Lockdown film review: Red Joan (2018)

My lockdown watching doesn’t get much better with the horribly dreary Red Joan which sorely misuses the treasure that is Dame Judi Dench

“You did this, didn’t you”

Hurrah, you might think, a film with Dame Judi Dench in the lead part. But hold on a mo, Red Joan is also a Trevor Nunn film – take that as you will – and should it ever have reached award conversations, Dench would surely have had to be in the supporting actress category, such is her role in the way the story is lugubriously doled out like a barely dripping tap.

She plays Joan Stanley, a character loosely based on Soviet spy Melita Norwood who passed on details of the British nuclear programme to Moscow, who finds Special Branch knocking on her door and muttering treason. But the majority of the film is told in flashback, as Sophie Cookson plays the younger Joan who back in the 1940s, had her head turned at Cambridge University by the flirty Leo (Tom Hughes with an unconscionable accent) and her politics turned by the horrors of war. Continue reading “Lockdown film review: Red Joan (2018)”

Review: Tumulus, VAULT Festival

“I’ve never had a lover die on me before”

Chemsex is one of those subjects that always seems to pop up at festivals and sure enough, in week 1 of the VAULT we find a new play on the very subject by Christopher Adams. But with a sparkingly fresh and darkly witty take and some intelligent and imaginative direction from Matt Steinberg, Tumulus emerges as a cracking piece of theatre, a “chilling queer noir” that entertains as much as it elucidates.

Anthony is well and truly addicted to the chemsex scene in London. He’s holding down his job as an assistant curator at the British Museum just about fine, though that promotion always seems to elude him, as his evenings and weekends are taken up with chasing the next amazing high, the next unmissable party, the next insatiable guy. This high-functioning addict has his certainties shaken though when his one of his latest hook-ups turns up dead on Hampstead Heath. Continue reading “Review: Tumulus, VAULT Festival”

2018 Vault Festival – what to see

On the one hand, that the Vault Festival has expanded to over 300 shows running over 8 weeks is fantastic news for the emerging theatremakers that it supports. On the other, it means making the choice about what to see, even tackling the catalogue alone can feel somewhat daunting. It has taken me a wee while to get round to delving into it myself, but as the festival is set to open this week, here’s some of my top tips for each week.

Week 1

Tomorrow Creeps – repurposed Shakespeare via the medium of Kate Bush? Hell, yes.
Tumulus – it’s not a festival unless there’s a chemsex show
Great Again – likewise a Trump-bashing musical 


Week 2

Double Infemnity – gender-flipping noir crime antics in a one-woman show? Whyever the hell not!
Gypsy Queen – gays and boxing, sometimes I’m an easy sell…
Gun – I’ll be trying to catch more comedy than I usually do this year, and this western-inspired show very much seems as good a place to start as any


Week 3

Think of England – love, lust and swing dancing in wartime Waterloo – TICK!
Be Prepared – I’m a fan of writer/performer Ian Bonar so definitely looking forward to this one
Douze – Eurovision pop comedy musical fun, nuff said


Week 4

YOU – a thought-provoking look at adoption, drawing on some deeply personal narratives
STUD – gays and football, a combination that usually works wonders for me!
Elsa – a chirpy sounding piece of reflective musical comedy


Week 5

Sparks – Jessica Butcher is a name that people in the know rave about, Anoushka Lucas is a name I have raved about, together they ought to come up with something special
Conquest – a debut show from PearShaped and one which promises to tackle contemporary feminism with real fearlessness
Still We Dream… – I don’t see much dance but something about this piques my attention, animalistic movement in non-traditional spaces


Week 6

TESTOSTERONE – experimental work pushing the trans narrative forward, one for the Daily Mail-reading person in your life…
Das Fest – in many ways what the Vault Festival is for, for me, to see the type of thing I would never normally book for (as in Philipp Oberlohr’s show last year Das Spiel) and be delighted and not a little freaked out!
The Strongbox – Stephanie Jacob is having a low-key moment, her play Again opens at Trafalgar Studios 2 next month and its final week will overlap with another piece of new writing from her, I suspect they’ll both be worth catching


Week 7

Fuck Marry Kill – a work-in-progress from Vera Chok and Amy Mason which uses the game show format to challenge the patriarchy
Bury the Hatchet – the tale of Lizzie Borden is one of enduring fascination and Out of the Forest are no exception here, using bluegrass, nursery rhyme and horror to retell and reexamine this story
Unburied – a folk horror mystery that just seems most intriguing


Week 8

THINGS THAT DO NOT C(O)UNT – I loved No Offence’s torn apart at the Hope last year, so I’m much intrigued by this new work
The Dirty Thirty – an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 shows in 1 hour – I’m sold!
Tom and Bunny Save The World – another company I’m a big fan of, Fat Rascal, present a zombie comedy musical that is sure to shake up gender lines as much as apocalyptic survival methods

Review: Don’t Waste Your Bullets On The Dead, VAULT Festival

“We need stability, not creative parenting”

If there’s one thing theatre loves, it is plays about theatre itself. You can find the likes of Red Velvet and Nell Gwynn in the West End right now but in the more vibrant land of the VAULT Festival, Freddie Machin is presenting his own contemporary take on the issue in Don’t Waste Your Bullets On The Dead. Feisty and fresh, it feels like ideal festival fare, bulging at the seams with exuberant imagination.

Theatre director Ellen Billington has been struggling to find work and her personal life is suffering too with lovemaking with her partner strictly regimented to ovulation cycles. When a chance encounter with an old colleague and a playwriting competition results in a swift commission and temporary escape to a backwater Massachusetts town, she thinks all she needs to do is let inspiration do its work but life, and art, are rarely that simple. Continue reading “Review: Don’t Waste Your Bullets On The Dead, VAULT Festival”

Review: Orson’s Shadow, Southwark Playhouse

“When and where did you hear the rumour that I’ve been playing to empty houses?”

When a play is “based on true events”, there’s always a tricky line to tread as the very nature of theatre is to be, well, theatrical and the truth be damned. And when the subjects are such well-known luminaries as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier with a side helping of Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh and rounded off by Kenneth Tynan, the blurring between fact and fiction is even further tested, especially if you know anything about these figures.

Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow centres on Welles’ ill-fated decision to direct Olivier in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, at Tynan’s instigation as the playwright would have it, all three men in their twilight of their careers or at least a crossroads on the part of Olivier. From Tynan’s machinations to make this happen to the rehearsal rooms of the Royal Court where egos clash and sparks fly – though married to Leigh, Olivier’s co-star Plowright was also his lover – it’s a titanic battle between genuine titans. Continue reading “Review: Orson’s Shadow, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”

One of the terms most overused by reviewers and publicity writers alike is “timely revival” and this production of King John is no different, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta as it has processed on a mini-candelit-tour of Temple Church and Holy Sepulchre Church Northampton ahead of this run at the Globe. But Shakespeare dropped the ball here with this play, it is no surprise in the watching that it is one of his lesser-performed works and though James Dacre’s production has its bright spots, it can’t cover all of its inherent weaknesses.

Dacre heavily plays up the religious aspects of the play and whilst you can see the logic for the sacred venues and the atmosphere that the candlelight would have created, it’s less easy to see how it works as well at a sunny matinée in the open air on Bankside. Jonathan Fensom’s design imposes a red cross of a stage into the space and fills it with monks, but religion is only part of the story of John’s travails and weighting the emphasis so heavily here doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of dramatic sense (though I freely admit to not knowing the play at all well). Continue reading “Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“There must be no squeamishness over losses”

In the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War, many a theatre has programmed accordingly but few can lay as effective a tribute as the Theatre Royal Stratford East with their revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War which premiered here a little over 50 years ago. The play came in for some stick from that enlightened soul Michael Gove who denounced its political revisionism (and gave it a healthy dose of publicity to boot) but in the final moments of this emotionally exhausting show, only the most totally deluded of fools would have politics on their mind in the face of such unutterable loss of life, something that continues in battlefields today.

There is no denying that the show wears its politics clearly on its sleeve. Devised by Littlewood and Theatre Workshop in the 1960s, its depiction of the class lines within the armed forces speak firmly of its time, and it is interesting to see how the American efforts are viewed at a time before any “special relationships” had been forged. But truly at its heart is the experience of the ordinary soldier and Lez Brotherston’s design never lets us free of the unflinching barrage of information and imagery – projections simulate what life might have been life, a constantly scrolling panel of statistics keep the human cost at the front of our minds. Continue reading “Review: Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: The Recruiting Officer rehearsed reading, St James Theatre

“Two and twenty horses killed under me that day”

Accompanying their production of Our Country’s Good, Out of Joint have put together a programme of rehearsed readings of various of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s plays and threw in a bonus reading of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer for good measure. It is a natural choice as it is the play which the convicts of Our Country’s Good are performing and in using the same cast here, the actors are able to play the characters they are ‘rehearsing’ in the other piece which has a lovely neatness about it.

Farquhar’s play is deliciously dry and funny, impressively so for a 1706 Restoration comedy, and even with the limited rehearsal time and the cast having scripts in hand, there was a real sense of the rich comic potential of the material. And having seen it fairly recently at the Donmar Warehouse, it was interesting to see the different choices and dynamics that a new company brought. Ian Redford’s older Kite had a weariness of the soul that felt entirely appropriate, John Hollingworth’s take on Brazen was straighter than Mark Gatiss’ out-and-out fop but no less hilarious for it and the doubling that most of the actors did was impressively done and added to the humour quotient. Continue reading “Review: The Recruiting Officer rehearsed reading, St James Theatre”

Review: Our Country’s Good, St James Theatre

“In my own small way, in just a few hours, I have seen something change”

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good was first produced 25 years ago by Max Stafford-Clark and his Out of Joint company and as it has remained an evergreen success, in no small part due to regular appearances as a set text for students, a revival makes good sense. And with Stafford-Clark taking on directorial duties once again, it makes for a fascinating chance to see an impresario revisiting a work with which he is inextricably linked.

Much of the appeal of Wertenbaker’s work lies in its celebration of theatre as a cultural medium but also as something more, something that can heal and restore the soul. And so as a group of convicts newly transported to Australia are convinced to put on a play – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – by an officer of reformist tendencies, we see the transformative power of drama and a subtle shift in the way that punishment is viewed as the idea of rehabilitation comes into play. Continue reading “Review: Our Country’s Good, St James Theatre”

Review: Mercury Fur, Old Red Lion

Sarcasm will get you shot

Philip Ridley’s ‘moment’ in London continues with this Greenhouse Theatre Company production of Mercury Fur, which follows the Arcola’s Pitchfork Disney and the Southwark Playhouse’s current Shivered and forthcoming return of Tender Napalm. This desolate tale of a society, not so different from our own, on the edge of collapse is often brutally, crushingly dark as a group of young adults make an existence for themselves in any way they can, even in the most horrifying of ways.

Tucked away in a derelict council flat, brothers Elliot and Darren are setting up for a party organised by the ruthless Spinx to fulfil the request of the ‘Party Guest’. But as it becomes clear what kind of event has been arranged and what terrible desires are being sated, the relentless drive to the disturbing climax takes an appalling twist. But even in the midst of this dystopian, drug-fuelled nightmare, Ridley offers us glimmers of hope: buds of love, friendship, tenderness poke their way through the charred remnants of this world but have to fight incredibly hard. Continue reading “Review: Mercury Fur, Old Red Lion”