TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5

Series 5 of Peaky Blinders plots a particularly dark path for Tommy Shelby but leaves a little too much up in the air – spoilers abound

“It was a consequence of good intentions”

Getting Elliot Cowan into the new series of Peaky Blinders made my heart sing, getting him to play a closeted gay journalist was just gilding the lily, so naturally he didn’t make it past the end of the first episodes. Such are the ways that this show breaks your heart.

As the race through the years carries on apace, we’re now in the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the rise of fascism with the arrival of Oswald Mosley, and these two points are the main drivers of this fifth series. The recalibration of the family business to cover their losses, and Tommy’s burgeoning political career serving his increasingly varied ambition. Continue reading “TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5”

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4

“Edmund Reid did this”

As I might have predicted after the soaring heights of Series 3, the fourth season of Ripper Street didn’t quite live up to its forerunner. Then again, how could it after the epic sweep of the storytelling had so much of the finale about it in terms of where it left its key characters – Matthew Macfadyen’s Reid, Jerome Flynn’s Drake, Adam Rothenberg’s Jackson and MyAnna Buring’s Susan – picking up the pieces to carry on was always going to be difficult.

To recap, Reid had given up the police force after being reunited with his previously-thought-dead daughter Mathilda, and Susan’s momentous struggle against the patriarchal strictures of society (and also the nefarious entanglements of her actual father) saw her and Jackson end up behind bars, having also drawn Reid and the promoted Drake into the exacting of an individual kind of justice.  Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4”

DVD Review: Ripper Street Series 3

“In Whitechapel, they die every day”

When low ratings for series 2 of Ripper Street saw the BBC decide to pull the plug on it, it was something of a surprise to hear Amazon Video would be taking it over (this was 2014 after all) in a deal that would see episodes released first for streaming, and then shown on the BBC a few months later. And thank the ripper that they did, for I’d argue that this was the best series yet, the storytelling taking on an epic quality as it shifted the personal lives of its key personnel into the frontline with a series-long arc to extraordinary effect.

And this ambition is none more so evident than in the first episode which crashes a train right in the middle of Whitechapel, reuniting Reid with his erstwhile comrades Drake and Jackson four years on since we last saw them. A catastrophic event in and of itself, killing over 50 people, it also set up new villain Capshaw (the always excellent John Heffernan) and brilliantly complicated the character of Susan, promoting her to a deserved series lead as her keen eye for business, and particularly supporting the women of Whitechapel, throws her up against some hard choices. Continue reading “DVD Review: Ripper Street Series 3”

DVD Review: Ripper Street Series 2

“You believe in laws but there are only lechers”

For some reason or other, I stopped watching the second series of Ripper Street midway through and it’s taken me until now to finally finish it. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s more likely to do with running out of time to watch it on the iPlayer or something but anyhoo, I’ve managed it now. My review of Series 1 (which I thoroughly appreciated) is over here and I have to say that that enjoyment has continued, even if I do have a few reservations about its female voices.

It’s a shame that in a crime procedural led by three men, two of the leading supporting female characters did not return for this second series. DI Reid’s wife and kind-of-mistress (Amanda Hale and Lucy Cohu) are both MIA, losing all the work done to establish them, and though Leanne Best is introduced as a local politician who can’t help but flirt with Reid (he’s played by Matthew Macfadyen after all), the overall weight of the series does thus feel a little unbalanced.

Continue reading “DVD Review: Ripper Street Series 2”

Review: Ghosts via Digital Theatre (plus thoughts on the filming of theatre more generally)

“You have no idea what this has cost me”

There’s something a little ironic about the fact that many of the people who write about the filming of theatre shows are precisely those who need it the least, myself included. I am in the fortunate position that all the shows I’ve wanted to see that have been broadcast in cinemas through NT Live or captured on Digital Theatre have been shows I was able to see live. To poke at too easy a target, Shenton’s assertion that these are for people who are “not organised enough or connected enough or rich enough to get your hands on a ticket” feels misguided in light of the news that the recent live showing of Billy Elliot topped the UK box office; the audience is clearly there, just not necessarily in London’s IMAX screens.

It can be easy to forget that for people who do not live in London, the expense incurred in sorting out a trip to the theatre, especially for a high-demand show, verges on the ridiculous. Train timetables now work against anyone hoping to catch an evening show, the steady rise in ticket prices means taking a family to see something is increasingly expensive, etc etc. So the option of going to the local picturehouse offers something of a solution, not a replacement but a widening of the opportunity (as Shenton does acknowledge before the above quote).

As for those of us who more habitually spend most evenings in theatres, the gnashing of the teeth about filmed versions replacing the live experience of sitting in a playhouse equally feels wrong. I don’t think anyone is suggesting at all that these innovations are in place of the ‘real thing’ but rather an accompaniment, something to enrich that very experience. I’ve always felt this – having seen many a show from the cheap seats in the larger West End theatres, the chance to see things up close offers a completely new take on the show as well as the joy of revisiting something you enjoyed that otherwise would just live in the memory.

These thoughts ran through my head again as I watched Digital Theatre’s production of the multi award-winning Ghosts, recorded during the show’s transfer to the Trafalgar Studios after an extraordinary run at the Almeida where Richard Eyre’s adaptation completely won me over. The Trafalgar is a notoriously uncomfortable theatre and you can end up paying a ton to still be far away so I didn’t go back to the show there but now, one has the opportunity to watch it again from the comfort of, well, wherever one chooses.

And yes, there are aspects that are lost in viewing it this way. The majesty of Tim Hatley’s translucent design never really comes across and the perspective is always dictated by the camera crew. But trusting them to make good decisions, it is easy to turn that frown upside down as the frequent close-ups on Lesley Manville’s Mrs Alving offer a unique opportunity to observe the finer details of a truly magnificent performance – the way the word “whoring” catches in her mouth, the trembles as she speaks of “the right thing to do”, the agony on her face as she hears that her son has not escaped “the sins of the father”.

The thought that this performance has been captured for posterity if nothing else is a thrilling one and I was recently pointed to the 1987 film (that can be seen on YouTube here) which features Judi Dench in a stunning, if slightly more stagey production. And this feeds into the idea of a rich theatrical archive being built up, in far more democratic a fashion than usual, so that maybe in another 25 years we’ll be able to compare and contrast another spell-binding turn from an actor in her fifties (Phoebe Fox or Vanessa Kirby would be my prediction).

There’s also the other pleasures contained here, the chance to see the late lamented Natasha Richardson work for one and the freshness of a youthful Kenneth Branagh for another, he probably comes out about equal with the excellent Jack Lowden for my money, as the ailing Oswald. Really, I can’t see why people get so het up about the idea of filmed theatre.

Ghosts, along with five other shows on Digital Theatre, is now available with the option of StageText captioning; that’s the sound of another barrier being broken down as the choices open to those who rely on captioning in theatres are limited and being able to make the precious few performances that are covered often requires planning of military precision. Adding this option here is therefore a real boon and shows that this is a company thoughtfully considering what their role in the capturing of live theatre really means. Well worth the investigation.

The 2013 Ian Charleson Awards

First prize

Jack Lowden, for Oswald in Ghosts (Almeida Theatre)

Second prize

Jessie Buckley, for Miranda in The Tempest (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Princess Katharine in Henry V (Noël Coward Theatre)

Third prize

Graham Butler, for Henry VI in Henry VI, Parts I, II & III (Shakespeare’s Globe)


Fisayo Akinade, for Adam, Silvius, and William in As You Like It (Transport Theatre on tour)
Elliot Barnes-Worrell, for the Groom in Richard II (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Nari Blair-Mangat, for Caithness in Macbeth (Manchester International Festival)
Gavin Fowler, for Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Noël Coward Theatre) and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Kim Hardy, for Konstantin in The Seagull (The White Bear)
Brian Markey, for Hugh in Mixed Marriage (Lyric Theatre, Belfast)
Charlene McKenna, for Regina in Ghosts (Almeida Theatre)
Rose Reynolds, for Lavinia in Titus Andronicus (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Gemma Soul, for Rose in The Recruiting Officer (Salisbury Playhouse)
Luke Thompson, for Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare’s Globe)
Olivia Vinall, for Desdemona in Othello (National Theatre)

Review: Ghosts, Almeida

“I want the kind of love a mother cannot give”

Like the dose of the clap on which it is centred, productions of Ibsen’s Ghosts appear with alarming regularity – indeed Stephen Unwin premiered his own new version for the Rose Kingston and English Touring Theatre just a couple of weeks ago – and for someone who has largely remained immune to Ibsen’s charms, the claims that this is one of the dramatic pinnacles of the theatrical canon have always bemused me somewhat. Unwin’s detailed period production laboured heavily under its respectful approach that ended up almost dull in its restraint but Richard Eyre’s interpretation, which he has adapted and directed himself for the Almeida, is fresh and raw and as appallingly exciting as this play could ever hope to be.

Lesley Manville has rarely been better than as Helene Alving here, a woman caught up in the cocoon of protective lies she has told to protect her son from the knowledge that his father was a philandering ne’er-do-well who carried the pox, to protect her family’s reputation from the moralistic gaze of a fiercely hypocritical society, to protect herself from the inherent misery of the life that society has deemed appropriate for her. The minute that cocoon starts to unravel, so too does Manville, coils of hair break free from her coiffure and tightly bottled emotions start to spill forth. It’s a freedom of sorts with an exhilarating compulsive energy but it spirals out of her control, as she realises she can’t escape anything from the past, it is utterly heartbreaking. Continue reading “Review: Ghosts, Almeida”

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1

“Whitechapel calls you back”

Victorian crime procedural Ripper Street burst onto our screens at the beginning of this year with a blood-spattered élan and a perhaps more violent streak than many were expecting, but it grew to be a most successful series with audiences (and me) and has since been renewed for a second series. Set in Whitechapel, the first episode had a Jack the Ripper focus, which with the title of the show, proved a bit of misdirection in terms of the series as a whole as the crimes that H Division ended up investigating were of a hugely wide-ranging nature and not just focused on the notorious serial killer (although the Ripper’s exploits did form a backdrop to part of the series-long arc).

It’s a period of history, and particularly social history, that I have long found interesting (I studied it as part of my degree) as notions of crime and punishment were rapidly changing and the nature of policing was also changing with the introduction of a more scientific approach to solving crimes. So Matthew Macfadyen’s DI Reid and Jerome Flynn’s DS Flynn are joined by US army surgeon Captain Jackson, played by Adam Rothenburg, as they work their way through the serious crimes, civil unrest, and personal vendettas that crop up on a weekly basis. Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1”