Review: Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre

With Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre, the return of Alan Bennett leaves me less than enthused 

“Still, it was better than this”

In some ways, Allelujah! is perfectly symptomatic of the problem I have with the Bridge Theatre. Does London really need any new theatres, no matter how much people think they want interval madeleines? Does it especially need ones that put on large-scale Alan Bennett premieres? It is nice to see Nicholas Hytner maintaining the long-gestating creative relationship he has with Bennett but at the point where his new venture is now just a carbon-copy of his former home down the South Bank, except with premium seating, it is increasingly hard to make the case for it.

It doesn’t help that this isn’t vintage Bennett. His first play in six years, Allelujah! takes place in the crowded geriatric ward of the Bethlehem, a Yorkshire hospital threatened with closure. A camera crew are filming a documentary, allowing many of the patients to wax lyrical about lives that have passed on by, the England that once was. And in the corridors around the hospital, Bennett similarly lets rip, on the loss of compassion in our society, a social care system on its knees, an NHS in an even worse state, privatisation, gentrification, the downright stupidity of an immigration system that is leaching away the very talent we need to stay. Continue reading “Review: Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre”

TV Review: The Split, BBC1 (Episode 1)

All hail the return of Nicola Walker to our TV screens in new Abi Morgan drama The Split

“Divorce shouldn’t be easy”

Just a quickie to cover the first episode of this new legal drama which looks extremely promising, not least because of a swooningly wonderful cast. The aforementioned Nicola Walker, Annabel Scholey and Fiona Button as sisters, the ever-marvellous Deborah Findlay as their fearsome mother, people like Stephen Tompkinson and Meera Syal as clients, hunky Dutchmen like Barry Atsma looming on the sidelines, and the likes Rudi Dharmalingam and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith also on the fringes. 

Photograph: Mark Johnson/BBC/Sister Pictures

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.

Continue reading “DVD Review: Suite Française (2015)”

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