Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 8

With major fluctuations in the force, Series 8 maintains a strong level for Spooks – you could argue it should have stopped here

“They think you’ve got Harry Pearce in the palm of you hand and you’re making moves”

 

Finally, after too many years of yoyo-ing between good series bad series, Spooks finally put together two strong instalments back to back. I think the shorter run (8 episodes) really does focus the writing which now goes all-in on the serial plot line running through the whole series, yet still finding time to blend in self-contained storylines here and there.

Big betrayals cut deep, harsh on a team barely recovered from Connie’s recent deception. Personnel changes rock the team equally hard, as Malcolm is (metaphorically) sacrificed to bring back Ruth, Jo is (literally) sacrificed for big business and Ros (understandably) goes in hard for Tobias Menzies. And Richard Armitage’s Lucas North gets his arse out – quality TV all round. Should Spooks have gone out all guns blazing here?

Nicola Walker-ometer
She’s back! There’s a measure of contrivance in Ruth’s return to the show, necessary to undo the finality of her previous departure and to extricate her from the cushy life in Cyprus which she’d established forself. So cheerio to handsome new partner (they weren’t married so it’s OK he got killed), sayonara to her step-child in all but name, and welcome back to sweet emotional lrepression with Harry. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 8”

Review: Guards at the Taj, Bush

“Was it fucked up? Yes, it was. But I don’t have to feel terrible about it”

Opening up the newly-refurbished Bush Theatre is Rajiv Joseph’s 2015 play Guards at the Taj. Allocated seating and dynamic pricing have been introduced, accessibility addressed and terraces built, we’ve come a long way from the intimate room above a pub that was its original home. And it’s a fascinating piece of writing to go with, an unexpected move perhaps but enjoyable nonetheless.

Inspired by the legend, for which there is no factual basis, that seventeenth century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered that the hands of all the craftsmen who were involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal should be cut off. He commissioned the mausoleum for his favourite wife and the mythos behind the story is that he wanted to ensure that they could never build anything of equal beauty. Continue reading “Review: Guards at the Taj, Bush”

Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker

“Fear no more the frown o’ the great”

You wait for a production of relatively little-performed Shakespeare play and then three come along in the same year. Melly Still is doing Cymbeline for the RSC in the summer, Emma Rice is reclaiming and renaming it Imogen for her inaugural season at the Globe and inside at the same venue, it is being performed as part of a run of the Bard’s late plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Sam Yates.

Ah yes, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I’ve not been much of a fan of this theatre, for purely practical reasons rather than artistic ones, but with this programming that has allowed me to tick off Pericles and see Rachael Stirling, Niamh Cusack and John Light onstage, I’ve succumbed to a rash of bookings. With that, I’ve opted to be brutally honest about the experiences as a paying customer. Continue reading “Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker”

Review: East is East, Trafalgar Studios

“You not need to know my bloody business, missus”

There’s much indeed to love about East is East, the 1996 Ayub Khan Din play that was later made into a successful film (albeit one I have yet to catch), not least in the return of the remarkable Jane Horrocks to the stage and another of Tom Scutt’s impressive sets, marking him as one of the most interesting designers working in UK theatre at the moment. The play itself came at what could be considered a watershed moment in cultural representations of British Asians but given what has happened in the 20 or so years that have passed since its writing, it is interesting to consider how it stacks up now against today’s society.

The tale is an autobiographical one – Khan Din was himself part of a large family from Salford with a white British mother and a Pakistani father and a thinly disguised version of this household is what he puts on stage. It’s 1971 and George’s overbearing paterfamilias is keen for his seven children to respect and revere their sub-continental heritage, especially at a time when East Pakistan was fighting for its independence. He’s appalled that his children consider themselves more British than Asian though and have no respect for the customs he would impose upon them, especially in the arranged marriages he tries to secure for the family.

What additionally makes Sam Yates’ production spectacular is that Khan Din is playing George, the barely fictionalised representation of his father in all his complex frustrated rage and fury, a deeply moving portrayal that brings such nuance to a man who could so easily be demonised and dismissed as an autocratic wife-beater. Instead we come to realise the fear with which he would rule is his own fear of being left behind, of becoming his own father. And whilst our sympathies automatically go to Horrocks’ highly pragmatic Ella, we’re never in any doubt as to the depth of emotion that holds them together, even if their kids can’t understand why she doesn’t leave him.

Those kids are also excellent by the way, from the shyness of Michael Karim’s youngest Sajit through the sparkiness of Taj Atwell’s Meenah – the only girl – to Ashley Kumar’s wannabe heartthrob, the way these siblings rub each other up is heartening and hilarious, we so quickly get so fully engaged in their fates that it is nigh on impossible to not get caught up in the emotional ties that bind them all. Scutt’s design of terraced houses and flexible proppage adds to a recognisable feel that variations of the family dramas here are played out in houses across the nations and across the ages, and all with an Auntie Annie passing comment from the corner of the room! A hugely worthwhile revival.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 3rd January

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre

“For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion”

Transferring into the Noël Coward theatre, Iqbal Khan sets his RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing in modern-day Delhi, as a fitting counterpart to the African-dictator-led take on Julius Caesar which is now touring the UK after its London run. It’s a lengthy take on the play which does little by way of apparent editing, which is mighty impressive given the strength of the vision here, but it turns out the commonalities with contemporary India make this a great (arranged) marriage which is full of interesting scene readings which make this an intellectual, as well as visceral, pleasure.

I found lots of to love, but particularly what had been done with the watch scenes, normally something tolerated with gritted teeth. Here, they are a group of social misfits, almost Napoleon Dynamite-inspired and it really really works, mainly because of the straightness of the bat with which the actors play it. We’re always laughing with, and not at them and they’re never played as stupid – in fact, something rather touching emerges from their determination of purpose. Niraj Chag’s music is also something wondrous to behold. Vivid, sensuous, powerful, it richly enhances the whole production and the six musicians who play throughout the show get a well-deserved bow at the end. Continue reading “Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews