Review: Hamlet, Almeida

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” 
The enduring image of Robert Icke’s Hamlet is family – the repeated motif of group of three cleaving together haunts the production as much as Hamlet’s father himself. From the instant and intense bond established between Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes, Icke makes striking emotional sense of the respective grief and ferocity of the latter two, powerfully played by Jessica Brown Findlay and Luke Thompson against Peter Wight’s twinkling charm as their father.
And Icke also gives the tragic visual of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet trying to rebuild his original family unit, joining hands with his mother and the ghost of his father in the midst of the closet scene, willing Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude to see what he sees, to put things back the way they used to be. And in a stunning montage for the final scene, these trios reform, emphasising the innate happiness of one and the deep tragedy of the other. It is deeply, deeply felt.

Continue reading “Review: Hamlet, Almeida”

20 shows to look forward to in 2017

2017 is only just over a week away now and the reviewing diary is already filling up! All sorts of headline-grabbing West End shows have already been announced (The Glass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Don Juan In Soho, The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia) and the National look to continue a sensational year with another (Twelfth Night, Consent, the heaven-sent Angels in America), so this list is looking a little further afield to the London fringe and some of the UK theatres I hope to get to throughout the year.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Bolton Octagon

After hearing Elizabeth Newman speak passionately on a panel discussion about women’s theatre, I kinda have a big (intellectual) crush on her, so I’m very keen to see her tackle a new adaptation by Deborah McAndrew of the classic Anne Bronte novel in a theatre that is very close to my heart.

Persuasion, Royal Exchange

Another literary adaptation in the North-West and another where the choice of director is instrumental in its inclusion here. Jeff James (La Musica) has worked closely with Ivo van Hove as an associate director and so the thought of what he might be cooking up for this world premiere of Jane Austen’s novel is most exciting indeed.

3 Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible

Described as a coming-of-age story with a twist, Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae’s new musical is the last show in the final season of Daniel Evans’ artistic directorship in Sheffield and true to form, it looks to be a brave and important piece, once again giving voice to those who aren’t necessarily normally heard in this genre (cf: Flowers for Mrs Harris).

The Convert, Gate

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed was my play of the year in 2015 and so it’s great to see her work returning to the Gate Theatre, exploring another piece of recent African history that will doubtless be once again uncompromisingly thought-provoking.

5 BU21, Trafalgar Studios,

I loved BU21 when it opened at Theatre503 last year so it is great to see Stuart Slade’s ingeniously inventive play getting a well-deserved transfer into the West End here. Set in the aftermath of a fictitious terrorist attack, it’s disturbing and absolutely essential.

Narvik, HOME Manchester and then UK tour

A new play with songs by Lizzie Nunnery, inspired by tales from naval veterans and stories of her grandfather’s time in the Navy, this show comes courtesy of Box of Tricks, a company whose utterly beautiful Plastic Figurines ranked highly in my 2015 list. I won’t be catching this until its final venue in the tour so look out for it in February and March.

He(art), Theatre N16

Andrew Maddock had a good year last year – his in/out (a feeling) and The We Plays both impressed at the Hope Theatre – and his latest looks like an interesting proposition too. It’s playing at the Theatre N16 which, of course, is in Balham (right by the station).

a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), Royal Court

The talk may be about Jez Butterworth’s latest selling out but for my money, a new debbie tucker green play is where the excitement lies in what looks to be a fascinating year ahead at the Royal Court.

good dog, Watford Palace and then UK tour

Arinzé Kene’s return to writing with this tiata fahodzi production is sure to be one not to miss as he tackles the realities of growing up in a multi-cultural society.

10 I Capture the Castle, Watford Palace and Bolton Octagon

Dodie Smith’s novel is a rather lovely thing so the idea of its eccentric Englishness being captured in a musical is one that certainly appeals. Book and lyrics are by Teresa Howard, music is by Steven Edis and Brigid Larmour directs.

11 Obsession, Barbican

I know I said I’d try to keep off the beaten track with this list but Jude Law guesting with Toneelgroep Amsterdam? Er yes please!!!

12 Hamlet, Almeida

Similarly – Andrew Scott and Robert Icke! Plus Juliet Stevenson not budging from where she is just now.

13 Holding The Man, Brockley Jack

I saw this play not knowing a thing about it back in 2010 and no word of a lie, I wept in my seat until the Trafalgar Studios had pretty much emptied. So this production doesn’t have too much to live up to, honest, aside from being one of the best gay plays I’ve ever seen.

14 We Raise Our Hands in the Sanctuary, Albany

Keeping things queer, Inky Cloak’s new show looks like another vital piece of LGBT+ theatremaking, spotlighting the crucial importance of queer spaces and highlighting why club culture matters on a political, emotional and human rights level at the very time when it appears to be most under threat in an ever-gentrifying London.

15 An Octoroon, Orange Tree

I don’t know too much about this Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play aside from some people getting very excited about it and the fact that director Ned Bennett has the kind of exciting mind to make it unforgettable one way or the other.

16 The Wild Party, The Other Palace

In his infinite wisdom, The Lloyd-Webber has decided to rename St James Theatre as The Other Palace but the more interesting thing about his takeover of the venue is its focus on musical theatre. Its opening season begins with this Michael John LaChiusa piece which has been cast amazingly to the hilt, a must-see if only for Donna McKechnie.

17 Dirty Great Love Story, Arts Theatre,

This Fringe First Award winning production, written by Richard March and Katie Bonna, combines drama and poetry, rhythm and rhyme in a laugh-a-minute exploration of modern romance but has caught my eye due to its winning cast of Felix Scott and Ayesha Antoine who ought to make a most charming couple indeed.

18 Cyrano, New Vic and then touring nationally

Another mention for Deborah McAndrew here with this new adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, which is the first of three productions Northern Broadsides will be staging to celebrate its 25th anniversary year. Adapting the verse freely to ape the vigorous swashbuckling of the musketeers, this shows a good nose for good drama.

19 The New Nigerians, Arcola

Written by Hackney-born writer Oladipo Agboluaje and directed by Rosamunde Hutt, this world premiere of a gripping tale of conflict and compromise, setting the scene for a political revolution in 21st century Nigeria is an exciting piece of programming as part of the Arcola’s Revolution season.

20 Junkyard, Bristol Old Vic, Clwyd Theatre Cymru and Rose Kingston

A Headlong musical? Sure! Especially when it has been written by Jack Thorne.

Hallowe’en DVD Review: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

“This is not life”

Released last year, Victor Frankenstein has the ignominy of being something of a flop, a little surprising when you consider it is loaded with Brit talent like James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe and was directed by Sherlock alum Paul McGuigan. But as many have learned, not least Dr Frankenstein himself, reanimating old things doesn’t always go smoothly. 

Writer Max Landis’ new spin on Mary Shelley’s classic is that the story is told from (the non-canonical) Igor’s perspective, reframing the ‘hunchback assistant’ as something much more nuanced and offering a fresh set of eyes on their scientific endeavours. Here, McAvoy’s Victor is a manic medical student who rescues Radcliffe’s Igor from an undignified life as a circus freak and quite literally gives him a new lease of life as his collaborator. 
Captivated by his experiment on the boundaries between life and death, Igor becomes a willing participant but as the authorities edge ever closer to discerning the terrible truth of their actions, yadda yadda. You see that this really isn’t that imaginative a take on the Frankenstein story at all and though the film is entirely watchable, it’s also ultimately rather dull, lacking any real sense of vibrancy in what it brings to the classic tale.
What it does have is McAvoy eating the scenery and then some in a wildly over-zealous take on the mad scientist, something exacerbated by having Andrew Scott in the cast as the detective chasing them down. There’s a climactic scene where they face off and you’re uncomfortably reminded of how much better the latter can do chillingly exaggerated rage. McAvoy is much better than this but there’s no redeeming him from this monstrosity.
Radcliffe fares a little better in the subtler role of Igor, conflicted from the off about the nature of their work and caught between his new friend and his potential new love in the form of Jessica Brown Findlay’s Lorelei, a character of whom more could have been made. Pulling on those Sherlock connections, Louise Brealey and Mark Gatiss pop up in tiny cameos, and the likes of Freddie Fox, Charles Dance and Daniel Mays have minor roles but by and large, this is one Frankenstein to leave on the operating table.

TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2

“I was a woeful looker-on”

On a night when the real drama was unfolding in Stockholm’s Globen arena and the main internecine conflict was between the juries of music professionals and the public vote as revealed by the new counting mechanism, the BBC’s decision to schedule The Hollow Crown against the Eurovision Song Contest didn’t work for me. Last week’s Henry VI Part 1 was a great reintroduction into these quality adaptations as it started the new series but the follow-up doesn’t quite match the same level.

Part of the issue lies in the seemingly accepted wisdom that the Henry VI plays are problems that need solving – I’ve still not managed to see a conventional production of the trilogy to use as a benchmark – and so the plays are often abandoned to the mercies of the vision of writers and directors. Such is the case with The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2, chopped down and frantically paced, there’s a whole lot of fury but just not enough feeling (though if you’re a fan of battlefields and decapitated heads, you might fare better than I did). Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2”

Review: The Dazzle, Found111

“Tragedy is when a few people sink to the level of where most people always are”

For all the trumpeting of the finding a new theatrical space at Found111 – the former Central St Martins School of Art building at 111 Charing Cross Road where The Dazzle is playing – I’ll tell you what they haven’t found, a half-decent pre-theatre experience. It’s all very well cultivating a hipsterish air with your pop-up bar and swanky cocktails but at the point when over 100 theatregoers are being corralled into a space which barely fits them, with no FOH controlling the crowd or at least guiding them into a queue as there’s unreserved seating to boot, it makes for a deeply unpleasant beginning to the evening.

And given that ticket prices are £35 (the earlybird £10 seats have long gone though day seats are being released from 6pm each night) it’s a shoddy way to do business and one which fails to recognise that for many, the show starts long before the curtain rises. After the crushing rush to get into the actual theatre, it was hard not to be a little underwhelmed by the space – there’s nothing that particularly commends it to theatrical use and certainly nothing that pertains to the play in question, so it’s a little baffling as to why the Michael Grandage Company and Emily Dobbs Productions chose it in lieu of one of London’s many, many theatres. 

With such awkward beginnings, Richard Greenberg’s play was fighting a losing battle from the beginning and sure enough, The Dazzle did anything but. Inspired by the real-life tale of two New York brothers Homer and Langley Collyer who lived a hermit-like existence in their mansion, Greenberg spins a hugely verbose tale of tangled family ties and troubled genius. Langley could be a hugely talented pianist but his eccentricities mean he can’t escape obsessing about the little details in life whilst older brother Homer is equally ill at ease in the real world and so finds succour in aiding and abetting his sibling’s idiosyncracies. 

Greenberg is clearly in love with the idea of high-functioning but socially inept individuals and so has crafted reams upon reams of florid dialogue to demonstrate the ostensible beauty in feeling the world so deeply. Andrew Scott delivers this with consummate skill in Simon Evans’ production here but is faced with an impossible task in trying to shape a character of note out of the writer’s stylistic choices. As Milly, the woman who shakes up the Collyers’ lives, Joanna Vanderham is equally challenged to convince that her visits are anything but dramatic contrivances but David Dawson fares a little better as Homer, ultimately a little more tragic. 

So we were left definitively undazzled and though the pre-show business had prompted the disgruntled mood, I just don’t think I would have liked The Dazzle with even the cheeriest disposition beforehand. It just isn’t my kind of play and though there’s much to admire, particularly in the technical demands of Scott’s performance, the show just didn’t make me feel anything. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 30th January


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.

The Iliad took place on the day I came back from holiday so I was only able to watch the tail-end of it so I was determined to catch more of The Odyssey, intending to drop in and out of it all day (as technically I was at work…) but it was so seductively brilliant and relentlessly interesting that there was barely a moment I was able to tear my eyes away. From an impassioned Simon Russell Beale beginning at the fall of Troy to the glorious Lia Williams bringing us to the climax 10 years later, it was an absolute triumph.

Highlights from this treasure chest of wonders were many and varied – Ian McKellen giving forth from the Council Chamber of Islington Town Hall, Stanley Tucci orating on the choppy waters of the Thames, Miranda Richardson, Janet Suzman, Toby Jones… But The Odyssey really came into its own when certain actors had to deal memorably, and unbelievably professionally, with the vagaries of live performance combined with the unpredictability of a city that doesn’t stop for anyone, not even Juliet Stevenson.

Stevenson delivered her Cyclops-bashing segment from a capsule on the London Eye and tussled magnificently with the automated voice in there, reminding her to smile and take her belongings with her to which the text gave her the perfect riposte. And a medal should also be awarded to Stephen Fewell who came up against a jobsworth who wouldn’t let him on the boat he was due to take yet barely batted an eyelid. Andrew Scott and Anna Madeley also both stood out with fiercely committed recitations, bringing blistering life to the text. Another stunningly audacious theatrical treat from what has been a five-month-long highlight of the year.

DVD Review: Locke

“You don’t trust God when it comes to concrete”
Steven Knight’s Locke is a really rather remarkable film, set in real-time in a BMW as engineer Ivan Locke makes a hurried journey from Birmingham to Croydon. He’s the only person we see on screen, though he spends much of the time on his phone, and a large part of the dialogue is taken up with the logistics of what will be the most ambitious pouring of concrete since…well, who knows, but from these unlikely beginnings emerges a genuinely gripping thriller.
With a huge skyscraper project about to crown a glowing career and his wife and two teenage boys setting up a blissful family night in watching the football, Tom Hardy’s well-bearded Locke seems to have it all set. But the phone call that has precipitated his dash onto the motorway throws everything up in the air and forces him to face some huge challenges, all whilst never leaving his seat or letting his foot up off the accelerator.
I won’t give any more of the plot away here, it’s nice to have some surprises, but what I will say is that the supporting cast – all present simply through their voices – is just superb. From Ruth Wilson’s sausage-cooking wife to Olivia Colman’s blast from the past, Andrew Scott’s brilliantly hapless colleague to Ben Daniels’ furious boss, and Tom Holland and Bill Milner as his chirpy sons, there’s a brilliant array of characters crackling down the line.
But the real star of the show is Hardy, whose increasingly craggy face is hardly ever off the screen in its unflinching close-up. Even as events threaten to swallow him whole, his emotional conduct here is a masterpiece of restraint and calculation. Unable to give vent to his true feelings, each tiny movement becomes loaded with acres of meaning and Hardy scales down his natural expansiveness to great effect to deliver something fantastic. Hugely, highly recommended. 

Radio Review: Denmark Hill / Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight / The Day We Caught The Train

“I have to write an essay on Shakespeare’s view of the family, it’s a bugger”

Denmark Hill is something of a rarity, a 30 year old Alan Bennett television play that never saw the light of day and so remained unproduced until this radio version brought it back to life. A suburban riff on Hamlet which sets it in a contemporary South London, it’s more of an interesting curio than an essential addition to the Bennett canon but it still has many points of interest. A nifty turn of phrase when it comes to a joke, the often ridiculous behaviour of human beings at times of crisis, and a top-notch cast that includes Penny Downie’s Gwen, her new lover George played by Robert Glenister and her angst-ridden son Charles, the ever-lovely Samuel Barnett.

Sadly not a dramatisation of the Ocean Colour Scene song, Nick Payne’s The Day We Caught The Train is a predictably lovely piece of writing from one of our most reliable new writers. Olivia Colman’s Sally is a GP mourning the recent death of her mother, trying hard not to let being a single mother rule her life even if the fact is she hasn’t had sex for a year. We join her on a regular day full of mini-dramas which seem designed to keep her from something special, a date with Ralph Ineson’s kindly David. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan but the way it unfolds into something beautifully moving is skilfully done indeed.

I was less impressed with Charlotte Bogoard Macleod’s Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – an episodic smash through the tumultuous relationship between statistician Liam and photographer Sadie who meet-cute in a cycling accident and are drawn together despite themselves. As we fast-forward through marriage, trying for a baby and the subsequent move into surrogacy, the challenges they face are played out interestingly by Andrew Scott and Jeany Spark but never really caught me up into fully believing in their world. The play is still available to download here for you to make up your own mind.

Film Review: Pride (2014)

“To find out you have a friend you never knew existed, well it’s the best feeling in the world”

I kind of knew that I would like the film Pride, I hoped that I would really like it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I loved it – the kind of joyous, timeless film-making that makes you want to trot tired old clichés like Great British Classics. But it’s true, it really is. And it is also factually true – based on the real story of an unlikely alliance between a group of gay activists from London and a small Welsh mining community in the heart of the 1984 strike.

Written by Stephen Beresford (whose Last of the Haussmans probably ranks as one of my favourite new plays of recent years), there’s something just straight up lovely about the culture clash that emerges between the two groups, but also in the way that the assortment of odds and sods on both sides who are completely changed by the experience. I don’t think a coda has ever affected me quite so much in the revelation of finding out what actually happened to these people in real life.

Director Matthew Warchus manages something exceptional in bringing together the broader comedic sweeps with the poignancy of the most intimate observational study. There’s immense fun in the villagers opening up gradually to their surprising benefactors – the swiftly formed Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners carry out significant fundraising activities for them – as they probe questioningly but amusingly into the unknown lives of ‘the gays’, including a frankly hilarious trip to London.

Warchus really excels in finding the quieter moments though, the spaces around the words that convey so much more. Whether it’s Andrew Scott’s Gethin crumpling at the sound of a native Welsh accent or the oceans of love that pass between Imelda Staunton’s Hefina and Bill Nighy’s Cliff as they butter bread wordlessly after a key revelation, there’s a real understanding of how to deliver such emotional power with a beautiful simplicity.

And what a cast. Nighy and Staunton both deliver great performances, along with Paddy Considine’s quietly moving Dai and Liz White (who I fall in love with more and more every time I see her) as his wife Margaret, amongst the Welsh villagers. And Scott is beautifully restrained as bookshop-owner Gethin who provides the base for Ben Schnetzer’s Mark to form LGSM, amongst whom George Mackay’s fresh–faced Joe, Dominic West’s grizzled disco queen Jonathan and Faye Marsay’s more-than-just-a-token lesbian Steph all stand out.

As the increasingly confident Sian, Jessica Gunning marks herself out as someone I want to keep a close eye on. And familiar faces pop up left right and centre in smaller roles too, usually breaking hearts as in the close-mindedness of Lisa Palfrey’s vicious neighbour or Monica Dolan’s fearful mother, Russell Tovey’s tragic lover or a rare beam of flirtatious light as in Matthew Tennyson’s delivery guy.

Indeed there’s an aching sense of much that has been lost lies at the heart of the film, a melancholy given voice in a genuinely spine-tingling moment in the village hall but which is threaded throughout. The sense of community that was torn out of the mining villages, the sense of meaningfulness that brought people together for Pride (the march); that Pride (the film) makes us feel this so keenly yet still manages to uplift the spirit in such a way is nothing short of a triumph.

Review: Birdland, Royal Court

“I literally have enough money to buy anything”
It was Scarlett Johansson wot did it. My over-riding thought as Simon Stephens’ Birdland built to its destructive climax was that the alien for Jonathan Glazer’s recent film Under The Skin had somehow infiltrated affairs. The viscous black liquid that surrounds Ian MacNeil’s set slowly rises to encroach on the ever-twisted world of tortured rockstar Paul, threatening to swallow him in its total embrace, an oblivion the man might truly welcome. But it is just a coincidence, although perhaps rooted in some conceptual similarity, there are no aliens here. Or Hollywood superstars.
Instead, Irish legend-in-the-making Andrew Scott plays a hugely successful musician who is on top of the world and coming to the end of going round the world on a huge tour. Whipped into a constant fervour by the corrosive side of celebrity, his personality has become so warped that he can, and does, demand anything he wants, and by and large gets it. Aside from making him a total f*cktard, especially where his best friend and bandmate’s girlfriend is concerned, it also symptomizes the deeper societal malaise of a corrupted capitalist mindset in all its exploitative ugliness.
Director Carrie Cracknell employs an exciting visual language in this Royal Court production, pushing at notional ideas of representation through MacNeil’s almost gnomic design. A golden arch that slides back and forth across the stage, plastic wheelie chairs that remain onstage throughout, reels of vibrant orange police tape, the aforementioned black water that surrounds them all – Cracknell cleverly manages to suggest a hugely interpretative approach to the text but it is one which never alienates through its strangeness, never pushes its audience too far in search of dramatic thrill – it is still Sloane Square after all. 
But for all her efforts, Stephens’ play doesn’t quite have the tautness one might have expected. The career-threatening spike of revenge feels lazily plotted, a further late twist assumes an incredulous amount of naïveté from someone several albums and two world tours deep into his career, the larger themes of the writing never really kick as hard as they could. Instead, the real joy comes from little moments – the hilarious chat of the hospitality suite “it felt like you were really there”, the heartbreaking meeting with Paul’s father “[your album got] four stars in the Chronicle and Echo”.
I was thus left feeling perhaps Cracknell’s production had served Birdland better than it deserved. That said, there’s much pleasure to be had from the hard-working cast. Alex Price’s Jonny, the cuckolded mate, is as grounded as Paul is fancy-free and excellent with it, Nikki Amuka-Bird’s waitress who gets briefly swept up into the madness is pitch-perfect, and Daniel Cerqueira’s multi-roling is award-worthy, not least for the agonising awkwardness of his father, estranged in so many ways from the heightened reality of his son’s life. And at the heart of it all, Andrew Scott is mesmerising as the man who think he’s on top of the world, only to find there’s nothing left beneath his feet. 
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3 
Booking until 31st May