Review: The Best Man, Playhouse

The Best Man, Playhouse Theatre, London

Martin Shaw returns to the West End in US political thriller The Best Man, its relevance to today’s White House painfully clear

“The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion”

With American politics being the shitshow that it currently is, the temptation to lampoon Trump at every and any opportunity is one that many theatre directors have been unable to resist. A wilier creative mind might regard this as too on the nose (and already overdone) and find an alternative way to critique our transatlantic cousins, at least an avalanche of Brexit plays puts the boot on the other foot.

And that is what Simon Evans’ revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man has done. After touring the UK last year, it arrives at the Playhouse Theatre with a slight sense of stateliness about it but also alive to how just how much of what was written nearly 60 years ago has to say about today’s political establishment. With a cast that includes Martin Sheen and Maureen Lipman, plus a cracking performance from Philip Cumbus, there’s something interesting here that rises above some slightly dated writing and aspects of a political system long left behind. Continue reading “Review: The Best Man, Playhouse”

Review: Glorious, Frinton Summer Theatre

“If things don’t wobble when you walk, you should eat more dinner”

Between Maureen Lipman in the West End and Meryl Streep in Hollywood, the story of notorious singer Florence Foster Jenkins has become much more widely known over the last decade. It does however remain one that I had somehow avoided and so the chance to see see the Peter Quilter play Glorious! with the marvellous Stella Gonet in the lead was one I gladly took. It also meant my first trip to the Frinton Summer Theatre out by the seaside in Essex.

Foster Jenkins’ insistence on pursuing a career as a soprano of note had one major flaw in her lack of singing ability but with a family legacy able to pay enough yesmen to shield her from any negative reaction and the force of her good nature, a striking journey was established. And in Quilter’s play, it a journey we witness through the eyes of her new pianist Cosmé McMoon, taken on to accompany Foster Jenkins at her 1944 concert at none other than Carnegie Hall. Continue reading “Review: Glorious, Frinton Summer Theatre”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2

“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for”

David Tennant’s opening season took the template of the opening series and ran with it, Russell T Davies’ vision finding its ideal mate in the Scottish actor. The typically adventurous sweep was tempered with a more tender vision, which considerably upped our emotional investment (previous companions returning, romantic connections whether past or present).

Bringing back the Cybermen was an interesting move, as was the introduction of the notion of parallel worlds (and how important that became…). And if the series-long motif of Torchwood didn’t really pay off, especially not when one considers what Torchwood the show became, the finale to Doomsday is pretty close to perfection. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2”

News: Olivier Awards presenters revealed

The Olivier Awards 2017 has announced the list of people who’ll be handing out awards at the ceremony, hosted by Jason Manford of all people, on Sunday 9th April in the august surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

Presenters this year include – deep breath – David Baddiel, Alfie Boe, John Boyega, Michaela Coel, Leanne Cope, Julian Clary, Robert Fairchild, Ben Forster, Phoebe Fox, Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Matt Henry, Ruthie Henshall, Amanda Holden, Rufus Hound, Cush Jumbo, Nathan Lane, Rose Leslie, Maureen Lipman, Danny Mac, Audra McDonald, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Laura Mvula, Paul O’Grady, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Sophie Okonedo, Charlotte Ritchie, Mark Rylance and Russell Tovey. Continue reading “News: Olivier Awards presenters revealed”

Review: My Mother Said I Never Should, St James

“I don’t know if you’ll ever love me as much as I love you but one day you’ll understand why I’ve done this to you”

It’s perhaps rather telling that a play that can claim the sobriquet “the most performed play by a female playwright” yet still be receiving its first London revival since its premiere here at the Royal Court in 1989. Fortunately, newly formed production company Tiny Fires are here to rectify that by mounting My Mother Said I Never Should at the St James Theatre (in its self-acknowledged first all-female production since opening three and half years ago – the clues are there…).

The fractured narrative of Charlotte Keatley’s play may not confound modern audiences more used to such theatrical playfulness but it was a novel enough concept that it was rejected several times by key theatres when first written. Which makes it all the more impressive that its structure still holds up beautifully today, complex without being confusing, as it takes its time to lay out all random pieces of a jigsaw which ultimately combine to tell the story of four generations of women from a single family from the North-West.  Continue reading “Review: My Mother Said I Never Should, St James”

Review: Daytona, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“I’m a joke and you know everything”

The arrival of a new play in the West End is something to be celebrated but I wish that I liked Oliver Cotton’s Daytona more than I did, its dull convention and wayward plotting making it an old-fashioned and frustrating experience rather than a shining beacon of new writing. Originally premiered at the Park Theatre last year before setting off on a brief UK tour, David Grindley’s production has been remounted for a limited run in the Theatre Royal Haymarket before heading out to the shires once again where perhaps it will gain more love than it did from me.

Set in mid-80s New York, retired Jewish couple Joe and Elli pass their time bickering amiably and rehearsing for their next ballroom dancing competition but their domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of Joe’s brother, unseen for the last 30 years and bringing with him two huge, weighty issues from the past. The first concerns the shocking settling of an old score with a concentration camp guard, the second is a more intimate revelation that tumbles up everything we know about this trio and their complicated personal history. Continue reading “Review: Daytona, Theatre Royal Haymarket”

Review: Eat Pray Laugh!, Palladium

“You’ve aged…but I’ve stayed the same”

Ours was never a household that watched “variety’s gigastar” Dame Edna Everage and to be honest, her schtick always seemed a little old-hat even as a young’un. Still, one has to appreciate the towering achievement of over 50 years in the business and so when a kind invitation to the opening night of Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour came my way, a trip to the London Palladium was in order. And to further ram home how out of sync I am with this performer, I found myself amazed at the size of the star-studded gala put on and the near-full critical complement that had turned out to see Eat Pray Laugh!

Additionally, I don’t watch much live comedy at all. It’s always a bit too hit and miss for my liking – there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re the only person not laughing – and being deaf, the acoustic challenges are often too much to surmount – actually, there’s nothing worse than a hall full of people pissing themselves at a joke you didn’t hear clearly. But along with the range of celebrities that turned up this Friday night, who am I to turn up my nose to a free ticket and so I shuffled past Elaine Paige and Maureen Lipman having a gossip, Richard E Grant taking sneaky pics of the set and Vivienne Westwood looking flawless to take my seat in the stalls.


And it was a difficult beginning. The first half sees Humphries play some of his other characters, most notably unreconstructed Aussie Sir Les Patterson, and I found it painful. Whether through residual affection for the performer, the determination to have a good Friday night out or some kind of meta-textual cultural commentary that went over my head, he seemed to go down a storm but the way in which this character gained laughs calls back to a best-forgotten era. Toilet humour may just not be to my taste but I can’t see how anyone could justifiably laugh at calling Asian people ‘slants’. Les’ gay Catholic priest brother makes a thankfully brief appearance too.

A winding monologue from a ghostly character called Sandy Stone changes the tone entirely to the end the first act but the interval is spent donning sparkly specs and frocks as Dame Edna finally arrives atop an elephant, revealing the spiritual awakening at an ashram that has provoked her retirement. And from the first wisecrack about the paupers in the balcony and the dress sense of those in the front rows, she proves impossible to resist. Bantering with the audience reveals a genuine sharpness in off-the-cuff comebacks, better than the set-pieces which includes a weirdly negative view of Stoke Newington, and the union of two unlikely audience members was eye-wateringly cringingly brilliant.

A finale involving trembling gladioli for the entire audience (what must the flower bill be like!) gets us up on our feet and then there’s a gorgeous moment as Humphries himself finally emerges, bidding us a heartfelt goodbye and though he teases us, one does get the feeling this really is goodbye. I found the nod to his long illustrious career here fascinating and I’d’ve loved to have heard more about it but that would have changed the nature of the show entirely. Still, I’m glad to say I have now seen Dame Edna live (and that I’ll never see Les Patterson again) and that my seat wasn’t too close to the front – between Les’ frothing spittle, flowers falling from the gods and Edna’s rapier-sharp wit, it’s a dangerous place to be! 

Running time: 3 hours, though I suppose it is variable from night to night

Booking until 8th January, then tours to Newcastle, Southampton, Norwich, Glasgow, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester

Short Film Review #17

Mockingbird

Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these films comes from nowhere to just punch in the guts with its downright amazingness yet simultaneously leaving unable to really articulate just why it is so. Joe Tunmer’s Mockingbird is such a film – achingly beautiful, gorgeously shot and infinitely moving. William Houston is extraordinary, Eliza Darby refreshingly appealing and there’s bonus Olivia Williams – what more do you want?!

Farrington

A 7 minute clip from Aneil Karia, Farrington is one of the funnier short films I’ve had the pleasure to watch recently. Robert Bathurst plays an investment banker named Henry who opts to take a wee career break to take part in a reality TV show where he will have 12 days to try and learn a whole new craft and convince a panel at the end that he is indeed a master of said skill. The joy comes from what that thing is and I won’t spoil it here, save to say it is refreshingly un-PC and leads to some cracking lines from the team of ‘experts’ set up to help, including Prasanna Puwanarajah and James Garnon. Definitely recommended.

Rover’s Return

The central idea of Rover’s Return – rich person pays someone to babysit their dearest love, who turns out to be a pet – and something goes horribly wrong – is not a new one – I’ve seen at least two other short films execute something similar. It’s clearly not a bad idea and who knows who had it first but coming in now for me, this version felt a little uninspired. Indira Varma is the high-flyer who is heading to Paris for a nookie-filled break and Andrea Lowe her junior colleague who is looking after the mutt in her absence. She’s inexperienced with dogs and predictably things go pear-shaped – it’s all a bit predictable and lacks any particularly unique facet to hook the attention, either in Oliver Ledwith’s direction or Patrick Ledwith’s script. 

The Honeymoon Suite

Possessed of an utterly gorgeous rasping voice, Alexis Zegerman is one of those actors I could listen to all day, but for her short film debut, The Honeymoon Suite, she opted to remain behind the camera. Lola Zidi-Rénier and Tim Key take on the role of a newly-wed Jewish couple who barely know each other, pushed together in some kind of arranged marriage and as they tumble into their hotel room after the ceremony, they get their first moment of quiet together, but it is the worst kind of awkward silence that fills the room. As they painfully tease out detail after detail about each other that seems to make them increasingly ill-suited together, they eventually find a tiny glimmer of hope that things might not be so bad after all. It is well done and nicely understated by all involved.

Veils

Another film funded by the Jewish Film Council is Dan Susman’s Veils, an insightful look into the Jewish/Palestinian conflict through the eyes of impending marriage for a Jewish girl and a Palestinian man in modern-day North London. As each prepare themselves on the wedding day, we see how the intransigent attitudes of some of their extended families are so strongly held that not even the joy of nuptial bliss can sway them, the difficulties of reconciliation laid bare in front of us as grandfather rejects grandson, family friends finding the most obscure of excuses not to attend. It is well-shot and cleverly structured too in the way that it teases the expectations. 

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 đŸ˜‰

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: Old Money, Hampstead

“Twelve funerals I’ve been to this year. Twelve and it’s only August”


There’s something of a delayed reaction feel to Sarah Wooley’s new play Old Money in the way that it explores the relationship between the generations now that it can no longer be assumed that wealth will continue to increase in the way it always has. I say delayed reaction because it feels like a subject that been dealt with by other writers like Mike Bartlett and Stephen Beresford, but neither had quite so comic a take as Wooley, a first time playwright, has here. She wraps her version in the tale of Joyce, widowed after 40 years of marriage and given an unexpected new lease of life, but it is one which doesn’t go down well with the various members of her family.


It is a play completely driven by Maureen Lipman’s excellent central performance as Joyce. Her delivery of the material is always so note-perfect and able to wring just the right amount of humour  that it is close to a comic masterpiece. And as she travels on her journey of self-(re)-discovery through trips to the opera and drinking sessions with friendly young strippers, there’s also something rather touching about the reminder that it is never too late to learn things about oneself and Terry Johnson’s production manages to convey this without veering towards the patronising.


I had more problems with how she connected with the rest of the play though, in particular the supporting characters like Tracy-Ann Overman’s Fiona, highly materialistic and determined of her right to make endless demands of her mother. Pregnant with her third child, saddled with a feckless husband and an unmanageable mortgage, hers is the unlikeable role against which Joyce’s new-found freedom is strongly contrasted but it is a strangely sour taste that is left in the mouth as the price she exacts on her own family as she strikes her merry way at the end feels misjudged.

So something of a fascinating piece rather than a necessarily compelling one and thus perhaps a little intriguing in how it made its way onto the Hampstead main stage, but Lipman’s performance makes it worth a trip.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 12th January