TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Jodie Whittaker more than lives up to expectations as Doctor Who in Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth – plus Bradley Walsh may well make you cry

“Half an hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman”

“Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon”. From the mouth of the Sixth Doctor himself, the very nature of Doctor Who (both the programme and the Time Lord) has always been its infinite variety. So it’s about bloody time that we now have the first female in the role – the excellent Jodie Whittaker – as new show-runner Chris Chibnall makes his definitive mark on the BBC serial.

And on the evidence of this first episode (and, let’s face it, to anyone with common sense), the Doctor’s gender is of little consequence. The ability to act as if you have two hearts knows no bounds, who knew, and the hints of Whittaker’s Doctor that were allowed to peek through the regenerative funk suggest we’re in for something of a real treat with an effervescent sense of personality shining through. Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

DVD Review: The Flint Street Nativity

 “Who put Jesus in with the iguana?”

Much more fun than traditional takes on the Nativity is Tim Firth’s The Flint Street Nativity (which I’d somehow managed to avoid seeing until now) which is utterly charming and heart-warmingly British in the best possible way. Firth’s conceit is to have adults playing children, hardly the most original of ideas, but as the pupils of this infant class put on a chaotic performance of the Christmas story complete with onstage squabbles and backstage power struggles, we see how the turbulence of their home lives is played out in their interactions with their schoolmates.

It is beautifully done, and sensitively played throughout. It never stops being funny – particularly as Dervla Kirwan’s determined Jaye plots and schemes to usurp Josie Lawrence’s Debbie Bennett as Mary – as playground rituals dominate proceedings. There’s the endless procession of ever-changing best friends, the relentless goading of the one who always says “dares ya” to the more susceptible kids, the terror of the boy with the stammer, the terrifying rough kid, the bossy know-it-all, the teacher whose patience wears ever thinner with each crisis. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Flint Street Nativity”

2012 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations

Best New Play 
Collaborators by John Hodge – National Theatre Cottesloe
Jumpy by April De Angelis – Jerwood Downstairs, Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean – National Theatre Lyttleton
The Ladykillers by Graham Linehan – Gielgud

Best New Musical
Betty Blue Eyes – Novello
Ghost – Piccadilly
London Road – National Theatre Cottesloe
Matilda – Cambridge
Shrek – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Best Revival 
Anna Christie – Donmar Warehouse
Flare Path – Haymarket
Much Ado about Nothing – Wyndham’s
Noises Off – Old Vic Continue reading “2012 Laurence Olivier Awards nominations”

TV Review: Great Expectations

“If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas when can you beat him?”

One of the centrepieces of the BBC’s festive television schedule was a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations by Sarah Phelps. Dickens could well loom large in the coming months as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth in February, but I’m not yet aware of a deluge of programming, whether on television or in the theatre, though I am reliably informed that there’s many radio serialisation on at the moment. As is often the case with new productions of classics, the key word is adaptation and though purists may baulk at some of the changes instituted by Phelps and director Brian Kirk, but that would be a shame as I found this to be a rather special piece of television, the BBC doing what it does best.

From the gorgeously, hauntingly atmospheric landscapes of the beginning – Magwitch rising from the mists of the wetlands was a perfect opening scene – the show looked a treat. The splendid isolation of the Gargerys’ house making for some beautiful shots (though it did pose the question of who exactly used that forge…) and the faded glamour of the dust-covered Satis House was excellently judged, the perfect receptacle for the casting choice that caused the most headlines prior to transmission: Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham. Continue reading “TV Review: Great Expectations”

Review: Collaborators, National Theatre

“It’s man versus monster Mikhail, and the monster always wins”

Apparently the play Collaborators was sent to the National Theatre on spec and as it is now opening in the Cottesloe (this was a preview) in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings amongst others, it would perhaps suggest that anyone could be in with a chance of getting a play on the stage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem and although this is the debut play from John Hodge, he is a highly experienced screenwriter whose credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach. His play riffs on historical fact to portray an imagined relationship between Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and one of his biggest fans, Joseph Stalin, who commissioned him to write a play about his life for his sixtieth birthday.

Set in Moscow 1938 with the repressive regime well established and the secret police encouraging people to inform on dissident neighbours, Bulgakov had been forced into the difficult position of compromising his biggest success – The White Guard (a recent great success here at the NT) – to make it politically palatable for Stalin and accepting the banning of many of his other works due to their subversive message. Thus when he was offered the chance to write the Stalin play, it made both artistic sense – in finally getting his work on the stage again, and economic sense – in that he was able to negotiate a new apartment and a much better standard of living for him and his wife. The play imagines a series of meetings between the two, getting to know each other as the play gets written but whilst Bulgakov seems to get closer to Stalin and his viewpoints, his friends and associates are left living a life of increasing fear and intimidation.

All rather serious stuff one might imagine but between Hodge’s play and Hytner’s production, things are given a rather jaunty spin, closer to the realm of fantasia, as the tone is set by the opening cartoonish sequence from which this farcical nightmare plays out on Bob Crowley’s twisting thrust stage. Alex Jennings’ Bulgakov presides over a bustling household of friends and neighbours – Jacqueline Defferary’s compassionate wife, Patrick Godfrey’s old relic Vassily and particularly William Postlethwaite’s intense young writer Grigory standing out – and their chaotic domestic situation is full of explosive character. Throw in scenes of the new play that is being written, a hagiography of Stalin’s beginnings, that is being directed by an NKVD officer with artistic visions, Mark Addy on bumptious form, and also from Bulgakov’s own plays – the final scene of Molière or The League of Hypocrites was one I recognised – and the melting pot of Russian madness is set.

But Hodge’s play is centrally concerned with this imagined relationship between Stalin and Bulgakov and the compromises that the artist has to make in dealing with a patron with such power. Because we’re in this quirky over-emphasised world, Simon Russell Beale’s Stalin is a wild-eyed caricature, a rather comic figure (even without the Saturday night audience of over-laughers) despite everything. And if we had remained in the realm of fantasy then this might have made more sense, but the tone gets increasingly darker as the benefits of Stalin’s patronage are outweighed by the pernicious effects of the repressive regime getting ever closer to his loved ones. Hodge has Bulgakov be a rather idealistic figure who believes he could change the system from within but it is hard to credit such naïveté from anyone who had lived under Stalin, never mind from a man whose very livelihood had been so severely curtailed. I had my doubts from the outset about treating Stalin with such a light comic touch and my misgivings solidified as this fantasy increasingly borrowed from real life in order to shade in a more serious tone.

Whilst watching it the play left me baffled and even now, I’m still unsure as to how I really felt about it. I never really knew how seriously we were meant to take the writing, with doubts stemming from my increasing unease at playwrights who meld fact and fiction this way, without emerging with some greater truth or clear message: there’s much of interest in Bulgakov’s biographical history that is frustratingly unexplored here. For that was the problem in the end, a lack of purpose, of a real sense of driving dramatic narrative or even an overarching revelatory point being made by this play despite its slyly satirical notes. The National Theatre do seem to struggle when it comes to new writing, especially in the Cottesloe and though it has evident appeal with its star casting, Collaborators ultimately felt like a disappointment with its difficult pairing of fact and fiction.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 21st January at the moment, the show is sold out but day seats and £5 standing tickets are available, and it has been announced that the show will extend – the next booking period opens in November. Collaborators will also be screened as part of NT Live on 1st December in cinemas all over the place.

Review: London Assurance, National Theatre

“I didn’t imagine I’d ever find the countryside so amusing”

Dion Boucicault’s 1844 play, London Assurance, the latest National Theatre production is a rip-roaring, farcical romp of a show that should leave even the most depressed Phantom of the Opera fan with a smile on their face. With a quality all-star ensemble: Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers, Michelle Terry, Paul Ready, all hamming it up for all they are worth, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Sir Harcourt Courtly, a London socialite travels up to Gloucestershire, determined to procure himself a much younger wife-to-be, heiress Grace Harkaway, yet once there his head is turned by her cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, a forthright horse-riding fox-hunting Amazon of a woman. To further complicate matters, Sir Harcourt’s son Charles is also there, in disguise hiding from his creditors, and has fallen for Grace. Sensing the opportunity for merriment, Charles’ friend Richard Dazzle then colludes with Lady Gay to toy with the bumptious Sir Harcourt and lead him astray.

It’s all extremely silly, as one would expect from a Victorian farce and to describe this as hammy would be an insult to all things porcine. It is so over the top, but performed with such relish and humour that it is hard not to get swept along with it. Even the asides to the audience, something I have little time for usually, were expertly done.

The highlights are undoubtedly any time that Shaw and Russell Beale are together: they are pure comedy gold, and obviously relish their interactions, there were even a couple of moments where I thought one or the other might corpse, great fun! Fiona Shaw edged it for me, if only for her wonderful guffawing laugh which permeates the whole show, but also in her tenderness to her ageing husband (played by a doddering Richard Briers) which fleshes out the character. Simon Russell Beale is equally hysterical and there are moments when you suspect that he thinks he’s in a pantomime, such are the exaggerated mannerisms that he displays. Their costumes are fantastic, and I don’t want to say more than that, only that never have the publicity shots for a show here been less representative of what’s on stage!

As Grace, Sir Harcourt’s intended, Michelle Terry is excellent as ever, her comic timing really is superb, and with Paul Ready as the son with whom she falls in love, provided a gentler counter-balance to the sledgehammer antics of the lead couple. And elsewhere there were good performances from Nick Sampson as the arch manservant of Sir Harcourt, full of dry quips and raised eyebrows; Matt Cross as a warmly charming wideboy Dazzle, pulling the strings of all concerned with a consummate ease, and a hilarious late brief interjection from Jinx Inocian as a debt collector.

The set is an impressive country pile, utilising the Olivier’s revolve to flit between the outside and the sumptuously mounted interior, but they do thankfully keep the spinning down to a minimum. Music was performed on stage (including a tuba), but also kept on a subtle level, coming to the fore though during a fun country dancing sequence.

This is an extremely diverting evening at the theatre, and whilst one may not take away much from the experience, it is a thrilling, hilarious ride during it. Displaying a comfort with each other that is remarkable given this was the second preview, the ensemble is finely tuned to each others comic timing making this an absolute delight. Even a remote-controlled rat can’t ruin it!

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3