Review: The Country Wife, Minerva

A cracking cast can’t quite make sense of a modern updating of The Country Wife at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre

“What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?”

How many productions does it take for a playwright to have a moment? We could be on the cusp of a Wycherley wave, with the second production of The Country Wife to arrive this year (the first being at the Southwark Playhouse in April). 

But though this Restoration writer is proving popular, directors seem unable not to tinker with his work – that production was set in the 1920s and Jonathan Munby here moves it even further to the present day, casting new light but also dimming its intent. Continue reading “Review: The Country Wife, Minerva”

Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.
 
And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story.

Continue reading “Review: Network, National Theatre”

TV Review: Will, Episodes 1 + 2

“You are a curiosity”

American versions of Shakespeare (whether his plays or the man himself) are always worth looking up, even if only for a chuckle and new TNT TV series Will is certainly no exception. There’s some weight behind it – it was created by Craig Pearce, the longtime writing partner of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and has Shekhar Kapur, who directed the award-winning Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directing and executive producing and in the role of the Bard himself, there’s a potentially star-making role for British newcomer Laurie Davidson.

I watched the first two episodes and they sure make an arresting introduction. You feel Luhrmann’s influence almost immediately as this is no antiquated version of a sedate Elizabethan London, but rather it is one shot through with bright colours and a punk-filled attitude. Literally so, as they have conceived the burgeoning theatre scene of the time as being akin to the contemporary(ish) world of punk rock – theatres filled with patrons in leather and mohicans, the soundtrack filled with the Clash and drunken singalongs to Lou Reed.  Continue reading “TV Review: Will, Episodes 1 + 2”

Review: The Red Barn, National

“It’s as if I have lived my whole life with the handbrake on”

On booking for The Red Barn, you’re advised that “due to the tense nature of the play, there will be no re-admittance”. The play – written by David Hare from the 1968 novel La Main by Georges Simenon – is also described as a psychological thriller on the website. It all adds up to a certain degree of expectation about what kind of show it is one is going to see and even though this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, I’ve seen a few shows and know the danger of anticipation, it is often hard not to carry the weight of those expectations with you as you take your seat.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Robert Icke’s production of The Red Barn was not the play I thought it would be. And that my initial slightly cool reaction was as much a response to that as it was to the material itself. Set in the depths of a Connecticut winter, two couples make their way home from a party and when one of the men doesn’t make it back, it is the consequences of that that makes up the meat of the play. Specifically, it’s how the other man of the group reacts, both right then and from then on, that Simenon and Hare and Icke probe into.
And with Mark Strong at the helm as this model of quiet desperation – a lawyer called Donald Dodd – it’s a subtly devastating portrayal of masculine inadequacy, quiet and measured in its approach and some tableaux even play out like still life paintings. Whether interacting with the unflinching pragmatism of his wife Ingrid or the strange allure of his friend’s widow Mona, played exceptionally by Hope Davis and Elizabeth Debicki respectively, deep emotional truths are stripped back layer by layer as we get closer to the ‘truth’ of what happened, not just on that fateful night but also leading up to it.
And perhaps cognisant of the potential for sterility, Icke’s major directorial innovation is to commission the most cinematic of set designs from Bunny Christie. Using sliding screens to force our perspective as if trapped in a viewfinder, and only revealing certain areas at certain times, we’re constantly reminded of the bigger picture and rarely we ever see it all. Tom GIbbons’ rumbling sound and Paule Constable’s haunting lighting amplify the artistic, and artful, feel, converting The Red Barn from your average piece of theatre into something altogether more subtly nuanced.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 17th January

Review: Waste, National Theatre

“The stateman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that”

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s design is partly culpable, its evocation of elegant loucheness looks a treat but spread across the vast swathe of space of the Lyttelton stage it simply dilutes. The chairs of the opening drawing room scene are set so far apart they may as well be in separate rooms, the length of the table in the parliamentary office is just impractical, seemingly that way just to fill the void. It also doesn’t help that the political machinations of the play, set in a hung parliament where a radical Independent MP is persuaded by the Tories to push through a divisive Bill, aren’t the most gripping.

It’s always a pleasure to see Charles Edwards on the stage and as the calculating Henry Trebell, he effectively captures the innate arrogance of the upper classes as his affair with married woman Amy O’Connell, the captivating Williams, leads to an abortive pregnancy that also threatens the life of much more beside. But be it a masterpiece or not (and I can theoretically see why it appeals to some), it just didn’t move me once again, this production just didn’t make me care enough even with excellent work by Le Touzel among the large ensemble, and that seems the biggest waste of all.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 19th March

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1

“War has always been the handmaiden of progress”

From its opening moments of buttocks and blood (both belonging to an uncredited Hugh Bonneville if that floats your boat), it’s clear that Da Vinci’s Demons is going to have its fun whilst playing fast and loose with the early life of its subject, Florentine polymath Leonardo Da Vinci. Conceived by David S Goyer and a co-production between Starz and BBC Worldwide, it’s a good-natured romp of a drama series much in the mould of Merlin, Atlantis or the lamented Sinbad but perhaps tied a little closer to reality as it dips in and out of the tangled history of the Italian city states. 

And it is its historical connections that serves as a main driver for the technological innovations for which Leonardo is famed and which form the ‘issue of the week’ around which most of the episodes hang. So as Da Vinci climbs into bed with the ruling Medici family, he’s sucked into their political machinations whilst battling rival families in Florence and the ever-present threat of the Catholic Church in Rome. Alongside this sits a more fantastical series-long arc about the mystical Book of Leaves and the Sons of Mithras who believe Da Vinci has only just begun to tap into his true power.

Tom Riley is perfect casting as the inventor. Extremely easy on the eye (and bless the costume designer who decided on the acres of cleavage ;-)) and highly charismatic, he’s an engaging protagonist and for someone this clever, not too annoying with it. The way in which his inventions come to mind, with rotoscoped animation superimposed on the screen, is appealingly done and so whether it is rotating cannons, hand grenades or scuba diving suits that are coming to mind, Riley ensures that there’s a swaggering sense of fun about the whole affair.

Around him, there’s a wealth of supporting characters and possibly a few too many to really connect with over the 8 episodes here. Friends – Gregg Chillin and Eros Vlahos as the roguish Zoroaster and Nico; colleagues – Allan Corduner’s Verrochio; lovers – Laura Haddock’s luminous Lucrezia Donati; enemies – James Faulkner’s Pope Sixtus and his sinister nephew Riario, a superb Blake Ritson. And top of the bunch for me, Elliot Cowan as Lorenzo de’ Medici and Lara Pulver as his wife Clarice Orsini, excellent actors both and fascinatingly complex as the ruling family, aided by Tom Bateman’s enthusiasm as younger brother Giuliano. 

It also manages to fit in an inordinate number of notable guest stars too – I loved Lydia Leonard’s prim Queen Isabella and Philip Arditti’s comparatively liberal King Ferdinand of Spain on their state visit, Simon Paisley Day’s hypocritical judge, Paul Rhys’ Vlad the Impaler in one of this series’ best episodes, and the Pazzi conspirators who include a wonderfully sibilant Elliot Levey, Michael Culkin and David Sturzaker, who take the show to its first cliff-hanger ending. It’s a crazily overloaded journey with new secrets emerging every three minutes and betrayals every five minutes but because the overall feel is one of fun, it’s easy to be forgiving here.

For it is really rather entertaining. The randomest pair of sunglasses you ever did see, some spookily prescient business with sticking unmentionables into pigs, a naked scene in a sauna (hello gentlemen ;-)) and some excellent visual effects work that transforms Wales into rolling Florentine landscapes and city vistas most impressively. Better to have too much ambition and hope for renewal than to splutter away quietly and it’s good to see that future series were commissioned to allow the writers and actors more room to develop complexity as well as excitement. 

DVD Review: U Be Dead (2009)

“We’ve been getting phone calls, text messages, emails…can’t trace where or who from”

Another drama about online shenanigans, as should be evident from the titular ‘U’, U Be Dead is an ITV television movie from 2009 and written by Gwyneth Hughes. Jan and Debra are in the midst of preparing for a lavish wedding but when they start to receive threatening messages and anonymous phone calls as part of a systematic campaign of harassment, their lives are thrown into complete turmoil. 

It’s all a bit schlocky to be completely honest (but then it is ITV) though there are some strong performances that shine through. Tara Fitzgerald unravels spectacularly as Debra, the target of the most vitriolic aspects of the stalking and clearly far too good for David Morrissey’s rather taciturn psychiatrist/speedboat racer, whose head is easily turned by pert new arrival Bethan played by Lucy Griffith, even in the midst of the crisis.

And with the arrival of the stalker onscreen halfway through, Monica Dolan is chillingly superb as the horrifyingly deranged Maria whose ability to game the system to her advantage has a compelling ring of truth about it. Director Jamie Payne finds these unsettling moments and frames them well in the London and Poole locations but he is often hamstrung by the leaps and bounds that the plotting takes as it skips quickly through months of persecution or races through the lengthy court proceedings.


It ain’t a bad piece of television, with Fitzgerald and Dolan in it how could it be, but it’s one to have one whilst you eat your tea rather than something to devote your whole attention to.


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Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic

“He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age”


There was certainly a raised eyebrow or 3 when it was announced that the leads in Mark Rylance’s take on Much Ado About Nothing for the Old Vic would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Neither have previously taken on the roles of the warring Beatrice and Benedick and having worked together recently on Driving Miss Daisy (which others liked even if I didn’t), their’s is a pairing with history. But undoubted quality aside, it is a brave move to cast so daringly and with a production that relocates Shakespeare’s play to England in 1944. 

  

Does it work? Making the Aragonese soldiers into a company of GIs has a visual impact that works well and turning Sigh No More into a bluesy harmonica-driven ditty is inspired. But putting Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of American soldiers doesn’t always work “my Lord…” and without wanting to open too far the can of worms that is the subject of race, I’m not so sure the lack of comment on a 1940s inter-racial marriage, never mind the issues of honour flung about later, really flies. Messina as the home front is neat though, making the Watch a Dad’s Army-style collection of ragbags and kids (including one called Beryl, maybe?). 


First preview caveats apply but Rylance does seem to have employed a relatively light touch with his leads – James Earl Jones patently not up to speed yet as Benedick and so frequently feeling dangerously improvised and Vanessa Redgrave’s Beatrice full of subleties which need to be a little amplified so as not to come across as underpowered. Yet the possibilities for wonder rear their head even now, not least in a glorious reading of “What fire is in mine eyes…” as Beatrice reels from her gulling, where one genuinely feels the transformative power of love on the lonely. It’s a potent reminder of why she is the deservedly acclaimed actress she is.

Elsewhere the company feels like a mixed bag. James Garnon makes a splendid Don Pedro, his proposal of marriage carried off in a delightful way; Danny Lee Wynter’s Don John needing a tad more depth to display something more than petulance. Lloyd Everitt and Beth Cooke feel like they have the potential to make some affecting out of their unlikely lovers Claudio and Hero, Tim Barlow’s doddery Verges is fun and whilst I enjoy anything that brings more Peter Wight into my life, making him double as Dogberry and Friar Francis seems to make him work very hard in the second half. 

I rather liked Ultz’s immobile square arch that dominates the stage, bringing a simplicity to much of the staging which is often dominated (assumedly necessarily) by chairs for people to actually sit in whilst talking. There’s an inexplicable directorial moment during the wedding though as the perspective is inverted 180 degrees which I hope is cut as it jars horribly. The little music there is adds a lovely 40s flavour but I suppose there isn’t time for people to sing more as they are busy with a distractingly ridiculous amount of smoking.

This Much Ado About Nothing is bolder than one might have expected and consequently the potential for failure does feel greater. Whether it succeeds or not will come to pass over the coming weeks and months, certainly it will become a more comfortable production to watch and it will be interesting to hear which direction JEJ takes his Benedick and what effect that will have on nurturing the chemistry between him and Redgrave. And will they learn the steps for the jig? Who knows!
Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 30th November

DVD Review: Small Island

“This island is too small if you have big dreams”


Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island was inescapable at the time, it seemed like everyone I knew had read and loved it but though it went on to win prizes, I wasn’t as big a fan of most of it. That said, I did love much of this television adaptation in 2009 which came just after Ruth Wilson’s superlative turn in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire as I began to realise how special an actress she really was. The story focuses on the experiences of two women – Queenie Bligh and Hortense Roberts – as the economic and social impact of World War Two ripples out through London and Jamaica.

Naomie Harris’ Hortense is a young Jamaican woman with heady dreams of becoming a teacher in what she sees as the idyllic land of England yet is devastated to find the gloominess of reality, alleviated only once she meets a man called Gilbert; and Ruth Wilson’s Queenie is a working class Yorkshirewoman who moves to London to escape the family farm but with little real prospects. When her job falls through, she accepts the marriage proposal of the attentive Bernard Bligh – Benedict Cumberbatch in full-on English mode – to avoid having to move back but when he leaves for WWII, huge changes are set in motion for all concerned.


Queenie converts the marital home into a boarding house and takes in some airmen including a Jamaican one – who turns out to be Hortense’s childhood sweetheart – and Wilson’s timeless beauty serves her wonderfully as a woman ahead of her time in subverting societal pressure and accepting the increasing racial diversity in London. From Cumberbatch’s bashful nerdishness to Ashley Walters’ cavalier pilot, hers is a deliciously luminous presence when bouncing off male attentions, but is equally adept at sketching the platonic relationship that develops between her and Gilbert, a lovely David Oyelewo, again against public perceptions of what was acceptable.

But the story is not just Queenie’s as it switches between all of the key personnel. Naomie Harris presents well the starched primness of Hortense’s intense shock at her dreams being dashed and the discovery of how racist this Britain is that goes some way to explaining the extremity of her behaviour and Oyelewo has some lovely moments as Gilbert returns to Jamaica post-war but finds that England is now where his heart lies. And as all the characters are reunited again, yet more surprises are in store.

So much of the show is just excellently done and it is an endlessly fascinating look at a part of history that is often neglected, not least by period drama on television. My one annoyance was the use of the narration device which was frustrating in its need to reduce everything to soundbites. But the shifting timeline keeps us on our toes and alive to a time of huge shifts which proves highly watchable.

Review: The Audience, Gielgud

“It is the flow of information from one institution to another”

Helen Mirren took home the Academy Award in 2006 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, so it was perhaps a bit of a surprise that her reprisal of the role was announced to take place on the stage of the Gielgud Theatre in The Audience, a new play written by Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry. The Audience centres on the custom for the reigning monarch to meet their Prime Minister every week at Buckingham Palace, a meeting which is held in complete privacy, and it is this that Morgan has seized upon. The play has just started previews and opens officially on 5th March.

He imagines how some of these audiences might have gone, with strong political characters and epochal events of the second half of the twentieth century passing through and the Queen being the only constant, though not unchanging. There have been 12 Prime Ministers during the Queen’s reign so far, 8 are featured here and even some of those are just fleeting appearances. But Morgan’s selectiveness and use of a non-chronological ordering pays huge dividends in the development of the play and of the Queen as a dramatic character. 

The fluidity of the timeline has an elegant dynamism and allows the growth of HM’s confidence as a statesperson to be portrayed in a fascinating way, able to dip back and forth to show how lessons were learned in the past and how they refracted through her future. Morgan also uses a young Princess Elizabeth intermittently to show the personal growth of the woman beneath the crown, the conversations between the older and younger selves showing the strength of her personality traits with an understated humour and emotion. 

Mirren is superb throughout, never off-stage for more than seconds and frequently remaining onstage to go through the costume and hair changes that mark the shifts in time. But what is truly remarkable is the way in which her performance modulates subtly each time, both physically and vocally as she offers a potential insight to the internal workings of a sovereign. From the stiffness of a young Queen still in mourning, to the glorious regality of her forcing admission of collusion in the Suez affair, to a more circumspect but no less majestic bearing as the 86 year old she is today, Mirren really is nothing less than mesmerising.

The audiences themselves are also really well structured, managing to combine several elements in one. The encapsulation of a Prime Ministerial reign in a single conversation, capturing the contrasting personal relationships between them all – the array of social gaffes as they all try to figure out just how familiar they are allowed to be is simply hilarious and of course, the eloquent positioning of the Queen’s interventions or reactions to the matter at hand. And though this is clearly Mirren’s show, there is some genuinely outstanding and transformative work from some excellent character actors as her PMs.

There’s a titanic battle of steely wills as Haydn Gwynne’s Thatcher coldly rages against the breaking of convention in the monarch passing public judgement on the PM which is countered beautifully by a rare expression of heartfelt emotion which Mirren delivers with pinpoint accuracy. Paul Ritter’s excellent bumbling as an apologetic John Major is one of the funnier pairings, which sets the stage well for the explosive reaction to the demise of Britannia and Robert Hardy’s ailing and officious Churchill is the perfect foil to the young Queen-elect as she tries to observe her innate sense of duty and the centuries of tradition yet be the best wife and mother she can.   

But it is with Richard McCabe’s extraordinary performance as Harold Wilson that the show really finds its heart as over a number of encounters, this most unlikely of relationships deepens into something that becomes infinitely moving. These scenes really capture the essence of the show, gently suggesting an emotional development for its lead character that feels plausible yet respectful and provides a hugely satisfying final note. A more cynical view might see The Audience as an opportunistic jump on the coat-tails of the Jubilee feel-good times, but that would be an absolute disservice to this play which is frequently genuinely funny (and up-to-the-minute topical in its humour), seamlessly directed by Stephen Daldry in Bob Crowley’s elegant designed set with its smooth transitions and impeccably acted, not just by Mirren but by its whole company. Entertaining and enlightening, this is bound to be one of the most successful plays of the year – book now while you still can.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4

Booking until 15th June  
Note: we sat in the dress circle slips, A3+4 and they were really good seats, close to the stage, view hardly restricted and rather bargainous in the grand scheme of prices for this show. Still some available via their website.