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”

TV Review: His Dark Materials Episode 1

After what has felt like an interminable wait, the BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials arrives onscreen in scintillating form

“In every child’s nightmare, there is an element of truth”

After what has felt like an interminable wait, the BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials arrives onscreen in scintillating form. Written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Hooper, this first episode set the tone marvellously, balancing all the detail needed for world-building for newcomers and yet still maintaining enough magic to hook in those more seasoned fans of the work.

I definitely count myself in that latter category. The books were the first I ever hungered for in waiting for the publication of the second and third in the trilogy. The National Theatre production ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a theatre and I trekked to Bath and Salford to see subsequent revivals. I even don’t think the film adaptation of The Golden Compass is the worst thing in the world, honest… Continue reading “TV Review: His Dark Materials Episode 1”

Casting news aplenty!

I round up some of the recent casting news, including Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange, Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse, Measure for Measure at the Donmar and The Woods at the Royal Court.

Shakespeare wrote more lines for Queen Margaret than he did for King Lear yet we know very little of her. Jeanie O’Hare re-acquaints us with one of Shakespeare’s major but rarely performed characters in her new play Queen Margaret. In a production that draws on original language from Shakespeare, director Elizabeth Freestone and Jade Anouka as Margaret, retell an iconic moment in British History through the eyes of the extraordinary Margaret of Anjou. This captivating exploration of The Wars of the Roses seen through the eyes of this astonishing, dangerous and thrilling woman opens the Royal Exchange’s Autumn Winter 2018/19 Season.

Anouka is joined by Islam Bouakkaz (Prince Edward/Rutland), Lorraine Bruce (York), Samuel Edward-Cook (Suffolk/Clifford), Dexter Flanders (Edward IV), Helena Lymbery (Hume), Lucy Mangan (Joan of Arc), Roger Morlidge (Gloucester), Kwami Odoom (Somerset/Richard), Bridgitta Roy (Warwick) and Max Runham (Henry VI). Continue reading “Casting news aplenty!”

Oscar Week Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri proves just a little too problematic, despite Frances McDormand’s excellent work

“All this anger, man, it just begets greater anger”

The backlash against Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t seem to have got in the way of its award-winning chances. But upon watching it for myself and enjoying it for the most part, equally I couldn’t escape the sense of how problematic it is in the way in tackles – or rather doesn’t tackle – class and race in the rural US.

For every statement from Martin McDonagh about the ‘deliberately messy and difficult’ nature of his film, there’s a refusal to explore the real ramifications of the behaviour contained therein, particularly the racist criminality of cop Dixon who is never really called to account for what he does. And in today’s world, in today’s America, that really isn’t good enough. Continue reading “Oscar Week Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

DVD Review: Nativity

“As if Hollywood would come to Coventry”

For whatever reason, I hadn’t ever gotten round to watching festive film Nativity since its release in 2009 but its broadcast on BBC1 meant I finally got the opportunity to be thoroughly won over by its lo-fi festive spirit. Written by Debbie Isitt but also partially improvised by the cast, it nails that typical (successful) Brit-flick style with all its deprecatory charm and underdog spirit, along with an unexpectedly effective original musical score.

Nativity centres on an inter-school rivalry in Coventry, where private primary school Oakmoor consistently produce the best-received nativity show. This year, the headteacher of St Bernadette’s has something to say about that and so puts curmudgeonly Christmas-hater Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) in charge of their show, aware that his old drama school friend and rival Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) is the one succeeding at Oakmoor, Continue reading “DVD Review: Nativity”

TV Review: London Spy

 “People lie Danny, they lie very well” 

Well this was a disappointment wasn’t it, there’s no two ways about it. Tom Rob Smith’s London Spy started its five episode run most promisingly with its forthrightly modern gay love story – between emotionally reclusive Secret Service operative Alex and Danny, a shift worker and regular on the hard-partying Vauxhall gay clubbing scene. Edward Holcroft and Ben Whishaw made a powerfully effective couple, negotiating their differences beautifully and believably so that by the time Alex went missing, the substance of the emerging conspiracy theories actually meant something.

But as the plot wound vaguely into labyrinthine dead ends and red herrings, it became increasingly hard to get a handle not just on what was happening but what Smith was trying to say. And directed in would-be sepulchral (but actually just frustratingly dark) gloom by Jakob Verbruggen, the joys of recognising bits of my local Vauxhall soon wore off as you realised that such a stunning supporting cast as Adrian Lester, Clarke Peters and Harriet Walter were indeed being criminally underused or landed with heinous dialogue and what started off irresistibly disintegrated into implausibility. Continue reading “TV Review: London Spy”

Review: Race, Hampstead

“What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?”

The Bee Gees once sang ‘it’s only words’ and that was my abiding sentiment as I left the Hampstead Theatre after seeing David Mamet’s Race. Circumstance conspired to prevent me from seeing this on the press night and I allowed myself to be convinced to try again to see it, but it was one of those instances where fate should have been allowed to play out. Even over its short running time, Race rarely feels like a piece of coherent drama spoken by fully-fleshed characters but rather a collection of ideas strung together and placed into mouthpieces.
Its subject is right there in the title, centred on the debate in a lawyer’s office about whether to take on a politically charged case of alleged rape involving a (presciently Strauss-Kahn-like) powerful man. The case is deemed problematic by the defendant being a black woman, the accused a white man, and it is further complicated by the inter-racial dynamics of this law firm. Throw in some gender politics and the rich/poor divide and the scene is set for some coruscating debate on some eternally pressing issues, but Mamet fudges it completely.


A pre-set defeatist tone about anything to do with race neuters much of the argument made within. And there is a lot of it right from the off – the playwright’s customary sharpness with his dialogue is present and expertly performed in Terry Johnson’s production – but a weariness soon sets in as fiery cynicism and manipulative self-interest means there’s less debate and more pronouncement, this is one iceberg with no hidden depths. 

Clarke Peters and Jasper Britton as the lawyers neatly suggest a lengthy shared history despite the sketchy characterisation and Nina Toussaint-White works well as the enigmatic newcomer to the firm who, as is becoming a little too predictable with Mamet, has a game-changing secret up her sleeve. Daish’s accused rapist though never feels like a real person, no realism at all to his situation and so there’s just not enough power to underline the noise of this play which is ultimately all just confrontational bluster. 

Running time: 80 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 29th June

DVD: Cape Wrath / Meadowlands

“The consequences of doing the right thing…”

Cape Wrath, or Meadowlands as it was retitled for the US market, was a 2007 TV drama which aired on Channel 4, following the fortunes of a family who have to enter a witness protection programme in an idyllic new neighbourhood but increasingly find that they may just have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Lucy Cohu stars as the matriarch of the family, Evelyn Brogan, who with her twin children have been uprooted due to some unspecified incident that involved her husband, David Morrissey’s Danny and over the eight episodes of the show, it proves a good showcase for her talents.

Created and largely written by Robert Murphy, the story unwinds as a psychological thriller as the Brogans struggle to come to terms with their new way of life and find many a mystery which keeps their paranoia levels justifiably high. Morrissey’s Danny is the main investigator of the strange goings-on around him as his testy relationships with Nina Sosanya’s Samantha, the bureaucrat who runs the programme, Ralph Brown’s magnificently moustached policeman and Tom Hardy’s lascivious handyman with an eye on his daughter instantly put him on guard as he soon clocks that something suspicious is going on in their new home. Continue reading “DVD: Cape Wrath / Meadowlands”

Review: Cinderella, Hackney Empire

“He wanted a fairytale romance – it ended up Grimm”

Last year was the first time that I re-engaged with the world of pantomime since being a kid and despite having heard many good things about the Hackney Empire panto over the past few years, in particular Clive Rowe’s various dames, I didn’t get there. And sod’s law dictates that as I booked for Cinderella – this year’s effort – Mr Rowe engaged himself in a production of The Ladykillers which is now previewing at the Gielgud. But you don’t miss what you never had and in any case, my history with pantomimes at the Hackney Empire actually stretches back to 19?? and one of my first genuine memories of being in a theatre with Peter Duncan playing Aladdin and clambering all over me and my cousins as he climbed through the audience as part of the show. So it was actually a fascinating opportunity to revisit a little piece of personal history as well as marking the beginning of my festive theatregoing season.

Writer/director Susie McKenna has refreshed the familiar tale of Cinderella to contemporise it for modern audiences, yet still maintaining much of the traditional feel of a pantomime that really is suitable for all ages. So we have all the familiar characters: a pair of hilarious pantomime dames as the Ugly Sisters – Tony Whittle and Kat B as Queeniqua and Victiqua respectively, a fairy-godmother who speaks in rhyme – Sophie Louise Dann in charming form and the children’s TV presenter affability of Matt Dempsey’s Buttons with his horse Clapton (complete with special song). The writing has lots of nice little local references that make it a nicely Hackney-located show and up-to-date references but not obtrusively so, there’s also the sweet-throwing out, audience shout-outs and a little onstage participation for one ‘lucky’ fellow that we’ve come to expect. Continue reading “Review: Cinderella, Hackney Empire”