TV Review: Fearless, ITV

“I learned a long time ago not to trust what people tell me”
I did want to love Fearless, I really did. Any series with Helen McCrory in its leading role has to be worthy of consideration and ITV have been upping their drama game (qv Unforgotten) recently. But despite an intriguing opener, the six episodes of Fearless increasingly tested the patience as Patrick Harbinson’s script failed to deliver on its twistily complex promise, instead giving us a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller that ultimately proved less than thrilling.
With a playbook that threw out major themes with regularity – miscarriages of justice, the Syrian refugee crisis, institutional corruption, the war in Iraq, the ethics of the surveillance state, just to name a few – it was inevitable that some would fall by the wayside. But with the amount of personal backstory for McCrory’s Emma also shoehorned in there, the narrative was both painfully overstuffed and sadly inconsequential – it was increasingly hard to know what we were meant to care about.
The adoption storyline with a sorely miscast John Bishop as her lover was tough work, the stuff from her past poorly integrated given its importance, the grand conspiracy surprisingly small in focus in the end (and more than a little far-fetched). Even something as relatively (you’d’ve thought) simple as concentrating on the thrust of the main plot (of assuring client Kevin’s innocence) got hopelessly tangled up in the competition for airtime.
Which all meant, as I said, that it was sadly rather hard to care about it all. McCrory delivered her usual sterling level of performance, but to little avail (an electrifying scene with Michael Gambon’s grizzled old sort aside). Wunmi Mosaku’s dedicated cop Olivia was a highlight, balancing notions of duty with justice in an engaging way but Robin Weigert’s US spook Heather was saddled with a ridiculous part that rarely felt dramatically convincing as her meddling made life difficult for everyone concerned, the audience included.

TV Review: Fearless Episode 1

“You let a terrorist’s wife live in your home and you set a murderer free”

Fearless is a new six-part drama on ITV and whilst some people might be excited by the fact that it is written by one of the writers of Homeland (Patrick Harbinson), all right-thinking people will of course be psyched that it is giving Helen McCrory a stonking leading role. She plays human rights lawyer Emma Banville who is utterly unafraid to butt heads with the world as she investigates miscarriages of justice.
Her latest case draws her into the orbit of Kevin Russell (definite fave Sam Swainsbury) whose conviction for murder looks to be a little iffy. With perhaps a little too much ease, she finds it unsafe and secures a retrial but looks set to have opened up quite the can of national security-flavoured worms as a serious-looking transatlantic phone call on a secure line seems to suggest that there is much more to this than meets the eye.
And since we’re in brilliantly densely-plotted territory, Emma is also:
  • haunted by her past
  • adopting a child
  • sheltering a Syrian mother and child in her house
  • being surveilled by counter-terrorism forces
so there’s a lot to keep up with and a hundred ways in which it could all play out and it all feels marvellously unlike ITV (which is, granted, unfair as they also aired the brilliant Unforgotten). And boasting the likes of Michael Gambon, Wunmi Mosaku and Jemima Rooper in the supporting cast, it looks set to be a must-see bit of television, although I wouldn’t put it past them to have made it just a little frustrating in the vastness of its scope too.

Casting awareness for ITV’s Fearless

“There’s something else going on here”
I can’t call this a casting announcement as who knows when this news was actually revealed. But I’ve only just got around to looking at the cast for new ITV drama Fearless and oh lordy, it’s a good’un. Written by Homeland writer and executive producer Patrick Harbinson, Fearless has Helen McCrory in its lead role which of course makes it an instant winner, but by putting the likes of Sam Swainsbury, Jamie Bamber, David Mumeni and Sam Crane in the ensemble makes it a must-see – purely for the acting talent of course… 😉

Film Review: Their Finest

“He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you”

With Gemma Arterton doing a Welsh accent and some wistful crying, Rachael Stirling as a fearsome, elegant-trouser-wearing lesbian with a fabulous line in repartee, Bill Nighy being Bill Nighy, and the subject being women working in wartime, Their Finest is pretty much tailor-made for my interests, it even has bonus Helen McCrory in it for God’s sake! But even without all that box-ticking, it is a gently, most enjoyable film.
Adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and directed by Lone Scherfig, the story follows a British Ministry of Information film team making a morale-boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. So it’s a film about making films, the romance and realities of the business, with the added spin of it being set in wartime.
So Arterton’s Catrin is co-opted into the war effort for the dismissive task of writing ‘slop’ aka women’s dialogue but finds the opportunity to prove herself when a new film commission comes in. And Nighy’s Ambrose Hilliard is an actor past his prime, finding unexpected chances to resurrect his career. And between them, in their vastly contrasting ways, they each deliver highly engaging performances.
Catrin is caught between her ne’erdowell artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston) and Tom (Sam Claflin) her new script-writing colleague with whom a love-hate relationship develops on location, Arterton’s instinctive restraint really deepening our understanding of the situations women found themselves in at this time. And Nighy finds pathos, as well as scene-stealing delight, in an actor struggling to come to terms with his shifting place in the industry, sharing some powerful scenes with Eddie Marsan’s agent and the glorious McCrory as his sister. 
It’s a British film so of course it is bittersweet, but in the best possible way, the emotional beats of the finale are earned and exemplary, and so I ‘m definitely recommending a trip to the cinema to see this.

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 5

“I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right. Nothing’s quite as wonderful as the things you see”
So as David Tennant’s Ten regenerates into Matt Smith’s Eleven, Doctor Who also changed showrunner/lead writer/executive producer/oddjob man as Steven Moffat took over the reins from Russell T Davies. The pressure was on both to deliver – the relatively unknown Smith had low expectations, Moffat had sky-high ones due to his much-garlanded writing – and I don’t think you can argue that they didn’t. Smith revealed an impossibly ancient soul to his youthful frame with a Doctor unafraid to be as angrily dark as hyper-actively quirky. And Moffat constructed a complex series, introducing the depths of new companion Amy Pond slowly, and building to a multi-stranded timey-wimey finale that makes the head hurt just to think about it.

Elsewhere, the overused Daleks returned in multicoloured format, the Weeping Angels were much more successfully reprised in a stonking double-header, the Silurians also came back, and Arthur Darvill’s Rory grew in stature to become an effective second companion as opposed to a third wheel. Oh, and Helen McCrory stole the show, but then you knew I’d say that didn’t you 😉

Episodes, in order of preference

The Time of Angels
Flesh and Stone
The Vampires of Venice
Vincent and the Doctor
The Pandorica Opens
The Big Bang
The Beast Below
The Hungry Earth
Cold Blood
The Lodger
The Eleventh Hour
Amy’s Choice
Victory of the Daleks

Top 5 guest spots

1 Sophie Okonedo’s spiky monarch Liz Ten
2 Helen McCrory’s Signora Calvierri is vividly complex
3 Alex Kingston’s River Song, so achingly good before it all got way too complicated
4 A bit under-utilised but Susannah Fielding’s army officer Lilian is nicely done
5 Starry starry Tony Curran’s Vincent Van Gogh is an archetypal Richard Curtis bloke and all the more effective for it

Saddest death

Rory – I know, not a ‘real’ death but you didn’t know that at the time and it is still powerfully played, particularly in its aftermath

Most wasted guest actor

Olivia Colman, although she does get to utter a pre-warning about the Pandorica

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

The rationale behind the Dream Lord was fascinating and I’d’ve loved to have seen more of him (if only to get more Toby Jones)

Gay agenda rating

E – even with rainbow coloured Daleks, it’s all rather cis-het

2016 Best Actress in a Play + in a Musical

Best Actress in a Play

Juliet Stevenson/Lia Williams, Mary Stuart
It couldn’t really be anyone else could it. Mary Stuart was my play of the year and the stellar combination of Stevenson and Williams was a huge part in that, a pair of extraordinary performances (or should that be a quartet…) that burst with life from the circular stage of the Almeida. I’ve seen it twice and I’m definitely thinking about going again.

Honourable mention: Uzo Aduba/Zawe Ashton, The Maids
As murderous sisters Claire and Solange, I simply adored this pairing and am a little surprised they – and the production – haven’t received more love in the end-of-year lists and awards season. Fiercely uncompromising with every sweep of the broom, I couldn’t split them if I tried either.

Gemma Arterton, Nell Gwynn
Linda Bassett, Escaped Alone
Helen McCrory, The Deep Blue Sea
Maxine Peake, A Streetcar Named Desire
Harriet Walter, The Tempest

Kirsty Bushell/Ruth Wilson, Hedda Gabler/Hedda Gabler, Lesley Manville, Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Billie Piper, Yerma

Best Actress in a Musical

Jenna Russell, Grey Gardens
One of the first shows I saw in 2016 and from the moment Russell opened the second act with the hysterical ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, I knew that this category was a lockdown. Her casting in as Michelle Fowler in Eastenders came as a surprise and I can’t help but be gutted that we’ve lost her to the world of television but hopefully it won’t be too long before she’s gracing our stages once more. STAUNCH!

Honourable mention: Clare Burt, Flowers for Mrs Harris
Whereas the likes of Amber Riley gets notices for belting the house down, there’s an entirely different skill-set being masterfully used by the likes of Burt that is equally emotionally devastating. A performance full of gorgeous restraint and natural charm that hopefully we’ll get to see again.

Samantha Barks, The Last 5 Years
Glenn Close, Sunset Boulevard
Kaisa Hammarlund, Sweet Charity
Cassidy Janson, Beautiful
Landi Oshinowo, I’m Getting My Act Together…

Beverley Knight, The Bodyguard; Anoushka Lucas, Jesus Christ Superstar; Scarlett Strallen, She Loves Me

2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations

Best Actor in a Play, sponsored by Radisson Blu Edwardian
Ian Hallard for The Boys in the Band
Ian McKellen for No Man’s Land
Jamie Parker for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child 
Kenneth Branagh for The Entertainer
Ralph Fiennes for Richard III

Best Actress in a Play, sponsored by Live at Zédel 
Billie Piper for Yerma 
Helen McCrory for The Deep Blue Sea
Lily James for Romeo and Juliet
Michelle Terry for Henry V
Pixie Lott for Breakfast at Tiffany’s Continue reading “2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

The 2016 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards

Best actor

Sir Kenneth Branagh The Entertainer, Garrick Theatre
O-T Fagbenle Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – Ralph Fiennes The Master Builder/Richard III, Old Vic/Almeida Theatre
James McArdle
Platonov, Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre, Olivier
Ian McKellen No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre

Natasha Richardson Award for best actress

Noma Dumezweni Linda, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs
Helen McCrory The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre, Lyttelton
Sophie Melville Iphigenia In Splott, National Theatre, Temporary Theatre (a Sherman Theatre production)
WINNER – Billie Piper Yerma, Young Vic
Glenn Close
in Sunset Boulevard

Best musical performance

WINNER – Glenn Close Sunset Boulevard, Coliseum
Andy Karl Groundhog Day, Old Vic
Sheridan Smith Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory/Savoy Theatre

Best play with Hiscox, official arts partner of the Evening Standard

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs
The Flick by Annie Baker, National Theatre, Dorfman
WINNER – Harry Potter And The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, J K Rowling and John Tiffany, Palace Theatre

Evening Standard Radio 2 Audience Award for best musical

Funny Girl Menier Chocolate Factory/Savoy Theatre
Groundhog Day Old Vic
Guys And Dolls Savoy Theatre/Phoenix Theatre
WINNER – Jesus Christ Superstar Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour National Theatre, Dorfman
Sunset Boulevard Coliseum

Milton Shulman Award for best director

Dominic Cooke Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – John Malkovich Good Canary, Rose Theatre Kingston
John Tiffany
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, Palace Theatre

Best design

Jon Bausor You For Me For You, Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs
WINNER – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin (sound design) The Encounter, Complicite/Edinburgh International Festival/Barbican
Rob Howell
The Master Builder/Groundhog Day, Old Vic

Best revival

Les Blancs National Theatre, Olivier
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom National Theatre, Lyttelton
WINNER – No Man’s Land Wyndham’s Theatre
Young Chekhov: Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull
Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre, Olivier

Charles Wintour Award for most promising playwright

WINNER – Charlene James Cuttin’ It Young Vic/Royal Court Theatre 
Jon Brittain Rotterdam, Theatre 503/Trafalgar Studios
David Ireland Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs
Aoife Duffin in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Francis Loney)

Emerging talent award in partnership with Burberry

Jaygann Ayeh The Flick, National Theatre, Dorfman
Anthony Boyle Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, Palace Theatre
Aoife Duffin A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing/The Taming Of The Shrew, The Corn Exchange, Dublin and Young Vic/Shakespeare’s Globe 

WINNER – Tyrone Huntley Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Review: The Deep Blue Sea, National

“My God, how I hate getting tangled up in other people’s emotions.”

For such a enduringly magnificent play and a lead part considered “one of the greatest female roles in contemporary drama”, it’s then a little surprising (and sad) that it has been a good while since we’ve seen a major production of The Deep Blue Sea, especially given the number of Hamlets and Lears we continually get. 2011 saw Maxine Peake and Amanda Root take on Hester in Leeds and Chichester respectively but now, Helen McCrory stakes her claim as one of the finest living British actors in playing the part at the National Theatre. 
The production sees her reunite with director Carrie Cracknell after their striking Medea, and their collaboration similarly heightens the blistering emotion of the drama. Terence Rattigan’s story of shattered lives in a shattered post-WWII society drew heavily on his own tumultuous romantic life, homosexual subtext thus coded into the tale of a woman unable to maintain the veneer of respectability to a judge she does not love, instead opting to plunge into the instability of an affair with a troubled former RAF pilot.
McCrory ascends to the part almost celestially, a dead-eyed serenity about her in the recognition of how hopeless she feels, how impossible she considers her situation. A failed suicide bid opens the play and from then on, McCrory gives us a marvellously restrained but still achingly human performance, paradoxically full of the tiny observations of life that she can no longer see, making this a Hester you believe her landlady (a strong Marion Bailey) would call ‘nice’. And even as events conspire against her, pushing her nearly to breaking point again, there’s real strength even in the cracks of her gorgeous voice.
As the men variously circling her, Peter Sullivan’s Lord Collyer succeeds immensely in demonstrating why his marriage to Hester has failed whilst still showing how much he cares for her, Tom Burke’s Freddie roots his callousness in a vein of deep sadness as his pilot tries to extricate himself from this tangled lot and picking up the pieces as fellow tenant Miller, Nick Fletcher is subtly superb in offering a vital lifeline of support, knowing full well that he can’t make Hester take it, simply show her that it is there in the climax of the far stronger second act. 
There are moments where the production feels slightly at odds with itself though. Tom Scutt’s detailed set stretches the considerable width of the Lyttelton stage, which works against any real sense of claustrophobia building up in this apparently most spacious of West London bedsits – only in the cramped kitchen does the reality of Hester’s straitened circumstances really hit home visually. And a six-strong ensemble are under-utilised in their barely-there suggestions of the world outside (memories of Men Should Weep’s superlative staging of the same theme in this same theatre didn’t help).
But it is a masterpiece of a play and a beautifully emotional interpretation thereof, which can’t help but make you feel it deeply, as deeply as the deep blue sea.
Running time; 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith
Booking until 1st September

TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 2

“We are bound on a wheel on pain”
The first series of Penny Dreadful may not have been perfect but I really rather liked it and was glad to hear a second season had been commissioned. And when I discovered the triple whammy of Helen McCrory and Simon Russell Beale being promoted to series regulars, Billie Piper’s distracting Oirish brogue being excised and Patti LuPone appearing as a guest star, I was in heaven. Saving up the 10 episodes to binge-watch on holiday also worked well for me, ain’t technology grand!
Having established its world of gothic Victoriana, John Logan’s writing picks up some of the strands of the first series’ finale – the consequences of sometime-werewolf Ethan’s bloodbath being chased up by a tenacious policeman and Victor Frankenstein’s newest creation inspiring an unlikely love triangle. But it succeeds most by re-introducing McCrory’s Evelyn Poole as a series-long villain as the head of a witches coven and maker of some of the creepiest puppet dolls you have ever seen – it’s no secret I love her but this really is a career highlight for this most superb of actresses.
Whether stalking Eva Green’s fiercely determined Vanessa Ives, eviscerating Russell Beale’s perfectly pompous Ferdinand, or wielding her sensuality over a helpless Timothy Dalton (and boy, is she sexy here), she elevates the whole show and importantly, gives it a focus that was lacking last year. The rise of Billie Piper’s undead Lily is also powerfully done, her conversations with Harry Treadaway’s Victor offering a neat commentary on Victorian society’s attitude to women as well as contrasting with Rory Kinnear’s soulful debates with Vanessa about God and man and life and death. 
And in flashback episode ‘The Nightcomers’, there’s an utterly magnificent hour of television anchored by Patti LuPone’s Joan Clayton, the Cutwife from whom Vanessa learns to harness her powers but who also shares a terrible history with Mrs Poole. I’m no stranger to Ms LuPone’s musical works but there’s something remarkable about seeing her absolutely nail a straight acting part. Her haunted eyes, her gruff but clear-sighted manner, her rabbit-skinning skills…this is the stuff of Emmys, and a salutary indication that she is supremely talented. 
With such a powerful lead story driving the narrative, there are of course casualties along the way in such a big ensemble and it is Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray who suffers the most, his rather sweet romance with gender-bending Angelique including a cute date at the new-fangled table tennis hall too disconnected from everything else to really have the requisite impact. Rory Kinnear’s John fares better, his macabre subplot bolstered due to the connective tissue woven through his unexpected and achingly moving contact with Vanessa.
Credit has to go to the four directors James Hawes, Brian Kirk, Damon Thomas and Kari Skogland who have collectively made the show look absolutely stunning. From the tiniest detail of a bunch of roses dropping into a vase to the high drama of the blood-soaked waltzing, there’s a painterly quality to much of the film which is just gorgeous to behold. And someone is clearly in love with Douglas Hodge as almost every shot of his taciturn detective Rusk has a portrait-like composition that should reside in a gallery somewhere. 
One of the best things on television this year so far and, dare I say it, possessed of a greater emotional intelligence than Game of Thrones as Logan refuses to sacrifice quieter character moments for the shocks and spills that have characterised later series in Westeros. This is no more apparent than in the final episode which bravely wraps up all of its action with at least a third of the running time still to go, as it then tracks the awful consequences of what has gone before on all of its protagonists with a gloomy stillness but a joyous recognition that a third series will be coming next year.