Review: Strictly Ballroom the Musical, Piccadilly

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom the Musical may not be the strongest musical in the world, but it’s a stronger piece of musical theatre, thanks to Drew McOnie’s choreography

“Pam Shortt’s broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with you”

It is fascinating to be able to follow the development of a show, particularly one that has morphed as much as Strictly Ballroom the Musical. I saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the winter before last, where it didn’t quite set my world on fire, so I was intrigued to hear that its arrival in the West End at the Piccadilly would be accompanied by quite the overhaul, still directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.

The major change to this adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 cult hit movie comes with the introduction of bandleader Wally Strand, played by Will Young, an MC figure and human jukebox who takes on the vast majority of the evening’s singing. And as we skip from Grace Jones to Billy Idol, via Bowie, Whitney and Cyndi, it’s a real pleasure to hear him sing Marius De Vries’ brilliant new arrangements. Continue reading “Review: Strictly Ballroom the Musical, Piccadilly”

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble. Continue reading “Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)”

Re-review: The Ferryman, Gielgud

 “The years roll by and nothing changes”

I always find it fascinating to watch how the critical community deals with a play that becomes a big success. The overnight rush to acclaim genius, the enthusiasm with which some greet it, the scepticism that that inspires in others followed by the relief that comes when someone publishes a well-reasoned critique that allows them to say ‘well it isn’t that good, see’. All the while, the show is doing great business with a general public who are just excited to see a hot new play.

Which is all a long-winded introduction to me getting to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman for a second time. I enjoyed the play, immensely so in places, when I first saw it in its initial run but it was a four star show for me rather than the full five – here’s my review from the Royal Court. And in its grander new home at the Gielgud, I have to say I pretty much felt the same way. It is a play that wields extraordinary power but it also one which struggles a tad with subtlety.

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Review: The Ferryman, Royal Court

“This family can take care of its own”

The hype around Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman was so expertly managed that the show became the fastest-selling-ever for the Royal Court with a West End transfer already neatly positioned to meet the demand. And why not, Jerusalem conquered the country (if not me) and The River stretched all the way to Broadway, plus The Ferryman also has Sam Mendes making his Royal Court debut – it’s almost as if co-producer Sonia Friedman knows what she is doing!

The play’s the thing though and here, Butterworth has constructed a Northern Irish epic. Set at harvest-time in 1981, deep in County Armagh, the Carney clan are gathering for a humdinger of a do once the work in the field is done. And what a clan it is, Rob Howell’s farmhouse kitchen design really does disguise its hidden depths as family member after family member emerges from its nooks and crannies, and that’s before the cousins from Derry have turned up too. But as with any family drama worth its salt, it’s the guests you’re not expecting that you have to watch out for.

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Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3

“You 
Are 
Not 
Alone”

 
There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.
 
Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.

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Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

“Tale as old as time”

It’s taken me a little time to get round to writing this review, which is rarely a good sign, as I was struggling for anything entirely constructive to say about this film. The 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast was Disney close to its best but these days, nothing is left alone if it has even the merest hint of cash cow about it. So it has previously hit the stage as a musical and following the success of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it now has a cinematic live-action remake.

Which is all fine and good but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And at no point does Bill Condon’s film ever convince us that the world needed this version of Beauty and the Beast, there’s rarely any sense of it bringing something new and insightful to the story. Plus the contortions it (and star Emma Watson) has had to make to try and convince of its feminist credentials scarcely seem worth it in the final analysis. Continue reading “Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)”

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

“You take pleasure then in the message?”

The good bits of Much Ado About Nothing, when done well, are so very good indeed, that it is sometimes hard to remember that the play has its dodgier moments too, for me at least. And it is none more so evident than in Kenneth Branagh’s beautifully sun-kissed adaptation, filmed in the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. The scenes with Dogberry and the Watch are usually problematic for me and with the broad stylings of Michael Keaton and Ben Elton here, they become unusually painful.

Thank the heavens then for Branagh and Emma Thompson, at this point midway through their six-year marriage and simply perfectly suited as sparring paramours Benedick and Beatrice. They spark off each other beautifully, making us believe in their spontaneous wit and all-too-human fallibility and you could watch them for days. Thompson plays up Beatrice’s bruised heart superbly as once bitten, twice shy, she prowls around Branagh’s amusedly careworn Benedick, who eventually deepens into real grace once the stakes are raised. Continue reading “Review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)”

DVD Review: As You Like It (2006)

“We are not all alone unhappy”

As the fifth of his big screen Shakespeare adaptations, there’s a slight sense of Kenneth Branagh chomping at the bit, determined to do things differently whether they work or not. Not content with mutating Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930s musical, he then turned his hand to a more beloved play in As You Like It and adopted another approach, relocating it – notionally at least – to the striking world of late 19th century Japan.

There, the characters are turned into merchants seeking a foothold in the newly opened up trading routes and the battle between Dukes Senior and Frederick is over control of the family business. But aside from the wrestling match being turned into a sumo contest, there’s disappointingly little real purchase in this new world. Once in the forest, it could be any old Arden and the opportunity to explore something differently culturally is abandoned.  Continue reading “DVD Review: As You Like It (2006)”

DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)

“I’m clean, I’m conscientious and I travel with my own tits”

Where else would you get to see Adrian Scarborough’s Richard III but in passing in a random Kenneth Branagh backstage movie. His movie as a director in which he does not star, A Midwinter’s Tale (or In The Bleak Midwinter as it appears to be known in some places) is a rather sweet comedy that makes for a light-hearted take on the often-time serious Shakespeare for which he was getting increasingly known.

Though fun, it is an acutely observed look at the itinerant life of an actor and the different ways in which people deal with its stresses. Unemployed for a year, Michael Maloney’s Joe offers to help out his sister’s local church by mounting a Christmas production of Hamlet, gathering a cast of similar odds and sods who are also available at the last minute. And together, even with the copious issues this motley crew bring with them, theatrical magic somehow begins to bloom.  Continue reading “DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)”

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 3

“People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them, they went out and happened to things”

I came to Da Vinci’s Demons late but I really enjoyed working my way through Series 1 and Series 2 of this historical fantasy in order to get up to speed for the arrival of the third series. This turned out to be a bit of a bittersweet exercise as the show was then cancelled and the decision made to release the final series in its entirety online. I reviewed the first two episodes here but it has taken me a while to get to watching the rest though sadly, it wasn’t quite the swansong I’d hoped for.

Now thoroughly uprooted from Florence, the multitudinous locations of the many-stranded narrative leave Da Vinci’s Demons flailing aimlessly a little too often, with a sense of confusion about where and when (and indeed why) things are happening and not enough of a grand design emerging, drawing the pieces together with increasing clarity. The most frustrating part of this is the prominence of the programme’s internal mythology, pitching the Sons of Mithras (now bad) against the Labyrinth (possibly good, I think). Continue reading “DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 3”