Review: Winter Hill, Octagon

“Heroism is danger and risk, and frankly, until now, it’s been male”

Plays set in places I knew well as a child unexpectedly looks like it might be one of the theatrical memes of the year – Years of Sunlight explored the history of the neighbouring town where I learned to swim and now we have Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new drama Winter Hill, named for the West Pennine peak that was the location of many a childhood walk. 

Wertenbaker’s play is set on the Winter Hill of the near future, as opposed to the not-so-near past, where a chunk of the land has been sold to developers who are constructing a luxury skyscraper hotel there, set to completely alter the way that the hill dominates the landscape and the town of Bolton below it. As a local women’s reading group sneaks onto the building site to have their meetings, hidden agendas bubble to the surface to make matters a little more serious than whether they’ve got enough wine to get through the evening. Continue reading “Review: Winter Hill, Octagon”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8

“You are the chief executive officer of the human race”

It was quite interesting to rewatch Series 8 of Doctor Who, one which I hadn’t revisited at all since it originally aired, as my memories thereof were not at all positive. And whilst disappointments remained – Robin Hood, 2D cartoons, the treeees! – there was also much to enjoy that I’d forgotten about. The smash-and-grab of Time Heist, the simplicity of ghost story Listen, and the ominous darkness of the finale.

I’m still in two minds about Peter Capaldi’s Twelve though, I want to like him so much more than I do, and I think you do get the sense of him feeling his way into his irascible take on the role. Jenna Coleman’s Clara benefits from being released from the yoke of impossibility to move to the forefront of several episodes and if she’s still a little hard to warm to, that finale really is superbly done. And then there’s Michelle Gomez, stealing the whole damn thing magnificently! Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8”

DVD Review: Wolf Hall

“By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus”
 

Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies into a six-part TV serial has no right to be this good but somehow, it manages the extraordinary feat of being genuinely excellent. I didn’t watch it at the time and so caught up with its complexities and nuances over a binge-watch at Christmas. And though I’m no real fan of his acting on stage, there’s no doubting the titanic performance of Mark Rylance as the almighty Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel charts the rise of this lowly-born blacksmith’s boy through service as lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (a brilliant Jonathan Pryce) to the heights of the Tudor court as Henry VII’s (Damian Lewis on fine form) chief fixer, predominantly in the matter of securing the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to enable him to wed Anne Boleyn. Rylance really is very good, subtler than he is onstage as he negotiates the world of ‘gentlemen’ – in which he is constantly underestimated – from the sidelines, wielding increasing amounts of power, though with it fewer and fewer scruples. Continue reading “DVD Review: Wolf Hall”

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”
 
The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
 
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

Continue reading “Film Review: London Road”

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)”

DVD Review: Tipping the Velvet

“You seem so very gay and bold”

I didn’t watch this 2002 television adaptation of Sarah Waters’ debut novel Tipping the Velvet nor had I read the book so this was all unchartered territory for me. I vaguely remembered a bit of a Daily Mail-style hoohah so I was a little surprised at the relative tameness of the first episode but then after getting through the second, I can see why an eyebrow might have been raised – I doubt I’ll see Anna Chancellor in quite the same light! Andrew Davies’ had the unenviable task of condensing Water’s seven year story of sexual and self-discovery into a three hour television script and manages the job fairly well, though with a rip-roaring pace that doesn’t always quite allow the story enough time to breathe.

The story centres on Nancy Astley, a young woman who works as an oyster-girl in her father’s Whitstable restaurant but who lacks a certain fulfilment in her life as a relationship with a local boy is failing to make her weak at the knees. What does capture her attention though is the arrival of a male impersonator Kitty Butler whose performances leave her transfixed and ultimately open up a whole new world for Nan, but a world that is full of as much heartbreak as love, as much pain as pleasure, as she finds herself on the stage, on the street, on a leash, on her knees, on an incredible journey. Continue reading “DVD Review: Tipping the Velvet”

DVD Review: An Ideal Husband

“Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do”

Oliver Parker’s first Wilde adaptation was this 1999 film of An Ideal Husband, with Rupert Everett leading the cast as Lord Goring. What is remarkable now though is the casting of both Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore who now boast nearly 10 Academy Award nominations (and 1 win) between them so this proves a great opportunity to catch them both just at the point where their careers were going stratospheric.

Sir Robert Chiltern’s security as a politician and respected gentleman comes under threat when the devilish Mrs Cheveley, a school-time enemy of his wife Lady Gertrude, attempts to blackmail him into voting a particular way in Parliament as she has evidence of past misdoings. He turns to his friend and eternal bachelor Lord Goring for assistance, who is currently avoiding the keen attentions of Robert’s sister Mabel, as he was previously engaged to Mrs Cheveley but the plot to extricate him has unintended consequences. Continue reading “DVD Review: An Ideal Husband”

Review: Barrow Hill, Finborough

“Maybe I’m meant t’stay ‘ere. Maybe…”

Barrow Hill is Jane Wainwright’s debut play, set in her native Derbyshire. 86 year old Kath Bilby is determined to save her local Methodist Chapel from being converted into flats as her family ties to the place are numerous and considerable. But when she finds it is her own son Graham, seeing an opportunity to address financial difficulties, who has won the building contract, both mother and son are forced to deal with their divided allegiances in this delicately moving tale at the Finborough.

Wainwright presents the idea of family loyalty and community as a double-edged sword. The succour that Kath finds from the wealth of family history and intimate familiarity around her is contrasted with the stifled ambition of grand-daughter Alison, itching to explore life beyond Derbyshire though keenly aware of how tightly the family bonds are felt. There’s a subtle grace to much of the writing here, Janet Henfrey’s determined feistiness convinced of her path of action and filling the void in a life where so many of her friends have died, and Cath Whitefield’s brusque wit just about hiding the more sensitive soul longing to come out. Continue reading “Review: Barrow Hill, Finborough”

Review: Autobiographer, Artsadmin

“Surely it doesn’t matter, someone will know”

As we take our seats in the dark cocoon-like space inside Toynbee Studios, we become aware of four women in similar dresses already seated. They simultaneously play Flora, the subject of Melanie Wilson’s performance poem Autobiographer, at different stages in her life which has slowly become ravaged by dementia. Layers of stories and memories , thoughts and feelings are built up as the voice of the piece glides between the performers, constantly reaching for something tangible in this disorientating chaos.

What emerges in this fractured world of memory are fragments, as if from a once-beautiful now-broken piece of pottery. On their own, their charm is obscure, elusive; as the pieces come together and the women speak in twos and threes, and then finally as we experience all six – for we eventually encounter six iterations of Flora’s persona – there’s a greater sense of what was, and what can never be again. Continue reading “Review: Autobiographer, Artsadmin”