TV Review: A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant delivers a career best performance in the hugely enjoyable A Very English Scandal. Just don’t mention your National Insurance card.

“Tell him not to talk. And not to write to my mother describing acts of anal sex under any circumstances whatsoever”

I don’t think I’ve ever been chilled quite so much by the end credits of anything like A Very English Scandal. You know, that bit when you find out what happened next to the people who you’ve just been watching. It helps of course that I knew nothing about the 1970s Jeremy Thorpe affair on which it was based but still, never have 11 dogs and a missing NI card seemed so ominous.

Written by Russell T Davies, adapted from John Preston’s book, and directed by Stephen Frears, A Very English Scandal is a complete breath of fresh air. Perhaps surprisingly for a true-life tale of sex, politics and attempted murder, it has a quirky, almost jolly tone that is hugely enjoyable, deftly comic as it negotiates the would-be Machiavellian moves of a politician desperate to save his skin. Continue reading “TV Review: A Very English Scandal”

Nominations for the 2017 UK Theatre Awards

The UK Theatre Awards are the only nationwide Awards to honour and celebrate outstanding achievements in regional theatre throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and they have just announced the nominations for the 2017 awards, the results of which will be revealed at a ceremony on Sunday 15th October. 
 
 
How many of these did you see, and who do you think should win?
 

Best new play
Half Breed by Tash Marshall, Talawa Theatre Company and Soho Theatre
Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery, Box of Tricks
Wish List by Katherine Soper, Royal Court and Royal Exchange Theatre

Best musical production
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres
Caroline, Or Change, Chichester Festival Theatre
Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange Theatre Continue reading “Nominations for the 2017 UK Theatre Awards”

2015 What’s On Stage Award nominations

Best Actor In A Play Sponsored By Radisson Blu Edwardian
David Tennant – Richard II 
Mark Strong – A View From the Bridge 
Richard Armitage – The Crucible 
Tom Bateman – Shakespeare in Love 
Tom Hiddleston – Coriolanus 

Best Actress In A Play
Billie Piper – Great Britain 
Gillian Anderson – A Streetcar Named Desire 
Helen McCrory – Medea 
Imelda Staunton – Good People 
Lucy Briggs-Owen – Shakespeare in Love 

Continue reading “2015 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

Review: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

“What kind of man would you be without the theatre”

I can’t lie – I had rather low expectations when it came to the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, not helped by rewatching the film recently and marvelling at how it managed to win 7 Academy Awards back in 1999. But I equally have to admit to being swept away by Declan Donellan’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation which is set to open this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, it managing to find an identity of its own (after a relatively slow start) to try and recapture the hearts of audiences anew.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original screenplay saw Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright, tussling for commissions with friendly rival Kit Marlowe and dealing with a particularly sticky case of writer’s block. With his unhappily married wife and kids sequestered in Stratford-upon-Avon, he embarks on a forbidden affair with noblewoman Viola de Lesseps, who has her own battles to face in being denied the career on the stage that she craves and being married off to the obnoxious Wessex. Their romantic strife thus provides the creative spark for Will to write Romeo and Juliet.

Where the film did work for me was in the overload of Shakespearean puns worked into the script, often wittily suggesting that the bard took inspiration from all around him; where it did not was with the central romance which lacked any real sense of passion for me. Funnily enough, the converse was pretty much true here. Tom Bateman’s freshly appealing Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s hugely characterful Viola have enormous chemistry and theirs is a romance to root for.

Instead, the repeated gags of references to other Shakespeare plays prove to be something of a hindrance, occasionally interrupting the flow of the show –(the ‘out damned spot’ bit takes way too long of a set-up although the payoff is fun) – and often falling flat. Without them being cleverly worked in (like ‘tomorrow’ ‘and tomorrow’), they lose their impact, Will just declaring ‘oh brave new world’ as he schtups Viola doesn’t really mean anything at all. Equally, the delayed John Webster joke flew over the heads of the majority of this particular audience!

Fortunately there’s much more to the production as well. Paddy Cunneen’s highly atmospheric music is sung and played live onstage, Nick Ormerod’s inventive design allows for both the intimate and the grand, and the brightness of the supporting cast – David Oakes’ twinkle-eyed Marlowe, Ferdy Roberts’ Fenniman, David Ganly’s Burbage and Paul Chahidi’s Henslowe just to name a few, give real life to the Elizabethan theatrical world.

And this is where the show really works, a Noises Off-esque sequence that takes place backstage as a play goes on is really well put together, combining great humour and pathos, and the rivalries and relationships between the playwrights and theatre managers give rise to a wonderful sense of community, ending up as a love letter to the theatre as much to Shakespeare himself.

Photos: Johan Persson
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 25th October

Review: Fortune’s Fool, Old Vic

“Oh, my dears…there’s more fun to be had here than at the theatre”

A sense of duty rather than excitement saw me nip into the Old Vic for Fortune’s Fool and to be frank, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Not a play with which I was familiar, I was shocked at how violently it rubbed me up the wrong way, an uneasy blend of Russian country house-driven ennui and farcical shenanigans which sadly felt like an utterly inessential piece of theatre. In retrospect, I can see how it might have appealed as a piece of safe programming but as with much this year at the Old Vic, it is hard to feel artistically enthused there and though this was an early performance in the run and received enthusiastically at the end, I’ve never seen so many newly empty seats post-interval. 


But back to the play. Written in 1848 by Turgenev, Lucy Bailey’s production uses Mike Poulton’s adaptation which was fashioned for Broadway back in 2002 (where it made its debut, though it has been seen in the UK before then). Kuzokvin is a miserable Russian aristocrat who has relied on the kindness of a (long dead) friend for room and board whilst his own property is tied up in legalities. When the newly married heirs to the estate announce they are to arrive, he’s sent into a bit of a tizzy, a situation which is made immeasurably worse when neighbour and fellow aristocrat Tropatchov turns up to join them for a boozy lunch. 


For Tropatchov is also miserable and his ennui manifests itself in an embittered viciousness to his repartee and the first half is taken up with the increasingly drunken antics of these aristocrats and their ever-watchful servants as Richard McCabe’s Tropatchov winds up Iain Glen’s Kuzovkin to excruciating levels of humiliations, but unleashing a shocking revelation which it then takes the second act to resolve. It is hardly ground-breaking stuff but crucially it doesn’t offer up anything much of interest, nothing about it held my attention sufficiently or manage to do much more than try my patience.


McCabe is decent enough but it is a one-note character, something exacerbated by the overused tic he gives his toff of frequently flicking his foppish fringe. Glen has the harder task of marrying tragi- with comedy and doesn’t really pull it off at the moment, the drunkenness a horribly stagy sequence and thoroughly unbelievable. The only pleasure for me came from seeing Alexander Vlahos doing well as the returning heir, nice to see him graduating to larger roles since a great turn in Macbeth earlier this year. So not my cup of tea at all but more than that, it also feels an unsatisfactory (and far-too-female-light) choice of play. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 22nd February

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March

Re-review: Noises Off, Old Vic

“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, Old Vic”

Review: The Way of the World, Crucible

“I’m in a maze yet, like a dog in a dancing-school”

I doubt I could have named a single Restoration comedy for you even just a few months ago but trends in theatre change as endlessly as in fashion, and I now find myself having seen three already this year. Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre get in on the act with this revival of William Congreve’s The Way of the World (ahead of Chichester who are putting it on as part of this year’s festival) from 1700, following my trips to the Donmar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the National’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

Lyndsey Turner’s production here though is the only one of these that has taken major liberties with the play, in this case setting in the modern day where ‘Restoration’ is a new trend that has swept society. At its simplest, the plot follows the young Mirabell who is courting the delicious Millament, yet comes up against her formidable aunt Lady Wishfort who is set against the match and threatens to withhold her fortune, which many others have their eye on and are willing to commit dastardly deeds to get it. But the play is rarely that simple, and with the directorial device at play, I must admit it challenged me just a little (and made me wish I’d read a synopsis beforehand). Continue reading “Review: The Way of the World, Crucible”