Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9

“Time will tell, it always does”

Phew, the Doctor Who rewatch comes to an end with the most recent series, another that I hadn’t seen any of since it originally aired. And again it was one of highs and lows, a frustrating sense of pick and mix that never settles. So from the astonishing bravura of the (practically) solo performance in Heaven Sent to kid-friendly quirks of the sonic sunglasses and guitar playing, Capaldi took us from the sublime to the silly. Fortunately there was more of the former than the latter (although it is interesting that my memory had it the other way round).

Part of it comes down to knowing in advance how the hybrid arc plays out (disappointingly) and a little perspective makes Clara’s departure(s) a little less galling. This way, one can just enjoy the episodes for what they are, free from the weight of the attempted mythologising. The Doctor raging against the futility of war, the wisdom (or otherwise) of forgiveness, the repercussions of diving in to help others without thinking through the consequences…it is often excellent stuff. It’s also nice to see Who employ its first openly transgender actor (Bethany Black) and a deaf actor playing a deaf character (Sophie Stone). Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9”

Film Review: The Lady in the Van

“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”

It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.

This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life. Continue reading “Film Review: The Lady in the Van”

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe

“She is spherical – like a globe”

There’s something lovely about the exposure that director Blanche McIntyre is now receiving (see this interview, if not the comments) although some of us may have been aware of her talent for a wee while now. She now makes her directorial bow at the Globe with a nifty take on The Comedy of Errors. As two sets of identical twins rattle around an evocatively near-Eastern Ephesus, there’s a good deal of humour but cleverly there’s also an underlying tone of real pathos that McIntyre gradually brings to the fore.
Matthew Needham and Simon Harrison’s Antipholuses (Antipholi?) have a marked similarity that excuses Hattie Ladbury’s Adriana’s case of mistaken identity as she enthusiastically tries to iron out another rocky patch in her marriage and as their manservants, Brodie Ross and Jamie Wilkes make a fine pair of Dromios as their hapless helplessness in the face of much confusion allows for some of the funnier, slapstick-inflected moments of the production to come forth.
As is often the case at this venue, the comedy is broad, extremely so, but the usage of turkeys and octopi would surely put a smile on even the most churlish of faces, and there’s a delightful strangeness to the work of Stefan Adegbola as a mysterious Dr Pinch. And as the physical bluster eventually subsides, there’s a charming deal of affection that comes shining through in the end as the mayhem subsides, even if just for a moment.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 12th October

Review: Home, Arcola

“One works. One looks around. One meets people. But very little communication takes place”

An unexpected delight, David Storey’s much-celebrated but rarely performed Home proved to be something rather lovely in its strange way, almost anti-dramatic in its structure and conventions, but beautifully moving in its deliberate poetry and pitch-perfect performances. Amelia Sears’ production for SEArED reconfigures the smaller Arcola studio into the round and Naomi Dawson’s design is just beautiful, hinting at where we might be but carrying much of the ambiguity that is contained within the play itself.

We start with a gorgeous sequence between old hands Jack and Harry, bantering and chatting about the old days in a most fragmented way, lamenting the Britain of the past and delivering their old patter routines to while away the hours as if two old friends had just met up. But their reverie is shattered by the arrival of Kathleen and Marjorie as we soon realise that we’re actually in the grounds of a mental asylum, something confirmed by the final addition, the genuinely disturbed, and much younger, Alfred. Continue reading “Review: Home, Arcola”

Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre

“Why would I need to hurt myself?”

The scabrous humour of Bruce Norris’ last play Clybourne Park was a huge success seeing a West End transfer from the Royal Court and a clean sweep of drama awards on both sides of the Atlantic. He returns to the Royal Court very soon with The Low Road but the Gate Theatre has mounted a revival of his 2002 play Purple Heart. Set in an anonymous Midwestern city, a family struggles to rebuild their lives after the death of Gene, a soldier in the Vietnam War, the impact of such a terrible loss affecting his mother, his wife and his son in different ways.

Norris dissects the complexity of grief on the different members of this family with his customary excoriating insight, challenging what society deems to be the correct emotional responses with the unconventional Carla. Rejecting the conventional tropes of mourning, the generic platitudes and proffered casseroles from oppressively well-meaning neighbours, she lounges in her dressing gown, swigging as much booze as she can. But there’s little escape at home – her son Thor is acting out on his increasingly violent imagination and mother-in-law Grace is relentless with her forced good cheer barely masking a concern or propriety. It is takes the arrival of a stranger at the door, a veteran with his own agenda and a box of doughnuts, to really shake up the broken dynamic of this family. Continue reading “Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre”

Review: The December Man/L’homme de Décembre, Finborough

“Ordinary people aren’t expected to be heroes”

There are mini-seasons within seasons now at the Finborough and so the three Sunday/Monday slots of the women playwrights programme, In Their Place, are being used to introduce the work of Canadian writer Colleen Murphy: the first of these is The December Man or L’homme de Décembre. Wanting to commemorate the horrifically tragic events of a massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989 where a gunman killed fourteen women for being ‘feminists’ but not be guilty of exploiting it, Murphy shifts her focus onto what might have happened to those that survived the attack and the ongoing consequences it has on their lives.

The play centres on the Fournier family: Jean, a man ordered out of the room before the massacre began and his working-class parents, Benoît and Kathleen, who struggle to deal with their son’s survivor guilt and the destructive impact it is having on his psyche and on the family as a whole as well. And to further deflect attention from the event itself, the story is told in reverse chronology, starting with shocking events in March 1992 and working backwards to 1989 to reveal just how we’ve arrived at these final actions.

Powerfully persuasive performances from all three actors means that this is never a dull evening, but choosing this format means that any sense of mystery about why things have happened is resolved by about the third scene and so from then on we know the whole story of what is going to happen, in reverse of course, but even then, there are scenes which seemed to do little but further establish the mood rather than revealing anything. Where the problem really lies is in not delving deep enough into the psychological motivations of the characters to give us at least some clue of why they are driven to such extremes. Keeping the actual events at L’École Polytechnique at arms length promises a universality of experience which is somewhat undone by the unexplained responses here.

Matthew Hendrickson’s grizzled father, weighted down by a lifetime of frustration yet fiercely proud of his son and Linda Broughton’s suffocatingly well-intentioned mother, clinging onto childhood memories of her family, both did excellent work, pulling us in straightaway with the hardest of opening scenes but also playing the lighter side of the family dynamic well too, bursting with pride at their first university-going relation. And Michael Benz also impressed as the introverted Jean, emotionally damaged by his inaction and the subsequent inability to deal with the fallout whilst sequestered in his tightly repressed family unit, although never given the opportunity to really explore why he is so particularly affected, likewise with the later decisions of his parents, we’re never really shown what drives them to such lengths.

One can see why Murphy has made the choices she has, in pulling back the lens to show how the effects of tragedies can ripple out far beyond the initial impact but in making it such a specific response to a specific event, the universality never really rings true. Part of it also comes back to the fact that she can afford to play fast and loose with the connections to the Montréal massacre because of the emotional resonance that association has with a Canadian audience, an analogous example would be a British play circling the Dunblane tragedy which would be sadly meaningless to other nationalities as we all have our own tragedies in this world. That said, it is very well-acted with some really moving moments within, and forms the first part of what I am sure will be an interesting journey through this playwright’s work over the next few months.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 21st March

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Ivanov, Wyndhams

I have long struggled with Chekhov, I’ve never really seen the attraction or seen a production that made me understand why he is so well regarded as a dramatist. So when the Donmar Warehouse announced a hugely star-studded season of plays to be performed in the West End, at the Wyndhams Theatre, my heart sank a little bit to see that the first play was Ivanov, by none other than Anton Chekhov. But in a new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Grandage and featuring the return to the London stage of Kenneth Branagh, this emerged as a production that might actually have convinced me that people are onto something here!

The key to my enjoyment here was all about the humour that is threaded throughout the evening so that the dour tragedy that is something of a trademark is leavened with something else and introduces a wider palette of emotion so that the ‘tragedy’ becomes well, more tragic for being contrasted with something else on offer. So Ivanov, seeking escape from his TB-ridden wife whom he no longer loves, rocks up at the neighbours’ house on a regular basis despite owing them money and a daughter there who has designs on him. When discovered together, society turns it disapproving eye on him but it turns out there’s a far harsher critic in Ivanov himself. Continue reading “Review: Ivanov, Wyndhams”

Review: The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse

The Chalk Garden is a 1955 play by Enid Bagnold, revived here by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse and featuring a top-notch cast, not least of two women who are surely dames-in-waiting.
The plot starts with Mrs St Maugham’s attempt to employ a governess for her unruly granddaughter Laurel. Miss Madrigal is the successful applicant and brings with her, into this quirky English household, not least a wealth of knowledge about how to make things grow in the chalky soil of the garden. As Laurel and Miss Madrigal come to know more about each other, secrets begin to unfold and realisations occur as to how what needs to change in order to make everything right.


It is sheer theatrical delight watching this cast, Tyzack and Wilton are just note-perfect throughout. Tyzack is witty, candid, uniquely eccentric and Wilton is mesmerising as a woman possessed of a serene calm and quiet steeliness which equips for most tasks in hand. With these two luminary talents onstage, one might have forgiven the rest of the ensemble for wilting a little but they really don’t, they flourish. Felicity Jones is just right as the psychologically disturbed Laurel, Jamie Glover’s manservant cannot hide his own psychological damage from years in jail as a conscientious objector and Clifford Rose’s judge is also nicely played.
To be sure, it does feel like an old-fashioned play and the ending reflects that completely, but there’s something strangely soothing about the message it conveys that fits this production perfectly. The detailing of the period set is brilliant, full of atmospheric detail and combined with the excellent acting, makes this a certain hit for the Donmar.