News: Old Vic bicentenary ambassadors announced

How do you mark a significant birthday? My parents are currently (jointly) turning 140 and are celebrating the occasion with a six month program of events, peaking with an all-day party happening very soon. But if you’re the Old Vic and you’re turning 200, you open your contacts and see who is free.

Turns out a fair few people are, and so their list currently includes Nikki Amuka-Bird, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Cate Blanchett, Bertie Carvel, Kim Cattrall, Lily Cole, Alan Cumming, Judi Dench, Michelle Dockery, Rupert Everett, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, David Harewood, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Cush Jumbo, Ben Kingsley, Pearl Mackie, Helen McCrory, Ian McKellen, Bill Nighy, Anika Noni Rose, Maxine Peake, Mark Rylance, Andrew Scott, Tom Stoppard, Stanley Tucci and Julie Walters.

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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.

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Round-up of news, treats and other interesting things

I’m not one to blow my trumpet too much, honest, but it was nice to discover that the blog has been named one of Feedspot’s Top 50 Drama Blogs and Websites.


(c) Faye Thomas
This autumn the National Theatre will stage the world-premiere of Network, Lee Hall’s new adaptation of the Oscar-winning film by Paddy Chayefsky.

Directed by Ivo van Hove, Tony award winner Bryan Cranston plays Howard Beale and announced today is Michelle Dockery as Diana Christenson.

Michelle said: “It’s a wonderful feeling to be going back to the National after eight years. To be working with Bryan Cranston and Ivo van Hove on an adaptation of this brilliant film is a rare and exhilarating opportunity, I am thrilled.”

A very limited number of additional on stage seats will be released in the autumn – see the NT website for more information.



Alice Hamilton (Visitors and Eventide, Bush Theatre) returns to the Orange Tree following Robert Holman’s German Skerries to direct Sarah Belcher (Medea, Almeida; Twelfth Night, Filter/RSC), Ian Gelder (The Treatment, Almeida; Kevan Lannister in four series of Game of Thrones), Colin Tierney (The Father, Theatre Royal Bath/Tricycle), Connie Walker (Death of a Salesman, Northampton/tour) and Sue Wallace (Husbands and Sons, Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre).


Major post-war playwright David Storey died in March 2017. Born in Wakefield, he was the son of a Yorkshire miner and became a distinctive voice of working class Britain, especially through productions at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s and 70s.

Previewing from 7 September, this is the first major production of his play The March on Russia since premiering at the National Theatre in 1989.


Following last week’s opening of Girl from the North Country at The Old Vic, a video has been released of one of my favourite numbers from the show – Sheila Atim’s performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)’.

Though it means we in the UK lose them for a good wodge of time, it is great to see that the seven original London leads from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will star in the Broadway production of the show when it opens across the pond in March 2018.


Reprising their roles will be Paul Thornley (Ron Weasley), Noma Dumezweni (Hermione Granger), Jamie Parker (Harry Potter), Sam Clemmett (Albus Potter), Poppy Miller (Ginny Potter), Alex Price (Draco Malfoy) and Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy).

They will be joined by a cast of 28 new actors in the production which officially opens at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway on 22 April 2018.

They include David Abeles, Brian Abraham, Shirine Babb, Jess Barbagallo, Stephen Bradbury, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Joshua De Jesus, Jessie Fisher, Richard Gallagher, Susan Heyward, Geraldine Hughes, Edward James Hyland, Byron Jennings, Katie Kreisler, Joey LaBrasca, Andrew Long, Kathryn Meisle, Angela Reed, Dave Register, Adeola Role, James Romney, Malika Samuel, Alanna Saunders, David St. Louis, Stuart Ward, Madeline Weinstein, Alex Weisman and Benjamin Wheelwright.


The full cast joining Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire in James Graham’s Labour of Love has been announced.


The play follows David Lyons, a Labour MP played by Freeman, over the course of 25 years as the country, and the Labour party, undergo significant changes in philosophy, culture and class. Lancashire will play Lyons’ his constituency agent Jean Whittaker.

Rachael Stirling will play Elizabeth Lyons. Her previous theatre credits include The Winter’s Tale (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), Medea (Headlong) and The Recruiting Officer (Donmar Warehouse). She has appeared on screen in Doctor Who and Detectorists, and was nominated or an Olivier Award for her role in The Priory at the Royal Court.

Kwong Loke will play Mr Shen. Loke has previously appeared in You For Me For You (Royal Court Theatre), The Lulu Plays (Almeida Theatre) and Hiawatha (Bristol Old Vic), a well as the films At Sea on Inya Lake and Another Land.

Len Prior will be played by Dickon Tyrrell. His work at the Globe includes Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello and The Oresteia, and his work at the Royal Court includes Anatomy of a Suicide and Harvest.

Susan Wokoma will play Margot Miller. She has previously appeared in A Raisin in the Sun (Sheffield Crucible, UK tour), Henry IV, Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse at St Ann’s Warehouse) and Game (Almeida Theatre).

Jeremy Herrin directs the piece for Headlong, and this world premiere marks the return of Michael Grandage Company to the West End for the first time since Photograph 51 which starred Nicole Kidman.

DVD Review: Hanna

“Hanna, what did your mum die of?

‘Three bullets'”

I have a deal of affection for Joe Wright’s Hanna, a film I saw at the cinema as part of a birthday treat back in 2011 and so watching it again for the first time has that special layer of extra memory attached to it. Which it kind of needs as I’d forgotten how loopy the revenge thriller is. Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna has been raised as a crack assassin since birth by her ex-CIA father Eric Bana but hidden away in the isolated Arctic tundra as current CIA supremo, Cate Blanchett’s insanely fruity Marissa, wants them both dead to protect a secret they possess.

One day, Hanna declares that she’s ready to take on their nemesis and the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase takes our characters from Finland to Morocco, Spain to Germany, all to the beats of a thumping soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers. Wright folds in elements of The Brothers Grimm into the story too to evoke a very dark fairytale feel. And it’s one that works intermittently, the hyper-stylised violence hits hard and provides the energy that is sorely needed in some of the quieter sequences. Ronan is a mesmeric screen presence as this impossible girl and proves a dab hand at doing her own stunts. 

Wright utilises some cracking British talent in his supporting cast – Jessica Barden (so brilliant in Armstrong’s War) is a brattish contemporary of Hanna’s and along with Olivia Williams as her liberally-inclined mother offer her a glimpse of the kind of family life that she’s never had, Michelle Dockery has a vividly memorable cameo near the beginning and Tom Hollander is ingeniously cast against type as a bleached blond hitman, trying to carry out the vicious wishes of Marissa’s twisted behest. 

But for all the Sturm und Drang initially coming out of this certainly original concept, there’s also a slight sense of hollowness to it, its lack of restraint makes it a little tiring when there’s not quite enough intellectual sustenance for counter-balance. Blanchett is good fun as she always is when she’s the villain but she can do this in her sleep, there’s nothing testing her in this role at all, Bana likewise isn’t given enough to work with as Hanna’s father and so whilst I enjoyed going back to rewatch Hanna and the memories it provoked, I can’t say I’d be rushing to come back for more.

Short Film Review #50

Passenger from HMT Productions on Vimeo.
Aaaarrgghhh – proof positive as if it were ever needed that you shouldn’t ever talk to strangers on the tube. Ed Rigg’s Passenger follows a couple at the end of a long day as they catch the Victoria Line up to Walthamstow Central and make the fatal mistake of making eye contact with the guy sitting opposite after a mildly amusing episode. Sara Vickers and Mark Quartley do a great job at capturing the helpless awkwardness of the situation but Samuel Edward-Cook really excels as the ex-serviceman who won’t leave them alone, invading their headspace as well as their personal space as the encounter becomes more and more chilling. Great work.

DVD Review: Fingersmith

“The over-exposure of women to literature breeds unnatural fancies”

I struggled a little bit to find another theatrical-friendly lesbian-themed thing to watch so I returned to Sarah Waters and the 2005 adaptation of Fingersmith, which as it starred Sally Hawkins was no great hardship at all. Set in Victorian England as was Tipping the Velvet, this story follows the lives of Sue and Maud, two very different women whose lives are irrevocably changed when a trio of fingersmiths, or pickpockets, conspire to rob an heiress of her fortune. But it turns out the plans are even more devious than first assumed as they culminate in the most unexpected of fashions and in a deftly clever move, we revisit all we have just seen from another perspective, casting uncertainty of the surety of what we know which plays excellently in the subsequent exploration of the disturbing reality of Victorian mental asylums.
Sally Hawkins is predictably excellent as Sue, one of the pickpockets who hoodwinks her way into the slightly disturbed Maud’s, the pale Elaine Cassidy, household as a housemaid who acts as a chaperone to allow a second trickster, Mr Rivers played by a bewhiskered Rupert Evans, to pose as a gentleman and seduce Maud into marriage just before she inherits a large fortune. Maud has been stifled by life in her extremely strict uncle’s house as a contributor to his immense collection of pornography and relishes the contact of Sue’s seemingly kindred spirit, so much so that an illicit lesbian affair springs up between the pair. But even as Sue is deceiving her, it emerges that Maud is not quite as delicate as she may seem and so intrigue builds on intrigue as Peter Ransley’s screenplay condenses a wonderfully complex novel into a more streamlined narrative, though still full of equally multifaceted characters. 


So alongside Sue and Maud’s double-dealing, Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Sucksby balances her Fagin-like leadership with a sacrificial kindness and Rupert Evans’ villainous gent is a genuinely conflicted conman who no longer really knows who he is. And combined with Waters’ delving into the seedy underbelly of Victorian society which rarely so vividly portrayed, it all makes for a highly satisfying watch. It also becomes highly moving in its emotive conclusion, Staunton and Hawkins in particular doing some heart-rending work under Aisling Walsh’s astute direction. The supporting cast has its faces, Charles Dance, Richard Durden, Laura Dos Santos…and most memorably Sophie Stanton makes a wonderfully vicious asylum nurse, Michelle Dockery pops up a crazy patient and David Troughton is a clever bit of counter-intuitive casting as the father-figure of the pickpocketing household. 


Though less overtly gay than Tipping the Velvet, I think Fingersmith actually emerges as a slightly stronger piece of work as a more wide-ranging story, embracing the seediness of all Victorian society but crucially retaining an intimacy in the story-telling that is better suited to the televisual medium.  

DVD Review: The Turn of the Screw

“The children – strange, shadowy creatures”


Starting in London in 1921 in a hospital for the war wounded, a junior psychiatrist tries to break through with a mentally disturbed patient, a young woman who was previously a governess at a grand house in the country. Thus starts this 2009 television adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch and directed by Tim Fywell which relocates the story to a shell-shocked post WWI society.


Michelle Dockery leads the cast as Ann, newly employed to look after the 2 young wards of the Master (Mark Umbers in handsomely brutish form), but soon finds out that neither child is quite as angelic as they first seem. Strange happenings keep on occurring to her and around her and all seems to be linked to the previous woman to hold the position of governess who died in mysterious circumstances along with a manservant from the house, Peter Quint, whose ghostly presence threatens the sanity and safety of all concerned, or so it seems to Ann at least. 


There’s a strong sense of atmosphere, set from Ann’s first arrival at the house with its line of scary maids – Nicola Walker chief amongst them as Carla – and creepy little children always set my hairs on edge, especially when making a seemingly innocuous game of hide and seek into something highly charged, the chanting of nursery rhymes something incredibly eerie. The casting of Sue Johnston as the mysterious housekeeper is inspired as she is someone so identifiable with warm roles, that it feels doubly wrong to have her as such an ambiguous character, initially at least.

But where so much of the power of the story comes from the ambiguity of its whole premise, about whether the ghosts are real or whether they are the product of a fevered mind. And despite its beginnings which suggest otherwise, this adaptation goes a little too far is providing a definitive answer which robs the production of the richness that Henry James surely intended. 


And the film loses a touch of its intensity as it moves to an exploratory vein which painstakingly spells out a lot of what is apparently going on. Debunking some of the mystery also robs it of its intrigue, but it does then build up to its dénouement with a genuinely chilling force. Indeed I might even go so far as to say it is quite frightening, especially in the way that it co-opts poor young Miles to unnerving effect. 


So something of a mixed bag of an adaptation and possibly a difficult watch for fans of the story. But regardless, I did find it a bit of a spookily effective interpretation and strongly acted.

Film Review: Anna Karenina

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations. 

It is recognisably a Joe Wright film – the technically accomplished tracking shots are there, the sumptuous costumery and set dressing provides utterly gorgeous visuals – the cobalt blue apartment is just stunning, and the sound design is sensational and wittily used in clever transitions, like the fluttering of a fan becoming the thundering of hooves. But crucially, all this directorial flair is in full support of the narrative, never muddying the way, and a clutch of excellent performances.

Keira Knightley, whose work with Wright seems to bring out something special in her, is marvellous as Anna, her hauteur melted in the face of passion, her vibrant spirit still flaring occasionally even in the depth of despair. Jude Law’s cuckolded Karenin feels like a bold move for an actor so long known for his handsomeness but he pulls it off with the kind of dulled normality that is at once sympathetic yet undesirable. Matthew MacFadyen is hilarious as Anna’s bounteous brother who hypocritically gets away with murder, especially in the face of Kelly McDonald’s beautifully compassionate wife, and Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander bring a most touching depth of feeling to their faltering courtship as Levin and Kitty, the scene in which they finally declare their true feelings is one of the most romantic things I’ve seen all year.

I knew there’d be some good theatrical spots in here but I wasn’t quite ready for the level we got. Nick Holder, Michelle Dockery, Henry Lloyd Hughes, Max Bennett, James Northcote, Kyle Soller all pop up momentarily, as does Claire Greenway which was a nice surprise too. And such is the quality of the minor supporting cast that it is difficult not to feel a little hard done by to only get one scene of Shirley Henderson or get such limited play from the likes of Emily Watson and Olivia Williams, who both do a great line in firm disapproval towards Anna. Ruth Wilson gets a decent bite of the cherry though as Princess Betsy, whose simpering flightiness masks a steely inner core and a delicious sense of entitlement – that poor puppy!

So a gorgeous feast for the eyes – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography alone is worth it in the luscious dance sequences – which delights in the heady whirl that it creates. It doesn’t quite reach the tragic depths that it possibly could do, mainly due to Aaron Johnson’s Vronsky who captures the tautly-buttocked rockstar charm of an illicit lover but convinces less as a genuine soulmate for Anna, especially in the later scenes. But the strength of the other performances, especially Knightley’s, and the intelligence with which this adaptation has been cinematically theatricalised made it a pleasure to watch.    

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part II

“I’ll tickle your catastrophe”

I was mildly disappointed by the second instalment of The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I and so it was pretty much a given that I’d feel more or less the same about Henry IV Part II and so it came to pass. In some ways, little changed: Walters and Russell Beale continued to be themselves, Heffernan continued to be neglected as a simple serving boy, the women continued to get a raw deal of it only this time Niamh Cusack got in on the action with a mere handful of lines as Lady Northumberland (and admittedly Maxine Peake rightly got a bit more screentime as Doll Tearsheet), Hiddleston and Irons continued to be epically good and it all felt a bit too theatrical for my liking.

I did like that we got more Dominc Rowan in this one, though his hair still caused me consternation, Iain Glen and Pip Carter were great additions to the cast as Warwick and Gower respectively – Glen was particularly sonorous when speaking – and everyone has got to love a scene that looks like it could have been set in a gay sauna 😉 And though they lacked a certain something, the rural scenes with David Bamber and Tim McMullan as Shallow and Silence, were largely well-played.


Alun Armstrong shone as Northumberland on receiving the news of his death in one of te few scenes that really sparked with emotion, Hiddleston really whetted the appetite for Henry V with another performance of controlled emotion and though I mostly did not care for this Falstaff, Russell Beale invested his final rejection scene with much gravitas, finally disappearing into the role but of course it was too little too late for me. So onwards we go and hopefully Thea Sharrock’s take on Henry V might be more to my tastes.