TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12

Series 12 of Doctor Who goes hard on what we think we know about the Time Lord and finishes in a blaze of glory

“You can be a pacifist tomorrow. Today you just need to survive”

I don’t think I have ever minded anything that happened in Doctor Who so much that I have declared it cancelled, even at the point where all the magnificent character development by Catherine Tate’s Donna was undone in a plot point of real cruelty. So it is hard to take so-called fans of the show seriously when torrents of complaints are unleashed about the sanctity of a world of science fiction that has long enjoyed challenging and expanding what we know about characters we love. (See my Episode 1 review here.)

So it should come as little surprise that I really rather enjoyed series 12 of Doctor Who. Across the season as a whole, I felt that Jodie Whittaker has settled more into the role, especially as the writers feel more confident in finding her voice. And the balancing act of having three companions in the TARDIS has been more assured now that the business of introducing them is over, allowing the group to splinter off for large chunks of episodes has allowed much more of their characters to shine through, particularly for Mandip Gill’s Yaz (who I am mightily glad survived that final episode – I thought she was doomed after her chat with Graham). Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12”

10 of my top moments of the decade

Ever behind the curve, I present 10 of my top moments in a theatre over the last ten years (plus a few bonus extra ones because whittling down this list was hard, and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway!)

© James Bellorini

Extraordinary Public Acts for a National Theatre

The establishment of the Public Acts programme at the National Theatre offered up something sensational in Pericles, an initiative designed to connect grassroot community organisations with major theatres, resulting in a production that swept over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier to create something that moved me more than 99% of professional productions.  A truly joyous and momentous occasion. 

Honourable mention: this year’s musical take on As You Like It proved just as heart-swellingly beautiful over at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Continue reading “10 of my top moments of the decade”

Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida

“Give me the history of the Congo in four and a half minutes”

There’s an ingenious moment in the middle of They Drink It In The Congo when a PR guy has to step in for an ailing colleague at an imminent press conference and utters the line above. The answer he gets exposes not only the vast complexity of the socio-political issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo but also the way in which Westerners seek to reduce them to manageable soundbites so that they can be dismissed as problems easily solved

Which in a nutshell is the key issue at the heart of Adam Brace’s new play for the Almeida. Aware of the impossibility of doing Congolese history justice in a couple of hours, he approaches the issue from an alternative angle, the impossibility of “doing something good about something bad”. Daughter of a white Kenyan farmer, Stef now works for a London NGO and is excited to be given the opportunity to organise ‘Congo Voice’, a new arts festival raising awareness of the issues there. Continue reading “Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida”

Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”

With London audiences pondering The Hard Question and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.

As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene. Continue reading “Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley”

Review: Tonight at 8.30 – Dancing, Richmond Theatre

“But if at last we’re able to smile
We’ll prove it was all worth while”
 
And what would you know, they saved for the best for last. It wasn’t just the end of 10 hours in a theatre that made me happy, I really did prefer this final part of Tonight at 8.30.
 

Dancing
Family Portrait, Hands Across The Sea and Shadow Play

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Review: Tonight at 8.30 – Dinner, Richmond Theatre

“This can’t last. This misery can’t last….Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness or despair”

Seeing the three parts of Tonight at 8.30 on the same day left me shattered so I am ducking out of full reviews for them and just ranking them in order of preference.

Dinner
Ways and Means, Fumed Oak, and Still Life

Silver medal for Dinner – Still Life (better known as the inspiration for Brief Encounter) is among the highlights of the whole thing but Fumed Oak is one of the weakest with its gender politics too much of its time.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Review: Tonight at 8.30 – Cocktails, Richmond Theatre

 “We’re not tight and we’re not too bright “

Boxset viewing in now de rigueur in the Netflix age so it is only natural that theatre should follow suit. The 3 James plays at the National can be (and will be) viewed on the same day and so too can the three parts of Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.30, touring the UK after a run at the Nuffield. Blanche McIntyre’s production for ETT can also be seen in three separate chunks but the impact of the triple bill really helps the 9 plays feed off of each other and highlight the strength of the ensemble (and also pull you through the dips in quality that inevitably come with so much writing from one author).

Cocktails
We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart and Red Peppers

Probably gets the bronze medal as my least favourite of the three parts.

Running time: 2 hours
Booking until 14th June, then touring to Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Cambridge Arts, Theatre Royal Brighton and Hall for Cornwall in Truro
Photo: Mark Douet

Review: The Precariat, Finborough

“You’re tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system”

The plays that end up in the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough have to ride the luck of the draw when it comes to the sets upon which they have to perch, borrowing space as they do from the main show. And for Chris Dunkley’s new play The Precariat, the garishness of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi’s set has actually worked well here for in having to cover it up with dark drapes, much of design consultant James Turner’s work is then done. It forms the ideal backdrop for the sparse bits of battered furniture and the array of video screens that litter the intimate space in which this tale of a teenage North Londoner trying to find his place in a world decimated by the financial crisis.

Fin is a 15 year old schoolboy and is clearly a bright boy but the road ahead is far from clear. His mother is depressed and disconnected, his younger brother has fallen in with a bad crowd and has started taking drugs and his petty criminal father is barely on the scene. And in a Tottenham still recovering from the seismic shock of the 2011 riots, Fin only sees opportunities shrinking away for him and his brother alike, both in terms of the lack of decent jobs in the immediate future and with the long-term prospects in a society that has been irrevocably broken.  


Dunkley is a writer I’ve come to admire (I made my first ever trip to Southampton to see his Smallholding) with a gift for combining powerfully intimate stories with a wider social context, and it is a similar model that he employs here. Sharply observed dialogue captures a visceral sense of how disaffected this world is – Kirsty Besterman is blistering as Bethan, the very epitome of parental dysfunction as she invites her feckless ex over, ostensibly to reconnect with his sons but really just to have a quickie in the flat – and as the dynamics of the family shift with desperation and darkness creeping in from all sides, there’s a pungently compelling depiction of the seemingly inescapable trap that social, economic and cultural deprivation creates.


What works less well is the attempts to locate this drama in the big picture, the proselytising and prophesising about the evils of capitalism and damage that will be consequently wreaked on the world doesn’t ever feel that natural, not least coming out of the mouth of a 15 year old. These references to the wider world feel shoehorned in and though Scott Chambers is superbly naturalistic as the troubled adolescent Fin, he struggles to make such erudition feel genuinely real.


Part of this also comes from a delivery of the North London patois which I personally found near-impossible to decipher at times. It sounds incredibly authentic but so much of his dialogue was swallowed up that I was left grateful for the playtext. Likewise with the sound effects for some of the supporting characters’ voices– drug lord Balthazar is superbly and creepily portrayed through video alone and Fin’s one ray of light is the friendly voice on the other end of the drive-thru intercom who we only ever hear – Chris New’s direction perhaps erred on the side of atmosphere rather than clarity, this was a rare time that my deafness really impacted on being able to fully comprehend a play in such a small theatre.


But New’s use of the video screens is frequently witty and inspired, always feeling an integral part of the production rather than something bolted-on for effect, and he navigates the quicksilver shifts in tone well, balancing the grimness with an everyday levity, reminding us that lives like these are being lived all around us and are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Perhaps the play could have done with a little more ambiguity in its political arguments to create an intellectual debate to match the physical drama, but this still remains an ambitious attempt at capturing something of the modern malaise that is blighting so much of our disaffected youth. 


Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 30th July

Review: The School for Scandal, Park Theatre

“I bear no malice to the people I abuse”

Sparkling reinterpretations of 18th century comedies have become something of an annual treat from Jessica Swale’s Red Handed Theatre company and following on from the delights of the Celia Imrie-starring The Rivals, the remounting of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem and last year’s excellent The Busy Body, it is now the turn of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal to be primped and preened in their deliciously inimitable style. So for those as yet uninitiated to their ways, prepare for witty musical interludes and warmly embracing audience interaction as a vivacious ensemble romp through this comedy of manners.

Led by the machinations of the vicious-tongued Lady Sneerwell – Belinda Lang in epically glam form – Sheridan’s plot winds through a portion of the higher echelons of London society and exposes the gossip-fuelled hypocrisy at the heart of it. Lady Sneerwell wants others to suffer the loss of reputation she has; Sir Peter Teazle is concerned about the flightiness of his flirtatious younger wife; Sir Oliver Surface wants to test the mettle of his two nephews who stand to inherit his vast fortune; and above all, everyone wants to be the first to tell the juiciest pieces of gossip with the most salacious details.

It is these scenes which glitter the best – Michael Bryher’s Sir Benjamin Backbite and Buffy Davis’ Mrs Candour delight in outdoing each other with the latest tidbits and Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Teazle gives as good as she gets, even as she sees the effect of the ridicule on her husband, a battered if not quite elderly enough Daniel Gosling. But there’s much fun too with the errant nephews. Harry Kerr’s ruffled and raffish Charles can’t hide his innate goodness even at the heights of his carousing, and Tom Berish’s Joseph is just excellent as the seductively handsome one that everyone likes, little suspecting his most devious nature.    

The production is always light-hearted and fun – a trick with a book is particularly well played, the programme is a work of genius and Fi Russell’s costumes are a bejewelled array of lush fabric – but there’s also a sureness to Swale’s direction as she constantly refines and sharpens her approach. Laura Forrest-Hay once again contributes original music rather than pastiches of pop songs, the portrait gallery ditty and the raucous lark in the park number add to the general feel of a delightful romp, unafraid to play it to the back of the (admittedly intimate) Park Theatre but crucially never takes itself too seriously.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 7th July


Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Playhouse Creatures, Theatre on the Fly

“One can go a long way in the theatre with an open mouth”

The pop-up space created on the grounds of Chichester Festival Theatre to help celebrate its 50th anniversary is a curious thing, Named Theatre on the Fly and constructed solely from recycled material, its rough edges and unreserved bench seating speaks of its temporary nature but the introduction of a fully operational fly tower, whose machinery is laid bare for all to see, has a certain elegance about it. And it forms the ideal backdrop for April De Angelis’ play Playhouse Creatures which is set in, and backstage at, a seventeenth century theatre.

Specifically, it takes place during the Restoration. Puritanism has ended and the theatres reopened and for the first time, women are allowed on the stage. But as we follow a group of pioneering actresses in a working company, we see the struggles, compromises and stark realities they are faced with, in this exceedingly hard-hitting environment which they bear variously with grace, bawdiness, calculated drive and an ultimate equanimity that this is a tough world for a woman. Continue reading “Review: Playhouse Creatures, Theatre on the Fly”