Review: The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call, National Theatre

Any opportunity to see Lesley Manville on stage should be taken but The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call proves close to a trial at the National Theatre

“We’re alive now only in the sense that moss and lichen are alive”

There’s no two ways about it – Tony Kushner’s new version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call is a punishing evening on the buttocks. Thank the Lord (or the donors) for the relative comfort of the seating at the National Theatre but unless you’re a fan of Lesley Manville (and what right-thinking individual isn’t), it could well prove punishing on your patience too. 

Manville really is superb. She’s Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world who has returned to her dilapidated hometown with an intriguing proposition for the townsfolk. She’ll donate an incredible, life-changing amount of money for everyone if they’ll carry out a brutal act of vengeance on the man whose actions forced her to leave the place as a pregnant teenager. And she rises to the challenge, displaying a mesmerising stage presence that is startling in its power. Continue reading “Review: The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call, National Theatre”

Review: Macbeth, National Theatre

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, Beatrice Scirocchi as Witch and Anna-Maria Nabirye as Witch in Macbeth at the National Theatre (c) Brinkhoff Mögenburg 1002-1006

A whole lot of post-apocalyptic hurly-burly and sadly not much more besides – the National Theatre’s Macbeth really is something of a red-trousered disappointment 

“You have displaced the mirth”

Brexit has ruined Britain. The war of the Scottish Secession has laid ruin to much of the land north of Hadrian’s Wall. The lawless society that has resulted is a place where people once again use plastic bags willy-nilly (for tidying up after beheadings, as party hats – take your pick), where no-one has a mobile phone (presumably because roaming charges have been re-introduced), where the Look at my fucking red trousers meme has translated into despotic rule.

Such is the world of Rufus Norris’ Macbeth which is set ‘now, after a civil war’, hence my slight embellishment of said setting. I should add that I thought of much of this while watching the production, an indication of the level of engagement that it managed to exert. It wasn’t always thus – a bloody prologue is viscerally and effectively done and the entrance of the witches has a genuine chill to its strangeness. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, National Theatre”

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble. Continue reading “Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 2

A quick whip through Series 2 of The Crown

“History is not made by those who did nothing”

Do I still love The Crown? Yes. Do I still find it a little hard to muster enthusiasm about it until I’m watching it. Absolutely. It remains lavish prestige drama that carries little excitement about it and that’s perhaps inevitable as it trundles through the decades of the second half of the twentieth century, little dramatic surprise can really be sprung.

Instead, the thrills come from the script of Peter Morgan’s fantasia into the emotional life of our monarch, and a production that looks like the multi-millions of dollars that have been spent on it. Oh, and the cream of British acting talent popping in for a scene or two at an astonishingly high rate. Continue reading “TV Review: The Crown, Series 2”

Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I would you were as I would have you be”

Emma Rice’s Summer of Love got off to a slightly sticky start at the Globe with a mystifying take on Romeo and Juliet from Daniel Kramer and as we move onto Twelfth Night, which she is directing herself, there’s a similarly uncompromising attitude in place. For the production reminded me nothing so much as a camp episode of Monarch of the Glen (sadly not Monarch of the Glum) and whilst it is often fun to watch, it’s not always the most effective treatment.

Rice’s iconoclastic approach is there from the get-go – a prologue set onboard the SS Unity before its shipwreck sees the company dancing merrily to Sister Sledge. And once in this decidedly Celtic Illyria, Orsino has a Lionel Richie mullet, Andrew Aguecheek is a would-be b-boy, serenades are played on cassette decks…why we’re in 1979, as good a time as any to explore cross-dressing hijinks of gender exploration.  Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Imogen, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Is there no way for men to be, but women must be half-workers?”

Whichever way you cut it, I still find that Cymbeline is a tough play to love and it’s not for a lack of trying on my part. I struggled with it at the Sam Wanamaker earlier this year and I’ll be trying out the RSC’s version once it hits the Barbican later this month. As for now, it’s Matthew Dunster’s turn to have a go at the play, this time outside at the Globe and in keeping with the new regime, the play has been “renamed and reclaimed” as Imogen, as befits the part of Cymbeline’s daughter who has in fact twice as many lines.

Even with Maddy Hill (an unexpectedly moving Titania, among others, in Go People’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in the title role and a wonderfully diverse ensemble incorporating a signing deaf actor among others, Imogen remained difficult. For all the contemporary gangland setting (Jonathan McGuinness’ king is now a drug lord), Imogen’s o’er-hasty marriage to the feckless Posthumus (a good Ira Mandela Siobhan) and subsequent devotion to him even as he proves himself to be a righteous cock doesn’t quite fly. That said, the energy in the show is one that proves largely irresistible as sexy shenanigans, modern sounds, and kick-ass choreo combine to memorable effect. Continue reading “Review: Imogen, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Album Review: From Here To Eternity (2014 Live Cast Recording)

“All along knowing that no-one has returned to care”

Barely managing six months in the West End in 2013/4, I think it’s fair to say the musical adaptation of From Here to Eternity underwhelmed. And though I was reasonably fair to it at the time, I can’t say that it has aged well, upon returning the live cast recording that was made before the final curtain fell, blame seeming to fall evenly between composer Stuart Brayson, lyricist Tim Rice and book writer Bill Oakes. 

And with weaknesses on all sides like this, very much exposed in the medium of record, it’s not too hard to see why the show didn’t achieve anywhere near the levels of success it was aiming for. There’s so little sense of the main thrust of the story coming through, or indeed any of the strands put forward being sufficiently developed, to make you care about any of the relationships or the plight of the men. Continue reading “Album Review: From Here To Eternity (2014 Live Cast Recording)”

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. 

The material has been considerably reshaped for the screen – Moira Buffini assisting as script consultant – resulting in a much more straight-forward narrative through-line than was seen on stage. This linear development is reflected in Danny Cohen’s cinematography which tracks the wintry gloom of the beginning into the verdant bloom of the climax with a real visual grace. Straightening out the storytelling reduces the theatricality of the presentation too, making this feel much more like a piece of documentary realism.

Where the stage show had a cast of eleven each playing a resident and multiple other roles, each character is played by someone different here, meaning the focus is teased out a little from the tight circle of the London Road residents and their outrage about their street turning into a red light district, to give a more fully realised sense of the wider community. They consequently get more of their own voice heard – the nervy teenagers suspecting everyone around them, the sex workers shaken up by the attacks on their own, the journalists tiptoeing around the sensitivity of the issue whilst always on the lookout for a scoop. 

The experience of the residents does remain central to the film though, Blythe digging back into her archive of interviews to find ways of ensuring at least of them appears in every scene and Cork rejigging the score where necessary too. And this is where the writing is at its strongest, in always showing the complexity of the collective response. Though the story moves towards a happy(ish) ending with the London Road in Bloom street party as the culmination of their efforts, there’s no pretence that a solution to the inherent problems has been found, they’ve just been moved away from their doorstep. 

This ambiguity comes across particularly well in characters like Olivia Colman’s Julie and Nick Holder’s Ron, barely apologetic in their unspeakable thoughts yet rooted in small-town authenticity. Paul Thornley’s inscrutable Dodge, Linzi Hateley’s pragmatic Helen and Clare Burt’s dithering Sue remain a delight, Anita Dobson is daffily wonderful as June, Michael Shaeffer and Rosalie Craig’s journalists both stand out and the original Julie, Kate Fleetwood, plays the new role of Vicky, a haunting figure representing the spirit and presence of the working girls, both alive and dead. 

And delving a little deeper, clever little touches abound in the production. The two schoolgirls singing ‘It Could Be Him’ (see clip below) are the daughters of Burt (Eloise Laurence) and Hateley (Meg Hateley Suddaby); Blythe and Cork both get cameos as a newsreader and a pianist respectively; and the final street party mixes real residents of both the real London Road in Ipswich and the fictional one in Bexley in with an ensemble that folds in any number of faces that seasoned theatregoers might recognise.

Elements of choreography by Javier De Frutos are used sparingly but most effectively to sprinkle pathos or humour into sequences as required, David Shrubsole’s sharp musical direction keeps the singing (nearly all done live) on point, and Norris’ direction constantly takes on inventive new directions to expertly but sensitively reshape the material for this new medium. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come to this film without prior experience of the show (and I’d be fascinated to hear from you if that’s you) but as a fan, it is undoubtedly a beautiful extension to one of the most innovative musical theatre experiences of the last decade.

Full cast list

Julie – Olivia Colman
Sue – Clare Burt
Kelly McCormack – Rosalie Craig
June – Anita Dobson
Seb – James Doherty
Vicky – Kate Fleetwood
David Crabtree – Hal Fowler
Helen – Linzi Hateley
Tim – Paul Hilton
Ron – Nick Holder
Councillor Carole – Claire Moore
Simon Newton – Michael Shaeffer
Rosemary – Nicola Sloane
Dodge – Paul Thornley
Terry – Howard Ward
Gordon – Duncan Wisbey
Mark – Tom Hardy
Hayley – Rosie Hilal
Natalie – Amy Griffiths
Colette McBeth – Gillian Bevan
Jessica – Anna Hale
Schoolgirl 1 – Eloise Laurence
Schoolgirl 2 – Meg Hateley Suddaby
Kath – Angela Bain
Margaret – Jenny Galloway
Alan – Sean Kingsley
Imelda – Jayne McKenna
Jason – Richard Frame
BBC Newsreader – Alecky Blythe
Grahame Cooper – Mark Lockyer
Harry – Barry McCarthy
Shop Assistant – Abigail Rose
Evening Star Girl – Maggie Service
Radio Techy – Alexia Khadime
Radio DJ – Dean Nolan
Stephanie – Ruby Holder
Alec – Calvin Demba
Stella – Helena Lymbery
Wayne – Mark Sheals
Graeme – Morgan Walters
Ivy – Janet Henfrey
Steve Cameraman – Jonathan Glew
Chris Eakin – Jason Barnett
Policeman – Andrew Frame
Anglia Newsreader – Rae Baker
 
Ensemble
Abby Rose Bryant, Adam Dutton, Adam Vaughan, Alan Vicary, Alicia Woodhouse, Alistair Parker, Amanda Minihan, Ameer Choudrie, Andrew Spillett, Andy Couchman, Anita Booth, Annette Yeo, Audrey Ardington, Barnaby Griffin, Basienka Blakes, Bob Harms, Carl Patrick, Carly Blackburn, Carol Been, Cassandra Foster, Charlotte Broom, Chloe Bingham, Chris Akrill, Clare Humphrey, Clemmie Sveaas, Connor Dowling, Coral Messam, Corinna Powlesland, Cornelia Colman, Courtney Crawford, Cris Penfold, Cris Snelson, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Daisy Maywood, Daniella Bowen, David Birch, David Stroller, Debra Baker, Don Gallagher, Edward Baruwa, Elaine Kennedy, Eleanor Clark, Ella Vale, Ellis Rose Rother, Emily Bull, Emma Brunton, Eva Lamb, Faye Stoeser, Frank Stone, Gary Forbes, Graham Hoadly, Haruka Kuroda, Hayley Gallivan, Helen Colby, Hendrick January, Ian Conningham, Ilana Johnston, Ilse Johnston, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Jack Edwards, Jackie Marks, James Ballanger, Jess Ellen, John Brannoch, Johnathan Fee, Jon Ponting, Joshua Lacey, Judith Paris, Julie Armstrong, Karianne Andreassen, Kayleigh Clayton, Laura Cubitt, Leah Ellis, Leah Georges, Leanna Wiggington, Lee Nicholas Harris, Linda Lewcock, Louis Fonseca, Louise Lee, Lucinda Shaw, Luke Fetherston, Lynne Wilmot, Marc Antolin, Margarita Reeve, Melanie La Barrie, Michael Fox, Michelle Wen Lee, Miles Mlambo, Miroslav Zaruba, Morgan Crowley, Natalie Victoria Dungan, Nathan Amzi, Nathan Harmer, Nathan Rigg, Nicholas Marshall, Oliver Roll, Paul Blackwell, Paul Bullion, Paul Shea, Perry Moore, Pete Meads, Philip Howard, Rachel Ann Davies, Rajesh Kalhan, Rebecca Scarott, Rebecca Sutherland, Rebecca Thomas, Reuben Williams, Rob Smithson, Sarah Heyward, Sarah Stanley, Sidney Livingstone, Simon Fee, Simon Humphrey, Stephanie Natufe, Stephen Webb, Steve Carroll, Steve Elias, Stuart Angell, Susan Fay, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Tim Coldron, Tom Lyle Severn, Tomos James, Tony Pankhurst, Tony Timberlake, William Rossiter, Yinka Williams, Zoe Uffindell
 
Additional Choral ADR Group
Bethan Nash, Callum McIntyre, Daisy Maywood, Edward MacArthur, George Ikediashi, Hannah Genesius, Patrick Tolan, Perry Moore, Steve Rostance, Toby Webster,   

 

Review: Everyman, National Theatre

“It seems every man has had enough of me”

Starting quite literally with the Fall of Man, Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary verse adaptation of medieval morality play Everyman sees Rufus Norris direct his first production since taking up the reins of Artistic Director at the National Theatre and finds him in a rather provocative mood. Through 100 minutes of boldly imagined drama, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of grabbing this institution by the lapels and giving it a good old shake. Not so much in establishing a definitive vision for the future per se but more in establishing just how wide its parameters will be. 

Norris and designer Ian MacNeil work cleverly within the constraints of the Travelex budget to provide impactful moments with – variously – Tal Rosner’s video wall, a powerful wind machine, William Lyons’ music which combines shawms with Sharon D Clarke most effectively and bags of rubbish. Javier De Frutos makes a significant contribution too as choreographer and movement director, the wordless opening sequence of a coke-and-Donna-Summer-fuelled birthday party makes for a bold beginning. Continue reading “Review: Everyman, National Theatre”