Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre

A characterful slice of seedy Soho life,  Absolute Hell is anything but at the National Theatre

“You won’t call the police, I’ll call the police”

We’ve all got a history, a bit of a chequered past and Rodney Ackland’s play Absolute Hell is no exception. Premiered in 1952 under the title The Pink Room, it received an enormous critical drubbing which led to a 40 year near-silence from the playwright. But as time passes, trends shift and plays eventually get rewritten, a new version of the drama emerged in the late 1980s to considerably more success.

It is that version that is being revived here by Joe Hill-Gibbins with the kind of luxury casting that National Theatres are made for. And with the world of this slice-of-life play being made up of a vast ensemble of characters, it’s a great fit. Absolute Hell is set in a Soho members club in the period between the end of WWII and the Labour general election win and follows its patrons as they retreat from the social (and physical) upheaval of wartime into a fug of drink, drugs and debauchery. Continue reading “Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre”

Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

“The murderer is never the one you initially suspect”

A real treat here for fans of Agatha Christie as Crooked House is one of the few novels of hers that has yet to be adapted for the screen. With a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the latter of whom also directs, a curious release strategy sees it materialise on Channel 5 in the UK despite it being blessed with the kind of castings and high production values that you’d’ve thought would be destined for the cinema.
 

The story begins as so many of them do, with a murder. This time it is wealthy 80-some tycoon Aristide Leonides who kicks the bucket and the finger of suspicion doesn’t know where to point as it could any one of the disillusioned family members who also lived in the sumptuous family pile. His grand-daughter secures the services of a private investigator to look into the case discreetly and thus the mystery begins.

Continue reading “Film Review: Crooked House (2017)”

Album Review: Mary Poppins (2005 Original London Cast Recording)

“Children who refuse to learn will not return”

I only actually got round to seeing the ‘new’ musical version of Mary Poppins a couple of years ago at the Curve in Leicester, ahead of its mammoth tour, and so the novelty of finally seeing it onstage distracted me a little from the finer details of the score, which merged the original of Robert B Sherman and Richard M Sherman with new songs and arrangements from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

And listening to it a couple of times, I think I find myself slightly less enamoured of the interventions. That’s not to detract from the quality of the performances – Laura Michelle Kelly makes for a vibrant Mary, Gavin Lee a perky Bert, and the supporting cast is blessed by the likes of David Haig and Linzi Hateley as the Banks, Rosie Ashe as the nefarious Miss Andrew and Jenny Galloway, Melanie La Barrie, and Claire Machin too. Continue reading “Album Review: Mary Poppins (2005 Original London Cast Recording)”

TV Review: Fleabag

“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist”

I left it a little while to watch Fleabag on television, for though Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ascension to the ranks of hugely buzzworthy writer has been pleasing to watch, I haven’t – dare I say it – always been the hugest fan of her work. For me, the effectiveness of her writing hasn’t always matched with the audacity of its frankness and so in her plays and TV shows like Crashing, I’ve admired the path she’s taking without hugely enjoying it.

Her breakthrough piece Fleabag equally didn’t hit my buttons in the way that it did for many others, thus my delay in getting round to watching it. And as is often the case with lowered expectations, it actually surprised me by being a very effective adaptation of the play. Its world has been expanded, both physically and personally, a whole cast of supporting characters now appear but crucially, there’s the thing I was missing most at the Soho – direct eye contact.

Fleabag rides on its confessional style and on screen, Waller-Bridge and director Harry Bradbeer nail it, direct asides giving us piecemeal insight into the trials and tribulations of this young woman struggling to make life in London work. Afraid of being a bad feminist and unafraid of her sexuality, desperately damaged by the death of her best friend and unable to connect with her family in a meaningful way, the piece is thoroughly enlivened and enriched by its treatment on screen. Continue reading “TV Review: Fleabag”

CD Review: Mamma Mia (Original Cast Recording 1999)

“It’s the best I can do”

It’s easy to be dismissive about Mamma Mia and all it has wrought in revitalising the jukebox musical as a form but the numbers don’t lie. 17 years and counting in the West End, the 8th longest running show on Broadway (it occupies the same position on the UK ranking at the moment too), a wildly successful film adaptation that became the highest grossing musical ever…it’s impressive stuff.

And listening to the Original Cast Recording from 1999, subsequently re-released with bonus tracks for the 5th anniversary, I’d say it’s fairly easy to see why it has endured so long. For all you may mock Catherine Johnson’s book, which hangs oh so lightly on a varied selection of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ iconic music for ABBA, it actually does interesting things with it, in telling its own story rather relying on the songs themselves (I’m looking at you Jersey Boys…!)

So to say you’re better off listening to ABBA’s greatest hits is to miss the point. As light as the plot may be in its girl-wants-father-to-walk-her-down-the-aisle-but-finds-there’s-three-potential-candidates frothiness but there’s something genuinely tender in hearing ‘Chiquitita’ repurposed for two friends comforting a third, maternal lament ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ actually sung between mother and daughter, the stag v hens vivacity of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’.

And yes, they sound different to the originals, of course they do with a full orchestra and chorus to back them up, not to mention the lack of Swedish accents. This recording is a little blessed too in having the film’s soundtrack with its interesting casting choices to easily surpass, but that’s not to take away from the delightful vocals of Louise Plowright, Jenny Galloway, and Siobhán McCarthy as the leading trio, the latter’s Donna a fabulous leading lady from heartbreak to happiness.

Plowright’s cougarish ways enliven ‘Does Your Mother Know’ no end and Galloway’s equally predatory stance toward Nic Colicos’ Bill in ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a delight. Lisa Stokke’s Sophie, the bride-to-be is charm personified and in keeping with the show’s female-friendly ethos, her intended – Andrew Langtree’s Sky – is somewhat sidelined. For me, ‘Our Last Summer’ has always been one of my favourite ABBA songs and remains so here, ruefully sung by former rocker Harry, an appealing Paul Clarkson, and McCarthy with a gentle loveliness that seems to stand in for the show as a whole.

Review: the first half of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Hampstead

“Once more unto the breeches”

Such is the power of Simon Russell Beale that Mr Foote’s Other Leg sold out its run at the Hampstead Theatre before it had even opened and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear news of a West End transfer before too long, given the very good reviews I suspect it will get. So I’m setting out my stall now and saying that whilst it is good, I don’t think it is that good – indeed my companion for the evening found it sufficiently insufferable to demand we leave at the interval.

Beale plays Samuel Foote, an Oscar Wilde or Stephen Fry-like figure in Georgian London whose stock has risen in society to make him quite famous. But as things go up, so too must they come down and Ian Kelly’s play, based on his own biography of Foote, finds a connection with the modern obsession with celebrities and how their downfall is often celebrated as much as their success. From backstage at theatres to the heights of the Royal Society and indeed royal society, Foote soon finds out what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Continue reading “Review: the first half of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Hampstead”

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”

Review: Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre

“Try not to care so much”

Whilst other people wind down for the end of the year, Nina Raine is certainly keeping busy as her self-penned and self-directed Tiger Country returns to Hampstead Theatre, in advance of Donkey Heart – written by her brother Moses and also directed by her – transferring to Trafalgar Studios 2 in the New Year. Declared one of Hampstead’s most popular commissions, I must confess to being a little surprised to see this 2011 play return as it didn’t stick out as particularly memorable but with the promise of a new cast, I was interested to see how it stacked up nearly four years later.

And it seems that some time away has done it some good – the play feels cleaner, sharper and less encumbered with expository dialogue clearing a path through the medical terminology. I don’t know how much the script has been updated or edited but its spin through the state of the modern NHS feels as keenly observed as ever, visiting the stresses it imposes on those who work within it as well as those who use its services. Raine’s production recaptures the frenetic energy of a hospital and its staff at full stretch – metaphorically, physically, emotionally. Continue reading “Review: Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre”

DVD Review: A Young Doctor’s Notebook

 “Even letters don’t want to be sent here”

The term black comedy is often used in reference to Russian works and in the case of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, it is well–earned. A short TV series from 2012 produced by Sky and based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s collection of short stories entitled A Country Doctor’s Notebook, it follows the experiences of a young doctor fresh out of medical school in Moscow and landed with an isolated post deep in the Russian countryside where even the nearest shop is half a day away by coach.

It frames these growing pains of a doctor (Daniel Radcliffe) learning how to deal with the practical, as opposed to the theoretical study at which he excelled, with scenes from 20 years or so in the future, when the doctor (now played by Jon Hamm) has been exposed as a morphine addict and has found his old diary. Hamm’s Doctor then dips in and out of the earlier scenes, interacting solely with his younger self and trying to offer a way through his crises of inexperience. Continue reading “DVD Review: A Young Doctor’s Notebook”

Radio Review: My Fair Lady, Prom 2 on Radio 3

“I understand dear, it’s all so grand dear.”

One of the earlier Proms this year featured a semi-staged, fully-talent loaded yet inexplicably unfilmed production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical My Fair Lady. Fortunately it was recorded by Radio 3 so its reach wasn’t just limited to those who were able to get tickets for the Royal Albert Hall. And as befits the Proms, it was given an extraordinarily lush treatment by Shaun Kerrison, with John Wilson conducting his own orchestra of 70, using Previn’s film score orchestrations, and a classy cast and chorus plus dancers to make this quite the significant event and probably deserving of more than this mini-review.  

First off, it sounded simply glorious. The score is just a delight to listen to at the best of times but given full orchestral rein here, the songs like ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’, ‘On The Street Where You Live’ and ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ amongst many many others, sparkled and shone and made an instant reminder as to why this show has endured so well. And it was largely sung well: Annalene Beechey (an actress we really ought to see more of on-stage, darn her maternal instincts ;-)) and Julian Ovenden bringing their customary interpretative skill to Eliza and Freddie and making a darn fine job of it. Continue reading “Radio Review: My Fair Lady, Prom 2 on Radio 3”