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”

Review: Cargo, Arcola

“We’re all in the same boat…”

One of the shrewder observations of recent weeks has been the puncturing of the declamatory announcements that the UK has become impossible to live in and that emigration was now necessary after just a few days of turmoil. For when you compare that to the issues that cause immigration now, for example more than five years of civil war, huge swathes of towns and cities – even Syria’s largest city Aleppo – literally bombed out, then you see the sense of perspective that is sorely needed.

Issues like this ran around my head as I sat down to watch Tess Berry-Hart’s new play Cargo (a snippet of which I was able to see at the excellent Refugees Welcome event in May). Among the many strings to Berry-Hart’s bow is her role as a key co-ordinator for Calais Action and so this is clearly a writer who knows of what she speaks when it comes to refugees. But taking a different spin on the subject, Cargo imagines (or should that be slightly embellishes…) a near-future dystopian Britain that is the land people are trying to flee.

It’s an effective technique, one which tumbles the audience directly into the experience of those forced to flee the sanctity of their homeland. Max Dorey’s design reconfigures the Arcola’s studio into a shipping container and we’re plonked on crates and rubbish bags for seats, straining to hear the whispered beginnings of the play which opens in darkness as three young people stowaway in hope of reaching the welcoming security of Europe. But have they leapt from the frying pan into the fire, as the desperate measures they’ve taken continue to threaten them. Continue reading “Review: Cargo, Arcola”

Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse

“Now I know war makes men lose all sense of themselves”

Like Caroline Bird last year for the Gate, Timberlake Wertenbaker has looked to tales of Ancient Greece to create a new play that speaks of the unique trials of modern warfare and the demands it places on soldiers from “Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand” and beyond. Our Ajax draws on Sophocles’ Ajax as well as dialogues with people serving in the armed forces right now, but as with Bird’s The Trojan Women, there are difficulties in combining the Hellenic elements – not least the presence of divine power – with the all-too-real scenario of modern-day desert combat.

In a world where the acronym PTSD is chillingly familiar, this Ajax is a decorated Lieutenant Colonel who flips over the edge when he is passed over for a promotion to Brigadier which goes to rival Odysseus instead. But though his devoted battalion recognise what is happening, there are no structures in this version of the military to deal with such crises and so as Wertenbaker unpicks the varied reasons for Ajax’s mental collapse, there’s an inexorable slide towards tragedy that spans from the personal to the institutional. Continue reading “Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Yellow Face, Park Theatre

“Nowadays, it’s so hard to tell”

London’s newest theatre opened its doors in Finsbury Park last week but the Park Theatre also has a more intimate studio and it is the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face that christens that space. Hwang was the first Asian-American to win a Tony for Best Play and so was a predictable figurehead for the 1990 protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and it is this that forms the starting point for his play Yellow Face which questions ideas of race and identity and whether any such thing as a multicultural society can really exist when prejudices continue to weigh in from all sides.

Hwang uses his own experiences but also weaves elements of fiction into the play – the version of himself who is the lead character is (barely) renamed DHH – to create something of a fantasia, which allows him to heighten the absurdity of many of these situations whilst simultaneously maintaining the chilling realisation that most of it is not too far from reality. It’s a heady mixture and one which frequently pays off. The trickiness of dealing with the sensitive subject of race is tackled head on and with no little humour – trite aphorisms about tolerance and looking beneath the skin are constantly rehashed and recycled, even borrowing lyrics from an En Vogue song at one point, as the difficulties of verbalising what racial identity really means and just how important it actually is are thrown under the spotlight. Continue reading “Review: Yellow Face, Park Theatre”

Review: The Leisure Society, Trafalgar Studios 2

“We’re going to break up with our best friend”

Canadian drama doesn’t get much of a look in in London so it was interesting to see Québécois playwright François Archambault having his play The Leisure Society mounted at the Trafalgar Studios’ downstairs space. The headlines have naturally focused on the theatrical debut of former model Agyness Deyn but thespier types will appreciate the return of Ed Stoppard who illuminated his father’s Arcadia so very well a few years back (and yes, as suggested by the poster, he does get his shirt off!).

The play is a scathing look at the self-obsession of the middle classes, focusing on Peter and Mary, an affluent, successful couple with a new baby yet both dealing with a deep ennui, a huge dissatisfaction with the state of their lives. As part of the ‘cleaning up’ of their lives to become ideal parents – they’ve already given up smoking and drinking – they invite best friend Mark round for dinner and to tell him that his newly-single life of debauchery doesn’t fit into their plan and so they are dumping him. But when Mark turns up with his new ‘special friend’ the lithe Paula and several bottles of wine, their plans go somewhat awry as sex, scandal and secrets end up on the menu along with the roast beef. Continue reading “Review: The Leisure Society, Trafalgar Studios 2”