Film Review: The Children Act (2017)

The neglect of Stanley Tucci aside, The Children Act does a decent job of bringing Ian McEwan’s novel to the screen, with Emma Thompson on fine form

“I think it’s my choice
‘I’m afraid the law doesn’t agree'”

The first half of The Children Act is astounding. Family court judge Fiona Maye is utterly devoted to her career, deciding carefully but firmly on the most delicate of ruilngs. But the case of Adam Henry gives her cause, a 17 year old cancer victim whose Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs are leading him to refuse the blood transfusion that could save his life.

As Maye, Emma Thompson makes you feel every inch of the emotional stoicism she has developed in order to rise through the judicial ranks so. There’s admiration sure but also a touch of apprehension – the brittleness with which she interacts with her devoted clerk (Jason Watkins) and the casual callousness with which she takes her long-suffering husband (Stanley Tucci) for granted. Continue reading “Film Review: The Children Act (2017)”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 3 Episodes 1-3

The Crown returns with Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies at the helm, and Helena Bonham Carter stealing the show

“Everyone at the Post Office is delighted with the new profile”

Gotta get those hits…who knows how far behind I am, given I’m 9 hours ahead of the UK at the moment, but I thought I’d jot down my initial thoughts on the first three episodes of series 3 of The Crown (all written by Peter Morgan and directed by Benjamin Caron), as Netflix kindly offered them up as holiday entertainment. (And since I’m away, I’ve been a little insulated from all the Prince Andrew drama, which from over here almost feels like a random bit of guerilla marketing).

  • I wonder if I have a little hangover from just how good Claire Foy was, but I’m 100% feeling Olivia Colman in the role yet. She doesn’t seem quite as subsumed into the character, in the way that Foy’s every minutely detailed movement seemed to be. That said, there’s some scorching moments when Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson dares to suggest her response to the Aberfan tragedy is lacking.
  • The excellent Tobias Menzies hasn’t really had enough screen time yet to have his Prince Philip make an impact, though I’ve every faith.
  • The casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret is inspired, the extravagance of the character is perfectly suited to her but she’s bringing a real depth at the same time. 
  • And I have to say I miss Matthew Goode’s hugely erotic insouciance as Antony Armstrong-Jones, Ben Daniels’ much more wearied take hasn’t quite ticked my boxes yet.

Elsewhere, the headlong rush through the years means that we’re doomed to the smallest contributions from some excellent actors – Samuel West’s Anthony Blunt and Angus Wright’s MI5 bod were gone too soon, though I live in hope of more from Penny Downie’s Duchess of Gloucester, Aden Gillett as Richard Crossman and Sinéad Matthews as Marcia Williams (seriously, her accent is a thing of pure beauty).

And given the budget is allegedly in the many millions, it certainly looks a treat once again. From glistening palatial lushness to agonisingly destroyed villages, these are fully realised worlds no matter how short a space of time we end up spending in them. Caron’s direction also makes room for a more uncomplicated cinematic as well though, choosing iconic visual to close out each episode – the regal silhouette, juxtapositions of Margarets old and new, the children playing. This is a Crown that has lost none of its lustre.

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

Review: The Hypochondriac, Richmond Theatre

“Keep your sex and rock’n’roll
But leave the drugs, I’ll take them all”
 

Queer, faggot, poof, shirtlifter…it’s the kind of language that is thankfully becoming rarer in public discourse and yet, it still creeps in with an alarming regularity that means it will be a long time before it truly becomes verboten in a similar manner to the n-word. I raise this as Richard Bean’s recent playwriting is particularly guilty of this – Great Britain had multiple references (though with no published script, I can’t quote ‘em), Made in Dagenham had a handful of faggots and his version of The Hypochondriac features poofs and AIDS jokes, delivered without irony in front of a replica of Gilbert and George’s Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit.

The arguments are easily made – ‘oh, that is what people said in today’s tabloid offices/1970s factories/sixteenth century France’ – but the worry, for me, comes in the audience reaction and the legitimisation that is implicit in the inclusion of such language in a comedic environment. It is an assumption I’m making but it really doesn’t feel like the laughter that comes from a character being labelled a faggot or poof comes from a good place, or any kind of interrogation of what it means to use such words. Continue reading “Review: The Hypochondriac, Richmond Theatre”

Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

“An everlasting funeral marches round your heart”

On paper, this latest incarnation of The Crucible at the Old Vic may seem everlasting – early previews hit four hours and with no change to the 7.30pm starting time, it may feel like an endurance test in the making. But settled in at just under 3 hours 30 minutes, Yaël Farber’s production emerges as a slow-burning success, much in the vein of the Streetcar up the road in being utterly unafraid to take its time to build up the requisite atmosphere of horrifying suspicion and fear that renders Arthur Miller’s play a striking and timeless triumph.
 

And creatively it really is a triumph – Soutra Gilmour utilising the in-the-round setting perfectly whilst Richard Hammarton’s pervasive music and sound wriggle under the skin and Tim Lutkin’s lighting creates as much shadow as it does light, all combining to heighten the increasingly nightmarish scenario as the action snowballs to the terrible climax we know must come. The immediacy and intimacy that comes from being much closer than usual (for the vast majority in this theatre anyway) is almost unbearable but completely justifies keeping the theatre in this configuration for a while longer.

Continue reading “Review: The Crucible, Old Vic”

Review: Before The Party, Almeida

“You’re not in West Africa now, you’re in Luffingham”

There’s a triumphant quality to almost every aspect of Before the Party. Anna Fleischle’s beautifully observed design builds in a proscenium arch to the Almeida – the apposite prism through which to view this slice of post-war British life written by Rodney Ackland in 1949 from a short story by Somerset Maugham. And the cheeky addition of animated video work from Mark Thomas suggests a deceptive sitcomesque lightness as the curtain rises on the aspirational upper-middle-class Skinner family as they fuss and squabble whilst preparing for a round of social engagements. But beneath this brittle comic surface lie tragic depths and Matthew Dunster teases them out with pinpoint precision in a superb production and aided by one of the best ensembles in London.

The war may be over and though rationing remains in full force, the rigidity of English society still persists with decorum to be observed at all times. When the Skinners’ eldest daughter Laura – a career-best performance from Katherine Parkinson – returns from Africa a widow and burdened with secrets aplenty, the uneasy equilibrium of the household is threatened as they try to maintain the façade of respectability. Parkinson excavates near-Chekhovian profundity in Laura, an aching sadness underpinned by a morality lacking elsewhere in the family and she captures this blend of fragility and strength with infinite grace and poise – her silences almost unbearable to watch. Continue reading “Review: Before The Party, Almeida”

Review: As You Like It, Bridge Project at Old Vic

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

As You Like It is one half of the 2010 Bridge Project season now in residence at the Old Vic, The Tempest being the other. The transatlantic company, directed by Sam Mendes, takes two classic plays in rep around the world for a year, starting in New York at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, these actors have so far been to Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Spain, Germany and Holland with these two Shakespeare works and London is their current leg.

The play follows Rosalind, daughter of the Duke Senior who has been usurped by his own brother Duke Ferdinand and forced into exile. Rosalind remained in court due to her close friendship with Ferdinand’s daugher and her own cousin Celia, but the situation becomes increasingly unbearable and the two women flee the court disguised as men with the court jester Touchstone. They end up seeking sanctuary in the Forest of Arden where they meet up with a range of the forest’s inhabitants and the pastoral setting encourages a whole range of amorous feeling which may or may not end up in a quadruple wedding (what do you think?!) This is a darker version of the play than most, the comedy has been dialled down somewhat and an air of melancholy pervades which brings an interestingly different dynamic.

This really is Juliet Rylance’s show: her Rosalind lights up the stage brightly from the off, starting in a beautiful jade green dress and full of a youthful exuberance, her early scenes with Michelle Beck’s Celia are delightful, and impetuousness, you really believe she is going for the Duke as he banishes her. This impulsiveness is carried through to the forest as she tumbles head-first in love and she has a girlish playfulness she can’t quite conceal even whilst disguised as a boy, stealing a kiss from Orlando under the pretence of teaching him the right way to woo. She has such a natural confidence and ease on the stage, it is a pleasure to watch her, right ‘til the end of the gender-defying epilogue. She is nicely matched by Christian Camargo (her real-life husband and Dexter’s evil brother from season 1) as Orlando, dreamily romantic, quietly comic and unafraid to let Rylance shine.

There’s also been some impressive work with some of the supporting characters who sometimes make this play a little hard-going: Thomas Sadoski makes Touchstone as funny as I’ve seen him and a keen observer of all around him and Edward Bennett lends his Oliver a clear-spoken sharpness. With Michael Thomas’ sterling work as both the Dukes, there really is the general feeling of high quality throughout this production.

This play does seem much better suited to the ensemble in general, not least because they all get to do so much more, especially the women. The second act here with its series of meetings between the various inhabitants of the forest is perfect for a good group of actors and no-one disappointed here: Ashlie Atkinson as a buxom Phoebe, Anthony O’Donnell’s knowing shepherd Corin and Jenni Barber’s cheeky country girl Audrey all stood out for me and Stephen Dillane’s delightfully sardonic man of the world Jaques was a great touch, his unexpected Bob Dylan impersonation providing the biggest laugh of the play, although probably not to everyone’s taste.

The violin-led score is excellent and perfectly judged to the melancholic overtones. And Mendes conjures some visually impressive moments: the swinging light over the wrestling match, the moment when Duke Frederick’s court is transformed into the exiled Duke Senior’s headquarters by the donning of robes, Mendes really does have an eye for an arresting image which translates so well onto the stage.

Taking the commonalities identified by Ted Hughes between these two plays, of father/daughter relationships, usurped positions and fierce sibling rivalries and presenting them as explorations of the same themes written at different stages of Shakespeare’s career does feel like a bit of a stretch to be honest. An issue probably not helped by the fact I saw them the wrong way round in that respect, but also in their completely different presentations, it was hard to see the connecting tissue between the two. I do wonder what the third and final year of the Bridge Project will hold.

Perhaps I enjoyed this more because of being relatively disappointed by The Tempest, but I do genuinely think that this was an extremely good production. A strong and varied ensemble clearly comfortable with their work, elevated by what I suspect will be a award-winning performance from Rylance, beautifully staged and musically spot on: if you only do one of the Bridge Project shows this year, then this is definitely the one to plump for.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 (but covers both Bridge Project shows)
Booking until 21st August
Note: a little smoking on stage

Review: The Tempest, Bridge Project at Old Vic

“This rough magic I here abjure”

The Bridge Project, a transatlantic company of actors performing two classic plays in rep directed by Sam Mendes, returns to the Old Vic for its second year after playing numerous venues across the world. After a well-received double-bill of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale last year, there’s a greater focus on Shakespeare with As You Like It partnering The Tempest.

This is a somewhat low-key interpretation of Shakespeare’s final play. Played in modern dress, it tells of Prospero, usurped as Duke of Milan by his own brother and cast out to sea with his infant daughter Miranda. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island full of magical knowledge, 12 years pass until he is able to confront his enemies aided and abetted by his enslaved island creatures Ariel and Caliban and through a masterful display of control-freakery, manipulate most everyone he deals with into achieving his own aims. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Bridge Project at Old Vic”

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’, not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as ‘Shakespeare Noir’ which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the ‘hey nonny no’ type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen nobleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National”

Review: Waste, Almeida Theatre

Waste, a play by Harley Granville Barker, is another one of those plays that was banned when first written, in this case in 1907. Directed by actor Samuel West at the Almeida theatre, this version uses the revised 1926 text to great effect with as strong an ensemble you will find in London this autumn.

The story follows Henry Trebell an independent MP with a lifelong dream of wanting to disestablish the Church of England and build colleges on the land and has formed part of a Tory push to get the bill passed as law with their anticipated arrival in government. However, his personal life is in disarray as a casual affair with a married woman who ends up pregnant comes to light and threatens to ruin everything that he holds dear. Continue reading “Review: Waste, Almeida Theatre”

Review: Saint Joan, National Theatre

With Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw took the well-known story of Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl eventually sainted, who led the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years War and was repaid for her trouble by being declared a witch and burnt at the stake since she believed that she was being guided by the voice of God in her head, and created an all-too-human story filling in the gaps in the history with tales of conflicting institutions, personality clashes and a keen sense of humour of what her life must have been like.

The play is remarkably even-handed in that it presents all sides of the argument and never really comes down on the side of either Joan or her oppressors. There are no goodies and baddies here, just a girl who believes God is speaking to her and the machinery of Church and State who will do anything to ensure their power remains stable: Shaw’s message is that uncontrolled individualism threatens the established order and is rarely tolerated. Continue reading “Review: Saint Joan, National Theatre”