TV Review: Life in Squares

“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”

I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.

Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set – Vanessa Bell née Stephens – at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while. Continue reading “TV Review: Life in Squares”

DVD Review: Belle

“How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my own family?”

As Avenue Q once counselled us, “you should be…careful when you’re talking about the sensitive subject of race “ and Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle does exactly that, treading delicately but definitively in telling this real-life story of a mixed race woman who found herself at the heart of English society in the late 1700s. Inspired by a painting of this woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray that hung in Kenwood House, scriptwriter Misan Sagay (and Asante herself too, as reports would suggest) have fashioned a most elegant biography which has a little more bite than your usual period drama due to the inclusion of the slave trade as a significant sub-plot.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain, who is placed into the care of his uncle Lord Mansfield as a ward. He and his wife already care for another niece and so the two become as if sisters, scarcely aware of Belle’s unique position. For though she is ostensibly a part of society, and upon her father’s death a woman of independent means, she is not permitted to contravene society’s rules – so she may not dine with her family and their guests for propriety’s sake, but she may join them after dinner. And she and Bette start to attract the interest of notable suitors, she becomes increasingly aware of the problems in the world she has been placed in. Continue reading “DVD Review: Belle”

Film Review: The Imitation Game

“Alan, I’ve a funny feeling you’re going to be rather good at this”

As Hollywood gears up for another Academy Award season, the early frontrunners are starting to appear in our cinemas and chief amongst those is The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, one of the more criminally maligned and under-appreciated figures in British history. Responsible for heading up the team that built the machine that was to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code thereby changing the course of the Second World War, his life ended in ignominy as the Official Secrets Act shielded his achievements from public knowledge and a conviction for gross indecency unimaginably marred his final years.

But this being prime Oscar-bait, the film is a lot more perky than that. That’s perhaps a tad unfair as this is a genuinely good piece of cinema but one can’t help but wonder what might have been had Morten Tyldum’s direction and Graham Moore’s script been a little braver in exploring Turing’s homosexuality and how that shaped his interior life, especially in those later years. It’s the one major weakness in an otherwise fully-fleshed characterisation of an awkward genius. A man who can crack codes but not jokes, respond to complex formulae but not to simple lunch invitations, can detect Soviet spies but not the gently breaking heart of his friend Joan. Continue reading “Film Review: The Imitation Game”

Review: Translations, Rose Kingston

“What the hell, it’s only a name. It’s the same isn’t it. Well, isn’t it?”

In something of an anniversary year for them, English Touring Theatre are having themselves quite the 21st birthday. Howard Brenton’s Eternal Love has been revived to great effect, Blanche McIntyre’s take on Noël Coward looks set to be an exciting highlight of the summer and their production of Brian Friel’s Translations, co-produced with the Rose Kingston and Sheffield Theatres, turned out to be an absolute cracker in a month that has already seen a lot of great theatre that is sure to figure heavily on all our year-end lists.

Set in 1833 in a Gaelic-speaking hedge school in Donegal, the lives of those in this quiet rural teaching establishment are set for massive upheaval with the arrival of a British Army platoon who have the job of redrawing territorial boundaries and translating all of the local Gaelic place names into English. Ageing school master Hugh’s two sons embody the conflict – the one having stayed on to become an apprentice at the school, the other becoming an interpreter in Dublin and only returning to turn his home from Baile Beag to Ballybeg.  Continue reading “Review: Translations, Rose Kingston”

DVD Review: Silk, Series 2

“People are saying you only made silk because you’re a woman and from Bolton”

The joys of Netflix allowed me to quickly move onto Series 2 of Silk in perfect time before the third, and final, series hit BBC1, and it remains an excellent piece of television, a quality legal drama blessed with some cracking writing, a stellar leading cast, and a revolving ensemble which continues to draw in the cream of British acting talent to give their supporting roles and cameos. The series kicks off with Maxine Peake’s Martha having ascended to the ranks of QC whilst Rupert Penry-Jones’ Clive languishes in her slipstream, and the dynamics of their relationship form a major driver of the narrative. 

Her adjustments to her new role and responsibilities are fascinatingly drawn, especially as she negotiates the ethics of working with a notorious crime family and their shady legal representation. And his pursuit of that exalted status of QC as he stretches himself professionally to take in prosecutions, as well as Indira Varma’s attractive solicitor, is challenged when he overreaches himself in a particularly pressing case. As ever, individual cases fit into each episode as well, but these wider storylines are where the real interest comes.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Silk, Series 2”

Review: Lizzie Siddal, Arcola

“To yearn for something – doesn’t that make life more intense?”

The tangled personal lives of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and those that inspired them have been much explored by art historians and television makers alike (amongst many) and so Jeremy Green’s play – Lizzie Siddal at the Arcola – enters a crowded marketplace and doesn’t quite manage to make enough of a name for itself to stand out. Lotte Wakeham’s production is perfectly watchable, boasting a strong central performance from Emma West as ‘the muse that could’, but never really reaches beyond the world of biopic.

Siddal was a young woman who found herself at the centre of a vibrant art movement in the form of the Pre-Raphaelites – inspiring many, posing as models for some (Millais’ Ophelia for one) and also harbouring her own ambitions of becoming an artist. The play looks at how her relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti hampered her, along with the difficulties in negotiating the attentions of her powerful patron John Ruskin and the ill health that plagued her life, resulting in an addiction to laudanum that proved disastrous. Continue reading “Review: Lizzie Siddal, Arcola”

Film Review: Anna Karenina

 

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations.  Continue reading “Film Review: Anna Karenina”

Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva

“Do not rejoice in his defeat”

Despite feeling like I live in a theatre at time, my experience of Brecht has actually been very limited. When I first saw Mother Courage at the National, I hadn’t got a clue what was going on and it was a rather disconcerting experience all told. My subsequent discovery that all the shenanigans were an integral part of the show left me a little nonplussed, but since then I haven’t had the opportunity to revisit his work, or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough… Even when The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was first announced as part of Chichester’s 50th anniversary season, I can’t say the thought filled me with much anticipation.

But the cast was attractive, led by Henry Goodman, and crucially, the word of mouth from trusted souls was excellent and so I booked myself in on a day when those lovely £5 train tickets were available. And I really enjoyed myself, having one of those great experiences where a complete lack of pre-knowledge about the show really paid off to just fascinating effect. Brecht wrote the play in 1941, a story about a small-time Chicago gangster whose violent seizure and control of the cauliflower trade (I know but bear with) saw him ascend to fearsome heights, but the playwright’s true intentions are revealed through the parallels, which are soon crystal clear, with the rise to power of one Adolf Hitler. Continue reading “Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva”

Review: Artist Descending A Staircase, Criterion

“Imagination without skill gives us modern art”

Home to the long-running The 39 Steps (which I still haven’t quite gotten round to seeing yet), the Criterion Theatre has been expanding its programming both with late-evening and afternoon events. This Tuesday afternoon saw a performance of Tom Stoppard’s radio play Artist Descending A Staircase by such an attractive cast that it was impossible to resist. The play was performed in front of us to a microphone, although I couldn’t quite figure out whether this was being recorded for real or not, and sound effects created onstage so it was just like watching a radio play being recorded rather than something being acted out and was most amusing with it – not least because we got to see the actors in their civvies and see what their fashion sense is like!

But to the play itself: we open with a scratchy recording of undetermined sounds and soon find ourselves in an attic studio shared by three elderly avant-garde artists with two of them standing over the body of the third at the bottom of the staircase. Beauchamp is the one who made the recording as his art centres on the sounds of everyday life and as he and his colleague Martello hear their dead friend Donner acknowledge the presence of something just before his fall, they each point the finger of suspicion at the other. Continue reading “Review: Artist Descending A Staircase, Criterion”

Review: The Changeling, Southwark Playhouse

“Thou art all deformed”

The programme for the Southwark Playhouse’s latest main house production, The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, starts off with an honest explanation of the difficulties in staging such a dialogue-heavy work so full of asides and freely admits it is taking a risk in the approach they have adopted, which is to use voiceovers. Such candour is perhaps bravely admirable but in this case, it is a risk that does not pay off as The Production Works’ reimagining of the classic sadly falls short in a number of areas.

Beatrice-Joanna is engaged to Alonzo, hotly in love with Alsemero and stalked by her disfigured servant De Flores and such is the strength of her burning desire and the desire she provokes in others that in order to pursue the second she engages the third to get rid of the first. This production focuses on this twisted love triangle and completely does away with the comic subplot, thus bringing in the show at an interval-less 90 minutes but making the tone of the play unremittingly dark. Continue reading “Review: The Changeling, Southwark Playhouse”