TV Review: His Dark Materials Series 1

Or to give it its true title, Ruth Wilson in His Dark Materials, the BBC scores big with Jack Thorne’s crafty and considered adaptation

“They speak of a child who is destined to bring the end of destiny”

There was never really any chance that I wouldn’t like His Dark Materials but as Series 1 draws to a close, I’m still amazed by how much I loved it. Given the complexity of Philip Pullman’s world-building as written, Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the first novel Northern Lights cleverly opted to tread its own path, moving revels and plot points here and there, plus weaving in elements of The Subtle Knife (the second) to wrongfoot and thrill anyone who thought they knew what they were expecting. With some stonking production design and top-notch VFX bringing the daemons (and more) to life, it has been simply fantastic (read my thoughts on episode 1 here).

Dafne Keen has been a revelation as Lyra Belacqua, the girl on whom so much rests in a world not so different from our own. So adult in so many ways as she battles everything to save her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd – heartbreakingkly good), she’s also touchingly young in others (especially where Pan – voiced so well by Kit Connor- is concerned), as her understanding of the world can’t help but be coloured by her comparative inexperience, buffeted by devastating waves of parental ineptitude and cruelty. Revelations about those parents, about the mysterious substance Dust too, underline the sophistication of the writing here,never once looking down at its audience,no matter their age. Continue reading “TV Review: His Dark Materials Series 1”

Review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

“I have a motion much imports your good”

They say things come in threes and as with Oresteias, so too with Measure for Measures. After Cheek by Jowl’s brutally contemporary Russian interpretation and Dominic Dromgoole’s comic version for the Globe, it is now Joe Hill-Gibbins’ turn to put his inimitable stamp on the play for the Young Vic. And from the industrial techno rave that opens the show to the awkward freeze-frame of the Duke’s happy ending – all done in a smidge under two hours – this is very much a modern take on Shakespeare that is bound to ruffle certain feathers whilst stimulating others.

With the licentiousness of Viennese society being represented by scores of inflatable sex toy dolls, the image of which recur throughout this whole production, and the Duke using live video relays to speak to the city, the modern-day feel is overt but non-specific, the point being we could be in any major city where a conservative regime is free to impose its puritanical fervour. And in this mise-en-scène, curated by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen and artfully framed in Miriam Buether’s box-frame set with hidden rear compartment, the story unfolds. Continue reading “Review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic”

Re-review: Medea, National Theatre

“I choose to take back my life.

My life.”

Booking a return trip to anything Helen McCrory is starring in is something of a reflex action now but I was more pleased than usual to be able to revisit Medea as conversations with numerous of my friends who were not fans had left me questioning whether I had maybe over-rated the show on first viewing. And it was equally nice to find out that I had not. I can see why elements of Carrie Cracknell’s production might have been polarising but for me, the synergy between the different disciplines is alchemical.
 
From jerky dancing to Goldfrappian swells of music, luxury cameos through to an actor magisterially making her mark on an oft-played role to dominate the vast auditorium of the Olivier, it’s a Medea for our time and so it was entirely correct that this performance should be part of the NTLive programme and be broadcast to cinemas across the world. Spine-chillingly remarkable stuff and that’s all I really have to say!

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 4th September

Review: Medea, National Theatre

“Terrible things breed in broken hearts”

Euripides’ Medea has long been considered one of the greatest roles for a woman to play so it is a little surprising (or perhaps not) that it hasn’t been performed at the National Theatre before. But the winds of change blow even on the South Bank so it makes great sense that one of our finest living actresses, Helen McCrory, should take on the part in a production by Carrie Cracknell, herself responsible for making some of that change with recent shows like A Doll’s House and Blurred Lines.

Ben Power’s new version relocates the betrayed Medea in a blasted contemporary setting (another ingeniously cracking design from Tom Scutt, evocatively lit by Lucy Carter) where she and her two children anxiously await news of the husband and father who has abandoned them for a newly politically expedient marriage. Trapped in a foreign land, having severely burned her bridges with her homeland, we watch helplessly along with a hefty Greek Chorus as grief inexorably transmutes into anger.  Continue reading “Review: Medea, National Theatre”

Review: For Services Rendered / Carnival, Radio 4

“The only thing is to grin and bear it”

Timing is everything and the anti-war message of Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play For Services Rendered failed to gain any purchase on contemporary audiences, making it something of a failure. But listening to Lu Kemp’s adaptation for Radio 4, it strikes as an extraordinarily prescient piece of work, more so given the eventual declaration and devastation of the Second World War, and it surely due for a substantial theatrical revival. As it is, this version will more than do for now as its tale of how the impact of the First World War lingered perniciously on in the lives of the nation is embodied in the trials of the Ardsley family and their friends.

Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley have four children and though superficially their lives in the Kent countryside are going well, there’s much trauma and difficulty just beneath the surface. Only son Sydney was blinded in the war and sister Eva has devoted herself entirely to his care, much to the expense of her own situation and youngest daughter Lois also finds herself unmarried due to the lack of prospects. Ethel is the one that did manage to secure herself a husband but the upheaval of wartime blinded her to his eminent lack of suitability and now in peacetime, she is left to repent at leisure. With so much bubbling away as the social order decays, it isn’t long before changes start to force themselves upon this group. Continue reading “Review: For Services Rendered / Carnival, Radio 4”

Review: Barrow Hill, Finborough

“Maybe I’m meant t’stay ‘ere. Maybe…”

Barrow Hill is Jane Wainwright’s debut play, set in her native Derbyshire. 86 year old Kath Bilby is determined to save her local Methodist Chapel from being converted into flats as her family ties to the place are numerous and considerable. But when she finds it is her own son Graham, seeing an opportunity to address financial difficulties, who has won the building contract, both mother and son are forced to deal with their divided allegiances in this delicately moving tale at the Finborough.

Wainwright presents the idea of family loyalty and community as a double-edged sword. The succour that Kath finds from the wealth of family history and intimate familiarity around her is contrasted with the stifled ambition of grand-daughter Alison, itching to explore life beyond Derbyshire though keenly aware of how tightly the family bonds are felt. There’s a subtle grace to much of the writing here, Janet Henfrey’s determined feistiness convinced of her path of action and filling the void in a life where so many of her friends have died, and Cath Whitefield’s brusque wit just about hiding the more sensitive soul longing to come out. Continue reading “Review: Barrow Hill, Finborough”

Review: The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth, Unicorn

“All stories are based on some kind of truth”

The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth haunts the campsite where nine-year-old Will and his four brothers have spent many a family holiday. And at the Unicorn Theatre near London Bridge, Matthew Lenton has devised a family-friendly, if not just a little spooky, adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s novel of the same name which provides a welcome opportunity for a family trip during the Easter holidays.

Will’s holiday is largely spent negotiating his pesky younger brothers and their Haribo-hiding ways and trailing in awe of his older brother Marty who is awfully fond of a ghost story, especially around the glowing rocks known locally as Captain Crow’s Teeth. But the tale of the angry pirate ghost searching for the 9 year old cabin boy who killed him 300 years ago lingers long in Will’s mind and as he happens to be 9 as well, he’s more than a little anxious. Continue reading “Review: The Legend of Captain Crow’s Teeth, Unicorn”

Review: Electra, Gate Theatre

“Electra, you need to calm down”

This version of Electra by Nick Payne which is currently playing at the Gate Theatre is brand new, but it does bear some resemblance to the production Elektra, which played, for free, at the Young Vic last summer. That version was by Anne Carson was a co-production with Headlong but is now being labelled the workshop production of this one, as it was also directed by Carrie Cracknell and featured the same creative team around her here, indeed one of the actresses involved has travelled too though Cath Whitefield has been promoted from the chorus to the title role.

Based on Sophocles’ Ancient Greek myth, the story centres on Electra, seething with rage at the murder of her father Agamemnon at the hand of her mother Clytemnestra, who in turn was avenging his sacrifice of another of their daughters, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for a prevailing wind. Electra ships off her younger brother to safety but remains with her mother and new lover, silently plotting for the chance to take the ultimate revenge in the memory of her father and praying for a brother she has not seen for ten years. Continue reading “Review: Electra, Gate Theatre”

Review: How To Be An Other Woman, Gate Theatre

“After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. On the stereo you play your favourite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife’s name.”

It’s a long quote to start off a review with I know, but it made me chuckle for ages and it is still raising a smile now as I look at it. This marked my first visit to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, a tiny 70 seater above a pub but with an impressive reputation for attracting talent. Based on a short story by Lorrie Moore, How To Be An Other Woman is about Charlene, a young New Yorker who falls into an affair with a man who happens to be married and despite her best intentions, she finds herself fulfilling all of the clichés around being a mistress.

The story reads as a set of instructions and so lends itself quite well to being acted out, but in Natalie Abrahami’s adaptation, the character of Charlene seems to be used as an everywoman figure, rather than telling the story of an individual, as we start off seeing four shop assistants who then take us through the play. Morris’ writing is wry and funny and if I say it reminds me of early episodes of Sex and the City, then I mean it as a compliment, this is Carrie before you wanted to slap her. There’s a pleasing briskness to proceedings, very little maudlin soul-searching but rather a self-awareness to the protagonist who despises her behaviour even as she does it.

The cast of four cover all the characters and even rotate playing Charlene and her lover, the balletic changing into the beige raincoat that marked an actress becoming Charlene was just lovely and I was a little disappointed when they stopped doing it in the middle of the play. The use of movement and dance was mostly effective, though the mix of choreographed routines and more expressive movement didn’t always work for me (I liked the ‘putting on the coat’ move, I did not care for ‘expressive climbing into bed’), but most crucially, in the brilliant montage of cheesy dance moves at the New Year’s Eve party, the running man was omitted: unforgivable!

Fresh from the triumphant run of After the Dance, Faye Castelow impressed here, especially in her narrating role as she does wry humour extremely well; Cath Whitefield was probably the best at slipping into the role of the male lover disturbingly convincing at times and Samantha Pearl was also strong. Unfortunately, Ony Uhiara has lost her voice so whilst she was onstage acting, her lines were being read in for her which was the first time I have actually seen that happen so it took a little getting used to.

As a preview, it seemed in very good shape already, but it felt like the ending could use some work, tightening it up to provide a more definitive conclusion. Altogether though, it was quite a nifty little piece, imaginatively staged and attractively presented and a good introduction to a new venue which I will have to add my list of ones to keep an eye on.

Running time: 1 hour (no interval)
Programme cost: free, but it doesn’t look or feel it, most impressive.
Booking until: 2nd October

Review: Elektra, Young Vic

“There are times when justice is too big a risk”

Anne Carson’s version of Elektra is the latest play to take up residence in the Maria studio upstairs at the Young Vic. Allegedly having written 123 plays, only 7 of Greek playwright Sophocles’ works still remain, yet they remain ever popular: soon to open at the National Theatre, Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes also takes much from his writing. However, this Elektra is doing things a little differently: no press night, no previews, just opening to its audience, oh and all tickets are completely free (though advance booking is strongly recommended!)

Carrie Cracknell’s debut as Associate Director at the Young Vic is a joint effort with Headlong and so it should come as little surprise that it is an inventive fusion of movement, music and text, creating haunting dreamscapes and evocative imagery that really capture the overwhelming aura of grief permeating this play. The whole play is darkly lit with varying shades of gloom and this allows for some eerie dream sequences to be played out with masked dancers at the start, setting the tone for a haunting exploration of grief and what it will drive people to. Continue reading “Review: Elektra, Young Vic”