TV Review: A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant delivers a career best performance in the hugely enjoyable A Very English Scandal. Just don’t mention your National Insurance card.

“Tell him not to talk. And not to write to my mother describing acts of anal sex under any circumstances whatsoever”

I don’t think I’ve ever been chilled quite so much by the end credits of anything like A Very English Scandal. You know, that bit when you find out what happened next to the people who you’ve just been watching. It helps of course that I knew nothing about the 1970s Jeremy Thorpe affair on which it was based but still, never have 11 dogs and a missing NI card seemed so ominous.

Written by Russell T Davies, adapted from John Preston’s book, and directed by Stephen Frears, A Very English Scandal is a complete breath of fresh air. Perhaps surprisingly for a true-life tale of sex, politics and attempted murder, it has a quirky, almost jolly tone that is hugely enjoyable, deftly comic as it negotiates the would-be Machiavellian moves of a politician desperate to save his skin. Continue reading “TV Review: A Very English Scandal”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 6

“Demons run when a good man goes to war”

And here it is, the point at which I stopped loving new Doctor Who, even in a series that has two of the best episodes it has done, and the first series that I haven’t ever rewatched in its entirety. I do enjoy Matt Smith’s Eleven immensely but the writing across this season – which was split into two for transmission – was just fatally erratic for me. Alongside the innovative work from Neil Gaiman in The Doctor’s Wife and Steve Thompson in The Girl Who Waited, two contrasting but superlative pieces of writing, stories such as The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors took the show to a less sophisticated place – (or do I really mean that I started to feel that this version of Doctor Who wasn’t necessarily aimed at me…?)

Even the big finales (for there were two, one for each half) fell a little flat. The premonition that the Doctor would “fall so much further” than ever before in A Good Man Goes to War raised expectations only to be dashed by an overloaded episode with little emotional heft aside from the River Song reveal, and The Wedding of River Song suffered from the general over-use of the characters dying-but-not-really-dying trope (poor Arthur Darvill…). That said, the high points of the series are so very good – the striking US-set opening double-bill, the Doctor finally meeting the TARDIS, and brain-scratching sci-fi with real heart. Frustratingly inconsistent. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 6”

Review: Strangers on a Train, Gielgud

“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer”


Despite never having seen or read Strangers on a Train, I seemed to carry a strong idea of what the plot would entail. So of course I was disappointed to find out that the play wasn’t actually about two men deciding to kill each other’s wives on a long journey on the rails and that the action actually left the train carriage pretty early on. Expectations aside, I was also a little surprised at just how cinematic Robert Allan Ackerman’s production was, a veritable film noir brought to life in all its tense monochrome glory.


But for all the gloss that Tim Goodchild’s ever-revolving set and Peter Wilms’ frequent projections bring, there’s a curious lack of effective theatricality to Craig Warner’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The fateful initial meeting between Laurence Fox’s Guy and Jack Huston’s Bruno is charged with homoerotic tension as the latter teasingly offers to kill the former’s unloved wife if he will reciprocate by offing his overbearing father. Yet this isn’t something that is played out in the psychodrama that follows, exploring the effects on each man of perpetrating their crimes.


Indeed, we’re offered very little reason to empathise with either of them, neither is presented in a likeable light but neither actor really makes a convincing case that their emotional turmoil is something we ought to engage with. Fox’s stilted Englishness feels uncomfortably awkward throughout and though Huston is better as the free-wheeling Bruno, their story just doesn’t rouse anything beneath the surface. That the show has to rely so greatly on the volume of Avgoustous Psillas’ sound design to get its shocks is symptomatic of its inherent heavy-handedness. 

Supporting roles offer a little light relief – Imogen Stubbs’ vampish mother, Miranda Raison’s glacial femme fatale, Christian Kay’s intrepid PI – but the bloating running time sees diminishing returns as the melodrama increases, especially as the interminable second half crawls to its dénouement. I would warrant that Strangers on a Train has solid enough credentials to ensure that it will be enough of a success but on this evidence, it is hard to suggest that it is that welcome an addition to the West End. 

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 22nd February

Review: The Captain of Köpenick, National Theatre

“Laws are like sausages, it’s better not to see them being made”

‘Released after fifteen years in prison, trapped in a bureaucratic maze, petty criminal Wilhelm Voigt wanders 1910 Berlin in desperate, hazardous pursuit of identity papers. Luck changes when he picks up an abandoned military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and finds the city ready to obey his every command. At the head of six soldiers, he marches to the Mayor’s office, cites corruption and confiscates the treasury with ease. But still what he craves is official recognition that he exists.’

It is probably cheating to use the official synopsis of a play wholesale like this but to be honest, I couldn’t care less after suffering the bloated self-satisfaction of The Captain of Köpenick at the National Theatre. An adaptation by Ron Hutchinson of a 1930s German satire by Carl Zuckmayer, it is a heavy-handed, ploddingly-laboured, fatally-misjudged confection which throws everything plus the kitchen sink into the Olivier but for shockingly low returns. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 4th April 

DVD Review: ShakespeaRe-Told – The Taming of the Shrew/A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“When you speak, it sounds like poetry”

The second disc of ShakespeaRe-Told (first disc reviewed here) features reworkings of The Taming of the Shrew by Sally Wainwright and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Peter Bowker. Shrew is a problematic play at the best of times and I have to say that I found this interpretation to be very difficult. Katherine becomes an abrasive politician aiming to become Leader of the Opposition who is advised to get married for her image, Petruchio is a foppish aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and is attracted by her wealth. They meet, sparks fly and thus do battle whilst conducting their relationship. Initially it works, as he is just as mad as her – almost cartoonish in how mental they are – but the ‘taming’ that ensues only applies to her and so the unease feeling of misogyny is always too present. Shirley Henderson gives shrewish life to Katherine (sorry) and Rufus Sewell swaggers well as the cross-dressing Petruchio, but it never really flies as a revision.

The subplot involves her supermodel sister Bianca – Jaime Murray as she bats away the affections of her manager for the seductive allure of a Spanish stranger Lucentio. I have to say that Santiago Cabrera looks pretty much like perfection here, the sexiest glasses-wearer ever, and so is forgiven for the underwhelming way in which this subplot works. Stephen Tompkinson’s manager is oddly fobbed off with the mother – Twiggy of all people – but it does lead up to a nifty conclusion in which Katherine’s hard-to-swallow speech ends up being about prenuptial agreements. David Mitchell is also featured in this as Katherine’s aide, demonstrating just how little range the man has.

Continue reading “DVD Review: ShakespeaRe-Told – The Taming of the Shrew/A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Review: Nation, National

“If you’re watching grandmama, look away now”

Sometimes I think there’s something to be said for just sitting down at the theatre, especially when it is a family show and just enjoying what’s front of you. I’ll be the first to admit that I have done very little of that this year but for some reason, and it wasn’t even the mulled wine, Nation at the National Theatre warmed my heart in a way I was not expecting.

The fantasy genre is one which is often hard to adapt to the stage, as the books are heavily laden with a rich level of detail, creating new worlds and mythologies, and there inevitably has to some degree of compromise between creating a coherent narrative for the timespan of a play but remaining faithful enough to respect the source material (and please the fans). And if one is being honest, there were elements of Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of Terry Prachett’s story of two teenagers thrown together by a giant tsunami leaving one shipwrecked and the other without a home, that didn’t bear much scrutiny. But it was so swiftly directed that only the most curmudgeonly of souls would have dwelt on the plotholes. Continue reading “Review: Nation, National”

Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.

Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality. Continue reading “Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre”