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, 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. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 1”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 1

“To do nothing is the hardest job of all” 

It’s taken a little time to getting round to watching all of The Crown because, in a first for me, I found it impossible to binge-watch the show. Even with Netflix kindly providing offline downloads just at the point where I had a lot of travelling to do, Peter Morgan’s drama was lots of fun to watch but rarely captured the buzzy energy that has accompanied much online programming. Because it many ways it isn’t like much of Netflix’s previous output, it really is an encroachment into BBC Sunday night and as such, I felt it worked best spread out in almost weekly installments.

That’s partly down to the nature of the subject material, we’re not likely to get many surprises in a detailed retelling of the history of the House of Windsor. But it is also due to Morgan’s writing which tends a little to the formulaic, especially in the middle part of the series, which is when my interest was most in danger of waning. The opening two episodes started brightly but once the shock of becoming monarch was over, the rhythm became very much one of someone close to the queen has an issue and she has to weigh personal desires against public duty, the latter always winning out. Continue reading “TV Review: The Crown, Series 1”

Review: Saint Joan, Donmar

“Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination”

This
 is Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan but very much via Josie Rourke, as the medieval piety of the pre-show entertainment gives way to the uber-modernity of this interpretation with the opening flourish of a tablecloth being whipped away (more impressive than it sounds!). The gods being worshipped here are high finance and business as scenes are set in companies like Vaucouleur Commodities Brokerage and Dauphin Holdings, Evan Davies and Bloomberg news tickers give us regular updates and it is in the midst of all this that Gemma Arterton’s Joan arrives, the sole figure in period dress. 

Dealing with an amusing take on the egg crisis of the first scene, and using Skype to correctly identify Fisayo Akinade’s spoiled manchild heir of a Dauphin in the next, the modern take is clever but there’s a strange tension that never quite resolves. The text has been cut but not completely modernised, so talk of battles and forts sit alongside the rise and fall of stocks and shares and it doesn’t settle into an interpretation that didn’t leave me going ‘you what now’ until it starts to play the drama straight as in the English plot to bring about the downfall of the woman uniting the French against them. Continue reading “Review: Saint Joan, Donmar”

TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III

“The king’s name is a tower of strength”

The Hollow Crown reaches its climax with a solid and occasionally very strong Richard III which once again shimmers with quality and hints of artistic innovation. And for all the lauding of Benedict Cumberbatch’s starring role, it is pleasing to see Dominic Cooke and Ben Power give Sophie Okonedo’s excoriating Margaret of Anjou her due as one of the real pleasures of running these plays together is to trace her complete arc (for she’s the only character to appear in them all) and root her enmity – alongside that of so many others – in something most palpable.

Cooke’s direction also benefits from loosening its representational restraints, Richard III’s monologues and asides make this a different type of play and Cooke responds with a series of interesting choices (though the surfeit of nervy finger-tapping was a touch too much for me) making great use of both gloomy interiors and hauntingly effective exteriors. Playing so many scenes in woodlands was an inspired decision as it leant a real eeriness to proceedings, whether Margaret or Richard bursting from the bushes to disrupt the private mourning of Elizabeth or Anne. Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III”

TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2

“I was a woeful looker-on”

On a night when the real drama was unfolding in Stockholm’s Globen arena and the main internecine conflict was between the juries of music professionals and the public vote as revealed by the new counting mechanism, the BBC’s decision to schedule The Hollow Crown against the Eurovision Song Contest didn’t work for me. Last week’s Henry VI Part 1 was a great reintroduction into these quality adaptations as it started the new series but the follow-up doesn’t quite match the same level.

Part of the issue lies in the seemingly accepted wisdom that the Henry VI plays are problems that need solving – I’ve still not managed to see a conventional production of the trilogy to use as a benchmark – and so the plays are often abandoned to the mercies of the vision of writers and directors. Such is the case with The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2, chopped down and frantically paced, there’s a whole lot of fury but just not enough feeling (though if you’re a fan of battlefields and decapitated heads, you might fare better than I did). Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 1. Henry VI Part 2”

Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”

One of the terms most overused by reviewers and publicity writers alike is “timely revival” and this production of King John is no different, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta as it has processed on a mini-candelit-tour of Temple Church and Holy Sepulchre Church Northampton ahead of this run at the Globe. But Shakespeare dropped the ball here with this play, it is no surprise in the watching that it is one of his lesser-performed works and though James Dacre’s production has its bright spots, it can’t cover all of its inherent weaknesses.

Dacre heavily plays up the religious aspects of the play and whilst you can see the logic for the sacred venues and the atmosphere that the candlelight would have created, it’s less easy to see how it works as well at a sunny matinée in the open air on Bankside. Jonathan Fensom’s design imposes a red cross of a stage into the space and fills it with monks, but religion is only part of the story of John’s travails and weighting the emphasis so heavily here doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of dramatic sense (though I freely admit to not knowing the play at all well). Continue reading “Review: King John, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

“Now is the winter of our discontent”

Like an addict that really should know better, I held out from seeing Richard III for the longest time, safe in the informed knowledge that I most probably wouldn’t like it. But sure enough when a ticket became available for the final matinée performance, off I obediently trotted to that most uncomfortable of theatres Trafalgar Studios for the latest instalment in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season. And guess what, I didn’t like it.

Clearly my opinions had already been shaped by friends and colleagues reassuring me it really wouldn’t be my cup of tea but the lure of a good cast is always strong and in some respects, this was true. Gina McKee’s defiant Queen Elizabeth, Jo Stone-Fewing’s oleaginous Buckingham, Maggie Steed’s mad Queen Margaret all emerge with credit but in the title role, Martin Freeman is much more of a debit, offering up a decent enough performance but one lacking any real gravitas. Continue reading “Review: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios”

Review: The Big Meal, HighTide

“Don’t you think I should be wearing underwear for this?”

The major stresses and ongoing strife of family life in all its messiness is at the heart of Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, the sole US input into the main HighTide programme, which has already played a short run at Bath’s Ustinov theatre. Taking the idea that much of importance happens around the dinner table, LeFranc explores 80 years of a couple’s life through five generations of a family in an ambitiously sprawling framework which sees time following an anything-but-linear path, swathes of dialogue overlapping noisily with each other and a ton of food. And through the cacophony, it does manage to become something rather exhilarating.

It’s a dizzying experience though, and Michael Boyd’s direction manages to somehow embrace the audience into this strange world but keep us discombobulated within it. Sam and Nicole are the couple whose initial meeting in a diner is swiftly followed by the ‘ding’ that indicates passage of time and we see that they’re married with kids and so on and so forth, each ‘ding’ changing something which further complicates the ever-growing family and their troubled dynamic, which essentially boils down to life’s a bitch and then you die, during a silent Last Supper montage. Oh and yes, you will end up like your mother.  Continue reading “Review: The Big Meal, HighTide”

Review: The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s something wrong with this…”

The Invisible Man is the Menier Chocolate Factory’s winter offering this year, following on from a healthy run of transfers including Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles. The main plot is taken from HG Wells’ story of a strange man swathed in bandages who arrives at a small village pub to take a room. It emerges that he is a scientist and a victim of an experiment gone wrong that has rendered him invisible and is seeking peace and quiet in order to come up with a cure. But the nosy villagers drive him mad and he snaps, seeking world domination instead. It has the makings of a chilling sci-fi story but wrapped up in an Edwardian music hall setting as it is here by Ken Hill, with Pierrot-based clown songs creating a vaudevillian mood as the ‘players’ perform the story as above, but full of a broad nudge-nudge-wink-wink bawdiness.

The music hall framing just seemed like an excuse to shoehorn in a song or two, as if the Menier couldn’t quite put on a Christmas show that didn’t feature singing, but it was a laboured device that grated with me every time it reappeared as it served to further diminish the impact of Wells’ story. Tonally, it remained at this broad, slapstick, pratfall-heavy level throughout which I must admit raised the rare chuckle but mostly left me cold. Because there was no attempt to give the storytelling any depth, I just didn’t care about anything even when the characters were the only people preventing society from collapsing entirely (I think) and with no variety in there, it just gets so damn repetitive: there’s only so much people pretending to be punched and bum tweaks that one can take.

And though Paul Kieve’s illusions were proficiently done for a fringe venue, none of them were so spectacular in the end (though I am not sure what would have actually impressed me) and they also suffered from repetition and a lack of variety. John Gordon Sinclair’s voice was the most effective tool that this production had, along with his eerie presence on the stage (his face not revealed until the bitter end) but even the chilling aspects here were negated by an over-reliance on ostensibly spooky music which quickly grew tiresome.


But when you have quality in your cast, it can’t help but occasionally shine through and there were moments here something more was hinted at. Jo Stone-Fewings as the local aristocrat with hidden depths and Geraldine Fitzgerald as a pipe-smoking Scottish schoolteacher had a great connection together with their burgeoning relationship, Christopher Godwin was nicely droll as a jack-of-all-trades and Maria Friedman’s bawdy hostess was also well-pitched. But there was also hamminess, sometimes just about ok as in Gerard Carey’s camp vicar, but Natalie Casey’s dim maid was a screechy mess which had me cringing and I didn’t react well to Gary Wilmot’s faux bonhomie and his constant breaking of the fourth wall to remind us, as if we could forget, of the music hall setting.

It was a bit of a random decision for me to go to see The Invisible Man. I had tickets for much earlier in the run but managed to offload them to a friend so I could attend another engagement and the feedback that they and others gave led me to think I had dodged a bullet somewhat. But it is easy to have an opinion that isn’t backed up and so in some respects I am glad that I took the time to see this for myself, even if it was to confirm reports of a painfully unfunny turkey.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 13th February

Review: Twelfth Night, RSC

“If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”

There’s a pleasing circularity to this visit to Twelfth Night for me: one of the first plays I saw this year was the Donmar’s West End production of Twelfth Night, a trip marred by horrendous winter storms and travel chaos, so it seems right that one of my last trips to the theatre this year was to the RSC’s version of the same play, once again during some insane winter weather. Fortunately, my journey was less traumatic this time, so I was able to make a more reasoned verdict on the play.

As one would expect from the RSC, and from a production that has already done a Stratford run, it is slickly done and all the performers feel and look supremely confident in their roles. Staged in a incense-laden, Turkish-inspired set, it looks amazing and the costumes are rich and opulent (Orsino’s red robe is a sight to behold). And this all contributed to me being much more amenable to giving the suspension of disbelief necessary for this play, a matter much helped by some canny casting and dressing of Viola and Sebastian who for once really did look like they could be twins.

Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, RSC”