Review: Alys, Always, Bridge Theatre

Nicholas Hytner finally directs a play by a woman but Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of novel Alys, Always is a disappointment for me at the Bridge Theatre

“I’m going to bake a cake”

In well over 30 years of being a director, it seems scarcely credible that it is only now that Nicholas Hytner is turning his hand to directing a play written by a woman. For all of his considerable contributions to the British theatre ecology, it is a startling and sobering statistic that demonstrates the scale of the problem faced by those who would (rightfully) change the status quo.

The play in question here is Alys, Always, written by Lucinda Coxon from Harriet Lane’s 2012 novel. And it proves a serviceable psychological thriller of sorts that sits a little too cosily in the middle class-baiting madeleine-scented air of the Bridge Theatre. It is glossy and magazine-spread chic, undoubtedly shinily cast (Joanne Froggatt, Robert Glenister) but rarely essential. Continue reading “Review: Alys, Always, Bridge Theatre”

TV Review: Man in an Orange Shirt

I end up a little disappointed after an excellent first half of Man in an Orange Shirt

“You didn’t think we could set up home together like man and wife?”

I wanted to love Man in an Orange Shirt , I really did. A BBC two-part mini-series from 2017, it was written by Patrick Gale using elements from his own family history. And featuring a cast that is both suitably impressive -James McArdle, Vanessa Redgrave – and pretty – newcomers to me Julian Morris and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

The first half is by far the stronger. Set in the 1940s, old schoolmates Michael and Thomas find themselves stationed together in WWII Italy. An unexpected connection blooms between the pair and once war is over, Michael searches out Thomas and they spend a blissful weekend together. Only trouble is, Michael also has to eventually reunite with his fiancée too. Continue reading “TV Review: Man in an Orange Shirt”

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”

Review: Home Chat, Finborough

“I’ve got to convince you of my complete innocence and I don’t know how”

It’s a mystery really, how a playwright as renowned as Noël Coward can have a play that few have heard of and even fewer have actually seen. But it’s a genuine marvel that that play turns out to be a sparkling diamond, the Finborough once again coming up with the goods in exploring deep into the dustier realm of the literary canon. Home Chat has not been seen in the UK for nearly 90 years but on the evidence of Martin Parr’s revelatory production here, you wouldn’t be surprised to see it take it place alongside the more familiar of Coward’s works that frequently pepper the repertoire.

Not least because it contains a corker of a female lead in the figure of Janet Ebony, a garrulous gutsy character who tosses contemporary notions of morality under the microscope and finds British society to be severely lacking. Home Chat begins with a train crash, wittily mounted here in miniature, but it’s not the disaster that is the focus, rather the scandalous implications for its survivors. For it is revealed that Janet and her best friend Peter Chelsworth, who both escaped unscathed, were sharing a sleeping car and their family and friends back in Chelsea are simply outraged. Continue reading “Review: Home Chat, Finborough”

DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)

“Your alliance would be a disgrace”

This six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has gone down in history as one of the most iconic TV programmes ever, its cultural breakthrough into the mainstream taking everyone by surprise and spearheading something of a revival in period dramas. For me though, my abiding memory remains watching a documentary some years later and hearing adaptor Andrew Davies saying that the stage direction he wrote for Colin Firth, for when Darcy meets Elizabeth after she has rushed over to see her ailing sister, was “Darcy is surprised to get an erection”.

Smut aside, it is a strikingly well done piece of work though, Luxuriating over 6 hour-long instalments, it allows for the slow-burn of the central relationship which makes this version of the story really work, Firth and Jennifer Ehle so incredibly well-matched that their every interaction is scintillatingly drawn as mutual antipathy turns to mutual admiration amidst the various family dramas of the Bennetts, Wickhams, Collins et al. His brooding looks and engagingly smooth voice and her keenly intelligent eyes with her delightful pragmatism are utterly engaging. Continue reading “DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)”

Review: Hobson’s Choice, Open Air Theatre

“There’s another man with claims on me”

Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play Hobson’s Choice is regarded a good old-fashioned British classic and features on the NT2000 Top 100 plays list so when a production was announced at the Bolton Octagon earlier this year, I was keen to see it for the first time. Sure enough, having made that trip the Open Air Theatre then announced their own revival at the distinctly more convenient location of Regents Park but hey ho, you can’t win ‘em all.

And in all honesty, I did prefer the bona fide Northern version. Nadia Fall’s production here feckles the show a little too much, moving it into the 60s which undoubtedly gives it a brighter sense of modernity but one which also flies in the face of many of the gender relationships of the play – the huge social change of the time is quietly forgotten for the most part, an inconvenient truth when so much of the writing is about specific notions of parental obedience and the bestowing of dowries.  Continue reading “Review: Hobson’s Choice, Open Air Theatre”

DVD Review: These Foolish Things

“You always do the decent thing”

Noel Langley might be best known for being one of the screenwriters for The Wizard of Oz but his work as an author and playwright stretched over several decades and in 2006, an adaptation of his novel There’s A Porpoise Close Behind Us was released with the title These Foolish Things, both adapted and directed by Julia Taylor-Stanley. It’s a perfectly passable 1930s romp, set in the world of the theatre as the dark shadows of war gather (but not too closely) and a struggling young playwright goes about trying to get his play and his girlfriend on the London stage. What is oddly notable about it is the heavyweight Hollywood legends that have somehow gotten roped into the whole shebang – Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall, Terence Stamp…none of whom are in a major role.

Instead it proves to be something of a Brit flick. Floppily handsome David Leon plays playwright Robin who offers Diana a place in his lodgings as she moves to London to follow in her actress mother’s footsteps but finds herself overwhelmed by the demands of the theatre world. As she steadies herself, she finds both allies – Julia McKenzie’s compassionate landlady, Andrew Lincoln’s helpful Christopher – and enemies – her own nefarious cousin Garstin, Leo Bill in full-on sneering mode, and Mark Umbers’ sexually voracious and unfussy Douglas. With Huston’s glamorous patron of the arts Lottie Osgood in the middle of them all, the play edges ever closer to production, but at no small cost to everyone concerned. Continue reading “DVD Review: These Foolish Things”

DVD Review: The Way We Live Now

“We’ll be making history gentleman, and money too”

I picked up a copy of The Way We Live Now mid-November and as my first Anthony Trollope novel, I rather enjoyed reading it. So with time on my hands for once over Christmas, I decided to watch the 2001 BBC adaptation which I didn’t watch at the time. Prolific period adaptor Andrew Davies was on hand to turn this lengthy novel into a four parter (just about 5 hours in total) and I found it to be a rather effective rendering of a most complex world of plots and subplots which, although a tad disappointing in its ending, was well worth the time to savour and enjoy.

If it were on the stage, it would be labelled all over as a ‘timely revival’ as Trollope’s main thrust concerns the deviousness of financiers and politicos and the depths that society will sink to in order to maintain its position. There’s also love and good natured people involved to and the balance between the ever-spinning storylines is very well done. At the heart of it all is David Suchet’s Augustus Melmotte, surely one of his best ever performances, a foreign businessman who attempts to reinvent himself as a Englishman of pedigree by buying his way into business, society, property, the House of Commons, his ambitions know no bounds. And as he does so, many around him attempt to jump on his coat-tails for the ride up, not least the aristocratic but impoverished Carburys.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Way We Live Now”

DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right

What could be more innocent than visiting the vicar of Cockchaffington?”

So having completely tumbled for the charms of The Way We Live Now, I turned to the following BBC Anthony Trollope adaptation He Knew He Was Right which was also reworked by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 2004. Trollope’s main concern here was the corrosive effect of jealousy and particularly on his lead character of Louis Trevelyan whose marriage and family are broken up as he struggles to deal with the independent mind of his wife Emily as he suspects her of having an affair, and suffers the consequences of a gossipy Victorian society.

And thus the problems started for me – I never once found myself believing or really caring for Louis or Emily or their relationship. Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser both struggled with the likeability factor for me and so as a central plot point, the story lost me from the beginning. More engaging was Emily’s younger sister Nora’s romantic travails as she falls for a penniless writer – Christina Cole and Stephen Campbell Moore just lovely together, and another love story as a kind but poor young companion falls for her mistress’s great-nephew against society’s rules. Continue reading “DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right”

Radio Review: Possession, Radio 4

“It’s as if we’re waiting to be driven by their plot”

I’ve been something of a reluctant convert to radio drama, for every production I’ve enjoyed, there’s been one that has disappointed me, but if there is another that is as good as this version of Possession, then I will be a happy boy. Over the past three weekends, I have listened to the omnibus editions of this Radio 4 adaptation of AS Byatt’s novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker and have been utterly seduced by it. It was simply gorgeous, stunningly beautiful to listen to and deeply moving. I shall be investigating whether one can buy it as it really was that good.

Wertenbaker’s adaptation sees research assistant Roland Michell and literary scholar Maud Bailey recounting their quest to discover the secrets uncovered by two letters between Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and a woman named Christabel Lamotte which threaten to upturn literary history with their revelations. They are pursued by other more nefarious sorts who also want the correspondence and so the race is on to be the first to discover the truth. This story is enhanced by the reciting of letters between Ash and Lamotte as we follow their story of an illicit yet all-consumingly passionate affair which is revealed at the same time. Continue reading “Radio Review: Possession, Radio 4”