Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Crush the Musical, Richmond Theatre

“Just crack on and I’m sure you’ll come up with a corker!”

Superficially, Crush the Musical might seem just a little bit batshit crazy, from the pen of the creator of Bad Girls (and Bad Girls the Musical) how could it be otherwise. But as Maureen Chadwick and composer Kath Gotts’ girls’ school romp unwinds its merry way across the stage, its subversive leanings come to the fore as it emerges as a rare example of straight-up and sweetly played lesbian camp, wrapped up in the trappings of an old-fashioned musical comedy.

Set in the early 60s in the liberal surroundings of Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls where free spirits are celebrated and fostered, the sixth-formers are hugely excited for life beyond their forthcoming exams. But the arrival of a strict new headmistress, the formidable Miss Bleacher, introduces an air of tyranny, determined to root out the unnatural practices that have been going on in the Art Room, and the changing rooms as a budding schoolgirl romance has taken hold.

Cast of Crush continued

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, St James

“Don't know whether it's mornin' or night;
Only know it's soundin' right"

The numbers around composer Leslie Bricusse stack up most impressively indeed – over 1,000 songs written over a period of more than 60 years, including the book, music or lyrics for 40+ musical films and plays, winning 2 Academy Awards and being nominated for a further 8. So one can certainly indulge him in a moment of reflection in Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, a career retrospective that merely skims the surface of that mighty back catalogue with 50 numbers but giving a glorious sense of the formidable and unerring quality of his undoubted talent.

Devised by Bricusse along with director Christopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento, the show eschews any kind of formal narrative, instead collecting songs into loose groupings which give the ideal opportunity to show off the vast breadth of material and leave even the most knowledgeable saying ‘I didn’t know he wrote that one as well’. So the theme to The Pink Panther rubs shoulders with Doctor Dolittle’s ‘Talk To The Animals’ and Willy Wonka’s ‘Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo’, and a sing-song around the old joanna features such classics as ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ and ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days’. 

Monday, 28 September 2015

Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace

“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”

The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play - that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long - with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.

An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Review: The Sweethearts, Finborough

“You're anyone who's ever been a member of Sugababes"

Enrique Iglesias said that he could be your hero, Mariah Carey reckons there’s a hero inside of you, Bonnie Tyler’s just holding out but Sarah Page is more interested in asking questions about what makes a hero in this day and age and just how fallible they are. This she does in unexpected ways in The Sweethearts, a play first seen at the Finborough as part of their new writing festival Vibrant last year, and now receiving a full run directed by Daniel Burgess.

Set in the boiling heat of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a tent that is usually used as an office has been converted into sleeping quarters in advance of the visit of girl group The Sweethearts, out doing their bit for the troops and naturally being filmed by a TV crew for the publicity. But when the base comes under heavy fire, the pop stars are trapped with the soldiers assigned to look after them and their differences make an already volatile situation that much more explosive.

Review: Eventide, Arcola

“It’s hard to get things right while they happen to you"

With his second play Eventide, one gets a sense of what the Barney Norris-verse is about. As with the aching splendour of last year’s Visitors, we’re in rural England and focusing on the smaller details of the big picture, the individual lives that make up a society that is struggling to keep pace with the changing world. An elegant three-hander played out over two key encounters a year apart, Alice Hamilton’s production is full of subtleties and subtly powerful acting that does real justice to Norris’ emerging voice as a playwright of real note.

In the pub garden of an establishment in deepest Hampshire, three lonely souls share their sorrows, specifically in one case as it is the day of a funeral but also more generally as the rural economy on which they all depend has become increasingly depressed, the world of farming very much no longer what it used to be. Pub landlord John is throwing in the towel and selling to a chain, church organist Liz is losing money foot over pedal as local gigs are so thin on the ground and Mark, whose best friend’s funeral it is, can’t go because a rare job offer – as painful as it is – has come up.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

DVD Review: Beyond the Lights

"Do you want to be a runner up, or do you want to be a winner?"

Gugu Mbatha-Raw may be tearing up the stage in Nell Gwynn at the moment but by rights, she ought to have been dominating cinema screens in last year’s Beyond the Lights, baffling sent straight to DVD here after a botched US cinematic release. Quite why this is is beyond me, aside from speculating that those responsible for such decisions thought that it wouldn’t appeal to audiences, presumably because of its perceived innate BAME focus.

But like all great stories, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film far exceeds the world it depicts, emerging as a hugely affecting modern romance full of sharp commentary about what passes for celebrity in the 21st century. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a budding singer winning awards as a featured artist before her first album has even dropped but whose experiences thus far in the music industry lead her to try and take her life. Saved by a policeman, Nate Parker’s Kaz, facing his own pressures from a family who dream of a political career for him, a relationship sparks that forces them to face their mutual demons.

DVD Review: Kinky Boots

"The factory that started the century providing a range of footwear for men will go into the next century providing footwear for... a range of men."

I don’t know what I was doing in 2005 but it wasn’t watching Kinky Boots. I don’t really remember deciding that I didn’t want to see Julian Jarrold’s film but for whatever reason, it has remained on my unwatched list but now, a decade on and with its musical adaptation now gracing the London stage, I finally got round to giving it a whirl. And it made for a fascinating watch, especially in light of having seen it in the theatre, that slightly different iteration of the story playing out in quite a different way.

The main thing I took from Tim Firth and Geoff Deane’s writing, inspired by a true story, is that struggling shoe-factory owner Charlie isn’t actually that likeable a character. Perhaps it was partly Joel Edgerton’s muted performance but there’s something a little bleak about him, his single-mindedness coming across more brutally here especially in his treatment of fiancée Nicola (as if anyone could do that to the lovely Jemima Rooper), thus making it hard to see why Sarah-Jane Potts’ Lauren would be quite so keen to step into her shoes. 

DVD Review: Cinderella


“Perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take is to be seen as we really are”

Who knew what the world needed was a live-action version of Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh. It oughtn’t be as good as it is but somehow the fusion of Disney magic and folktale wonder comes together most effectively, thoroughly traditional in its outlook yet somehow still feeling fresh. Chris Weitz’s screenplay is based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon but both he and Branagh take lots of inspiration from the Disney version of the story too and the resulting confection is really rather bibbity-bobbity-beguiling.

There’s a cleverness too about what it does in spinning new details like giving us a reason that her step-family don’t recognise her at the ball and weaving much humour into the magic spells that get her to said ball. Ella herself is well pitched by Lily James, not quite too perfect to be true but still hugely appealing. It’s no wonder Richard Madden’s Prince Charming tumbles instantly for her (and she for him, those breeches…those boots!) and their chemistry is palpable, one can see why Branagh has cast them as Juliet and Romeo in his upcoming theatre residency in London. 

Cast of Cinderella continued

Cast of Cinderella continued

Cast of Cinderella continued

Cast of Cinderella continued

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Review: Nell Gwynn, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The lady’s a wit”

As a director, Jessica Swale has proved herself one of the finest at reinvigorating Restoration comedies and as a writer, has demonstrated a clear interest in illuminating tales of historical women so it is only right that her latest play for the Globe combines these two worlds in a heady rush of delightfully comic theatre. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Nell Gwynn brings to life an ultimate rags-to-riches tale of an East End orange-seller who became a long-time mistress to King Charles II, also finding the time to become the most famous actress of the era along the way, a vital and vibrant part of theatre history. 

The Globe proves itself to be an ideal venue for a show about the theatre and from the moment Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s wonderfully self-possessed Gwynn first calls out from the audience in amongst the groundlings, we’re just as smitten with her as Jay Taylor’s Charles Hart, the leading man du jour who sweeps her under his wing from where she blossoms into the leading performer of their company, ruffling a fair few feathers along the way, especially once she attracts royal attention and discovers matters of heart are also now matters of geopolitics in one of the play’s most striking and amusing scenes. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: The Win Bin, Old Red Lion

“I was actually quite good at swingball you know”

As the National Youth Theatre’s annual West End rep season is about to start up again, it’s rather neat to see one of its key members from last year’s company writing and starring in her own show. Kate Kennedy took on the lead role in the much-maligned Selfie and since then has become the UK Monologue Slam Champion, been Offie-nominated for her acting and shortlisted for the Papatango Prize for The Win Bin, which has been playing at the Old Red Lion these past few weeks.

Co-created with Sara Joyce who directs, The Win Bin is a free-wheeling fantasia which imagines the competitiveness of the arts job market projected into a dystopian near-future. And it’s not all that fantastical either, “the last paid job in the arts” being decided via a Hunger Games-meets-Big-Brother procedure with the final round being a 12 hour assessment day with six people having made it through, all realistically desperate in their own way. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

Review: Octagon, Arcola

“Do poets get to be happy?”

It’s a rare production that really makes you sit up and pay attention but from the moment the percussive handclaps mark the beginnings of Kristiana Rae Colón’s ferocious new play Octagon, its unique energy electrifies the stage of the Arcola. Set in the world of slam poetry, 8 young Chicagoans prepare for lyrical battle but out on the streets of contemporary America, the struggle is painfully real as issues of race, gender and class characterise an inequality they can only protest by using their words.

And what words. Colón hooks her first half around the competition for a much-vaunted spot on Chimney, Chad and Palace’s team as five hopefuls take to the stage to deliver three minutes of poetry to win enough points from the judges. Watched over by Estella Daniels’ utterly magnificent compere who does a magisterial job in working the audience, subjects from Malala to Miley and racial profiling to the sexual gaze rattle round the theatre in some truly mesmerising and memorable performances.

Review: the first half of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Hampstead

“Once more unto the breeches”

Such is the power of Simon Russell Beale that Mr Foote’s Other Leg sold out its run at the Hampstead Theatre before it had even opened and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear news of a West End transfer before too long, given the very good reviews I suspect it will get. So I’m setting out my stall now and saying that whilst it is good, I don’t think it is that good – indeed my companion for the evening found it sufficiently insufferable to demand we leave at the interval.

Beale plays Samuel Foote, an Oscar Wilde or Stephen Fry-like figure in Georgian London whose stock has risen in society to make him quite famous. But as things go up, so too must they come down and Ian Kelly’s play, based on his own biography of Foote, finds a connection with the modern obsession with celebrities and how their downfall is often celebrated as much as their success. From backstage at theatres to the heights of the Royal Society and indeed royal society, Foote soon finds out what happens when the shoe is on the other foot.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Review: The White Feather, Union Theatre

“With principles come responsibilities”

It is perhaps a tacit admission of the complexity of the timeline (1914-2006) of new musical The White Feather that it is explicitly spelled out in the programme, each song accompanied by its time and place which isn’t always abundantly clear from the production, directed by Andrew Keates. Ross Clark and Keates’ book has an admirable scope in trying to draw together narrative strands around cowardice in the Great War, the condition we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, female emancipation, closeted homosexuality, the comparative merits of Ipswich and Paris… but in this short space of time at the Union Theatre and with insufficient clarity, can’t quite do them all justice.

The main story focuses on sixteen year old Suffolk farmer lad Harry Briggs (a suitably petulant Adam Pettigrew) who enthusiastically signs up for the army in 1914, pretending he’s three years older in order to make the cut, but who is soon emotionally brutalised by the horrors of war and the inability of the armed forces to recognise the problem. Executed for cowardice, like over 300 other Allied soldiers, it is left to his sister Georgina (a focused Abigail Matthews) to embark on a lengthy fight for a posthumous pardon, one which also traces her own journey through the troubled times of a country at war and a society in the midst of great upheaval.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Review: Martyr, Unicorn

“I have a normal boy with behavioural problems”

There’s no doubting that the fight against fanaticism is a vital one but what Marius von Mayenburg’s play Martyr picks up on is that there is very little consensus on how to deal with it effectively. And in using fundamentalist Christianity as his hook, he subverts much of how we see radicalism. So it’s an ideal choice for Ramin Gray and the Actors Touring Company to follow up their hit production of The Events with this run at the Unicorn prior to a short UK tour.

Born-again Christian Benjamin is becoming increasingly disruptive at school – unwilling to join in swimming lessons as they’re mixed-sex and decrying classmates’ homosexuality and promiscuity – leaving the adults in his life unsure what to do. His mother and teachers struggle to understand but one teacher, Miss White from his Biology class, opts to tackle him head on, unprepared for the consequences of such an approach.

Re-review: Bend it like Beckham, Phoenix

“Just look at them now”

A third trip back to UB2 and Bend it like Beckham remains a real pleasure (original review / preview). It’s interesting how the release of a show’s cast recording can impact my feelings towards it – being a big Howard Goodall fan, I’ve listened to this OCR a lot and fallen more in love with its music than ever. And in this age of playlists, it’s quite easy to come up with edited highlights that skate over some of the weaker moments to give an idealised version of the production.

That said, going back to the Phoenix Theatre was still highly enjoyable and it’s always fascinating to see how different emphases come through after repeated views. For me, it has been the realisation that the heart of the show lies as much with Jess’ parents, the under-rated Natasha Jayetileke and Tony Jayawardena making us care so deeply about their experiences that have allowed second-generation Jess to reach for the freedom she craves.

Cast of Bend it like Beckham continued

Cast of Bend it like Beckham continued

Friday, 18 September 2015

Re-review: Jane Eyre, National Theatre

"I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind"

I hadn’t intended to go back to Jane Eyre, having already spent a day in Bristol watching it in its original two-part format, but after a rather revelatory experience at Hetty Feather of all places, my new-found appreciation for director Sally Cookson demanded a revisit. Cookson’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s well-loved novel has been conflated into one single performance now, stretching out to three hours and thirty minutes but bursting with theatrical invention that just shimmers with freshness.

To carp about this or that being lost from the novel seems to be to spectacularly miss the point of what is being done here. Cookson and the company devised this production themselves and so it is clearly an interpretation of the material to suit a different medium but also one to carefully avoid any connotations of dourly faithful period drama. Iconoclastic music springs from its very soul (Melanie Marshall remaining as wonderful as I remembered), its spirit delightfully free from start to finish.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Review: The Etienne Sisters, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“I can’t believe my own sister would come with this thievery and anarchy to my door…"

Just a couple of weeks ago, Matt Trueman penned a piece for What’s On Stage about the lack of experimentation in British musical theatre and so the arrival of The Etienne Sisters at the Theatre Royal Stratford East is right on cue. Renewing the creative partnership that produced last year’s smouldering Klook’s Last Stand, this new musical was written by Ché Walker with songs by Anoushka Lucas and additional songs contributed by Sheila Atim (who also starred in Klook’s…), it’s a fascinatingly freeform experiment in jazz virtuosity and soulful discovery.

Led by Nikki Yeoh’s stunning work from the piano, this “play with music” has that music stitched into its very existence, its narrative folds unwind as much from the singing as the speaking to give a thrilling sense of integration to this tale of family strife. Sisters Tree and Ree are mourning the death of their mother and the arrival of their half-sister Bo, who they haven’t spoken to in five years, brings even more disruption to a time of considerable emotional upheaval. But with trouble comes tenderness too, the weight of past history making up for present difficulties. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Review: Creditors, Young Vic

“You’re drawing my secrets from me. You’re pulling out my guts and when you go you’ll leave nothing but an empty shell around you.”

The Genesis Future Directors Award aims to nurture promising talent by plugging them into the creative network of the Young Vic and using this opportunity, 2015 winner Rikki Henry has chosen to present David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors in the Clare Theatre there. Truth be told I’m not the biggest fan of the Swede and so I’ve never actually seen this play before but I know enough to know that Henry has tinkered with it to gay it up just a little.

So Tekla becomes a man and the play becomes a study of the corrosive effects of love gone awry, the love that used to dare not speak its name that is, refracted through the prism of gay marriage. Creative souls Adolph and Tekla are seemingly loved up but their marriage comes under scrutiny when the enigmatic Gustav appears on the scene whilst Tesla is away to successfully plant seeds of doubt in Adolph’s mind and expose what it truly means to give yourself to someone. 

Review: Kinky Boots, Adelphi

“Drag queens are mainstream. Just this morning I was offered a gig singing at a nursing home. A nursing home, Charlie. In Clacton.”

It's taken its time to get here but Kinky Boots has now arrived in some style at the Adelphi Theatre and you can read my 5 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets right here.


Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 6th February

Cast of Kinky Boots continued

Cast of Kinky Boots continued



Review: The Merchant of Venice, RSC at East WinterGarden

“Tell me where is fancy bred”

This was actually the first time I’ve been to the cinema to see some theatre, this being a rare example of the production in question being one that I hadn’t seen. Polly Findlay’s production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC suffered a little by following a most striking one at the Globe and the reviews said as much. But with a little distance, the comparison was much less fresh in my mind and the novelty of this screening – cabaret tables, a bar, interval food from Wagamama – made it a rather fun experience.

Findlay adjusts the balance of her interpretation so that Antonio becomes its centre as well as its titular character, his presence dominates the stage at the beginning and end, his relationship with Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Bassanio so often merely homoerotic made explicitly homosexual. In the midst of Johannes Schütz’s anonymous golden-hued set, their passion is made manifest from the beginning and becomes a driver throughout, marriage to Portia and the commitments it entails take second place.

Cast of The Merchant of Venice continued

Monday, 14 September 2015

Review: Photograph 51, Noël Coward

“The instant I saw the photograph my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race” 

The biggest shame about the long awaited return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage is that it has given many a lazy hack an excuse to rehash ‘that’ Charles Spencer quote without considering just what they are reducing this Academy Award-winning actor to. Which perhaps is an irony that is suited to Photograph 51, the play that has brought her here, a portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin whose role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, of “the secret to life” itself as the publicity breathily puts it, is one that has been shamefully sidelined.

Anna Ziegler’s play explores the life of the research scientist with surprising depth and clarity – there’s no danger of being blinded by science here – as she follows the two rival teams trying to crack the code of the double helix. Franklin was the only woman working on either team and there is no hiding of the fact that she was strong-willed to the point of being obstinate and innately distrustful of those around her, even her King’s College colleagues, and thus showing how personality as much as intelligence had a role to play in the discoveries that were to come.

Re-review: The Commitments, Palace

"Why don't you get out of my life and let me make a new start?"

Cast and crew members across the West End may not agree but I do find it surprising that more shows haven’t gone for the variation of Sunday evening performances in their schedules. Particularly with tourists, it’s a ready-made and captive audience with little else to do in this bustling city and by the looks of the Palace Theatre last night, keen as mustard. That said, it can be something of a trial going out on a Sunday night when a work-filled Monday morning is looming around the corner.

For me though, the chance to see The Commitments one more time before it closes its doors after a run that has lasted more than two years was enough to tempt me out and I’m glad I did as it really is good fun. Technically speaking, it is less of a musical than I would strictly consider, the narrative quickly gives way to a mini-concert at the show’s end but with music as good as this, and an actor-musician cast as talented as this, such crowd-pleasing antics feel entirely forgivable.

Cast of The Commitments continued

Blogged: Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman’s return to the London stage hasn’t even had its press night yet and I am already sick of people rehashing the patronising and belittling Charles Spencer quote from her turn in The Blue Room. Along with the scrutiny that her appearance has long generated, this conveniently ignores the fact that she has won an Academy Award for Best Actress and been nominated twice more and pays little credit to an illustrious acting career that stretches back to the 1990s.

So in order to redress the balance, I’ve been watching and reviewing some of those films as a gentle reminder of what she should be best known for. So we have her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours and her nominated roles in Moulin Rouge and the exquisite Rabbit Hole, plus Cold Mountain for which she was Golden Globe-nominated. I also watched three of her 2014 films – the glorious Paddington, Before I Go To Sleep and the much-beleaguered Grace of Monaco

She’s also collaborated with some interesting people so Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, Jez Butterworth’s Birthday Girl and Lars von Trier’s exceptional Dogville also get a look. And because no-one is perfect, I watch Bewitched and The Stepford Wives so that you don’t have to!

DVD Review: The Hours

“I seem to have fallen out of time"

Based on Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name, I loved 2012 film The Hours from the first time I saw it and still think it a minor masterpiece a three women, each connected by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, try to get through the living of a single day. In the present day, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a NY society hostess planning a party for her AIDS-stricken poet friend; Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a depressed 1950s housewife, unhappily married and pregnant for the second time; and Nicole Kidman plays Woolf herself, battling her own demons whilst writing the book.

From David Hare’s screenplay, Stephen Daldry creates a hugely elegant sweep across time as echoes ripple across the separate narratives – connections built through the smallest of details recurring as each woman variously deals with repressed longing, the fear of a life not lived to its fullest, the hours that keep on passing. Kidman (and her prosthetic nose) may have won the Academy Award and she is very good but for my money, it is Moore’s anguished housewife who should have won the plaudits, such is the intensity she brings to the role. 

DVD Review: Rabbit Hole

“Things aren’t nice any more”

London has yet to see the theatrical premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole as the Joanne Froggatt-starring production mooted for the Vaudeville late last year was postponed due to scheduling issues and with no further news about it forthcoming. Which is possibly a good thing for me as on watching the film version, the ugly crying it reduced me to once again is not something I’d want to replicate in a theatre!

Rabbit Hole is a simple but stunning look at the way that families deal with loss, specifically the loss of a child, and what if anything can be done to help acknowledge and move on from such a tragedy. Danny and Becca’s 4 year old Danny died in a car accident outside their house 8 months ago and it has shattered them. Caught in their own worlds of grief, their friends and family look on helplessly as they drift apart, unaware or unwilling to accept the help on offer. 

DVD Review: Cold Mountain

"This war, this awful war, will have changed us both beyond all reckoning"

You gotta love Hollywood – who else to lead a film about the American Civil War than a Brit and an Australian directed by another Brit. But such is Cold Mountain – Jude Law and Nicole Kidman starring for director Anthony Minghella – a surprisingly enjoyable watch for someone who doesn’t really like war films nor has that much interest in this period of US history. It tells the story of a wounded deserter (Law) from the Confederate army close to the end of the war, who is on his long-winded way to return to the love of his life (Kidman).

The road-trip element of the film allows for some beautiful episodes to emerge as Law’s Inman treks across the country – Eileen Atkins’ gruff goatwoman with her healing compassion, Natalie Portman’s distraught young widowed mother, Cillian Murphy’s conflicted Yankee soldier, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s perverted man of God, Giovanni Ribisi’s opportunistic hustler. Through them we see how the conflict is reshaping the nation and the lengths to which people are forced to go in order to get by in war-torn society, not least Inman himself. 

DVD Review: Moulin Rouge

“I’m paid to make men believe what they want to believe” 

‘Spectacular, spectacular!’ It’s donkey’s years since I’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 hit film Moulin Rouge, I probably watched it too many times in a short period of time so I remember declaring myself over it but for a goodly while, I was very much under its spell. And giving it another spin now reminded me why. Its bold and brash vision is just as arresting today as it was over a decade ago and the sheer cinematic vision that it indulges in as sumptuous and inventive as any pastiche-jukebox musical (gotta love a Wikipedia descriptor!) made since, managing that rare feat for a musical of being nominated for best film at the Oscars.

From the fiercely romantic and indeed passionate love story between penniless writer Christian (a fresh-faced Ewan McGregor) and ailing star courtesan Satine (a luminous Nicole Kidman, to a soundtrack that iconoclastically cherry-picks musical snippets from the entire 20th century to create a fabuous collage of sonic invention, the film leaps from the screen with glitter and glee. The costume and production design (Angus Strathie, Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch) is lavish beyond belief, the choreography recalls a marvelous sense of Parisian decadence and the whole thing constantly teeters on the brink of overwhelming.

DVD Review: Paddington

“I’m going to stuff you, bear”

A rather unexpectedly lovely surprise from the end of last year whose key message of acceptance of foreigners feels ever more pertinent in the current circumstances. Paul King’s Paddington, based on Michael Bond’s classic creation, has that warm feel of a classic family film, full of set-pieces and humour and a deal of minor peril, but none so much as to really make you scared. Instead, there’s a glowing happiness that almost (sadly) feels as old-fashioned as a marmalade sandwich.

As if you didn’t know, Paddington comes from darkest Peru and a wittily filmed black and white prologue shows us how a British geographer called Montgomery Clyde befriended his family in the jungle, eventually leaving with a promise of a place to stay should they ever visit London. When circumstances conspire to leave Paddington alone on a railway platform in W2, he’s taken in by the Brown family and capers ensue.

Cast of Paddington continued

DVD Review: Before I Go To Sleep

"You have problems remembering things"

I do like a psycho-thriller and Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of SJ Watson’s novel Before I Go To Sleep from 2014 offers up a good example of the genre (with a great poster campaign too), if a little formulaic by the end. Nicole Kidman’s Christine wakes up every morning not knowing who or where she is. The man next to her (an excellently confounding Colin Firth) says he is her husband Ben and explains that she had an accident ten years ago which left her brain-damaged and unable to remember things beyond the day she recalls them. 

Consultant neurologist Dr Nasch (the inscrutable Mark Strong) is helping her though, providing her with a video camera to record her thoughts and mark any progress, with him calling her every morning to remind her to watch the video, and piece by piece, she begins to uncover the truth not just about what happened to her in the past but also what is happening in the future. Joffé does well at showing the claustrophobia of Christine’s existence, unable to really discern between help and hindrance in those who say they are protecting her, and a real sense of menace is present throughout.

DVD Review: Grace of Monaco

“The idea of my life as a fairytale is itself a fairytale”

The recent biopic Diana is a highwater point in films-that-are-so-bad-they’re-good and when Grace of Monaco was similarly lampooned by the unforgiving Cannes audiences, my hopes were raised for an enjoyable time of it. But sadly, Grace of Monaco fails at even being entertaining in its shitness, it is just seriously, badly, dull. Olivier Dahan’s direction is preposterous (those close-ups) and ill-thought-through (more of those close-ups!) and Arash Amel’s script is lazy in the extreme (it plays fast and loose with historical fact for no appreciable gain) and utterly misguided (it asks us to root for the protection of Monaco as a tax haven, save the poor rich people…).

Set at a time of constitutional crisis for the principality as Charles de Gaulle sought to incorporate it into mainland France, the film asks us to believe that Princess Grace, whilst selflessly turning down a return to the Hollywood career that made her name, was able to solve all these crises by winning the hearts of the people with a few French lessons and breaking the French government’s resolve (and apparently solving the war in Algeria) with some simpering speech-making. Never mind that the most of it has been made up by Amel, it is just frightfully dull in the telling of it. Nicole Kidman looks suitably like the epitome of Old Hollywood glamour but cannot do anything to inject any life here.

DVD Review: Dogville

"If one had the power to put it to right it was one's duty to do so - for the sake of other towns, for the sake of humanity"

Lars von Trier’s films are usually highly divisive (for the people working on them as much as the people watching them) but I have to say I love Dogville. Perhaps love is the wrong word for so brutal a film but I just find it so fascinating in the way that it exposes humanity for who we really are and the depths to which we too easily sink in the name of self-interest.

Visually it is unique as it strips away all the artifice of the film set to leave nothing but chalk outlines of the scenery of the Colorado mountain township of Dogville where the story takes place. Such a bare staging heightens the theatricality of the piece and also its nature as a parable, one that those who dislike the film seem intent to ignore, an irony von Trier would certainly relish. 

DVD Review: Birthday Girl

“Are you a giraffe?”

Birthday Girl is a rather odd little thing, a 2001 film from Jez Butterworth (he of Jerusalem) that seemed to slip under the radar somewhat. It’s not brilliant but by the same token it isn’t terrible either and plenty worse films have made bigger waves. Ben Chaplin’s John is hapless in St Albans (is there anything else you can be there? ;-)), having no luck in love and so resorting to getting himself a Russian mail-order bride called Nadia. She turns up in the form of Nicole Kidman, who else, and though she can’t speak a word of English, she indulges his S&M fantasies and so job’s, it would seem, a good’un.

But it’s no happily ever after, Nadia’s two rough cousins soon turn up on the doorstep (played by Frenchmen Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, assumedly because the Russians were out on the day they were casting?) and John’s job as a bank clerk turns out to be rather important. Their unpredictable violence pulls John deep into a morass of deception and criminality but after the mid-film twists take place, the movie runs out of energy and trundles towards a rather uninspired ending that no amount of random Brit cameos (Ben Miller, Reece Shearsmith) can rescue.

DVD Review: Bewitched


"I want my hair to be thwarted by the weather”

Another year another TV remake – following from the really-not-very-good-at-all The Stepford Wives in the Kidman canon came 2005’s Bewitched. I’ve never seen the TV series so the idea of a meta-theatrical film version did not appeal then and nor did it impress when I finally watched it in 2015. Written and directed by rom-com queen Nora Ephron, with sister Delia Ephron co-writing too, it ought to be have been much more charming affair than it is, but laden with a weak plot, appallingly thin characterisation and a concept that doesn’t really know what it wants, it’s hard to sit through.

Trying to avoid doing a straight remake, the Ephrons decided instead to make a story about a fading film star who decides to join a TV remake of Bewitched and ends up casting a real witch who has decided to renounce her powers and live in the real world as Samantha, a character who is a witch who has decided to renounce her powers and live in the real world… Which might have worked but for the lack of chemistry between leads Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, the awfulness of Ferrell’s character which makes the idea of anyone falling in love with him laughable and a supporting world whose considerable talents are wasted.

DVD Review: The Stepford Wives

"All the women around here are perfect sex-kitten bimbos. All the men are drooling nerds. Doesn't that seem strange?”

There’s something pretty amazing about how bad the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, especially given the acting talent it managed to accrue. Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler…all tempted by Ira Levin’s original novel and director Frank Oz and all abused by the Hollywood machine at its very worst. I knew a little of the film’s troubled history beforehand but I think my favourite tidbit on reading up on it was finding out that Kidman refused to attend the premiere and decided instead to go to the Tonys to give Hugh Jackman an award.

It’s all the more frustrating that the raw ingredients were definitely there for something special. The satire of 1950s US society and in particular its notion of femininity remains as pointedly relevant as ever and as we’re introduced to Kidman’s Joanna Eberhart, a reality TV producer who is fired after pushing the boundaries too far, the updating seems to make sense. Swept away to the Connecticut town of Stepford by husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) to start a new life, it soon becomes apparent that there’s something up with the neighbours.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review: VOLTA Festival 2015, Arcola

“The problem with Hannes is…”

One can always rely on the Arcola to bring interesting writing to light and in the form of the VOLTA International Festival, Artistic Director Andrea Ferran has managed that four times over, bringing together new work by four celebrated international writers, translated into English for the first time - Christopher Chen, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Ewald Palmetshofer and Roland Schimmelpfennig. With four directors, James Perkins designing and an ensemble covering all the shows, it proved to be a fascinating festival and one which deserves more attention than it received.

Caught by San Francisco-based Christopher Chen twists wonderfully around notions of truth and fiction as three separate but interlinked scenes toy with how art plays with and changes under our perceptions. Cressida Brown’s direction cleverly plays up how we all find our own truth in everything, no matter how the subject is approached, preconceived notions shaping us even as they’re deconstructed and always, always making us think about what we’ve just seen. Chen takes no prisoners in the complexity of some of his thinking but it’s fascinating stuff indeed.

Cast of VOLTA continued

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Review: See What I Wanna See, Jermyn Street

“I only told you the truth…”

After directing its European amateur premiere back in 2006, Adam Lenson now presents the London debut of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Formally challenging and musically experimental, this modern musical is based on three short stories by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, all circling around the elusive nature of truth and how faith and deception can shift and skew its perspective.

Set in Medieval Japan, the opening tale of Kesa and Morito is split in two, acting as a prologue to both acts as a pair of lovers come to the end of a tumultuous relationship. R Shomon fast-forwards to a film noir version of 1951 New York where a murder has been committed but multiple versions of what happened are muddying the picture. And in Gloryday, a disillusioned priest in 2002 New York sees a hoax snowball way out of his control. 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Re-review: Matilda the Musical, Cambridge Theatre

“Please don't cry, dry your eyes, wipe away your tears"

Despite naming it my show of the year in 2011 (or maybe because of that), I’ve not been back to see Matilda the Musical since it opened at the Cambridge Theatre four years ago. I had such the perfect emotional journey with the show that I just didn’t want to alter that experience by going back and risking it being something of a disappointment, especially with such impossibly high standards to live up to from that amazing original cast and Bertie Carvel’s iconic Mrs Trunchbull.

Four years is long enough though I think, and when the opportunity to revisit the show presented itself, I accepted the offer with just a little trepidation. Those nerves were quickly dispelled, even as soon as entering the theatre to witness the infectious enthusiasm of an audience of all ages, and the reassuring sight of Rob Howell’s design with its multi-coloured letters strewn across the set. And as Laurie Perkins’ orchestra launched into the familiar strains of ‘Miracle’, my heart leapt and I wondered how I had left it this long.

Cast of Matilda continued

Cast of Matilda continued

Review: Brave New World, Royal and Derngate

“Everyone belongs to everyone else”

Depictions of dystopian near-future worlds are two-a-penny these days so what makes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World so striking is that it was written in 1932. Its foretelling of a society dominated by technology, loveless sex and capitalist greed has obvious resonance today and so it makes sense for a stage adaptation, co-produced by Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and The Touring Consortium Theatre Company. Dawn King, she of the excellent Foxfinder, discreetly reshapes the narrative to its new form but doesn’t actually interfere too much with the source material.

Creatively, director James Dacre has gathered an excellent team around him who deliver great results in Naomi Dawson’s impressive retro-futuristic design Original music by These New Puritans mixes with George Dennis’ icy sound design to provide a vivid soundscape, and Colin Grenfell’s lighting complements Keith Skretch’s video work to create a strong visual aesthetic that probably errs to high-end contemporary rather than all-out futuristic, its targeted advertisements, corporate shininess and civil liberties-impinging data collection already a reality. 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: Lela & Co., Royal Court

“A story that becomes true in the telling”

As a director who has put live pigs on the stage (in last year’s I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole), a certain degree of expectation now comes from a Jude Christian production but I don’t think anyone could have expected the brilliantly punishing lengths to which she pushes Lela & Co. Royal Court debutant Cordelia Lynn’s play is already a masterly piece of theatrical writing – essentially a monologue but one that is interrupted and challenged by other voices, questioning the veracity of what is being told.

In the glitzy world of Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set, caught somewhere between circus and chat show, Katie West’s Lela begins the telling of her life story. A torrent of words flow from her like champagne bubbles from a glass, the effervescence of her descriptions of the rural traditions of her extended family life, dominated by the totemic figure of her father as the only man in a house full of women. But hints of darkness peek through even at this seemingly innocuous time and as her life takes a desperately tragic turn for the worse, Lela’s life (and by extension our experience) becomes an unforgettable journey.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Review: Parade, London Theatre Workshop

“Not much survives of the old hills of Georgia

J
ason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade is a brutally effective piece of musical theatre, based on a harrowing turn-of-the-century true story of racism and anti-Semitism, child-murder and mob mentality, set to a wide-ranging and often challenging score. Last seen in London at the Southwark Playhouse, Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop go for another small-scale staging, directed by Jody Tranter, the intimacy of which again plays to the strength of the piece. 

Bringing a 13-strong company into such a small space is something of a challenge but a necessary one in order give the real sense of the full scope of a community at odds with each other. Tranter manages it well though with a fluid sense of pace swirling around Harry Johnson and Justin Williams’ inventive set design and ably assisted by some ingeniously conceived choreography from Adam Scown, bringing a real intricate power to the ensemble numbers.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Review: Hetty Feather, Duke of York’s

“I want to be a servant girl”

There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have gotten to see Hetty Feather were it not an early 11th birthday present for my niece but I’m mighty glad that I did as it proved to be a most unexpectedly enchanting piece of theatre. She’s a big fan of Jacqueline Wilson’s original novel whilst I’d barely heard of her at all but Sally Cookson’s hugely inventive production of Emma Reeves’ adaptation managed to charm both of us (and make both of us cry in the second act!)

Cookson frames her stage within circus apparatus designed by Katie Sykes, a climbing frame with ropes and silks and trapezes which the company climb and clamber and swing with fearless acrobatic skill, which shapes the playful feel of the whole show. Phoebe Thomas’ Hetty has all the mischievous character of the most compelling of protagonists, a troupe of performing horses are hilariously conjured with plumes and even an elephant named Elijah comes to pay a visit.

Review: Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre with TodayTix

“I'll do my dance, I'll make them drink"

I’m pretty there’s a clause in the gay contract that means it is illegal to turn down the offer of drinks in the Julie Andrews room so who was I to resist when the folks at TodayTix invited me to try out their mobile ticketing app by coming along to see Miss Saigon. Founders Merritt Baer and Brian Fenty have had big success on Broadway with their service, offering tickets for a range of shows one week to one hour before showtime and boasting of enabling tickets to be purchased in 30 seconds or less.

And I have to say that they’ve pretty much nailed it. The interface of the app is bright and easy to use (certainly it was on my iPhone6), there’s a wide range of West End shows available and the process of choosing and booking tickets at all price levels is simple and speedy with a little seatmap showing you where in the theatre your selected seats are. It really does streamline the ticket-buying process so that making any last minute decisions to see a show that much easier.

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 2

"We are bound on a wheel on pain"

The first series of Penny Dreadful may not have been perfect but I really rather liked it and was glad to hear a second season had been commissioned. And when I discovered the triple whammy of Helen McCrory and Simon Russell Beale being promoted to series regulars, Billie Piper’s distracting Oirish brogue being excised and Patti LuPone appearing as a guest star, I was in heaven. Saving up the 10 episodes to binge-watch on holiday also worked well for me, ain’t technology grand!

Having established its world of gothic Victoriana, John Logan’s writing picks up some of the strands of the first series’ finale - the consequences of sometime-werewolf Ethan’s bloodbath being chased up by a tenacious policeman and Victor Frankenstein’s newest creation inspiring an unlikely love triangle. But it succeeds most by re-introducing McCrory’s Evelyn Poole as a series-long villain as the head of a witches coven and maker of some of the creepiest puppet dolls you have ever seen – it’s no secret I love her but this really is a career highlight for this most superb of actresses.