Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 1

“Do not blaspheme! Do not blaspheme!”

To mark Series 10 of Doctor Who starting on BBC1 next week (Saturday 15th April0, I’ve been counting down the weeks with a rewatch of all 9 of the previous series of new Who. And now we’re within touching distance, I’m counting down the days talking about each one. For once though, I’m going to keep these posts (relatively) short and sweet, following the below format.

With just the one series to judge him on, and that series being the very first when everyone was still finding their feet, Christopher Eccleston’s Nine often gets a bit of a raw deal. And some of his zany moments are undoubtedly really quite awkward to watch but for me, they’re easily outweighed by the emotional weight of his more serious work, especially when hinting at the considerable darkness of the events of his recent past that had left him so haunted. A solid re-entry back into the televisual world.

Episodes, in order of preference

The Parting of the Ways
Father’s Day
The Empty Child
The Doctor Dances
The End of the World
Bad Wolf
Boom Town
The Unquiet Dead
The Long Game
Aliens of London
World War Three

Top 5 guest spots

Zoë Wanamaker’s hugely entertaining Lady Cassandra O’Brien.Δ17
Penelope Wilton’s Harriet Jones, deepened endlessly by the knowledge of what’s to come
As Pete Tyler, Shaun Dingwall really rather moved me in Father’s Day

Annette Badland as Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen / Margaret Blaine is lumbered with awfulness in her opening Slitheen 2-parter but it is for her much more subtle work in Boom Town that I rate her here
You might have missed this one but Jenna Russell makes an appearance as the floor manager in Bad Wolf

Saddest death

A tie between Yasmin Bannerman’s Jabe, the first of many to give their life in service of the Doctor’s plans in The End of the World and Jo Joyner’s Lynda, most-definitely-with-a-Y, whose dreams of travel in the TARDIS are really quite brutally snuffed out in The Parting of the Ways.

Most wasted guest actor

Tamsin Greig’s turn as the Nurse in The Long Game is suitably sinister but all too brief.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

Given the amount of temporal paradoxes that most episodes of Doctor Who seem to usher in even by their very existence (don’t @ me), it is a surprise that the Reapers (from Father’s Day) haven’t been seen again.

Gay agenda rating

A+ – even the Doctor gets in on the sexual adventurousness

2017 Offie Award Finalists

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female 
Louise Jameson in The Diva Drag at The Hope 
Lydia Larson in Skin A Cat at The Bunker
Sarah Ridgeway in Fury at Soho Theatre 
Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse

Best Supporting Female 
Lynette Clarke in Karagula at The Styx
Joanna Hickman in Ragtime at Charing Cross Theatre
Sasha Waddell in After October at The Finborough

Best Male 
Fiston Barek in The Rolling Stone at The Orange Tree 
Phil Dunster in Pink Mist at The Bush 
Paul Keating in Kenny Morgan at The Arcola
John Ramm in Sheppey at The Orange Tree Continue reading “2017 Offie Award Finalists”

The 2016 fosterIAN awards

Pleasures were few and far between in 2016…

Round-up of the 2016 fosterIANs

Best Actress in a Play
Juliet Stevenson/Lia Williams, Mary Stuart

Best Actress in a Musical
Jenna Russell, Grey Gardens

Best Actor in a Play
O-T Fagbenle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Actor in a Musical
Louis Maskell, The Grinning Man

Best Supporting Actress in a Play
Jade Anouka, The Tempest

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical
Jennifer Saayeng, Ragtime

Best Supporting Actor in a Play
Peter Polycarpou, Scenes from 68* Years

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical
Julian Bleach, The Grinning Man

And my top 10 plays of the year:

1 Mary Stuart
2 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
3 Minefield
4 Escaped Alone
5 A Raisin in the Sun
6 Pink Mist
7 Steel Magnolias
8 The Grinning Man
9 Jess and Joe Forever
10 BU21

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

9 of my top moments in a theatre in 2016

The end-of-year lists of favourite plays and performances should be on their way soon, once the food coma has abated, but to tide you over, here’s my list of 9 of my top moments in a theatre over 2016, the things that first come to mind when someone says ‘what did you enjoy this year’. For reference, here’s my 2015 list and 2014 list.

The ‘arrival’ of the Hope Theatre

I’ve been gazumped by The Stage in recognising this Islington fringe theatre for a stellar year but it is no more than Matthew Parker and his team there deserve. Over the course of 2016, intelligent and exciting programming has made the Hope into a must-see venue for me, no mean feat in a market already full of fringe venues and new ones opening every time you look up. From promoting new writing to astutely chosen revivals, scorchingly personal writing to themed seasons culminating in delightfully campy lesbian musicals, this theatre has been on fire all year long and has made me excited to see every single thing they put – and there’s precious few places, large or small, that can say that.

Wizards and magic and owls, oh my

I’d have to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child again before deciding officially whether it is a great piece of drama or not, but there’s no doubting that it is a stonking piece of theatre and the atmosphere at the very first shows was something quite amazing to be a part of, even from the back row of the balcony. The romantic sweep of Christine Jones’ set and Steven Hoggett’s movement, John Tiffany’s endlessly imaginative direction and of course, the masterfully jaw-dropping effects from Jamie Harrison. It felt like something I’d never seen before and in the case of Sprocket the Owl, it was something no-one else saw either! 

(c) Stephen Cummiskey

Miriam Buether turning the world upside down

It’s incredible that in the same month that I saw Harry Potter, a play at the Hampstead Theatre matched it for simply astounding set design. Miriam Buether’s work on Wild was jaw-droppingly good and what I was particularly proud of on a personal level, was how I managed to reference it in plain sight in the review, yet still managing to avoid spoilers.
See also: opening in the same month, Bob Crowley’s design for Aladdin was impressive against such stiff competition

The Hired Man brought to orchestral life

I knew the concert version of The Hired Man at Cadogan Hall would be good, but I wasn’t prepared for just how emotional it would be. Hearing Jenna Russell and John Owen-Jones duetting on ‘No Choir Of Angels’ took me to the edge, being joined by Matthew Seadon-Young for the soaring ‘If I Could’ pushed me right over to leave me quietly sobbing for most of the interval.

Discovering Lorraine Hansberry, for myself

Before March this year, I’d never seen a Lorraine Hansberry play and seeing two in a month – Eclipse’s touring A Raisin in the Sun and the National Theatre’s Les Blancs – absolutely blew me away. Both will rank very highly in my end-of-year list but more than that, I enjoyed finding my own way into loving Hansberry’s work. It’s all very well being told someone is good (even when that someone is my mum, who has ranked Raisin… as one of her favourite plays for a while) but I much prefer forming these opinions for myself and now I can hand-on-heart agree that Hansberry’s was a superb talent.

The glorious rise of Noma Dumezweni

There’s something beautiful in seeing karmic justice being served, especially to an actor who you’ve admired for a goodly while. Noma Dumezweni may not have been a household name at the beginning of the year but the trifecta of stepping into the lead role of Linda at a moment’s notice, making her directorial debut in I See You, and then nailing her inspired casting as the adult Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has seen her profile rise stratospherically. Most impressive of all the serene grace with which she has handled all manner of racist trolling on Twitter.

Finally getting ‘Satisfied’

In a most rare example of restraint from myself, I had the Original Cast Recording of Hamilton for something like a year without listening to it, knowing that I would be doing my damnedest to see the show. And sure enough, with several months planning and the help of a generous birthday gift, I got to see the original cast live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre whereupon I experienced the absolute genius and glory of Renée Elise Goldsberry’s ‘Satisfied’ completely unspoiled. Without exaggeration, one of the best moments of musical theatre ever written.
See also: getting to relive the sumptuous harmonies of Jessie Mueller, Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle in ‘A Soft Place To Land’ from Waitress thanks to the wonder of Broadway cast recordings

(c) Pascal Victor

Isabelle Huppert being Isabelle Huppert

I’d argue that Isabelle Huppert is one of the finest actors in the world and what is particularly exciting about her is that she rarely takes easy, predictable decisions in her choice of collaborators and material. From films such as Elle to La Pianiste, she always provokes and so perhaps it was no surprise that a rare UK theatre appearance would be equally challenging. If anything got me through the nearly 4 hours of Phaedra(s), it was the undeniable electric star quality that she radiates, no matter what she’s doing.
See also: getting to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is always a pleasure, even if I had to suffer Pinter for the privilege

Holding the curtain in Derby 

A personal one here but one that still makes me chuckle. Back in March, I was invited to Derby Theatre to see the double bill of Look Back in Anger and response piece Jinny but the train I was booked on was cancelled. I got on the next one, knowing that time would be extremely tight, but I wasn’t expecting that when I got to the station, the wonderful Heidi from Derby Theatre bundled me into her car along with Mark Lawson, Michael Coveney and some other bloke, drove us to the stage door, where we were rushed into the theatre where they had held the beginning of the performance for our arrival! Not bad for a two-bit blogger 😉

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”

Review: The Hired Man in concert, Cadogan Hall

“We are worth your shillings”

Marking the first major concert presentation of the show in over 20 years, The Hired Man in concert saw Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s 1984 musical take over the elegant surroundings of Cadogan Hall, for a glorious evening celebrating one of the all-time greats of British musical theatre writing. With a boutique orchestra conducted by Andrew Linnie, an ensemble of over 20 singers and a lead cast of bona fide West End and Broadway stars, it was a powerfully effective treatment of the material.

The Hired Man is based on Bragg’s 1969 novel, part of his Cumbrian Trilogy, following the lives of labourer and miner John Tallentire and his wife Emily as they battle first the hardship of agricultural life in a fast-industrialising world and then the impact of the First World War on their whole community. And supporting it, Goodall’s music and lyrics draws on English folk tradition, as well as his own melodious style, to create a soulful, stirring score that lingers long in the mind with its hummability and heartbreak.

For this concert, director Samuel Hopkins was able to secure John Owen-Jones (fresh from reprising the role of Valjean on Broadway) and Jenna Russell (recently in Doctor Faustus) and he couldn’t have picked a better pair for John and Emily. Being able to hear Owen-Jones use all the colours of the subtler side of his voice demonstrated just how formidable a leading man he really is. And there are simply few actors in the country as good at acting through song as Russell, even singing from a book behind a lectern she was just unbearably heartfelt.

On songs like ‘No Choir of Angels’ and ‘If I Could’ (joined on the latter by Matthew Seadon-Young’s powerfully voiced Jackson, the man in the middle of their marriage), these were moments of musical theatre perfection. The swell of the strings, Mark Etherington’s assured piano, the harmonies of the chorus, Bragg’s narration of his own story – the combination was just hugely seductive. And with strong support from the likes of Stewart Clarke (whose parents Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills actually created the roles of John and Emily in the original production), Evelyn Hoskins and Nigel Richards, The Hired Man has never sounded better.

This review was originally written for LondonTheatre1

Review: Doctor Faustus, Duke of York’s

“The hot whore of celebrity”

Jon Snow is dead. Isn’t he? I suspect there’ll be a twist in the tail as far as the newly started sixth series of Game of Thrones is concerned but for the meantime, Kit Harington is alive and kicking his way through this raucous reinvention of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for The Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company. 
My 3 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read here. And my little preview piece from a couple of weeks ago is here.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Marc Brenner
Booking until 25th June

(P)review: Doctor Faustus, Duke of York’s

“Hell is within”

(As are production spoilers) 

As Jamie Lloyd’s Doctor Faustus is currently previewing but doesn’t open officially until 25th April, I’d get in trouble with the Devil herself (and possibly Mary Berry) for publishing a full review. So here’s a little amuse-bouche for you

Jenna Russell, Jenna Russell, Jenna Russell! Inspired casting as Mephistopheles 
Old – Marlowe’s play dates from 400 (or so) years ago but it is brought bang up to date here
New – whole sections have been replaced and new ones written (and given the brilliantly up to the minute references, still being tinkered with) by Colin Teevan 
Six pack is in evidence, he even counts it for us 
No, we won’t ever mention this interview, everyone knows what side their bread is buttered on and it’s all good 😉
Oh my, as in bed tricks and boxers and ballgags, oh my
Women gaining extra parts appears to be 2016’s most unexpected theatrical meme (qv Cleansed)
It’s a kind of magic, there’s some nifty stage trickery as this Faustus goes all Copperfield
Soutra Gilmour’s gift for ever-inventive set design remains in magnificently full force
Dat ass tho
Early birds catch the worm, it pays to be in your seat early at the beginning of both acts…
Anouka, Jade – a real talent getting a deserved chance to shine here 
Dancing – I do like a dancing ensemble and these guys have got the moves!
So there you have it. Fans of Mr Harington aka #FitKit will certainly get their money’s worth, fans of Jenna Russell will explode in gay delight just after the interval (I have never been happier!) and fans of Jamie Lloyd will be thrilled that his successful takeover of that part of London is continuing in such fine form. I have no idea what fans of Marlowe will think of it though…  
Running time: currently 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 25th June

Review: Grey Gardens, Southwark Playhouse

“Those on the outside clamouring to get in, those on the inside dying to get out”

The story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale was immortalised in a 1975 documentary called Grey Gardens. As part of the American aristocracy, insofar as their connections with the Kennedys (their niece/cousin Jackie would become Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), they held a certain fascination but the discovery that they were living together in squalor, their fortune squandered and their East Hampton mansion overrun with cats, made them appallingly compelling subjects and consequently elevated them to cult status.

That it took someone ‘til 2006 to turn it into a musical feels like a surprise, but Doug Wright’s book, Scott Frankel’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics are more thoughtfully considered than one might expect – reflected in the success of its Tony-winning Broadway transfer from Off-Broadway – and so it’s only fitting that it is now added to director Thom Southerland’s roster of musical theatre hits at the Southwark Playhouse.

The first half is taken up with a fictionalised account of life in the Bouvier Beales’ heyday in the ‘40s, centring on Little Edie’s reputed engagement to a scion of the Kennedy clan and plays out as rather conventional bio-drama. It’s engagingly performed – Jenna Russell relishing the expansiveness of Big Edie, Jeremy Legat’s pianist having been moved in to paper over the cracks of her crumbling marriage, and Rachel Anne Rayham is a sparky delight as a Little Edie with the world still at her feet – but it’s rather long-winded without delivering much psychological insight.

Which is where the second act succeeds magnificently, beginning with Russell giving one of the performances of her life in ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’. We’ve moved on 30 years and full-blown eccentricity has set in. Russell switches to playing a deeply tragicomic Little Edie and Sheila Hancock her now mostly bedridden mother and both women are superb – Hancock spits acidic putdowns as if it’s second nature and Russell is just extraordinary as the deluded younger woman, manic and melancholy in the same breath, magisterial throughout as the twisted symbisois of the relationship between mother and daughter becomes increasingly apparent.

And befittingly, supporting them is a whole raft of talent. Aaron Sidwell doubles excellently as the prim and proper Joseph Kennedy and a down-and-out teenager who befriends the older pairing; Ako Mitchell has criminally little to do but still makes the most of it as two generations of their staff; Lee Proud provides effective flourishes of choreography; and the dynamics of Tom Roger’s imposing mansion design are most thoughtful indeed, too small to contain the extroverts of early on and too large for the introverts that they become, building to a final, magnificent sense of crumbling claustrophobia. 

The score is melodically interesting and sounds brilliant – or should that be S-T-A-U-N-C-H, under Michael Bradley’s musical direction and we discover why at the curtain call, as no less than 10 band members emerge, all having combined to create a luscious, fully rounded musicality. And if Grey Gardens is not quite the perfect play, it’s damn well close to the perfect production here, a wonderful example of the sum of its excellent parts increasing exponentially. Mother darling, I’d get booking your ticket now whilst there’s still a precious few remaining. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 6th February, remember it is unallocated seating – we arrived at 6.30pm and the queue had already started…