Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 6

“Demons run when a good man goes to war”

And here it is, the point at which I stopped loving new Doctor Who, even in a series that has two of the best episodes it has done, and the first series that I haven’t ever rewatched in its entirety. I do enjoy Matt Smith’s Eleven immensely but the writing across this season – which was split into two for transmission – was just fatally erratic for me. Alongside the innovative work from Neil Gaiman in The Doctor’s Wife and Steve Thompson in The Girl Who Waited, two contrasting but superlative pieces of writing, stories such as The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors took the show to a less sophisticated place – (or do I really mean that I started to feel that this version of Doctor Who wasn’t necessarily aimed at me…?)

Even the big finales (for there were two, one for each half) fell a little flat. The premonition that the Doctor would “fall so much further” than ever before in A Good Man Goes to War raised expectations only to be dashed by an overloaded episode with little emotional heft aside from the River Song reveal, and The Wedding of River Song suffered from the general over-use of the characters dying-but-not-really-dying trope (poor Arthur Darvill…). That said, the high points of the series are so very good – the striking US-set opening double-bill, the Doctor finally meeting the TARDIS, and brain-scratching sci-fi with real heart. Frustratingly inconsistent. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 6”

12 Days of Christmas – Black Mirror 3:6

“He wants people to face the consequences of what they say and do”

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Black Mirror gave to me…the bees, THE BEES!

After a slight hiccup in previous episode Men Against Fire, feature-length episode Hated in the Nation restored Black Mirror to its rightful glory to round off this third series. Adopting something of a police procedural approach and aligning itself closer to today’s society than the majority of previous instalments, this was a proper thriller and hugely enjoyable with it.

In a world where mini-drones have replaced the collapsing bee population, Kelly McDonald’s DCI Karin Parke is investigating a series of deaths where the victims are celebrities who have recently provoked the ire of social media. Along with newly transferred colleague and tech wiz Blue (Faye Marsay), solving the crimes leads them down a merry path of murderous hashtags, governmental misdemeanours and social responsibility. Continue reading “12 Days of Christmas – Black Mirror 3:6”

Review: Who Cares, Royal Court

“Is our emotional attachment to the NHS gonna stop it changing in the way that it needs to, to continue to thrive and survive?”

The product of eighteen months of interviews with people working in and around the National Health Service, Michael Wynne’s verbatim play Who Cares is an impassioned but clear-sighted cri de coeur for this venerable British institution but one free from too much rose-tinted sentimentality, as it performs an uncompromising health check on that which is meant to check our own health. And the prognosis? The NHS may possibly be screwed but theatre’s in great shape. 

Starting off in the rehearsal rooms next to the theatre and eventually ending up in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Who Cares is a promenade production that weaves its way inside and out, up stairs and down, backstage and on, as the audience – split into small groups – take in a multitude of vignettes of the interviewees’ experiences, presented in imaginative and inventive ways by the show’s three directors, Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie, plus designer Andrew D Edwards, Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Daniel Krass’ sound. Continue reading “Review: Who Cares, Royal Court”

Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)

“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”

One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.

Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette. Continue reading “Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)”

Review: The Memory of Water / And Then There Were None / A Special Kind of Dark, Radio 4

“You’ve got that slight edge in your voice, like a blunt saw”

Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water is probably due a high-profile revival, not least for the richness of its female roles but until then, this radio adaptation will more than suffice. Starring Linda Bassett, Lesley Manville and Elizabeth Berrington as three sisters who reconvene after their mother’s death, Stephenson explores different reactions to grief through the prism of shared memories, or rather how the three women have significantly different memories of the same events. There’s an elegiac beauty to the way in which the familial bond asserts and reasserts itself even as long-held secrets are unearthed and emotional truths about the present aired, and the sheer quality of the cast make it a fantastic piece of radio drama. 

A Special Kind of Dark is a much more challenging prospect and whilst it was hard to assess how I really felt about it, given its noir-ish twists and turns and narrative unreliability, it was nice to have such a complex piece of writing to listen to. The story is told by Caspar, who starts an affair with unhappy neighbour Helene but when she is found brutally murdered, is arrested and declared criminally insane. Over the course of a year, he tells psychologist Elodie Testoud of his suspicions of Helene’s husband, the politically ambitious Felix but given we only get Caspar’s version of events, it is never clear when he is telling the truth or lost in a Marlowe-style reverie. It is appealing performed and directed but cumulatively feels as clear as mud, writer Adrain Penketh is so determinedly obtuse that any genuine clues that might exist feel lost. Continue reading “Review: The Memory of Water / And Then There Were None / A Special Kind of Dark, Radio 4”

Review: The Low Road, Royal Court

“You do compete for the good opinion of society, do you not?”

*This review is a bit spoilerific so don’t read on if you don’t want aspects of the play, and others, to be revealed to you* 

When people ask me to describe the plot of a play, I almost always end it with “…and then the aliens arrive” because that’s the way my mind works and generally speaking, it’s a safe assumption that the playwright won’t have gone there. So imagine my surprise when they actually arrived in the second act of Salad Days, it was like all my Christmases at once and because of the daffy silliness of the whole shebang, it was able to pull it off. Working in similarly offbeat surprises into straight drama is perhaps a more difficult job though and one which arguably has to work harder to make a success of it.

The scope of Bruce Norris’ new play The Low Road would seem to preclude the need for such an approach. A sprawlingly epic trawl through the growth of our (western) economic system told through the fable-like tale of Jim, an entrepreneurial young man roaming through an 18th century America whose single-minded financial knowledge and ambition prefigures the capitalist mind-set that is so familiar to us today. A post-interval modern-day interlude draws explicit parallels and connections between the actions and attitudes of now and then to reinforce its main thesis about the triumph of individualism. Oh, and there’s an epilogue. Continue reading “Review: The Low Road, Royal Court”

DVD Review: Vera Drake

“She’s gonna get herself in trouble one of these days”

I’m pretty sure that Vera Drake was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw, and what a cracker it is. It really is an extraordinary performance from Imelda Staunton as the perma-humming cheerful soul with a positive word and deed for everyone around her, the nice suggestion of putting the kettle on being the remedy for everything and her kindly demeanour drawing people close to her.

Vera’s family life is perfectly drawn too: the drudgery of post-war working-class existence in no way stinted on and the different ways it has affected people clearly evident in her children, Daniel Mays making the best of things as a cheery chatty tailor and Alex Kelly’s cowed Ethel, somewhat diminished by life as a light-bulb tester. With Phil Davis completing the family unit, there’s such genuine connectivity to these scenes, a real sense of family life being lived and a gorgeous flicker of romance brightening Ethel’s life, that the knock on the door as the law finally catches up with Vera really does come as a genuine heart-wrenching kick as their lives are shattered by the revelation that she has been carrying out illegal abortions, or just ‘helping some girls out’ as she puts it. Continue reading “DVD Review: Vera Drake”

Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

“Keep it cheerful”
 

In some ways, there’s no point in commenting on Alan Ayckbourn as a playwright – his position in the pantheon is evidently secured and his body of work is frequently revived and toured around the country. And with such a prolific pen, it is a considerable number of plays that he has now amassed – 75 at the last count. However, I have never really been seduced by him, the only play I’ve really liked was the atypical Snake in the Grass, the majority of his pieces have struck me as somewhat inconsequential and sitcom-like, and further dulled by repetition as evidenced by the smattering of his oeuvre I have witnessed. But I can never resist a ticket being dropped into my hand and the lure of an interesting looking cast meant that I took in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

One of his earlier works from 1974, Absent Friends sees Ayckbourn train his aim on death and the different ways people deal with it. Colin’s old friends are holding a Saturday afternoon tea party to comfort him after the unfortunate death of his fiancee but as they attempt to step gingerly around the topic, he is more than willing to talk about her, their short time together and show his photo collection to everyone. But what Colin is blithely unaware of is that the perfect lives that he imagines they are all living are a sham and behind the forced smiles over the sandwiches, lies a seething mass of jealousy, anger and frustration that is coming to the boil and it becomes apparent that it is not him whose really in need of tea and comfort. Continue reading “Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre”