Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre

A characterful slice of seedy Soho life,  Absolute Hell is anything but at the National Theatre

“You won’t call the police, I’ll call the police”

We’ve all got a history, a bit of a chequered past and Rodney Ackland’s play Absolute Hell is no exception. Premiered in 1952 under the title The Pink Room, it received an enormous critical drubbing which led to a 40 year near-silence from the playwright. But as time passes, trends shift and plays eventually get rewritten, a new version of the drama emerged in the late 1980s to considerably more success.

It is that version that is being revived here by Joe Hill-Gibbins with the kind of luxury casting that National Theatres are made for. And with the world of this slice-of-life play being made up of a vast ensemble of characters, it’s a great fit. Absolute Hell is set in a Soho members club in the period between the end of WWII and the Labour general election win and follows its patrons as they retreat from the social (and physical) upheaval of wartime into a fug of drink, drugs and debauchery. Continue reading “Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre”

Review: King Lear, Minerva

“He hath always but slightly, known himself”

As I wrote when the full cast was first announced, “the world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting”. And now that the time has come to trek over to Chichester Festival Theatre to catch Ian McKellen revisiting a role he has already been most renowned for playing, you’re left in awe once again at the luxuries casting director Anne McNulty has brought to bear in Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress and modern-spirited production.

Chief among them is Sinéad Cusack’s Kent. It’s a casting decision that deserves the emphasis for Chichester has long been a venue where female representation has struggled across the board and though it is still early days yet for Daniel Evans’ tenure here, any steps are welcome. Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is another example and a powerful contrast too. Where Cusack brings all her experience to bear as a superbly nuanced Kent (whose disguising gains real resonance), Lawrance brings a freshness of spirit to her most compassionate reading of Lear’s youngest daughter.

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TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. I’m sure it’s just another false alarm”

Oh The Halcyon – shafted by the overwhelming desire for it to be the new Downton, or maybe the unfriendly Monday evening slot, or maybe the fact that Charlotte Jones’ serial never quite honed in on what it wanted to be. Following the fortunes of a luxury London hotel during the first couple of years of the Second World War, it took all possible opportunities to explore a society on the cusp of major change. But between the aristocrats who owned it, the aristocrats who stayed there, the lower classes who work there, and the multitudes of people affiliated to all these lives, the canvas was far too wide.

The hints were there right from the off in episode 1 which struggled to introduce even just its leading players in its running time, whilst still proving most tantalising, due to its cracking cast and its sumptuous design (those costumes!). At the heart of The Halycon lay the antagonistic relationship between Olivia Williams’ Lady Hamilton and Steven Mackintosh’s Mr Garland, owner versus manager as they butted heads over practicalities in the face of an ensuing Blitz but though their scenes were electric, they were given too little too late together to exploit this to its fullest.  Continue reading “TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1”

Casting for Chichester’s King Lear announced

“Reason not the need”

The world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting (all credit to casting director Anne McNulty here). Jonathan Munby’s production had already announced Ian McKellen as part of the ensemble (teasing an interesting casting breakdown that didn’t actually come to anything) but that’s a small niggle in what is otherwise some excellent news.

  • Sinéad Cusack as Kent
  • Dervla Kirwan, Kirsty Bushell and Tamara Lawrance as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia
  • Jonathan Bailey and Damien Molony as Edgar and Edmund
  • Sinéad Cusack as Kent
  • Michael Matus (Oswald), Dominic Mafham (Albany) and Patrick Robinson (Cornwall) in there as well
  • Danny Webb as Gloucester
  • Did I mention Sinéad Cusack as Kent?
  • I can take or leave Phil Daniels as the Fool but he may well surprise.

Tickets are all sold out so you might want to monitor regularly for returns or hope for the transfer which one suspects is already in the making.

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2

“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for”

David Tennant’s opening season took the template of the opening series and ran with it, Russell T Davies’ vision finding its ideal mate in the Scottish actor. The typically adventurous sweep was tempered with a more tender vision, which considerably upped our emotional investment (previous companions returning, romantic connections whether past or present).

Bringing back the Cybermen was an interesting move, as was the introduction of the notion of parallel worlds (and how important that became…). And if the series-long motif of Torchwood didn’t really pay off, especially not when one considers what Torchwood the show became, the finale to Doomsday is pretty close to perfection. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2”

TV Review: Humans Series 2

“All we can do is what feels right”

There’s been something really quite moving about the second series of Humans, the Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley Channel 4 drama which has just wound to a close. In a world that started off examining the diametrically opposed differences between humans and synths (series 1 review), the stark black and white palette of the show has moved markedly to a murky shade of grey on both sides, complicating the actions of both parties to make us really appreciate the difficulties in deciding right and wrong.

So where the renegade synth Niska (a brilliant Emily Berrington) has decided to subject herself to human justice in order to try and find some common ground, newly awakened Hester goes fully rogue in defining humans as the absolute enemy, to brutal effect in a chilling performance from Sonya Cassidy. And questions of identity are no less complex on the human side, as the show toys with ideas of humans opting to live life as a synth and experimenting even further with technology. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 2”

DVD Review: Valkyrie (2008)

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him”

I have to admit that my hopes were not high for Valkyrie, the assumption prevailing that Hollywood couldn’t manage a nuanced film about the Nazis. But I do have to commend Bryan Singer for at least exceeding those expectations. It’s still not a film that I particularly enjoyed though, not quite tense or suspenseful enough for a thriller, not quite psychologically intense.

The film concerns the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler by German officers of the Wehrmacht in 1944. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg returns from a grisly battle in Tunisia gravely injured and is identified as a key target by the German resistance after getting a desk job that puts him in the ideal position to destroy the Nazi high command from the inside. Spoiler alert – things, however, do not go to plan. Continue reading “DVD Review: Valkyrie (2008)”

Review: King Lear, Old Vic

“’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”

Though no spring chicken myself, I’m not quite the right age to be truly excited about Oscar winning actress-turned politician-turned actress again Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage. I was more intrigued than truly excited when she was announced in the title role of Deborah Warner’s King Lear for the Old Vic for though I’m well aware of who she is, her film and TV credits never broke through into what I was watching either back then or since. (Feel free to recommend her must-see performances – I’ll add them to the list of things I’ll get round to watching one day.)

But I’m always here for casting decisions that shake the established order somewhat and with Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans in the cast too, there was no chance I wouldn’t go see this. Full disclosure though, I went to the final £10 preview so treat this review how you will. For it is simultaneously an effortful and frustratingly vague production that never truly convinces of the attempted scope of its artistic vision. Fortunately, this often-times ephemeral and occasionally perplexing Lear is anchored by a striking performance from Jackson. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Old Vic”

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Henry V (1989)”

TV Review: Humans Series 1

“You’re just a stupid machine aren’t you”

I wasn’t going to write Humans up but I’ve spoken so enthusiastically about it with several people since I watched the whole thing in three days and so thought I’d better recommend it even further. If there’s any justice in the world, Gemma Chan will win all sorts of awards for her performance as Anita (later Mia), the Synth or human-like android that has become the must-have accessory for domestic service in this parallel present-day universe. 

Anita is bought by the Hawkins family who soon start to twig that something isn’t right in the way she is behaving and as Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley’s drama continues over its 8 episodes, we come to see that the lines between human and machine have been considerably blurred by technological advancement and its potential to be exploited identified as a key priority for the nefarious powers-that-be.

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