Monday, 30 November 2015

Review: The Distance, Orange Tree

“I’ve just had a text from Lewisham council”

I hadn’t intended to revisit Deborah Bruce’s The Distance but a quick re-read of my review from its original production at the Orange Tree last year reminded me how much I enjoyed it (even beyond the thrill of seeing Helen Baxendale on stage for the first time). This new co-production between the Richmond venue and Sheffield Theatres sees director Charlotte Gwinner remount the show with a largely new cast but still a keen sense for the darkly comic edge of the writing.

It remains as freshly sharp in its views on modern parenthood as ever, pointing up the hypocrisy of a society that blithely looks on by if a man leaves his family but is aghast should a mother do the same. And as a shell-shocked Bea returns alone from her adoptive Australia to the bosom of her best friends Kate and Alex , both parents themselves, back in Blighty, everyone's preconceptions, personalities and peccadilloes are challenged.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Review: Little Eyolf, Almeida

“Is it just road-making that’s put you in such a good mood?”

Richard Eyre’s revelatory take on Ibsen’s Ghosts was a deserving multiple Olivier winner last year so it is little surprise to see the Almeida asking him back for more, this time taking on one of his later plays Little Eyolf. And as with Ghosts, the play has been coaxed and condensed into interval-free intensity, the perfect frame for its arresting modernity.

And it is surprising, as though written in 1894, its portrayal of fraught sexual tension in a marriage is as direct and frank a exploration of female sexuality (and sexual desire) as any playwright has come up with since. In the cooling calm of Tim Hatley’s set, Rita Allmers is a wife and mother but finds those roles in conflict as she resents son Eyolf for distracting husband Alfred’s attentions away from her.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Review: Here We Go, National Theatre

"Are those the pearly gates?" 

Almost like buses, you wait for a new Caryl Churchill play and two come along - Escaped Alone will play at the Royal Court in the New Year but up first is Here We Go at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke. Described as "a short play about death", it clocks in at 45 minutes but depending on how you fare with it, it may seem like longer... 

Churchill has split her musings on mortality into a triptych of distinct but related scenarios. The first scene sees the playwright deploy her characteristic linguistic playfulness on a group of mourners at a funeral, their fragmented chit-chat skirting around the larger issues, their individual asides to the audience riffing beautifully on the coda to Six Feet Under's magisterial finale (of all things). 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Review: Jest End, Waterloo East

“Oh God I cannot stand this cow
But let’s act happy for now”

As with Forbidden Broadway, your enjoyment of Jest End relies heavily on a considerable familiarity with the theatrical landscape that it is poking fun at – the productions, the performers, the producers, the private in-jokes that make it tough to recommend for the uninitiated. Garry Lake’s musical revue premiered in 2007 and through a number of productions, updated each time, has adapted familiar showtunes and used them to parody the frolics and foibles of the West End and beyond.

So ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked becomes ‘Rely On Me The Lead’, Matilda’s ‘The Smell of Rebellion’ turns into ‘Jest End of Rebellion’, ‘Memphis Lives In Me’ from Memphis becomes ‘My Fans Believe In Me’ etc etc. And issues like celebrity casting, ticket prices and the business practices of certain West End (and off-West End) impresarios are raked over the coals, but always with a twinkle in the eye even in the satire’s sharpest barbs. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4

“All we can do is hang on”

Rather incredibly, given the number of crime dramas there are, Cuffs is actually the BBC’s first police procedural since 2007’s Holby Blue (according to Wikipedia at least), but a rather good one it is too. Creator Julie Gearey has set the show in Brighton and its environs, the territory of the South Sussex Police service, and the first four episodes (which entertained me on a train journey back from Amsterdam) started Cuffs off so strongly that I wanted to recommend it now whilst you can still catch them all on the iPlayer.

The opening episodes are jam-packed with incident, the first part alone crammed child abduction, stolen JCBs, stabbings and a racist released from prison to give a strong sense of the relentless pace of life in the force but the writing has been particularly strong in demonstrating the peculiar demands of modern policing. Traditional boundaries of respect have been torn down so we see the police punched, spat on, and kicked in the face and also having to deal with rubberneckers filming accident scenes on their phone, and members of the public chancing their arm with harassment claims.

Cast of Cuffs continued

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Review: Evening at the Talk House, National Theatre

“You have to want to care what’s going to happen to these characters”

There’s a sequence towards the end of Evening at the Talk House where a character says things along the lines of ‘I’m so bored’, ‘I’m ready to die’ and ‘please help me get out of here’ and never have truer words been spoken. That last one might have been an internal voice though as the grinding horror of this new Wallace Shawn play rolled inexorably on. In some ways, I have no excuse. The one and only time I’ve seen his work before saw indignities inflicted on none other than Miranda Richardson, left to pretend to be a cat licking Shawn’s bald head, and so I had fair warning of Shawn’s singular style.

But it’s a style that I find utterly baffling. As a thespy crowd meet for a long awaited reunion at their old members club, they reminisce and chat effusively and endlessly about this actor who used to be in that TV show or that actress in this TV show – all made up ones of course – to a point of mind-numbing inanity. And in this version of the world, there’s a dystopian state-sponsored execution programme wiping out enemies of the state (and plenty more besides) which is carried out by out-of-work actors like many of the crew here. They also get served canapés about which they chatter excitedly, which is nice I suppose. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Review: The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

“You wouldn't understand my works. You wouldn't have the faintest idea of what they were about. You wouldn't appreciate the points of reference.”

It’s good to know that theatre directors are only human too - anyone in their right mind who watched Channel 4 drama Humans over the summer would have noted Gemma Chan delivering one of the performances of the year in any medium and naturally wanted her in on their projects. She has been working for a while in film, TV and theatre but now she’s now appearing in Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Jamie Lloyd has secured her services on stage in his new production of The Homecoming.

Truth be told though, I needed someone that exciting to tempt me to see it as I don’t much get on with Pinter, I’ve never had that breakthrough moment with any of his works to make me what received wisdom assures me is there. And whilst I wouldn’t go quite so far to say I’m a complete convert, I can honestly say I haven’t ever enjoyed a Pinter production as much as this one. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming but though firmly anchored in its 1960s milieu, Lloyd imbues the play with a strongly contemporary dramatic feel that is hard to resist.

Review: Glazen Speelgoed, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

"Ik vind het beangstigend hoe ze zomaar wat leeft"

Marking Sam Gold’s directorial debut outside of his native US, Glazen Speelgoed sees him do wonderful things to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Dutch company proving a perfect match for this striking reinterpretation. Released from the tyranny of the Southern accent (at least, I don’t think their Flemish was accented…) and though placed into a loosely contemporary setting, the production achieves a similar kind of timelessness to van Hove’s A View From The Bridge, the original recast and refreshed, new angles and facets accentuated in the glass. 

Above all, the Wingfields have never felt so real, the family dynamic centred on Laura’s disability and her need for frequent physiotherapy. The ritual of massages and stretches reinforces the bond between mother-daughter-son, the intense feeling between them, but also the drudgery of their lives and the straitened circumstances in which they get by. Amanda’s need for gentlemen callers to propose to her daughter thus becomes a desperate strategy for financial security, the oppressive weight on Tom’s shoulders as the sole wage-earner in the household that much more powerfully felt.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem

"Ik heb nog nooit zoiets merkwaardigs gezien als hoe die twee met elkaar omgaan”

Though considered one of the most important contemporary Belgian writers, Hugo Claus’s renown hasn’t stretched much outside of the Flemish-speaking world. So it is perhaps fitting that I saw Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of his Een Bruid in de Morgen (A Bride in the Morning) at the Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem in its native language, without the English surtitles that are so usefully provided on Thursdays at their main base in the Dutch capital.

I was well up for the challenge though, not least because the show fell under the auspices of their emerging directors programme TA-2 - nurturing the Ivo van Hoves of the future – and through which I saw Julie Van den Burgh’s extraordinary reinterpretation of Blood Wedding back in 2013. This time round, it is Norwegian Maren E Bjørseth getting the opportunity to work with the ensemble company, taking the show around the Netherlands.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Review: The Father, Wyndham’s

“How long are you going to keep on getting on our tits for?”

It’s hard, trying to wean yourself off an addiction to theatre. You make decisions about what to see, or more accurately what not to see, and then have to stick by them. But then the damn plays get West End transfers and so the resolve has to be reinstated and redoubled, the increasing glowing recommendations from friends ignored. So it will come as no surprise that in the case of Florian Zeller’s The Father, first seen in London at the Tricycle and then moved to the Wyndham’s, I cracked.

I should state that my primary reasons for not going were not about the quality of this Theatre Royal Bath production, but rather that I’d been warned it would make me cry a lot and I don’t much like being distraught in theatres (or cinemas for that matter, I had to wait for Amour to come out on DVD before daring to watch it and rightly so). And as a portrayal of, or a theatrical assumption of, the experience of a dementia-riddled mind, it is certainly most affecting.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Review: The Fountainhead, deSingel Antwerpen

"I could die for you, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t live for you”

It feels almost heretical to say that one wasn’t blown away by an Ivo van Hove production but The Fountainhead managed that. In fact, it’s not even the first time, The Antonioni Project similarly failed to excite me in the same way that the best of his work with Toneelgroep Amsterdam has done. Linking these two shows is my lack of fore-knowledge of either, I’ve yet to see an Antonioni film and likewise, I’d never read Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel (mainly because people had told me it was such hard work). 

Which isn’t to say that advance homework is absolutely necessary, there’s a whole world of thinkpieces to be written on enjoying or appreciating a work of theatre on its own merits, but that when that theatre is as multilayered and complex as van Hove is wont to produce (and also in a foreign language, I was at an unsurtitled performance for once), it can only help. As such, this delving deep into the world of anticollectivism was one of the more challenging four hours I’ve spent in a theatre.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Re-review: Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined, Criterion

"With a dream in your heart you're never alone"

From the moment you enter the Criterion Theatre to see the amazing patchworked carpet effect of Christine Jones and Brett Banakis’ set design with its onstage sofas – some even suspended in mid-air – it’s clear to see that there’s something special about Close To You Bacharach Reimagined. Transferred from a successful summer run at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where it had the slightly different title of What’s It All About?), the show now offers its shimmering warmth and endless charm to get us through the darkening autumn nights.

And that patchwork effect is one that mirrors the nature of the show itself. Conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer, Close To You offers up fresh reinterpretations of Burt Bacharach’s considerable songbook but rather than a straight set of song after song, the material is woven into a rich tapestry of medleys, repeated refrains, lyrical connections and snatches of melodies – an audacious reimagining but one that is hugely effective as it acts as a reminder of the extraordinary body of work Bacharach has composed with lyricist Hal David among others.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

TV Review: River

“We’re all shattered underneath really, aren’t we”

The second part of Nicola Walker’s cross-channel takeover of crime drama has been BBC1’s River. An altogether different prospect to ITV’s Unforgotten, Abi Morgan’s six-parter is aesthetically closer to the Nordic noir of which TV audiences seem unendingly enamoured but still manages to find its unique niche in a crowded marketplace. The Scandi feel is enhanced by the genuine casting coup of Stellan Skarsgård as DI John River but what marks out River are the people around him.

Chief among these is Walker’s Stevie, DS Stevenson, who we meet straightaway and instantly get a feel for their closeness of their professional relationship as they tackle crime on the streets of London. But what is brilliantly done is the shift from buddy cop show to something altogether darker as [major spoiler alert] we find out at the end of episode 1 that Stevie is dead, murdered recently, and River is in fact imagining her presence at his side, even to the extent of regularly conversing with her.

Cast of River continued

Re-review: Kinky Boots, Adelphi

“Funk it up till it's ostentatious
Dress it up, it feels contagious”

Now extended through to May next year, the signs for Kinky Boots look cautiously positive though nothing is certain in the cut-throat world of new musicals and on this second viewing, it really does feel like a well-deserved success. Jerry Mitchell’s production is a ray of tightly choreographed, dragged-up sunshine but what I loved about going back was finding that several of the tunes from Cyndi Lauper’s accomplished score have successfully navigated earworm territory to become properly memorable. 

‘Everybody Say Yeah’ and ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ end the show’s two acts in brilliantly rousing fashion, ‘Sex is in the Heel’ and ‘What A Woman Wants’ give Matt Henry’s Lola ample opportunity to fill the stage with exuberant personality and Amy Lennox continues to pretty much steal the show, not least in ‘The History of Wrong Guys’. And Killian Donnelly effortlessly smooths over some of Charlie’s more dubious character flaws (poor Nicola…) by scorching through hits like ‘Soul of a Man’.

Cast of Kinky Boots continued

Cast of Kinky Boots continued

Monday, 16 November 2015

Review: The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead

“The people of Tunbridge Wells seemed strangely indifferent to Parsifal”

Urgh. The presence of national treasures Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam meant that there was never any doubt about booking a ticket for The Moderate Soprano at the Hampstead Theatre. But sequestered in the salubrious surroundings of Swiss Cottage, David Hare’s tale of the life of John Christie - the founder of the Glyndebourne opera festival - has the feel of ultimate #firstworldproblems with zero theatrical imperative behind it, unless of course you’re the ones dropping £200 plus for tickets there.

The very fact that Glyndebourne were involved in the commissioning of the play tells you what level we’re operating on, a self-congratulatory tome of rose-tinted biography and operatic in-jokes but even that makes it sound more interesting than it actually is. Jeremy Herrin’s production is extraordinarily, fatally, lacking in anything resembling drama for a large proportion of its running time, its staid storytelling quickening no pulses, its static staging troubling no snoozers.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Review: The Seagull, Chichester Festival Theatre


Didn't feel much like writing about the Young Chekhov season today (or going to be quite honest, but tickets and travel were booked), so I'm just ranking the three plays for now.






Review: Ivanov, Chichester Festival Theatre

















Didn't feel much like writing about the Young Chekhov season today (or going to be quite honest, but tickets and travel were booked), so I'm just ranking the three plays for now.

Cast of Ivanov continued

Review: Platonov, Chichester Festival Theatre


Didn't feel much like writing about the Young Chekhov season today (or going to be quite honest, but tickets and travel were booked), so I'm just ranking the three plays for now.

Cast of Platonov continued

Friday, 13 November 2015

Film Review: The Lady in the Van

“You wouldn't see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”

It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park. 

This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life. 

Cast of The Lady in the Van continued

Cast of The Lady in the Van continued



Thursday, 12 November 2015

TV Review: Unforgotten

“All these cases where people pretends to be one thing for half a century and then turn out to be something else”

The insanity that is the scheduling wars between the BBC and ITV often throws up random anomalies but rarely has the result been something as rewarding as a surfeit of Nicola Walker. Having recently made River for the BBC and Unforgotten for ITV, both police dramas were premiered in the same week and as six-part dramas, are reaching their climax at the same time too. And what has been particularly pleasing is the fact that both have proved to be highly watchable and interesting takes on the genre.

Chris Lang’s Unforgotten focused on a cold case from nearly 40 years ago as skeletal remains are found in the basement of a derelict house and in the cleverly constructed first episode, the four disparate characters that we have been following are eventually tied together as their phone numbers are found in the victim’s diary. Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaskar’s DS Sunny Khan soon identify him as a Jimmy Sullivan but the show focuses as much on the effect of long-buried secrets on the potential suspects as it does on the case itself.

Cast of Unforgotten continued

Review: The Odyssey, Almeida/Live-stream

“I’m stunned with wonder”

When Rupert Goold first announced the #AlmeidaGreeks season with all its familiar titles, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how genuinely epic a sweep of theatrical innovation it would usher in. From the extraordinary Oresteia to the shattering Bakkhai and Medea, the radical main house programme has been supported by a wide range of supplementary activity, not least the 16 hour, 60+ actor retelling of The Iliad (which can now be viewed in full on the Almeida website).

So it’s only natural that as the season draws to an end, it is bookended by another Homeric extravaganza in The Odyssey, again with 60 odd actors participating in a 12 hour non-stop feat of major storytelling which was live-streamed on t’internet. And conscious of raising the ante, directors Rupert Goold and Robert Icke took us on a literal journey, putting the players in taxicabs, boats, buses, trekking across rooftops and down busy streets to bring Ithaca to Islington as Odysseus winds his way home.

Cast of The Odyssey continued

Cast of The Odyssey continued

Cast of The Odyssey continued

Cast of The Odyssey continued

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Review: Vampire Hospital Waiting Room, Above the Arts

"Do you want to know what Old Kent Road smells like?"

Beach Comet's Edinburgh hit Vampire Hospital Waiting Room has transferred to the sweatbox Above the Arts Theatre for a short but sweet run and still has a bit of that festival mindset about it, not least in a starting time of 10pm. But Theo McCabe and Craig Methven's comedy musical is worth extending your bedtime for and if you choose use the time before to take a glass or two, then all to the good.

Not that I'm advocating drinking before the show but rather that it is so gloriously daft, that lowered inhibitions can only help your enjoyment of the evening. Describing itself as a comedy B-musical, it's an hour of low budget but high octane entertainment, loopy characters like the vampire-obsessed Dr Bloom and the comatose Artie, charmingly silly songs like 'Let's Put The Fun in Funeral', and no end of cracking comic dialogue.

Review: French Without Tears, Orange Tree

“If I’m left alone with her for a minute, I shudder to think what might happen”

You wait years for a production of a rarely produced Rattigan comedy and sure enough, two come along at once. Kenneth Branagh has revived Harlequinade in the West End as part of his takeover of the Garrick but nipping in first was Paul Miller, putting on French Without Tears at Richmond’s Orange Tree. As with Harlequinade, one can see why these plays haven’t been produced more often and certainly more recently, they’re definitely old-fashioned in many ways but with the care they receive here, enlightening too.

French Without Tears was actually Rattigan’s first major hit, set at a private language school where five bright young things are crash-learning French in order to meet the requirements for entering the diplomatic service. But the only thing on their mind is matters of the heart as the boys find their head completely and utterly turned by femme-fatale-in-the-making Diana and this putative tussle between the sexes is literally about it as the boys find solace in each other’s company as they struggle to control their urges in the face of flirtatious women.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Review: Waste, National Theatre

"The stateman's task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that"

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite. 

Cast of Waste continued

Monday, 9 November 2015

Review: A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Tricycle

“A thick, golden-brown, brickhouse goddess of voluptuous lusciousness”

Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand was something of a triumph for the Tricycle last year so it is little surprise that Indhu Rubasingham has returned to the playwright for a new production there, A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes. An adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe, it shifts the action from seventeenth century Paris to modern-day Atlanta and the world of mega-churches but maintains the air of hypocrisy around its lead character, here renamed Tardimus Toof.

Toof’s church is in a parlous financial position and having long sold himself as having healing powers, turns to fried chicken tycoon Archibald Organdy to lay his hands and fleece his pockets. His lascivious eye, which has wandered over many a female parishioner as he “undresses sin”, turns to Organdy’s mistress Peaches – a never-better Adjoa Andoh – even with Sharon D Clarke’s imperious wife a considerable presence both in church and at home.

Review: Anita and Me, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Now here's a little story
To tell it is a must”

One gets the feeling that had Anita and Me decided whether it wanted to be a full-blown musical or a straight play adorned by a little music, it might have been a much more successful version of Meera Syal’s novel. But as it is, Tanika Gupta’s adaptation and Roxana Silbert’s direction is marooned in a hinterland between the two, packed too full with material trying to fulfil both remits and so it can be quite the frustrating watch.

The source material is definitely there, Syal’s semi-autobiographical portrait of growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s is full of insight and warmly old-fashioned charm. Cosseted in the vibrant home of her Punjabi parents, Meena’s teenage rebellion takes the form of throwing her lot in with neighbour Anita to help her better integrate into the society she longs to be a part of, something complicated only slightly by the ingrained racism of said society.

Blogged: Olivia Williams

I do love me a bit of Olivia Williams, so was more than disappointed that Waste at the National Theatre didn't float my boat. Fortunately, she has a prolific body of work in both the UK and Hollywood with which I was happy to reacquaint myself, alongside some titles I was watching for the first time, like Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Now Is Good and Peter Pan (the 2003 version).

I'd loved her work in An Education, The Ghost and Hyde Park in Hudson but was also really impressed by The Heart of Me, To Kill A King and Miss Austen Regrets. Hanna has a special place in my heart so I was glad to return to that film for the first time and she has a cracker of a role in Salting the Battlefield, the final part of David Hare's Johnny Worricker trilogy.

There's also some from the poorer end of the spectrum, not least the Channel 5 horror film Altar, dodgy Brit flicks like Born Romantic, Lucky Break and The Last Days on Mars, and dubious TV specials like Krakatoa The Last Days and Agatha Christie - A Life In Pictures










DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield


“It's not a question of how it is, it's a question of how it appears”

Salting the Battlefield is the third and concluding part of the Johnny Worricker trilogy, following on from Page Eight and Turks and Caicos, and sees David Hare wrap up the dramas that he both wrote and directed. Worricker is an ex-MI5 analyst who is on the run from the British authorities after exposing a couple of massive secrets that threaten PM Alec Beasley, a marvelously slimy Ralph Fiennes. From the Caribbean he’s ended up in Germany with former lover and current conspirator Margot but the net is drawing ever closer for an endgame to settle all scores. 

It’s grand to see original players from Page Eight returning. Saskia Reeves’ ambitious Deputy Prime Minister still precarious as ever in her position but finding opportunity in the chaos of her personal and professional life; Judy Davis’ plain-speaking MI5 head still bemoaning the old boys’ club of an institution she appears to have firmly by the balls; and Felicity Jones as Worricker’s under-used daughter. And as stakes are raised in order for scores are settled, there’s a fantastic amount of Machiavellian manipulation by all parties, chillingly conversational confrontation the order of the day here.

Cast of Salting the Battlefield continued

DVD Review: Hanna

"Hanna, what did your mum die of?
'Three bullets'"

I have a deal of affection for Joe Wright’s Hanna, a film I saw at the cinema as part of a birthday treat back in 2011 and so watching it again for the first time has that special layer of extra memory attached to it. Which it kind of needs as I’d forgotten how loopy the revenge thriller is. Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna has been raised as a crack assassin since birth by her ex-CIA father Eric Bana but hidden away in the isolated Arctic tundra as current CIA supremo, Cate Blanchett’s insanely fruity Marissa, wants them both dead to protect a secret they possess.

One day, Hanna declares that she’s ready to take on their nemesis and the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase takes our characters from Finland to Morocco, Spain to Germany, all to the beats of a thumping soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers. Wright folds in elements of The Brothers Grimm into the story too to evoke a very dark fairytale feel. And it’s one that works intermittently, the hyper-stylised violence hits hard and provides the energy that is sorely needed in some of the quieter sequences. Ronan is a mesmeric screen presence as this impossible girl and proves a dab hand at doing her own stunts. 

DVD Review: The Ghost

“Well don't tell me you're going to read it now”

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost, retitled The Ghost Writer in the rest of the world, may have been released in 2010 but remains as powerfully pertinent and indeed politically relevant as ever. Based on the Robert Harris novel of the same name, Ewan McGregor’s nameless protagonist is employed by former British PM Adam Lang, a slippery Pierce Brosnan, to finish his memoirs at the Martha’s Vineyard residence where he’s staying with his wife Ruth, an excellent Olivia Williams.

The task in hand is made more complicated though when Lang is indicted for potential war crimes in collusion with the US administration and the writer is forced to live in-house, where his tentative investigations into Lang’s career uncover conspiracy after conspiracy. The parallels with Tony Blair are clear but not overworked and Polanski’s delivery of a tense thriller with a strong narrative is superlatively done here.

DVD Review: The Last Days on Mars

"Do you think any part of us survives after death?
'I don't know. It's a little bit above my pay grade'"

I wanted to like Ruairí Robinson’s 2013 The Last Days on Mars, I really did, but despite attracting an (inter)stellar cast (Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Liev Schreiber) to its blend of science fiction and outright horror, it just didn’t work for me. It’s not quite intelligent enough to be a real chin scratcher but equally it isn’t schlocky enough to be trashy fun either, rather the film languishes in the rather dull terrain inbetween.

Set in the 2040s on a research base on the planet Mars, a research team is coming to the very end of their six month trip but a late discovery that they may have found some form of biological life throws a spanner in the works. Instead of preparing for the approaching spacecraft to take them home, one last mission goes out to get one last sample and naturally it goes wrong, with terrible consequences for all of the crew.

DVD Review: Hyde Park in Hudson

“But, to answer your question, Elizabeth, I 'am' going to eat a hot dog”

Directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Nelson, Hyde Park in Hudson is a rather delightful little thing, a trifle of a film that nonetheless has an endearing emotional edge to it. Set on the eve of World War II, George VI and Queen Elizabeth become the first British monarchs to visit the US but rather than the pomp and circumstance of an official state visit, they’re taken to Franklin D Roosevelt’s country estate and introduced to the complex personal relationships he’s built around him.

Key among these is Margaret ‘Daisy’ Suckley, a distant cousin and childhood friend who has recently returned to his life and who narrates the film in Laura Linney’s delicate but determined tones. The Royals want to secure US support for the war they know is coming, the polio-ravaged FDR wants to be left alone to amuse himself with the collection of women he’s gathered around him and Daisy just wants to know where she is in the pecking order.

DVD Review: An Education

“Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men, but what about you two?”

Lone Scherfig’s film An Education was one of my top films back in 2009 and rightly saw Carey Mulligan nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Watching it again reminded me of how good it is, a great showcase for British film and one of my favourite depictions of 1960s Britain I think I’ve ever seen. Nick Hornby’ screenplay is based on Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her schoolgirl years, spent mainly pleasing her father’s desire for her to be an excellent student and get into Oxford. That is, until handsome stranger David offers her a lift one day. That he’s twice her age is no matter, the world of sophistication he inhabits seduces her entirely from her humdrum Twickenham existence and changes her life completely.

Mulligan is brilliantly cast as the 16 going on 17 Jenny Mellor, the combination of her youthful looks and soulful eyes captures much of the teenage precocity that leads her to think she’s more mature than she is, especially in the face of such rowdy schoolgirl friends like Ellie Kendrick’s Tina and as she rushes headlong into this adult world of jazz clubs, stolen nights in hotels and weekends away in Paris, she brilliantly shows how her self-assuredness is slowly stripped away as she comes to see what she has sacrificed in order to follow her heart. Olivia Williams’ brilliant Miss Stubbs is the perfect counterpoint, a spinster teacher who encourages Jenny’s academic dreams yet perversely epitomises the height of ambition for an educated woman.

DVD Review: Miss Austen Regrets


“That's what it says in all of your books"

In 2007, the cinemas got the Anne Hathaway-starring Becoming Jane but television got Miss Austen Regrets, featuring Olivia Williams in extraordinary form as the feted author in the final years of her life. Close to 40 and looking unlikely as ever to get married herself, Jane is the favourite of her beloved niece Fanny who is dipping her toes into the world of liaisons and engagements and can’t think of anything more fabulous than an aunt whose romantic novels ought to make her an expert able to give perfect advice. But as Jane reflects on her life lived, the opportunities missed and rejected, and the perilous state those choices have left her mother and sister in, she is forced to consider if insecurity is too great a price to pay for her ambition.

For though her success is bringing her much renown, financial security eludes her as an unwed woman. She can’t own the property in which she lives, she can’t negotiate a better deal with her publisher, the independence she craves is held frustratingly just at arm’s length. But for all that, this is an unashamedly romantic and sparkily humourous piece of film which holds huge delight. Olivia Williams is impeccable as Austen - the flirtatious glint in her eye as she cuts a swathe through the stuffiness of convention, the nervous hesitation as her status sweeps her up in society, the oceans of emotional intelligence in her eyes as she has to deal with the concerns of the family and the ramifications of her choices – she is endlessly watchable and perfectly cast.

DVD Review: Agatha Christie – A Life In Pictures


“There was a motivation…” 

This is a curious thing – a drama-documentary of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie which utilises a double flashback structure to form a kind of biopic of her life, but one with an additional focus on her mysterious disappearance over several days after a particularly traumatic, though unexplained, experience. Anna Massey plays Christie late in life, at a party celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Mousetrap’s West End run, where she fields questions from journalists about her life, the answers to which are played out in flashback. Olivia Williams takes on the younger role who is meeting with a psychiatrist to try and explain her experiences, which are also replayed to us, through the delicate probing of her psyche. 

It is all elegantly done in this BBC adaptation, written and directed by Richard Curson Smith, covering the key points of her life – a happy childhood devastated by the loss of her father, the freedom of becoming a volunteer nurse and then pharmacist during the Great War, the beginnings of her career as a writer – but with little real insight or inspiration in what it is saying. The scenes around her disappearance have more meat to them but again fail to really click as the build-up to the grand reveal of what caused it falls rather flat in the final analysis. The split narrative adds nothing and instead subtract substantially from the pace of the film, continually frustrating as we switch fruitlessly between the two. 

DVD Review: To Kill A King

“This is not war…”

As with many historical films, it is easy to get caught up in matters of accuracy with To Kill A King’s portrayal of Oliver Cromwell and the puritan movement he led with Thomas Fairfax which ultimately saw the trial and death of King Charles I. The casting of Tim Roth instantly points toward the direction Mike Barker’s film leans in and before even a word is spoken, we’re left in no uncertain terms about the psychopathic tendencies of this interpretation of Cromwell. But written by Jenny Mayhew, the film’s focus is actually on the relationship between the two friends and the strain it faces as they set about rebuilding a nation.

And in that respect I think it is quite a successful piece of work. Roth’s furious intensity as he fights for a republican ideal is tempered by Dougray Scott’s intelligent ambivalence as Fairfax, less inclined to shake up the societal order that is such a major part of his and his family’s life, not least his wife Lady Anne, played excellently by Olivia Williams. The way in which the two are slowly pulled apart as their political ideals are twisted by the realities of negotiating with a recalcitrant Parliament and a manipulative King, active even after his deposition, is compellingly told and engagingly performed.

Cast of To Kill A King continued

DVD Review: Lucky Break

“When everyone is taking their bows, you and me exit stage left”

Lucky Break is the type of slight and inoffensive film that makes you wonder how on earth it got made yet at the same time makes you glad for its lazy Sunday afternoon viewing potential. Director Peter Cattaneo also helmed The Full Monty (which might answer the first point) and though there are similarities between the two – putting a certain type of British masculinity under the microscope – Lucky Break pulls back quickly from any real emotional depth or societal analysis in favour of popcorn-led entertainment. And as long as you go in fully aware of this, you might find yourself enjoying it.

Jimmy is a repeat offender who finds himself in prison once again after a particularly botched bank job but soon spots an opportunity to make a break for it. Prison warden Mortimer is keen for the inmates to put on a production of his newly-penned musical and as it will be performed in the old chapel that offers the easiest route out of the clink, Jimmy persuades his buddies to join in the amateur dramatics fun of Nelson – The Musical and allow him to jump the wall. Nothing is ever quite as easy as all that though, not least his budding relationship with prison psychiatrist Annabel.

DVD Review: Born Romantic

“Have you never been in love?
‘No, too much choice.’”

Now this is a curious thing – released in 2001 but feeling very much a child of the 90s, Born Romantic is a British rom-com written and directed by David Kane, centring on a salsa club in London and the romantic capers of the men and women to attend. It has a highly personable cast – and there’s always fun in seeing familiar faces with a much fresher hue about them – but this is fairly bog-standard, low-budget stuff. It says nothing new about relationships, metropolitan living or indeed anything exciting, it just putters along in a rather inoffensive manner that makes it hard to recommend.

For those who know their US late-night chat-show hosts, there’s still fun in seeing Craig Ferguson in a straight acting role, one of three main “romantics” of the multi-stranded story. His Frankie is a hapless divorcee, still co-habiting with his ex played by Hermione Norris, and struggling to wangle his way into the affections of emotionally distant art restorer Eleanor, the divine Olivia Williams who like everyone else here is treading water. Kane’s writing hits on some interesting points but rarely gets the opportunity to delve beneath the surface as the narrative skips around the numerous other storylines, barely scratching the surface of any.

DVD Review: Krakatoa The Last Days


“It should have been a warning to us”

Krakatoa: The Last Days is a rather po-faced 2006 docu-drama about the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, based on eyewitness accounts. Its strenuous attempts at historical gravitas make it extremely worthy, trying wisely to keep away from the disaster-porn ethos that would make it a schlock-fest, but it straddles the line between docu and drama quite uncertainly and rarely becomes a compelling watch.

The narrative is split mainly between the account of a Dutch geologist Rogier Verbeek (Kevin McMonagle) who became the father of modern vulcanology with his study of the events which were the first ever scientific accounts of the full cycle of a volcanic eruption, and the trials of the family Beijerinck, the colonial masters of a small village that lay right in the path of the first shockwaves to emanate from Krakatoa.

DVD Review: Altar

“What do you know about Yorkshire stone?”

Olivia Williams’ face on the DVD cover says it all really… Bypassing cinemas to be shown straight onto Channel 5 as The Haunting of Radcliffe House on Boxing Day 2014, Nick Willing’s Altar is a horror of a ghost story. It was funded through Kickstarter but a low budget is the least of his problems when there’s such a dearth of ideas that sees it stealing from The Shining, The Grudge and The Woman In Black to name just a few.

Williams plays Meg Hamilton, a renovator who ships her family up to a dilapidated country pile on the Yorkshire Moors while she restores it to its original Victorian grandeur. Accident-prone colleagues and superstitious locals leave her to do the work on her own but as she uncovers mystery after mystery, not least the history of a murder/suicide involving the original owners, it’s clear that the strange goings-on are rooted in something supernatural.

DVD Review: Peter Pan (2003)

“There are many different kinds of bravery”

It is a truth that every generation gets their own cinematic version of JM Barrie’s classic Peter Pan whether they want it or not (and this year’s Pan bombing heavily for Joe Wright shows it’s not always a good idea) and in 2003, it was PJ Hogan who took on the boy who never grows up, actually casting a boy in the lead role for once. And I have to say it is a rather sweet version of the story, a charming adaptation that captures much of the child-like glee associated with the story.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about this interpretation, it just does traditional very well whilst still managing subtle differences. Jeremy Sumpter’s sprightly Peter and Rachel Hurd-Wood ‘s impassioned Wendy are just perfect, both on the cusp of young adulthood and giving a real sense of the confusion of first sexual attractions and the world of possibility it opens. And Jason Isaac, doubling as Mr Darling and the dastardly Hook, is rather unexpectedly excellent, full of real menace for once as the pirate king.