic categorisations would be appropriate? What wording would I use? (If asked the question ‘do you consider yourself to have a disability?’ I would always say no, although if you ask me straight out, then I would say yes, I’m deaf – it just doesn’t factor into my life in that way. So if anyone has any clue of how I might audit February onwards in more depth, then feel free to suggest ways in which I could manage it.



Appendix (aka my working)

(data collected by me and quite possibly erroneous in places, though I did try my best) 

January
Cast
Women
%
Writer
Director
Designer
Light
Sound
35
327
126
39%
10
14
9
7
4
A Lady of Little Sense
10
4
40%
N
N
N
N
N
American Psycho
14
7
50%
N
N
Y
N
N
Blind
6
1
17%
N
N
Y
N
n/a
Blurred Lines
8
8
100%
N
Y
Y
Y
N
Bring Up The Bodies
21
5
24%
Y
N
N
Y
N
Carthage
7
3
43%
N
N
N
Y
N
Ciphers
4
2
50%
Y
Y
N
N
N
Cracked
5
3
60%
N
Y
n/a
n/a
n/a
Don Gil of the Green Breeches
10
4
40%
N
N
N
N
N
Fiji Land
3
0
0%
N
Y
Y
N
N
Hamlet
12
3
25%
N
N
N
N
N
Happy Days
2
1
50%
N
Y
Y
Y
N
Happy Days the musical
17
7
41%
N
N
N
N
N
Jumpers for Goalposts
5
1
20%
N
N
Y
N
N
King Lear
20
5
25%
N
N
N
N
N
Little Black Book
2
1
50%
N
Y
N
N
N
Lost Boy
12
5
42%
N
N
N
N
N
Mamma Mia
33
17
52%
Y
Y
N
N
N
Protest Song
1
0
0%
N
Y
Y
N
Y
Punishment without Revenge
10
4
40%
Y
N
N
N
N
Putting It Together
5
2
40%
N
N
N
N
N
Rapture Blister Burn
5
4
80%
Y
N
N
N
N
Sherry and Narcotics
2
1
50%
Y
Y
n/a
n/a
n/a
Tell Me On A Sunday
1
1
100%
N
N



The Blackest Black
3
1
33%
N
N
N
N
Y
The Body of an American
2
0
0%
N
N
N
N
Y
The Keepers of Infinite Space
8
2
25%
Y
Y
N
Y
N
The Light Princess
26
11
42%
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
The Pass
4
1
25%
N
N
Y
N
Y
The Robbers
12
3
25%
N
N
N
N
N
The Undone Years
7
3
43%
N
N
n/a
n/a
n/a
The Weir
5
1
20%
N
Y
N
N
N
Thebes
12
3
25%
N
Y
N
N
N
What The Women Did
12
7
58%
Y
Y
N
N
N
Wolf Hall
21
5
24%
Y
N
N
Y
N