TV Review: Dracula, Episode 1

I get through Dracula, mainly due to the #Heffklaxon but there’s some issues to address moving forward…

“I’ve been dying to meet you”

Eesh! The much-trumpeted return of Dracula to our TV screens wouldn’t have interested me quite so much if it hadn’t been John Heffernan’s central presence in the cast as Jonathan Harker. Any chance to sound the #Heffklaxon is much appreciated and with Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat at the helm, a certain measure of schlocky entertainment feels guaranteed.

And I think it gets there, just about. Wise-cracking nuns called Agatha, a highly self-aware script and a barnstorming lead performance from Claes Bang as an entirely seductive count go a long way to making this a success. But it is a long way, the pacing over the hour and a half running time felt perilously slow at times, Jonny Campbell’s direction could possibly use some tightening up although he nails many a scare very well. Continue reading “TV Review: Dracula, Episode 1”

Review: The Wild Duck, Almeida Theatre

Robert Icke adapts Ibsen to create a vividly powerful The Wild Duck at the Almeida – stunning work

Henrik Ibsen wrote The Wild Duck in 1884

The Wild Duck may be a nineteenth century play but this is most definitely at twenty-first century adaptation, Robert Icke continuing his astonishing strike-rate of Almeida successes with yet another. This time it is Ibsen under the microscope but a mark of Icke’s seemingly endless invention is that his approach here repeats little of what he’s done before.

So a scalpel-sharp play about truth and lies becomes refracted through the truth and lies in Ibsen’s own life, the parallels between his own illegitimate issue and Hedwig’s situation brought into the light. The first half sees this done through meta-theatrical interjections, house lights up and actors commenting on the action as much as acting itself.  Continue reading “Review: The Wild Duck, Almeida Theatre”

Review: Diminished, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’m not trying to justify it…that’s the fucking point”

The next couple of shows programmed at the Hampstead Downstairs are two shows that have previously done well – Deposit and Alligators, which interestingly have press nights scheduled, contrary to the usual practice there. For the moment though, it is the thought-provoking and morally complex Diminished – Sam Hoare’s debut play – that is occupying the experimental space.

In Polly Sullivan’s starkly uncompromising arena, designed in the round and directed by Tom Attenborough, we first witness a psychiatric session between the high-functioning Mary and her clearly intrigued doctor. They banter almost flirtatiously, dancing around diagnoses and discussions, as we edge closer to the revelation that she’s being held in a secure facility after the death of her severely disabled young daughter. Continue reading “Review: Diminished, Hampstead Downstairs”

TV Review: From Darkness, BBC1

“Fat, embittered, heavy-drinking, middle-aged male detective. Do you know how much of a cliché that is”

Part of Anne-Marie Duff’s triple-fronted return to prominence (cf Suffragette and Husbands and Sons), BBC1 drama From Darkness sees her take the lead in the psychological crime drama from Katie Baxendale. Running away from unhappiness, former police constable Claire Church has made a new life for herself on a remote Scottish island with the ruggedly handsome Norrie and his daughter but the revival of a decades-old case inexorably draws her back to the darkness to longs to flee.

Trying to skewer traditional notions of female victimhood in crime dramas, Baxendale curiously opts for a storyline based on the serial killings of prostitutes and never really manages to put enough clear water between From Darkness and others in the genre. And tied up as it is with trying to explore the repercussions of letting fear overwhelm us, the show can’t quite overcome its desire to slot into the fairly conventional strictures of your standard police procedural with all its daft contrivances.

So despite being retired from the force, Duff’s pill-popping Church is soon rattling around as if she owns the place and the investigation, under the instigation of Johnny Harris’ conflicted DCI Hind with his own troubled past intimately connected to Claire’s. Luke Newberry’s green DS Boyce offers a much-needed measure of comic relief, his Oxbridge nature ill-suited to the realities of Greater Manchester policing and Caroline Lee-Johnson’s coldly efficient Superintendent is ace at just getting shit done.

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DVD Review: The Hours

“I seem to have fallen out of time”

Based on Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name, I loved 2012 film The Hours from the first time I saw it and still think it a minor masterpiece a three women, each connected by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, try to get through the living of a single day. In the present day, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a NY society hostess planning a party for her AIDS-stricken poet friend; Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a depressed 1950s housewife, unhappily married and pregnant for the second time; and Nicole Kidman plays Woolf herself, battling her own demons whilst writing the book.

From David Hare’s screenplay, Stephen Daldry creates a hugely elegant sweep across time as echoes ripple across the separate narratives – connections built through the smallest of details recurring as each woman variously deals with repressed longing, the fear of a life not lived to its fullest, the hours that keep on passing. Kidman (and her prosthetic nose) may have won the Academy Award and she is very good but for my money, it is Moore’s anguished housewife who should have won the plaudits, such is the intensity she brings to the role.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Hours”

TV Review: That Day We Sang

“We want all the spirit of Lancashire, but not the accent” 

One of the most anticipated bits of TV this Christmas was surely Victoria Wood’s adaptation of her musical That Day We Sang, featuring a Sweeney Todd reunion with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball taking on the lead roles of Enid and Tubby. The show is a wonderfully heart-warming tale of extraordinariness coming out of the ordinary as Wood does so well, following two lonely middle aged Mancunians who dare to dream of love when life offers them a second chance.

They’re initially brought together at a special event in 1969 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Manchester Children’s Choir recording Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds (a real life event). Having lost touch and been ground down by the drudgery of life, each puts a long awaited sparkle in the other’s eye though as ever, the path of true love ne’er did run smooth. And Wood contrasts this story with a 1929 narrative that follows the experiences of the choir as they build up to their momentous day. Continue reading “TV Review: That Day We Sang”

DVD Review: 1234

“Step one – learn three chords”

Those who know me will instantly recognise the main point of interest for me in this film (lovely lovely Kieran Bew who was lovely in a pub in Bath once) but it also stars Ian Bonar who holds a special place in my heart for being the first lead Tom Wells character I ever did see in Me, As A Penguin back in 2010. Sadly, neither could really save Giles Borg’s low-budget indie flick for me as 1234 fails to bring anything significant to the world of band movies.

The premise of the film is simply that an ill-matched group of 3 guys and a girl set up a band and that really is about it. But even within this simplicity which could have worked, there’s a paucity of believable characters with realistic relationships or any real sense of personal involvement as the writing is just so thin. So it becomes extremely hard to get invested in or even really care about the dilemmas the band finds themselves in and as that is all there is to the plot, the film is sunk from the outset.

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Review: The Memory of Water / And Then There Were None / A Special Kind of Dark, Radio 4

“You’ve got that slight edge in your voice, like a blunt saw”

Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water is probably due a high-profile revival, not least for the richness of its female roles but until then, this radio adaptation will more than suffice. Starring Linda Bassett, Lesley Manville and Elizabeth Berrington as three sisters who reconvene after their mother’s death, Stephenson explores different reactions to grief through the prism of shared memories, or rather how the three women have significantly different memories of the same events. There’s an elegiac beauty to the way in which the familial bond asserts and reasserts itself even as long-held secrets are unearthed and emotional truths about the present aired, and the sheer quality of the cast make it a fantastic piece of radio drama. 

A Special Kind of Dark is a much more challenging prospect and whilst it was hard to assess how I really felt about it, given its noir-ish twists and turns and narrative unreliability, it was nice to have such a complex piece of writing to listen to. The story is told by Caspar, who starts an affair with unhappy neighbour Helene but when she is found brutally murdered, is arrested and declared criminally insane. Over the course of a year, he tells psychologist Elodie Testoud of his suspicions of Helene’s husband, the politically ambitious Felix but given we only get Caspar’s version of events, it is never clear when he is telling the truth or lost in a Marlowe-style reverie. It is appealing performed and directed but cumulatively feels as clear as mud, writer Adrain Penketh is so determinedly obtuse that any genuine clues that might exist feel lost. Continue reading “Review: The Memory of Water / And Then There Were None / A Special Kind of Dark, Radio 4”

Short Film Review #12

Instalment 12 of the Short Film Review – keep those recommendations coming and I promise I will get round to them all eventually, I’ve a fair few to work through 😉

Bride of Vernon

A rather playful take on the Frankenstein story, The Bride of Vernon is a stop-motion animation in the mould of Wallace and Gromit which was written, animated and directed by Calvin Dyson and ended up winning the Best UK Short Film Award at the 2012 Manchester International Film Festival. Vernon Van Dyke, the appealingly voiced Dan Clark, is the lonely young scientist who is battling against the repeated failures of his experiment to create himself a bride and even the faithful Fritz (David Schofield as the Igor-style assistant) is rebelling and demanding better pay and conditions due to his recent unionisation.


Things brighten up though with the arrival of Mary Mae, a real life woman who offers a whole new world of possibility to Vernon as they start dating and here, Katherine Parkinson is excellent casting, her richly expressive voice is beautifully suited to the hesitant goodness of this character and they are so sweet together. Of course, things go wrong over dinner with an accidental poisoning and it is up to Vernon to see if he can save Mary Mae by hook or by crook. The film is really well put together, it looks a high quality product and Michael Slevin Uttley’s score fits over it like a glove to make this what seems to be a well-deserving prize winner.

Standing Room Only 
With a cast including the likes of Michael Gambon, Hugh Jackman, Maureen Lipman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, you’d be forgiven that thinking that Standing Room Only is no common-or-garden short film and you’d be right. It undoubtedly owes its star-studded nature to the marital connections of its writer/director Deborra-Lee Furness, otherwise known as Mrs Hugh Jackman, but it makes a rather amusing study of the politics of day seating for a sold out show. Mostly silent (although this version of the clip is dubbed in Russian – translating the signs I think…), we see a queue of people slowly build up outside the New Ambassadors Theatre to see the hugely popular Man of a Thousand Faces.


I’ve not done a huge amount of day-seating myself but I know people who have and so there is a wry amusement of much of the little details here which seem authentically familiar. And it is a pleasure to see the likes of Gambon, Jackman  and Joanna Lumley cutting loose on something comedic and light – Furness includes a flirtatiously delicious moment from her husband  at 5.27 – and it is all a breezy bit of fun, even if I wasn’t mad keen on the way that it ends.

The Rules of the Game 

This film is directed by Tom Daley but lest you think it is connected with anything misguidedly-orange and publicity-hunting, it ain’t anything to do with diving… No, it’s a 2009 short written by Sam Michell, a monologue written about a groom-to-be who is preparing for a stag night to remember in a smart country house. Christopher Harper plays Henry and over the 7 or so minutes of film, he fills us in on all the gory details of his last few months and the revelations that have raised the stake of this occasion just ever so slightly.


Harper is excellent as the narrator, his direct address to the camera is always playful rather than too intense, Michell’s writing dancing with the lightness of stream-of-consciousness and imagined actions as well as putting across the story itself. And Daley directs with a smooth fluidity as we constantly move throughout the stately home, Max McGill’s cinematography making everything look delicious and usefully reminding me of how much I like Harper as an actor.

3-minute 4-play 

At a brief 3 minutes (and change), Johnny O’Reilly’s 3-Minute 4-Play is a cracking little Irish battle of the sexes thing. Set in a dreamlike white space where things can be wished into reality, Ristéard Cooper’s man conjures up the girl of his dreams – Ruth Negga – but as always, one has to be careful about what one wishes for as it turns out that he can’t control her, and her own desires don’t necessarily match up with his. It’s simply done but very effective and highly watchable – Cooper is always charismatic and I loved seeing and hearing Negga working in her natural accent. Lots of fun.

Review: Othello, National Theatre

“Demand me nothing: what you know, you know”

Though I’ve been to the theatre a fair bit over the last few years and taken in more than my fair share of Shakespeare, the distribution across his plays has been far from equitable. I’ve seen more Macbeths, Twelfth Nights and Midsummer Night’s Dreams that I can shake a stick at, yet my first and only Othello to date was in Sheffield back in 2011. Not having previously read or studied it, it was never a play that had really appealed and though I really did enjoy that trip to the Crucible, I can’t say I was dying to see it again. But this high-profile National Theatre modern-day update, featuring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, proved impossible to resist, not least with preview prices meaning the £48 seats were going for £20 (and with this running time, it was money well spent).
 
The Venice of the opening is a non-descript place and it is only with the departure to Cyprus, and specifically here a British base on the island, that the military aesthetic of the production comes to full fruition. Vicki Mortimer’s design captures the sun-blasted stone of the Mediterranean location and the claustrophobically stuffy air of the prefab offices and rooms of the military base, with the only real nod to the geopolitics of the modern-day setting a map of the Middle East behind a desk. The production wears the updating quite lightly: on the one hand, nothing feels too forced to fit in with the concept but on the other, it doesn’t always seem like the most inspired. The bland nature of so much of the setting – the generic office, the shared bathroom, the depersonalised bedroom – mutes something of the tragedy, there’s little grandeur on display to match the heights of the emotion.

Continue reading “Review: Othello, National Theatre”