TV Review: Harlots Series 1

The best TV show you haven’t heard about? Harlots just might be it!

“When the time comes, I hope your quim splits”

I suppose that it is good that we have so many more options for good television to be made these days. The flipside to that is that it can be harder to keep track of it all. Harlots is fricking fantastic, a hugely enjoyable and high quality drama but airing on ITV Encore (and Hulu in the US),  it has languished in the doldrums of the unfairly unheralded.

A glance at the castlist shows you how much of a waste this is. Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville at the head, Jessica Brown Findlay, Hugh Skinner and Dorothy Atkinson among the supporting, Fenella Woolgar, Danny Sapani and Kate Fleetwood popping up now and again too. This is luxury stuff and yet criminally few know about it. Continue reading “TV Review: Harlots Series 1”

Review: The Greatest Wealth, Old Vic

Paying tribute to the NHS in its 70th year, the specially-commissioned monologues of The Greatest Wealth made for a great night at the Old Vic

“It’s a wonderful idea
It’s a marvellous idea
It’s such a very good idea”

It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here but for the NHS – it changed my life as a young boy, it saved my life as a teenager who didn’t look both ways. A story I imagine which finds resonance with so very many of us in the UK but as this venerable institution marks its 70th birthday, it finds itself under siege more than ever. So what better time to reflect on what has been, what is and what yet might be for our National Health Service.

Curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester, The Greatest Wealth took the form of a series of specially-commissioned world-premiere monologues, each responding to a particular decade of the NHS’s existence. Exploring the myriad ways in which it has become an integral part of the social and economic fabric of the nation, it proved a varied and thoughtful evening.

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Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre

“You have to live in this world”

The lure of falling down the rabbit hole is one which has kept adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland appearing on a regular basis on screens and stages and the Manchester International Festival is no exception, commissioning this musical treatment with the National Theatre and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Composer Damon Albarn (no stranger to the MIF after Monkey and Dr Dee) and writer Moira Buffini’s thoroughly modern version – stylised wonder dot land – certainly has a unique take on the story but has the feeling of something of a work-in-progress perhaps, no bad thing as longer runs in London and Paris will follow this brief engagement at the Palace Theatre.

Here, wonder.land is an online world, a virtual reality where people can escape the drudgery of their own lives or pretend to be someone completely different, for a little while at least. 12-year-old Aly is one such person, trying to hide from the bullies at school and the unhappiness at home by becoming Alice, her all-conquering avatar or online identity who accepts a mysterious quest as part of joining wonder.land. And in her journeying, she comes across variations on many of the characters we’ve come to know but viewed through a different prism, many of them being the avatars of other players, balefully reflecting their own insecurities.  Continue reading “Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre”

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”
 
The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
 
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

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Re-review: Handbagged, Vaudeville

 “One had to laugh”

Definitely something of a luxury revisit this one, my third time seeing it. But as Moira Buffini’s Handbagged has grown from a sketch as part of the Tricycle’s 2010 Women, Power and Politics season through to an Olivier-winning full length play which has now transferred into the West End, the chance to see its third incarnation was one I couldn’t resist. Not just seeing it on a larger stage, the one change to the cast from last year’s Tricycle production was what sold it to me. 

Lucy Robinson may not be the most recognisable name out there but she played the first Lady Macbeth I ever saw on stage (at the Bolton Octagon) and she also starred in the most amazing schlocky late-night soap called Revelations back in the 90s which I was obsessed with at the time. She replaces Clare Holman as the younger version of the Queen (Liz) who locks horns regularly with Fenella Woolgar’s awesomely impressive Thatcher (Mags), in a hugely entertaining manner.  Continue reading “Re-review: Handbagged, Vaudeville”

Review: Handbagged, Tricycle

“We are both Britain”

Moira Buffini’s Handbagged started life as a short play as part of the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season back in 2010 and now, in a fully fleshed out version, it returns to Kilburn to imagine the relationship that might have existed between two of the most significant British women of the last century – the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. But much has happened in the meantime, not least Peter Morgan having a huge success with a play that also depicted the relationship between monarch and Prime Minister(s) and the small matter of the death of the UK’s first female head of government.

Perhaps conscious of the impossibility of trying to envisage what was really said between the pair,  Buffini opts instead for a meta-theatrical fantasia and huge fun it is. Older incarnations of the women (Q and T) interact with their younger selves (Liz and Mags), each giving us their own take on Thatcher’s reign through the weekly meetings held with the Queen, whilst two actors play any number of supporting characters – Reagans Ronald and Nancy, Rupert Murdoch, Neil Kinnock, a simple palace footman, the list goes on… As one of them recounts an event, the others pass comment, challenge memories, offer explanatory excuses, even break entirely out of character sometimes.

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DVD Review: Tamara Drewe

“You’re just a sex object, no-one would have you”

I did a lot of travelling this weekend so I got to catch up on a fair bit of DVD watching on the train: some were directly theatre-related and others not, but the cast of Tamara Drewe was so thesp-heavy I couldn’t resist jotting down a few thoughts about this film. Any film that opens with a shirtless Luke Evans and having his role as a sex object acknowledged within the first 15 minutes is surely onto a good thing and combined with Roger Allam’s deliciously fruity turn of phrase, the film made a bright start which endeared me greatly.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, has a screenplay by Moira Buffini derived from Posy Simmond’s graphic novel-style drawings and is set in the sleepy village of Ewedown where everyone knows each other’s business and can’t help but poke their nose in. When Tamara, an appealing turn from Gemma Arterton, returns after her mother’s death to sell up the old family house, she thinks that she’ll be heading straight back to her adopted London lifestyle, but a new affair with rock star Ben, Dominic Cooper in fine form, keeps her a little longer and allowing old feelings and passions to stir in several men of the village, making life most complicated for all. Continue reading “DVD Review: Tamara Drewe”

Review: Greenland, National Theatre

“It’s like we’re conducting a big, massive experiment…”

Pulling together narratives and investigative work from four playwrights, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne around the ever-current issue of climate change, Greenland is the latest play at the National Theatre to tackle this issue, following on from Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London last year. Based on interviews with scientists, politicians, money-makers and philosophers, woven together by dramaturg Ben Power and directed by Bijan Sheibani, this is a highly ambitious, challenging piece of work and though this was the first preview, it seems that some of these challenges might be a little too much.

Predictably, multiple strands of story run parallel, some explored and revisited more than others as the narrative shifts around, there are occasional intersections but these are perfunctory rather than integral to the stories. Amongst everything, there’s a young woman moved to drop out of university to become a climate change activist; two women in a therapy session (there was division in the group as to whether they were mother/daughter or a lesbian couple, but it really isn’t that important) who are being driven apart by the strident ‘green’ views of one of them; two guys bird-watching in Greenland, one of whom has been doing it for 40 years; a Labour politician struggling to make a difference leading up to and at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. All are trying to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints around the issue and figuring out who to trust and what, if anything, can be done. Continue reading “Review: Greenland, National Theatre”

Review: Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre

“If you intend to f*ck with the god of power, then make sure you don’t fall asleep besides him”

Any play that can use the epithet “your mother-f*cking brother” with complete accuracy has to be worth your attention and sure enough, Welcome to Thebes, a new play by Moira Buffini opening in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, is more than equal to the challenge. The play is quite huge in scope, it looks at the role of women in politics, the state of Africa, the aftermath of war, the relationship between Africa and the West, the tragedy of child soldiers and it tells of them through the prism of Greek mythology, but relocated to the modern day and an unspecified (West) African state.

So we have the story of a female president-elect, Eurydice, struggling to exert herself in both her domestic situation in a country reeling from years of civil war, but also in the male-dominated world of international relations as she needs to establish links with global superpower Athens for much needed aid and investment by engaging with its charismatic leader, Theseus. The clearest analogy to make is with Liberia, the only African state to have an elected female leader of state in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who came to power after the concerted efforts of a mass movement of women hungry for peace after years of civil war. And if Thebes equates to Liberia, then Athens becomes the United States, the superpower and apparent bastion of democracy but unwilling to provide assistance without considerable caveats; Theseus being an Obama-like leader with a touch more arrogance. Continue reading “Review: Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre”

Review: Handbagged, Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle

Play number 2 of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre

 

“’I never said there was no such thing as society’
‘Yes you did, it was in Women’s Own!’”

Written by Moira Buffini, soon to become the second living female playwright to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre (although by saying that am I undermining what this season is trying to achieve? I know it shouldn’t matter but surely it is significant enough to mention?), Handbagged is an extremely witty look at what the relationship between the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher might have been like. Thatcher had a weekly audience with Elizabeth II during her Prime Ministership and this could be seen as the most constant professional relationship she had with another woman during that time, but it was not the easiest of times between the two as we see here.

They were tested by a range of major challenges. Like Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, supported by Thatcher but as a Commonwealth country the Queen had an interest as the Head of State there, and the Queen took great exception to not being fully included in the consultations around it. Like Thatcher’s rejection of sanctions against South Africa in order to try and weaken apartheid, something supported by the Queen as she felt it was threatening the stability of the Commonwealth. Like the Sunday Times’ alleged exposé of the rift between the women, leaked (or was it?) by the Queen’s Press Secretary Michael Shea, a waggish Simon Chandler in an excellent cameo here. Continue reading “Review: Handbagged, Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle”