Review: Elegy, Donmar

“What would you choose?”

Irene Cara once declared she was going to live forever. But as advances in medical science enable us to live longer and survive once fatal conditions, the question remains about the quality of the life that remains. Nick Payne’s Elegy, further exploring the neurological theatrical so vividly started in plays like Constellations and Incognito, imagines society in a near-future scenario where the choice can be made to have part of the brain removed and artificially regenerated. The price though, the loss of huge swathes of memory.

Payne pulls no punches in showing us the impact of such a decision as when we meet post-surgery Lorna and Carrie for the first time, the former has no recollection of the latter to whom she has been married for many years. And cast as perfectly as they are here in Josie Rourke’s production in the form of Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn, Elegy has its achingly affecting moments as the non-linear narrative shows us Lorna as she was, as well as who she is now, and how the contours of her relationship have changed over time, particularly in the face of a degenerative brain disease. Continue reading “Review: Elegy, Donmar”

Review: The Iliad Online, Almeida/Live-stream

“You can’t kill me
I can’t ever die”

After three weeks away, all my initial thoughts were on a cosy night in catching up on the first two episodes of The Great British Bake-off and I couldn’t imagine anything changing my mind – how wrong could I be! When the Almeida first announced their durational performance of Homer’s Iliad, it sounded like a madcap plan, a morning ‘til night affair in association with the British Museum and featuring over 60 actors – the only thing stopping me from booking was it being the last day of my holiday!

But fortunately, the good folk of the Almeida decided to livestream the whole shebang – all 16 hours and 18,255 lines of it – so that people could dip in and out to their heart’s content as well as attending at the British Museum for free during the daytime. I switched on at about 8pm as Bertie Carvel started his section, intending just to sample its wares but sure enough, I was there until the bitter end around 1am, having been sucked into its unique brilliance and unable to miss a minute more of it. Continue reading “Review: The Iliad Online, Almeida/Live-stream”

Review: High Society, Old Vic

“Not bad for a 35 year old”

Kevin Spacey’s swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic doesn’t open officially until next week but I only have a handful of days left for the above quote to remain pertinent to myself so I’m writing up High Society now – the usual disclaimers about previews apply. Maria Friedman’s directorial debut was the highly critically acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along so it makes sense for her to return to the world of musical theatre with this Cole Porter classic, given added spin here as the venue remains in the round.

It’s a funny old piece though, Arthur Kopit’s book is based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story and follows the trials of Tracy Lord (I didn’t know they had Tracys in the 1930s), a rich socialite about to get married who suddenly finds herself with three suitors – her dull fiancé, a charismatic tabloid journalist and her dashing ex-husband. As the pre-wedding parties start and the champagne flows liberally, there’s decisions to be made and some of Porter’s finest songs to be sung but little real fizz, to start with at least. Continue reading “Review: High Society, Old Vic”

Radio Review: An Interlude of Men / De Wife of Bristol / In the Depths of Dead Love

“It’s a blip when you’re 25, after 55 it’s a shambles”

Lesley Bruce’s An Interlude of Men is blessed with a brilliant pair of performances, Deborah Findlay and Barbara Flynn play Bren and Hilly whose lifelong friendship is thoroughly explored when Bren comes to stay and help as Hilly’s broken her wrist. They revisit girlhood memories and lament the time they drifted apart a little due to each being married and in the cosy warmth of nostalgia, they start to plan for a future together reclaiming that lost time. Bruce cleverly structures the rhythm of the play around the heady emotion of their initial reunion and the subsequent cooling off period and though it ends on a rather plaintive note, it sings with hard-won authenticity.
 

Riffing off of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, Edson Burton’s De Wife of Bristol is a wryly amusing take on the classic tale of one of the more vibrant characters in The Canterbury Tales and transplanted to the modern day, it gains real currency in its new location in the Afro-Caribbean community. Lorna Gayle’s Clarissa da Costa is a retired woman who has worked her way through a number of husbands and is now dispensing marital advice to recently arrived Jamaican housekeeper Shanti, a delicately moving Susan Wokoma. Shanti has her own tale to tell as well and together, they edge towards a way into the future. Jude Akuwidike, Cyril Nri and Alex Lanipekun are fun as the various men but make no mistake, this is a woman’s world.

Continue reading “Radio Review: An Interlude of Men / De Wife of Bristol / In the Depths of Dead Love”

Radio review: Blood Wedding

“You have already thrown me away”

Ted Hughes’ reworking of Blood Wedding first aired in 2008 and won awards that year. It was re-broadcast as part of Radio 3’s season covering Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – this play, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. Productions of Lorca’s work often search for the elusive spirit of the duende, that magical ingredient that brings out the chills, and that is markedly present here due to Pauline Harris’ astute direction. 

Rather than try and create a taste of Spain, Hughes and Harris focus on the rural, evoking the timeless spirit of folkloric traditions that transcends nations. So the tale of two feuding families, locked in a death spiral of conflict even as they celebrate a marriage that should be uniting their houses, could be anywhere, not just the Almerian mountains where Lorca set it, and a multitude of British accents thus don’t sound out of place. Continue reading “Radio review: Blood Wedding”

Review: Versailles, Donmar Warehouse

“Democracy…such an un-English word”

Expectations for Peter Gill’s Versailles were quite low due to a number of factors – a five star review from Billington; my reaction to Making Noise Quickly, Gill’s last directorial intervention at the Donmar; the announcement of a running time of 3 hours; and decidedly mixed chatter from friends who had already seen it. And as it often the way with these things, I ended up rather enjoying it. It certainly helped that I was prepared for the extreme steadiness of its pacing and the dip of the second act of this self-directed play.

Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Gill examines and contrasts the impact of the peace process of Versailles on a Europe ravaged by conflict and also on a slice of middle-class English society, notably Kentish families the Rawlinsons and the Chaters. Leonard Rawlinson is a young civil servant involved in the negotiations for the treaty but he is haunted by both his doubts of whether a lasting peace can be achieved through these means and the ghost of his fallen soldier lover Gerald, who just happened to be the son of the neighbouring Chaters.  Continue reading “Review: Versailles, Donmar Warehouse”

DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right

What could be more innocent than visiting the vicar of Cockchaffington?”

So having completely tumbled for the charms of The Way We Live Now, I turned to the following BBC Anthony Trollope adaptation He Knew He Was Right which was also reworked by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 2004. Trollope’s main concern here was the corrosive effect of jealousy and particularly on his lead character of Louis Trevelyan whose marriage and family are broken up as he struggles to deal with the independent mind of his wife Emily as he suspects her of having an affair, and suffers the consequences of a gossipy Victorian society.

And thus the problems started for me – I never once found myself believing or really caring for Louis or Emily or their relationship. Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser both struggled with the likeability factor for me and so as a central plot point, the story lost me from the beginning. More engaging was Emily’s younger sister Nora’s romantic travails as she falls for a penniless writer – Christina Cole and Stephen Campbell Moore just lovely together, and another love story as a kind but poor young companion falls for her mistress’s great-nephew against society’s rules. Continue reading “DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right”

DVD Review: The Line of Beauty

“So what are you doing about sex just now?”

As a young gay, reading Alan Hollinghurst novels felt like the height of sophistication, and whether true or not, there was an air of exclusivity about those of us who knew him (at least in the circles I moved in). So his ‘breakthrough’ with winning the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty was a validation tinged with disappointment that I now had to share that something special. His journey into the mainstream was completed with the requisite television adaptation, but with Andrew Davies at the helm for BBC2, it did feel like the right hands were on the tiller.

Hollinghurst’s story centres on a five year period in the life of Nick Guest, a fresh-faced Oxford graduate who moves to London in the summer of 1983. His offer to house-sit for the family of a university friend leads into an odyssey of personal and sexual discovery as he becomes a full-on lodger, thrust into the world of Tory politicians and old money, around which he fits furtive encounters with men as he explores his sexuality in a world in where homosexuality is far from being widely accepted in public. Thus the two main strands overlap and complement each other: Nick is given a window into the privileged lives of the wealthy upper classes in the Thatcherite boom years and in which he is allowed to play his own supporting part, but in the shadow of the emerging AIDS crisis, he discovers just how barely tolerated gay life is and just how hypocritical this society can be.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Line of Beauty”

Review: Copenhagen, Lyceum

“The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty becomes”

Last year it was the turn of David Hare to get a retrospective season in Sheffield celebrating his work, but 2012 sees the Crucible et al honouring Michael Frayn. The Old Vic’s revival of his farce Noises Off has been an immense success in London, but Frayn is also known for his weightier fare and that is what this season is focusing on, featuring productions of Benefactors, Democracy, and Copenhagen – in a remarkably short run that I was lucky to make.

The play is a three-hander that is centred around the 1941 real-life meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr and his wife at their home in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Both were scientists involved in the field of nuclear physics but the content of their meeting remains a mystery, though the implication is that Heisenberg’s development of nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime may have been high on the agenda. Frayn expands and expounds on this in the most esoteric and complex of ways, folding in huge issues of philosophy, morality, history, memory, love and quantum physics. Continue reading “Review: Copenhagen, Lyceum”

Review: Hamlet, Crucible

“For some must watch, while some must sleep”

So part two of the Hamlet week saw me making my first ever visit to Sheffield to the Crucible Theatre where director Paul Miller has reunited with frequent collaborator John Simm in tackling Shakespeare’s epic. I have resisted making any comparisons with the two productions in this review and tried my best to approach the writing of this review as if I had not seen the other.

This Hamlet is very much back to basics, very few props and frippery onstage, so that quite often what we are seeing is simply just a group of actors acting. And whilst on the one hand that was nice to see, on the other, it did mean that there was a whole lot of just standing around and the limited emotional palette with which they had to work meant that too often the connections just weren’t there between the characters, Ophelia and Laertes might as well have been strangers for example. Continue reading “Review: Hamlet, Crucible”