Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 2

Now this is more like it, Series 2 of Spooks settles into the classic feel that works so well

“This ridiculous James Bondery…do we need it?”

With this second season, Spooks really gets into its stride I think, recognising that it is an ensemble show at heart (and a rolling ensemble at that, although it’s a shame new recruit Sam doesn’t get more to do) and nailing the variation in tone and style of episodes which largely remain self-contained. Also, Nicola Walker finally arrives as Ruth, which is good news for the audience, Harry and the nation.

Topics-wise, we touch on hacker kids, Irish republicanism, Islamic radicalisation and Anglo-American relations among others. But it is ‘I Spy Apocalypse’, written by Howard Brenton and brilliantly directed by Justin Chadwick with a smothering sense of claustrophobia that really gets the pulse racing as a fire drill for a terrorist incident gets very dark very quickly – it’s possibly one of the best ever episodes of Spooks.

Nicola Walker-ometer
Praise the Lord – analyst Ruth Evershed finally arrives in Episode 2 in all her long cardigans and flowing skirts and though initially viewed with suspicion coming from GCHQ as she does, she soon wins over the team with her knowledge of Greek mythology, Russian crucifixion practices and much more besides. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 2”

Review: Gypsy, Royal Exchange

Because nothing says Merry Christmas like a stage mum going off the rails….! Gypsy offers a different festive treat at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

“If the cow goes, I go”

The choice of the festive musical is a big one for many a venue, and they don’t come much bigger than Broadway classic Gypsy, which director Jo Davies has tackled for the Royal Exchange (returning to Manchester after a really rather excellent Twelfth Night). It also feels a bit of a bold choice given that the shadow of Imelda Staunton looms large for many, though that was over four years ago now. And if we consider Mama Rose to be the ne plus ultra of female MT roles, well you rarely hear people complaining about the endless succession of Hamlets and Lears, so it is more than time for a new Rose to bloom.

Davies gets a lot right, particularly in terms of her collaborators. Andrew Wright’s choreography makes considered use of the space, brilliantly exploiting the intimacy of being in the round (this is definitely a show to splash out on stalls seats for) as Leo Munby’s musical direction delivers a bright, if fairly traditional rendition of Jule Styne’s iconic score. The bulb-bright flashes of Colin Grenfell’s lighting are showstoppingly effective throughout, particularly when allied with the mobile rig that dominates Francis O’Connor’s set. The sequence where ghosts of the past come to bear witness to a crucial decision by Rose is stunningly, hauntingly effective. Continue reading “Review: Gypsy, Royal Exchange”

News: Cast and creative team announced for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York

There’s always a new or different way to do things, no matter how ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ London-based commentators get, and so the news of Europe’s first ever pop-up Shakespearean Theatre – SHAKESPEARE’S ROSE THEATRE feels like a good thing to me. Taking up residence in York this summer, the Rose looks set to replicate something of the Globe experience, groundlings and all, for a whole new audience.

The 10-week season will consist of four plays, performed in repertory by two companies of actors 

  • A tragedy – Macbeth
  • A comedy – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • A tragic love story – Romeo and Juliet
  • A history – Richard III

Romeo and Juliet and Richard III will be directed by the award-winning Lindsay Posner, while York Theatre Royal’s Olivier Award-winning Artistic Director Damian Cruden will direct Macbeth, and Associate Director Juliet Forster will be putting her stamp on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And particularly pleasing to see is that even in this setting which might be perceived as traditional as it gets, there’s a playfulness to the approach to the plays (from Cruden and Forster at least). Antony Bunsee and Amanda Ryan play Theseus and Hippolyta but in a bit of a switch, will also play Titania and Oberon respectively. There’s a female Puck too, plus Amy Lennox as Hermia which leaves me in no doubt as to which of these will be my priority to see! Continue reading “News: Cast and creative team announced for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York”

Review: The Addams Family, New Wimbledon

“Hold your decaying
Hear what we’re saying”

Sad to say, what I’m saying is that I was not a fan of The Addams Family at all. After a cracking opening number which promises oh so much, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book grinds to a juddering halt in a first half which does nothing but interminably set the scene. And Andrew Lippa’s score offers little respite as it fails to really nail any definitive sense of identity and ends up really rather forgettable. Things do pick up a tad post-interval but it’s too little too late by then.

It all could have been so much better. The Addams Family are an iconic set of characters, previously immortalised on cartoon strip, on television and on film, a legacy which goes some way to explaining the commercial success of the show on Broadway in the face of a scathing critical reception. But classic characters need classic storytelling and here, they’re marooned in a schmaltzy neverland which captures nothing of the golden age, nor has anything to say to audiences today. Continue reading “Review: The Addams Family, New Wimbledon”

Review: Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith

“You don’t get that quality of dance at Sadler’s Wells”
There’s something wonderfully political about the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomime Aladdin this year. Not just in Joel Horwood’s script, which packs in the requisite Trump and Brexit jokes, plus a cleverly worked visual gag for Article 50, and has the land of Fulhammerboosh ruled over by the Emperor One Per Cent. But in almost every aspect of Ellen McDougall’s production, there’s the kind of astute decision-making that has made her a director to watch and whets the appetite even more for her forthcoming Artistic Directorship of the Gate Theatre.
So the first character we meet is Abanazer, played with lip-smacking relish by Vikki Stone as a cross between Mrs Overall and Grotbag, who pretty much steals the show. And our Aladdin is no clueless US import but rather Lyric regular Karl Queensborough, notching up his eighth performance at a venue where he was nurtured by their youth programme. And casting Malinda Parris as the genie not only releases her sensational powerhouse vocal but also further shows up how questionable Disney’s Aladdin’s gender politics are over at the Prince Edward Theatre.
Thus through these choices, this Aladdin feels refreshed and revitalised, an entirely appropriate piece of family entertainment for 2016. And it does this without ever losing sight of all of the traditional aspects of pantomime that we’ve come to love and expect. So there’s some fantastically saucy humour from James Doherty’s Widow Twankey which (should) fly over the kids’ heads along with the sweets thrown out, there’s tons of audience participation led by Arthur McBain’s excellently sensitive Wishy Washy, and an unflagging atmosphere of fun that never drops.
With a sprightly soundtrack featuring rewritten lyrics to some of the year’s pop hits, an impressively staged magic carpet ride, singalongs and snowfalls, Aladdin is undoubtedly a hit. But it is that it’s a hit very much on the Lyric Hammersmith’s own terms that is most remarkable, along with the message it is passing onto the next generation. You may not necessarily agree with its empire-abolishing politics (with a big P) but the politics (with a small p) of teaching our kids that girls can be genies too, that hard work pays off, that the magic of great theatre lies in the imagination, are irrefutable. Exciting and entertaining, this truly is panto for the 21st century.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th January
Originally written for LondonTheatre1

CD Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015 Original West End Cast Recording)

“I’m halfway up a tree and completely in a jam.
I’m out here in a desert and nobody gives a damn”

After the abortive first run on Broadway, dubbed “a very expensive out-of-town try-out” by composer David Yazbek, a reconceived version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown made its way to the West End in early 2015 but it only managed the same 4 months of a run there before closing in ignominy once again. Some things just aren’t meant to be it would seem.

I saw the show at the Playhouse and saw first-hand how ill-conceived this reconceived conception was and listening back to the score, you’re just reminded of how very random the whole thing is. At times, it seems on the verge of working – the manic patter of ‘Model Behavior’ is well delivered by Anna Skellern and Haydn Gwynne brings her customary class to Lucia and her lament to ageing in ‘Invisible’.  Continue reading “CD Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015 Original West End Cast Recording)”

Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse

“The car’s OK but where’s the wheels…?”

The Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was less than a stellar success so it is little surprise that it is a majorly reworked version of the show that has opened at the Playhouse Theatre four years later. But even after all the reconstruction and renovation that has been done to Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbek’s score, it is hard to feel that director Bartlett Sher has really nailed it here either.

For something based on a Pedro Almodóvar film, there’s a shocking uncertainty of tone, or more accurately a lack of any real sense of tone at all. The story in set in late 80s Madrid but there’s little concession to either this particular decade or country (though there is bafflingly one incongruously Hispanic accent). One could argue that this is a wise decision but the issue lies in that no overarching conceit of any substance has replaced it. Continue reading “Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse”

Review: Piaf, Curve

“A quoi ça sert, l’amour?”

Pam Gem’s play Piaf is a curious thing. As a piece of biographical drama, it barely scrapes the surface of the troubled life of the famed French chanteuse, using an episodic style to feature key vignettes as we speed through the rollercoaster ups and downs of her rise to iconic status. And inbetween these scenes, we get performances of some of her more famous songs like ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. But from these slight beginnings can come some kind of alchemic wonder as demonstrated in the superlative 2008 Donmar Warehouse production which featured Elena Roger in the kind of performance that I will remember for the rest of my life.

So no pressure at all on any subsequent productions…though Paul Kerryson’s revival for Leicester’s Curve theatre – a venue really carving out a niche for itself as one of the hottest spots for musical theatre (even if this is technically a play with songs…) – with Frances Ruffelle in the lead role comes close to capturing some of that magic. Staging the show in the more intimate studio there is an inspired decision, enabling the kind of cosy nightclub feel that is entirely right for this kind of performance. For Ruffelle really does dig deep into the emotion of the character to give an almost shocking rawness to her, a blunt directness that makes no apologies for the selfishness of her actions and which lends an even greater depth to her renditions of the songs.  Continue reading “Review: Piaf, Curve”

Review: Hello, Dolly! Curve

“I feel the room swayin’ for the band’s playin’ one of my old favourite songs from way back when”

There’s something about Dolly. When I first saw Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! at the Open Air Theatre back in 2009, I’d’ve happily sat through the show again straightaway despite being incredibly cold and damp. And though struggling to shake off the effects of an annoying bug, the same feeling caught me as we got to the end of Paul Kerryson’s production of the show for Leicester’s Curve Theatre, it is just one of those shows. This was a matinée preview full of incident though. A woman taken ill just before the end of the show was dealt with efficiently by the theatre staff, though its timing was most unfortunate as it all took place right under my nose in the final moments of the show. And a wayward underskirt threatened to topple Janie Dee mid-performance but ever the consummate professional, she whipped it off mid-song and carried on regardless. It all added to the undoubted charm of a gorgeously mounted show that is full of great heart.

Dee’s Dolly Levi is a marvellous confection, making this professional matchmaker less of an overtly comic whirlwind than one might expect. Her performance is full of subtlety: a deep sincerity in her beliefs, a minor note of melancholy that creeps in every time she mentions her late lamented Ephraim, but also a wonderful wit which makes the glint in her eye all the more playful whether she’s teasing audience members or pulling the strings of her clients. And though not necessarily the strongest singer, the arrangements have been cleverly reworked to suit her rich contralto and there’s something touching in having these songs delivered with a modicum of vulnerability rather than being belted out in the manner one assumes Caroline O’Connor would have done, her being originally cast in the title role but later withdrawing. Continue reading “Review: Hello, Dolly! Curve”

Review: Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“We could get the girls round for a game of kerplunk”

I’m a big fan of crime fiction but somehow Martina Cole has passed me by: none of my book-sharing buddies ever press her work into my hands, the TV adaptations didn’t grab me and the previous two Cole stage adaptations failed to tempt me to Theatre Royal Stratford East. But TRSE are clearly happy with how they went and it seems to be turning into an annual event there, so this year one can take in a version of her first novel, Dangerous Lady.

Cole seems to occupy similar ground, if not subject matter, to the Jilly Coopers and Jackie Collins of the world, the story has an epic sweep over several decades but an intimate focus in the struggles and self-empowerment of a ballsy lady. Here it is Maura Ryan, born into a family of gangsters but determined to do the right thing by avoiding the family business. An ill-advised liaison with a cop ends up in pregnancy but he swiftly departs and the subsequent back alley abortion leaves her broken-hearted, infertile and hardened to the world. She then joins her brothers and together they come to conquer gangland, but at considerable sacrifice. Continue reading “Review: Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East”