Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 4

With the loss of its original core cast and the destabilising presence of Martine McCutcheon, Series 4 of Spooks struggles to find its feet

“You’re up against the British state…who do you think is going to win that particular battle?”

This season of Spooks struggles quite badly amidst all the upheaval of Series 3 in which in the entire original team departed Thames House. Tom’s identikit replacement Adam does well enough but somehow, something goes terribly wrong with the introduction of his wife and fellow spy Fiona (Olga Sosnovska). They sadly lack chemistry and their domestic drama just doesn’t translate well into the business of saving the country on a weekly basis.

The tone is set by the randomly chaotic energy of Martine McCutcheon’s guest spot in the opener two-parter and from then on, as we cover people smuggling, the rise of far right political movements, cultists and the ethics of releasing terrorist suspects, the series jerks along rather, Raza Jaffrey’s Danny-a-like isn’t given anywhere near enough to do and the snaffling of Miranda Raison’s Jo off the street is as bizarre an advert for recruitment as any.

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It’s a pretty low-key series for Ruth – hints of her passion for Harry come through whether in romantic feeling or rebelling against him a bit. She comes into her own in the final episode with the revelation of a step-brother who killed himself but has never been mentioned before putting her in the line of fire but all in all she deserves better. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 4”

Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 3

It’s all change at Thames House as Series 3 of Spooks sees the original core team leave the security service one way or another 

“We cannot have another Tom Quinn”

I’d forgotten just monumental this series of Spooks was, as first Matthew MacFadyen’s Tom took his leave after getting a conscience, then Keeley Hawes’ Zoe was shunted off to Chile to evade justice and then David Oyelowo’s Danny shuffled off this mortal coil thanks to bloody Fiona and an annoyed Iraqi terrorist. Rupert Penry-Jones was drafted in as Adam, a friendly MI6 type who fits the Tom mould perfectly, though we could have done without his wife (more of that anon).

But even besides all the personnel shifting, the writing is shit-hot in this season, especially when the focus is on the morality of security service actions. Targeted assassinations on North Sea ferries, honeytrapping members of the Turkish mafia, these are meaty issues with some real consequences for all concerned. 

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Now firmly established in the team, attention turns to her trying to get some, in the most Ruth-like possible way, ie stalking someone illegally and sharing a carbonara with a traitorous ex-colleague, this is prime Ruth territory. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 3”

Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 2

Now this is more like it, Series 2 of Spooks settles into the classic feel that works so well

“This ridiculous James Bondery…do we need it?”

With this second season, Spooks really gets into its stride I think, recognising that it is an ensemble show at heart (and a rolling ensemble at that, although it’s a shame new recruit Sam doesn’t get more to do) and nailing the variation in tone and style of episodes which largely remain self-contained. Also, Nicola Walker finally arrives as Ruth, which is good news for the audience, Harry and the nation.

Topics-wise, we touch on hacker kids, Irish republicanism, Islamic radicalisation and Anglo-American relations among others. But it is ‘I Spy Apocalypse’, written by Howard Brenton and brilliantly directed by Justin Chadwick with a smothering sense of claustrophobia that really gets the pulse racing as a fire drill for a terrorist incident gets very dark very quickly – it’s possibly one of the best ever episodes of Spooks.

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Praise the Lord – analyst Ruth Evershed finally arrives in Episode 2 in all her long cardigans and flowing skirts and though initially viewed with suspicion coming from GCHQ as she does, she soon wins over the team with her knowledge of Greek mythology, Russian crucifixion practices and much more besides. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 2”

News: #HampsteadTheatreAtHome launches this week

The latest venue to announce the opening of their digital archive in order to satisfy our theatrical cravings is the Hampstead Theatre who, in partnership with The Guardian will re-release the live stream recordings of Mike Bartlett’s Wild, Beth Steel’s Wonderland and Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line for free.

Available to watch on theguardian.com and hampsteadtheatre.com, the three productions will be made available, on demand, over three consecutive weeks as part of the theatre’s #HampsteadTheatreAtHome series and the first of these – Wild – is available now. And once you’ve watched it, take a look at the ways you can support the Hampstead Theatre here. Continue reading “News: #HampsteadTheatreAtHome launches this week”

Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1

I had already started a rewatch of Spooks earlier this year as part of a planned Nicola Walker retrospective but as it turns out, I’ll have to use that Britbox subscription for something else!

“When will you tell her that your real name is Tom Quinn and that you are a spy”

It is interesting to look at back at much-loved shows and be reminded of how not everything is always how you remember. So much of Spooks has aged remarkably well – not least its choice of subjects that have remained terrifyingly evergreen – that it is easy to forget that this opening season of 6 episodes sees them still searching for that house style. 

It is undoubtedly a bit shonky in look and feel, the slick Thames House set isn’t yet in place and the focus on the lead team at the expense of too many nameless supporting bods gives the personal dynamics a somewhat off-balance feel as we delve into too much of the personal lives of Tom, Zoe and Danny.

But airing in May 2002 in the immediate post 9/11 climate gives its geopolitics real currency. And the threats they face – homegrown far-right movements, fears over immigration, the push for Kurdish self-government, US abortion rights, Russian spies being murdered on British soil… – are compelling throughout. And any show that has Jenny Agutter and Nicholas Farrell dry-humping in a corridor has to be a winner right?!   

Nicola Walker-ometer
To be honest, I’d forgotten Ruth wasn’t a member of the team from the start, so these six episodes pass by with an outrageous lack of Nicola Walker. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1”

Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines

“Open your eyes, what do you see?”

It may well have had much to do with the fact that I was knackered after the previous six but I have to admit that the seventh final session of the Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival was probably my least favourite of the day. The 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines programme saw writers respond to headlines of the moment to create rapid response plays – none of which really lived up to the quality of the programmed works that had preceded them.

There were lots of interesting ideas floating around – Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Anna Ledwich’s scorching take-down of Vogue’s declaration that the cleavage is out of fashion probably worked the best, interleaved with a young woman’s desperate search for adequate healthcare and the inadequacy of male responses to a serious discussion about breasts. And Charlene James’ kidnap drama with a twist gave Maggie Steed a cracking part to play, directed by Alice Hamilton. Continue reading “Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines”

Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre

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

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

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

Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming

“When blood is spilt, disputes between people, nations, religions become all but impossible to solve”

A complete Brucie bonus to start off the year was the unexpected announcement that Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line – a sell-out success at the Hampstead – would have its final performance live-streamed on t’internet. I hadn’t booked for the show as something had to give over Christmas and New Year and so the chance to catch up with it for free, albeit on the screen of my laptop, was one I was glad to take.

The play is set in the final days of the empire, as the British are beating a hasty retreat from the subcontinent but are determined to partition the land, and its diverse people, into India and Pakistan. The job of, quite literally, drawing the line falls to archetypal Englishman and judge Cyril Radcliffe who is shipped off to somewhere he has never been before, to accomplish what turns out to be a fiendishly complex assignment.  Continue reading “Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming”

Review: Dances of Death, Gate

“My nature may be flawed but I struggle to overcome it”
Is there anything more annoying than someone else having the same good idea as you at more or less the same time. Given the length of time it must take to actually commission a new version of a play and bring it to the stage, who knows when or whether these two coincided but either way, London now has its second new adaptation of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death in six months. Conor McPherson refreshed the play as part of the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios 2 but here at the Gate Theatre, Howard Brenton has taken a slightly different tack, incorporating the lesser seen second part to create Dances of Death
The play, as with much of Strindberg’s work, is a barrel of laughs. Edgar and Alice live on a remote Swedish island which is dominated by a military barracks but though they have been married for nearly 30 years, their relationship has deteriorated into a bitterly toxic mess as their disappointments in each other and the world around them has poisoned them to the point where it is this very hatred that sustains them. So much so, that the arrival of Kurt, a figure from their past, merely offers a new dimension to their war games as opposed to a potential exit strategy. It is vicious, bitter stuff, and in the intimacy of the Gate, ought to be near-unbearable.

But it never quite got under my skin and convinced me of its raw animosity. Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe, excellent actors both, felt a little mannered in Tom Littler’s production, not quite surrendering entirely to the bleakness of Strindberg’s worldview. Why this is becomes more apparent with the introduction of a new generation in the second half, as we visit the children of our trio and see how the enmities of the past continue to shape the present but also get a hint of redemptive hope that just doesn’t feel entirely earned.
I liked both Edward Franklin and Eleanor Wyld (still one of my ones to watch) as the next generation but the way in which Edgar and Kurt’s rivalry trundled on lost much of the venom of the sustained onslaught of the first half – just how dense is Kurt…the play doesn’t benefit from giving him more exposure at all. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more had I not seen The Dance of Death so recently but I can’t help but feel that this production doesn’t quite live up to the considerable reputation of this theatre and the fierce emotion that it often provokes. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 6th July

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

“The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits”

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

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