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: King Lear, Old Vic

“’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”

Though no spring chicken myself, I’m not quite the right age to be truly excited about Oscar winning actress-turned politician-turned actress again Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage. I was more intrigued than truly excited when she was announced in the title role of Deborah Warner’s King Lear for the Old Vic for though I’m well aware of who she is, her film and TV credits never broke through into what I was watching either back then or since. (Feel free to recommend her must-see performances – I’ll add them to the list of things I’ll get round to watching one day.)

But I’m always here for casting decisions that shake the established order somewhat and with Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans in the cast too, there was no chance I wouldn’t go see this. Full disclosure though, I went to the final £10 preview so treat this review how you will. For it is simultaneously an effortful and frustratingly vague production that never truly convinces of the attempted scope of its artistic vision. Fortunately, this often-times ephemeral and occasionally perplexing Lear is anchored by a striking performance from Jackson. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Old Vic”

TV Review: The Scandalous Lady W

“My mother did not tell me playing rantum-scantum would be thus”

To be in a marriage where your partner wants you to sleep with Oliver Chris on the side might seem like an ideal scenario for several people I know, but as The Scandalous Lady W shows us, dreams rarely match up to reality. Continuing my belated catch-up of TV from throughout 2015, BBC2 repeated this 90 minute drama from the summer and finally having the time to watch things, I sat down for some Georgian shenanigans.

Written by David Eldridge from Hallie Rubenhold’s book Lady Worsley’s Whim, The Scandalous Lady W tells the sorry marital woes of  Seymour, Lady Worsley. Married to Tory MP Sir Richard Worsley, the heiress was taken aback to discover that his carnal desires stretched wanting her to sleep with other men whilst he peeped through the keyhole and whilst she complied at first – a man’s wife being his property and all – she eventually eloped with one of them. Continue reading “TV Review: The Scandalous Lady W”

Review: As You Like It, National Theatre

“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad”

For regular theatregoers, it can sometimes feel a bit hard to get excited about the umpteenth production of a play, so much so that I almost didn’t see the winning combination of the much-loved Blanche McIntyre and Michelle Terry until the very end of their run at the Globe this summer. So the news that Polly Findlay was also tackling As You Like It for the National was tempered a little (though it is the first time in 30 years it has played there) but as Rosalind was announced (Rosalie Craig poached from the cast of wonder.land to replace an indisposed Andrea Riseborough), the excitement began to build and the inevitable ticket was purchased and boy am I glad that I did. 

For the transformation of the set into the Forest of Arden is a moment of genuinely breath-taking theatre, Lizzie Clachan pulling the rug from under us and her design to create a most singular vision. And it is one in which enchantment slowly grows with sylvan sound effects created by company members onstage and a choir singing Orlando Gough’s contemporary and complex score (akin if alike to the one he composed for Bakkhai). There’s a lovely conceit in which Alan Williams’ Corins, nominally a shepherd but here more like a forest deity, summons the music every time love is needed to cast its spell, enhancing the magical feel. Continue reading “Review: As You Like It, National Theatre”

Review: The Audience, Apollo

“A good Labour woman…”

Not content with becoming a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year, Kristin Scott Thomas was also awarded an upgraded Légion d’honneur (from chevalier to officer to be precise) in what has become something of a banner year for her. She’s also completing the not-inconsiderable feat of stepping into Helen Mirren’s award-winning shoes as Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, whilst Dame Helen reprises the role and the award-winning on Broadway.

Morgan’s revival has updated the play a little from its first outing – Tony Blair is in, Jim Callaghan is out, the recent election gets its mention with a barbed Miliband joke, but essentially it remains the same non-confrontational easy-Sunday-evening –television style viewing. The parade of PMs mostly play off a sole predictable character note, the Queen gets an easy ride of it with a strange intimation of where her personal politics might lie, there’s not a dramatic surprise to be had in here nor anything truly arresting through all its luxuriousness. Continue reading “Review: The Audience, Apollo”

Review: Home, National Theatre

“You don’t know whether to go out and say something…or…or not”

Returning to the Shed after a successful run last year, Nadia Fall’s Home is a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, stitched together by an exciting company – many of whom have returned from the original cast – who guide us through the changing, complex world of Target East, a refuge for young homeless people in London. The centre may be fictional but the issues and incidents raised here are anything but.

The need for security, a place where they can feel protected, is common to all the residents here, some just passing through, others destined to stay a bit longer and the staff committed to their thankless tasks just as long as the funding holds out. Fall deliberately crashes narratives into each other, the chaos of life for many of these people reflected in the way their stories get told, echoes of similar experiences creeping through just as much as the stark differences. Continue reading “Review: Home, National Theatre”

Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre

“No-one has time for other people’s troubles in a city”

It’s a rare occasion that I get to go to the theatre not knowing anything about a show in advance and so when the opportunity comes, it makes for a nice change. And in this case a huge surprise as Emil and the Detectives turned out to be a show with a cast full of kids! I now know that Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel is a much beloved children’s classic, though it never found a home on my bookshelf, and adapted here by Carl Miller, the tale of smalltown boy Emil going on a life-changing journey through the scary metropolis of Berlin and finding an unexpected solidarity with an army of street kids – the Detectives – is a solid entry in the National’s roster of family shows.

On the face of it, Bijan Sheibani seems an odd choice of director, an undoubtedly patchy track record leaving huge question marks but the National’s faith has been largely repaid here with a mercifully flaming skeleton-free production. Bunny Christie’s set design is a glorious masterpiece, using Constructivist angles and a stark spareness to allow for a range of different atmospheres and locations to be evoked, and the collaboration with Sheibani really pays off in key moments when the simplest solution is often used to great effect. Lucy Carter’s precise lighting comes into play in ingenious chase scenes with Ian Dickinson’s sound adding suitably creepy notes. Continue reading “Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre”

Review: The Doctor’s Dilemma, National Theatre

“Cure guaranteed”

George Bernard Shaw’s 1906 medical ethics drama The Doctor’s Dilemma had a lot to live up to as the last time I was in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre was for the superlative The Last of the Haussmans, one of my favourite plays of the year so far, but though it didn’t quite scale those heights for me, it did emerge as a most satisfying night at the theatre. Shaw’s play centres on the newly ennobled Sir Colenso Ridgeon, a doctor who has discovered a new cure for tuberculosis but only has limited space on his trial. When the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat pleads for the inclusion of her talented artist husband, he is torn as his penniless colleague Dr Blenkinsop is also suffering from the disease and so Ridgeon and his colleagues gather to assess and discuss who is the worthier candidate for treatment.

Peter McKintosh’s set design is an effective triumph and ingenious to the extent that it garnered a round of applause at one point (although it will be slightly less surprising to those that saw this play). It possesses the requisite austere grandeur in all its incarnations of artists’ garrets, Richmond eateries, Bond Street art galleries and Harley Street salons into which Nadia Fall places her talented cast. Genevieve O’Reilly brings a stunning self-possessed statuesque dignity to Jennifer, almost too reserved until the devastating turbulence of the final act reveals all she has been concealing, Tom Burke dances across the stage with a quicksilver lightness as the manipulative Dubedat whose artistic talent has to be weighed against his problematic morals and Aden Gillett (who should always wear a full beard, always) is magnificent as Sir Colenso, pondering the titular dilemma with an aptly detached manner as befits his finely aristocratic bearing. Continue reading “Review: The Doctor’s Dilemma, National Theatre”