Review: Fathers and Sons, Donmar Warehouse

“I share no-one’s ideas, I have my own”

Another day, another tale of people languishing in the dying embers of Imperial Russia, but Fathers and Sons – Brian Friel’s 1987 adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel – has something special about it, which makes it truly stand out from the crowd. Much of this has to do with Lyndsey Turner’s sterling production for the Donmar, her gift for marshalling large ensembles to the absolute best of their abilities coming to the fore once again and smoothing over any potential weaknesses in the play itself.

Pace sometimes flags, with narrative description dominating a little too much in the second act and too many characters for them to all to really register. But such caveats pale in the face of performances like these – Joshua James’ would-be revolutionary Arkady and Anthony Calf as his hapless father, Seth Numrich’s more radical Bazarov and his own father played beautifully by Karl Johnson, Susan Engel’s vividly drawn Princess, Tim McMullan’s hilarious fop of an uncle, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th July

Radio Review: The Oresteia – Agamemnon / The Brick

“Things…have consequences”

Our enduring fascination with the Greek tragedies continues with this three-part adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia which sees three writers create contemporary reworkings for radio, starting with Simon Scardifield’s take on Agamemnon. It’s a cracking version, featuring a brilliantly conceived three person Chorus who merge almost seamlessly into the narrative – they pass comment and provide rich detail as per usual, but feeling so much a part of the fabric of this version of Argos makes their storytelling truly integral to the work.

Elsewhere, the story follows the familiar laugh-a-minute path of Aeschylus. After taking a decade to conquer Troy, Agamemnon (Hugo Speer) returns victorious to Argos with a new concubine the prophetess Cassandra (the mellifluous Anamaria Marinca) in tow. But far from happy to see him, his wife Clytemnestra (a calculatedly fierce Lesley Sharp) has long been plotting revenge on him as he sacrificed their eldest daughter Iphigenia on divine orders. It is bloody, brutal stuff and little is spared in this effective retelling.  Continue reading “Radio Review: The Oresteia – Agamemnon / The Brick”

Short Film Review #28

A curious little thing this. Written and directed by Alnoor Dewshi, 77 Beds features Ben Whishaw as Ismael, a young man having problems sleeping who decides to count things to try and get to the land of nod. But instead of sheep, he counts the number of beds he has slept in, and so follows a kind of patchwork personal history, snippets of his life, his friends, his family, appear in brief recollections of significant events and the beds that accompanied them. It’s intriguing but never really develops into something compelling, though it is always good to see Ben Whishaw, his angular youth a powerful central presence. 

Continue reading “Short Film Review #28”

DVD Review: Small Island

“This island is too small if you have big dreams”

Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island was inescapable at the time, it seemed like everyone I knew had read and loved it but though it went on to win prizes, I wasn’t as big a fan of most of it. That said, I did love much of this television adaptation in 2009 which came just after Ruth Wilson’s superlative turn in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire as I began to realise how special an actress she really was. The story focuses on the experiences of two women – Queenie Bligh and Hortense Roberts – as the economic and social impact of World War Two ripples out through London and Jamaica.

Naomie Harris’ Hortense is a young Jamaican woman with heady dreams of becoming a teacher in what she sees as the idyllic land of England yet is devastated to find the gloominess of reality, alleviated only once she meets a man called Gilbert; and Ruth Wilson’s Queenie is a working class Yorkshirewoman who moves to London to escape the family farm but with little real prospects. When her job falls through, she accepts the marriage proposal of the attentive Bernard Bligh – Benedict Cumberbatch in full-on English mode – to avoid having to move back but when he leaves for WWII, huge changes are set in motion for all concerned. Continue reading “DVD Review: Small Island”

Radio Review: Second Body + Art and Gadg, Radio 4

“Be careful Anna, of the dark forces of the human mind”

I knew I liked Tara Fitzgerald’s voice, but I hadn’t realised I loved it. Listening to the radio play Second Body that featured her in a starring role was a genuine auditory pleasure which made me want to track down illegal ways of recording it off the iPlayer so that I could listen to it over again. Trevor Preston’s swirlingly dark drama centres on Fitzgerald’s Anna, a successful artist but one driven by haunting and disturbing visions and as she seeks to put together some of her work for a big new exhibition, a worrying prophecy of a death stalks her subconscious.

Toby Swift’s production brings a wonderfully surreal quality to Anna’s experiences, full of textured sound effects and evocative atmosphere, and so as the stuff of her dreams starts to invade her waking life, we’re never quite sure how real any of it is – whether she is possessed of some supernatural gift or if actually, her artistic temperament masks some signs of mental illness. Fitzgerald’s honeyed tones constantly keep us guessing as her voice glides like velvet through the twists and turns as friends, agents and colleagues gather round to try and guide her through these troubled times.  Continue reading “Radio Review: Second Body + Art and Gadg, Radio 4”

Re-review: Noises Off, Novello Theatre

“Once it gets in your nostrils, the smell of it never leaves”

One of the most unexpected things that happened to me in a theatre last year was me tumbling utterly for the charms of Noises Off. As detailed in my review from then, I’m really not a fan of farce but Michael Frayn’s play is so much more than what I’ve come to associate with the genre. Intelligently written in its deconstruction of it but still imbued with an affectionate warmth that shines through as this touring theatre company of misfits struggle across the country with a stuttering show which increasingly disintegrates as their shenanigans threaten to derail the whole shebang.

The show has transferred from its sell-out run at the Old Vic to the Novello Theatre where it will play til the end of June, and rather impressively it has managed to hang on to a large proportion of its cast. So one can still experience the glorious turns from Celia Imrie, Janie Dee, Karl Johnson et al and if anything, their performances have become richer in their perfectly timed interactions and comic desperation. The two new arrivals – Alice Bailey Johnson and Lucy Briggs-Owen – have slotted in extremely well. Bailey Johnson’s wailing ASM is good in a rather limited role but Brigg-Owen is excellent as the blank-eyed Brooke whose limitations are exposed as often as her contact lenses fall out. Continue reading “Re-review: Noises Off, Novello Theatre”

Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea

“Hester, what have they done to you?”

2011 marked the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan and theatres across the country have paid their tribute to this oft-neglected playwright with a range of productions which have arguably pulled him back into fashion. London saw Flare Path and Cause Célèbre amongst others, Chichester devoted much of their season to his work, commissioning two new dramatic responses to his plays as well as South Downs (alongside The Browning Version) and Rattigan’s Nijinsky. But perhaps one of his greatest works is The Deep Blue Sea, of which I have seen two productions this year – one in Leeds with Maxine Peake and the other with Amanda Root in Chichester. And it is this play that has received the silver screen treatment in a film version by Terence Davies.

Davies has definitely taken the adage quality over quantity to heart – having produced just 4 dramatic feature films in a career that began in the mid-70s – but one of those is the Gillian Anderson starring The House of Mirth which is one of my all-time favourite films so I was intrigued to see what he had made of this story, of which I have grown uncommonly fond. Too fond as it turned out, because I was completely unable to judge the film as its own artistic entity and found myself constantly referring back to how it was differing from the play. Continue reading “Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea”

Review: Noises Off, Old Vic

“Oh God, I can’t believe we’re opening tomorrow”

Sondheim once posed the question “Don’t you love farce?” which given the name of this blog is rather apt for me, and I can safely say that it is not a genre of which I have proven fond. I’ve given it several tries but I really wasn’t a fan at all of A Flea In Her Ear, Once Bitten or One Man Two Guvnors, though the Orange Tree’s Three Farces did hint at the possibilities within the form that I did actually find funny. Billington reckoned in his last review of One Man Two Guvnors that one “would had to have had a humour by-pass not to enjoy it” which seems a bit harsh – I’m not against people finding farce funny but senses of humour are individual and so different things make different people laugh.

So you’d be quite right to think there was little chance of me going to see Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, the Old Vic having apparently decided that farce is their Christmas go-to. But I’m a theatre addict, and I love Celia Imrie, so I plonked down £20 for a restricted view seat (which happened to have several empty seats next to it, which I would never recommend that you could sneakily upgrade yourself to…) and gritted my teeth in readiness. Continue reading “Review: Noises Off, Old Vic”

Re-review: Frankenstein, National Theatre

“Why did you make me?”

Perhaps one of the less-successful decisions I have made this year was to revisit Frankenstein at the National Theatre. There was a number of reasons: the opportunity to see Jonny Lee Miller take on the role of the Creature and directly compare and contrast him with Benedict Cumberbatch; it was the final performance of the run; it was actually the third time I had a pair of tickets to see the windy Miller – I’d passed on the other tickets to more receptive friends but given one last chance, I ended up biting the bullet in the spirit of perhaps finding something new in the production.

For I did see it much earlier in the run, you can read the review here, and I found it a most problematic play. And my opinion of it still holds firm after a second viewing, I find it simply astounding how forgiving the official reviews were of this show. For sure, the production values are at times sensational and a welcome shot in the arm for National Theatre stagings which will hopefully inspire more creativity in future productions. But the play itself is so terribly weak that to close one’s eyes to its many problems feels like an absolute crime and try as I might, I could not ignore them and try to focus on having a ‘good time’ as my companion attempted to admonish me. Continue reading “Re-review: Frankenstein, National Theatre”

Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre

“Please do not be inconsistent, I find it infuriating”

Perhaps the first big theatre ‘event’ of the year is the National Theatre’s Frankenstein which has taken the step of cross-casting its two main parts, so on different nights one can see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. The play is a new work by Nick Dear although based on Mary Shelley’s famous novel and features the National Theatre directorial debut of Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The programme of who is playing whom has now been published, although the run is currently sold out, but the previews remained unallocated so it was a lucky dip as to who we would get when we went to see it: just to clarify, this is a review of a preview performance from Tuesday 8th February which I have kept in mind whilst blogging about this show.

There’s a highly atmospheric entrance into the Olivier, with a bell tolling and a strange looking pod revolving slowly around the stage. As the lights darkened to a womb-like red, a figure began to emerge from this pod and eventually a completely naked Benedict Cumberbatch broke free to be birthed into this cruel chamber. It is hard to see how this opening 15 or so minutes will be bettered this year, as a physical performance it is truly outstanding as he slowly becomes accustomed to the world through squinting eyes, stuttering sounds and a stumbling gait, controlled through a stunning light feature that hangs above the stage, protruding into the audience that flashes blindingly, radiating an intense heat too, as a highly effective warning device. It is a remarkably open sequence too, not just because he is in the nude, but because he is so free in his movements and the way in which he shows the fast-burgeoning intelligence of the Creature, in his reaction to his first dawn or the rain for instance: he really sets the marker for the rest of the play in creating this empathetic character who one can’t help but root for (the odd murder excepted of course). Continue reading “Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre”