12 Days of Christmas – Black Mirror Christmas

“So thanks to you, some dork meets a girl, not much of a Christmas story…”

On the sixth day of Christmas, Black Mirror also gave to me…only bloody Jon Hamm!
Well this was a White Christmas but necessarily like the ones you used to know. Black Mirror’s 2014 Christmas special saw writer Charlie Brooker go feature length and director Carl Tibbetts get crazy fortuitous as Jon Hamm just declared his love for the series and his interest in appearing in it one way or another, the result being this interlinked triptych of stories, combining as ever to chilling effect.
Hamm plays Matt, a man working in some unspecified remote location and sharing a cabin with Rafe Spall’s Joe. They’ve been living together for five years without really communicating but this particular morning, Joe wakes up to Matt making Christmas dinner, determined to get the story of how he ended up in this isolated place. And sure enough, it is a tale of human exploitation of technological advancement.
Matt opens the storytelling by recounting both what he did for fun (using in-eye tech to coach young men into sexual encounters via low-key negging) and what he did for work (torturing digital copies of people into being their slaves) before entering into this apparent purgatory, both proving effectively creepy scenarios. But the drama really kicks in once Joe starts to open up about the truth of his situation.
The way in which the three separate strands sinuously link together is cleverly done and it is an episode full of tiny callbacks to the wider Black Mirror universe, seeming to suggest for the first time (I think) that these stories all take place in the same realm. Hamm is very good but Spall is excellent as the haunted Joe, barely aware of what he’s saying or doing until it is too late, time and time again. So here it is, Merry Christmas.

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: The Riot Club

“I’m afraid you’re not really the right sort of chap”

Laura Wade’s Posh took the Royal Court by storm in 2010 and then the West End in 2012 with a slightly amended version, each time slipping quite easily into the contemporary political narrative with its skewering of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford student dining club that has boasted the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson in its ranks. Wade’s intimation is clear, that the reckless and thoughtless behaviour of these men as students is symptomatic of their charmed future political careers as a whole and enclosed in the claustrophobic dining room of a gastropub that they proceed to thoroughly trash, the play had a horrendously compelling energy to it.

Wade has adapted her own play here into The Riot Club and through the determined effort to make it work on screen, it has become quite the different beast. Personally, I wasn’t too keen on it, the changes detracting from the strengths of the story as I saw them, and the realities of making – and casting – a feature film have altered the whole underlying theme. A cast headed by model-handsome men (Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Max Irons etc), most of whom get to ‘learn a lesson’ by the end, takes away from the vileness of their behaviour – it almost feels like director Lone Scherfig is letting them get away with it without ever really showing us the true ugliness of their political and personal prejudices.

Part of this comes from a change in the main focus away from the group as a whole and onto the two newest recruits – Irons’ Miles and Claflin’s Alistair – who are diametrically opposed in most respects. So we see the japes of their initiation ceremonies, and the start of a promising relationship for Miles with working-class Huddersfield girl Lauren (another new innovation from Wade) who is appealingly played by Holliday Granger. So that by the time we reach the climactic dinner party, basically two-thirds of the way in, much of the impact has been deliberately blunted – the key scene with Natalie Dormer’s working girl Charlie passes by too quickly, Lauren’s arrival at the dinner replaces much of Jessica Brown Findlay’s role as the put-upon waitress thereby diluting both parts.

And that goes for the whole film. For me, expanding the world of the play to encompass a whole raft of new characters and beautifully shot vistas of Oxford’s architecture has that same effect, of lessening what I found most effective about the play and so it was hard not to feel a little disappointed with it in the end. It isn’t bad by any stretch – Irons is strong as the conflicted Miles, Claflin nails the chilling insouciance of a Tory leader in the making, and there’s good work too from Sam Reid and Matthew Beard amongst others in the club. I’d still recommend tracking down a production of the play rather than renting the film though – and next month conveniently sees one start in Nottingham before going onto Salisbury.

Review: Our Town, Almeida

“The morning star always get wonderful bright the minute before it has to go”

Some images sear themselves into the mind, never to be forgotten and for me, the staging of the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was such a one – something so simply done yet achingly powerful in effect, all the more so given it isn’t immediately apparent. And after Mr Burns, it is the second time in three plays that the Almeida has delivered a doozy of a third act – one can’t help but feel sorry (or laugh) at the doofuses that left at any of the intervals.

It is interesting to see the strength of the reactions to David Cromer’s version of this show – in the Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford decries it as glib, desultory and that final act as smug(!) and Jake Orr dismissed it thus


which just goes to show different strokes for different silly folks eh (I was part of that audience…)

Review: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, Royal Court

“Do you see a rise in social harmony on the horizon?”

Between this interview for the Evening Standard and the three pages of programme notes that accompany the playtext, Anders Lustgarten clearly sees conventional theatre as a challenge to be met and his play for the Royal Court – If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep – certainly aims to be different. Fitting into Dominic Cooke’s brief to shake up the archetypal middle class audiences at the Sloane Square venue, it offers a illuminating deconstruction of the politics and economics of austerity and promises an alternative but where the first point is definitely delivered, the second remains somewhat unrealised.

Lustgarten has imagined a world not at all dissimilar to our own with the impact of a financial system in meltdown unfurling insidiously throughout society. With traditional avenues closed to them, City financiers plot new ways of making money and alight on the idea of Unity Bonds, wherein “problem families can now be monetised” by the bankers betting on social disorder increasing whilst officially being incentivised by it going down. But this is just the start of a series of short scenes, the rest of which focus on a society which is fast unravelling. Prisons, hospitals, schools all feel the shockwaves of this approach, as services become depersonalised in the endless rush to meet targets and frustrations boil over into violence.

It’s a compelling view of a dystopia that doesn’t feel too far removed from our own reality and is blessed by some superb performances from the cast of eight who cover multiple roles in the ever-shifting scenes. Daniel Kendrick’s angry young man, Ferdy Robert’s oleaginous financier, Lucian Msamati’s compelling abuse victim, Susan Brown’s frustrated but innately good nurse, Laura Elphinstone in everything she does, Lustgarten’s characterisations may not have time to really take hold but their dialogue has real bite. And in Simon Godwin’s deliberately austere production, sans décor, there’s an almost playful atmosphere against the harsher reality of the material.

But by the time we reach the final extended scene, where a group of dissidents – bringing together some of the characters we have previously met – converge on a disused building to create a Court of Public Opinion where they intend to…well I couldn’t really tell you exactly what they were going to do aside from ‘challenge the status quo’ and put something or somebody on trial, it is clear that Lustgarten’s frenetic energy has expended itself. And though we’re only 70 minutes in by this point, he opts to stop, rather than develop a piece of involving drama out of this scenario, which is a shame as it does feel full of potential.

Leaving the theatre, one could feel a little dissatisfied as something which starts off so confrontational and yet backs away as the going gets tough. But reading around the playwright’s intentions, it is possible to see that the blurb on the back of the playtext may have gone a little too far in promising an alternative vision to austerity, where Lustgarten may have been more interested in providing us with the stimulus to think of our own by breaking down perceived complexities around economics. That’s my take on it but it certainly isn’t one which is immediately clear (nor necessarily correct) and so I’d say approach this with caution – aim to get £10 tickets on a Monday rather than splashing out for full price.  

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)

Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 9th March

Review: Ding Dong the Wicked, Royal Court

“What’s happening out there?”

At just 20 minutes long, Ding Dong the Wicked is a new Caryl Churchill playlet that can be seen at various afternoon and late evening slots as it fits around her other show downstairs at the Royal Court, Love and Information. The two are not connected so do not need to be seen in tandem, just consider it a Brucie bonus for Churchill fans, a cadeau de Caryl if you will.

In a living room, a family prepares for the sending of one of its sons to war. They drink vodka, too much; patriotic jingoism is spouted blindly as battles rage on television screens; troubled familial dynamics are hinted at with squabbling aplenty and furtive affairs emerging. Then ten minutes later, we move to another country where things seem the same, but different.

The same six actors play different characters and they speak the same lines but completely reordered, shifting expectations and meanings. It is a simple idea yet executed with great technical accomplishment in Dominic Cooke’s production, Churchill managing to pack in contrasting takes on the same war and its effects on our humanity with a lingering thoughtfulness.

Sophie Stanton and John Marquez stand out in the ensemble though there are no real weak links and the forced perspective of the set, which is inverted part-way through, evokes the right claustrophobic environment. An intriguing, thought-provoking curio which demonstrates the lasting power that even a short play can have.    

Running time: 20 minutes (without interval)

Playtext cost: £3

Booking until 13th October

Review: Vera Vera Vera, Royal Court

“I don’t know where you came from or who you belong to, but I do know that no-one wants to claim you, no-one wants you to belong to them”

‘As above, so below’ so the saying goes, but in this case the opposite is true as the Royal Court upstairs follows the Hampstead Theatre downstairs in putting on a play which deals with the death of a young British soldier and its impact on the family left behind. But where Nick Payne’s Lay Down Your Cross focused on the parent-child dynamic, Hayley Squires’ Vera Vera Vera looks at how contemporaries are affected – the siblings and cousins left to mourn their loved ones and reassess their own lives in the light of tragedy. This play continues the Young Writers Festival which started with Goodbye to all That and as she originally trained as an actor, this is Squires’ first full-length play.

She moves forward and back between two scenarios in present-day Kent: a pair of schoolkids make tentative steps to progressing their friendship into something more and three months later, a brother and sister prepare for the funeral of their younger brother, killed in combat in Afghanistan. Tom Piper’s design utilises the same central structure from Goodbye to all That which he also did, but this time around the edges are covered in grass and the Kentish countryside is suggested on the walls. Jo McInnes’ direction also harks back to that first production in keeping the cast visible on the staging area even when not involved in the scenes, but pushes it a little further by having some spiky non-verbal interactions between them during the scene changes – a little thing but most effective.

And from her young cast, she teases some gorgeous performances. The relationship between the high-schoolers Charlie and Sammy is the stuff of teenage fantasy but delightful with it: Ted Riley’s swaggering Sammy a secret champion for the emotionally fragile Charlie, Abby Rakic-Platt in beautiful tenderly natural form, and there’s such a sweetness about this pairing that it is a joy to keep revisiting them. Squires captures perfectly the natural rhythm of friend-speak combined with a new awkwardness as the pair begin to cross the boundary that has marked their relationship thus far. Crucially, it is also extremely funny.

The older generation, who’ve long lost that innocence, are given particularly rancorous antagonistic voice in the tortured brother/sister relationship of Tommy McDonnell’s Danny and Danielle Flett’s Emily, utterly convincing that a lifetime of petty squabbling lies behind this particular falling out. They well epitomise directionless small-town young adulthood with its warped sense of priorities and a grim trail of sex, drugs and violence. But Squires introduces a fifth character too, Daniel Kendrick’s much more affable Lee, the dead man’s best friend who is now sleeping with his sister on the QT. And though Lee see himself as the peacemaker, we see how even his behaviour has sown the seeds for destruction just as much as the aggressive behaviour he is witnessing.

These sections don’t quite have the same level of impact, though still powerfully acted, as Emily is invested with just a little too much self-awareness to truly convince despite Flett’s best efforts. The portrayal of small-town apathy is well-judged but Squires needs to let it speak for itself rather than instead of pushing commentary into the mouths of her characters (though it is a problem that blights playwrights young and old so she’s in good company). For a short play, an hour straight through, Squires manages an extremely accomplished debut here: Vera Vera Vera is clear-sighted, punchy and perfectly formed and would be definitely worth a punt if it weren’t sold out.

On a side note, this was my first Royal Court ‘pay what you like’ performance and it was surprisingly and thankfully easy to pick up tickets, there was no queue when I rocked up at 10.30 (tickets go on sale from 10am from the box office only) and is to be recommended as a way to get into shows which often sell out before the run even opens. I do find it a little frustrating when a run like this only actually features one £10 Monday – one of the Royal Court’s better innovations – due to an unfortunate juxtaposition of bank holidays and a press night on a Monday, it’s not the first time this has happened and I just think it would be nice if at least one of them were replaced with, oh I don’t know, Tuesdays for a tenner.

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 14th April

Review: Chapel Street, Old Red Lion

“If someone wanted to take me to the theatre, I’d go…if they paid”

Chapel Street is the debut play from Luke Barnes, a sharply written two-hander about Kirsty and Joe who tell their separate, but increasingly intertwining, accounts of a highly drunken night out with their respective friends. He’s getting hammered with his friends down the pub, she’s knocking back vodka at her friend’s house but when everyone goes into town to continue the evening, fate smashes them together.

Daniel Kendrick’s Joe, brimming with swaggering self-confidence, was a terrific performance – recalling Trystan Gravelle’s electrifying turn in DC Moore’s fantastic Honest in the way he totally engaged with the audience, I have never felt more like one of the lads as when he was talking to me! He also portrays the quiet desperation of a young man still living at home, barely able to get casual labouring work, his frustrations not quite driving him to action though. Ria Zmitrowicz has the slightly more difficult job with Kirsty, a 15 year old girl becoming aware of her burgeoning sexuality but not quite yet fully aware of the consequences of exploiting it in the way she does. She does find a nice likeability in amongst her naïve dreams and Barnes captures the brutal honesty of teenage speak well.

Together though, they work extremely well under Cheryl Gallacher’s direction, the back-and-forth of their interlaced monologues extremely well timed and feeling impressively natural. They both tell their own stories but there’s almost an element of banter to the writing as well which is highly amusing. But and as more and more drinks are knocked back, their evenings with their friends taking unexpected turns and their diverse journeys finally colliding, there’s no relenting of the grim messiness of their drunken behaviour.

The play isn’t without its little hiccups: quite how Joe is able to use Titus Andronicus as a reference point is beyond me and the ending, though perhaps inevitable, lacked a little inspiration – would not their paths cross more often? But the writing is tightly coiled, its two strands unwinding with increasingly entertaining and engaging wildness yet urging an ultimately cautionary note about the heavy booze culture that blights our towns and cities. Two great performances make this an enjoyable evening, but the decision to charge full price for 45 minutes of drama feels extremely misguided.

Running time: 45 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 20th August
Originally written for The Public Reviews