Review: The Tempest, Jermyn Street Theatre

Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell shine in a clever take on the The Tempest at the Jermyn Street Theatre

“Thy food shall be fresh-brook mussels”

It is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and so I rarely seek it out these days, but the prospect of seeing actors of the calibre of Michael Pennington and Kirsty Bushell in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre got me along to The Tempest there. It also helped that it was directed by Tom Littler, whose inventive reworking of All’s Well That Ends Well last year was its own little piece of magic. 

Aging Prospero upwards a little has a distinct impact on the tenor of the play. From the opening scene where he wreaks stormy havoc with a touch of malevolence via a toy boat to the air of almost-relieved resignation that comes at the close, there’s a palpable sense of the prospect of vengeance having fired him on in later years yet Pennington balances brutality with benevolence throughout, suggesting perhaps it was closure rather than revenge that was actually his driving force. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Jermyn Street Theatre”

DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)

“Your alliance would be a disgrace”

This six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has gone down in history as one of the most iconic TV programmes ever, its cultural breakthrough into the mainstream taking everyone by surprise and spearheading something of a revival in period dramas. For me though, my abiding memory remains watching a documentary some years later and hearing adaptor Andrew Davies saying that the stage direction he wrote for Colin Firth, for when Darcy meets Elizabeth after she has rushed over to see her ailing sister, was “Darcy is surprised to get an erection”.

Smut aside, it is a strikingly well done piece of work though, Luxuriating over 6 hour-long instalments, it allows for the slow-burn of the central relationship which makes this version of the story really work, Firth and Jennifer Ehle so incredibly well-matched that their every interaction is scintillatingly drawn as mutual antipathy turns to mutual admiration amidst the various family dramas of the Bennetts, Wickhams, Collins et al. His brooding looks and engagingly smooth voice and her keenly intelligent eyes with her delightful pragmatism are utterly engaging. Continue reading “DVD Review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)”

TV Review: Lightfields

“I feel like I’ve been running my whole life from this”

Cohu’s biggest TV show of recent times is probably Lightfields, conceived as a follow-up to the rather successful Marchlands of a couple of years ago, and occupying very similar ground of supernatural phenomena haunting the same property through different time periods. A remote farmhouse in Suffolk is the setting, the building named Lightfields, and as a young woman dies in mysterious circumstances in a wartorn 1944, the repercussions are felt by a mother and daughter who stay there for the summer in 1975 and also by the family who are running it as a bed and breakfast in 2012. The ghosts of the past weigh heavily on all concerned as in all three eras, the search for the truth as to what happened puts several people in danger.

I really enjoyed Marchlands so I was a little sceptical to hear that a sequel of sorts had been planned one which seemed to repeat the same format. And though it was mostly enjoyable to watch, I did find it to be not quite on the same level as its predecessor. For a start, it had far too many characters in the 1944 slot alone, I couldn’t get a bearing on who was who even when they were right in front of me, never mind when older versions of them appeared in the later time periods – I felt like I needed to write down a list of everyone as it always felt overly cluttered, with too many story strands feeding into both the 1944 and 2012 slots and leaving the overall feel of the programme as rather confused. Continue reading “TV Review: Lightfields”

DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right

What could be more innocent than visiting the vicar of Cockchaffington?”

So having completely tumbled for the charms of The Way We Live Now, I turned to the following BBC Anthony Trollope adaptation He Knew He Was Right which was also reworked by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 2004. Trollope’s main concern here was the corrosive effect of jealousy and particularly on his lead character of Louis Trevelyan whose marriage and family are broken up as he struggles to deal with the independent mind of his wife Emily as he suspects her of having an affair, and suffers the consequences of a gossipy Victorian society.

And thus the problems started for me – I never once found myself believing or really caring for Louis or Emily or their relationship. Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser both struggled with the likeability factor for me and so as a central plot point, the story lost me from the beginning. More engaging was Emily’s younger sister Nora’s romantic travails as she falls for a penniless writer – Christina Cole and Stephen Campbell Moore just lovely together, and another love story as a kind but poor young companion falls for her mistress’s great-nephew against society’s rules. Continue reading “DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews