Review: Speech and Debate, Trafalgar Studios 2

“Please don’t riff”

An opportunity to see this play in dress rehearsal was snaffled away from me at the last minute so stubbornly, I’d opted not to see it. But the offer of a friend’s spare ticket and the good notices that Patsy Ferran’s performance seemed to be universally receiving eventually got me along to the Trafalgar Studios’ smaller space.

Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate dates from 2006 (his most recent play The Humans took the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) and though this is the UK premiere, the drama is also getting a film adaptation which arrives later this month. It’s a curiously American thing – in the same way that spelling bees have been celebrated, Karam extols the virtues of the titular debating society.  Continue reading “Review: Speech and Debate, Trafalgar Studios 2”

TV Review: And Then There Were None

“This is for a play in the West End?”

 Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None may not have seemed like the most obvious festive programming but Sarah Phelps’ three-part adaptation was an unalloyed success for the BBC. It was a particular surprise for me, as having seen it a couple of times on the stage, most recently in a rather creaky touring production, I wasn’t sure how it could be done well. But Phelps and director Craig Viveiros have managed a remarkable job, transforming the murder mystery into a dark, oppressive psychodrama.

From the off, swooping camera shots (of the Cornish locations standing in for the Devonian Soldier Island) take us out of the dusty drawing room, and haunting flashbacks take perfect advantage of the medium to suggest the oppressive weight of guilt that is being brought to bear here. For those new to the story, a microcosm of English society is invited to an isolated country house, under varying auspices, and once fully assembled, find themselves being picked off one by one by an unknown killer. Continue reading “TV Review: And Then There Were None”

DVD Review: Romeo & Juliet (2013)

“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” 

It takes a special sort of person to substantively rewrite the dialogue of Romeo and Juliet yet Julian Fellowes still took it on himself to declare Shakespeare’s writing as too impenetrable for da kidz and so replaced it with his own cod-Elizabethan script. It’s a baffling decision – the sheer wrongheadedness aside – as since the narrative of the play remains the same, and the story remains set in vaguely age-appropriate times, nothing intelligent has been done with the adaptation to mark it out as a worthy enterprise.

It’s not helped by a fatally miscast Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, underpowered in her delivery of the text and mismatched with Douglas Booth’s Romeo, there is precisely zero chemistry between these “star cross’d lovers”. There’s always something a bit tricky about how to play the ages of these two (Juliet is meant to be 13…) but as long as they’re cast well together, it works. Here though, they are not, there’s never any danger of believing that they’ve tumbled hard and fast in love (Steinfeld being 15 would make that illegal of course!) and director Carlo Carlei is clearly at fault along with his casting directors.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Romeo & Juliet (2013)”

Film Review: Jupiter Ascending / Seventh Son, or ‘What you had to do to win an Oscar in 2014’

“What in the hell is going on?” 

It could just be a matter of coincidence but it does rather seem that the deal with the devil in order to get the Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Award was to also play a camp villain in a middling sci-fi/fantasy film. Eddie Redmayne’s cape-swirling alien aristocrat Balem Abrasax threatens the earth’s very safety in Jupiter Ascending and in Seventh Son, Julianne Moore plays cape-swirling uber-witch Mother Malkin who probably also threatens the earth although I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what her endgame was. There’s something rather hilarious about watching these performances in light of the Oscar bait that was The Theory of Everything and Still Alice, which is kind of necessary as neither is particularly great shakes.

 

Jupiter Ascending sees the Wachowski siblings eschew the profundity of much of their oeuvre delve into the realm of the straight-up blockbuster or space opera, but without sacrificing any of the complexity of the cinematic universes they love to create. Problem is though, it’s all rather dense and dull despite the visual grandeur of the special effects – the Wachowskis’ screenplay is complex and unwieldy and frankly just not that interesting. The only thing that kept me going was the bizarrely theatre-friendly supporting cast and cameos – blink and miss Vanessa Kirby here, wonder if that is Tim Pigott-Smith there, ponder if Bryony Hannah’s presence is a nod to Call the Midwife and marvel too at the randomness of Samuel Barnett’s arresting turn(s).

And then there’s Redmayne, oh Eddie Redmaybe with your lovely Oscar. His villainous Balem is a bizarre confection and marked by a vocal delivery that sounds like he’s receiving a blowjob, all the time (or so I would imagine) it is hypnotically so-good-it’s-bad. But it’s not enough to save the film, which relishes its laborious set pieces far too much with over-extended chase sequences put in to show off the VFX rather than serve the story. For my money, Seventh Son was a more effective piece of fantasy storytelling, based as it is on the first book in Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles (retitled The Last Apprentice in the US) although Matt Greenberg, Charles Leavitt and Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay similarly turns its potential into tedium.

Continue reading “Film Review: Jupiter Ascending / Seventh Son, or ‘What you had to do to win an Oscar in 2014’”

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.

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DVD Review: Christopher and His Kind

“As far as I know, Lenin said nothing about buggery”

I was told that I simply must watch Christopher and his kind after really enjoying I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, as it covered similar ground in recounting novelist Christopher Isherwood’s residency in Berlin in the early 1930s as his search for boy-fuelled hedonism comes up hard against the ugly rise of National Socialism. The film’s timespan and geographical scope also extends well beyond that of the play to create a neat companion piece which is also notable for featuring current Doctor Who Matt Smith in the sexually adventurous lead role.

It is pleasingly frank in its depiction of the gay sexuality that was missing from the play: Isherwood’s first stop upon arriving in Berlin is to be squired to the Cosy Corner, an underground gay bar of sorts, by Pip Carter’s wonderfully glacial Wystan, or WH Auden as he is better known and few blushes are spared with sex scenes (wouldn’t have imagined he was a top tbh) and deliciously scathing humour. The relationship between Auden and Isherwood is beautifully played by Carter and Smith and I wish we had seen more of it as their encounters are wonderfully scripted – the banter about…size is genius – but I guess that was the whole point about their general reticence of emotional intimacy.   Continue reading “DVD Review: Christopher and His Kind”

TV Review: Great Expectations

“If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas when can you beat him?”

One of the centrepieces of the BBC’s festive television schedule was a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations by Sarah Phelps. Dickens could well loom large in the coming months as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth in February, but I’m not yet aware of a deluge of programming, whether on television or in the theatre, though I am reliably informed that there’s many radio serialisation on at the moment. As is often the case with new productions of classics, the key word is adaptation and though purists may baulk at some of the changes instituted by Phelps and director Brian Kirk, but that would be a shame as I found this to be a rather special piece of television, the BBC doing what it does best.

From the gorgeously, hauntingly atmospheric landscapes of the beginning – Magwitch rising from the mists of the wetlands was a perfect opening scene – the show looked a treat. The splendid isolation of the Gargerys’ house making for some beautiful shots (though it did pose the question of who exactly used that forge…) and the faded glamour of the dust-covered Satis House was excellently judged, the perfect receptacle for the casting choice that caused the most headlines prior to transmission: Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham. Continue reading “TV Review: Great Expectations”