DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)

“The whole situation’s been really quite dreadful”

Based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, Testament of Youth hit cinemas in late 2014, perfect timing to capitalise on the rising star of Alicia Vikander whose moment would culminate in winning an Academy Award for The Danish Girl. Her work here in this film is equally spectacular though, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, an elegiac beauty washes through the whole production as Vera’s determination first to study at Oxford and then to help with the war effort plays out.

We first meet Vera in the good company of three good-looking men and as the film progresses, it’s refreshing to see that her journey isn’t defined by them, merely informed. Kit Harington’s poet Roland, Colin Morgan’s shyly besotted Victor, Taron Egerton’s faithful brother (who shares his sister’s eye for a good-looking chap and when it’s Jonny Bailey, who wouldn’t!). And as war plucks each of them from their country idyll, her relationship with each has to bend and reshape. Continue reading “DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)”

TV Review: And Then There Were None

“This is for a play in the West End?”

 Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None may not have seemed like the most obvious festive programming but Sarah Phelps’ three-part adaptation was an unalloyed success for the BBC. It was a particular surprise for me, as having seen it a couple of times on the stage, most recently in a rather creaky touring production, I wasn’t sure how it could be done well. But Phelps and director Craig Viveiros have managed a remarkable job, transforming the murder mystery into a dark, oppressive psychodrama.

From the off, swooping camera shots (of the Cornish locations standing in for the Devonian Soldier Island) take us out of the dusty drawing room, and haunting flashbacks take perfect advantage of the medium to suggest the oppressive weight of guilt that is being brought to bear here. For those new to the story, a microcosm of English society is invited to an isolated country house, under varying auspices, and once fully assembled, find themselves being picked off one by one by an unknown killer. Continue reading “TV Review: And Then There Were None”

Review: The Odyssey, Almeida/Live-stream

“I’m stunned with wonder”

When Rupert Goold first announced the #AlmeidaGreeks season with all its familiar titles, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how genuinely epic a sweep of theatrical innovation it would usher in. From the extraordinary Oresteia to the shattering Bakkhai and Medea, the radical main house programme has been supported by a wide range of supplementary activity, not least the 16 hour, 60+ actor retelling of The Iliad (which can now be viewed in full on the Almeida website).

So it’s only natural that as the season draws to an end, it is bookended by another Homeric extravaganza in The Odyssey, again with 60 odd actors participating in a 12 hour non-stop feat of major storytelling which was live-streamed on t’internet. And conscious of raising the ante, directors Rupert Goold and Robert Icke took us on a literal journey, putting the players in taxicabs, boats, buses, trekking across rooftops and down busy streets to bring Ithaca to Islington as Odysseus winds his way home. Continue reading “Review: The Odyssey, Almeida/Live-stream”

DVD Review: The Hours

“I seem to have fallen out of time”

Based on Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name, I loved 2012 film The Hours from the first time I saw it and still think it a minor masterpiece a three women, each connected by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, try to get through the living of a single day. In the present day, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a NY society hostess planning a party for her AIDS-stricken poet friend; Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a depressed 1950s housewife, unhappily married and pregnant for the second time; and Nicole Kidman plays Woolf herself, battling her own demons whilst writing the book.

From David Hare’s screenplay, Stephen Daldry creates a hugely elegant sweep across time as echoes ripple across the separate narratives – connections built through the smallest of details recurring as each woman variously deals with repressed longing, the fear of a life not lived to its fullest, the hours that keep on passing. Kidman (and her prosthetic nose) may have won the Academy Award and she is very good but for my money, it is Moore’s anguished housewife who should have won the plaudits, such is the intensity she brings to the role.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Hours”

DVD Review: Belle

“How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my own family?”

As Avenue Q once counselled us, “you should be…careful when you’re talking about the sensitive subject of race “ and Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle does exactly that, treading delicately but definitively in telling this real-life story of a mixed race woman who found herself at the heart of English society in the late 1700s. Inspired by a painting of this woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray that hung in Kenwood House, scriptwriter Misan Sagay (and Asante herself too, as reports would suggest) have fashioned a most elegant biography which has a little more bite than your usual period drama due to the inclusion of the slave trade as a significant sub-plot.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain, who is placed into the care of his uncle Lord Mansfield as a ward. He and his wife already care for another niece and so the two become as if sisters, scarcely aware of Belle’s unique position. For though she is ostensibly a part of society, and upon her father’s death a woman of independent means, she is not permitted to contravene society’s rules – so she may not dine with her family and their guests for propriety’s sake, but she may join them after dinner. And she and Bette start to attract the interest of notable suitors, she becomes increasingly aware of the problems in the world she has been placed in. Continue reading “DVD Review: Belle”

DVD Review: Made In Dagenham

“All over the country, women are getting less because they’re women”

I thought this would make an appropriate film review for International Women’s Day, it being a celebration of the sewing machinists whose ground-breaking 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham plant laid the basis for the Equal Pay Act of 1970, enshrining the right of equal pay for equal work. Nigel Cole’s 2010 film, written by William Ivory around the real life events, has been turned into a musical which will be opening at the end of the year, Gemma Arterton taking the lead role under Rupert Goold’s direction, but she has a lot to live up against the glorious Sally Hawkins and what is a rather lovely film.

Made in Dagenham very much fits into the well-established working class Brit flick template – think The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Calendar Girls… – in that it is never particularly challenging, it revels in period cliché and can definitely be described as heart-warming. But also like those films, it does have a little grit at its base, realism (of sorts) is allowed to temper the optimism that drives this huge moment of social change, the individual struggles of these women co-existing with the collective battle to great effect and backed by a super cast, it is frequently moving. Continue reading “DVD Review: Made In Dagenham”

DVD Review: The Young Victoria

“Do you ever feel like a chess piece being moved around in a game against your will”

Much as my favourite genre of theatres is old-school musicals, my favourite type of film is a lavish costume drama, especially and since I’m nicely ensconced at my parents’ house with their flash new television, I’m going to blog a few of them. First up is The Young Victoria, the 2009 film detailing the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria and the beginnings of her grand romance with Albert. I have a serious girl crush on Emily Blunt, she was the highlight of The Devil Wears Prada for me but I really fell in love with her whilst watching the bloopers from the film, she has the kind of irresistible laugh I could listen to all day but I do think she is becoming a really interesting actor (who someone should get on the stage!).

Written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and including producers like Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson – a major force behind getting it made apparently – the film starts off with Victoria as heir presumptive to her uncle King William IV and trying to fend off the avaricious advances of her mother the Duchess of Kent and the hugely ambitious comptroller of her household Sir John Conroy. Matters are complicated by her other uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who wants to use his family connections to build a British/Belgian alliance, but his decision to use his nephew to seduce his way into her affections has unexpected repercussions for everyone, as the nephew is Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Young Victoria”

2009 Best success in the face of adversity, and Damehood

Best success in the face of adversity

Helen Dallimore, Too Close To The Sun
Cynics might think I created this category specifically so that Too Close To The Sun could win something, and they might be right. The particular performance that I witnessed involved what can only be described as “tablegate”, so not only did they have to put up with delivering one of the worst musicals ever created, the cast in particular Helen Dallimore, had to contend with a collapsing wicker chest and the funniest case of ongoing corpsing I’ve ever seen. It made what would have been a tragedy into an ‘event’ and one which I feel privileged to have been part of!

Honourable mention
The cast of Madame de Sade
Miranda Richardson, Grasses of a Thousand Colours
When the Donmar West End season was announced, my eyes were immediately drawn to the third play, the only one to feature an all-female cast and one of such calibre that Iwas eagerly anticipating Madame de Sade. What a shame that this was the only mis-step in a excellent season: a turgid, laborious piece that not even a Dame could rescue.
And there needs to be some recognition of the indignities suffered upon Ms Richardson, cast as a lover of Wallace Shawn in a play written by the self-same Wallace Shawn, he had her pretending to be a cat and licking his bald head.

Closest move to damehood

Imelda Staunton
Parading all her wares us to laugh at in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Imelda Staunton showed great fortitude and continued a legacy of fine fine performances on the stage (which, combined with her efforts in Cranford) means that a place on the Queen’s list must surely be hers soon.

Celia Imrie
Fiona Shaw
Juliet Stevenson

Review: Grasses of a Thousand Colours, Royal Court

Hmm, well this was an odd one. As part of the Wallace Shawn season at the Royal Court, this is a premiere of a play which has been 25 years in the writing, and features the playwright himself, alongside Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly and Emily McDonnell in the intimate space upstairs at the Royal Court.

Grasses of a Thousand Colours is the memoirs of a scientist called Ben which covers the three, well four, major love affairs of his life, whilst the world around them collapses due to the negative impact of human meddling with nature. Miranda Richardson is superb as his wife Cerise, full of dreamy seductiveness and feline sensuality, Jennifer Tilly is also excellent as the statuesque New Yorker mistress Robin and Emily McDonnell is quietly strong as the subsequent lover. And the fourth love affair, well that is with Ben’s own penis with which he, and this play, is obsessed. Continue reading “Review: Grasses of a Thousand Colours, Royal Court”

Review: Songs of Innocence, South Bank Centre

Part of the Meltdown festival being curated by Patti Smith this year was an evening so perfect it was almost picked from my personal wishlist of people I’d love to see on one stage. The loose theme was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence though it was expanded in reality to include songs from and about childhood and even wider than that, protest songs. But essentially, it was just an excuse to see some seriously amazing female singers (and a couple of men) whom I loved for ages and I never thought I’d see on the same bill.

Tori Amos’ 4 songs were a personal highlight, getting to hear ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Winter’ from Little Earthquakes was amazing, plus ‘Pretty Good Year’ and ‘Mother Revolution’ added up to an emotionally wrenching and intense set. Sinéad O’Connor was much more low key than expected,  a gently-strummed guitar backing a murmured, even placid collection of numbers of which only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ really made the impact I wanted from her. Beth Orton’s endearing goofiness made her brace of songs highly engaging, returning later to deliver ‘Dolphins’ exceptionally well, and Marianne Faithful commanded huge presence especially with a scorching version of ‘Working Class Hero’. Continue reading “Review: Songs of Innocence, South Bank Centre”