2017 Oscars – pre-ceremony thoughts

“For whatever reason, he spared a hamster”

When you see as much theatre as I do, it can be difficult to keep up to date with cinematic releases – if I have a night off, I rarely want to spend it in a dark room… – but I have tried my best this year to see at least some of the Oscar-nominated films, so that I can chip in once they’ve been distributed in a way that will doubtless cause some controversy or other.
Arrival – I absolutely adored this and am a little surprised it didn’t figure higher in some of the bigger prizes, Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and restrained direction, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautifully elegiac score, Bradford Young’s cinematography evoking all the potential of worlds beyond our ken. And of course Amy Adams, deeply moving as the linguistics professor whose life is opened up by her encounters with alien beings who just want to talk. 
Elle – Huppert finally gets her first Academy Award nomination after a 40 year long career of extraordinary creative daring and depth (and making a mockery of the studio politics-spawned narratives that mark several successful campaigns #poorLeo,Viola Davis being long-overdue…). Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is undoubtedly a challenging watch but powerful with it, Huppert’s instinctively cerebral approach completely rethinking conventional rape survivor storytelling.
Fences – Denzel Washington’s recreation of his Tony-winning Broadway production of August Wilson’s classic play is, perhaps, predictably theatrical in a way which means it never really makes the most in the change of medium. It feels like a play being remounted on film, an excellent play which results in a very good film, but not quite adventurous enough. Washington is superb as Viola Davis who is deservedly the front-runner for gold, but one day soon we’re going to have to talk about category fraud as just like Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl last year, this ain’t a supporting role.
Jackie – clever but a little dry and not quite as gripping as I wanted. I was also very distracted by the faces that kept popping up (Deborah Findlay, Penny Downie, David Caves?!)

La La Land – we build them up, we tear them down. Had I seen La La Land pre-hype, I might have loved it. In the end, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about – it was an enjoyable film for me but not a particularly memorable one and in the context of the other films in the midst, one of the weaker entries. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are thoroughly charming but also feather-light.
Hidden Figures – some have critised the glossiness of Hidden Figures but for me, this is what is long overdue, these kind of stories getting this kind of Hollywood treatment. The frankly amazing story of African-American women’s contributions to NASA and the space race shines under director Theodore Melfi’s hands and in the understated performances of Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, gain real power and the exposure they most certainly deserve.
Lion – weepy but good.
Loving – a little bit disappointing if I’m truly honest. Ruth Negga is spectacular, achingly eloquent with a script that doesn’t give her the hugest amount to say as one half of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving whose struggle for recognition changed the law. But the film as a whole doesn’t quite have the emotional engagement that I wanted and un fact, the most powerful moment – and the one that actually made me cry – was the epilogue in which his fate was revealed.
Moonlight – the biggest threat to La La Land’s domination tonight is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the kind of film to inspire the worst outpourings of white prvilege you ever did see – a film about black gay sexuality? Whoever could want to see such a thing or think it award-worthy? Well a hell of a lot of people actually, especially when it is done as artfully and tenderly as this, split into three, this is fiercely proud film-making (from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) and full of sensational performances, not least Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (who shot her scenes in 3 days!)
Moana – one of Disney’s better recent efforts, pleasingly girl-positive storytelling and songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda – what more could you want?!

Re-review: Escaped Alone, Royal Court

Image result for escaped alone royal court

“I’m walking down the street and there’s a door in the fence open and inside there are three women I’ve seen before”

There’s something delicious about seeing the Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone return to the Royal Court before heading out to New York and then a UK tour. It’s also testament to James MacDonald’s production that the quartet of actors who originated their parts have all returned – Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, marvels every one.

I ranked the play as the fourth best thing that I saw last year and though I don’t always like to go back to things I enjoyed (in case it sullies the memory), I wanted to treat myself to this again. And I’m glad I did, for the layered complexity of Churchill’s writing allows for re-appreciation and indeed re-interpretation. My original review holds true but given the way the world has lurched closer to apocalypse (literally so, apparently), the play’s contrast between Doomsday and the domestic feels ever more poignant and pertinent.

Running time: 50 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 11th February, then touring 15 – 26 Feb BAM, New York; 7 – 11 March The Lowry, Salford; 14- 18 March Cambridge Arts Theatre; 22 – 26 March Bristol Old Vic

Review: The Children, Royal Court

“At our time of life, we simply cannot deal with this shit”

It’s interesting to see the things that make ruffles in the theatrical establishment and those which pass by without comment. Vicky Featherstone’s reign at the Royal Court has not been without its uneven moments but the fact that The Children will be followed on the main stage by the return of Escaped Alone is indicative both of the daring nature of her programming in forefronting stories about older people, and also its success.
Lucy Kirkwood’s new play further ups the ante in making her protagonists sexual beings, her trio of retired scientists are battling not only the fallout from nuclear disaster but from the collision of their emotional lives. Nearly 40 years ago, Hazel and Rose were rivals for Robin and the play opens with the two women seeing each other for the first time since then. It’s a stilted, strange encounter, further complicated by Robin’s arrival. 
For though Hazel may not have seen Rose, it seems like her husband has seen his former lover more recently. And combined with the realities of living on the edge of a nuclear disaster zone, Kirkwood thus explores probing questions about generational responsibility, placing questions about the legacy that we leave for those to come against the value of living one’s life to the fullest regardless of the consequences.
James Macdonald’s production percolates slowly without ever really coming to the boil, but once you’re adjusted to the slightly off-kilter (literally so, in Miriam Buether’s set) and eerie atmosphere, there’s much to enjoy. Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay contrast marvelously as the free-flowing Rose and the uptight Hazel, irrevocably connected by Ron Cook’s likable Robin – drunken dancing has never seemed quite so much fun, even on parsnip wine.
The debate the play provokes is fiercely thought-through, holding baby boomers up to the light and finding them wanting (in a similar way to Bartlett’s Love Love Love) and there’s something admirable about the surefootedness of Kirkwood’s position, as uncompromising as it might seem. Definitely one to see and mull over – how far would you go for The Children?
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 14th January

DVD Review: Suite Française (2015)

“Be careful… with your life”
Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française has one of those origin stories you’d scarcely believe if you read it in a novel itself. In 1942, Ukrainian-Jewish Némirovsky was deported from the France where she had lived more than half her life, having written two parts of an intended sequence of five novels in the previous couple of years. She spent time at Pithiviers and then Auschwitz where she was murdered, leaving notebooks with family members who could not bring themselves to look at them until they were to be donated to a museum whereupon they were amazed to find complete novels as opposed to mere scribblings – thus Suite Française was published in 2004 to considerable acclaim. 
And where such stories go, film must follow and so a movie adaptation made its way to cinemas in 2015, directed by Saul Dibb and co-written with Matt Charman. Suite Française follows life in a village outside of Paris in the first few months of occupation in 1940 and as with several of the films I’ve watched recently, concerns itself with the lack of moral clarity at that time, refusing to depict the world in black and white with choices made easy with hindsight, but rather investigating the realities of living through such a time of crisis and the lengths to which people will go to to survive.
Michelle Williams’ Lucille lives with Madame, her domineering mother-in-law played by a brilliantly caustic Kristin Scott Thomas, and they anxiously wait for news of her husband who has been taken as a prisoner of war. But as refugees from an invaded Paris flood into town, followed by a regiment of German soldiers who move into the villagers’ homes with them, life becomes infinitely more complex. Accusations of collaboration are thrown like mud by the French, the position of authority is variously abused by the Germans, and in the midst of it all, Lucille finds herself falling for the officer billeted with them, Matthias Schoenaerts’ achingly sensitive Commander Falk (he plays the piano so he can’t be too bad a Nazi…!)
The love story is well done though not quite consequential enough, Williams is superbly understated and Schoenaerts is good as ever. It’s just that the fracturing of community life is far more interesting, as class and status come into play in the conflicts that arise, the jealousies that are provoked, the fear that emanates from every pore and toxifies once-solid relationships. Ruth Wilson and Sam Riley’s farm labourers versus Harriet Walter and Lambert Wilson’s Viscountess and Viscount de Montmort typify this clash perfectly and provide some of Suite Française’s stronger moments.

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

Next week sees the 9th Gay Art Festival GFEST start, an eclectic showcase of art, films, and performance work by LGBTQI artists from London, UK and beyond. There’s all sorts to choose from – full details here – with this year’s theme being OUT [in the Margins] and some of the things piquing my interest are European films Jonathan and Brothers of the Night, at Rich Mix and Arthouse Crouch End respectively, and trans documentary The Pearl on at Rich Mix on 15th November. You might be interested in their performance night at the RADA Studio on the 19th November too, a 2 hour double bill of LGBTQI music and dance narratives. Visit their website at www.gaywisefestival.org.uk.

One of the more exciting pieces of casting news was the announcement that the original cast of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone – the glorious Deborah Findlay, Linda Bassett, Kika Markham, and June Watson, will be reuniting for the show’s revival early next year. Escaped Alone (my review here) will play a short run in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs 25 January – 11 February 2017, skip over the Atlantic for a wee run at BAM Harvey Theater, New York starting on 15 February and then returns to the UK to go on a national tour 7 March – 26 March to The Lowry, Salford Quays; Cambridge Arts Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.

I suppose a few people might be interested in the return of David Tennant to the stage in Don Juan in Soho... 😉

I’m not 100% in love with the venue, more for the journey through the casino to get to the room, but Leicester Square’s Hippodrome Casino has announced a star-laden set of concerts to follow up on recent successes including Jeremy Jordan, Titus Burgess and Michael Ball. You’ll be able to see Murder Ballad’s Kerry Ellis on 20th December, Memphis’ Matt Cardle on 17th February, Sharon D Clarke – so good in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – on 10th March, and the luscious Oliver Tompsett, recently in Guys and Dolls, on 24th March. More info here.

Congratulations to Andrew Thompson, whose play In Event of Moone Disaster was announced as the winner of the biennial Theatre503 Playwriting Award. Chosen from a shortlist of five and from a longlist that stretched over 52 different countries, Thompson won a nifty £6,000 and will see his play produced as part of his prize.

Hang out the bunting too for the New Diorama Theatre, who won this year’s Empty Space Peter Brook award.

And an interesting snippet from across the pond about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Broadway version of the show, starring Christian Borle as Charlie and scheduled to open Spring 2017, will cleave closer to the Gene Wilder-starring film with Willy Wonka appearing “much earlier in the production, starting the show by welcoming children and guests to his sweetie empire” and “more classic songs from the film that were left out of the London production, as well as new songs by Shaiman and Wittman. Audiences can expect yodeling from Augustus Gloop as he enjoys a mid-breakfast snack of 50 chocolate bars, plus a number called ‘Strike That, Reverse It’ highlighting Wonka’s constant mental frenzy”.

Review: Escaped Alone, Royal Court

“I have to believe them

It has to be someone I believe
I have to believe they’re not just saying it
I have to believe they know…”

After the divisive triptych of Here We Go, we now get a second brand new play from Caryl Churchill in the form of Escaped Alone. And rather brilliantly for a venue now unafraid to shake the rafters about received notions about women in theatre (and society) under Vicky Featherstone’s leadership (cf this interview, outgoing play Linda), it stars four women of great experience, their combined acting on stage and screen adding up to over 170 years – a fact that shouldn’t be remarkable in itself but sadly, still is. 

Trying to come up with a précis of ‘what happens’ is difficult at the best of times with Churchill’s plays and Escaped Alone is no different. Suffice to say, Sally (Deborah Findlay), Lena (Kika Markham), and Vi (June Watson) play three friends enjoying a cup of tea in Miriam Buether’s highly naturalistic back garden set when neighbour Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) pops along to join them. What follows is a sharing of stories, personal and political, private revelations and public address. 

The characters are all over 70 and so much life has happened to them but something apocalyptic is happening too (a recurring and disturbingly prescient theme in the playwright’s work, not least The Skriker). And in the steady flow of James Macdonald’s assured production, contrasting timeframes are elided beautifully – as stories of survival are divided by Bassett’s matter-of-fact accounts about the state of the world today – aided by Buether’s addition of a pitch black antechamber in front, framed by ingeniously flickering and effective electric coils, Peter Mumford’s lighting transformatively complete.
A frequent collaborator with Churchill, Macdonald’s investigation of the text is supreme, so that each incomplete, overlapping sentence is weighted with its full meaning. And breaking up the conversation are monologues of archetypal, Churchillian, linguistic complexity which somehow remain surprising – Findlay’s growing panic, Markham’s tremulous fear, Watson’s masterly swoop into seriousness, Bassett’s troubling wordplay, each solo brings with it the jolt of imagination and intelligence. And crucially, in the hands of such fine actors able to convey the intent of a playwright with still so much to say, a playful freshness that keeps Escaped Alone dancing lightly on its feet

Running time: 50 minutes (without interval)

Photo: Johan Persson
Booking until 12th March

20 shows to look forward to in 2016

2016 is nearly upon and for once, I’ve hardly anything booked for the coming year and what I do have tickets for, I’m hardly that inspired by (the Garrick season has been ruined by the awfulness of the rear stalls seats, and I only got Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets due to FOMO). Not for the first time, I’m intending to see less theatre next year but I do have my eyes on a good few productions in the West End, fringe and beyond.

1 Escaped Alone, Royal Court

The promise of a new Caryl Churchill play alone was good enough for me, never mind the amazing casting of Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson. The reaction to the divisive Here We Go adds a little extra spice too, how will the critical establishment cope with a work about older women?!

Scott Rylander

2 Grey Gardens, Southwark Playhouse

Reuniting the crack team who have delivered so many musicals at this theatre, the tale of the Bouvier Beale women should provide intriguing material for stars Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell.

3 The Rolling Stone, Orange Tree

Seen in Manchester and Leeds last year, Chris Urch’s new play sees a welcome return for visionary director Ellen McDougall.

4 Clickbait, Theatre503

Is there another theatre as strong as the 503 in responding to contemporary issues with genuinely thought-provoking work as opposed to click-baiting scandal. A new perspective of women in porn is next under the spotlight.

5 Wit, Royal Exchange

Julie Hesmondhalgh’s post-Corrie career has seen her make some cracking choices and emerge as a most thoughtful actor – Margaret Edson’s Wit will only further her reputation.

6 The Faction’s Richard III, New Diorama

Sad news as this rep company bring their six year tenure at the New Diorama to a close but upping their ensemble to 21 and increasing its diversity should ensure they go out with a bang.

7 The Long Road South, King’s Head

With a cast that includes Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon, the intimacy of the King’s Head should be well suited to the intensity of Paul Minx’s play.

8 Nell Gwynn, Apollo

It’s a shame Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn’t transfer with Jessica Swale’s show from its spectacular run at the Globe but it will be interesting to see how Gemma Arterton adapts to the title role.

9 Phaedra(s), Barbican

Isabelle Huppert. ISABELLE HUPPERT!

10 The Maids, Trafalgar Studios

Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton, with Laura Carmichael? One of the most exciting casts to hit the West End in ages.

11 Mrs Henderson Presents, Noël Coward

I loved this in Bath and was glad news of a transfer soon followed, even if new movie-based musicals can get treated harshly in the West End. This should run and tun though.

12 My Mother Said I Never Should, St James

“The most performed play by a female playwright” but the first revival in London for 25 years from the creative team behind Land of Our Fathers (which will be touring).

13 Talawa’s King Lear, Royal Exchange/Birmingham Rep

Marking Talawa Theatre’s 30th anniversary year, Don Warrington takes on this most mountainous of Shakespearean roles for director Michael Buffong.

14 Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

It’ll be four years since I saw this at the same theatre and I can’t wait to get to revisit its lovable anarchic spirit.

15 Hamlet, RSC

Stratford-upon-Avon isn’t always the first place you look for innovative casting but Simon Godwin’s choice to have Paapa Essiedu as the Prince of Denmark along with Tanya Moodie and Cyril Nri in the cast should make this a production to look out for.

16 Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic

Getting Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons onstage is one hell of a way to celebrate your 250th birthday and guaranteed to get me there.

17 Headlong’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Headlong always offer up interesting work and so it’ll be intriguing to see what Jeremy Herrin makes of Frank McGuinness’ 1985 play.

18 Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War, Barbican

Ironically, there were more British journalists and critics at the performance I saw in Amsterdam than you’d see at any fringe venue, all of us too impatient to wait a year to see this iconic company at work.

19 Yerma, Young Vic

With two productions late last year (The Wild Duck and Medea), Simon Stone’s directorial innovation saw him shoot up my list of must-see people. Now he takes on Lorca.

20 The Flick, National Theatre

Details are still frustrating thin on the ground for this highly acclaimed play but keep your ears to the ground as tickets are likely to fly off the shelves.

Honourable mentions

Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard

Tim Minchin’s musical of Groundhog Day at the Old Vic
Helen George in the newly announced After Miss Julie
Nick Payne’s latest for the Donmar, Elegy 

and Ivo van Hove directing The Crucible in New York City….

Film Review: The Lady in the Van


“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”
It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.
This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life.
And in Smith’s hands, one can see the manipulative power she must have wielded. Fearsomely unapologetic, even Christmas presents from children are received with a scowl, and brazenly haughty despite the reality of her guilt-ridden loneliness, she nonetheless winkles her way under Bennett’s skin. And fiercely protective over the details of her past, hints of her younger years as a pianist, a French speaker, a nun, slowly spill forth, providing the film with a certain narrative propulsion. It’s a scabrously funny performance too, dry wit infused into every line making her a joy to watch.
Hytner can’t resist the opportunity to load, possibly even overload, the rest of the film with his theatrical connections though. For the upper middle class residents of Gloucester Crescent, casting the likes of Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay just about works for the fruity luvvies who are Bennett’s friends and neighbours. Shoehorning in cameos for all eight original History Boys is pushing it though – the bits of rough in their 70s wigs are fine but James Corden’s vicious-tongued market stallholder feels misjudged.
So it’s a rare supporting character that actually breaks through to become someone interesting. Gwen Taylor manages it as Bennett’s Mam, kept at arm’s length by him even with his fondness for her, and so perhaps suggesting that the relationship with Miss Shepherd had some root in familial guilt. And Cecilia Noble’s social worker comes closest to interrogating Bennett’s actions with any degree of insight but only to a very limited degree as writer and director collude to keep things from digging too deep.
In recompense, there’re flashbacks into Miss Shepherd’s past which seek to give context and an odd sub-plot with Jim Broadbent trying to do threatening which doesn’t really pay off, but at its heart, The Lady in the Van is by far at its best when it is a whimsical comedy anchored by two cracking performances from Alex Jennings and the truly extraordinary Dame Maggie Smith.


TV Review: Life in Squares

“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”

I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.
Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set – Vanessa Bell née Stephens – at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while.

Where the series really excelled is in showing the exhilaration that this group of creative spirits got from forming their own bubble within society, the freedom that it engendered for both its women and men to be as sexually ambiguous and adventurous as they liked. And then having created their ideal lives in pursuit of essentially individual freedom, tracking how it wasn’t always what it cracked up to be, especially once the next generation came into the picture, further complicating an already complex network of fiercely emotional connection. 
Life in Squares did occasionally teeter on the brink of being overwrought but that flightily romantic nature was part of the appeal for me. From the moment the Stephens sisters, Phoebe Fox’s Vanessa (later Bell) and Lydia Leonard’s Virginia (later Woolf) shrug off their late father’s patriarchal stuffiness and enter the world of literary salons, torrid affairs, fluid sexualities and marriage (not necessarily in that order), the tangled web they wove was just achingly beautiful to behold, especially as the various individuals try to find their footing in the ever-shifting terrain of such sexual freedom.
Leonard’s gorgeously fragile Virginia, later finding safe haven in Al Weaver’s solid arms as Leonard Woolf as well as amusement with Emily Bruni’s Vita Sackville-West, has an illicit emotional affair with Sam Hoare’s handsome Clive Bell, which Fox’s Vanessa doesn’t approve of (being his wife) though she’s busy having a dalliance with James Norton’s luscious artist Duncan Grant, who is enjoying the company of his lovesick cousin Lytton Strachey (a brilliant Ed Birch) who is fine JUST FINE with just sex as Duncan has fallen harder for Edmund Kingsley’s JM Keynes and then later Ben Lloyd-Hughes Bunny – got it?!
There’s a lot to take in and initially, the flickers into ’20 years later’ are a little disorientating but by the final episode, all becomes clear and Eve Best, as the grown up Phoebe Fox erm Vanessa, gets her real chance to shine as her determination to lead her own life has to be balanced with that of her three children and the consequences of past decisions ricochet through time. When a show’s happy ending (of sorts) involves [spoiler alert] a woman getting together with her just discovered biological father’s former gay lover (Miles from This Life, who can blame her), one has to be glad that there’s nothing squares about the lives in Life in Squares.