TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. I’m sure it’s just another false alarm”

Oh The Halcyon – shafted by the overwhelming desire for it to be the new Downton, or maybe the unfriendly Monday evening slot, or maybe the fact that Charlotte Jones’ serial never quite honed in on what it wanted to be. Following the fortunes of a luxury London hotel during the first couple of years of the Second World War, it took all possible opportunities to explore a society on the cusp of major change. But between the aristocrats who owned it, the aristocrats who stayed there, the lower classes who work there, and the multitudes of people affiliated to all these lives, the canvas was far too wide.

The hints were there right from the off in episode 1 which struggled to introduce even just its leading players in its running time, whilst still proving most tantalising, due to its cracking cast and its sumptuous design (those costumes!). At the heart of The Halycon lay the antagonistic relationship between Olivia Williams’ Lady Hamilton and Steven Mackintosh’s Mr Garland, owner versus manager as they butted heads over practicalities in the face of an ensuing Blitz but though their scenes were electric, they were given too little too late together to exploit this to its fullest.  Continue reading “TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1”

Review: The Audience, Apollo

“A good Labour woman…”

Not content with becoming a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year, Kristin Scott Thomas was also awarded an upgraded Légion d’honneur (from chevalier to officer to be precise) in what has become something of a banner year for her. She’s also completing the not-inconsiderable feat of stepping into Helen Mirren’s award-winning shoes as Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, whilst Dame Helen reprises the role and the award-winning on Broadway.

Morgan’s revival has updated the play a little from its first outing – Tony Blair is in, Jim Callaghan is out, the recent election gets its mention with a barbed Miliband joke, but essentially it remains the same non-confrontational easy-Sunday-evening –television style viewing. The parade of PMs mostly play off a sole predictable character note, the Queen gets an easy ride of it with a strange intimation of where her personal politics might lie, there’s not a dramatic surprise to be had in here nor anything truly arresting through all its luxuriousness. Continue reading “Review: The Audience, Apollo”

Re-review: The James Plays, National Theatre

“The wheel will turn. The wheel always turns. The wheel will turn around again.”

One of the joys of a boxset is that they can be watched over and over again so when I equated the joy of seeing all three of The James Plays on the same day as below 

 I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I would be trying my damnedest to get to the second of the two three-show-days in order to get that experience again whilst the opportunity was there. 

And since I’m clearly in credit with the theatrical karma gods at the moment, a ticket made its way into my grateful hands and I was able to go through the whole 10 and a half hour rollercoaster ride through this vibrantly realised cross-section of under-explored Scottish history. As ever, it was great to be able to revisit such interesting plays – original reviews can be read here James I – The Key Will Keep The LockJames II – Day of The Innocents and James III – The True Mirror – especially now there’s a little more distance from the Scottish referendum which coloured much of the coverage of the plays. There isn’t too much more to say about them aside from I hope they are absorbed into the theatrical culture and emerge again soon somehow, somewhere.

Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre

“Scotland herself doesn’t know what kind of nation she is half the time but I’ve learned that there’s no sense being frightened of what you don’t know”

If the world of James III – The True Mirror is what Scottish independence might have actually looked like, then I reckon the Yeses might have had it. Pithy remark aside, the costume work is spectacular here, conjuring up a modern classic look for the Scots that is to die for and which also serves as a visual cue into this production, the final of Rona Munro’s James Plays which abandons its medieval setting for this notional updating. Seeing it as the final part of the marathon trilogy day, it was a brilliant shift in tone and the pre-show entertainment (simply not to be missed) just adds to the sparkling invention as pop songs get the ceilidh treatment from Alasdair MacRae.

Though the play may be entitled James III, the reality is that this slice of the Stewart monarchy was indubitably shared with his wife Margaret of Denmark. The third king of his name was a capricious fellow indeed, the self-confessed “sparkle before the dark”, a rebellious dandy concerned far more with the trappings of monarchy than the minutiae of ruling, most amusingly evidenced by his procurement of a choir to accompany him at all times. By contrast, his pragmatic wife (“from a rational nation with reasonable people” lest you forget!) looks after the treasury, pets the furrowed brow of the privy council and generally rules the roost. Of course she does, she’s Sarah Lund! Continue reading “Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre”

Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre

“You’re a great-great-great-grandson of the Bruce. Like me. You could be King.”

On first sight, it may seem that James II – Day of The Innocents is the weakest of The James Plays. On a personal note, it is blighted with blasted puppets which is rarely a good thing for me and more generally, the structure of the first half is more challenging than anything else across the trilogy. But on reflection and on reading the play, it isn’t that difficult to follow and across the broader sweep of the three dramas, there’s something admirable in the determination of writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom to stamp a different identity on each one and ensure that whilst seeing them all would be great, it is far from necessary.

As with his father, assassinated by some disgruntled noblemen, the young James II finds himself a prisoner for much of his early life, this time held captive by Scotsmen though, who use the young monarch to legitimise their dominance of the privy council. Through a series of fever dreams, flashbacks are played out with nightmarish intensity by the puppets whilst concurrently we see their effects on a haunted young man. Much of the success of these scenes lies with the listeners – Blythe Duff’s imprisoned Isabella and Sarah Higgins’ compassionate Meg – who anchor the fantasia of this first half and gently hint at the forthcoming trials that James must face. Continue reading “Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre”

Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre

“I am the King of Scots. In 18 years I never forgot that”

The first of The James Plays – a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre (of Great Britain) – James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock sets the tone for this Scottish history trilogy brilliantly. Rona Munro guides us in with the recognisable figure of Henry V of England but then unleashing upon us the little-known and little-explored early Stewart kings and the maelstrom of conflict that was the Scottish court.

The reason we meet Henry V (a wonderfully belligerent Jamie Sives) is that for 18 years he kept James Stewart a prisoner, humiliating him at every opportunity, and it is only after Henry’s death that James was able to negotiate a release to return to his own kingdom, albeit one that barely recognised or wanted him. From these inauspicious beginnings, we then see how he sets about ruling with an iron fist, finding that the only way to dominate the murderous noblemen is join right in the skulduggery. Continue reading “Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre”