Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.
 
And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story.

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TV Review: The Vote, Donmar Warehouse via All4

“This after all has been a very careful election”

A fascinating experiment from James Graham and Josie Rourke, The Vote was a “play for theatre and television” which after two weeks of performances at the Donmar Warehouse – for which you had to enter a ballot for tickets – aired live on More4 at the very moment that it was set, the night of the UK general election. I wasn’t one of the lucky few in the ballot and am rarely inclined to dayseat (though I know several people who managed it) so I’ve only just got around to catching up with it on All4 (formerly 4OD) where it is on for another couple of weeks.


I’m glad I did get to see it as it is very funny and pulled together an extraordinary cast, the vast majority of whom spend mere moments onstage. Graham’s play focuses on the trials and tribulations of a South London polling station in the 90 minutes before voting closes and though there’s a farcical plot that holds the play together in the larger sense, the real joy comes in the microstories of the various voters who come in to exercise their democratic right as best they see fit. Drunks losing their polling cards, giddy lesbians brandishing selfie sticks, teenagers asking Siri who to vote for, all amusing slices of life are represented by a stellar cast who seem to be having just as much as the audience.


And with Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss and Nina Sosanya leading the main plotline as the staff of the polling station, there’s great funny business going on concerning missing ballot papers and some inspiredly bad problem solving. Throw in Timothy West causing havoc, a cursing Dame Judi Dench and Finty Williams playing mother and daughter and a blink-and-miss-it cameo from Jude Law, it’s a striking achievement from all concerned, especially from Graham himself who was still writing scenes up until the last minute, to go into the commercial breaks.

Which leads to my only slight bugbear about the whole enterprise. The idea of it being both a film and a piece of theatre felt undermined by this revelation that there were theatre-only scenes which weren’t broadcast. Likewise having theatre critics in for a traditional press night felt undemocratic – they should have had to enter the ballot with the rest of us, after all it’s not as if their reviews were going to help sell tickets… Who knows, playing with conventional theatre structures is always going to ruffle a few feathers and in the end, it is well worth 90 minutes of your time to catch up on while you still can, to see why James Graham really is one of our more exciting political writers.

Review: Shutters, Park Theatre

“Nothing here but kitchen things”
The intentions behind Making Productions’ triple-bill Shutters are certainly well-placed – bringing together 3 short American plays looking at female experience over the last 100 years and using a six-strong female ensemble to cover all roles whether male or female – but in the end, the choice of plays lets them down somewhat. Philip Dawkins’ Cast of Characters is a self-indulgent piece of playwrighting buffoonery which focuses on the production notes for an imagined play of family drama but achieves little. And Brooke Allen’s The Deer tested my patience with its pseudo-tragedy.
Both those plays are contemporary and sure enough, the one that worked best was the 1916 Trifles by award-winning Susan Glaspell. Here the murder of a farmer has taken place and his wife jailed on suspicion thereof but whilst the sheriff and his mates blunder about the property trying to find the answers, the two women left alone in the kitchen (where they belong…) get far closer to the truth. This is by far the most intriguing piece of writing but also of direction, Thorpe Baker introducing a neatly spooky trick to create a thrilling and engrossing atmosphere. One out of three isn’t good enough though.
Running time: 90 minutes

Booking until 3rd August